The Role of Humor in Buddhism: Bernie Glassman, Carolyn Rose Gimian, and Norman Fischer look at how humor not only lightens our load but deepens our practice. Introduction by Elaine Smookler.
Recently I went to a funeral home with my parents because they wanted to plan their funerals. I was not picturing a day of hilarity, but after we got there we couldn’t stop laughing. And it wasn’t merely from nervousness; it was partly because we felt like we were producing a show. We were offered a choice between a video or slide “retrospective” of my parents’ life; we sized up coffins with an eye to what the “audience” might think; we even planned the catering, noting that the mall across the street offered an excellent price on cold cuts. Finally, when my father said, in all seriousness, that he’d like “Dancing Queen” by Abba played at his funeral, even the funeral director laughed. It was such a wonderfully uplifting, unselfconscious moment.
I’ve spent much of my adult life working as a comic actress, playwright, occasional stand-up comedienne, and as “Vendetta,” a clown provocateur. One of the things I enjoy about working in comedy is that there are no sacred cows. In other words, nothing is exempt from examination. So, question your teachers? Hell, yes. But even better might be to slip on a banana peel just as you’re about to pigeonhole someone with what you think is a really good question. Why? Because nothing is more ridiculous than our sense of self-importance, so why not welcome opportunities to see the buffoon in us all?
Early in my work and my Buddhist practice I saw how humor helped me take a gentle look at things I might not want to know about myself. The humorous view encourages a softening, which can help free us from our masks and puffery. And here’s something you can try at home: invite your friends to tease you and be curious about that moment when you want to rip their heads off. By laying ourselves open to ridicule we can see exactly where we’re trying to hide, or protect our precious egos. If we can allow it, humor helps remind us that when it comes down to it, there really isn’t anyone “there” to be embarrassed, hurt, or humiliated—so let them laugh!
Some people view humor as a sign of disrespect. But this is the narrow view of a tight ego, trying to control and fabricate sacredness. The idea isn’t to use humor as another way of hiding, or to be glib about a difficult situation; we are using humor from a place of bravery, to bring attention to the possibility that there’s another way of seeing things. Sometimes the darkness of ignorance and too much time spent watching Fox News can cause paranoid imaginings of lurking danger. Employing a little lightness can bring some relief to that claustrophobic feeling. Then, once we’re not feeling so tight, we might even be able to relax and try to work with what’s present without experiencing it in such a heavy way.
There’s a story about Milarepa that talks of inviting our fears, phobias, and confusions “in for tea.” Increasingly, I see that the very things I’d prefer not to invite in are the sources of true comedy. In the world of clown, when things go awry on stage, it’s considered a gift from the gods. Nothing could be better than things falling apart, because in that groundless place something fresh and surprising can occur—if you’re open to it.
We all know that painful things happen, and that ultimately we’re going to die. But we don’t have to take it so personally. Being able to laugh about incontinence, heartbreak, and the many painful attachments we humans fall prey to is a great relief. It goes a long way to reduce suffering, particularly when we are reminded that things aren’t happening to us, they’re just happening. Bringing a sense of humor and curiosity to our fear and anxiety is liberation.
Q: What did the Buddhist say to the hot-dog vendor?
A: “Make me one with everything.”
Buddhadharma: The central tenet of Buddhism is our need to accept that pain is always present. Where’s the humor in that?
Norman Fischer: We are all in a mess. We’re all miserable and upset and everything is terrible and there’s all this suffering and we’re trying to end suffering—and yet the teachings say in the end everything is fine. That is a big joke. It’s comical. Our human life is comical. Everything that Buddhism asks us to pay attention to—impermanence, suffering, egolessness—which may sound awful and frightening at first, turns out to be good news. Impermanence is permanence, suffering is joy, egolessness is freedom, and the only trouble is that we don’t notice that. Somehow we knew that and we forgot. That’s kind of absurd, laughable, slapstick.
