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Awareness Place Meditation Hall,
Bras Basah Complex
Sunday 8th June 2001
10.00 am


(A study of Buddhist humour)
by Piyasilo Tan

[Note on diacritics. Our website is unable to show the standard diacritics of the Pali and Sanskrit words. So we have to resort to an unwieldly alternative diacritical system using double vowels for long vowels, and various symbols for modified consonants, where a dot before a consonant should appear above the consonant, while a following dot should appear below the consonant. The following tilde ~ appears above the consonant. We hope some IT specialists can help us with this technicality. The standard diacritics are useful for serious students and scholars of Buddhism.]


The central image of a religion tells us a lot about what the religion essentially is. The central image of Buddhism is that of the Buddha in balanced meditation, his face bearing a subtle smile.

In this lecture, we will look at the significance of this gentle smile, at humour of Buddhism. Among the highlights are the following:

(1) The Buddha plays a practical joke on a lovesick monk and cures him for good.

(2) The Arhat Sariputta show a very human side as a novice's attendant.

(3) The Arhat Moggallana plays a practical joke on a miser.
  • The sun standing still in the sky (2 origin stories).
  • The multiplication of the loaves.
  • The blind men and the elephant.
  • The blind leading the blind.
  • The making of dry meat.

    (5) Humour in the highest heavens: the origin of the creator God idea, etc.

    (6) The ultimate riddle.


    Almost everyone loves comedians; we laugh at their jokes and antics. We read cartoons in the newspapers. Even professors and religious teachers include a joke or two in their talks and lectures.

    (1) Humour and laughter are associated with pleasurable emotions and good nature.
    (2) Humour is also said to have a healthy physical effect on the human body.
    (3) People laughing together create a community or commonality (communitas).
    (4) Humour can deflate pride and pomposity (which are regarded in religion as weaknesses).
    (5) Humour can defuse social tension and violence.
    (6) Humour has been proven to be effective in dealing with difficult children.
    (7) Humour is a means of mental escape from the conventional world.
    (8) Humour provides a way with dealing with the irrationality of the universe, esp. suffering.


    In the ancient West, "humours" (from Latin humidus, "moist") were thought be liquids in the human body which needed to be balanced in order to regulate a person's health and character.


    In his book, The Act of Creation (London, 1964), Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), the British writer and journalist, looks at creativity in three ways: the "aah" of art, the "aha" of science, and the "haha" of humour. In fact, the three are interrelated. Humour arises from one's creativity.

    As we shall soon see, spiritual humour arises from spiritual wisdom, and more than that, it has a spiritual lesson. An enjoyable lesson at that.

    It is Koestler who coined the word "bisociation" to describe humour as the abrupt mixing of two ideas from habitually incompatible contexts.

    For example, one of the Dharmafarer meditation course advertisements says:


    Humour, in other words, is a product of reality construction, specifically from the contrast between two incongruous realities. Generally, one reality is conventional (corresponding to what people expect in a specific situation). The other reality if unconventional (representing a significant violation of cultural or psychological patterns).

    Humour arises from contradiction, ambiguity and "double meanings" generated by two differing definitions of the same situation.


    A humourous statement is usually never complete. We have to fill in the missing pieces on our own. Pleasure arises in having to complete a humorous puzzle in order to "get it".

    Similarly the Buddha's Teaching is also incomplete, in the sense that the unenlightened has to realize the Truth for himself. You listen to the Dharma, but you must "get it" yourself! This is the meaning of sandit.t.hiko, the Dharma is to be "self-realized"..

    (5) JUST A SMILE

    In the Run.n.a Sutta, the Buddha admonishes the monks not to laugh immoderately, guffawing and showing their teeth, which is regarded as childishness (komaarakam.) in the Noble Discipline. He only allows that they just smile when delighted at something (A 1:261. no. 103).

    The Commentary says that this admonition was given by the Buddha to reprimand the notorious group of Six Monks (chabbaggiya), when they went about singing, dancing and laughing boisterously (AA 2:366).


    The Dhammacetiya Sutta (M 2:121) records the praises that King Pasenadi of Kosala had for the monks:

    "…Venerable Sir, kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmins with brahmins, householders with householders; mother quarrels with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father; brother quarrels with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, sister with sister, friend with friend.

    But here I see monks living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, looking at each other with kindly eyes. I do not see any other assembly elsewhere with such concord.

    Again, Venerable Sir…I have seen some recluses and brahmins who are lean, wretched, unsightly, jaundiced, with veins standing out on their limbs, such that people would not look at them again….

    But here I see monks smiling and cheerful, sincerely joyful, plainly delighting, their faculties fresh, living at ease, unruffled, subsisting on what others give, abiding with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer's… Surely, these venerable ones have certainly realized the great and full significance of the Blessed One's teaching."
    This event occurred in the last year of the Buddha's life, when both he and the king were 80 years old.


