Humour lies at the heart of Buddhist thought and practice. Indeed, according to Buddhist history, it was a central factor in the enlightenment experience of the monk Kashyapa. As you may recall, during one of his discourses the Buddha fell silent and held up a single golden flower. Kashyapa responded not with ideas or words but with a smile. From this smile, this spontaneous opening of the heart-mind, this direct transmission of the truth from one being to another, came the Zen tradition. Or so the story goes.
Fun and laughter are also central to the story of Maitreya, the future Buddha, as taught in Mahayana literature. When Buddhism first entered China, several transformations of the Indian teachings took place and one of these changes concerned the role of Maitreya. Maitreya became Mi-Lo-Fu, the Laughing Buddha. In Buddhist art he is often portrayed as a lovable, pot-bellied, figure with jovial features. In Japan he became known as Hotei, and his image can now be found in souvenir shops almost anywhere. Even those who know nothing of Buddhist mythology and folklore may believe that gently rubbing his belly can bring good luck.
With the image of the Laughing Buddha as my point of departure, I would like to explore the part that humour can play in living the spiritual life. I am going to suggest that humour can, in the context of spiritual practice, be used as a kind of upaya, a skilful means, to help us towards enlightenment. Joy and laughter provide us with a wonderful opportunity to challenge the assumed sovereignty of the ego.
The fierce look that we sometimes see on the faces of some dharma teachers — both past and present — is really something of a put-on, a mask. If you can find the courage and the wisdom to look closely enough, you just might find that behind that somewhat severe façade there awaits a broad, gargantuan smile that may just break into a glorious belly laugh at any moment. These teachers seem to have understood the Cosmic Joke. So why aren’t we laughing? As students of the dharma we seem to be the ones who have all the problems. There are times when we seem perpetually troubled by the state of the world, and at these times when all seems lost, when we feel hopeless and helpless, we may have some sympathy, perhaps, for Martyn Lewis, the BBC newsreader, who recently got into trouble for suggesting that we could all benefit from hearing some good news for a change!
But I think that what worries us even more than the state of the world is the state of our own minds. Before we realize what is happening to us, we are taking our views and opinions so seriously that we run the risk of ending up in a state of perpetual anger or frustration. Without a sense of humour we may become completely perplexed or baffled by Kashyapa’s smile, or our chosen teacher’s outrageous sense of laughter and fun. We may even find ourselves asking, ‘What the hell is so funny about all this misery?’ All this fun and laughter in the face of tragedy or adversity seems like an affront, a problem.
But the real issue is that we have not yet tasted the divine madness of enlightenment for ourselves. We still lack what the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa called ‘that crazy wisdom’, which has been instrumental in transforming the lives of great spiritual teachers the world over. This experience can, it is said, help us to walk lightly through this troubled world with compassion and understanding. I think it was the Catholic writer and humorist G.K. Chesterton who once said that angels had wings because they took themselves lightly.
It would seem, then, that humour has an important part to play in the spiritual life and I will go into this in a little more detail in a moment. But before I do that I would like to say a few things about the value that humour can have for our physical wellbeing.
One of the best accounts of the role that humour can play in the healing process comes from the pen of journalist and writer Norman Cousins1. In 1964 he contracted a condition called ankylosis spondylitis in which the connective tissue in his spine gradually deteriorated. This left him totally immobile and he was told that his chances of recovery (in 1964) were no more than one in five hundred.
During his years as a journalist, Cousins had maintained an interest in advances in medicine and now, as he lay flat on his back and in pain, he remembered reading about the effects of stress and negative emotions upon body chemistry. It had been established that negative emotions such as hopelessness, despair, anger, frustration, and a sense of helplessness, all had a powerful effect upon the body. It suddenly occurred to Cousins that, if negative emotions could have negative physical effects, then the opposite ought also to be true — love, faith, courage, confidence and laughter ought to have positive effects. To test this out he formulated a plan. He discovered that he was hypersensitive to both painkilling and to anti-inflammatory drugs. And so he decided to use vitamin C to deal with the inflammation and laughter to deal with the pain.
There was nothing funny about lying flat on your back in severe pain, and so Cousins felt that a good place to start might be with funny movies. He watched Candid Camera classics and Marx brothers films, and, as he says in his article, he made an interesting observation:
‘I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.’
