Zen and the Absurdity of Parenting



Just the word sounds relaxing. We think of Zen gardens, and Zen meditation, and we say things like “she’s so Zen.”

But sometimes, Zen is a bit of a mindf#ck.

Have you ever tried to read some serious Zen?

Try this one from a “Zen master”:

“Learning Zen is a phenomenon of gold and dung.
Before you understand it, it’s like gold; after you understand it, it’s like dung.”

WTF? I get the whole true understanding comes when we abandon logic and all that, but really?

Let’s try this one: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top.”


These are examples of Zen koans, which are used in many Buddhist traditions. A koan cannot be “solved” using logic or reason, which is why they really annoy me. Instead, the student must enter into the mystery of the riddle itself. After days or weeks or months of pondering the koan, enduring intense cognitive dissonance while unable to use mental faculties to resolve it, the student experiences a flash of insight; it is this altered state that is the ultimate purpose of the koan, not the “answer” itself.

For example, the popular koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” may seem to have a simple answer – it’s just one hand waving around in the wind! But the meditator enters into the riddle, transcending duality and intellect, and arrives at an “understanding” of the two hands existing as one.

Or something like that.

It’s probably not surprising that a practice dedicated to abandoning cognition and mental activity would perplex me. But as I’ve journeyed for several years into parenthood, I realize that I have encountered many similarly cute and confusing riddles that defy logic, like this one, for example:

“Newborn infants sleep between 16 and 20 hours a day.”

That one caused me a whole boatload of cognitive dissonance when my daughter was born!

Like Zen, parenting is a bit of a mindf#ck, too.

Perhaps this is what Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn meant when they described children as our “live-in Zen masters.”

Have you ever heard a four-year-old tell a joke?

Take my son, for example:

“Mommy! Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because… um…. [pauses to think of the punchline]… because he wanted to go to see his friend on the road … and… um… [realizes it’s supposed to be funny] … he … he wanted to poop on his friend!” [always go for the potty humor, kids.]

In many ways, Zen koans, our children’s jokes, and parenting itself are like Dada art — absurd, circular, and nonsensical, truly more about the experience than the content (which, for all three, is often about bathroom behavior). And like art, they can all lead to insight.

It makes you wonder: if the Buddha hadn’t left his wife and infant son to pursue enlightenment for six years in the forest by himself, and instead had remained to raise his son, would he actually have been enlightened faster? Surely his little boy had some absurd knock-knock jokes or puzzling “Why did the elephant cross the road?” responses that would have sent daddy Siddhartha into days of existential contemplation.

For example, my little one is no son of a Buddha, but he did come up with this one:

“What happened to the turtle who crossed the road?”
“I don’t know.”
“A car came down the road and ran over him and killed him!”

You’ve got suffering and impermanence and non-self and [c]arma right there!

Zen Parenting

There’s a Zen for everything today — surfing, fishing, even coding. So of course we have Zen parenting, but let’s just put it out there that it’s NOT constant peace and serenity. In fact, we could write our own koan: Zen parenting is not Zen. I suggest we establish that Zen parenting is about embracing absurdity. Parenting, like a perplexing koan, often calls for the abandonment of logic and the acceptance of paradox. It sometimes feels like a difficult homework problem that we’ll never solve.

And that’s okay.

To assist you on the journey towards parental enlightenment, I took the liberty of creating the Parents Revised Version (PRV) of traditional Zen koans.

Enter into the mystery, my fellow travelers…

Toy Koan

Potty Koan 2

House Koan

Poop Koan 2

You saw that one coming, didn’t you?

Buddha Koan

Yep, parenting sometimes feels like a mystery we will never solve.

But how do we approach Mystery?


The word koan means “public case.” A koan is to be worked on by the student in consultation with a teacher. There is dialogue and support and community. Parents need the same thing.

A monk asked: “What is the sound of one parent parenting?”
A wise one replied: “Don’t do it. It takes a village, y’all.”

Now that one I get.

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    I always love your posts, but this one may be one of my favorites! All I can offer is as they get older,though the absurdity may decrease, the gravity increases. I quote Stephen Sondheim here, “children may not obey, but children will listen”.
    Nancy Lowell recently posted…Corn FrittersMy Profile

  2. says

    I never felt like parenting is a mystery we will never solve. With a daughter and son, 7 & 11 respectively, I feel like parenting is a science experiment that, for the most part, is supporting my hypotheses.
    Eric Kamander recently posted…Action ParkMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Hmmm…. My dad has always said that parenting is an experiment with one subject and no control group. I guess in that sense I take a scientific view as well.

    • says

      Wow, I think you are the first parent I’ve ever met who doesn’t feel baffled at times by the roller-coaster ride of parenthood! It must be a nice feeling to have such a firm grasp on something that is, for most of us, often quite confounding thanks to the individuality and unpredictability of children. For the rest of us, however, I must say that I greatly appreciated such a relatable, humorous post– it helps alleviate the typical feelings of parent isolation and confusion.
      Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. recently posted…I Want to be a Writer When I Grow UpMy Profile

      • Sarah Rudell Beach says

        Indeed, Stephanie, it can be a challenge when something that worked for one child doesn’t work for another! And yes, no more parent isolation!!!

      • says

        I love parenting, I always wanted to be a parent, and I think I’m pretty good at it (time will tell), and yes, it does feel good (unfortunately it doesn’t make for good parent blogging). Despite this I also appreciate Sarah’s humorous post, as well as he more serious posts.
        Eric Kamander recently posted…Renaissance Faire 2014My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Roshni. I know, that part of the Buddha’s story is a bit troubling for us today; it certainly was a different culture and context, which I guess is the only way I can make sense of it, if not ‘approve’ of it…

  3. says

    Love these revised koans! The only koans my daughter is interested in of course are ice cream ones. Couldn’t help myself. Zen parenting is definitely the art of embracing absurdity. Well said.
    Liz recently posted…Zoe vs. #SorrynotsorryMy Profile

  4. says

    I love this and admit that for each of the “one hand clapping” things I was like “um??? dumb??” and then your parenting twists!! Awesome. Also, I can’t get the what did your face look like before you were born out of my head. Is that weird? Because for real, I’m annoyed and also so intrigued. Because so true, in a way? Wait. Sorry. Rabbithole.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Our Land: Feeling RespectedMy Profile

  5. says

    Zen parenting is about embracing the absurdity!
    This post is brilliant, Sarah. I kept ctrl+c’ing because there was so much I wanted to quote and remember and internalize, like this brilliant observation: “In many ways, Zen koans, our children’s jokes, and parenting itself are like Dada art — absurd, circular, and nonsensical, truly more about the experience than the content”. You have a way of drawing these amazing parallels which no one else but you notices, but as you unearth them I can’t help but go “of course!”.

    I can’t wait to read that book. Whenever it comes. :-)
    Katia recently posted…My ‘Before School Starts’ Bucket ListMy Profile

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