Humor: The Lesser-known Buddhist Path

buddhist humorToo long I was told that the spiritual path is dry and intellectual. That wisdom is cold. But I have seen with my own eyes that in the hands of great masters, wisdom is warm and full of humor. It always recognizes the primacy of relationships. It seeks to create relationships that are warm, uplifting, and funny! It always insists that it is not about me, not about you: it is always, always, always about us.

From Falling Is Flying: The Dharma of Facing Adversity, by Ajahn Brahm and Chan Master Guojun, edited by Kenneth Wapner © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications. Ajahn Brahm is a British Theravada Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. He is the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery, in Serpentine, Western Australia.

Redeeming Desire

hand redirecting an arrowOne of the most common mistakes people make about Buddhism is to think that its goal is to give up all desire, to become completely detached from everything. Aside from the fact that this is impossible, it is simply not the goal of Zen. In fact, one of the three essentials for awakening in Zen (aside from great faith and great doubt) is great determination. We cannot awaken to our true nature without a great deal of determination and effort, and determination can only arise from a desire for awakening.

From Zen beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and Modern Psychology for Transformational Practice, by Jules Shuzen Harris © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Jules Shuzen Harris, a Zen teacher in the Soto lineage, founded the Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. (See the Spring 2019 issue’s “A Day in the Dharma” for a glimpse into Shuzen Harris’s daily routine.)

Even-keeled Idealism

Scale weighing ideals and realityAll ideals are imaginative projections. Though we can conceive of them, they can’t exist in this imperfect world. Yet they are valuable nevertheless. We need ideals to propel us forward into better futures, to inspire us to be better people in a better world. Religions are always idealistic, asking us to be more than we are, more than we could ever be. We cherish ideals as essential ingredients of our humanness. Without them we slowly lose energy. We become boring, small-minded, and eventually depressed, as life’s natural entropy overcomes us. Ideals lift us up.

Of course, we can overdo idealism. We need to balance it with realism, honestly and humbly accepting who we are in the everyday world and grounding our idealism in that. Ideals are like the horizon, a place we can walk toward, a direction we can go in, but not a place where we arrive. In the journey toward the horizon, the only place we take steps is here, the ground on which we stand.

Ideals become problematic when we take them literally, holding ourselves to impossible standards. Ideals are ideal. They aren’t real. To the extent that we expect to realize them, we become frustrated.

Ideals are even more toxic when we deceive ourselves into thinking we have realized them. Then we become blind to our own actual behavior and motivation, and blind to others, whom we judge as less than ourselves.

Among all pernicious forms of idealism, religious idealism may be the worst; its excesses can be literally deadly. The saving grace of the bodhisattva ideal is that it is so outrageously extravagant, so absurdly imaginative, that we are clear from the start we can never realize it. It is literally impossible! We can never get there. All we can do is keep on walking toward the bodhisattva horizon, inspired by the bright vision ahead, content to never arrive.

From The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path, by Norman Fischer © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Norman Fischer is a Zen priest, author, poet, and translator. He is the director of the Everyday Zen Foundation.

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