Did the Buddha ever laugh? Some would say no, contrary to the popular “laughing Buddha” statues one can find in Chinese restaurants (which are not actually the Buddha, but the 10th-century Ch’an monk Budai, a Santa Claus-like folk hero). The Buddha of the Pali canon and the Mahayana sutras is known for his brilliant dialogues with interlocutors, deconstructive logic, commanding serene presence, and magical powers.
But jokes? Not so much.
Yet according to Ajaan Thanissaro Bhikkhu, known to his students as Ajaan Geoff, the Pali canon holds many examples of the Buddha using humor in his teaching. It’s just that the humor—often highly contextual, based on wordplay, and also more often dry and subtle than laugh-out-loud funny—is easily missed by translators and readers. One of my favorite examples is the time a Brahmin—a Vedic priest, most of whom regarded the early Buddhists as heretical outcasts—came by to challenge the Buddha and insult him. The Buddha quietly asked him, “If someone offers you a gift, and you refuse to accept it, does that make the gift yours or the one who offered it?”
“It belongs to the one who offered it,” replied the Brahmin.
“In the same way,” replied the Buddha, “the words with which you have insulted me are all yours.”
When I found out that Ajaan Geoff, who is abbot of a meditation monastery in Southern California where I lived for three years, had written a book about the Buddha’s humor called The Buddha Smiles (available for free from the monastery, as are all of his books), I was fascinated. I had noticed the Buddha’s humor in the Pali Canon myself but had never seen any serious treatment of it in print. Ajaan Geoff is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Pali discourses and the Vinaya [monastic code], and is widely regarded as a leading scholarly exponent of Theravada Buddhism in English. He is also a meditation master who has been deeply immersed in the Thai Forest tradition for four decades. I was eager to read, and hear, what he had to say. He kindly agreed to be interviewed about the book.
How did you become interested in writing a book on the Buddha’s sense of humor? A student of mine who likes to attend the Sakyadhita [International Association of Buddhist Women] conferences noticed that the presentations tended to be pretty grim and humorless. So she asked me for some examples of the Buddha’s humor that she could use in a presentation herself. As I was gathering the material, I realized that there was enough to fill a book—and that the book would be useful, because one, the humor in the Pali canon is underappreciated, and two, there are a lot of good dhamma [Skt. dharma] lessons to learn from the way the Buddha and the compilers of the canon used humor in their teaching.
Is there something you would say is particularly characteristic of the Buddha’s use of humor? It can be pretty dry. A good example is the comment he made about one of his monks who had gotten drunk. The monk, Saketa, had done battle with a fire-breathing serpent, and word got out to people at large. They wanted to do something special for him, as a way of making merit, and so they asked some other monks, “Is there something nice that monks don’t usually get on their alms round?” Well, it so happened that they asked the wrong monks. The monks said, “Hard liquor.”
So the people prepared glasses of hard liquor for Saketa on the next day’s alms round. After drinking liquor at house after house, he passed out at the city gate. The Buddha came along with a group of monks, and he had them carry Saketa back to the monastery. They laid him on the ground, and he tossed and turned until he had his feet pointed at the Buddha. [Pointing one’s feet at a teacher is considered a sign of disrespect.] The Buddha commented, “Wasn’t Saketa respectful to us in the past?”
“Yes,” the monks said.
“Is he respectful now?”
“And didn’t he do battle with the fire-breathing serpent in the past?”
“Could he do battle with even a salamander now?”
You say in the book that humor in the canon can be broadly separated into two kinds. The first aims at provoking dispassion by making fun of things that should be disregarded or taken less seriously, and the second aims at cultivating what you call “joy in the dhamma.” Can you give an example of each? In the first category, there’s the humorous way that the canon treats things like sensuality, psychic powers, encounters with devas [gods], and palace life. It’s meant to develop a sense of detachment toward things that people all too often dream about and fall for.
One of my favorite examples is the story of the monk who gains a vision of some devas and so asks them, in effect, “Do you know where the physical universe ends?” They say they don’t know, but that there’s a higher level of devas. Maybe they know. So the monk gets a vision of the higher level of devas and asks them the same question. They don’t know, but they send him to the next level up. This process repeats, as he gets sent up, up, up, the deva bureaucracy until he finally comes face-to-face with the Great Brahma. He asks the question, and the Great Brahma responds, “I am the Great Brahma, All-knowing, All-seeing, the father of all that has been and will be.”
Now, if this had been the Book of Job, the conversation would have ended there. But the monk isn’t cowed. He says, “I didn’t ask you if you were the Great Brahma, and so on, I asked you if you know where the physical universe ends.”
The Great Brahma repeats that he’s the Great Brahma, and so on, and the monk persists with his question three times. Finally, the Great Brahma takes him by the arm, pulls him aside, and says, “Look. I don’t know. But my retinue thinks I know everything, and I don’t want to disappoint them. You go back and ask the Buddha.”
