The Zen Teachings of George Carlin, a Comedian Who Pointed the Way

Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s new HBO documentary ”George Carlin’s American Dream” takes viewers on a tour through the life and career of one of the greatest comedians of all time, whose legend will only grow as humanity continues to digest the lessons he left behind.

George Carlin may have despised organized religion, but the new HBO documentary about the comedian’s life and career makes it very clear he was, in fact, a very spiritual being. It’s a side of the comic that directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio explore throughout George Carlin’s American Dream, contrasting his harshest criticisms of the Church, ferociously spewed at audiences during stand-up specials, with gentler interview or behind-the-scenes footage of Carlin discussing the subject.

The filmmakers of the fantastic two-part doc—a must watch for all the comedic and philosophically inclined—even included a revealing interview with the icon from Rosanne Barr’s short-lived daytime talk show. “I think you really are the guy who believes all the good of humanity,” Barr says to a then 61-year-old Carlin. “I think you are a very high spiritual person.”

It’s a very important moment for anyone trying to understand George Carlin, because he doesn’t deny it.

”They say if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist, and I do cop to that. I am that,” the comic responds. “And you’re right, that’s a very intelligent analysis. And I’ve gone through that without using the words you used. I’ve gone through that myself, thought about myself in those terms.”

“But,” he quips, “it’s more fun this way.”

It’s moments like this, sprinkled throughout a 4-hour tour of the five stages of Carlin’s career, that I found to be the most interesting and revealing about who Carlin really was underneath all that on-stage anger, profound as it was fiery. Steven Wright describes his late comedic colleague as “a great painter, a Rembrandt of comedy,” but my mind couldn’t refrain from comparing the iconoclastic American thinker to that of a Zen master.

“When it comes to bullshit, truly major-league bullshit, you have to stand back in awe—in awe—of the all time heavyweight champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: religion,” Carlin jokes on stage, and then specifies, “Organized religion.”

“Religion tries to tell us that there’s meaning and there’s purpose and there’s a design, and there isn’t,” Carlin adds. “It is all chaos, and random, and chance.”

To some, this is the view of a nihilist, especially when lumped in with material from Carlin’s last years, deemed “too dark” by Stephen Colbert, who was turned off by the comedian rooting for natural disasters to wipe out humanity—a species arrogant enough to think we have the power to destroy a planet previously smashed by asteroids and frozen solid through several ice ages. “The planet is fine,” Carlin says to set up one of his greatest punchlines. “The people are fucked.”

Photograph by Courtesy of George Carlin’s Estate/HBO

“Pack your shit folks, we’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either,” he continues. “The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance.”

That’s a scary prophecy for most people to hear. It’s also Buddhism 101: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. All phenomena arising from the emptiness is transitory and impermanent, and suffering arises from attachment to it all. It’s a cycle called samsara, and it’s eternally in motion, until an enlightened mind sees through the illusion of duality and hops off the wheel turned by karma. “Change is another word for life,” Alan Watts once said, and the fall of every civilization before ours should certainly give everyone a preview of what’s ahead. But don’t confuse awareness of the inevitable with nihilism, a criticism Western intellectuals and theologians often hurled upon Zen Buddhism during its influx into the United States throughout the 20th century. 

No, Zen is rooted in Siddhartha Guatama Buddha’s compassion, but the teachings are direct and to the point, much like Carlin’s best material. In fact–or rather, in story—the entire Zen Buddhist lineage was founded by the historical Buddha himself when his disciples gathered for a sermon and were puzzled by the teacher silently holding a flower. Only one disciple, Mahākāśyapa, received the transmission. He started smiling or laughing, and then the Buddha invited the arhat to sit next to him, declaring, “the subtle Dharma Gate does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

Thus, the long line of Zen Patriarchs was launched, and Indian monk Bodhidharma brought it to China, where the ideology mixed with Taoism to become Ch’an, and then migrated to Japan to become known as Zen. Although the religious practice is characterized by sitting in meditation (zazen) with the aim of satori (sudden enlightenment), the vast canon, stretching over two millenniums, is loaded with feisty sermons from characters not unlike Carlin’s on-stage persona. The comedian spent his finest years directly pointing to the hypocrisy of the American mind, shaped by an illusory American dream, which as Carlin profoundly pointed out, “you have to be asleep to believe it.” The one and only goal of Zen is to wake up; to finally know thy self outside of the limiting view of the vain, little ego. Heaven and hell are states of mind, not places to go after we’re dead, because in the Zen view, mind is all there is. 

