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Irreverent humour is reasonably well-tolerated in some sections of modern society. For instance, jokes about the pope and about pastors' wives are fairly widespread among even church-going Christians. There are also plenty of God and Devil jokes.

What, if any, role does humour play in Buddhism? Are jokes about The Buddha, or Buddhist gurus and their disciples taboo or in bad taste? If so, what is the basis for this? Is humour discouraged for reasons such as, say, retarding progress towards Nirvana? Are such jokes considered against Vinaya?

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    It depends on the culture (some of the Zen stories sound irreverent) but see for example these doctrines about Right Speech. – ChrisW Sep 10 '15 at 9:34
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    Putting a side the question on how buddhists regard humor (which indeed is very hard to give a good answer without it being mere opinion), there is a very precise question here about humor in the vinaya. Plus, there are mentions about proper humor reactions in the suttas (and actual traces of humorous remarks as well) and like @ChrisW said, Zen has a long history of irreverence. – Thiago Sep 10 '15 at 16:56
  • @ThiagoSilva Do you want to edit this, then, or ask a different/new question? If you're thinking of editing this one, do you have a question in mind about irreverent humour, specifically? – ChrisW Sep 11 '15 at 0:53
  • well I was going to answer that mocking humour and parody play an important role in the Pāḷi Canon, a feature which Prof Richard Gombrich has spent decades working on. The Buddha often uses such humour against Brahmins. And so on. Surely this question can be answered also by referencing news stories about public figures who are Buddhists. I've seen much vaguer questions be asked and answered. I would say that more than half the answers offered take the form of uninformed opinion. I wish some action would take on that front. – Jayarava Sep 12 '15 at 7:56
  • @Jayarava, this question has been re-opened in a slightly edited form if you'd still like to answer. Be well. – Robin111 Sep 13 '15 at 13:03
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+50

As ChrisW said, there are numerous examples of humor and irreverence in Zen lore.

However, unlike most of the jokes about e.g. Christianity which are often said without a wholesome purpose, or sometimes with the objective of pointing out an inconsistency in Christian declared values vs. practice, in Buddhism all activities, including jokes, are 100% subordinated to the primary goal.

Before you can understand the role of jokes in Zen Buddhism, you should understand the crucial role of attachments as obstacles to enlightenment. (I think you are very close to this already, since you have a natural antipathy to superstitions, unexamined beliefs, and rigid/stubborn adherence to subjective points of view & philosophical abstractions.)

While I can't give justice to this topic in one short answer, the idea is that attachments both bias the mind off an ideal objective basis AND lead onto dangerous and often harmful pursuits AND constitute the necessary condition of suffering due to a mismatch between "how is" and "how should be" (the target of attachment).

The traditional Buddhist device against an attachment is known as an antidote. Often antidote takes form of an object opposite to the target of attachment. For example, when attachment is to sexual pleasures, the antidote is contemplation of decomposing corpses. When attachment is to negative attitude towards society, the antidote is generation of loving-kindness, etc. Which leads us to the role of humor as an antidote to attachment to ... the very Buddha Dharma itself.

So for example, if a Zen master notices that his student lost his fundamental sanity and has "gotten drunk on the shravaka wine" to use Dogen's parable, he might offer a following piece of wisdom:

A monk once asked Ummon, "What is the Buddha?"
"A dried shit-stick!" -- was the answer.

and

Last night, this mountain monk [Dogen] unintentionally stepped on a dried turd and it jumped up and covered heaven and earth. This mountain monk unintentionally stepped on it again, and it introduced itself, saying, "My name is Shakyamuni."

and

Bodhi and Nirvana are poles for tying up donkeys.

and

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!

Do you understand? Buddha-dharma is medicine for suffering caused by ignorance and attachment, including both intellectual ignorance and attachment, and emotional ignorance and attachment. There are very many different forms of delusion and attachment. Buddha said there are 84000 kinds! A particular form of medicine works better for a particular form of disease. Buddhist humor is one of such medicines.

  • Andrei, that's two bounties in a single hour. Please do me the honour of accepting it, with my sincere appreciation and gratitude. I'm feeling joyous now. Thank you. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 14 '15 at 19:50
  • Thank you, dear Krishnaraj, and I hope getting in touch with Buddha's Dharma will be a long term benefit to you, and not just a source of momentary joy. – Andrei Volkov Sep 16 '15 at 20:21
  • Life is an momentary joy, and the length of that moment extends to a lifetime. My path is a joyous one. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 16 '15 at 20:35
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Re: Jokes in the canon

Yes, in Mahayana, Sariputra was the butt of jokes.

In in Theravada/Early Buddhistm, the ones that Gombrich found are considered to be the oldest and most authentic in the Pali texts because jokes can't be "created by committee".

Re: Rules against jokes

Some versions of the Vinaya included a rule against joking about the triple gem (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). I'll link to the full comment.

This rule is found in the orgin story to Sekhiya 51, and it imposes a so-called dukkata (lit. ‘badly done’) offence for making a joke about the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha.

It is difficult to interpret this kind of rule. What are the exact boundaries for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha? Was this rule ever laid down by the Buddha?

To answer the second question first, it seems unlikely that this rule goes all the way back to the Buddha. Firstly, the Sekhiya rules are the only Patimokkha rules for bhikkhus that vary considerably between the different schools of Buddhism; see e.g. W. Pachow’s “A Comparative Study of the Patimokkha”. This means that many of these rules belong to the sectarian period of Buddhism, a period that commenced perhaps 200 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana. Secondly, it is generally accepted by scholars that the origin stories to the Patimokkha rules are later than the rules themselves. In my opinion, it is thus very unlikely that the Buddha ever laid down this rule. And if the Buddha didn’t lay it down, then it is not really binding on the Sangha.

At the same time, the Dhamma is clearly a serious matter. It would be irresponsible to poke fun at the Dhamma in such a way that people lose their respect for it. There is a fine line between reasonable merrymaking and degradation of the Dhamma, and I am not sure it is possible to make any hard and fast judgement as to what is acceptable and what is not.

Alas, this world of ours is so full of grey areas! We crave the certainty of clear guidelines, yet often we have to rely on our own imperfect judgement to decide what is right and what is not. But if you are reasonably clear about your motivation, and you keep in mind the effect your speech probably will have on your listeners, then you can’t go far wrong.

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