Commusings: My Father's Mantras by Jake LaubJun 17, 2022
Dear Commune Community,
When I was a lazy teenager, I was apt to step on my own untied shoelaces and stumble. Any time this clumsiness presented itself in front of my father, like clockwork, he would blurt, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”
Today is Father’s Day. Dads in participating territories have carte blanche to make cringy jokes with impunity.
My father’s joke arsenal was minimal. However, each cornball quip was deployed with an irritating frequency. Repetition is a trait unique to dads. We value ritual – even when it’s not particularly worthy.
As a kid, I vowed never to mimic my father’s proclivity for hackneyed witticisms. But, as a dad myself, I now know that your children never listen to you, but they never fail to imitate you. The best form of fatherhood may be as an exemplar of a virtuous and diligent life.
It’s touching and humorous watching Jake grab the reins of paternity. We both now hold the middle — as sons and dads. I hope you enjoy his musing.
Have a nice trip. See you next fall.
• • •
My Father’s Mantras
By Jake Laub
My father’s most infamous pun was uttered in a Chinese restaurant.
I won’t blame anyone for starting the verbal sparring, but while waiting for our sizzling rice soup the conversation devolved into a series of anatomy-based witticisms. My family’s rules for this game are simple: Stay on theme and no repeats.
The beginning is easy:
“Oh, I just can’t stomach that.”
“Are you kidney-ing me?”
“We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot.”
But over time more effort is required:
“Why do the spoon and knife go together on one side of the plate? Because they be-lung together!”
“I hear you did well on your test yesterday. That must be because you are a good pupil.”
Eventually a thoughtful silence descended on the table.
Suddenly, my dad pointed out the window to the empty sidewalk and exclaimed (much too loud in my memory), “Look! There’s Superman Gus!”
We obediently played along and peered outside.
“Oh no! Someone has ripped his cape off! The S is off of Gus! The esophagus!”
Groans all around. Game over, Dad.
That episode highlights the depths of my father’s originality when it came to dad jokes, but his strength really lay in his commitment to repetition:
As a child I used these phrases at my peril:
“I ran into my friend at the ___insert location___.”
Dad response: “Did you hurt him?”
“Can I have a tissue?”
Dad response: “Tissue? I hardly know you!”
(Particularly non-sensical given our loving relationship.)
Dad response: “Nice to meet you hungry. I’m dad.”
(Apparently this one was inflicted on my father by his father as well.)
Sometimes no prompting was required. There was a higher-than-average chance that on any given night my dad would sit down at the table and say, “Call me anything you want, just not late for dinner,” or if he felt like mixing it up, “I’m on a seefood diet. I see food and I eat it.”
In researching, “What makes a Dad Joke funny?” I came across this article introduction on the academic website JSTOR:
What’s brown and sticky?
Maybe you’ve already heard this hoary old chestnut, not even a joke so much as a bunch of words, weighed down with the cares of the world …
Hmm… a bunch of words weighted with meaning through loving repetition. That sounds familiar.
A practiced yogi will understand that while words are merely symbolic representations of aspects of reality, raw sound can be invested with great power over time. The root of the Sanskrit word mantra (manas, mind and tra, tool) literally means “a tool for the mind.” However, the denotations of the words within a mantra – whether those are Om Mani Padme Hum (the jewel is in the lotus), Lam Vam Ram Yam Ham Om Aum (the sounds of the chakras), or, simply the words Be. Here. Now. – are not the most important aspect. What matters is the spiritual energy invested in those sounds over time.
Traditionally, a guru gifts a mantra to a disciple only once that mantra has been sufficiently “energized” by the guru’s shakti (life force) via dedicated repetition. This is why mantra is sometimes translated less literally as “sacred message, charm, or spell.” Once the guru has realized the siddhi mantra (the supernatural powers of the mantra) through rigorous self-application, then it is ready to be passed on to a disciple, who can tap into that stored power.
A similar but slightly different interpretation of why mantras hold power is because they don’t mean anything at all. They are non-representational. They are the vibration of the ultimate reality. We feel soothed and empowered through their repetition because in doing so we liberate ourselves from the notion that the universe must have a concrete, conceptual significance.
My daughter isn’t old enough to appreciate my budding dad jokes yet, but she does sit on the floor saying, “da da da.” I might flatter myself that she is saying “Dad,” but as Zen philosopher Alan Watts is quick to remind fathers, children are really saying “tat tat tat,” which is the Sanskrit root of our word “that.”
While saying “that that that,” she points to things we don’t have words for — and thus ignore. She might be particularly enthused by a pattern of shadow that is unimportant to us because we haven’t given it a unique representational symbol. So we say, “Do you mean Dad?” and teach her to focus on the aspects of reality for which we have words — the things in the foreground. Over time, she adopts this value system and ignores the things in the background. This includes a labeling of the self as separate from the nameless suchness of her surroundings. In Sanskrit, this concept is avidyā, and it is the source of suffering. “Ignorance” comes from the things we “ignore.”
The process of enlightenment is a conscious re-possession of the ocean mind that sees the background (that) and the foreground (this or me) as mutually interdependent. Put together, “that that that” becomes tathātā, which is a term for how the world looks to a Buddha.
As a new father, I look forward to the day when I can converse with my daughter on the level of symbols, but the Buddhist in me will be slightly saddened by this tinting of her unborn mind.
Fortunately, I have been gifted a series of tools to remind her of the slippery relationship between words and reality. These incredibly punny mantras have been imbued with sacred power by my father’s dedicated daily practice and his devoted dismemberment of sound from all pretenses of meaning (and humor).
When she’s ready, I’ll “gift” them to her. Whether she likes it or not.
Jake is a Commune Co-Founder, writer, photographer, dancer, chicken wrangler, and amateur fermenter. You'll find him and Julia tucked away in their yurt at Commune Topanga, just behind the beehives.
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