    The Four Noble Truths recognize suffering; as such their opposite – joy – is of great value!

    Buddhists in South Asia (Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) are often happy and smiling, "often disconcertingly so" (W. Rahula, 1981: 157).

    Joy (piiti) is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjha.nga) [sati, dhammavicaya, viriya, piiti, passaddhi, samaadhi, upekkhaa, D 3:251, 282, Vbh 277]


    While we are on the subject of kings, here is a story about how a king amused himself at the expense of some blind men. But there is a valuable lesson to be learned here. This story is also the origin of one of the best known parables in the world.

    Once, the Buddha was staying in Anaathapin.d.ika's Park near Savatthi. There were many matted-hair ascetics living nearby, too. They held many different views and often disputed with one another, each claiming to be the only one who was right, and everyone else wrong.

    The Buddha declared that they disputed among themselves out of ignorance. Then he related that in the past there was a king in Savatthi who ordered that all the blind men (blind from birth) in the city be gathered together before him.

    Then he had an elephant brought to them. To some he presented the head, and said: "This is an elephant!" To some, he presented a tusk…the trunk…the body…the foot…the hindquarters…the tail…the tuft at the end of the tail, saying: "This is an elephant!"

    Then the king gathered the blind men together again and asked them: "Tell me, what is the elephant like?"
    Those who touched the head of the elephant, declared: 
    "It is just like a water-jar!" Those who touched the ear… "It is just like a winnowing-basket!" Those who touched the tusk… "It is just like a ploughshare!" Those who touched the trunk… "It is just like a plough-pole!" Those who touched the body… "It is just like a store-room!" Those who touched the foot… "It is just like a post!" Those who touched the hindquarters… "It is just like a mortar!" Those who touched the tail… "It is just like a pestle!" Those who touched the tuft of the tail… "It is just like a broom!"

    So to the amusement of the king, the blind men quarreled amongst themselves, each claiming their view of the elephant was right, everyone else wrong.

    In conclusion, the Buddha declared this Udana:

    Some recluse and Brahmins, so called,
    Are deeply attached to their own views;
    People who only see one side of things
    Engage in quarrels and disputes.
    (Ud 66-69)


    Now, a story where the Buddha plays a transcendental practical joke on his erstwhile half-brother Nanda. The Buddha ordained Nanda just when he was going to marry the most beautiful girl in the country. So the monk Nanda's mind was always going back to her and in no time he wanted to leave the Order.

    Then, the Buddha, taking Nanda by the arm, and using his psychic powers, conducted him to the world of the Thirty-three Gods. On the way, the Buddha pointed out to Nanda, in a burnt field, a greedy monkey that had lost her ears, nose and tail in a fire.

    When they reached the Heaven of the Thirty-three, the Buddha pointed out 500 pink-footed celestial nymphs (apsaras). When asked who was fairer, Nanda excitedly replied that the celestial nymphs were indescribably beautiful; his sweetheart on earth was like the burnt monkey compared to the celestial nymphs!

    The Buddha promised the delighted Nanda that the 500 nymphs would be his if he remained in the Holy Life. But it was not long before the other monks knew about this arrangement! They teased him as a "hireling", as someone "bought with a price".

    Realizing his folly and feeling ashamed, Nanda retired into solitude and strove hard for the spiritual goal. In no time, he became an Arhat.
    (DhA 1:117-123)

    In this connection, the Buddha admonished:

    Even as rain breaks through an ill-thatched house,
    So lust breaks through an ill-trained mind.

    Even as rain breaks not through a well-thatched house,
    So lust breaks not through a well-trained mind. (Dh 13-14)


    Here is Dhammapada story, where Moggallana, the Buddha left-hand monk, plays a practical joke on a miser. The story of "Kosiya the Miser" is one of the most humourous of Buddhist stories.

    The miser Kosiya on his way home from the palace one day saw a poor half-starved countryman eating a common round cake stuffed with sour gruel. Desiring for it, but not wishing to share with anyone else, he dared not speak his desire. His hunger grew but he endured it, up to the point of hugging his own stomach.

    His wife, noticing his strange behaviour, asked what was wrong. After a series of probing questions by his wife, he reluctantly admitted that he wished for a round cake. He wife replied that they were rich enough to cook round cakes for the whole town! No such thing, scolded the miser.

    Then he instructed his wife to do the cooking on the top floor of their seven-story mansion, closing and bolting every door on each floor behind them.

    Now that morning the Buddha seeing that Kosiya was ripe for conversion, sent Moggallaana to convert him. In an instant, Moggallaana was in the town. Standing poised in the air, he stood before the window of the seventh floor of the mansion. Seeing Moggallaana, the miser's heart "quivered and quaked".

