So the Buddha walks out from under the bodhi tree and turns out to be a comedian. No seriously, give me some respect here. I’ve been reading lots of the oldest stories we have about the Buddha in his day, and have been surprised to realize that some of the stories he tells, and some of his sermons, show all the signs of being originally intended to make their point with humor. Today’s audience isn’t going to find them laugh-out-loud funny, but they are at least deserving of the classic drum rimshot: ba-dumm-tssss!
The first time I came across one of these was in a sermon1 about how a practitioner who has five qualities — faith, virtue, education, generosity, and wisdom — can, through well-applied effort, be reborn in a certain specific location. The first of these is rebirth into a family of nobles in this world. The disciple concentrates, thinking:
“Oh, if when I die I could be reborn in the company of wealthy nobles!” He concentrates his mind on that, and because of this wish and this abiding of his, when refined and strengthened, he reappears there.
The same basic text is used again, this time with the desire to be born into a family of brahmins, and then again, into the family of a householder. This pattern continues, repeating at full length for “…the gods in the heaven of the four maharajas” and for “…the gods in the heaven of the thirty-three” and “…the Yama gods” and “…the gods of the Tusita heaven” as well as “…the gods who love to create things” and “…gods with control over other’s creations”. In each case, the story tells us, the Buddha has said that a person with those five qualities who develops strong concentration on one of these locations, will reappear there after the breakup of the body.
The sermon goes on, building the list of possible locations for the next life in the company of the Brahma of a Thousand, the Brahma of Two Thousand, the Brahma of Three Thousand, Four Thousand, Five Thousand, Ten Thousand, a Hundred Thousand. By this point I was beginning to wonder, as I’d always thought there was only one Brahma; I’d thought that was actually the main point about Brahma, his oneness, but maybe these were just aspects of Brahma. Maybe, I thought, there’s something I don’t know here about Vedic mythology, and so I soldiered on with the reading.
Continuing with the story, the Buddha is still advising that those with the required qualities can focus on and end up in higher and higher heavens: with the gods of Radiance, of Limited Radiance, of Immeasurable Radiance, of Streaming Radiance, the gods of Glory.
Well, you get the idea. This goes on for a total of thirty-two escalating levels of possibilities and just when I’m wondering how much more fantastic the levels of heavens get and how long they will go on, the story goes on to the thirty-third possibility which is:
“Oh, if only I could, by realizing it myself, through direct experience, abide here and now in the complete liberation of mind by wisdom, through the destruction of the taints!” He concentrates his mind on that, and because of this wish and this abiding of his, when refined and strengthened, he achieves this liberation, and is not reborn anywhere.
After all those glorious future dwellings, which are given at greater length and in more detail than I’ve described here, the punch line to this story is completely pedestrian: The point of the sermon turns out not to be how spending time meditating on the various heavens can help with achieving a great rebirth, instead it’s about how if we focus on the simple matter of liberating ourselves by developing wisdom and learning to stop clinging, we can achieve this right here, right now.
This very simple story has at least two of the three classic hallmarks of comedy:
- the setup: in which we are given a background, or pattern, with enough information for us to develop an expectation of the story continuing in that direction
- the pause: which is missing from the story; but since it is a written description of a talk the Buddha gave live, the pause may have been there, but not included, since “stage directions” were not recorded in those days; the pause is usually there to let the audience know that something of importance is about to be said
- the punchline: this usually contains the “point of derailment” which is a way of saying that the humor comes from having set up a certain expectation, and the laugh comes from pushing the direction the story was taking right off the tracks.
There are a few other stories I’ve come across that show similar signs of intentional humor being used as a teaching tool, so I’ll offer up another, and this one is fairly famous because it’s the lead-up to the Buddha’s third sermon, known as the “Fire Sermon”. In this tale we find out how he was inspired to use the metaphor of fire.
This story appears in the monastic’s guide, “The Vinaya”, translated as “The Discipline”, in a section of the Pali canon that has a rare chronological telling of a series of tales, going from the Buddha’s enlightenment, through his first encounters and sermons, to his early converts. This story, as we have it from the Vinaya, must be as it was told by the Buddha some time later, probably many years later. It’s a story framing a sermon.
As he tells it, once he’s gotten the Wheel of the Dharma seriously in motion, he works on preaching until he has enough monks so that some can stay to maintain the local sangha and others can be sent out “no two together” in various directions to spread word of The Way. He then takes his own advice and goes off on his own. As he walks back down the road he’d traveled right after his enlightenment, heading now towards the biggest city of the day, Rajagaha, it is winter, and the nights are getting quite cold. He comes to an area called Uruvela, on the banks of the Neranjara River, which turns out to be the residence of a “matted-haired ascetic”, a fire worshiper, one of three brothers from the Kassapa clan who lived near each other, each with their own students. The one with the largest following is known as Uruvela Kassapa, and the Buddha encounters him as the cold night is coming on, and asks him if he can sleep in the hut with his sacred fire. Kassapa says he can, but tells him there is a naga in the hut — literally, a “naga” is a snake, but this one is called “a snake king” so we are left with the impression that it must have been a big one, perhaps a cobra.
