Two thousand five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan wanted to know the cause of suffering. When he discovered it, he became known as the Buddha, the enlightened one, enlightened enough to forge a path out of suffering into bliss. At the moment of discovery, exhilarated by the insight, did the Buddha laugh?

Could he have laughed perhaps at the foolishness of humankind that causes it to suffer the world of delusions? We will never know. Still, out there, on shelves across the world, we find images of the Laughing Buddha, a bald, pot-bellied monk raising his arms as he roars in laughter. Who is this Buddha, so different from the curly haired, slim and serene founder of Buddhism we otherwise know?

To find out, we have to trace the journey of Buddhism from India to the Far East where it metamorphosed into Zen (from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’ meaning reflection). According to Zen mythology, Sakyamuni Gautama was but one of the many Buddhas populating the cosmos. Some of these Buddhas did laugh to achieve, transmit or express enlightenment. So claimed the ‘laughter’ school. The ‘serious’ school disagreed. They felt laughter was too frivolous to fit into the rather solemn monastic path of the Buddha. This led to hair-splitting debates on the nature of jocularity in monasteries across the Orient.

The scholastic attempt at resolving the apparent contradiction between laughter and an enlightened state began by distinguishing between six types of laughter. The classification based on Bharata’s 5th century classic Natyashastra (much of India’s Sanskrit literature made its way to the Orient thanks to the silk route) arranged the spectrum of smiling through laughter in hierarchical fashion from the most reserved expressions to the most raucous. These included:

  1. Atihasita, uproarious laughter accompanied by doubling over
  2. Apahasita, loud laughter that brings tears to the eyes
  3. Upahasita, a more pronounced laughter associated with some body movement
  4. Vihasita, a broader smile accompanied by modest laughter
  5. Hasita, a smile which slightly reveals the tips of the teeth
  6. Sita, a faint smile. This one is also known as the Buddha smile, denoting an inner attitude of detachment “in the world, but not of the world.”

Given this hierarchical schema it is predictable that the Buddhist scholastics would incline to the view that the Buddha had only indulged in sita, the most reserved, tranquil, and circumspect form of laughter; actually, in terms of the English word, no laughter at all, only a barely perceptible smile.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, however, what one often encounters is the opposite of sita, namely, the fifth and sixth and supposedly lowest levels of laughter, offered both as authentic expressions of Buddhist enlightenment and evidence of the authenticity of the enlightenment. In Zen, Bharata’s aristocratic and spiritualistic schema seems abruptly to have been stood on its head.

Zen tales document the comical activities of enlightened masters. A Zen anecdote that has been circulating recently tells of a monk asking, “Where is the Buddha now?” The anticipated answer would be, “The Buddha is in Nirvaana.” The answer given, however, is: “The Buddha is taking a sh*t!”

In Zen art, monks were often shown in various stages of hilarity as if privy to some cosmic joke. One sketch by a Zen master shows a bullfrog sitting, as if in meditation, but with a smirk on his face. The accompanying calligraphy reads: “If by sitting in meditation one becomes a Buddha… then all frogs are Buddhas.”

The humor in these Zen narratives and images is an example of reducing a line of inquiry to an absurdity so that one is jolted into moving beyond the boxes and labels within which one hopes to capture and incarcerate reality. Perhaps thereby will be effected a direct and immediate realisation of the truth which is beyond name and form. Thus making humor the ‘midwife of truth’, Zen masters converted Buddha’s laughter into the medium of enlightenment.

But laughter was also an expression of enlightenment, Buddha’s laughter is a state of release from inner tensions into inner harmony. The Buddha does not laugh at himself or at others, he does not laugh because he has acquired something others don’t have. The laughter is neither cynical, sarcastic, bitter nor defiant. It is the laughter of compassion, an amusement at the interplay of knowledge and ignorance that makes up the joys and sorrows of what we call life.

Article by Devdutt Pattanaik