    "It was for fear of just such person," he exclaimed, "that I came to this place; yet here this fellow comes and stands in front of my window!"

    Sputtering with anger "like salt and sugar thrown into the fire", Kosiya scolded Moggallaana: "You will get nothing from me by standing there! Not even if you walked up and down…." So Moggallaana walked up and down mid-air.

    "…not even if you sat down cross-legged…" Moggallaana saw down cross-legged.

    "…not even if you stood on the window-sill…"

    "…not even if you belched forth smoke…" The whole mansion was a mass of smoke, and the treasurer felt as if his eyes were pierced with needles!

    But he stopped short of saying, "You will get nothing. Not even if you burst into flames…!"

    In exasperation, he finally told his wife to fry for Moggallaana just a tiny piece of cake. But it grew into a big one. He himself lessened the amount of dough, but each time the cake got bigger. In the end, Kosiya gave up and told his wife to give Moggallaana just one cake, but they all got stuck together!

    Kosiya took one end of the cakes; his wife took the other. Much as they tried to separate the cakes, they could not. Perspiring and breathless, Kosiya in the end relented and gave everything to Moggallaana, having nothing more to do with the cakes any more!

    Moggallaana then conveyed both of them (and the cakes) to Jetavana. Although there was only a limited amount of the cakes, and milk, ghee, honey and jaggery (unrefined brown sugar), there were enough for all the monks (including the Buddha). In fact, there were still some leftovers which had to be thrown away in a cave!

    At the end of the words of the Thanksgiving, the couple attained Stream-winning. Then the Buddha praised Moggallaana for converting them "without impairing faith, without impairing wealth, without oppressing" the householders.

    Even as a bee, without injuring a flower,
    Or its colour, or its scent,
    Gathers the honey, then flies away,
    Even so should a sage go about the village. (Dh 49)

    (DhA 1:367-377 = JA 1:345-349 Intro to J no. 78).


    The Mahaasiihanaada Sutta (M no. 12) is a record of an awe-inspiring discourse which the Buddha gave to Vesaalii. Various virtues and powers of the Buddha are described as well as the terrible austerities he practiced as an ascetic striving for enlightenment.

    The Buddha related that there were some teachers who believed that spiritual purity could be gained by the control of food. So he reduced his food till so that for a period he only lived on a jujube berry (kola), or a bean, or a sesamum, or a rice grain. Then he interjected light-heartedly:

    "Sariputta, you might think that the berry… or rice grain had been bigger at that time. Sariputta, you should not think so! At that time, too, the rice grain was the same size as it is today!" (M 1:82).


    While this same Mahaasiihanaada Sutta was being delivered, the monk Naagasamaala was standing behind the Buddha fanning him. At the end of the discourse, Naagasamaala told the Lord: "Wonderful, Venerable Sir! Marvellous, Venerable Sir! But Venerable Sir, when I listened to this discourse, my hair stood on end! What is the name of this discourse?"

    The Buddha simply said: "Then, Naagasamaala, remember it as the 'Hair-standing Discourse' (lomaha.msa.pariyaaya) !" This is the name by which it was known in the Milinda.pan~haa and the Commentary to the Diigha Nikaaya. In the Majjhima Nikaaya, however, it is always known as Mahaasiihanaada Sutta, the Greater Discourse on the Lion's Roar (which means that it is the name given to the discourse when it was recited during the First Council.)

    Now let's look at some stories that show how the Buddha deals with difficult people and situations:


    Once in Raajagaha there was a wandering ascetic (paribbaajaka) named Diigha.nakha (Long-nail). He went up to the Buddha and claimed, "Nothing [no view] is pleasing to me!"

    Then the Buddha observed: "But this view of yours, that 'Nothing is pleasing to me', is it too not pleasing to you?" (M 1:497 f., Diighanakha Sutta no. 74). The Buddha is asserting that Diighanakha cannot reject everything without rejecting his own view. Although Diighanakha understands the implication of this statement, he holds on his wrong view.

    After this humourous remark and Diighanaka's evasive reply, the Buddha proceeded to give a profound exposition of views (dt.t. hi). At the end of the discourse, Diighanakha became a Stream-winner and Saariputta, his uncle, who was standing behind the Buddha fanning him, became an Arhat.


    The Buddha, as we know, is completely free from ideas of self (I, me mine) and conceit (better than, worse than, or even same as). Now let us look at how the Buddha responds to a very rude person who verbally abuses him. This is a lesson in teaching method.

    In Raajagaha there was brahmin of the Bhaaradvaaja clan, who was incensed that his elder brother had become a disciple of the Buddha and joined the Sangha. He went to see the Buddha and insulted and verbally abused him. As such, he was called Akkosaka ("the Abusive") Bhaaradvaaja.

