Humor in Zen

Humor in Zen: Comic Midwifey

By Conrad Hyers

Philosophy East and West

Volume 39, no. 3

1989 July



“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.”


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 subjects.(2)

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, intestines, 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 laughter 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 samsara, maya, and avidya 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 since.


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, poly-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 upaya, 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 upaya. 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 realization.


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 Nagarjuna–and significantly Nagarjuna is cited as one of the precursors of Zen in dharma succession from the Buddha. Nagarjuna’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 position.

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 frustrtion 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 samsaara.

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 value.”(10)

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 figure.(11)

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 weddings.

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 samsaara, 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 self-forgetting.

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 marvelous 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 perspective.(20)

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, 1989).

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. 30-31.

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.