Do Buddhists have a funnybone?



The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung coined the term “The Shadow” to refer to all those aspects of a person's psyche that are operative but that the persona or ego does not wish to acknowledge as being part of itself. Jung pointed out that those who take up religious beliefs and practices almost inevitably adapt their egos accordingly. So, for example, Buddhist practitioners might come to identify themselves as beings who are striving to cultivate the factors of awakening, namely, wisdom, courage, concentration, mindfulness, inner joy, mental and emotional flexibility, equanimity, faith, right resolve and good moral habit. It is very easy for the ego, which Jung saw as one of the many complexes of the collective unconscious, to then begin to see itself not only as someone striving to bring those qualities to perfection but as someone who is essentially characterized by those qualities. Upon detecting some hint of the opposite of these qualities operational in the psyche—that is, when the Buddhist stumbles upon evidence in himself of folly, cowardice, distraction, negligence, depression, dogmatism, emotional rigidity, favoritism and despair—the properly trained Buddhist ego promptly denies possession of them and perceives them as qualities that belong not to the self but to others.

The parts of the self that the ego or persona sees as parts of the other are what Jung called The Shadow. The stronger the light, said Jung, the deeper the shadow. So in religions that place a strong emphasis on light in the form of such kinds of goodness and health as generosity, magnanimity and compassion, one can expect to find plenty of adherents of that religion who try to disown their own stinginess, pettiness and maliciousness. The failure to see those of one's own characteristics that fall outside the virtues officially prescribed by a religious system, says Jung, leads the individual to do two things: 1) she externalizes the unwelcome characteristics by projecting them on to other people, and 2) she seeks external discipline, such as rules and regulations, to serve as protection against the invasion of those externalized psychological enemies. The result is an individual who operates mostly within the context of potentially disruptive delusions, and the blame for all this delusion says Jung “rests with education, which promulgates the old generalizations and says nothing about the secrets of private experience.” Jung, (1963, p. 305) He then goes on to make this series of observations:

Thus, every effort is made to teach idealistic beliefs or conduct which people know in their hearts they can never live up to, and such ideals are preached by officials who know that they themselves have never lived up to these high standards and never will. What is more, nobody ever questions the value of this kind of teaching. Therefore the individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, as it is posed to-day, has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish—as he ought—to live without self-deception or self-delusion. In general, however, most people are hopelessly ill equipped for living on this level, although there are also many persons to-day who have the capacity for profounder insight into themselves. Such self-knowledge is of prime importance, because through it we approach that fundamental stratum or core of human nature where the instincts dwell. Here are those pre-existent dynamic factors which ultimately govern the ethical decisions of our consciousness. This core is the unconscious and its contents, concerning which we cannot pass any final judgment. Jung, (1963, p. 305)

Commenting on this passage, Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf point out that Jung was by no means the first person to make these important observations, for philosophers and religious teachers have for ages been warning people of the possibility of leading inauthentic lives by denying active aspects of their own natures. To illustrate this point they go on to say:

The great psychologist William James wrote: “There is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it positively refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only opener of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.” More recently, Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it beautifully: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Zweig, (1997, p. 8)

It was Jung's contention that it is not necessary for anyone “to destroy a piece of his own heart.” The way to deal with The Shadow is not to reach into it and destroy all the unwelcome pieces of oneself that are there, but rather to bring the shadow into light, that is, to become fully aware of them and to accept them as part of who one is because they are part of who every human being is. Striving to become aware of and to accept oneself as being, as Nietzsche put it, “all too human,” is called shadow-work. Zweig and Wolf observe that shadow-work entails the observing the following guidelines:

Because of its very nature as a mysterious enterprise, there can be no such thing as a procedure that is sure to produce expected results. In shadow-work there will never be a noble eightfold path, nor are we likely to find a book in the psychology section of the local bookstore called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shadow-Work. There are, however, a few very general guidelines about where one can begin looking to find the contents of one's own shadow. One excellent contribution to the literature on this subject is a piece by William A. Miller called “Finding the shadow in daily life.” Miller outlines five effective methods of self-discovery; in this context, self-discovery means discovering as much as possible about all the features of one's psyche, not just those that get past the always censorious ego. These five methods are:

  1. soliciting feedback from others as to how they perceive us;
  2. uncovering the content of our projections;
  3. examining our ``slips'' of tongue and behavior, and investigating what is really occurring when we are perceived other than what we intended to be perceived;
  4. considering our humor and our identifications;
  5. ) studying our dreams, daydreams and fantasies.
  6. Miller, (1991, p. 38)

Concerning the fourth of these methods, Miller says about humor that most of us are aware that there is more in it than first meets the eye, for “what is said in humor is often a manifestation of shadow truth. People who strongly deny and repress shadow generally lack a sense of humor and find very few things funny” Miller, (1991, p. 42). Rather than laughing, says Miller, such people are more likely to condemn, to pass harsh judgment, or to strike back. If the condition becomes especially grave, as I point out many times in the following passages, they may even vote for Republicans. (That may have been a joke.)