Zen masters, like 9th century Chinese monk Lin-Chi, were known to shout and hit their disciples in an attempt to wake them from a stupor conditioned by society clinging to religious literalism—something both Carlin and Zen masters abhorred. Lin-Chi referred to priests who stressed the importance of following doctrine and dogma for merit as “wild fox spirits,” “goblins,” and “baldheads.” He described the sutras as “toilet paper to wipe away filth,” and advised his followers, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” According to the legend of Bodhidharma, when Emperor Wu asked the monk how much merit he had accrued for building temples and spreading Buddhism, the Zen Patriarch replied, “No merit.” When the Emperor asked, “What is the most holy teaching?” the monk replied, “There is nothing holy.” Then, when the Emperor grew frustrated and asked who this man before him was with the audacity to make such a statement, Bodhidharma answered, “I don’t know.”

Photograph by Courtesy of George Carlin’s Estate/HBO

Zen masters view all of Buddhist scriptures as metaphors, only ever capable of pointing to what Gautama Buddha transmitted to Mahākāśyapa five centuries before Jesus Christ was born; that is, a Truth beyond words, only accessible through direct experience. It’s the eureka effect; an Aha! moment, a light bulb, or just laughing at a punchline, because you get it. There are countless Zen stories of monks and laypeople breaking into hysterical laughter upon the moment of realization. Although enlightenment has been mystified and is desperately sought after by some, it’s a very simple, ordinary matter to those who have gotten it and understand it’s nothing special. Just this, minus what Carlin would probably call the bullshit. And there’s a lot of it to wade through to get to the other shore. Best to find a raft. And Carlin’s words may very well be that raft for people who suddenly get it while listening to his carefully crafted monologues, which he spoke with such urgency that he barely paused for laughs

“Sanctity of life. You believe in it? Personally, I think it’s a bunch of shit,” Carlin says in a special featured in American Dream. “Life is sacred? Who said so? God? Well, if you read history, you know that God is one of the leading causes of death. Has been for thousands of years. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians all taking turns killing each other, because God told them it was a good idea.”

God as a separate entity creating, watching, and managing humanity, doesn’t enter the picture in Zen. If he did, Lin-Chi would kill him, while Bodhidharma wouldn’t even react to his presence. What they’re killing or ignoring, however, is simply the concept of God or Buddha. Any conceptual thinking blocks access Original Nature, the Holy Grail for Buddhist seekers, so it’s a waste of time to give any credibility to more workings of the mind.

Carlin’s deconstruction of the belief in God and the mythology surrounding the big man upstairs reminds me of a joke renowned Zen writer D.T. Suzuki once said during a public speaking engagement. “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion!”

In the Zen Buddhist view, every thing—including all your thinks— is relative, interdependent, and conditional. It’s all an arbitrary abstraction from the whole. Like blind men grasping different parts of the same elephant, we’re too close to this or that to realize it’s all one. Purpose? Design? Chaos? Random? Chance? Scientists and philosophers will keep diving down this rabbit hole, but Buddha didn’t waste his time teaching metaphysics, because it’s just too big of a mess to unravel intellectually.

In one tale, Gautama Buddha meets with three different seekers inquiring about the same subject. The first asked the enlightened one to confirm that God exists, and the Buddha replied something like, “There is no God.” The second asked to confirm that God doesn’t exist, and the Buddha replied, “There is a God.” And the third simply asked for the Buddha to tell him about God. They sat silently for a half hour, the seeker wiped tears from their eyes, and graciously thanked the Buddha for the teaching. 

“All you can do is talk about the truth, because it happened to you,” Carlin says in one of the many interview clips in American Dream. Comedy at its best is funny because it’s true. The audience relates to the truth of the punchline. But truth can also hurt. And all that truth Carlin spoke throughout a five-decade career is still hurting audiences when it hits them today. “George has like 5 distinct periods of growth, where he would leave a segment of his audience behind,” says comedian Bill Burr in the film. “Each time, it was like a boa constrictor; it just got more pointed and more like, ‘Fuck man, this man is scaring the shit out of me, where is this country going?’”

“The courage that takes to do that,” adds Burr, “to be like, ‘Hey man, I’m going in this direction, you either come with me or you don’t.”

