Is seeing the Humour in Enlightenment the key to finding it?
The great cosmic joke is that you are what you are seeking. All the religious and spiritual seeking on this planet and you end up back where you started. If that’s not a fantastic joke worth a good belly laugh I don’t know what is. We all look for happiness, peace and fulfilment in the things of the world, yet all along these things are our very nature – our very own centre of being. Meditation masters and mystics throughout history have seen the joke of it as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Have we been taking enlightenment too seriously?
The Buddhists have been onto the joke for a while, their main training is to not take things seriously. What else is being unattached than a great sense of humour? Buddha realised that all conditions of the world are temporary and taking any of it too seriously creates suffering.
I’m not sure how humans made such a big a deal out of this simple truth but it’s because everyone else was taking things seriously and causing a lot of problems for themselves they held up Buddha to be all enlightened, worshipped him, created another religion and over the years have mostly missed the basic point. Another Buddhist meditator, Longchenpa, realised this simple truth again some two thousand years later and said:
Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.
The Buddhists have been onto the joke for a while
What about the warning from spiritual teachers that every single thing you imagine yourself to be is a clever lie constructed by a psychological defence mechanism against the existential truth of transiency. In other words you are not who you think you are. That’s pretty funny isn’t it? However laughing about it, not taking yourself seriously, is another wonderful coping mechanism to be able to digest such seemingly harsh truths. As Longchenpa says, you may as well burst out laughing, or as a modern Zen master Adyashanti explains:
We realize–often quite suddenly–that our sense of self, which has been formed and constructed out of our ideas, beliefs and images, is not really who we are. It doesn’t define us, it has no centre.
I have watched hundreds of spiritual teachers and the best ones have a common trait – they giggle a lot. Even my main Buddhist teacher, an intellectual giant in the Gelug-pa Tibetan Buddhist tradition, would consistently forecast his arrival into the temple with bouts of laughter. Another favourite teacher of mine is Alan Watts whom you can’t watch for 5 minutes without getting to hear his infectious cackling and the current Dalai Lama is almost famous for his warm giggle. Alan Watts once remarked:
People suffer only because they take seriously what the gods made for fun.
The humour of Alan Watts
Laughter and humour are not just frivolous. They can be a sharp tools to cut through the bullshit. Sometimes in society it’s the comedians who are the only ones telling the truth. Not the politicians, not the priests and not even the school teachers but the people who can step back and see the ridiculousness of current affairs. In fact more and more people are getting their truthful political information from The Late Show and from comedians like the late Bill Hicks and George Carlin, who would deliver sobering doses of reality which was actually very true and therefore very funny. Comedians often point to the discrepancy between how we think things are and how they actually are, fortunately that evokes laughter, unfortunately people tend go back to living a lie after the laughter subsides.
The enlightened fool is the one who sees the ego trips of society and can still find joy and laughter in its midst. The fool is often the enlightened one, the one with crazy wisdom, with laughter and jokes as their weapon, they cut through the mundane conformity and bring to light the latent child like bliss bubbling just beneath the surface of all seriousness. The fool possesses a wisdom that is out of reach of the conformist. A playful attitude in touch with enormous amounts of creativity.
A young George Carlin
Humour is also extremely healing, they say laughter is the greatest medicine and it’s true. It can also ease the stress and tension of daily life, reduce boredom at work and unite people of different backgrounds. Everybody takes themselves and others too seriously.
So if humour can heal, relax, unite people, undo the ego and entertain all at the same time that sounds enlightening enough for me.
Which brings me to the laughable way most people understand enlightenment, that is an enlightened person is a perfect person. Perfect virtue, perfect love, perfect knowledge and as a meditation teacher jokes even perfectly smelling sandalwood farts. This ideal of the perfect person is a joke and does not exist in reality. It creates cults of worship around people who are seen as perfect and just stresses the rest of us out with guilt for not living up to these idealistic fantasies.
Humour is so healing many are turning to Laughter Yoga classes
If Nietzsche declared ‘God is dead’ and Zen Buddhists urge us to ‘kill Buddha in the street’ I would like to add if you believe in a perfect Guru – slap yourself across your face, and see if it doesn’t hurt. That’s reality. Reality is perfect because it can deliver all range of human emotions from sadness and despair to elation and joy. Trying to just have perfect emotions and a perfect life only invites a massive come down of disappointment. As Alan Watts says, you cannot have up with down or even right without wrong.
All you have to do is be yourself
So all that’s left is to just be your natural self. As someone once said if you can laugh at yourself you will never be short of material. Or as one of my favourite Zen teachers Brad Warner says:
The state of ambiguity – that messy, greasy, mixed-up, confused, and awful situation you’re living through right now – is enlightenment itself.
How enlightening it is to be yourself
Another cosmic joke is that we will all die. This is not scary it is reality. Of course religions have made a business out of promising you that there is life after death and there are consequences to all your actions after death, the fear of fire and brimstone or the desire for virgins in heaven are potent motivators to act responsibly in our lives and also a powerful invocation to take the priests, churches and traditional lineages seriously. It’s the oldest trick in the ‘book’. But it’s time to grow up and be able to act responsibly without the need for fairy tales. We live, we love, we grow, we die. That’s absolutely beautiful and enchanting enough. As Osho says:
Life as it is should be enough of a reason to laugh. It is so absurd, it is so ridiculous. It is so beautiful, it is so wonderful. It is all sorts of things together. It is a great cosmic joke.
So where does the cosmic joke lead us? Back to where we started; to the unadulterated pure joy of just being alive – laughing for no reason and grinning like a mad hatter. Life becomes play instead of a chore, a cosmic dance on the needle head of eternity.
By Chad Foreman
Former Buddhist monk