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Zen Humour

Warming Up

Zen has little to do with weeping . . . Let us assume then that Zen has a vital connection with bumour. - R. H. Blyth, 1959, 87

Zen writings abound in anecdotes that stimulate the diaphragm. - R. H. Blyth, 1959, 89

Enlightenment is frequently accompanied by laughing of a transcendental kind, which may further be described as a laughter of surprised approval. The approval is continuous. - R. H. Blyth, 1959, 89

The abruptness of humour and enlightenment is too obvious to need anything but an abrupt mention. - R. H. Blyth, 1959, 91

On Levels of Laughter

The fourth-century Indian theatrical treatise of Bharata arranged the spectrum of smiling through laughter from top and downwards. On this dramatic scale, the highest form of showing mirth is sita.

  1. Sita, a faint smile – serene, subtle, and refined.
  2. Hasita, a smile which slightly reveals the tips of the teeth.
  3. Vihasita, a broader smile accompanied by modest laughter.
  4. Upahasita, a more pronounced laughter associated with a movement of the head, shoulders, and arms.
  5. Apahasita, loud laughter that brings tears to the eyes.
  6. Atihasita, uproarious laughter accompanied by doubling over, slapping the thighs, "rolling in the aisles", and the like.

Some thinks that the Buddha "laughs" in the exalted sense of sita. This view prevailed among Buddhist scholastics, and has persisted throughout the Buddhist world since. But some sutras (texts and/or verses) suggest that on such and such an occasion Buddha laughed. (Hyers, 1989)

Inclusiveness too, in a not too Rigid Tradition

In the Zen tradition's literature, art, and religious practice one often comes across the opposite of sita, namely, the fifth and sixth and supposedly lowest and most vulgar [bodily enriched] levels of laughter, and these outlets of mirth are offered both as authentic expressions of Buddhist enlightenment and evidence of the authenticity of the enlightenment. This can be seen in the light of that Zen humour moves toward inclusiveness and nonduality.

Some forms of humour in Zen, furthermore, may be seen as instances of the "direct pointing'' and "sudden realisation" methods emphasised in Zen, . . . 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 (called satori). Then one experiences a sense of freedom. An example:

Charlie Chaplin once 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. Up till then, no one saw much value in such outfit and conduct. You may say he included more than both separately, and his outfit and acts contributed to comic relief and laughter.

Comedies at large tend toward inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, reconciliation rather than rigid and militant polarisation. Also, humour may deliver something very different from one's initial expectations.

Handy humour may be used to release cramped persons and perhaps cramped conditions. The Soto master Ryokan (Great Fool) was noted for his odd behaviour and Zen foolishness. Reality, Truth, Wisdom may not be imprisoned in the pigeonholes of ordinary consciousness, and one may be hindered in experiencing them by too rigid and narrow categories. (2)

In Zen and Taoism many categories of the common man and woman are turned upside down or reversed. Effects of that may well challenge the ranking business of the discriminating mind. In a similar vein Santayana argues that at the heart of the comic lies a confusion of categories. And in the Zen anecdotal records, there are many tales in which the master is depicted behaving in ways we might associate with clowns or fools.
      There are some known, related functions of humour in Zen, as examples of ways in which the Zen tradition self-consciously employ humour:

  1. As a technique for reversing and collapsing categories.
  2. As a technique for embracing opposites.
  3. As an expression of enlightenment, liberation, and inner harmony. From this perspective, humour in Zen is often a kind of comic midwifery in the Socratic sense. (4)

There may be a good correlation here between certain aspects of Zen humour and the traditional work and effect of a clown.

Humour As an Expression of Liberation

Lama Anargarika Govinda once wrote:

Buddha's sense of humour – which is so evident in many of his discourses – is closely bound up with his sense of compassion [...] His smile is the expression of one who can see the "wondrous play of ignorance and knowledge'' against its universal background."

Such humour goes beyond Buddhadatta's laughter over the degraded or even the joyful laughter of one who has found wisdom; it is the laughter of compassion, which seeks the enlightenment of others and their liberation. Humour in this context can give vent to a higher knowledge which sees through much worldly foolishness; and it may help in preserving higher knowledge too. This type of humour is of enlightenment and liberation. Here is an example:

The master of the Chinese monk Shui-lao kicked him in the chest, and it resulted in a satori [enlightenment]. Afterwards the monk said,

"Ever since the master kicked me in the chest I have been unable to stop laughing." (Blyth 1959, 93)

Also, a humour of detachment and overview may fit.

Most facets of humour may give vent to and thus express tension, yet 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. (2)

"Humour at its highest and fullest is an expression of liberation and freedom. it arises, not out of inner tension, but inner harmony. It arises . . . out of the awakenings of bodhi ..." - Conrad Hyers. [Italics added] (3)

Such humour does not proceed from a position of weakness, but of strength.

There is also room for humour in warm acceptance, in one's "yes" to the opportunities of life and the joy (exuberance) of living, and of the smallest particulars. (4)

There is yet another dimension to this highest level of laughter and humour, and that is compassion. A man with a sense of humour cannot but be much compassionate inside.

Why is Zen a special Buddhist "art" of expressing the Prajna-Truth? . . . Zen is an "art" in the sense that, to express itself, it follows its own intuitions and inspirations . . . Zen Masters [also] preach . . . with their hands and legs, with symbolic signals, or with concrete actions. They shout, strike, and push, and when questioned they sometimes run away, or simply keep their mouths shut and pretend to be dumb. Such antics . . . can best be described as "art." [It] is applied, roughly speaking, for four different purposes:
  1. To bring the individual disciple to direct Enlightenment.
  2. To illustrate a certain Buddhist teaching.
  3. To express the Zen humor and wit.
  4. To test the depth and genuineness of the disciple's understanding and realization.
(Garma Chang, The Practice of Zen, 1970, 26-27)


Zen humour, Humour in Zen Buddhism, Literature  

Blyth, Reginald H. 1959. Oriental Humour. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press.

Chang, Garma C. C. 1970. The Practice of Zen. Perennial ed. New York: Harper and Row.

Critchley, Simon. 2002. On Humour. London: Routledge.

Hyers, Conrad. "Humer in Zen: Comic midwifery." Philosophy East and West, Vol. 39, no. 3. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Lippitt, John. 1991. Philosophical Perspectives on Humour and Laughter. Durham theses, Durham University. Online:

Palmer, Jerry. 2004. Taking Humour Seriously. London: Routledge.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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