“When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”
Do you remember that bit in the scriptures where the Buddha rolled around on the floor laughing? Neither do I. Even though the above quote is frequently attributed to the Buddha, according to what we can gather from the suttas he doesn’t seem to have been a bundle of laughs.
Verse 146 of the Dhammapada suggests that merriment is inappropriate in the face of the suffering we see around us: “When this world is ever ablaze, why this laughter, why this jubilation?” In the Tuvataka Sutta (Sutta Nipata 4.14) the Buddha puts laughter in the same category as sloth, deception, and fornication: things to be abandoned.
Perhaps even more alarmingly, when the comic actor Talaputa asks for confirmation that he is destined for a heavenly rebirth because of the laughter and delight he brings to others, the Buddha warns him that members of his profession are in fact destined for the “hell of laughter” because of the “intoxication and heedlessness” that their craft inspires (Sutta Nipata 42.2). So much for my planning a career as a Buddhist stand-up comic.
Among religious and philosophical figures the Buddha is not alone in being a killjoy, or at least in being depicted as one. Jesus said, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes all believed that laughter was bad for the character because it frequently results from a feeling of superiority, coming as it does at the expense of others. Albert Rapp, a mid-20th-century academic, suggested in his book The Origins of Wit and Humor that the way we open our mouths wide and expose our teeth when we laugh had its origins in “the roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel.”
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.