Dharma Data: Humour

The Buddha says that the human predicament is a serious one and the task of transcending it as equally serious. In the Dhammapada he says : “When the world is burning why all this giggling and laughter?” However, he did recognise the therapeutic and didactic value of humour and sometimes used it in his discourses. The Pali Tipitaka contains a fairly wide range of humorous elements- witty or droll riposte, puns and amusing comparisons. Many stories in the Jataka are amusing, sometimes even slapstick or ribald. But the Buddha’s intention never seems to be to create laughter for laughter’s sake but to educate, stimulate or to bring a different perspective to a situation.

Humour is not quite so apparent in Mahayana literature but not completely absent. Asvaghosa’s Vajrasuci uses irony and sarcasm to highlight the absurdity of the Hindu caste system, and the Asanga’s Mahayana sutralankara contains a good collection of amusing stories. But it was the Cha’n and Zen schools of China and Japan that used humour extensively, probably initially as a healthy antidote against a Mahayana that was becoming increasingly pompous and rigid in those countries. The very particular humour of Ch’an and Zen is meant to help reconcile oneself to one’s foibles and to keep one’s balance in a difficult world.