Laughing matters


Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
February, 21 1991

I am interested in why people laugh and why laughter is contagious. My curiosity about laughter is partly academic and partly practical. A couple of years ago I was left in charge of a Zen temple for a few days while its resident director attended a meeting out of town. Part of my responsibility was to conduct all the daily ceremonies at the correct times. There was one other person staying in the temple during that span of time, and he joined me in these ceremonies. One day while the two of us were doing a ceremony, I started laughing. This had the unfortunate consequence of getting my friend laughing as well, and before long both of us were literally rolling around on the floor in convulsions of laughter. A ceremony that normally takes about ten minutes took us almost an hour to perform, and it probably has never been performed quite the same way since.

Laughing Buddha

The next day, when the other resident and I sat down for meditation, just a few minutes after I rang the bell to begin the first period of sitting, my friend began to wheeze and snort, as kids do when they are trying not to laugh out loud. Hearing that started me laughing. Once the laughing started, neither of us was able to stop. The two of us did four full hours of mindfulness of laughing (hasita-anusati) meditation. Later that day we talked about it, and what we found most remarkable was that neither one of us thought that anything was funny. We weren't laughing at anything at all.

Since that time I have encountered quite a few people (even a few adults) who have had fits of laughter at one time or another. It's obviously a fairly common problem. And yet I have found little mention of it in the literature. All I have encountered so far are a couple of passages.

In his introduction to the translation of Anuruddha's Compendium of Philosophy, Shwe Zan Aung discusses laughter. In typical abhidhamma fashion he says that there are six types of mirth. The mildest form is manifested by a pleasant expression on the countenance. The most violent form is “an outburst of laughter accompanied by the forward and backward movements of the entire body from head to foot.” Having identified these six types of laughter, the author says that laughter involving the shedding of tears and the rocking of the body from head to foot indicates a very inferior or immature mentality. Cultured people, he says, never do more than barely reveal the tips of the teeth. As for the cause of laughter, the Pali abhidhamma experts reportedly said that laughter is caused by the joy one feels in recognizing that someone is less fortunate than oneself. That which causes one to laugh can therefore be the basis of compassion (in a virtuous person) or ridicule (in a vicious person).


In The Questions of King Milinda, it is said that one of the advantages of cultivating wholesome dharmas is that one is full of good cheer and becomes predisposed to smile a good deal. No mention, however, of fits of laughter.

In the first Bhāvanākrama, Kamalaśīla mentions laughter in the context of meditation. If one begins to laugh during meditation, he says, the correct remedy is to think of the inevitability of death.

I recall reading that some Zen master (perhaps Hakuin?) fell into fits of laughter on becoming enlightened. The silly jackass didn't realize he was just suffering from stress and fatigue.

Richard P. Hayes

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Bad joke

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
March 26, 1996

Thus have I heard:

The Buddha walks up to a hotdog stand and says, “Make me one with everything.”

This is at least the twenty-fifth time I have seen this joke posted on the Internet, and I still don't get it. I really don't. What the hell does this joke mean? What does it refer to? Why does anyone think it is funny? Does anyone think it is funny? Do Buddhas eat hot dogs?

As long as we are trading antique jokes, here is another very old one:

Socrates and the Buddha met up one day and sat down for a chat. The ever-crafty Socrates decided to plumb the depths of the Buddha's wisdom by asking: “If I wanted to gain your wisdom, what is the one question I would have to ask, and what would your answer be?” The Buddha replied: “That was the question, and this was my answer.”

Really Puzzled Hotdog

Bad joke explained

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
March 27, 1996

A grammarian has explained the hot dog gag to me!

Seriously, the joke you are puzzled about is based on a pun. Make me one with everything would in that context be interpreted as “Prepare me a hot dog and put on it all of the condiments you have.” OK? Then the second meaning has to do with being one with everything, as in experiencing nondual consciousness. Grammatically we could say that in the phrase “make me” the first meaning interprets the “me” as in the dative (or “indirect object”) while in the second the “me” is taken to be in the accusative. Or we could say that “make” in the first sense means something close to prepare (prepare for me); while it means something close to transform (transform me), in the second.

Thanks for the explanation. The second meaning I got right away; I just thought it was false (since I do not subscribe to the nondualistic Big-Buddha-Contains-The-Whole-Shooting-Match school of California Zen). It was the first part that had me baffled. I just could not imagine what on earth a hot dog vendor would make of someone saying “Make me one with everything.” But now that you explain that hot dogs are normally served with condoms, I am beginning to see that this joke has some potential for being seen as humorous. I guess the part I still find a little strange is that if one subscribes to the nondualist brand of Buddhism, the Buddha already is one with everything and cannot be made into what he already is, even by a hot dog vendor.

Now I'm going to go meditate on the question: Why would anyone buy a hot dog? I guess it's to have something to put into a condom. But why would one have a condom? I guess it's to have something to put on one's hot dog. But....


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