Laughing, and knowing why we are laughing, is a very good way to do shadow-work, says Miller, because “shadow is all that we wouldn't dare to do, but would like to do.” Jokes, for example, often depict people doing things that we would like to do but restrain ourselves from doing because of conscience or fear or, indeed, because there are rather good reasons to be restrained. A good way of dealing with the tension that arises when we recognize that we would like to do, or say, something but are held back, is to laugh. More important than just laughing, of course, is asking why a situation, or a wisecrack, or a satirical piece made us laugh.

It is my contention that in Buddhist literature one can find a great deal of very healthy humor. Buddhist texts, as I argue in one of the items that follows, are filled with satire and parody and crude slapstick and rather sophisticated wit. Needless to say, one can also find Buddhist texts—and Buddhists who take them a little too seriously—that pass judgment and condemn and find all manner of behavior quite reprehensible, pointing out, of course, that such reprehensible conduct belongs to named or unnamed others: non-Buddhists, Hīnayānists or the notorious chabaggiyas, that gang of six monks who used their creative energies to find ways of breaking every known vinaya rule.

Owing entirely to my magnanimous bodhisattva spirit, I have written several comical pieces during the years to help my fellow Buddhists identify those parts of their mentalities that are more adharma than {dharma}. (Needless to say, I could write these comical pieces only after I myself had entirely eradicated all adharma from my own consciousness continuum.) I hereby invite the readers of this region of cyberspace to laugh—and to try to understand why. And if instead of laughing, you find yourself furrowing the brow and pursing the lips and saying “That is just not funny,” then perhaps it would also be worth understanding where that reaction came from. (Hint: The Shadow.)

Canonical jesting

September 28, 1992

Someone asked last week about jokes in the Buddhist canon. That's quite an interesting topic, one to which I would like to see some serious replies.

Tastes surely differ, but I personally don't have a lot of use for religious literature unless it makes me squirm and feel inadequate about my many moral shortcomings. And since one of my own character defects is that of being something of a prankster and a smart Aleck, I really perked up and took notice many years ago when I read this in the Ambalaṭṭhikā Rāhulovāda Sutta (Majjhima nikāya sutta number 61):

Of anyone for whom there is no shame at intentional lying, of him I say that there is no evil he cannot do. Wherefore for you, Rāhula, ‘I will not speak a lie, even for fun’—this is how you must train yourself, Rāhula.

Incidentally, Mahāvīra reportedly said a very similar thing to his Jaina monks, telling them that a person willing to make jokes was capable of all manner of evil actions, because jokes are usually falsehoods, and because the laughter they invoke is nearly always at somebody's expense. So jokes can be considered a kind of violence, one that is all the more insidious for seeming merry and harmless.

Given such an attitude towards jokes, one would hardly expect the Buddhist canons to be a source of snappy wisecracks that cause riotous laughter. It is fairly obvious, nevertheless, that the Buddhist canons are filled with comic irony, wry observations, deliberately funny puns, satire, parody and even trenchant sarcasm and derogatory stereotyping. This means that while it might be inappropriate to guffaw or snuffle coffee up your nose while reading the canon, it would certainly not be out of place to smile a bit.

Leibniz once observed that it is always much more difficult to be certain whether ancient texts were intentionally funny than it is to be sure of the intentions of texts of one's own time. But it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that people have remained unchanged enough during the past few millennia and that things that make us laugh also made our ancestors laugh. I would therefore suggest that at least some of the following items made the first generations of Buddhists laugh when they read the canons. Just for a rough start, I would call attention to these categories of irony.

That's a very scanty beginning, but perhaps it's enough to make my point, which is that if one begins looking at Buddhist canonical literature as belles lettres, as didactic drama and poetry and as edifying fiction, rather than looking at it as very badly written history, it really isn't half bad. It can, indeed, be a lot of fun, and since it's fun, there is no need to stifle our giggles.

