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Lions Roar : November 2013
Taking Refuge from the Darkness Mike DeStefano It was a chance meeting on an airplane that set the late Mike DeStefano on the Buddhist path. Bronx-bred and raised Catho- lic, the famously foul-mouthed comedian known as Mikey D had struggled with drugs, darkness, and loss for much of his life and was already sure that he was no good. Now his father had died, and he was a mess. But then the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who just happened to be seated next to him started to talk about buddhanature. As DeStefano’s friend, the Buddhist scholar John Dunne, recalls: “He told Mike, ‘You have a lot of crazy ideas about your- self. Your nature is not evil. You are a good person by nature.’ Mike said that saved his life.” Suicide was suddenly off the table, and DeSte- fano became interested in the dharma. Still, he felt he needed permission to call himself a Buddhist: he didn’t feel worthy of it. Eventually, Dunne explained to DeSte- fano that he could just go ahead, drop the self-doubt, and take the refuge vows that mark one’s commit- ment to Buddhist practice. “It’s not like anyone has to give you a little badge or sacrament,” Dunne told his friend. “Your nature may be perfect, but you don’t have to be a perfect person.” So encouraged, DeStefano took the vows on his own and got a massive Buddha tattoo on his arm. His relief was noticeable, says Dunne. “It allowed him to create a different kind of iden- tity. Buddhism’s roots were such that it was outside of the main- stream, as was he.” In 2010, DeStefano would go on to become a favorite on the TV stand-up competition Last Comic Standing, but one suspects that his tough-talking, no-bullshit persona was probably not “safe” enough for prime time. DeStefano didn’t have the opportunity to connect more deeply with a Buddhist teacher but he studied and thought about the dharma devotedly. Wanting to bring what he was learning into the comedic realm, he was sketching out ideas for a graphic novel featuring a jokey but sincere Buddhist hero based on him- self. Yet his graphic novel never materialized. On March 6, 2011, a heart attack ended DeStefano’s life. He had by that time lost his wife, who had been suffering with AIDS, and had himself been diagnosed as HIV positive. But he’d also been clean for many years and was excited about his new one- man show, which was just days away from opening. Noting that “hero” is one of the ways bodhisattva might be translated, Dunne suggests that DeStefano was onto something with his semiautobiographical graphic novel idea. “He was certainly imperfect, but he was a kind of fighter. He was fighting with himself but also all those parts of our society that he was embodying in his act: the judgmentalness, the lack of compassion, the stupidity, the mean-spirited aspects of our society. He had this tenacious, even pugnacious, urge to go out and help people.” OfaMikeyDshowat Greenwich Village’s famed Comedy Cellar, Dunne remembers: “He knew I was there, and he was trying out this Buddhist joke. It com- pletely flopped.” A couple of Buddhist one- liners would resurface now and then in his act, but they didn’t land with the oomph of so much of his other mate- rial. Talking about the insti- tution of Buddhism was one thing. But suffering? That, Mike DeStefano knew, would always be good for a laugh. Wise Fools As the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “If there were no humor, it wouldn’t be Buddhism.” Here are some of my favor- ite bits and video that reflect, explicitly or implicitly, a Buddhist take on comedy. Honest, insightful, poignant, or just plain funny, they all bring us some sort of deeper truth. Mike DeStefano: “The Junkie and the Monk,” as told on The Moth podcast I’m not gonna lie. My oldest friends would tell you that I’ve not only partaken in but also invented some of the most vivid and creative cursing in human history. And yet even I find a lot of Mikey D’s act, as captured on his live CD OK Karma, pretty nasty at times. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a lot of it. But it doesn’t capture the depth and breadth of DeStefano’s heart and mind like “The Junkie and the Monk,” his heart-wrenching retelling of the loss of his wife. He also speaks about dipping his toe into Buddhist practice and tonglen meditation, his drug PHOTOBYYVONNEDEROSA/MILLENNIUMIMAGES,U.K. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 64