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Humer in Zen: Comic midwifery


By Conrad Hyers

Philosophy East and West

Volume 39, no. 3

1989 July


(C) by University of Hawaii Press





One of the early Buddhological debates was over the
question of whether the Buddha ever laughed, and if so in
what manner and with what meaning. This debate ranks
somewhat above the celebrated medieval Christian debate over
how many angels could comfortably dance on the head of a
pin. In many respects the Buddhist debate is characteristic
of scholasticism wherever it may be found, yet it has very
important consequences–so important that they affect the
way in which the whole of Buddhism is perceived, conceived,
and actually lived and practiced.

There were those among the Buddhist scholastics who
clearly would have preferred to believe that the Buddha
never laughed at all, especially after his enlightenment
experience at Bodhgaya. The Buddha’s wisdom and the Buddha’s
mission seemed to require the ultimate in seriousness,
gravity, and solemnity.

There was no objection to the suggestion that the

youthful Siddhartha Gautama had laughed during his

self-indulgent period in his father’s palace. In

fact, laughter might well be seen as a

characteristic expression of the frivolity and

sensuality of his early life, prior to his discovery

of the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths.

Laughter seems inextricably bound up with the young

Gautama’s self-indulgence and with the very sources

of suffering later identified by the Buddha as ego,

desire, attachment, ignorance, bondage, and so

forth. Relative to the fundamental problem of

suffering (dukkha), laughter seems to represent the

hollow, superficial, and finally empty levity of

momentary delight (sukhu), foolishly evading and

ignoring the deeper issues of life and death.(1)


Such misgivings over the association of laughter

and humor with serious and especially sacred

concerns are by no means peculiar to Buddhist

scholastics. The German philosopher G. F. Meier

offered a warning on the subject that expresses

sentiments that criss-cross centuries and cultures:


We are never to jest on or with things which, on

account of their importance or weight, claim our

utmost seriousness. There are things… so great and

important in themselves, as never to be thought of

and mentioned but with much sedateness and

solemnity. Laughter on such occasions is criminal

and indecent…. For instance, all jests on

religion, philosophy, and the like important



The association of laughter and humor with the

lower, sensual regions is also very common. Western

medieval physiology determined that the seat of

laughter is the spleen.(3) This not very

intellectually or spiritually promising location

likely derived from the abdominal associations of

laughter, which seems to well up from some dark,

abysmal region. Laughter belongs, it seems, to the

lower levels of our being, in association with the

stomach, intes-




tines, sex organs, and bladder. This seems further

verified inasmuch as three of the most common topics

of comic conversation are the earthen trinity of

food, sex, and evacuation. Even words of praise and

commendation relative to laughter and humor often

place the comic sensibility on this mundane and

sensual level, as in the encomium offered by

Gottlieb Hufeland:


Laughter is one of the most important helps to

digestion with which we are jesters and buffoons,

was founded on true medical principles… for the

nourishment received amid mirth and jollity is

productive of light and healthy blood.(4)


Given such earthy associations, and the common

assumption that lauehter does not belong in holy

places or serious disputations, it is understandable

that the Buddhist scholastics might have preferred

to disassociate the Buddha entirely from laughter in

his post-enlightenment life and teaching. The

difficulty is that some sutras seem to suggest, if

not state outright, that on such and such an

occasion the Buddha laughed.


The scholastic attempt at resolving the apparent

contradiction between laughter and an enlightened

state began by distinguishing between six types of

laughter. The classification appears to have derived

from the fourth-century C.E. Indian theatrical

treatise of Bharata, who had arranged the spectrum

of smiling through laughter in hierarchical fashion

from the most reserved expressions to the most

raucous. The context of Bharata’s discussion was an

identification of the various types of laughter

deemed appropriate in dramatic acting, as people of

different status in society were being portraved.


On Bharata’s dramatic scale, the highest and

noblest form of laughter is sita, a faint

smile–serene, subtle, and refined. The next highest

is hasita, a smile which slightly reveals the tips

of the teeth. The third type is vihasita, a broader

smile accompanied by modest laughter. The fourth is

upahasita, a more pronounced laughter associated

with a movement of the head, shoulders, and arms.

