Laughter and Buddhism

This May I will travel to France to present a paper on Laughter and Buddhism. The meeting is that of philosophers who are interested in comparative work between Western and Eastern philosophies, and the topic this time is “Laughter: East and West.” This looks like a good opportunity to compare what philosophers in both traditions think about humor and laughter, a topic which has received scant attention in both East and West, it seems.

So what about laughter and Buddhism? A typical Westerner, when asked what he or she thinks about Buddhism, would perhaps think about a ‘laughing Buddha’ whose statue usually adorns Chinese restaurants. In fact the laughing Buddha is the Bodhisattva Maitreya, who is the future Buddha, in his Chinese form. Here is his picture from http://web.singnet.com.sg/~alankhoo/Maitreya.htm

Maitreya Buddha

So it seems laughter is quite accepted in at least Mahayana Buddhism. I say this because in Theravada Buddhism laughter is not viewed with as much approval. In the Vinaya or monastic rules, the Buddha made it clear that monks were not allowed to laugh so much that the teeth could be seen. It was all right to smile a little bit, but to laugh out loud would be contrary to the monk’s good behavior.

There is a story in the Vinaya Pitaka about a certain monk named Chabbaggiya, who was some sort of a ‘prankster’ in the early monastic community. Once Chabbaggiya was playing with his fellow monks and what he did was to tickle his friend so much that he hyperventilated and died. When the Buddha learned about this he rebuked Chabbaggiya a lot and laid down a rule forbidding monks to tickle one another.

This was not the only time that Chabbaggiya was censored by the Buddha. On another occasion he traveled with the order to a village; however, instead of staying calm as did his fellow monks, Chabbaggiya laughed out loud and played around in the village. The Buddha then laid down another rule forbidding monks to laugh out loud in the vicinity of the households. The rules have stood until today.

There is another story from the Pali canon. In the Suttanta Pitaka there is a story of a dancer and musician named Talaputta. When he met with the Buddha, Talaputta would like to know about his profession, whether it was conducive to the final Liberation or not. According to his old belief, he thought that by providing his audience with mirth and laughter, he would end up in heaven under the patronage of the god Pahasa, presumably the god of laughter and entertainment. When he asked the Buddha about this, the Buddha was at first reluctant, but after repeated requests the Lord told Talaputta that those who danced and performed music, which aroused the feelings of desire in the audience, would go to the lower realm as a result. So instead of going to heaven and live with Pahasa, the Buddha said that they would go to hell.

The point is that Theravada has a certain attitude toward laughter which is not quite positive. Laughter is associated with sensual desires and lack of mindfulness, qualities which are necessary for the practitioner to achieve the Result. This is quite in contrast with the later development of Buddhism, as we have already seen in the case of the laughing Maitreya Buddha.

So how should we understand all this? I said in the paper that there are many dimensions to laughter. One dimension is of course that of Chabbaggiya’s. One laughs as a coarse, unrefined individual, one who stands in need for Dharma practice from the very beginning. However, there is another kind of laugh. Seeing all things to be empty of their inherent characteristics, the Buddha or the bodhisattvas laughed. But their laughter is not of the same kind as are those of the likes of Chabbaggiya’s. On the contrary, the Buddha laughs at those feelings of attachment and reification that accompany the ordinary being wandering in samsara.

There is a story in the Lankavatara Sutra that the Buddha laughed very loudly, emitting light rays to all corners of the universe. So is the Buddha contradicting what he tells Chabbaggiya and his fellow monks not to do? Here is a beautiful aspect of Buddhism. Everything is an upaya, or ‘skillful means’ which is used to bring about realization and understanding in the listeners, which is an understanding of the true nature of things.

As Nagarjuna has said, explicating the Buddha’s own teaching, all things, all phenomena and all events are empty of their inherent characters. There are no substances or anything existing on their own side that serve to identify whatever things they are substances of. This sounds easy on paper but is in fact very hard to understand fully and deeply. The laughs of the Buddhas and the fully realized Bodhisattvas arise out of this absolutely clear view of reality, and is a far cry from the laughs of unenlightened beings such as Chabbaggiya.

So what is the Buddhist attitude toward laughing? Laughing is not a bad thing in itself. Perhaps this is to be expected of Buddhism because there is just no thing that possesses any characteristic in itself. The Buddha had one thing in mind when he told the story to Talaputta, and when he laughs out so loudly that the whole cosmos actually shakes, he does have another purpose in mind.