In the category of joy in the dhamma, there are stories and analogies that make you happy you’re practicing. An example is of the analogy of the elephant alone in the forest compared to a monk doing jhana [meditative absorptions]. The elephant, tired of his herd, has gone off on his own and is enjoying his seclusion. When he feels an itch, he takes a branch with his trunk and scratches himself. “Gratified,” the canon says, “he allays his itch.” In the same way, a monk—tired of the hustle and bustle of life in a monastery—goes off into the forest and enjoys his solitude. As he enters jhana, the text says, “Gratified, he allays his itch.” It’s the sort of comment that makes you smile—and makes you want to do jhana.
You practiced for years with Ajaan Fuang Jotiko (1915-1986) and then Ajaan Suwat Suvaco(1919-2002), both meditation masters in the lineage of the great Buddhist reformer Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta (1870-1949), who helped start the contemporary Thai Forest Tradition. Did you find either of your teachers used humor in their teachings? Both Ajaan Fuang and Ajaan Suwat had good senses of humor. In fact, that was one of the things that first attracted me to them. Their primary way of using it was to create a sense of distance and dispassion around your defilements, like the Buddha’s first use of humor.
For instance, Ajaan Fuang had his own version of a Jataka tale [stories of the Buddha’s past lives] that I liked. He used it once to make the point that when you go into a new situation, it’s wise to keep your mouth shut and try to read the situation first before trying to show off how smart you are.
The story goes that there was a turtle living near a pond, where swans regularly stopped for water. They would tell him about all the wonderful things they saw while flying around, and the turtle became upset that he would never get to see those things. So the swans came up with a plan: They would find a stick and hold either end of it in their mouths, while the turtle would grab onto the middle of the stick with its mouth. That way they could carry it up into the sky.
So they did. As they flew around, the turtle got to see many amazing things it had never seen in its life. But then they passed over a group of children who saw them and started calling out: “Look! Swans carrying a turtle! Swans carrying a turtle!” The turtle felt embarrassed, but then thought of a smart retort: “No. The turtle’s carrying the swans!” But when it opened its mouth to say this, it fell to its death.
I’ve found that if a student can’t laugh at him or herself, that student’s practice is going to crash. —Thanissaro Bhikkhu
You yourself are known for your sense of humor. I remember hearing your frequent laughter around Metta Forest Monastery when I lived there. How do you use humor in your practice and teaching? One of the best ways to overcome a defilement is to be able to laugh at it. To be able to laugh at your own foibles gives you some distance from them. So I try to promote a sense of humor around issues, so that people can extract themselves from the boxes into which they put themselves.
Sometimes this involves getting them to laugh at other people’s foibles, so that they can reflect on their own and avoid making the same mistakes. But I try to make it as good-natured as possible so that it doesn’t get mean. I’ve found that if a student can’t laugh at him or herself, that student’s practice is going to crash.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add? Three things stand out in the way the canon uses humor. One is that much of the humor is found in the origin stories for the disciplinary rules in the Vinaya. Humor in these stories helps you step back and say, “Yes, I can see why that type of behavior is out of line.” And that creates distance between yourself and your own desire to break the rules. Also, if the people who established the rules were grim and humorless, the rules would feel oppressive and be harder to follow.
The second thing that jumps out of the canon is that the Buddha could often be very sharp and biting in his humor. He didn’t belong to the school of thought that views upsetting remarks as necessarily harmful. When he saw that someone’s defilements were ridiculous, he had no qualms about holding them up for ridicule. A prime example is a comment he made about brahmans, who were very proud of their racial purity. As he pointed out, dogs—considered to be among the lowest animals in ancient India—were more racially pure than the brahmans. In his words, “Some male brahmans copulate with female non-brahmans, but male dogs don’t copulate with female non-dogs.” This probably hurt the feelings of some of the brahmans who heard it, but it didn’t harm them. In fact, it might have brought them to their senses and led to their long-term welfare and happiness. So sharp humor, if it’s used well, has its place.
The third thing that’s striking is that the canon’s use of humor goes against the societal norms of its day. Humor, in the literature of the time, was usually used to enhance the appeal of erotic poems and plays. But the canon uses humor to subvert that connection, making erotic poetry look silly.
One example is the story of the nun Subha. A man accosts her as she’s going through a forest, inviting her to disrobe and enjoy sensual pleasures. His lines are among the most extravagantly poetic in the canon, but she’s not interested. She’s reached the stage in her practice where she’s gone beyond sensual desire. So she asks him, “What do you find attractive in this disgusting human body?”
“Your eyes,” he says. “I can’t stop thinking of your eyes, O nymph of the languid regard.”
So she plucks out one of her eyes and says, in essence, “You want it? Here, take it.” That scares him off.
This kind of humor goes totally against the conventions of the time and serves as a reminder that Buddhism didn’t just follow the customs of India in those days. It was, and has always been, countercultural.
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