The fifth is apahasita, loud laughter that brings

tears to the eyes. And the sixth is atihasita,

uproarious laughter accompanied by doubling over,

slapping the thights, “rolling in the aisles.” and

the like. It was understood by Bharata–and

recommended accordingly–that only the first two,

most restrained forms of laughter were appropriate

to the higher castes and to people in authority; the

middle two categories were typical of people of

middling rank, ability, and importance; while the

last two were characteristic of the lower castes and

people of an uruly and uncouth character.(5)


Given this hierarchical schema it is predictable

that the Buddhist scholastics would incline to the

view that the Buddha had only indulged in sita, the

most reserved, tranquil, and circumspect form of

laughter–actually, in terms of the English word, no

laughter at all. only a barely perceptible smile.

Sita is the level at which one approaches the

spiritual, the transcendent, and the sublime. It is

manifested by the Buddha at all only because he is

standing at the




threshold between the unenlightened and the

enlightened, like the yogic state of bhavamukha

where one sees with both physical and spiritual

sight. The Buddha sees the juxtaposition and the

contradiction of the unenlightened and enlightened

states. From this vantage point the world of

sa^msaara, maayaa, and avidyaa has the appearance of

a comedy or “ship of fools,” as the Buddha looks

back upon the folly of the unenlightened. Relative

to this world the Buddha “laughs” in the exalted

sense of sita. This is the gist of the view that

prevailed among the Buddhist scholastics, and has

persisted by and large throughout the Buddhist world





With this historical setting and predisposition in

mind, what is especially striking about the Zen

Buddhist tradition, in both its Chinese and Japanese

forms, is that in its literature, art, and religious

practice, what one often encounters is the opposite

of sita, namely, the fifth and sixth and supposedly

lowest levels of laughter, offered both as authentic

expressions of Buddhist enlightenment and evidence

of the authenticity of the enlightenment. In Zen,

Bharata’s aristocratic and spiritualistic schema

seems abruptly to have been stood on its head.


Zen anecdotal records contain frequent reference

to “loud roaring laughter”: of the master in

response to a foolish statement by a monk, or of a

monk in experiencing a breakthrough to

enlightenment, or of the master in attempting to

precipitate such an experience. In the Zen anecdotal

records, too, there are many tales in which the

master is depicted behaving in ways we might

associate with clowns or fools. Seppo was noted for

his three wooden balls, which he would roll about in

response to questions. Baso and Rinzai were both

noted for their shouting and their use of a “lion’s

roar.” Baso once shouted at a monk so loudly that he

was deafened for three days–but also enlightened.

Gutei was noted for responding to questions by

lifting up a finger (the records do not say which

finger). The Soto master Ryokan intentionally took

that name because it means “Great Fool,” and he was

noted for his odd behavior and Zen foolishness. Zen

anecdotes from both China and Japan are replete wtih

tales of eccentric acts and seemingly foolish

sayings or responses, from Joshu’s sandals on his

head to Nansen’s killing the cat to Gutei’s

amputation of the finger of an attendant who

imitated his one-finger Zen.


In Zen art, too–supposedly religious art–one

often finds figures of Zen zanies, such as Kanzan

and Jittoku, or the dancing, pot-bellied Hotel, or

the Three Laughing Sages. Such figures seem more

raucous than reverential, Kanzan and Jittoku were

Zen monks of the seventh century, one an eccentric

poet and the other simply foolish, who are not only

commonly depicted in Zen art but depicted laughing

hilariously with the fifth or sixth degree of

laughter on Bharata’s barometer-laughing in the full

freedom of laughter and laughing as if privy to some

cosmic joke. Another favorite of the Zen





artist has been Hotel, whose Chinese name, Pu-tai,

literally means “linen sack.” He was a jolly,

rly-poly monk of the tenth century who traveled

from village to village, playing with children,

bringing them trinkets and sweetmeats in his sack,

like an Oriental Santa Claus, and otherwise using

his sack as a sleeping bag. Yet another favorite

theme has been the Three Laughing Sages. The

reference is to the story of a Taoist hermit who for

thirty years had faithfully kept a solemn vow never

to cross a mountain stream that separated him from

the “world,” but when he was accompanying two

visiting hermits on their departure, he was so

enthralled with their conversation that he

inadvertently walked across the stream with them,

whereupon all three burst out in hearty laughter.


