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The Buddha and Humour

The Buddha and Humour

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Published by: Dundeeunited on Dec 04, 2012
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Did the Buddha Have a Sense of Humour?
[Dharmacÿrin Sÿgaramati]
 This talk is the result of digressions accumulated over the years. Someyears ago I was reading a collection of some of the early
that aresaid to predate the arising of Buddhism. The root Buddhist doctrine is‘conditioned-arising’ [
]. It is the ‘root’ doctrine in thesense that all other doctrines can be said to follow from it. As the Buddhahimself is reported as saying, ‘One who sees conditioned-arising sees theDharma; one who sees the Dharma sees conditioned-arising’.
states that all things come to be in dependence uponother things. Nothing has independent, autonomous existence. This canalso be applied to the teachings of the Buddha: they too can be said toarise in dependence upon conditions, and those conditions must include thereligious culture that predated the Buddha.Although there are no direct references in the early Buddhist texts to thepre-Buddhist Upani¿ads, reading through these early Upani¿ads (as well asthe even earlier
Šg Veda
), I noticed that a few Buddhists texts not onlyshowed some acquaintance with certain doctrines of these pre-Buddhisttexts, but also that the Buddhists satirized these doctrines.
Writing thistalk has given me the opportunity to gather together some of these‘accumulated digressions’ in one place.
1. Importance of the Pÿli Texts
Although no one these days doubts the historicity of the Buddha, that theBuddha did live in northern India during the 5
century BCE, when westernscholars first began to study Buddhism some thought the Buddha to be anentirely mythical figure. For example, two famous 19th century scholars,Senart and Kern, saw the Buddha as a solar god.
One reason for this viewis that some of the first Buddhist texts studied belonged to the laterMahÿyÿna tradition, where the Buddha is often presented as a kind of cosmic Buddha with incredible magical powers, and the setting is oftenmythological rather than historical, with all kinds of beings in attendance,rather like a scene from Star Wars. It was only in the late 19th century,when texts in Pÿli preserved by Theravÿda tradition were studied – the Theravÿda tradition being the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand– that the Buddha emerged as an actual historical figure. Therefore, if onewants to know anything about the historical Buddha, for example, whetherhe had a sense of humour or not, then it is to these texts that one mustturn.
M i. 190-91. Whether one takes ‘Dharma’ here in the sense of the Buddha’s teaching or as‘Truth and Reality’, this statement holds. Another text, the
±ÿlistamba S‡tra
, goes furtherand equates
not only with the Dharma, but also with Buddhahood[p.28].
This, of course, has been noted by others. Probably the best recent account is Gombrich’s
How Buddhism Began
(see bibliography).
See J. W. de Jong, pp.26-7. Kern even thought that the twelvefold
sequence of conditioned-arising represented the twelve months of the solar year, and that the six‘heretical’ teachers, who were contemporaries of the Buddha, were the planets.
Did the Buddha Have a Sense of Humour?
 The texts that interest us here are called
, or ‘dialogues’, which areusually set out in the form of a didactic dialogue between the Buddha andsome interlocutor, sometimes one of his own disciples, or a Brahmin priest,or a religious mendicant, a king, or an ordinary villager. Parallel texts fromearly schools other than those preserved by the Theravÿda tradition dosurvive in Chinese translations, but unfortunately they are a ratherneglected field of study. But fragments of parallel texts from other earlyschools are still being discovered in the deserts of central Asia. Thesefragments are in fact the earliest examples we possess of any Buddhisttexts.
And, interestingly, studies so far have shown that where a fragmenthas been identified with some
from the Theravÿda tradition, there islittle, if any, difference between them. The message is exactly the same.
2. The Buddha Teaches
Buddhism begins with the Buddha’s attainment of 
, ‘Awakening’. Thetruth that the Buddha discovered, the Dharma, is according to these texts,‘deep’ [
], ‘difficult to understand’ [
], ‘subtle’ [
],and ‘beyond the sphere of reason’ [
]. It is beyond the ‘reachof concepts’ [
], the ‘reach of language’ [
], the‘reach of designations’ [
], and the ‘sphere of [intellectual]understanding’ [
]. From this we can surmise that the Buddha’sAwakening did not directly provide him with any new concepts, teachings,or messages from some other world or being – there is no Buddhist versionof those stone tablets engraved with the commands from the beyonddirected at us mere mortals. According to the texts that deal with theBuddha’s Awakening, what the Buddha ‘awakened’ to was a ‘seeing withknowledge things as they really are’ [