The whole proposition of human trouble is serious and not serious at the same time, and that paradox is essentially funny. Our whole world—including our Buddhist world—and how we conduct ourselves always contains an element of humor. When I go to a big ceremony that’s solemn and religious, I always feel I can take a small step back and laugh. It’s so severe and yet so funny at the same time. Don’t you think so?
Carolyn Rose Gimian: I would agree. It also seems that the more one practices meditation, the more you lighten up and the more you can discover some kind of natural funniness in life. It’s not just about formal practice, though. The more you live, the more you find to laugh about. There’s a lot to cry about and a lot to laugh about.
Norman Fischer: And those are often the same things.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Exactly.
Bernie Glassman: Growing up as a Brooklyn Jew, humor was an essential part of my life. So even as I became a very serious Zen monk, beating people with a stick and doing all kinds of severe things, I was still this Jewish guy with lots of humor. Some people ask me what Judaism brought to Zen in America and I always say a sense of humor. I don’t think the Japanese Zen we inherited had much humor, although certainly Chinese Zen had more.
Norman Fischer: But Zen literature is full of humor, exactly the kind I was talking about. Everything is serious and funny at the same time and everything is difficult and easy at the same time. The Zen stories are full of that consciousness, which creates opportunities for the rug to be pulled out from under us—and you laugh when that happens. The trickster is built into those stories.
Bernie Glassman: I was visiting with Chögyam Trungpa once and the conversation turned to monastic models. We were talking about the role of the attendants for the head of the monastery. In Zen there are five major roles: a private secretary; a person in charge of ceremonial clothing; a cook, who also pays attention to the master’s personal health; a person to look after guests; and a person in charge of rituals. He mentioned that in the Tibetan monasteries they had six, five of which corresponded to the five I mentioned. The sixth was the head of the group of attendants and served as a jester, a trickster.
One of the main things I’ve been doing in my semiretirement from being a Zen teacher is being a clown, a kind of jester or trickster. I like the idea of being a disturber, making sure dharma successors aren’t becoming too pompous or arrogant. That’s the role that tricksters and jesters have traditionally played. The trickster is still a very important role for Native Americans in the form of the “coyotes.” They can do whatever is needed to make sure that the leaders are walking their talk. With that goal in mind, I went to my friend Wavy Gravy for instruction. He appointed a trainer for me and I’ve been learning the trade ever since. I just did a workshop with my clown mentor at San Francisco Zen Center.
Norman Fischer: What did you do there?
Bernie Glassman: The training lasted a weekend, and at one point an attendant brought my mentor Mr. Yoohoo and I into a dharma hall in a formal procession. The room was packed with people sitting very quietly for the regular Saturday dharma talk. I had on a red nose, my staff was a toy hammer that goes boing when you hit someone with it, and we were dressed outrageously. Every once in a while I would turn around and hit the attendant carrying the incense with the little hammer. When the big gong was struck, rather than respond with reverence, I jumped out of my skin with shock. Lots of things like that. We turned the whole serious profound ceremony on its head. Seeing the humor and the theater helps us get unstuck and loosens the grip of preconceptions that can come along with the spiritual path.
Buddhadharma: How would that sort of thing go over in a Japanese monastery?
Bernie Glassman: I haven’t met that many Zen teachers in Japan that are in this mode, but I have met one who was a total clown. There were some schools of Zen that had humorous elements built in, and one in particular had shakuhachi players and Zen fools and poets, but that has mostly died out, although there are remnants.
Buddhadharma: Why does Buddhism need tricksters?
Norman Fischer: If you’re going to do religious practice you better have a sense of humor, because being overly pious and serious is a built-in pitfall. While we may not have a person everywhere explicitly functioning as a trickster, you need to cultivate humor. Piety is something that is always going to rear its ugly head.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Humor is really about a flexibility of mind. When that’s lacking, things become very solid and heavy. You don’t see the joy in things.