The Buddha goes into the hut, and finds the naga there. Annoyed at the intrusion of a man, it blows smoke at him. The Buddha decides to answer heat with heat, and blows smoke back at the snake. The great naga flames up and blows fire at the man; the Buddha answers by blazing up himself. From outside the hut, Uruvela Kassapa watches and listens, impressed by the glow coming from inside as though the place is filled with fire, and while he appreciates this wandering recluse’s style and grace in dealing with the danger, he feels certain his guest will be dead by morning. In the light of dawn, the Buddha emerges unscathed, with an apparently untouched — but defeated — snake in his almsbowl. Kassapa is deeply impressed yet thinks to himself, “He’s good, but he’s not a perfected one, like I am.”
The Buddha asks Kassapa if he can stay the day in the fire hall where Kassapa and his students sometimes gather, and this is granted, with another warning about a nagaraja living there. The whole experience is repeated again.
On a subsequent night, Kassapa can see from a distance a great glow in the grove in which the Buddha is staying, and asks about it the next day. His guest tells him that he was visited by the four Great Kings, who came to hear him preach the dharma. Uruvela Kassapa is amazed, but still thinks to himself “but he’s not a perfected one, like I am.” This is repeated two more times, with visits from Sakkha and Brahma Sahampati, with the same results.
Now Kassapa is preparing for a great sacrificial rite, and he knows he’s good at it and will impress the many influential people who come from near and far to participate, but he is worried that he will be in the midst of his ceremonies when his powerful guest will make a show of some wonder and steal his thunder. He thinks and hopes to himself that surely this great ascetic will not show up on the day of the rite. The Buddha, aware of this, goes off to provide his own needs, with an almsround elsewhere. When Kassapa’s wish comes true, and the Buddha is nowhere to be found on the day, but reappears the next, Kassapa comments on it, noting that they had expected him and had set aside food for him. The Buddha answers by asking Kassapa if he had not thought to himself, “Surely he will not come today” and thus he had not come. The matted-haired ascetic is again impressed, this time by the Buddha’s psychic powers, his ability to read minds.
The next wonders involve the Buddha’s need to clean his rag robe with nowhere to wash them. The deva-king Sakka provides a water-filled pond, a rock for him to beat his robe on, and when the Buddha finds the embankment too steep to climb out of, a tree-spirit bends a limb low for him to pull himself out. When Uruvella Kassapa comes by to visit later that evening, he wonders aloud where it all came from, and after he’s been told the story, he is again impressed, but still thinks, “He is not a perfected one, like me.”
Now it is time for dinner, and the host invites his guest to come along to the meal. The Buddha demurs, saying he’ll be along in a moment. Kassapa leaves, and the Buddha finds a tree, plucks a ripe fruit from it, and is sitting waiting for Kassapa when he arrives at his hut, having gotten there first despite leaving last. The Buddha offers Kassapa the fruit, the fire worshiper declines, saying he is not worthy, his guest should have it, and yet he finds himself still thinking that he is more perfect than the Buddha. This story is repeated five more times with different items being brought to dinner, and the results always the same.
The next set of miracles occurs when Kassapa and his followers ran low on wood for their fires, but were unable to chop wood; the Buddha saw their struggles and solved the problem for them. “He’s good,” thinks Kassapa, “but not as perfect as I am.” The same sort of problem occurs with the fire worshipers being unable to light their fires — though the Buddha could — and later they were unable to put them out — though the Buddha could. And still Kassapa thinks he’s the better ascetic.
As winter truly set in, snow began to fall and Kassapa and his followers all went to the cold, cold river and began their ritual austerities by plunging into the river, and leaping out of it, and the Buddha, watching them, made a bowl filled with fire appear just near the spot where each one would make his last leap out, so that they could warm themselves. But he was still not, to Kassapa’s mind, the best around.
After the snow, an unseasonal thaw brought on an unusual winter rain, which caused great flooding in the area, and Uruvela Kassapa worried for his guest’s safety. He gathered up many of his followers and they rowed to the area where the Buddha had been staying, which they thought surely would be under water. They spotted a man striding up and down on a spot so dry it was dusty. “Is it truly you there?” they called to him through the mist, and he answered, “It is.” They were amazed to find him safe, apparently having ordered the waters around him to lower. Next they knew, the Buddha was there in the boat with them. Kassapa looked at the amazing ascetic and thought, “He really has impressive powers, but still he is not as perfect as I am.” The Buddha sat calmly in the boat thinking, “I’ve been here a long time, and for all of it this fellow has been thinking that while I’m impressive, he’s more perfect than I am. Yet he is far from perfect. Perhaps it’s time now to stir him up a bit.”
So the Buddha said, “You aren’t perfect either, Kassapa. You haven’t yet found the way to perfection.” Kassapa looked at the Buddha, lowered his gaze and said, “Master, may I take ordination from you?”
Need I say “Ba-dumm-tssss”?