7 thoughts on “Laughter and Buddhism

  1. Cittasamvaro May 3, 2008 / 10:16 am

    Excellent blog. Insightful and relevant as always.

    I might add the Abhidhammattha Sangaha has a note on laughter.
    Since laughter is accompanied by pleasurable feeling, and Buddha’s are beyond feeling pleasure (according to Anuruddha Thera) there had to be a special ‘citta’ included in the Abhidhamma for the ‘Arahant’s Smile’ – since the Buddha was known to smile on occasion.
    Then six levels of smile are listed:

    A smile manifesting in expression and countenance.
    A smile consisting in the slight movements of the lips, revealing the tips of the teeth.
    Laughter giving out a slight sound.
    Laughter accompanied by movement of the head, shoulders and arms.
    Laughter accompanied by the shedding of tears.
    An outburst of laughter accompanied by the forward and backward movement of body from head to foot.

    This description always makes me laugh. (You might even see the tips of my teeth)

  2. soraj May 5, 2008 / 12:34 pm

    The text from the Abhidhamma is a rare gem indeed. How well did the author describe the various stages of laughing? I did laugh too ^–^

  3. FreddyKruger August 7, 2008 / 10:17 pm

    Buddha once told Rahul, his son who became a novice, “do not lie just for laughs”. Two things are clear to me: lying is a sin; and laughter can bring pleasure.

    I feel the discussion is leading to finding a positive view of laughter extant in buddhist teaching. However, I will not overlook the fact that only “later developments” would initiate such an idea, as stated above.

    It seems such a thread, as well as other traits laughable to the non-Theravada, for example Tantric sex, drunken Qi Gong etc., is entertaining to those who approach buddhism from an outsider’s point of view. Arguing their way to persuade those inside buddhism to appreciate “the fun we may have” being buddhists is a powerful force. It is not a surprise many can be attracted to the mahayana ways. Why not at least entertain ourselves if we cannot master the whole buddhist canon, Theravada or not, let alone practice it.

    Laughing itself can be sinful or pure, as we have seen in the post. Let the mahayana discuss the good side of it. As my feet are most of the times on the Theravada side, I see laughing as a release, like a joke waiting for the punch line, sex leading to orgasm or spirits bringing one to drunken bliss. The laugh, the climax, and the inebriation do NOT matter. As long as malarial infection causes fever, the temperature itself, high or low, can be seen as trivial, compared to the presence of parasites in the blood.

    Expectation – leading to a twist, then bursting into (trivial) laughter – is THE defilement.

    Yes it brings pleasure, even a feeling that one is perceiving disillusionment, like sex, like alcohol, but IT is not the point.

    *****

    I do not mind hearing accounts of buddha himself laughing. Maybe the mirth is hidden in words like “smiles”. Mogallana did smile when he saw a peta in grotesque shape and position, as he could recall the associated karma.

    One has to be careful to state how a “defiled” laugh is different from the mirth of emancipation. Why is this important? A lowly ordinary guy’s laughter makes him feel relieved. Life again becomes bearable. Suffering disappears, even momentarily. Laughing is an orgasm, however small, that helps him get back to his defiled ways again. How does one justify his laughs, once he takes a mahayana position, as a sign that he gets nearer to understannding “emptiness”?

    *****

    One of Dr. Soraj’s points is very interesting. If the laughing figure is a precursor to metraiya, or buddha to come, his mode of presentation can be different from gautama’s. His nirvana may seem more joyful. Buddhism then will take a different “color”. Anyway, we will have to remember that laugher is just a flavor. It is NOT essential to enlightenment.

  4. soraj August 8, 2008 / 7:01 am

    One note: The laughing figure in the post is Buddha Maitreya himself, in his fullness of a Buddha and not as a Bodhisattva who aspires to become a Buddha. Why is Maitreya often portrayed as a fat, laughing Buddha? There are some research works on this which I need to look up, but the idea seems to be that the fatness and the laugh signify happiness — this may be based on the Chinese conception of a happy life. Indians may have another perspective.

    Another note: Laughing alone does not qualify one to get any closer to a full understanding of Emptiness. This would be quite ridiculous. Laughing is a non-cognitive act, whereas any kind of understanding at all requires some thinking. But it may be the case that after some hard thinking, one actually bursts out laughing🙂

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