Buddhadharma: Having a good sense of humor often simply refers to being able to tell a good joke at a party, to break the ice. Clearly we are talking about something larger than that.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: I was listening to a Leonard Cohen song the other day, and one of my favorite lines came around again: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That’s a pretty good description of sense of humor in a larger sense. Humor sees the cracks in everything, rather than hoping for everything to hold together perfectly.
Bernie Glassman: There is a book called Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. It’s about trickster figures throughout the world, and he says that the trickster’s role is to work in the cracks of society. Societies also need times when you break all the rules, when you release the pressure. If you didn’t have the coyotes and tricksters and jesters, the societies would break down from the buildup of pressure, from everything being so serious and regulated by norms.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: In Buddhism, one of the roles of the teacher is to provide an insult to ego and to undercut the kind of solidity of our projections, our solid world. One of the ways that often happens is through humor, through words and actions, and even through practical jokes.
Bernie Glassman: And yet at the same time, the teacher’s role is to teach, and the person who is the trickster or the coyote or the jester, that sixth attendant, their main target is the teacher, to upset any tendency toward arrogance or self-importance.
Norman Fischer: The trickster is not the teacher and yet the teacher can also be like a trickster for the students.
Bernie Glassman: Yes. The teacher can bring humor and levity and pull out the rug, but it is extremely poignant when the trickster does something that affects the teacher.
Norman Fischer: Religious life can become so serious, and that can send the wrong kind of message to people: that if you practice, you ought to be dour and glum, and that it’s a hard life working with your mind. But actually religious life is fun. Like Jewish humor, which comes out of a lot of suffering, it acknowledges suffering completely, but it sees the cosmic humor of our condition. We need to rehabilitate the world of religion and make it clear that religious life is actually fun.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: I was once interviewed about the Buddhist community here in Halifax, and at a certain point, the interviewer said, “You’re making it sound like it’s a party!” And I agreed that, yes, you could call it that.
When the humor has gone out of a community, I think you’re right Norman, it’s time for rehabilitation. You need to bring back the trickster.
Buddhadharma: Can you give examples of how this quality of trickery has manifested?
Norman Fischer: I didn’t practice with Suzuki Roshi, but I know him by reputation and lore. He had a different kind of humor from the rather spectacular and outrageous humor of Trungpa Rinpoche. His was more a quiet, gentle playfulness. One time he was driving back to the city from the remote retreat center at Tassajara with a student who was very serious about his vegetarianism. He made a pretty big deal about it. They stopped at a restaurant and the student ordered a salad and Suzuki Roshi ordered a big bloody hamburger. When the food was served, the hamburger was set down in front of Suzuki Roshi and the salad in front of the student. Without saying a word, Suzuki Roshi switched the plates.
Buddhadharma: In a similar vein, David Chadwick recounts a story of a student earnestly telling Suzuki Roshi that the Buddha was a vegetarian, and his response was, “Yes, Buddha was a very pious man.”
Norman Fischer: He had that kind of humor all the time, unsettling whatever place you had settled into as your comfort zone. It’s not a statement about eating meat or not eating meat. It’s about fixations. The title of one of his books, Not Always So, is a saying he used all the time. And it was the source of his humor. Everything that you believe and think may in the next moment have to be dropped. There’s humor in that because you get stuck to what you believed a minute ago, and then when the rug is pulled out from under you it’s funny—even though it may not be funny to you in that very moment.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: In our community, Trungpa Rinpoche made April Fool’s Day a kind of national holiday. He would often make outrageous requests or astounding proclamations on April 1st. People would just completely freak out trying to fulfill the request or figure out what the proclamation meant, and then the April Fool’s joke would be revealed. He was on a yearlong retreat in the mid-1980s, and at the end of that year people eagerly awaited his return. Hundreds of people were gathered to greet him in Boulder, Colorado, but he disappeared. People called the retreat and were told he was still packing, and then told in subsequent calls that he was on his way. But actually he had left a day early and was already in Boulder
Since he was late and people were uncertain whether and when he would show up, they frantically tried to decide whether to cancel the ceremony, and just as they were about to pull the plug, he showed up. In retrospect, it felt as though that joke and the anger and empty-heartedness and all the other emotions it provoked in people was almost a dry run for his own death two years later. It was the biggest joke, the cosmic joke. Don’t take things for granted. It’s not always so.