In order to give his discovery some scientific credibility he arranged, with the help and support of his personal physician, to have blood samples taken both before and several hours after each bout of laughter. The results showed that there was a physiological improvement and, more important still, it was cumulative. There was one negative side effect of the laughter from the hospital’s point of view — he was disturbing the other patients! He eventually resolved this by moving into a hotel room. It was a long process of recovery for Norman Cousins, but he showed that laughter can play an important part in the healing process. Since he published his account in 1976 the role of laughter in health has been widely studied and researched, and one practical application of the research has been the setting up of a free NHS Laughter Clinic in Britain2. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for Voltaire’s view that the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient whilst nature cures the disease.
To return to the main theme of this article — how can humour help us on our chosen spiritual path? I have already suggested that if we cultivate a sense of humour, a light-hearted approach to life, we can go some way towards seeing through our egocentric view of life, and I would like to explore this in a little more detail.
From a Buddhist point of view, what we call our sense of ‘ego’ is a social fiction, a fabrication of the mind that is continually reinforced by society and its systems. When we observe ‘it’ closely we soon discover that the ego is actually quite selective and can never be a true reflection of our total conscious experience — we create boundaries3. Another way of understanding this is to see the ego as a mental model, a collage of acceptable views, opinions, thoughts and feelings. On careful reflection (through the practice of meditation), what we refer to as ‘I’ or ‘me’ turns out to be nothing more than an imaginary centre of control around which all our thoughts, words and deeds revolve. The aim of Buddhist practice in general, and of methods of meditation in particular, is to help us realize that, in reality, we can open ourselves to life without this illusion of being outside of it all.
To do this it is necessary to pay careful attention to our thoughts and images at the very moment they arise in the mind. The principle of letting go of a habit of thought is very similar to that needed to give up destructive patterns of behaviour such as smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol4. You begin by simply not picking up the next cigarette or alcoholic drink, and then the next, and then the next, and so on. Transcending the habitual patterns of thought and feeling which we call ‘the self or ‘ego’ is accomplished in the same way. We watch as a particular image or idea arises, and then instead of automatically reacting to it (which, of course, simply reinforces it), we let it run its natural course until it ceases to be. In that moment of letting go, of not clinging to old ideas and actions, we may experience liberation from the past. When the clouds of our old habits of thought dissolve, Buddha-nature shines through.
Well, all of this sounds so easy in theory, doesn’t it? In practice we may end up smoking a million cigarettes or swallowing a thousand drinks without once being totally aware of what we are doing. The skill seems to be in being able to extinguish the cigarette, or in putting down the drink, as soon as we notice that we have lapsed into a kind of psychological unconsciousness. Indeed, anyone who sincerely undertakes a spiritual training soon realizes that you cannot control the ego through sheer willpower. The late Alan Watts described the futility of trying to bring the ego under control many times in his lectures and writings. He offers us this advice:
‘Don’t try to get rid of the ego sensation. Take it, as long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation it evaporates like the mirage it is.’5
It would seem, then, that the real tragedy of our ego-bound existence is that we appear totally unable to break free from this unconscious replication of our old habits of thought and behaviour. Is this not a situation totally lacking in humour? And yet humour can emerge in that moment when we recognize the absurdity of trying to live our lives on ‘automatic pilot’. Once we glimpse even a little of the mechanical nature of the ego-mind, an opportunity to transcend it arises. Humour is a rising-above and a stepping-outside of our conventional roles in life. It can help us to go beyond the manufactured images of ourselves, and it can offer us a taste of real freedom.
Perhaps, then, our spiritual practice is the discipline of real humour. Through meditation and other spiritual practices we have an opportunity to become aware of that essential freedom from conditioning, and, of course, we will also see the humour in our failure to realize and sustain that freedom in our daily lives!
Another area in which humour can play an important part in the spiritual life is in the relationship between a teacher and his student. I have mentioned above that behind the apparently stern look of the master, the Buddha within is suppressing a smile. It seems to me that, as Westerners, we have a tendency to take the spiritual journey a little too seriously. And this can create its own problems because if we are unable to see the humour in our predicament we may become the willing victim of a spiritual charlatan, a fake guru.
1. Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins (W.W. Norton & Co. 1979)
2. Laughter: The Best Medicine by Robert Holden (Thorsons 1993)
3. No Boundary by Ken Wilbur (Shambhala 1979)
4. Holy Madness by Georg Feuerstein (Paragon House 1991)
5. The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts (Abacus 1972)
[Dennis Sibley was a co-founder, and until his retirement, chairman of The Buddhist Hospice Trust. He was also editor of its journal Raft. He co-wrote ‘The Early Writings of Alan Watts’ with John Snelling. Sadly Dennis died on 19 April 2016]
From a talk given at the Leicester Buddhist Summer School, 1993.
First published in the November 1993 Buddhism Now.