    When he had finished his 500 verses of insults and abuses, this conversation followed:

    Buddha: Brahmin, do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests, come to visit you?
    Brahmin: Sometimes they do come to visit.
    Buddha: Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?
    Brahmin: Sometimes I do.
    Buddha: But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?
    Brahmin: If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us.
    Buddha: Even so, brahmin, we—who do not abuse anyone, who do not scold anyone, who do not rail against anyone—refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at us. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!

    Brahmin: [Terrified] The king [BimbisŒra] and his court understand the ascetic Gotama to be an Arhat, yet Master Gotama still gets angry."

    [Comy. He had heard that seers inflict a curse when they became angry, so when the Buddha said, "It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!" he was frightened, thinking, "The ascetic Gotama, it seems, is putting a curse on me." So he spoke thus.]

    The Buddha replies:

    How can anger arise in the angerless,
    In the tamed one of righteous living,
    In one liberated by perfect knowledge,
    In the Stable One [taadii] who abides in peace?

    One who repays an angry man with anger
    Thereby makes things worse for himself.
    Not repaying an angry man with anger,
    One wins a battle hard to win.
    [2 more verses omitted]

    The brahmin Akkosaka Bhaaradvaaja was so pleased with this that he became a disciple of the Buddha. Then he entered the Order and became an Arhat (S 1:161 f).

    (16) PUN IS FUN

    A pun is a play on words, sounds and meanings which are similar. It is useful as a point of reference which the Buddha uses to correct a wrong view of his audience. Here is a delightful example of how the Buddha puns on various negative words giving them a positive turn.

    Once in the town of Veran~jaa, a Brahmin named Veran~ja went to the Buddha and accused him of various improprieties (A 4:172 ff). [He was called Veran~ja because he was born and lived in Vera–jŒ. His real name, according to Buddhaghosa, was Udaya.]

    After scolding the Buddha for not showing respect to old Brahmins, Vera–ja accused:

    (a) That the Buddha lacked taste:
    Buddha: Yes, the recluse Gotama lacks taste. He has abandoned all tastes for forms, sounds, perfumes, tastes, and tangible things…

    (b) That the Buddha lacked class (nibbhoga, i.e. social status) [pun on bhoga = property, wealth]:

    Buddha: Yes, the recluse Gotama lacks class. All class in terms of forms, sounds, perfumes, tastes, and tangible things, he has abandoned.

    (c) That the Buddha affirmed the theory of inaction (akiriya.vaada):
    Buddha: Yes, Brahmin, I proclaim inaction in respect of misconduct of body, speech and mind; I proclaim inaction in respect to all evil and bad things.

    (d) That the Buddha was an annihilationist (uccheda.vaada):
    Buddha: Yes, I proclaim the annihilation (cutting off) of lust, hatred, and ignorance, annihilation of all kind of evil and bad things.

    (e) That the Buddha was one who loathes (jegucchii)…

    (f) That the Buddha was an abolitionist (venayika), a nihilist…

    (g) That the Buddha was an ascetic practicing mortification (tapassii)…

    (h) That the Buddha was
    against rebirth (apagabbha)…
    Buddha: Yes, the recluse Gotama is against rebirth. He has abandoned all conditions for future birth and rebirths.

    Analogy of the Hatchlings

    Then the Buddha gave the brahmin the analogy of a chicken hatching some eggs. The first chicken to hatch would be called the "eldest". Even so, the Buddha is the "eldest" of us all:

    Even so, Brahmin, when I for the sake of mankind, enclosed in ignorance, as if egg-born, had broken the egg-shell of ignorance, I alone in the world was fully awake to the supreme and complete enlightenment. As such, brahmin, am I the "eldest".

    Then the Buddha tells Vera–ja of his Three Knowledges (tevijjaa):

    (a) Knowledge of the recollection of past lives – This was my first "hatching".
    (b) Knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings – This was my second "hatching".
    (c) Knowledge of the destruction of the defilements – This was my third "hatching".

    The Three Births

    This remark of the Buddha is probably an allusion to the brahminical concept of loka (general condition of earthly happiness and harmony) developed into the notion of "three births" of a person:
    (1) when he is first born from his parents;
    (2) when he performs the sacrifice, i.e. including the first "initiation" (upanayana) into one of the three castes privileged to use the brahminical ritual, and the consecration (diks.a) into each sacrifice which confirmed and continued his membership; and
    (3) when he is placed on the funeral pyre.
    (Satapatha Brahmana 11:2:1:1; cf. Aitreya Aranyaka 11:5).

    The Buddha here humourously plays on the word "hatching" probably alluding to these "three births" of the brahmin.

