The Pali Canon has a reputation for being humorless. And it’s easy to see why. In some of its passages, the Buddha seems to regard humor in a bad light. For instance, in the Wailing Discourse (AN 3:107) he refers to “laughing excessively, showing one’s teeth,” as a form of childishness, and counsels that a monk, when feeling joy in the Dhamma, should simply smile. His instructions to Rāhula in MN 61 note that one shouldn’t tell a deliberate lie, “even in jest.” A passage in the Vinaya (Sk 51) tells of a monk, formerly an actor, who made a joke about the Saṅgha. The Buddha, in response, made it an offense for a monk to tell a joke not only about the Saṅgha, but also about the Buddha or Dhamma.
There is also the famous verse in the Dhp 146 that seems aimed at squelching all forms of merriment:
What laughter, why joy,
when constantly aflame?
Enveloped in darkness,
don’t you look for a lamp?
And then there’s the fact that the Buddha himself rarely smiles in the Canon, and when he does, the reasons for his smile are never hilarious.
Still, the Canon’s reputation for being devoid of humor is undeserved. It’s there in the Canon, but it often goes unrecognized.
Now on that occasion the monks of Āḷavī were having huts built from their own begging—having no sponsors, destined for themselves, not to any standard measurement—that did not come to completion. They were continually begging, continually hinting: ‘Give a man, give labor, give an ox, give a wagon, give a machete, give an ax, give an adz, give a spade, give a chisel, give rushes, give reeds, give grass, give clay.’ People, harassed with the begging, harassed with the hinting, on seeing monks would feel apprehensive, alarmed, would run away; would take another route, face another direction, close the door. Even on seeing cows, they would run away, imagining them to be monks.
One of the reasons why the Canon’s humor goes unrecognized relates to its style, which is often subtle, deadpan, and dry. This style of humor can go right past readers in modern cultures where jokes are telegraphed well in advance, and humor tends to be broad. Another reason is that translators often miss the fact that a passage is meant to be humorous, and so render it in a flat, pedantic way.
What’s distinctive about the Canon’s humor is that, for the most part, it functions in line with the Buddha’s directives on wise speech: that it be true, beneficial, and timely. It’s also in line with right speech—again, for the most part—in that it doesn’t employ lies or exaggeration, divisive speech, harsh speech, or idle chatter: types of speech that, in the form of exaggeration, nationalism, racism, and silliness, are all too often humor’s common mode.
We need to keep adding “for the most part” here because the humor in the Canon comes from at least four different sources. In some cases, it’s from in the reported speech of the Buddha himself; in others, from the reported speech of his awakened disciples; in others, from the reported speech of more ordinary people, lay and monastic; and in still others, it lies in the way the compilers of the Canon shape their narratives. Thus, the Buddha’s use of humor tends to be subtler and more sophisticated than, say, that of the ordinary people quoted in the Canon, who can sometimes be sarcastic and even crude.
So when we analyze the style and function of humor in the Canon, we have to remember that both style and function vary with the source. But even when we take these variations into consideration, the Canon’s humor has some overall features that make it distinctive. After all, the compilers of the Canon were the ones who chose which speech to report and which not to report, so when they are quoting sarcasm or crude jokes, it’s valid to ask what larger purpose the quotations are meant to serve.
In general, we can say that humor in the Canon seems aimed at serving a specific purpose on the path: to develop discernment. It does this in two distinct ways.
One aspect of discernment is to view things from a certain distance. As the Buddha says, to gain the knowledge that frees you from attachment to things, you need to view those things as something separate (SN 35:80). In Dhp 28, his image of discernment is of a man standing on a tower or a mountain, viewing the world below:
When the wise person drives out
having climbed the high tower
he observes the sorrowing crowd—
as the enlightened man,
the fools on the ground below.