Bernie Glassman: I haven’t given a dharma talk for the past ten years without wearing my red nose during some part of it. I’ve made that an integral part of my life.
Norman Fischer: Does your character change when you have the nose on?
Bernie Glassman: Yes and no. When the red nose goes on it changes the character of what’s happening in the room.
Buddhadharma: How is that not just silly?
Bernie Glassman: It certainly is silly. That’s the point. It changes the whole ambience. I can be much freer because people drop their guard much more. When people come to hear teachings, they’re in a particular frame of mind, trying to receive something. If all of a sudden there’s a red nose, your frame of reference is somewhat destroyed, and you don’t know what to expect, similar to what happens during a Zen teisho.
I have a student, the actor Jeff Bridges, who played the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” He carries his red nose with him. If an interviewer asks a particularly weird question, he’ll put his nose on, and say, Can you repeat that question?
If there’s somebody I’m having trouble listening to, perhaps because their politics is angering me, I imagine that person with a red nose on, and my whole attitude changes. When you add something as simple as a red nose, it becomes a different world.
Buddhadharma: A teisho can simultaneously confound and intrigue one’s logical mind. Is that a form of humor?
Bernie Glassman: A teisho is about the unexpected, just like a punch line. They take away your opinions and concepts rather than give you more of them. The key is pulling the rug out, saying things that cause people to drop their preconceptions. A red nose can do that too. It’s about not knowing, being totally open to what’s going to happen. At that point, your mental constructs fall apart.
Norman Fischer: Whatever you say or do in dharma, somebody takes that to be something. Then, they make something out of it and they’re off and running. To counteract that, you have to put on the red nose, either literally as Bernie does, or in some other way. The other day someone told me that I had just given such a profound and poignant talk. I had to laugh, because once the dharma talk becomes something profound and poignant, it becomes a thing and the actual dharma becomes lost within that. You have to walk around with a brush that covers your tracks as you walk, because otherwise people are following the tracks and that’s not the point. The point is that they have to be where they are, in their lives, not following your tracks.
Buddhadharma: That’s a teaching on egolessness. Impermanence and suffering are kind of easy to demonstrate through language and logic, but egolessness is very tricky. It can become quite serious and philosophical, but if you don’t show up when you’re expected, or put on a red nose, or laugh about profundity, egolessness is demonstrated on the spot. Egolessness is not serious, bad news, like a death in the family. It’s fun and it’s funny.
Norman Fischer: It’s freedom.
Buddhadharma: It seems easier to generate a sense of humor in pleasant and neutral circumstances. Is humor also applicable in times of great grief or sorrow, or intense pain or turmoil?
Carolyn Rose Gimian: When you’re in the situation, you can see the humor. If you’re just laughing at something from the outside, it can be pretty hideous when it’s a very serious situation. When Trungpa Rinpoche was escaping from Tibet, his party was crossing the Brahmaputra River with the Chinese chasing them. Of nearly three hundred people, only thirteen were able to get across. Some made it later, but most of them never did. They were shot at for days, and Rinpoche wrote about making jokes about how they needed to do yogic breathing because it was so cold, but if they did that, it would make too much noise and they would get shot at. It seems amazing that these monks could find humor in the midst of that situation, but I think it’s actually what made it possible for them to spend ten months walking out of Tibet.
Norman Fischer: The absurdity of the human situation, even at its most grim, is always funny, but the humor has to come from the inside. You can’t comfort someone in loss by telling them jokes. The humor has to emerge for them from within the situation. Laughter can relieve the grimness that can grip us at these times, but it can’t be artificial. It has to arise spontaneously. Laughter and tears are very close together. It is not unusual to see people sitting Shiva, a weeklong Jewish mourning ritual, crying one minute and laughing like mad in the next about something in the life of the person who just died, and the next minute they’re crying again.