Courage, however, requires someone to care, and it comes naturally to those, like Carlin and Lin-Chi, who drop attachment to any anxiety over what delusional people think of them or the truth of their experience. “I can’t worry about offending someone, because that’s flinching,” the comedian says. “You can’t flinch if you mean what you’re saying.”

Zen masters don’t flinch, either.

“As I see it, there’s no Buddha, no living beings, no long ago, no now. If you want to get it, you’ve already got it—it’s not something that requires time,” said Zen Master Lin Chi, sometime before his death in the 9th century. “There’s no religious practice, no enlightenment, no getting anything, no missing out on anything. At no time is there any other Dharma than this. If anyone claims there is a Dharma superior to this, I say it must be a dream, a phantom.”

Carlin saw through the phantoms, too. “There will always be taboos,” he said. “There will always be things if you don’t handle in a certain way people will reject you.” These are societal conditions that are dependent on time and culture, all relative to the point of view of the person accepting or rejecting the taboos.

And once the pretty picture of our society starts to crack in the mind perceiving it, the person who thought he was living in it inevitably starts to crumble, because that person, as viewed by others and self, was shaped by that illusion. Carlin gave up a high-paying mainstream television career to join the countercultural movement after dropping LSD, a drug that inspired psychologist-turned-spiritual icon Ram Dass to travel to India to seek the divine. Carlin, on the other hand, grew a beard, hit the road, and got arrested for speaking obscenities. His Way was the spoken word, his sangha was his audience, and his ashram was the stage. In the fifth stage of his career—the Carlin that is being quoted relentlessly on Twitter to support right- and left-leaning political talking points—he appeared to have found true liberation that allowed him to walk on water. Or in Buddhist terms, as one Zen master is recorded to have said while describing his enlightenment, “chop wood and carry water, two inches off the ground.”

“I finally decided that I would dissociate myself, view all of this as an absurd, tragic comedy, and really have a point of view that allowed me to say anything that felt right,” he says in an interview featured in the documentary. 

While speaking to Charlie Rose he elaborated further, “I sort of gave up on the human race and not caring about the outcome; not having an emotional stake in whether this experiment with human beings works. I really don’t care.” 

And in a particularly intimate glimpse into the mind of the master, the filmmakers include a note Carlin had scribbled down: “You can’t care and be really funny.”

Ain’t that the truth. And according to Zen Master Bodhidharma, it’s behavior fitting of a buddha. “To find a buddha, all you have to do is see your nature,” he says in the Bloodstream Sermon. “Your nature is the buddha. And the buddha is the person who’s free: free of plans, free of cares.”

Don’t care. Be free. Or as Carlin once put it: “Let it do what it’s going to do. And I’ll enjoy it as an entertainment. And when you say to yourself, ‘I don’t care what happens,’ it just gives you a broader perspective for the art, for the words to emerge.” 

But this is where the Western mind pounces on the Buddhist philosophy.

You don’t care? 

Somewhere out there, a Karen is screeching. 

Non-attachment is frequently misunderstood as an excuse not to care about others, a slippery slope into narcissism. And it can be, for sure. Los Angeles is loaded with aspiring influencers who proclaim themselves “healers” and “spiritual guides,” charging clients by the hour for their  alleged wisdom, gained from a nice psilocybin trip and a few sound baths in the desert. A true and proper understanding of the Way must be accompanied by a bodhisattva’s boundless compassion emanating from emptiness—which is not a mere nothingness, but rather the source of all possibility in life, before duality pushes every form to one side or the other.

“One of the things I’m still trying to figure out is, was Carlin ultimately a nihilist, or was he an actual optimist who was using comedy to display a nihilist world view?” comedian Hasan Minhaj asks in the film. “Is he the Joker? Is he happy that shit is unraveling in front of our eyes?”

Many years before Minhaj uttered those words, Carlin may have given something close to an answer. “It’s a contempt,” he said in an interview. “I really think this species is a foolish, failed species that has organized itself poorly, and I think this culture, in particular, leads the way. I think we have put property ahead of people, we have put competition ahead of cooperation, and I don’t think the balance can ever be back in line.”