    Veranja's Conversion

    Vera–ja's heart finally softened and he became a lay disciple:

    "Master Gotama is indeed the eldest…the best! Saadhu saadhu! Master Gotama! Just as one might set upright that which was overturned, might reveal what is concealed, might point out the way to the blind, might bring a lamp into the darkness, so that those with eyes might see the things about them; even so, the Dharma has been made clear in many ways by Master Gotama! To the Master Gotama I go for refuge, to the Dharma, to the Sangha. Let Master Gotama accept me as a lay-disciple, as one who has found refuge, from this day to life's end."

    [Similar stories are found in the Kasii.bhaaradvaaja Sutta (Sn p12) and the Vasala Sutta (Sn p21).]

    (17) TWICE BORN

    The older version of the belief in the purity of birth amongst the brahmins is that of they were "twice-born" (dvijaa), that is, the first birth being the physical (biological) one, and the second, ths initiation into the caste.

    A case in point is that of Aggika Bhaaradvaaja recorded in the Vasala Sutta. One morning in Saavatthii, the Buddha approached the brahmin Aggika Bhaaradvaaja for alms. At that time, the brahmin was making his fire offerings. [See a shaven-headed monk the first thing in the morning was not regarded as auspicious amongst the brahmins.]

    Brahmin: [Angrily] Stop right there, you shaveling! Stop right there, you wretched monk! Stop right there, you outcaste!
    Buddha: [Calmly] Do you really know, O brahmin, what an outcaste is, or the things that make a outcaste?
    Brahmin: [Taken aback] I do not know, Venerable Gotama, what an outcaste is….
    Buddha: All right then, listen, O brahmin, pay careful attention, I will tell you."
    Brahmin: Let it be so, Venerable!

    Whatever man is angry and spiteful,
    Evil and hypocritical,
    Has wrong views and is deceitful –
    One should know him as an outcaste.
    (Sn 116)

    Whoever here harms life,
    Whether once-born or twice-born,
    Has no kindness towards a living being –
    One should know him as an outcaste.
    (Sn 117)

    Not by birth is one an outcaste,
    Not by birth is one a brahmin;
    By (one's) deeds, one is an outcaste,
    By (one's) deeds, one is a brahmin.
    (Sn 142)

    [Total: 27 verses, only 3 mentioned here.]

    Here, the Buddha applies a pun in the line "Whether once-born or twice-born" (ekajaµ vŒ dvijaµ vŒ pi). The Commentary glosses that the term "once-born" refers to all beings except the oviparous (egg-born) (like birds and reptiles) (J 2:234). The "twice-born" are beings who first appear as eggs and then go through a "second birth" when the eggs hatch out (SnA 2:178).

    At the end of the discourse, Aggika Bhaaradvaaja became a lay follower.


    The Aggan~n~a Sutta (D no. 27) records another humourous rebuttal of the brahminical claim to be the true sons of God (brahmun.o puttaa orasaa), born of his mouth (mukhato jaataa), born of God (brahmajaa), created by God (brahmanimmitaa), heirs to God (brahmadaayaadaa).

    The Buddha gives this answer to VŒse  ha:

    Surely, VŒse  ha, brahmins have quite forgotten the past when they say that they are the true sons of God, born of his mouth… Certainly, VŒse  ha, brahmin wives of brahmins are known to have their seasons, to have been pregnant, have given birth to children, and to have been suckling them. Yet these brahmins themselves born of the womb itself like everyone else speak thus: "…only brahmins are true sone of God, born of his mouth…," …And do they slander God, they speak untruth and earn much demerit.
    (D 3:81-82)

    The Commentary, however, adds a less than subtle turn to the Buddha's gentle humour by remarking that if the word of the brahmins were true, then the mouth of Brahma would be "the urethra of the brahmin women" (braahmaöiina.m passaavamaggo brahmun.o mukha.m bhaveyya, DA 3:862).


    Here is a satirical retelling of the creation myth in the Br.had-aaran.yaka (bAu 1:4:1-3).

    Brahma (the High God) is reborn from Abhassara, the World of Radiance, at the start of the re-evolution of the physical universe, "either because his life-span has passed, or his merit has exhausted" (D 1:18 f.). Brahma then gets lonely and upset, and longs for company. Then, "either because their life-span has passed or their merit has exhausted", other beings are reborn alongside him. As such, Brahma thinks that the other beings are his own creation.

    [Brahma's delusion. In the Brahmajaala Sutta, there is a satirical allusion to the B¨had-Œraöyaka which explains why some people think that the world and the soul are partly eternal and partly not.]


    The Buddha's enlightenment came through personal effort and direct knowledge. As such, the Buddha understandably does not tolerate wild claims of salvation through mere faith and belief in a creator God. Some colourful and humourous images are found in the TevijjΠSutta (D no. 13) in this connection.

