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Why did the Buddha Cross the Road?

Buddhism and Humour

By Miles Murphy

Q: What did a Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

We don't often associate Buddhism with humour. After all, the principal teaching of Buddhism is suffering, and, at first glance, suffering seems antithetical to humour.

The Buddha is often considered to be the Great Physician - one who has diagnosed our human condition, the ills of our body and our mind (suffering) and who has discovered the cure (Nirvana) and issued a prescription (the noble Eight-fold Path).

Laughter is good medicine. Laughter is known to reduce the level of hormones associated with stress, strengthen the immune system, reduce pain, lower blood pressure, promote muscle relaxation and is a natural anti-depressant.

Laughter helps us to cut through the absurdity of our lives, to realize the truth of our sometimes chaotic, always turbulent and sometimes puzzling existence and get to the heart of the matter. Humour teaches us that appearances are deceiving and upends our ideas about the nature of reality.

A monk on his journey home comes to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he ponders for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he is to give up his journey, he sees a great teacher on the other side of the river. The monk yells over to the teacher, "Oh Master, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?" The teacher ponders for a moment, looks up and down the river and yells back, "You are already on the other side."

This cutting through the fabric of conventional appearance is essential to the practice of Zen Buddhism. In the Zen view, we are already Buddhas, but because ignorance has clouded our view, we have forgotten our original state. What is required, then, is a sudden breakthrough, something to shatter our everyday sleeping state. There are countless anecdotes about how this is achieved. Some are quite amusing:

A young monk brought two potted plants into the monastery's garden while the Zen master looked on. "Drop it," instructed the master. The young monk gently let down one pot. "Drop it," again ordered the master. The monk let go the second pot. "DROP IT!" roared the master. The young monk stammered, "But. I have nothing more to drop." "Then take it away," said the old master, smiling.

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. Reflexively the boy responded by attempting to raise his own (cut off) finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.'

Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, is usually depicted as the laughing Buddha, representing the joy and prosperity that is available to us through practicing the dharma. Buddhism is not a dour path. It is the middle way, the way of balance and moderation. Humour is an essential part of the path. It tells us not to take ourselves too seriously. The Dhammapada says,

"Let us live most happily, possessing nothing; let us feed on joy, like the radiant gods."

The great Zen comic, Woody Allen asked,

"What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet."

Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera, born Peter Betts in London, a Theravadan monk of the Thai Buddhist tradition of Ajhan Cha, uses humour as an essential part of his teaching. In his book, "Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung, Inspiring Stories for Welcoming Life's Difficulties", he tells the story of the "Two Bad Bricks":

"After we purchased the land for our monastery in 1983 we were broke. We were in debt. There were no buildings on the land, not even a shed. Those first few weeks we slept not on beds but on old doors we had bought cheaply from the salvage yard; we raised them on bricks at each corner to lift them off the ground. (There were no mattresses, of course - we were forest monks.)

"The abbot had the best door, the flat one. My door was ribbed with a sizeable hole in the center where the doorknob would have been. I joked that now I wouldn't need to get out of bed to go to the toilet! The cold truth was, however, that the wind would come up through that hole. I didn't sleep much
those nights.

"We were poor monks who needed buildings. We couldn't afford to employ a builder - the materials were expensive enough. So I had to learn how to build: how to prepare the foundations, lay concrete and bricks, erect the roof, put in the plumbing - the whole lot. I had been a theoretical physicist and high-school teacher in lay life, not used to working with my hands. After a few years, I became quite skilled at building, even calling my crew the BBC ("Buddhist Building Company"). But when I started it was very difficult.

"It may look easy to lay a brick: a dollop of mortar underneath, a little tap here, a little tap there. But when I began laying bricks, I'd tap one corner down to make it level and another corner would go up. So I'd tap that corner down then the brick would move out of line. After I'd nudged it back into line, the first corner would be too high again. Hey, you try it!

"Being a monk, I had patience and as much time as I needed. I made sure every single brick was perfect, no matter how long it took. Eventually, I completed my first brick wall and stood back to admire it. It was only then that I noticed- oh no! - I'd missed two bricks. All the other bricks were nicely in line, but these two were inclined at an angle. They looked terrible. They spoiled the whole wall. They ruined it.

"By then, the cement mortar was too hard for the bricks to be taken out, so I asked the abbot if I could knock the wall down and start over again - or, even better, perhaps blow it up. I'd made a mess of it and I was very embarrassed. The abbot said no, the wall had to stay.

"When I showed our first visitors around our fledgling monastery, I always tried to avoid taking them past my brick wall. I hated anyone seeing it. Then one day, some three or four months after I finished it, I was walking with a visitor and he saw the wall'That's a nice wall,' he casually remarked.

" 'Sir,' I replied in surprise, 'have you left your glasses in your car? Are you visually impaired? Can't you see those two bad bricks which spoil the whole wall?'

"What he said next changed my whole view of that wall, of myself, and of many other aspects of life. He said, 'Yes. I can see those two bad bricks. But I can see the 998 good bricks as well.'

"I was stunned. For the first time in over three months, I could see other bricks in that wall apart from the two mistakes. Above, below, to the left and to the right of the bad bricks were good bricks, perfect bricks. Moreover, the perfect bricks were many, many more than the two bad bricks. Before, my eyes would focus exclusively on my two mistakes; I was blind to everything else. That was why I couldn't bear looking at that wall, or having others see it. That was why I wanted to destroy it. Now that I could see the good bricks, the wall didn't look so bad after all. It was, as the visitor had said, 'a nice brick wall.' It's still there now, twenty years later, but I've forgotten exactly where those bad bricks are. I literally cannot see those mistakes any more."

Ajahn Punnadhammo, a Buddhist monk from the same tradition, quotes his teacher Kema Ananda as having once said, "The universe is a huge joke. If you don't find it funny, that's because you haven't reached the punch-line yet."

Did the Buddha have a sense of humour? He tells this enlightening story:

"A traveler, fleeing a tiger who was chasing him, ran till he came to the edge of a cliff. There he caught hold of a thick vine, and swung himself over the edge. Above him the tiger snarled. Below him he heard another snarl, and behold, there was another tiger, peering up at him. The vine suspended him midway between two tigers. Two mice, a white mouse and a black mouse, began to gnaw at the vine. He could see they were quickly eating it through. Then in front of him on the cliff-side he saw a luscious bunch of grapes. Holding onto the vine with one hand, he reached and picked a grape with the other." How delicious!

Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t'ai chi ch'uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition.

See more Miles Murphy articles at

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