“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.”
Interestingly—although perhaps also dispiritingly—there is scientific evidence that supports this dim view of laughter. The British psychologist Richard Wiseman spent years in a quest (funded by the British Association for the Advancement of Science) to find the world’s funniest joke. To do so, he created a website where members of the public could submit jokes and vote on how funny they were. Again and again, the jokes voted as funniest were those that triggered a sense of superiority in the reader. At the risk of being reborn in the hell of laughter, I submit the following example:
Texan: “Where are you from?”
Harvard graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”
Texan: “Okay. Where are you from, jackass?”
Research also shows that while jokes reinforcing a sense of superiority may appear harmless, they may have damaging effects on others. Wiseman tells about a study done at Jacobs University Bremen in which women with various hair colors were exposed to “dumb blonde” jokes. Blonde women who participated in the study scored lower on a subsequent IQ test than did their blonde counterparts in a control group, suggesting that they had internalized the message that their hair color correlated with a lack of intelligence.
I find this all rather unsettling. I like a good laugh, and I enjoy using humor in my teaching. I don’t think the humor I use puts anyone down, although I’ll certainly be on guard for that possibility in the future. Other Buddhist teachers value humor and laughter as well. The Dalai Lama, for example, has a chapter in one of his books entitled (very appropriately, given his ready and infectious laugh) “I Am a Professional Laugher.”
And puzzlingly, despite his scriptural portrayal as a party pooper, the Buddha’s wit is obvious, even filtered through the often mind-numbing repetition and stock phrases of the suttas. Take, for example, Digha Nikaya 11, where the Buddha portrays the Great Brahma as a blusterer, publicly careful to maintain among the other gods a reputation for being omniscient but privately embarrassed at his inability to answer spiritual questions. Surely the Buddha—a man so capable of wry humor—must have laughed, at least sometimes?
Perhaps the Buddha’s strictures only applied to forms of laughter that denigrated others, or that were crude and coarsening (like Talaputa’s?) and thus allowed for more harmless expressions of amusement. I find it easy to imagine him chuckling in a self-deprecatingway while delivering a humorous anecdote, bursting out in laughter in response to life’s absurdity, or simply laughing out loud with joy. I also find it easy to imagine that the monks who passed on the scriptures chose to focus more on the Buddha’s words than on his manner of delivery, or that they may have tried to distance him from the supposed evils of mirth by failing to mention his laughter. Yet again, perhaps he really was just so darn mindful that the closest he would allow himself to laughter was a smile. We’ll never know.
But what about the notion, found in our fake quote, that everything is perfect? The Buddha stressed the unsatisfactoriness of the world and regarded only the holy life and awakening itself as perfect. Other practitioners, however, having experienced a deep acceptance of things as they really are, have come to the conclusion that it’s fitting to regard everything as “perfect.” For example, this passage by the 14th-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa is frequently quoted: “Since everything is but an apparition, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.” (I suspect that the similarity between this and our fake Buddha quote is not accidental.) There’s a danger in misunderstanding such views, of course, which is that by regarding everything as perfect, one might conclude that nothing needs to be changed and thus fail to act to relieve suffering. Rather than considering everything to be perfect, I think it’s safer to say that while there are times when we have experiences that are perfect because we have dropped any resistance to the way things are, the world itself, filled as it is with suffering, is far from being a perfect place.
Longchenpa’s words, besides suggesting that—from a certain point of view—things can be seen as perfect, remind us that insight can be an occasion for hilarity. Seeing through our lifelong delusions of permanent selfhood and separateness, we may realize that the joke, all along, has been on us.
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