Published on January 22nd, 2013 | by msalt

The illest Buddhist

Arj Barker is a great comedian, one of my inspirations since I started performing as a comic in the late 1990s. He doesn’t play much in the US, but if you’re in England, Australia, or Seattle (for some reason) keep your eyes peeled for his shows and TV appearances. (He’s on a tour of obscure Canadian towns as I write this. Fernie? Castlegar? At least I’ve heard of Banff.) I guess he likes non-American English-speaking countries.

Basically, he’s a very smart guy with a very dumb stage character. “I had a girlfriend once who was a philosophy major. She acted like I didn’t exist. And then she proved it.” In person, he somehow creates this zone of funny all around him on stage; people start laughing before he says anything. It’s kind of amazing.

Arj is best known for his role on “Flight of the Conchords,” and he created what’s probably the funniest bit of spiritual humor in recent years: “The Sickest Buddhist.” Here it is.

Some raved, but many Buddhists responded with the surprising lack of humor that is sadly typical in U.S. Buddhist circles. “I chuckled a bit,” one sniffed while complaining about the “potty mouth” (on a rap parody?!). Shambhala Sun wrote that The Sickest Buddhist” (a rap-based satire of sorts by comedian Arj Barker), with its cursing and sometimes off-target jabs, has made some folks cringe. Is that part of the joke?

On Beliefnet, Ethan Nichtern compared Barker unfavorably to noted mirth maker Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and called the video “so overrated.” He went on: “it’s not the kind of humor that requires much mentally, and is super easy to achieve (yes I do think I could’ve written it better), and ultimately I think it plays into a dark and inaccurate view of mind/body practitioners.”

Really, you could do that better than an international comedy and TV star backed by the film crew of Flight of the Conchords? Well, please do! Knock yourself out. Cause until you back that claim up, it just looks like a lot of petty jealousy and ignorant boasting. And the world can always use some more funny.

Ironically, these critics seem to miss the spiritual point of Barker’s comedy. Like all good comics, he’s not afraid to look like an idiot to get an idea across, clinging to the low places like flowing water. These critics are presenting themselves as refined and enlightened, and so come off like the pompous windbags that Taoism has always found so ridiculous.

Nichtern, for example, casually puts down even Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, saying that his lecture “was meant to be instructions [sic] on how to self-reflect on the dangers of the “ego” (a badly translated word, but no time here)…” No time to share HIS exalted understanding with us or Chogyam, pity that. And Nichtern ends on an unintentionally funny bit of defensiveness:

“And by the way, if anyone has tips on how to become an uber-wealthy, blinged-out, harem-having Guru – as so many poorly worded rants seem to point out that there are so many of these – I’d love to hear your advice. Myself and every other teacher I know (in every form of teaching) struggles mightily with scratching out a livelihood. So please, teach me how to be the kind of teacher who can afford diamond-studded incense. I’m sick of buying everything at thrift stores.”

Look, dude, just cause you’re not rich doesn’t mean you’re not materialist or manipulative. It just means you’re not very good at it. But thanks for admitting that you are pursuing designer clothes and the bling you just mentioned. Clearly you’re gritting your teeth through this non-materialism stuff. Some of us actually prefer thrift stores, for the unpredictable bounty of choices as much as the value and ecological efficiency.

At The Sitting Project, Nicholas Whitaker has a more neutral view: “The more you have practiced sitting and studied Buddhist teachings to understand their concepts about ego and unattachment, the funnier you will find this video. The question is, is this making fun of Buddhism, or making fun of spiritual materialism? And does Arj Baker know the difference?”

Sounds like Arj got it exactly right — spiritually. The message came through, a caution delivered and thoughts provoked, with no effort spent imposing his view or building himself up as an expert or spiritual superior. His critics might do well to still their inner monologues, listen, and learn.

Related: South Park and the rise of a “Buddhist “Hot Topic”, at The Worst Horse.

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

One Response to The illest Buddhist

  1. Pingback: Taoish | Spiritual but not pretentious

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