Observations such as these once led D. T. Suzuki

to claim that “Zen is the only religion or teaching

that finds room for laughter.”(6) While that is an

exaggeration, the suggestion of a prominent place

being given to laughter, humor, and the comic

perspective in the Zen tradition warrants a closer

look, particularly in view of the limited place

assigned to these by Buddhist scholasticism. This

essay will focus upon two related functions of humor

in Zen, as examples of ways in which the Zen

tradition self-consciously employed and developed

humor: (1) humor as a technique for reversing and

collapsing categories, and (2) humor as a technique

for embracing opposites. In the conclusion, a

non-functional level of humor will be discussed: (3)

humor as an expression of enlightenment, liberation,

and inner harmony.(7)


First, a word about humor as a spiritual

technique. Buddhism recognizes a variety of methods,

called upaaya, which are an accommodation to the

condition and needs of the person and the context in

which the teaching is delivered. So if one requires

a justification for the presence of humor in Zen,

one may call it a species of upaaya. Some forms of

humor in Zen, furthermore, may be seen as instances

of the “direct pointing” and “sudden realization”

methods emphasized in Zen, especially the Southern

School and its Rinzai branch. Enlightenment may be

likened here to “getting the point of a joke”–a

sudden insight breaking into consciousness (kenzsho)

and a sudden release of the tensions produced by

ego, desire. attachment, and ignorance (satori). One

sees the foolishness of these sources of suffering

and experiences a sense of freedom from their grasp.


From this perspective, humor in Zen is often a

kind of comic midwifery in the Socratic sense of a

technique for precipitating (or provoking) an inner

realization of the truth. Zen shares, with the

Socratic view, in a doctrine of recollection: that

the teacher does not deliver the truth as a stork

might be thought to deliver a baby, but in the sense

that a midwife comes to deliver the baby. That is,

enlightenment, and its wisdom and compassion, come

not from without but from within. Humor in this

context is one of a variety of maeutic techniques

(upaaya) that might be effective in bringing the

Buddha-dharma to conscious awareness and existential








A Zen anecdote that has been circulating recently

tells of a contemporary Zen master who lay dying.

His monks had all gathered around his bed, from the

most senior to the most novice monk. The senior monk

leaned over to ask the dying master if he had any

final words of advice for his monks. The old master

slowly opened his eyes and in a weak voice

whispered. “Tell them Truth is like a river.” The

senior monk passed this bit of wisdom in turn to the

monk next to him, and it circulated around the room.

When the words reached the youngest monk he asked,

“What does he mean.’Truth is like a river’?” The

question was passed back around the room to the

senior monk who leaned over the bed and asked,

“Master, what do you mean, ‘Truth is like a river’?”

Slowly the master opened his eyes and in a weak

voice whispered, “O.K., Truth is not like a river.”


There are some immediate similarities between

the humorous effect of this anecdote and the logical

method of Naagaarjuna–and significantly Naagaarjuna

is cited as one of the precursors of Zen in dharma

succession from the Buddha. Naagaarjuna’s method may

be seen as an attempt to demonstrate the equivalence

of alternative philosophical positions and.

countering each by the other, to reduce alternative

philosophical positions to an absurdity. The intent

is not to show that existence is absurd after the

manner of the French existentialists, but to point

up the absurdity in trying to grasp after and cling

to reality by means of this or that philosophical



The humor in this Zen anecdote is an example of

reducing a line of inquiry to an absurdity so that

one is jolted into moving beyond the boxes and

labels within which one hopes to capture and

incarcerate reality. Perhaps thereby will be

effected a direct and immediate realization of the

truth which is beyond nama and ruupa (name and

form). The function of the humor here is analogous

to the frustration of reason and intellection in the

koan–as in Hakuin’s “What is the sound of one hand

clapping? ” Or Joshu’s “Does a dog have

Buddha-nature?”–where one expects the answer from

any food Mahaayaanist to be “Yes,” yet Joshu answers

“No” (wu/mu). If one had expected the answer to be

“No,” Joshu would likely have responded “Yes.”