    Some brahmins claim that they knew and declared the Direct Path (ujumagga) leading to the union with God (brahmasahavyataa). The Buddha inquired from his interlocutor, Vaaset.t. ha, a young brahmin, whether there was even a single brahmin versed in the Three Vedas who had seen God directly face to face (brahmaa sakkhaadit.t.,ho):

    Vase  ha: No.
    Buddha: Then, Vaaset,t,ha, was there even any one of their teachers who had seen God face to face?
    Vase  ha: No.
    Buddha: Not even one of the teachers of their teachers?
    Vase  ha: No.
    Buddha: Not even one up to the seventh generation of their teachers?
    Vase  ha: No.
    Buddha: Well, then, those ancient seers, the authors of the sacred hymns, did even they say: "We know and see when, how and where God appears?"
    Vase  ha: No, not even they.
    Buddha: Then, Vaaset.t.ha, what the brahmins claim amounts to this: "We declare the way to the union with that state which we do not know, which we do not see. This is the direct way to union with God!"
    Vaaset.t.ha, this is not possible, this is senseless talk. This is like a string of blind men, one leading the other: neither the foremost, nor the middle, nor the last sees.

    Then the Buddha uses other humourous similes to make his point:

    It is like a man who desires to win the beauty of the country, but does not know anything about her!

    It is like a man building a staircase up to a mansion which is not there.

    It is like a man wanting to cross a river which is full and calls to the farther bank: "Come here, O bank! Come over to my side!" and so on. (D 1:235 ff).


    The brahmin, born of caste alone, the teacher of the Vedas, is humourously etymologized as the "non-meditator", ajjhaayaka (D 3:94).

    (22) STOPPING THE SUN, (1) The Curse

    While we are on the subject of non-meditators, here is a humourous story about two ascetics, one false, the other true.

    Once there were two ascetics, Devala and Narada, who lived part of their time in the Himalayas, and part of their time in the city of Benares. Devala found lodging in a potter's shed. Later Narada, looking for shelter, came to the same potter's shed.

    Having asked permission from Devala who came first, Narada shared the shed with him. When it was bedtime, Narada carefully noted where Devala lay and the position of the door, and then lay down. But Devala, instead of lying down in his original place, lay down directly across the doorway.

    Later that night, when Narada went out, he stepped on Devala's matted locks. Devala was very upset, "weeping as if his heart would break".

    For some strange reason, Devala thought to himself, "I will let him tread on me when he comes in also." So he turned around and lay down placing his head where his feet were before. The result was then when Narada returned, he trod on Devala's neck.

    This time Devala blamed Narada for hurting him a second time: "False ascetic, I will curse you!"
    Despite Narada's protest, Devala was still angry and said: "When the sun rises tomorrow, may your head split into seven pieces!"

    Then Narada said, "Teacher, I told you it was not my fault. But in spite of what I said, you have cursed me. Let the head of the guilty man split into seven pieces, not that of the innocent!"
    Now Narada had power of seeing the past and the future. He saw that Devala's head, not his, would split into seven at sunrise. Taking pity on the capricious ascetic, he stopped the sun from rising.

    When the whole kingdom remained dark even when it was day, the restless citizens assembled at the royal palace and asked for an explanation. When the cause of it all was discovered, they all proceeded to the potter's shed.

    Then the king, having known the real situation, asked Devala to apologize to Narada. When Devala refused, the king ordered his men to hold Devala by force and push his head down before Narada, who pardoned him.

    But since the apology was not genuine, the danger remained. On Narada's advice, the king took Devala to a lake where Devala had to stand up to his neck in water with a lump of clay on his head. Precisely at sunrise, he had to sink into the water leaving the lump to be struck by the sun's rays and splitting the false "head" into seven pieces, so sparing Devala's real head.

    Then emerging from another part of the lake, Devala ran away. And so a universal catastrophe was averted.
    (DhA 1:39-43; cf the MŒtaºga J. no. 497)

    In this connection, the Buddha pronounced the stanzas:

    He abused me, he struck me,
    He defeated me, he robbed me;
    In those who harbour such thoughts
    Hatred never ceases.
    (Dh 3)

    He abused me, he struck me,
    He defeated me, he robbed me;
    In those who harbour not such thoughts
    Hatred ceases.
    (Dh 4)

    (22) STOPPING THE SUN, (2) Paö¶ita SŒmaöera

    There is another even more interesting story about the stopping of the sun in its course. This story involves Saariputta, the Buddha's own right-hand monk and is about how a young novice, only seven years old, got enlightened.

    Now the young boy Pan.d.ita (Wiseman) was precocious. At seven, with the permission of his parents, he joined the Order as a novice. After his entry into the Order, his novice master, Saariputta, instructed him on how to take the bowl and robe on almsround.

    As they proceeded, the novice saw an irrigation canal, fletchers fashioning arrows, and carpenters making furniture. Reflecting on these events, he thought that if inanimate things like water, sticks and wood can be fashioned, surely we who have our own mental powers can fashion our own minds. Reasoning so, he decided to strive for Arhatship, and decided to turn back.