But when people plod through the stuff looking for evidence of the `historical' Buddha and asking what the Buddha really said, then I make only minimal efforts to stifle my yawns.

So the short version of my answer to reader's question is: Yes, Virginia, there is a joker in the deck.

Richard P. Hayes

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Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ on Buddhism

October 22, 1992

Someone asked the following question:
I'm new to this list and would like to know if there is a FAQ and/or an archive.

Seeing immediately that an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file is an excellent idea, we applied for a research grant to cover the costs of assembling a team of highly trained graduate students and paying them considerably less than the legal minimum wage to read through the log files of both buddha-l and buddhist to see which questions have been asked most frequently, and also to note what answers have been given. The following questions and answers are a testimony not only to what can be done with a $5.37 research grant (which buys about ten person-hours of graduate student assistantship), but also what a high level of discussion the membership of these lists have maintained. Here, then, are the QMFAB (questions most frequently asked about Buddhism) and their MFGA (most frequently given answers).

  1. I have read about a bodhisattva named Avalokiteśvara. Who is he, and why does he have such a long name?
  2. Avalokiteśvara is the name of a bodhisattva who took a vow to help any sentient being in distress who called his name for help. Realizing that he would be overwhelmed with work if he assumed a name that sentient beings in distress could easily pronounce, he took the name Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Āryāvalikoteśvara. In Tibet he goes by the name Chenrezig, but in order to make this relatively easy name more difficult to find in the telephone directory, he spells it sPyan-ras gzigs. Despite these clever moves to avoid easy access, he remains one of Buddhism's most called upon bodhisattvas.

    1. I have heard that Avalokiteśvara takes on different forms in different ages and different cultures.
    2. That's correct. In China, for example, this bodhisattva took the form of a woman with the name Guanyin, and in Korea she is known as Kwanseum Posal, and in Japan as Kannon.

    3. Has she ever taken on a form for North Americans?
    4. Yes, in California she is known by the name Shirley MacLaine. She performs all manner of acts of kindness for sentient beings in distress, especially her publisher, her publicity agent and her banker. But her best known work is with animals. To give just one example, she spends most of her time out on a limb in order to teach a form of the Dharma that is strictly for the birds.

  3. What is Nirvana or Nibbāna?
  4. It is the name of the town in which the University of Illinois was established.

    1. Isn't the University of Illinois in Urbana?
    2. The English word “orange” comes from the Sanskrit word “naraña.” One time somebody said “Pass me a norange,” and it was misunderstood as “Pass me an orange.” Similarly, when it was announced that Abraham Lincoln is now “in Nirbana,&dquo; a newspaper reporter wrote it down as “in Urbana,” and the error became the norm. Errors have been the norm in American journalism ever since.

    3. Can one achieve Nirvana while still alive, or must one be dead?
    4. Judging from what we have observed of Urbana, we find that question impossible to answer with any certainty. And since a Buddhist never never indulges in vain speculation, this question will have to remain unanswered.

  5. Does one have to be a monk in order to become enlightened?
  6. Not at all. The Buddha made it perfectly clear that anyone can become enlightened. There are no restrictions at all to enlightenment. It is possible for men, women, and children of all races, all nationalities and all ethnic groups. It is possible for wealthy people and poor people. It is even possible for rabbits and birds to be enlightened. Thanks to the work of bodhisattvas, even the hungry ghosts and the residents of hell can be enlightened. There is no condition whatsoever that prevents one from being enlightened.

    1. How can I become enlightened?
    2. Every single activity of life can be used as a path to enlightenment. You can become enlightened by practicing the martial arts, or learning to cook asparagus gourmet-style, or by listening to recordings of music by Philip Glass or Brian Eno, or by taking shiatsu or rolfing treatments, or by going skateboarding or windsurfing or skydiving or bungee jumping (but be sure to take off your glasses and take the Swiss army knife out of your pocket first). In fact, whatever you like to do, that is the path to instant enlightenment.

    3. I love to read books and think about what I have read. It's wonderful news to hear that I can become enlightened by being a scholar.
    4. What on earth gave you that impression? The fact is that even though any sentient being can be enlightened, there is one minor exception: scholars. That is the one thing that really will stand in the way forever of making any progress towards enlightenment. So whatever you do, don't become a scholar. In fact, scholarship is so dangerous that you shouldn't even read anything by scholars or listen to them speak. More than that, you should earn as much merit as possible by telling everyone you know never to listen to anything that scholars say.