One Zen mondo has a monk asking, “Where is the

Buddha now?” The anticipated answer would be, “The

Buddha is in Nirvaana.” The answer given. however,

is: “The Buddha is taking a shit!” Master Sengai,

noted for his many humorous sketches and

caricatures, produced a sumi-e entitled. “The

One Hundred Days’ Teaching of the Dharma.” The

sketch, however, does not depict the Buddha soberly

instructing his disciples, but rather a naked little

boy leaning over, farting! Another of Sengai’s

sketches shows a bullfrog sitting, as if in

meditation, but with a smirk on his face. The

accompanying calligraphy reads: “If by sitting in

meditation one becomes a Buddha…” (then all frogs

are Buddhas).(8)




Santayana argued that at the heart of the comic

lies a confusion of categories, ordinarily kept

distinct, like applying the formulae of theology to

cooking, or employing the recipes of cooking in

theology.(9)Humor delivers something very different

from one’s expectations–the comic surprise. In the

process, humor breaks down the categories with which

we would divide up experience into such dualities as

sacred and profane, sublime and ordinary, beauty and

ugliness, and even and sa^msaara.


In fact, a major emphasis in Zen life and

teaching is upon this kind of reversal in which not

only are opposite terms interchanged, but often one

of these terms is very lofty and the object of

desire, while the other is lowly and the object of

the desire to avoid. A monk once asked Sozan, “What

is the most prized thing in all the world?” Sozan

answered, “A dead cat.” The surprised monk

exclaimed, “Why is a dead cat to be prized at all?”

Sozan replied, “Because no one thinks of its



In such comic reversals all categories are

turned upside down, and thus relativized and finally

collapsed. The prize is given to the ugliest man in

town; fools are declared wise; a child is named pope

for the day; Buddhas are found in bullfrogs. The

effect is that of challenging the whole valuational

structure of the discriminating mind, like the fool

who spurns a proffered diamond and picks up a common

pebble instead, admiring and fondling it as if it

were the most precious of stones.




A closely related function of humor in Zen is that

of embracing and uniting opposites. There is a kind

of humor which separates one thing from another and

elevates one group over another–as is the case with

racist and sexist and ethnic jokes. But the uses of

humor in Zen have an opposite intention. Zen humor

moves toward inclusiveness and nonduality.


There is a surprising correlation here between

Zen humor and the traditional symbolism and effect

of the clown. One of the specialties of the clown

figure has been the embracing and uniting of

opposites. Sometimes this is played out by a clown

due. as in the European circus where the white-faced

clown, with graceful movement and gorgeous attire,

is juxtaposed with the bumbling Auguste, wearing

disheveled and mismatched clothing. Sometimes this

is played out by a single clown, who incarnates

opposites in solo paradoxicality. Chaplin is one of

the best known modern examples of this comic

capacity. In the role that he played through most of

his film career, the Tramp, the secret of the

popularity and profundity of that ambiguous figure

was that he was not simply a tramp but a Gentleman

Tramp. Chaplin had ingeniously put together the

bowler hat, dress coat, and walking cane of the

English aristocracy with the baggy pants and floppy

shoes of the gutter bum. In this way he embraced and

united in a single image the top and the bottom of

the social order. He was both gentleman and tramp

and neither gentleman




nor tramp. One minute he would stand tall, put on

airs and social graces, and order people about, and

the next minute he would be groveling in the dust,

awkward and uncouth, meekly kowtowing to everyone or

hiding behind women and children. In terms of

Bharata’s theatrical classifications. Chaplin as

clown figure contained both sita and atihasita. He

embraced and united the whole human spectrum in a

humorously schizophrenic yet marvelously singular



Zen humor functions in this way–as in the case

of the Chinese monk who wore a Buddhist robe, a

Confucian hat, and Taoist sandals as a way of

breaking out of religious stereotypes and labels,

confusing and confounding fixed identities, and

symbolizing thereby some higher unity of the Chinese

traditions.(12)Reality, Truth, Wisdom–these cannot

be imprisoned in the pigeonholes of ordinary

consciousness, which aims to understand by the

method of divide and conquer.


