Zen Buddhism, going meta and postmodernism

What’s the connection between the Buddha and Deadpool? It might seem an unlikely comparison, a wisecracking anti-hero and a spiritual icon.

The answer is linked to the most amusing thing I learned from my battle with anxiety and what I learned from Zen: its responses are seemingly counter-intuitive, even paradoxical.

You can’t understand Buddhism by grasping for it. To do that, you betray the very wisdom Buddhism teaches. It’s as if the whole of Zen is playing a joke on the people who try to understand it.

This paradox and irony remind me of the humour of postmodernism. The cultural movement of scepticism towards the grand narratives explaining human existence—Good vs Evil, Democracy vs Communism, Divine salvation, Progress of society etc. As Jean Francois Lyotard puts it, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’.

Buddhism’s postmodern statement doubts the narrative that the grasping mind can find all the answers we seek. Buddhism downplays thought and reason as a way to understand our existence and instead advocates direct experience.

Like Maslow’s Hammer says, ‘He Who is good with a hammer sees everything as a nail‘. We’re well-practised at thinking, even though not very good at it.

We’re so well were practised we assume all questions can be answered with the tools of consciousness, thought, reason, logic, etc.

Meta and Paradox

Buddhism, like postmodernism, goes up a level, going ‘meta’ as it’s termed (the thing itself, seeing from a higher perspective instead of within).

We are looking at the question, not the answer. Being mindful in Buddhism is an awareness of the unspoken assumptions that guide our thinking and actions. It makes Buddhism self-aware as another Postmodern icon Deadpool.

We suffer badly due to our desperation and neediness. To be unique, to be right, to be in control, to be safe, to maintain our dignity. There’s an image to keep, an ego to protect, the very thing the Buddhists are trying to help us see. Once seen, we’re no longer a slave to illusions, a little happier, more present in the here and now, which matters the most.

Looking at ourselves is going meta; we get to see our foibles and folly by going up a level. It’s how I came to understand Zen. (There is No secret ingredient. LINK)

Riddles like Zen Koans come across a paradoxical to help us go up that level. Because what it has to teach is challenging to learn. We’re so locked in our assumptions and illusions we fail to see them. Going up a level, going meta, we can look at ourselves and see the falsehoods and assumptions we follow.

So Koans are themselves absurd non-questions, to get us to ask ourselves if we need an answer? It takes paradox, the absurd, to upend people’s perception to see their limitations. 

Self-reflexivity gets us to look not for answers but at ourselves. Not to solve the paradox or riddle, but to realise our absurd notions of solving it.

Tragedy and Comedy

If a fool persists in his folly, he becomes wise’

William Blake

The other link between Buddhism and Deadpool is the used of absurd comedy. Buddhism has a profound lesson to teach, showing us the crazy ideas we have about ourselves.

Deadpool is one example of absurd comedy, breaking the fourth wall, poking fun at the narratives and tropes found in mainstream cinema through the very medium of cinema (going meta). Others example the irreverent comedy of Monty Python, South Park, Rick and Morty.

There is a level of mocking irony in postmodernist Art and, in some small way Buddhism. A seriousness but with a wink and a smile. Koans seem nonsensical because they are.

If the aim is to help us see our foibles than mocking humour and irreverent comedy can work far better than careful criticism. Firstly it’s more accessible; most people won’t take an in-depth look into philosophy. But they will see films and follow popular culture. In this way, Deadpool, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy are more successful as philosophical criticism than work by philosophers.

You can try to get people to see their flaws and illusions through reason, logic, but people are often far too enmeshed to notice. Laughter and mockery can sometimes do a better job of pointing our mistakes out.

The work of Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes is a classic, considered a work of early postmodernism. It’s the story of Alonso Quixano, who read so many romantic stories of chivalry and knights he decided to live life as one. It’s a satire, the hero even attacking a windmill at one point, and here we get the phrase,’ tilting at windmills’ to mean attacking imaginary enemies.

Don Quixote took his quest seriously, too seriously, but to the people around him, he’s off his rocker. So desperate for meaning and significance, he became lost in his fantasy.

It’s why I like the absurd as a response to life. It not just some comic relief but has an important message to tell us. One punch man, Deadpool, South Park and Fight Club, their popularity shows many people seem to like stories that deliberately subvert tropes and expectations.

The grand narratives we cling to can be the very cause of our problems and suffering. Finding truth with a capital T, the reason why we exist, is a Quixotic endeavour. What makes us think we can find the great answers to life, or even that there are answers, is Buddhism’s lesson.

Doing our best and failing down makes life a comedy of errors because life isn’t a problem to be solved but an adventure to be lived.

The big questions like, ‘why we are here’, ‘is there a god’, are metaphysical tar babies, taken from the African American folk tale Brer Rabbit. It’s a wax, gum, or rubber figure that’s sticky and is used to trap a rascal.

The more you wrestle with the Tar Baby, the more you become stuck, like a Chinese finger puzzle. It’s the same with Buddhism and the Ultimate Truth.

What Buddhism and postmodernism have in common is they teach us about ourselves. The grand narratives we cling to are based upon our hopes and fears. They include assumptions, beliefs that, upon sceptical examination, seem absurd, even desperate on our part—a desire for cosmic meaning and significance.

Irreverent comedy and going meta, like Deadpool, Southpark take us down a peg, robbing us of our narcissistic belief we’re the centre of the world.

Such attachment is what Buddhists see as the source of our suffering. Such cling can be at the expense of dealing with reality.

Postmodernism and Buddhism show up the grand quest for truth to be absurd even dangerous. It’s not answering the problem as much as asking, ‘why do I need an explanation? Do I need an answer?’ 

I think Umberto Eco said it well.

‘I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.’

A Limerick by Alan Watts put the desperation for an answer like this.

“There once was a man who said though,

it seems that I know that I know,

What I’d like to see,

is the ‘I’ that sees me,

When I know that, I know that I know.”


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tar-Baby”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Jul. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tar-Baby-African-American-folktale. Accessed 21 February 2021.