Now, the sense of distance here is not harsh or unfeeling. Wise people also feel compassion for the sorrowing crowd. But still, they are no longer embroiled in those sorrows because they have learned how to develop distance from the causes of sorrow within themselves. Their compassion for others is tempered with the larger perspective that comes from a knowledge of kamma: You try to help others act in ways that lead to their happiness, but they have the free will to resist your help, and so you have to accept their free choices with equanimity.
The Buddha himself, on the night of his awakening, learned about the principles of kamma by watching all beings in the universe in a process of dying and being reborn in line with their kamma. The sense of detachment that came from the vastness of that vision was what enabled him to gain detachment, and ultimately freedom, from the actions of his own mind.
So a sense of distance is a necessary part of the path, and a wise sense of humor can be a useful tool in promoting it. The process of separating yourself from an old attachment is easier when you can see, in a good-humored way, how foolish the attachment is.
When we group the humorous passages in the Canon according to topic, we find that this aspect of humor applies to most of the topics, and in particular, the topics dealing with things that people in general find enthralling or that pose particular dangers for people whose progress on the path is still weak. As a result, anyone on the path has to develop a detached attitude toward all of these things. Humor aimed at these topics is a means for fostering disenchantment: to see through the enthrallment and to realize that there is less there than meets the eye.
These topics are:
devas, Brahmās, and other non-human beings;
viewpoints opposed to the Dhamma;
human foibles and weaknesses; and
When focused on these topics, the Canon’s humor most often takes the form of irony and satire: poking fun at things that people usually take too seriously, so that they can learn to view them with healthy detachment. In these categories, the humor can range from the gentle to the very sharp—even the Buddha can be quite sharp in his comments on these topics, as in his comparison of brahmans with dogs. And it’s in these categories that the compilers of the Canon will sometimes draw on the sarcastic remarks of ordinary people to show that an awakened state of mind is not a necessary requirement for seeing that certain actions and ideas are foolish.
However, there are also three groups of topics in which humor is used in quite a different way:
the advantages of Dhamma practice;
Dhamma strategies; and
the stories that, when the Buddha calls them to mind, cause him to smile.
In these cases, the humor takes the form of “joy in the Dhamma,” and is employed to make Dhamma practice attractive. This type of humor relates to a second aspect of discernment: the ability to motivate yourself to do something that you know will lead to good results but, in itself, seems unappealing. In fact, all three groups portray discernment as a strategic faculty, and so all three are examples of the second of the three—Dhamma strategies—in action. As the Buddha himself says, discernment of this sort is connected with “mature stamina, mature persistence, and mature effort” (AN 4:115). It’s the kind of discernment that gets you on the path and helps keep you there. In these categories, the humor often takes the form of similes, parables, stories, and analogies—the kind of humor that provokes a wise or a warm smile.
In this way, both of the main types of humor in the Canon—satire and joy in the Dhamma—serve the purpose of the fourth tradition of the noble ones (AN 4:28): the ability to take delight in abandoning unskillful qualities, and the ability to take delight in developing skillful ones. Both of these abilities, in turn, fall under one of the steps of breath meditation: gladdening the mind (MN 118).
So there’s practical value in considering how the Canon uses humor to aid in developing discernment, and in particular how its humor varies with each of the above nine topics. But first we should note an aspect of the Canon’s humor that crops up repeatedly in all the topics, but to some extent has fallen out of favor in an age that demands a quick laugh and instant gratification.
That aspect is what T.W. Rhys-Davids, the British scholar writing in the late 1800’s, called an “American” sense of humor. According to him, American humor was marked by a love of the long, drawn-out tale, in which the humor lay not so much in the punch line, but in the luxuriant detail packed into the story. What Rhys-Davids apparently had in mind was Mark Twain’s narrative style: throwing in detail after detail, making his observant eye and his patient wit in the act of telling itself part of the humor.
The Canon is full of examples of this style of humor, especially—but not exclusively—in the discourses from the Dīgha Nikāya, or Long Collection. A monk going to ask a question of the Great Brahmā doesn’t go immediately to the Great Brahmā. We are told, one by one, how he visits all the devas in the deva-hierarchy leading up to the Great Brahmā, including many devas not included in the standard list. Two men searching for fortune in the abandoned villages of a countryside don’t start with hemp and then immediately discover gold. We are told, in detail, all the various commodities of gradually increasing value they find.