The following is not a Zen story, but it is

revealing of this comic capacity for uniting not

only opposites but opposites perceived as being in

irreconcilable opposition, and thus of the utility

of the comic perspective in pointing toward a

nondualistic perspective. In Mexico there are two

cities which have disputed between themselves for

some time their rival claims to the bones of the

national revolutionary hero, Benito Juarez. The two

skeletons were examined by experts, and in the

process it was noted that one skeleton was larger

than the other. This observation eventually led a

wit to propose an amicable resolution of the

disputed claims. The suggestion made was that the

larger skeleton was indeed that of Juarez when he

died of apoplexy at the age of 66. The smaller

skeleton was that of Juarez at the age of thirteen!


This is a Zen solution. And it is not unlike a

koanic enigma and its solution. While taken

literally the proposed compromise might not have

provided an enduring solution, it nevertheless

illustrates the comic impulse and its difference

from the tragic impulse. The tragic impulse is to

separate things out from each other, carefully

discriminating one thing from another, often in

terms of opposites. The tragic mentality is not only

dualistic, but radically dualistic, to the point of

dividing reality into opposites which are placed in

opposition. Thus out of the history of tragedy (both

in the theater and in real life) comes the tragic

collision, the agon as the Greeks called it, between

protagonists and antagonists. Forces are pitted

against one another, with both sides dedicated to a

stubborn and unyielding defense of their principles,

if need be to the last soldier, and unwilling to

seek compromise or accommodation–not even to see

truth, beauty, and goodness in the other side.


Comedies, on the other hand, tend toward

inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness,

reconciliation rather than rigid and militant

polarization. Shakespeare’s tragedies, for example,

end in death and destruction as the forces in

collision produce a vicious cycle of mutual

annihilation. Shakespeare’s comedies, on the other

hand, end with parties reconciled, with marriages,




feasts, and celebrations. Similarly in ancient

Greece, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone place

principles, laws, and persons in increasingly

irreconcilable conflict, the culmination of which

can only be alienation, despair, and mutual or

self-destruction. while Aristophanes’ Lysistrata,

which begins with two cities that have been in

interminable warfare (Athens and Sparta?), by the

end of the play has the soldiers of both cities

abandoning the futile fray for the bedrooms of wives

and lovers. Hence, the familiar dictum that

tragedies end in funerals while comedies end in



By comparison with the tragic vision of life Zen

may be said to be fundamentally comic. The Zen uses

of humor share the comic inclination to move toward

reducing tensions, overcoming conflicts, and

including opposites sites in some larger unity. In

so doing, Zen reflects both the traditional Indian

Buddhist critique of dualism and the Chinese vision

of a harmony of opposites, as in the yang/yin

cosmology. In Zen the Chinese dragon smiles and the

Indian Buddha roars with laughter.




It would be remiss, however, to present Zen humor

only as a technique, an upaaya. There is a higher,

nonfunctional level of humor where humor exists for

itself and not just in the service of some other

end. This level is, in fact, the logical conclusion

of the two functions of humor that have been

discussed, since they are aimed at collapsing

categories and uniting opposites. Humor as a

technique is an expression of tension, of the

tensions created by dualities, discriminations, and

oppositions of various sorts, In Buddhistic terms,

these tensions are in turn the result of forces such

as ego, desire, attachment, ignorance, and bondage.

But humor at its highest and fullest is an

expression of liberation and freedom. It arises, not

out of inner tension. but inner harmony. It arises,

not out of the illusions of maayaa or the ignorance

of avidyaa or the graspings and clingings of

sa^msaara, but out of the awakenings of bodhi.


This is clearly the most dynamic and

self-contained form of humor, It does not proceed

from a position of weakness, but of strength. It

moves with a force that flows from unity rather than

conflict and strife, from wholeness rather than

division and alienation. Such humor is the laughter

of enlightenment and liberation, as in the case of

the Chinese monk, Shui-lao, whose master kicked him

in the chest, resulting in a satori. Afterwards the

monk said. “Ever since the master kicked me in the

chest I have been unable to stop laughing.”(13)


Something of this spirit is reflected in the

story of the late Zen master Taji, who lay dying.

