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
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.