Now, different people approach this story different ways. It can be interpreted as literal descriptions of events at the time; or that it’s the Buddha’s interpretation of events; or that it’s an attempt at myth-building to enhance the reputation of the founder; or that it’s simply an entertainment, story-telling; or whatever you might imagine it to be. But the remarkable thing about this story is that whatever the basis for the grandiose stories of miracles might be, the wonders are not the point of the story at all, the point is the ba-dum-tssss at the end, of Uruvela Kassapa’s conversion not by miracles, but by the Buddha’s simple reading of his character and his concerns, and his bald statement of facts.
This story, too, fits the pattern of humor, with the very long and complex setup, getting the audience to relax and enjoy the continuing tales of the miracles, which would distract them from the fact that they are being set up. The pause is actually almost visible: there is a change from the story being told “straight up” to delving into the Buddha’s strategic thinking about Uruvela Kassapa. This foreshadows the “reveal” which comes next, the derailment in which we are shown that the miracles were not what was going to make the big impression, the simple act of being able to read Kassapa’s character, and speak to him directly of his concerns was the key.
More rules of comedy are demonstrated in this piece:
- Comedy is really not about “the funny”, it’s about the suffering we do
- Because comedy is about suffering, the characters need to have understandable motives
- Self-deprecating humor works well (but only if your reputation is already established)
- Have a purpose to telling your joke because it’s more memorable if it makes a point
- It can’t look like acting.
- Don’t tell people you’re going to tell them a joke; the element of surprise at derailment is critical; best if it sounds like just a story that it occurred to you to tell
- There’s usually a straight man and a comic; the straight man gets the proverbial pie in the face from the comic
Most of the stories in the Pali canon are presented out of chronological order, but this one comes in the middle of a quite rare section told on a timeline, with this piece looking for all the world as though it’s simply there to set up the inspiration for the Buddha’s famous Fire Sermon — his time spent with a fire worshiper — and maybe along the way to impress us with a few miracles performed long ago by our now famous teacher. It seems as though we are being told the story as background, and there’s no real clue that there’s any lesson in this part at all, but there is. If we look at the story closely we can see that it’s showing us that being full of oneself is a hindrance, while being selfless is not. We may think that the fellow performing all the amazing wonders is seeking to glorify himself, but if we look at what he really did, we will see what small events underlay them all:
- he defeats a snake (small enough to fit in an almsbowl) with smoke and bluster, without causing it to suffer
- he teaches dharma to various visitors to the grove
- he reads a man’s character and absents himself from the sacrifice
- he cleans his rag robe
- he brings fruit to dinner and gets there first
- he chops wood, lights and puts out fires
- he provides warm fires for the end of the freezing ascetics’ austerities
- he’s not drowned by the flood because he’s found high ground
This is self-deprecating humor at its finest, because it takes quite a close look to even notice that under the blazing light cast out of the hut in which the Buddha encounters the nagaraja, is a story of someone who is unafraid of the snake, and cool-headed enough to defeat it using his own insight into the nature of things, which is his true ascetic power. Under every piece of the story we find that while the fire worshiper is a little bit lost (afraid of the snake; of losing the glory from his rites; unable to get back to his hut fastest; or light fires) the Buddha understands just what needs to be done, and does it well. In the end it seems the point of the story may be to show the Buddha’s competent, but egoless nature in contrast to Kassapa’s, and that he makes converts not by doing miracles, but by simply understanding what’s going on, and especially understanding people.
Even if, at first glance, the Buddha seems to be the straight man, he’s not, but he’s not playing his part for big laughs; he’s a subtle comic. In the end of the story, he pies Kassapa because nothing else has gotten through to him — and his droll comment is too gentle to be anything but a proverbial pie. The fire worshiper’s ego has gotten in the way of him noticing that the Buddha’s gracious absence from the big sacrifice comes, not from mind-reading, but from understanding how Kassapa would feel if his guest performed yet another wonder, this time when important guests were around, and even more, from the Buddha having no need to add to his own glory by stealing the show. The pie isn’t even there to provide the laugh — most of us can understand what Kassapa must be going through when comparing himself to the Buddha, and the Buddha is making no effort to humiliate his host, so this is not slapstick humor — all the humor comes, first, from the derailment of the expectation that Kassapa would finally be convinced by the miracles, and then on reflection, by noticing just how ordinary the Buddha’s miracles were — he’s making the joke at his own expense.
We all know fire worshipers, people whose need to feel superior is wrapped so tightly around them that they can’t see what’s obvious, even when it’s presented to them over and over in a variety of ways. While the Buddha performs his everyday miracles, poor Kassapa is stuck trying to seem unaffected, to keep his self-image of being the more perfect of the two intact, but we know it has to be getting so hard to maintain, that by the time the Buddha deflates him with his simple insight into his character, Kassapa is definitely ready to recognize who is the more perfect one.
Though humor is certainly not the point of the two stories — the first on what our focus should be in our practice, and the second on the hindrance of conceit — couching the talks in this sort of mild comedy sets the audience at ease and helps to open their minds to the message. Some twenty centuries later, the jokes may not be as obvious as they once were, but they are well worth looking out for, since they make the lessons clearer. With that in mind, we can learn a great deal from the Buddha’s sermons, and maybe even learn enough to improve our own jokes.
1 MN 120 Sankharupapatti Sutta “Reappearance by Aspiration”