One of his disciples, recalling the fondness the

roshi had for a certain cake, went in search of some

in the bake shops of Tokyo. After some time he

returned with the delicacy for the master, who

smiled a feeble smile of appreciation and began

nibbling at it. Later as the master grew visibly

weaker, his disciples asked if he had any departing

words of wisdom or




advice. Taji said, “Yes.” As they drew closer, so as

not to miss the faintest syllable, Taji whispered,

“My, but this cake is delicious.” With those words

he died.(14)


Here is neither a cynical humor, born of

resignation and despair, nor a defiant humor, making

some last gesture of rebellion against the

meaninglessness of life, “head bloody, but unbowed”

(W. E. Henley). Nor is this a sarcastic and bitter

humor, mocking the disruption or cessation of the

“best-laid schemes of mice and men” (R. Burns). The

spirit is quite different. This is a humor of

acceptance, a final “yes” to the opportunity of

life, albeit transient. It expresses the joy of

life, and of the smallest particulars of life,

without at the same time frantically clutching after

life. As Master Dogen said: “In life identify

yourslf with life, at death with death. Abstain from

yielding and craving. Life and death constitute the

very being of Buddha….You must neither loathe one

nor covet the other.”(15) From this perspective we

may speak of a humor of non-ego and non-attachment,

which is therefore free to embrace death as well as

life, the Buddha along with a mouthful of cake.


One of the scholastics with which this essay

began, Buddhadatta, argued in his Abhidhammaavataara

that while the Buddha did smile (sita), the source

of his smile was the degraded (anulaara). not the

subtle (anolaarika) , that is, the folly of

unenlightened perception and behavior, from the

vantage point of enlightenment.(16) Yet the source

of such a smile must be larger than this, in fact

primarily the subtlety and subliminity of the

positive truth now perceived (anolaarika) rather

than the negative truths of suffering which one now

understands retrospectively (anulaara). The Buddha’s

smile is born of higher understanding and true

liberation. It is first and foremost the smile of

wisdom, not a smile over ignorance.


To speak otherwise is to make of the Buddha’s

laughter a laughter of superiority relative to the

inferiority of those still caught within maayaa,

avidyaa, and sa^msaara. This would place Buddhist

humor on the level of the Hobbesian definition of

humor: “a sense of glory arising from a sudden

conception of some eminency in ourselves by

comparison with the infirmity of others.”(17)

Buddhadatta’s laughter over the degraded, in itself,

would be the laughter of pride in one’s superiority

and therefore would stand in contradiction to the

supposed insight into and release from the bondage

of ego, desire, and attachment that is associated

with enlightenment. Laughter at one’s former

ignorance is one thing, but laughter over the

ignorance of others expands and reinforces one’s

pride. Even laughter at one’s former foolishness is

only part way to the true humility of



The great Rinzai master Hakuin says in his

Orategama that, following his first satori at the

age of twenty-four, his sense of elation soon turned

into self-congratulatory pride. “My pride soared up

like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged

forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself:

‘In the past two or three hundred years no one could

have accomplished such a mar-




velous breakthrough as this.'” Confident in his

attainment, he then sought out his master Shoju to

tell of his glorious enlightenment. Shoju was not as

impressed and, after testing him with a koan,

twisted Hakuin’s nose and said to him: “You poor

hole-dwelling devil! Do you think somehow that you

have sufficient understanding?” After this incident

Hakuin reports: “almost every time he saw me, the

Master called me a ‘poor hole-dwelling devil.'”(18)


Much later (and wiser) , Hakuin painted a

self-portrait. He was now a roshi in his own right

and with a growing reputation. Instead of presenting

himself in the idealized form of an enlightened one,

or even in the realistic image of an austere zenji,

Hakuin sketched himself as a bald, fat, cross-eyed,

hunchbacked old man. The poem which he inscribed

above the self-portrait is even more revealing:


In the realm of the thousand buddhas

He is hated by the thousand buddhas;

Among the crowd of demons

He is detested by the crowd of demons …

This filthy blind old shavepate

Adds more ugliness to ugliness.(19)


There is yet another dimension to this highest

level of laughter and humor, and that is compassion

(karu.naa). Here one sees the marvelous unity of

wisdom and compassion, so emphasized in the

Mahaayaana ideal of the Bodhisattva. Humor in this

context not only expresses a higher knowledge which

sees through the foolishness of the desiring self;

it also expresses a benevolent compassion toward all

those caught within the vanities and anxieties of

that foolishness. The “passionate inwardness”