]. As for therest of us unawakened beings, and in the Buddhist tradition this includes allthe ‘gods’ [
and the higher
], including the god who thinks hecreated the universe – we shall meet him later – we are reckoned as seeingthe world as it is not,
as if we were enraptured in some vivid dream.Indeed, our delusions are so entrenched, that, as we will see, the Buddhainitially thought it would be futile trying to communicate to the world whathe has discovered.Although what the Buddha awoke to is said to be beyond the reach of language and concepts, when he eventually decided to tell the world whathe had discovered he nevertheless had to use words, concepts, metaphors,idioms, etc. in order to communicate. And as his Awakening did not providehim with any new language or concepts, he had to use the words, concepts,metaphors, and idioms that already existed in the cultural environment inwhich he taught. These provided the only
of communicationavailable to him. The Buddha’s teaching, referred to as the Dharma,
For example, see
 A Gÿndhÿrƒ Version of the Rhinoceros S‡tra
, Richard Solomon, Universityof Washington Press, 2000.
Buddhism says that all unawakened beings [
, literally ‘the many folk’] in factsee the world ‘upside down’ [
], seeing what is ‘impermanent’ [
], ‘foul’[
], ‘without unchanging, substantial essence’ [
], and ‘painful andunsatisfactory’ [
] as permanent, beautiful, having an unchanging essence, andpleasurable.
The term
has a wide range of meanings, the most general being any phenomenonwhatsoever. But the two main Buddhist meanings are ‘Dharma’ as Reality, and ‘Dharma’ asthe Buddha’s teaching. Although the Indian scripts that Sanskrit and Pÿli were written in donot possess capital letters, it is usual for the term to be capitalized when used in these twomain senses in roman.
Did the Buddha Have a Sense of Humour?
developed in the context of an on-going debate with the religious culture of his time, within which there were two main factions.Firstly, there was the
, or ‘mendicants’. These mendicants had,like the Buddha, left home and entered the forests of northern India insearch of ‘the meaning of life’, usually grouping themselves around someparticular teacher. The Buddha himself was such a
. Before hisAwakening he studied under other teachers, but finding them wantingeventually set out on his own. After his Awakening, he became one of these teachers with his own group of disciples.Secondly, there was the main group the Buddha debated with, thebrahmins [
], who were roughly the equivalent of the orthodoxreligion at the time. The brahmins accepted the Vedas and the Upani¿adsas revealed truth [
], their sort of Bible. And although the mendicants,like the Buddha, all had very differing views on the nature of reality, theywere united by the fact that they rejected the religious authority of thebrahminical Vedas and Upani¿ads. The mendicants were the unorthodox,or, as one modern scholar calls them, ‘the drop-outs’.
 Given that this is the cultural environment that Buddhism grew out of, itwould obviously be helpful for us to understand the religious and culturalideas and beliefs that existed at the time, as it is these ideas and beliefsthat form the context within which the Buddha’s teachings developed. Andit also follows that whenever the Buddha uses a specific idea in histeaching, we will gain a better understanding of what that idea meant tothose to whom the Buddha was addressing if we have some knowledge asto how that idea was understood by them.Unfortunately, that cultural environment, especially that of the religiousideas of his fellow
, is no longer accessible to us. However, we dohave the Brahminical texts, the Vedas and the early Upani¿ads. And whenwe look at some of these texts they not only shine a little light on how someof the Buddha’s doctrines would have been understood by those who heardthem, but we also see that the object of some of the Buddha’s discourses isto have a bit of fun, mainly at the expense of the brahmins. But first twoexamples of the way Buddhism adopted current ideas for its own doctrinalends.
3. Examples
3.1. Doctrinal
a) KarmanBuddhism, like some of the other ²ramaÝic traditions, inherited the notion of an impersonal universal law of cause and effect from the earlier ideology of Vedic ritualism. Within the Vedic tradition, ritual acts were performed bybrahmin priests in order to bring about certain consequences. Given thenature of the universe, if a ritual ‘action’ [
(karma)] was performedcorrectly according to the liturgical texts, then an apposite ‘fruit’ [
]must follow of necessity. While Buddhism accepts the idea that theuniverse is so structured that certain actions gave rise to appropriateconsequences, it rejected what it saw as the empty formalism of Vedicritual action. It ethicizes the notion of karma by shifting the crux of theaction from the merely external and formal to the internal and conative. InBuddhism, action or karma becomes ‘intention’ [
Intentions, oracts of ‘will’, having their source in ‘non-greed’ [
], ‘non-
Williams, p.9.

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