    5. Does this mean that no scholars of any kind can become enlightened?

      If people are scholars of quantum mechanics, mathematics, law or cybernetics, they stand at least a chance of becoming enlightened. But scholars of philosophy, religious studies and especially of Buddhism are completely beyond the saving powers of even Shirley MacLaine (see the question on Avalokiteśvara).

  7. What exactly is a Pure Land?
  8. Pure Land is an English translation of the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit “sukhavatī bhūmi,” which means “happy land.” This was originally the name of a theme park designed by Walt Disney in collaboration with Shirley MacLaine where people could go and inhale nitrous oxide and then die laughing. But eventually a more efficient way was found to enable people to amuse themselves to death: television. So now a Pure Land has come to mean any place that is entirely free of scholars or anyone else who might endanger people by making them think.

    1. Is it true that a no woman can enter a Pure Land?
    2. Actually that is a serious misunderstanding. In fact it is only women academics who are excluded from the Pure Land. It is true that no academic can enter the Pure Land. It is also true that many men have perceived that in North America only women can get academic jobs. Somehow these two facts have become conflated into the erroneous doctrine that no women can enter the Pure Land. The error was probably generated by some male logician.

  9. If studying is so dangerous, what are Buddhist sutras for?
  10. Let us never forget that Mara the Tempter placed classrooms on university campuses in order to lure people away from the real purpose of the university, namely, to support football and basketball teams, and to provide a place for special interest groups and secret societies named after letters of the Greek alphabet.

    In much the same way, Mara put words in sutras in order to distract people from the real purposes of sutras.

    1. What is the proper way to use a sutra?
    2. There is not any single way that a sutra must be used. Sutras have many, many purposes. Space permits mentioning only a few.

      You may wrap sutras in silk and do prostrations to them, or put them in vaults and circumambulate them. You can take care never to put them on the floor or to point your feet towards them. You can make sure you never take them into a toilet room or any other filthy place. You may even chant them, provided you do it in a language that you don't understand. If you must chant them in a familiar language, be sure to drown out the words by banging wooden fish, metal gongs and big drums while you chant. You may even copy them and distribute them to others, so long as you write them in an ornamental script that no one can read. Sutras make great gifts for people dying of cancer. In fact, you can do almost anything with a sutra except read it, think about its meaning and try to apply its teachings to your own life.

    3. One can get merit by copying a sutra. Does it matter how it is copied? Can one, for example, get merit by photocopying a sutra?
    4. Definitely. Don't forget that the Canon photocopier was named after Kannon, the Japanese name for Shirley MacLaine. This photocopier was developed with the express purpose of photocopying Buddhist sutras for merit.

    5. What if I use Xerox?
    6. The word “Xerox” is derived from the word “xerography,” which comes from the Greek “xeros” (dry) and “graphia” (writing). Xerography therefore means dry writing. So this process is suitable only for copying abhidharma texts. But there's not much merit in them anyway.

  11. There is this guy named Richard Haines, who keeps dominating the conversations on buddha-l and buddhist. Can't something be done to keep him quiet?
  12. Unfortunately, no. Richard Hayes is actually a computer program. It was a botched attempt by the Department of Computer Science at McGill University to create an artificial intelligence system. They were only partially successful: they succeeded in making the system artificial. Unluckily, the Richard Hayes project escaped the confines of the McGill mainframe and spread like a virus to the mainframes at Tokyo University and the University of Louisville, the homes of buddhist and buddha-l, where it answers nearly all incoming mail.

    In order to compensate subscribers to buddha-l for the inconvenience caused by this electronically transmitted virus, the Management has made a special arrangement with Mara. According to the terms of this agreement, for every kalpa of your valuable time that is wasted by reading the inane drivel automatically generated by the Richard Hayes virus, Mara will take one nanosecond off the time that you must reside in Hee Hee Haw Haw Hell.

Virtually yours,
The Management

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[Jung 1963]
Jung,Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections . London: Collins and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.
[Miller 1991]
Miller, William A. “Finding the shadow in daily life.” In Zweig 1991.
[Zweig 1991]
Zweig, Connie and Abrams, Jeremiah. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature.. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
[Zweig 1997]
Zweig, Connie and Wolf, Steve. Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

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