(Kierkegaard) of the seeker becomes the

compassionate inwardness of the finder. As Lama

Govinda has expressed it:


The Buddha’s sense of humour–which is so

evident in many of his discourses–is closely bound

up with his sense of compassion; both are born from

an understanding of greater connections, from an

insight into the interrelatedness of all things and

all living beings and the chain reactions of cause

and effect. His smile is the expression of one who

can see the “wondrous play of ignorance and

knowledge” against its universal background and its

deeper meaning. Only thus is it possible not to be

overpowered by the misery of the world, or by our

own sense of righteousness that judges and condemns

what is not in accordance with our own

understanding, and divides the world into good and

bad. A man with a sense of humour cannot but be

compassionate in his heart, because his sense of

proportion allows him to see things in their proper



Such humor goes beyond Buddhadatta’s laughter over

the degraded (anulaara) or even the joyful laughter

of one who has found wisdom (anolaarika); it is the

laughter of compassion, which seeks the

enlightenment of others and their liberation.

Otherwise one’s own supposed insight into and

freedom from ego, desire, attachment, and ignorance

would be a self-contradictory hypocrisy.




A contemporary Ch’an master, Hsuan Hua,

concluded his talk at the end of a sesshin, or week

of intensive meditation:


Now we have finished, Everyone stand and we will

bow to the Buddha three times to thank him. We thank

him, because even if we did not have a great

enlightenment. we had a small enlightenment. If we

did not have a small enlightenment, at least we

didn’t get sick. If we got sick, at least we didn’t

die, So let’s thank the Buddha.(21)




1. Shwe Zan Aung, The Compendium of Philosophy,

a translation of the Abhidhammattha-Sangaha, rev.

and ed. by Mrs. Rhys Davids (London: Luzac, 1910).

pp. 22-25.


2. Georg Friedrich Meier, Thoughts on Jesting

(1794), ed. Joseph Jones (Austin: University of

Texas Press, 1947), pp. 55-56.


3. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus

Rerum 5.41.61.


4. Cited in Conrad Hyers, The Comic Vision (New

York: Pilgrim Press, 1981), p. 20.


5. Bharata, Naatya Shaastra VI, vv 61-62.

Cf. Shwe Zan Aung, Compendium, pp. 22-25.


6. D. T. Suzuki, Sengai, The Zen Master (New

York: New York Graphic Society, 1971), p. 147.


7. For a fuller discussion of the issues, see

Conrad Hyers, The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic

Spirit (Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood Academic Press,



8. For a reproduction and discussion of a number

of Sengai sketches, see D. T. Suzuki, Sengai, The

Zen Master.


9. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (New

York: Scribner’s, 1986), p. 188.


10. Charles Luk, Ch’an and Zen Teaching (London:

Rider and Co., 1961), vol. 2, pp. 171-172.


11. For an interpretation of the clown in its

Western context, and of Chaplin in particular, see

Conrad Hyers, The Comic Vision, chaps. 3 and 9.


12. Charles Luk, Ch’an and Zen Teaching (London:

Rider and Co., 1960), vol. 1,p. 144.


13. John C. H. Wu, The Golden Age of Zen

(Taipei: National War College, 1967), p. 100.


14. Philip Kapleau ed., The Wheel of Death (New

York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 67.


15. Ibid.,p.9.


16. Shwe Zan Aung, Compendium, p. 26.


17. Cf. Conrad Hyers, The Comic Vision, pp.



18. Hakuin Zenji, Orategama, in Philip

Yampolsky, The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 118.

For a fuller discussion of conversion experiences in

Zen, see Conrad Hyers. Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen:

The Rinzai and Soto Schools of Japan (Wolfeboro.

N.H.: Longwood Publishing Group, 1988), chapters 1

and 2.


19. Isshuu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Zen

Dust: The History of the Koan and Koan-Study in

Rinzai (Lin-chi) Zen (New York: Harcourt, Brace and

World, 1966), pp. 124-125.


20. Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White

Clouds (London: Hutchinson, 1956), p. 177.


21. Vajra Bodhi Sea 1, no. 3 (October 1979): 40.

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