Bernie Glassman: The same goes for an Irish wake.
The first Auschwitz retreat I did was designed to bring people from many cultures and religions and countries together, along with children of survivors and children of SS officers. We brought together as many as we could, including Gypsies and gays, who were also victims at Auschwitz. It got kind of wild with such a mix of cultures. Some people were angered when others laughed, saying how can you laugh in this horrible place. At one point, a rabbi wound up leading everybody in joyous singing and dancing and about half the people at the retreat were ready to leave. An Orthodox woman spoke up, saying, “We Jews dance and are joyful at times of sorrow.”
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Taking the humor out of people’s lives is one of the greatest forms of oppression. When you are not willing to let others take away your sense of humor, you become stronger. To laugh on the grounds at Auschwitz says that there is still joy in the world. It could not be taken away.
Norman Fischer: It’s paradoxical. Schadenfreude—to find someone else’s misfortune laughable—is a very unpleasant emotion. To laugh in the midst of your own suffering is to respond to the divine comedy of the human condition; to make a joke of others’ pain to make yourself feel better is not humor.
Buddhadharma: Paradox seems to be at the heart of genuine humor. We are so sad about loss and death, for example, but that’s also laughable because it’s such an inevitable part of life and yet we find ourselves treating it as if it’s unexpected.
Norman Fischer: You don’t need to trivialize sorrow, and yet the joke is that we’re all in the same mess together and the sorrow and the joy are virtually the same thing.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Yes. We see both poles at once and that’s humorous. We can laugh while we’re crying at the same time.
Norman Fischer: It’s not about making fun of someone. It’s about stumbling upon the fun, and the funniness, that is at the heart of any human situation.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: There is a big difference between humor that celebrates and humor that denigrates. It’s one thing for Suzuki Roshi to mock the piety of the Buddha or for Bernie to turn a profound ceremony into farce, but a certain kind of attempt at humor—like a candle where you watch the Buddha’s head melt or drinking out of a Buddha-shaped glass at the Buddha Bar—can imply that nothing is sacred, spirituality is just another big joke, why bother.
Buddhadharma: Humor often relies on irony and a Buddha glass is an attempt at irony, but perhaps it depends on who is being ironic.
Norman Fischer: When Bernie comes into the Buddha hall and does those funny things, everybody also knows that he’s spent fifty years practicing Zen. If somebody were coming in who actually thought Zen was stupid and tried to satirize it in order to shatter people’s faith in it, that would be different. That said, I do think that Zen is stupid. [Laughter]
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Yes, but you’re in a position to say that.
Norman Fischer: I’m not bothered by the Buddha Bar or whatever. I wouldn’t want to be overly sensitive about mockery of religious symbols. That can lead to an unhealthy fundamentalism. We would all do better if we could stand having our religions satirized, even by outsiders.
Buddhadharma: As we Buddhists in the West progress from a collection of ragtag groups into a collection of institutions, are we becoming too earnest or pious?
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Certainly, at times that is the case. Now that Buddhism has more recognition, we seem at times to have become deadly serious and earnest and “spiritual” to the point of self-parody. When I feel that happening, I’m inspired to say something provocative or profane in a religious context. Just to change things up. If someone is just a little too preciously extolling the spiritual virtues of cleaning their toilet, I might be inclined to say they should flush more often, or something like that.
Norman Fischer: I agree. We ought to be able to laugh at ourselves as much as we laugh at the characters on sitcoms or in the movies or the theater. We all need a red nose, desperately.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: There are other forms of humor that are not joking or clowning per se, but authentic expressions that let us see the amusement in life, like poetry.
Norman Fischer: Poetry can be overly serious too, but I think poetry is essentially funny. When you speak, whatever word you say, it’s already wrong. Poetry points to the traps we fall into when we try to put things into words. I like writing poetry to see those places where we get stuck.
Bernie Glassman: The beat poets, who were important for the growth of dharma in the West, had a great sense of humor and were in many ways poking fun at the society they found themselves in.
