Cynthia Bussey calls it the cosmic joke, an esoteric journey in search of the laughing Buddha.
And it's not going to cost her a dime.
In fact, any day now, she will receive a $2,200 check from the National Endowment for the Humanities to commence a nine-week search of Zen Buddhist souls and try to explain their relationship to laughter.
"When you think of religion, don't you think the idea of humor appeals to you?" asks Bussey, a 41-year-old Essex Community College student.
She will travel to the Rochester Zen Center on a five-day research swing in June and plans to interview Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of the Zen bible, "The Three Pillars of Zen", in her quest to explain the humorous aspect of the ancient religion.
It is an idea that Bussey, a practicing Zen Buddhist, has always found curious, although the final paper she mails to the NEH won't contain any personal revelations or descriptions of the enlightenment of others.
"That's considered immodest," she said.
Instead, Bussey hopes to write about the significance of laughter and Zen principles. She plans to use Buddhist art and literature to explain the important role of humor in the mysterious, introspective religion.
She explains the humor thing like this: "Sometimes people have been struggling with paradoxes for years--it's harder than giving birth. And then suddenly you see a breaking open of your consciousness and the laugh comes up of its own accord. It's a release, a complicated human process."
Raised Episcopalian in West Palm Beach, Fla., Bussey converted to Zen six years ago. She calls herself a former hippie who dropped out of college at age 17 and moved to Boston and then San Francisco "to explore."
"But the whole time I kept asking myself, 'Why are we here?' " she said. "I saw other religions as fads, like the people were trying to buy into things."
After working for years as a secretary, a waitress and garden shop clerk, Bussey decided to give college another try. She wants to study anthropology when she graduates from Essex and go on from there to a doctoral degree and college teaching.
"At first I thought I was too old, too stupid and too slow to go back to college," Bussey said. "I was driving to school and I had to pull over and talk myself into going in. But it's really worked out and I'm very happy."
Winning the grant has given her a new air of confidence, she said. Her topic was one of 136 that won out of a field of 823 applications, said Lee Bramson, a director for the NEH Younger Scholars program in Washington.
"I did go out on a limb in taking a chance that people would accept it," she said. "But I know this is rare. Most people practice religion in a very serious way."
Examples of Zen humor
Zen humor is not exactly Henny Youngman. It is expressed through riddles known as koans (sounds like cones). Koans are meant "to liberate the mind from the snare of language," according to the Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau. These koans are designed to provoke enlightenment, self-realization -- and eventually humor -- through meditation:
*What is the sound of one hand clapping?
*On top of a flagpole, a cow gives birth to a calf.
*What transcends everything in the universe?
*What is your face before your parents' birth?
*How could sitting make a Buddha?