Thursday, August 25, 2011

Humor and Buddhism

I read a letter in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine that took aim at this discussion, about the role of humor in Buddhist practice. During the discussion, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman speakes about wearing a clown nose during dharma talks and doing other silly things during meditation retreats. Another Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, points out that the old Zen teachings are full of humor, and then recounts a story where Suzuki Roshi shook up a student who was attached to his identity as a vegetarian by flipping meals on him at a restaurant, so that the guy was faced with eating a hamburger. There's a lot of juicy stuff in this conversation, but one of the salient points everyone seems to make is how humor can be a great gateway to liberation.

The author of the letter in response to this discussion apparently felt otherwise. She spoke of there being "a time and place" for humor and antics, but sternly disapproved of any goofing off in the zendo, especially during meditation retreats. I can imagine there are many people out there like her, feeling that we must "be serious" about our practice and all.

It kind of made me sad reading that letter, and got me to thinking about how the "adult story" in general seems almost devoid of play, silliness, and fun. And how "adult humor" so often feels tinged with judgments of others, sarcasm, or excessive displays of wit. Or it's flat out stupid due to predictability, like jokes about stoners, blondes, or other such stereotypically laughed at groups of people.

Furthermore, the letter also brought up the general over-seriousness that I think plagues western convert Buddhist practitioners. Myself included. During a recent Sunday service, our head teacher and the assistant were doing the bowing and incense before the talk, and for whatever reason, it all struck me as humorous. A big smile came to my face, and I felt myself starting to laugh, but then stuffed it at the last second, so as not to "disrupt" the ritual. And then I thought: what was that about?

Anyway, this is kind of the flip side to what happened over at Elephant Journal, and the various other stories that followed it. Humor is tricky stuff. It flops fairly often. And yet, without playfulness, well-placed jokes, and even some antics from time to time, life gets really, really heavy. Like a stone pressed to the bottom of the ocean, instead of rolling with the waves.


David said...

This blog is very green.

Nathan said...

Yeah, it's something new. An experiment.