Apr 2, 2007

Did the Buddha have a sense of humour?

"A madman and an arahant both smile, but the arahant knows why while the madman doesn't."
Ajahn Chah

There was a long standing taboo in Thailand against monks being photographed smiling. Ajahn Chah was the first prominent bhikkhu who allowed his image to be recorded while looking cheerful. Certainly many of his teaching stories have a playful or humourous flavour. The same could be said of many other Thai ajahns. Similarly, the Zen tradition is full of quirky anecdotes and Vajrayana has its trickster figure in Milarepa.

But did the founder, Gotama Buddha, have a sense of humour? Some might think the idea irreverant. I would beg to differ, I don't think a healthy sense of humour, a clean enjoyment of ambiguity, paradox and the foibles of human nature, is incompatible with the highest state of liberation.

One obstacle in appreciating the Buddha's wry wit may be the stilted formal language of the suttas; recorded in Pali which was probably not a natural language but a kind of artificial prakrit, an Indic esperanto. The language itself has a structure that lends itself to formality or even gravity in expression, and the use of formulaic passages as a mnemonic device adds to this.

Translations have also been problematic in this way. The newer versions by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Maurice Walshe and some others are written in a more natural English prose, but one sometimes gets the feeling that the early translators of the Pali Text Society were trying to emulate the prose style of the King James Bible to attain the neccessary gravitas.

Nevertheless, some of the Buddha's wit does make it through the layers of transmission. This is especially true of many of his parables. From Digha 23, a parable concerning attachment to views and opinions;

Once there was a swineherd...[who] saw a heap of dry dung that had been thrown away, and he thought: 'there's a lot of dry dung someone has thrown away, that would be food for my pigs. I ought to carry it away. And he spread out his cloak, gathered up the dung, and made a bundle and put it on his head...there was a heavy shower of unseasonable rain and he became spattered with oozing, dripping dung to his finger-tips, but still carried his load of dung. Those who saw him said, 'You must be mad! You must be crazy!' [and he answered] 'You're the ones who are mad! You're the ones who are crazy! This stuff is food for my pigs!'
This spoken to one Payasi, a stubborn-minded fellow doggedly holding onto his own pile of metaphorical dung, long after the "rain" had made it worthless.

Or, what about the story found in the Kevatta Sutta (Digha 11) where a monk uses psychic powers to travel up through the successive heavens seeking the answer to a Dhamma question. Each level of gods is unable to answer him, and refers him upstairs; "Surely the gods in the next higher realm will know!" He continues until he reaches the realm of the Great Brahma who does a routine reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz;

"So the monk approached the Great Brahma and, on arrival, said, 'Friend, where do these four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, and the wind property — cease without remainder?'

"When this was said, the Great Brahma said to the monk, 'I, monk, am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.'

On being asked a second and a third time, at last;

"Then the Great Brahma, taking the monk by the arm and leading him off to one side, said to him, 'These gods of the retinue of Brahma believe, "There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not know. There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not see. There is nothing of which the Great Brahma is unaware. There is nothing that the Great Brahma has not realized." That is why I did not say in their presence that I, too, don't know where the four great elements... cease without remainder. So you have acted wrongly, acted incorrectly, in bypassing the Blessed One in search of an answer to this question elsewhere. Go right back to the Blessed One and, on arrival, ask him this question. However he answers it, you should take it to heart.'
Maybe it's just me, but it seems like this passage was intended to be funny.

There are many other examples that could be cited; Moggallana's encounter with Sakka in Majjhima 37, (another one making fun of the gods), or the charlatan Patikuputta in Digha 24 who wants to challenge the Buddha but cannot get up from his seat, ("What is the matter, friend Patikuputta, is your bottom stuck to the seat or is the seat stuck to your bottom?") or so many more.

But my personal favourite, for it's quiet understated humour, is from Majjhima 12, the Greater Discourse of the Lion's Roar. The Buddha is speaking to Sariputta and recounting his early struggle for enlightment. Bear in mind, both are elderly men at this time, roughly the same age'
Now I recall having eaten a single rice grain a day. Sariputta, you may think that the rice grain was bigger at that time, yet you should not regard it so: the rice grain was then at most the same size as now.
I don't know why, it cracks me up.

Or as my teacher Kema Ananda once said, "The universe is a huge joke. If you don't find it funny, that's because you haven't reached the punch-line yet."


Anonymous said...

