PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — What is the sound of no hands clapping? It’s a Zen koan worth contemplating as Wes Nisker works the crowd on the stark bare stage at a park lodge here where L.A. Dharma, a Buddhist meditation group, is host to, of all things, a night of comedy.
“Before I became a Buddhist, I worried about my life,” Nisker said, “Now I worry about my next life.” Nisker, 60, bills himself as the world’s first Buddhist stand-up comedian. But he acknowledges that his material is not fall-down funny, for which he blames Buddha himself.
“His First Noble Truth — that life is suffering — isn’t exactly an upper,” Nisker said.
But the audiences, a mix of former hippies, yippies and yuppies, sprinkled with a younger generation drawn to things Eastern, seem to understand his humor as though it were an inside joke.
To those who have lived in the San Francisco area any time since the late 1960s, he is probably better known as Scoop Nisker, newscaster and commentator on FM radio.
Now he does a five-minute commentary on KFOG in San Francisco that he calls “An Occasional Scoop,” in which he jabs at right-wing zealots and environmental polluters.
After more than 20 years of meditation practice, he has emerged as a respected, if slightly irreverent, Buddhist teacher, speaking at new age and spiritual centers throughout the country. He is also the founding editor of Inquiring Mind, an international Buddhist magazine, and the author of three books on Buddhism.
His comic monologue is called “The Big Bang, the Buddha and the Baby Boom,” and he performs it throughout what could be called the Buddha Belt: the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.; Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.; Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.; and retreat centers and small theaters elsewhere.
“Wes is masterful at using humor to lighten the enlightenment journey, which can admittedly get fairly heavy,” said Joseph Goldstein, a founder of Insight Meditation Society. “Laughing at the vagaries of our minds helps free us from constraining self-images.”
Nisker’s performance, laced with songs he has written, manages to make suffering a knee-slapper.
“To be honest, I am a cynic in recovery,” Nisker confessed recently in an interview at his home in Oakland, Calif. He is well versed in Buddhist philosophy, which informs his underlying message: “My hope is that this show reminds us to be at ease with life and its conditions, that we remain in awe of its essential mystery and learn how to take better care of it.”
In his 90-minute act he delivers Zen zingers with Borscht Belt timing:
“Have you noticed how many Jews become Buddhists? In tribute to this spiritual cross-pollination, I’m starting a whole new sect. We’d call ourselves the Bu-ish people. Our mantra would be ‘Om, shalom.’”
A political activist, he proposes a new movement called Zen socialism: the first step would be for the United States to resign as a superpower. To ease the transition, he would introduce a plan, not unlike the New Deal, called the New Age Deal.
He would establish a U.S. Department of Meditation and Therapy, “with deprogramming centers to teach hyperactive people to become less productive members of society,” he said. “Then we’d put them to work on disassembling lines, shoveling metal back into the ground and deconstructing highways.”
“Then we would do what we do best: entertain. We’d invite everyone to witness the world’s first intentional decline at a theme park called Formerly Great America.”
“The downhill rides would be spectacular,” Nisker said, a grin overtaking his face.