    Politely, the novice returned the robe and bowl to Saariputta. "This young novice has been just received into the Order and addresses me as if I were a lesser Buddha!" thought Saariputta. Then the novice took his leave and said, "Venerable Sir, when you bring me food be kind enough to get me only the choicest portions of redfish."

    "Where will I get them, brother?"

    "Venerable sir, if you cannot get them through your own merit, you will succeed in getting them through my merit."

    Once inside the meditation cell, Paö¶ita sat down and began to meditate. At this point, the heavenly throne of Lord Sakra heated up. Realizing its reason, Sakra commanded the moon and the sun to hold their positions. Even the birds were driven away and the Four Guardian Deities each guarded one of the four cardinal points. The novice meditated in perfect peace.

    Meanwhile, Saariputta, having collected his almsfood, finished his meal. Then saving the choicest portion of redfish, he hastened towards Pan.d.ita's meditation cell. Now, the Buddha, realizing that Pan.d.ita would attain Arhatship before his meal, had to stop Saariputta from interrupting Pan.d.ita's meditation.

    So the Buddha summoned Saariputta. Then he asked Saariputta four questions:

    "Saariputta, what have you brought?"
    "Food, Venerable Sir."
    "What does food produce, Saariputta?"
    "Sensation, Venerable Sir."
    "What does sensation produce, Saariputta?"
    "Material form, Venerable Sir."
    "What does material form produce, Saariputta?"
    "Contact, Venerable Sir."
    [The Commentary explains the strange sequence of these answers. DhA 2:145.]

    While these questions were being answered, the novice attained Arhatship. Saariputta then brought his meal, and he finished it. When Paö¶ita had washed his bowl and put it away, the moon returned to its proper position and the sun vanished from mid-heaven and disappeared (as it was already evening).

    In this connection, the Buddha pronounced the following stanza:

    Irrigators lead the water,
    Fletchers straighten the arrow shafts.
    Carpenters bend the wood,
    The wise control themselves.
    (Dh 80)
    (DhA 2:138 ff.)

    (23) SATIRE

    Satire is a verbal caricature which gives a deliberately distorted image of a person, institution or society. The traditional method of the caricaturist is to exaggerate those features which he considers to be characteristic of the subject and to simplify or omit those not relevant to his purpose.

    The Su.msumaara Jaataka (J no. 208) is an example of Buddhist satire on how even in a past life, Devadatta had tried to kill the Bodhisattva.
    Once the Bodhisattva was born as a monkey, strong and well-built in body. Now in the river nearby lived a female crocodile and her mate. Seeing the strong monkey, she desired to eat his heart. "If I don't get him, I will die!" she promised.

    So the male crocodile came up with a ruse. He told the monkey that there were more and sweeter fruits on the other side of the bank, and volunteered to ferry him across. The monkey readily agreed and hopped onto the crocodile's back.

    Midway across the river, the crocodile began to sink. The monkey immediately asked the crocodile what was going on. When the crocodile told him that his wife wanted to eat his heart, the monkey simply laughed, and said:

    "Friend, it's nice of you to tell me. Why, if our hearts were inside us when we go jumping among the tree-tops, they would be smashed to pieces!"

    "Well, where do you keep it then?" asked the crocodile.

    The monkey pointed to a fig-tree with clusters of ripe fruits. "See," said he, "there are our hearts hanging on that fig-tree."

    So the crocodile brought the monkey to the tree. As soon as they reached the bank, the monkey jumped off his back and climbed up to the fig-tree.

    "O, you silly crocodile, you may have a big body, but your wit is much smaller."

    (24) ALLEGORY

    The JŒtaka (Birth-stories) is full of humorous stories. Here is a humorous allegory illustrating Devadatta's attempt to injure the Buddha. It shows how power has a way of destroying those who worship it. This is the Sabbadaat.ha Jaataka (J no. 241).

    Once the Bodhisattva was born as the chaplain of the king of Benares. He knew a powerful spell known as "World-conqueror". One day he went to a secret place to practise the spell. While he was reciting the spell, a jackal lying in a hole nearby heard it too, and memorized it.

    By the time the Bodhisattva discovered his mistake, it was too late. The jackal had run off and gathered a huge army of forest animals under him using the spell. In fact, the jackal had decided to conquer the city of Benares itself.

    So the jackal assembled his army outside Benares. The jackal and his consort (a she-jackal) stood on the back on a lion, which stood on the back of two elephants. The jackal then served the city an ultimatum: surrender or the citizens would panic hearing the loud roars of the lions.

    The Bodhisattva then cleverly advised the people of Benares to stuff their ears with flour. Then he challenged the jackal to launch his roaring attack, which the foolish jackal did.