One interesting characteristic of the realm we live in, as pointed out by some Mesoamerican cultures as well as a few Ajarns (privately at least), is that it has an edge of profound sadness; meaning that they have actually felt the sadness of this realm as a whole, rather than the experience of a conditioned sadness that people often feel.

The antithesis of this characteristic is the pure mind of The Buddha and the Arahants who have followed his teachings, and a sense of humour is a basic necessity for living in such a world among beings who generally consider that being here is the perfect opportunity to drop anchor, breed, become famous and powerful, and make lots of money.

From being with people who have identical minds to The Buddha, one can say that they do indeed have a sense of humour, but it is much more refined and subtle than you find in ordinary folk. One example is the consciousness of Hasituppada that is only known by such minds. For them, this consciousness brings forth a smile, whereas passing this consciousness onto ordinary folk, usually by a touch to the side, brings forth a burst of uncontrollable laughter and mirth.

It is also interesting to note that in general Western minds are considered to be a little too serious, ‘aow jing aow jang’ in Thai, by Thai Ajarns, and the more recent seriousness on the part of the Thai Sangha hierarchy over the past couple of hundred years is no doubt due to this Western influence.

The late head monk of Bangkok province, a ‘scholarly’ monk of the administration (apologies for mentioning this word once again), was undoubtedly the head grouch of the Thai Sangha, and was never known to smile at all. Instead, he generally complained about everything, and as a personal rule would not speak to foreigners. This personal attachment of his prompted one of the abbots in Bangkok to round up all the foreigners he could and take them along to meetings held by the head monk. His state of mind was a source of mirth for other monks, who found it somewhat unbelievable that any monk could be so grumpy and serious and not enjoy each day as it comes.

The one characteristic that all pure minds have to perfection is no self, and no rank or title can sway them from considering themselves to be ordinary. One interesting variation in the styles of Arahants can be found in the way that the late Pra Pimon Tam (Somdet Buddhachahn) taught. He was obviously serious in his approach to his duties, but his teaching style for ordinary Thai people was based upon mirth; he wore people out with laughter. I once saw a photograph taken from behind the Ajarn that epitomized his approach to teaching; it showed his back and the faces of his audience of around 5,000 people laughing their socks off. My own Ajarn, who knew Pra Pimon Tam well, said that the only time he ever laughed was with an audience of ordinary Thai farmers, as he knew that this was what they needed. He said that by the time he had finished with an audience they were exhausted from laughing so much, and they had all been pushed into the deva realms by his samadhi which he was using while he spoke and laughed; he took them all to heaven.

The styles of the other senior Ajarns during his time were quite different, but they all had one thing in common, and that is that there was no one really there, they just used whatever was appropriate at the time. This non self is the key to having a sense of humour.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favourites:

The Venerable Sariputta and the Venerable Maha-Moggallana were living together at Kapotakandara.

On a full moon night Sariputta was sitting out in the open, his head freshly shaved. A nasty Yakka (demon) passing over him descended and gave the elder an almighty blow to the head. But Sariputta was so deeeply absorbed in meditation that he didn't notice

The Venerable Maha-Moggallana had witnessed all of this and approached the Venerable Sariputta and asked him: "Friend, are you comfortable, does nothing trouble you?".
"I am comfortable and nothing troubles me, though I have a slight headache"
Then the Venerable Moggallana exclaimed: "It is wonderful, friend Sariputta! It is marvellous, friend Sariputta! How great is the might and psychic power of the Venerable Sariputta! Because just now a certain demon gave you a blow to the head. And it was such a mighty blow that it could have felled an elephant or split a mountain peak. And yet all you say is: "I am comfortable and nothing troubles me, though I have a slight headache".
Then the Venerable Sariputta replied: "It is wonderful, friend Moggallana! It is marvellous, friend Moggallana! How great is the might and psychic power of the Venerable Moggallana, that he should see such a demon at all! As for me, I haven't even seen a mud-sprite."

Unknown said...

I for one have always noted the sacredness in all things, humor included. The clown is as noble as the hero. The clown reveals the very faults that make us stumble, the ego which is the father of our suffering.

There is a place where humor dissipates and is transformed into the unknowable, but for us humans we must make do with the insights of our condition.

I for one believe you correct in your interpretations here. Certainly there is a great deal of wisdom in all teachings, regardless of how they instruct. Compassion can take many forms. I see no reason to not interpret humor as an instructive method of breaking the spell of our disillusionments.

This was a wonderful post. Thank you.

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