That sounds like someone who cares; someone who sees through the maya the sorcerers of capitalism have summoned to cloud the minds of the masses, who Carlin spent a career trying to wake up to a bigger view, one only seen from the outside of the narrow tunnel vision of the ego. It sounds like someone who sees the possibility of how the world could be and should be, while being completely aware that it doesn’t appear to be materializing under our societal conditions. It sounds like someone who sees where the ship is sailing to sink and is shouting at the captain to turn it around, because he cares about the people on board.

Carlin was a seer, and he saw that this current class of humanity only cares until they’re asked to sacrifice comfort and convenience, a standard of living steadily expanding toward the unsustainable. “One of the problems of Americans is they can’t really face reality,” Carlin is seen saying in the film. “And that’s why when it comes crashing down, no one is going to be prepared to handle it.”

Why root for a species that is so oblivious to its flaws? Humans certainly don’t care about other species, at least collectively. Sure, we love to watch animals play around on Instagram, at the zoo, and in nature documentaries, but nevertheless, Earth is currently experiencing its sixth mass extinction event. Hey, that sucks, but did you see Will Smith slap Chris Rock at the Oscars? 

“For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature, so when nature strikes back, and smacks man in the head, and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that,” Carlin said sometime in his last act on this planet. “I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever, none.”

In response to Carlin’s final stand-up special, Stephen Colbert complained, “To pursue that level of darkness in the hope that it would actually point toward something hopeful is expecting a lot from your audience, because all you’re stating is the dark part.”

Dark to who? The self-preserving, survival-of-the-fittest ego that swears it cares, or a buddha, who has given up attachment to all the drama, and has dedicated a lifetime to teaching others to see through it? 

Class was in session when Carlin was on stage, but it never felt like school, because students were allowed to laugh, and the teacher cursed a lot. And in between his blunt criticisms of the mob mentality, he dropped priceless pearls of wisdom. “I love people as I meet them one by one,” he told Charlie Rose right after saying he gave up on the human race. “People are just wonderful as individuals, you see the whole universe in their eyes if you look carefully.” That’s a beautiful observation, and a lesson reminiscent of the Buddha’s teaching that the entire universe exists in a single grain of sand along the banks of the Ganges River.  

Directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio balance the ferocious roar of a tiger with the gentle, paternal, and loving Carlin friends and family knew off the stage. “I really believe he was always trying to be of service in some way to this species,” says his daughter, Kelly Carlin, who, fun fact, is a practicing Zen Buddhist.

Kelly Carlin with parents George and Brenda. Photo courtesy of George Carlin’s Estate/HBO

His second wife, Sally, told the filmmakers that her first conversation with Carlin was about how “he was trying to transform from doing into being.”

“And he was tired of always doing, and he wanted to just be who he was,” she said. 

According to Bodhidharma, “A buddha is someone who does nothing, someone who can’t even focus his mind on a buddha. A buddha isn’t a buddha. Don’t think about buddhas.” American Dream makes it pretty clear that Carlin never cared about being a saint, nor was he trying to be a sinner; he was just doing, which spins the wheel of becoming what you are, and Carlin only got better with age. He was always in the process of becoming the great master we revere today, and it sounds like he finally reached a place in his mind where he could just be. 

“See, I don’t care about the little things. I think we’re part of a greater wisdom than we will ever understand,” viewers hear Carlin say at the end of the film. “A higher order, call it what you want. You know what I call it? The Big Electron. It doesn’t punish, it doesn’t reward, it doesn’t judge at all, it just is, and so are we, for a little while.”

So, while the film features Late Show host Stephen Colbert expressing disappointment that one of the greatest comedians of all time didn’t offer more hope for humanity in his final material, George Carlin’s American Dream leaves behind a feeling, at least in this mind, that Carlin is the very personification of hope for humanity.

He’s the embodiment of both the shallow American dream of fame and gain, and the deepest spiritual yearning to attain nirvana in this life. He spent a career walking the razor’s edge, swinging the sword of wisdom through the medium of stand-up comedy to wake up whoever would listen, giving every ounce of himself to do it. And if he can do it, someone else watching him can do it, too.

That’s the ultimate transmission, and why heroes journeys are told and characters like Gautama Buddha and Bodhidharma are immortalized in myth. The historical Buddha held a flower to wake up Mahākāśyapa; Carlin held a microphone. The legacy every realized being leaves behind is a path for others to follow. That’s the hope that those who point the Way offer to humanity.

Buddhas can’t save you. But they might be able to make you laugh at yourself so hard you finally get it. 

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