    As soon as the lions roared, the animals in the jackal's army panicked and ran helter skelter, trampling over one another, killing both the jackal and his mate. Almost all the animals we thus killed through their own panic.
    At the end of it all, the citizens of Benares came out and gathered what fresh meat they could eat and the rest they dried and kept. This, says the story, was how the people first began to dry meat!


    This is a story about Kevaddha who met the Buddha when he was in NŒlandŒ. Kevaddha approached the Buddha with the request that some monk should perform superhuman feats and miracles to convert more people to have faith in the Buddha.

    After Kevaddha had made his request a third time, the Buddha explained that there are three kinds of miracles, namely:

    (a) the miracle of psychic powers (multiple manifestations, teleportation, etc.);
    (b) the miracle of telepathy (mind-reading);
    (c) the miracle of education (i.e. the threefold training, resulting in mind-control).

    The Buddha related how he himself has mastered these three miracles, but seeing the potential dangers of the first two refused to use them. He only uses the last, the miracle of education.

    Then the Buddha related how a certain monk had the thought: "I wonder where the four great elements – earth, water, fire, air – cease without remainder?" Since the monk had great psychic power, he teleported himself to the Realm of the Four Guardian Deities and asked the devas there the question, but they do not know the answer. The devas directed him to the Four Great Kings themselves, who also pleaded ignorance.

    Then he progressively went to the Thirty-three Gods and Lord Sakra, the Yama devas and SuyŒma, the Tusita devas and Santusita, the NimmŒnarati devas and Sunimmita, the Paranimmita-Vasavatti devas and Vasavatti, and finally to the devas of Brahms's Retinue and Brahma himself. None could answer his question.

    When Brahma himself finally appeared, and was asked the question, all he did was to reply: "I am Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the Omniscient, the Almighty, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Ordainer and Orderer, Father of All that have been and shall be!" Thrice he was asked the question, and thrice he gave this answer.

    Finally, the Great Brahma took that monk by the arm, led him aside and whispered: "Monk, these devas believe there is nothing that Brahma does not see, there is nothing that he does not know, there is nothing that he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. But monk, I do not know where the four great elements cease without remainder."

    Then Brahma reprimanded the monk for not going to the Buddha in the first place, because only he knew the answer.

    When the monk approached the Buddha, he first answered with a parable – the land-sighting bird. So like a land-sighting bird, the monk had to return to the Buddha to have his question answered when no one else could.

    The Buddha's answer to the ultimate riddle:

    Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
    That's where earth, water, fire and air find no footing,
    There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul –
    There "name-and-form" are wholly destroyed.
    With the cessation of consciousness this is all destroyed.

    Kevaddha Sutta (D 1:215 ff)
    In a word: Nirvana!

    (26) DHAMMAPADA 146

    All teaching (being language-bound) should be taken in context:

    What laughter, what joy,
    When the world is burning [with passions]?
    Will you not seek the light,
    You who are shrouded in darkness [of ignorance]?

    According to the Commentary, these words were spoken by the Buddha on an occasion when a heedless group of drunken women visited him and began to dance and sing shamelessly in his presence.

    When you approach and come into my presence, you must not approach in heedlessness. For in consequence of your heedlessness a deity of the host of Mara got possession of you, and at a time when you should not have laughed or behaved lightly, he caused you to laugh and to misbehave. You should henceforth make every effort to quench the fire of lust and of other evil passions.

    (DhA 3:100-103)


    I would like to conclude with two real-life examples of Buddhist humour from the daily lives of Buddhists, one from Thailand, the other from Sri Lanka.

    Thailand: "It's only a bomb!"

    This incident occurred when I was a monk in Thailand. It happened during one of the political revolutions (patiwat). One day in a bazaar, there was a loud explosion. Everyone at once fell to the ground for safety. Then someone asked: "What was that?" Another answered: "Oh. It's only a bomb!" Almost at once everyone felt relieved and went back about their business.

    Sri Lanka: Kon.d.ak:avum

    This story is from the Sinhalese oral tradition (W. Rahula, JPTS IX 1981:173). There is in Sri Lanka a small circular cake called kon.d.ak:avum, served on all important occasions It is made of rice flour, palm honey and various other ingredients, fried in coconut oil. The centre of this cake, called the buriya or belly button, is made to stand out as a lump. It is usually the sweetest part, which people usually eat last.

    Once, during the Kandyan period (18th century), there was an alms-giving at the royal palace in Kandy. The king personally served the monks. One of them was the monk Kunkunaave, known for his dry humour. He ate the buriya (belly button) of the kon.d.ak:avum first! Curious, the king asked why he ate the best part first, he calmly answered in a serious tone: "Life is impermanent!"

    As long as we have a sense of humour, we are never prisoners of reality!

    -- END --

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