Norman Fischer: I wouldn’t say they were a bunch of fun-loving guys necessarily. They had very serious concerns, but the whole atmosphere then was so buttoned down and earnest that their whole effort was to blast it all open and just let it all hang out.
Buddhadharma: Humor and trickery can be very irreverent. Is that appropriate?
Bernie Glassman: I’m a huge fan of irreverence. Out of too much reverence, we’ve enabled lots of stuff to happen within the Buddhist tradition that we shouldn’t have enabled, and I’m included in that. We’ve got too much reverence floating around.
Norman Fischer: We need irreverent humor to undercut self-importance.
Bernie Glassman: Even to the point of saying fuck you. And I hope people would do that for me.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Ideally, humor is a sword that cuts both ways. It cuts the humorer and the humoree. And if you find a situation where humor seems called for and you hold back, what are you protecting? You are probably afraid you might be seen as a fool. If you leap out there and do it, if it’s really inappropriate you will get cut and learn from that. If the humor is on the mark, then ego is cut all the way round, for you and for the target of your irreverence. Everyone is exposed.
Buddhadharma: There is a willingness to be naked, embarrassed.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: And to have the rug pulled out from under you while you are pulling the rug out from under someone else. It’s the same rug.
Norman Fischer: Pomposity and self-inflation actually is funny. It’s very funny. It’s hilarious to see the emperor walking around without any clothes while thinking he has clothes on.
Bernie Glassman: Yes, but it’s got to be pointed out, or you have a very big problem.
Norman Fischer: It takes some courage when everybody is being reverent to change the mood. It’s not so easy to do.
Bernie Glassman: Not at all
Carolyn Rose Gimian: You have to make a leap.
Norman Fischer: A whole group of us can fall under a powerful spell, and if you’re able to break that spell of the all-powerful and pious great teacher who transmits the truth, you’re doing us all a great favor.
Carolyn Rose Gimian: At times, though, it may not be as dramatic. It may be as simple as lightening the environment a little bit. If you help to make the tone more ordinary and less exalted, someone can make their own discovery. A heavy-handed joke can be just as heavy-handed as the pompousness it’s trying to deflate. That’s one way for a joke to cross the line into aggressiveness.
Bernie Glassman: There’s an important term in Zen that Dogen devotes a whole chapter to. And my favorite translation of this term is “joyful samadhi.”
Norman Fischer: Jijuyu zammai. It’s pure joy.
Bernie Glassman: It’s what we’re talking about, playful samadhi.
Norman Fischer: Dogen talks about leaping and turning cartwheels.
Bernie Glassman: Which is very striking, because Dogen can seem so serious.
Norman Fischer: We need some Buddhist jokes. You know, a Theravadan monk, a Zen priest, and a Tibetan lama walk into a bar…
Buddhadharma: Maybe we should have a contest on the web for the best Buddhist joke.
Norman Fischer: In China, Maitreya Buddha is a big fat laughing guy with a satchel on his back and a big potbelly.
Bernie Glassman: Hotei, the Japanese laughing Buddha with the big belly, is our idol. He’s the ultimate of what you can become.
Buddhadharma: So, is the Buddha laughing or crying?
Carolyn Rose Gimian: Both or neither.
Bernie Glassman: The Buddha laughs when he hears a good Jewish joke. And he cries when he realizes he didn’t think of it first.
Elaine Smookler is a comedic actress and playwright living in Toronto. Her most recent theater production was Brigitte’s Bardo, a musical comedy based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Bernie Glassman is a Zen master in the White Plum lineage of Maezumi Roshi and cofounder of Zen Peacemakers, which is active in socially engaged Buddhism. He leads an annual bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, as well as programs that explore the relationship between Zen and clowning.
Carolyn Rose Gimian is a meditation teacher trained by Chogyam Trungpa. She is the editor of Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, and other teachings by Chogyam Trungpa, including his collected works.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen Buddhist priest. He is the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture. He is also a senior dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, where has served as co-abbot from 1995-2000.