In each case, the repeated details are not just decoration. They make a point. In the case of the deva-hierarchy, the repetition brings home the message that even though an organization may be large and impressive, it can still be full of ignorance. In the case of the commodities, the repetition emphasizes how stubborn an attachment can be. To appreciate much of the humor in the Canon, you need to learn how to find both enjoyment and a useful lesson in the details of the story as the narrator spins out the tale.
However, there are also passages where the humor lies in quick one-liners. So the Canon employs many different styles of humor, depending on the topic and the lessons to be learned with regard to that topic.
The collection of passages gathered in this book is aimed at illustrating the Canon’s use of humor with regard to each of the nine topics, to give an idea of not only of its style and range, but also of its purposes. Keep in mind that the collection is not exhaustive: There are many other humorous touches throughout the Canon. The passages here are simply some of the more obvious or outstanding examples of how the Canon uses humor to promote discernment. Although much of the humor in the Canon is remarkably timeless—related to aspects of human nature that have remained constant with the millennia—it can sometimes be subtle, and its mode of expression can sometimes relate to the culture of its times. For this reason, I would first like to provide a little background for each topic, so that you will be in a better position to appreciate the humor in the passages and the functions it serves.
1. Devas, Brahmās, & other non-human beings.
Most religions treat supernatural beings with a great deal of respect—in fact, many give these beings the highest form of worship, and regard knowledge from divine sources as the highest and most reliable form of wisdom. However, in the Buddha’s view of the cosmos, none of these beings are worthy of worship. They are born into those states and fall from those states in line with their kamma, often without having gained any special insight or knowledge. In fact, their knowledge is inferior to the Buddha’s.
So it’s only natural that the Canon would make beings of this sort an object of satire, so that people practicing the Dhamma won’t regard them with awe. On the one hand, this satirical attitude helps to protect you if you actually gain experience of such beings in your meditation: You won’t believe everything they tell you. On the other hand, this attitude helps to immunize you against religions that claim to come from a divine source. If divine beings can be ignorant—and that is one of the main points of the satires here—then why should their knowledge be regarded as special?
For this reason, the satires in this section often overlap with those in the section on viewpoints opposed to the Dhamma, in particular in the area of Brahmanism, which claims to come from a divine origin, the creator of the universe itself.
Three passages in this section stand out. The first is §1.1, in which a monk approaches the Great Brahmā and asks, in effect, how far the physical universe extends. The Great Brahmā, somewhat like Yahweh in the Book of Job, at first deflects the question by insisting on his status as the creator of all things. However, unlike Job, the monk is not cowed by this response. Instead, he notes that he didn’t ask the Great Brahmā if he was the creator of the universe. He asked how far the universe extends. Twice the Great Brahmā tries to deflect the question again, and when the monk is still not cowed, the Great Brahmā takes him by the arm, pulls him aside, and tells him that he can’t answer the question, but didn’t want to disappoint his adoring retinue by confessing his ignorance in their presence.
The point of the satire, of course, is that the Great Brahmā is a vain, pompous fraud. And as we will learn in §4.3, his claim to being the creator is based on his own ignorant misunderstanding of how the cosmos evolves.
The second noteworthy passage in this section is §1.2, in which a deva, attracted to a monk bathing in a river, tries to seduce him. Much of the humor of the story lies in the word-play, in which the monk takes many of the terms used by the deva herself, but turns their meaning around in a way that she doesn’t understand. An added element of humor is that the story ends with the monk taking the deva to the Buddha, who tames her pride by giving her teachings way over her head. At the end, after receiving some very high-level Dhamma, she can take away nothing more than the lesson that one should avoid evil and not consort with sensuality.
However, not all the satire in connection with this topic is aimed at divine beings. In a third passage (§1.3), it’s aimed at a monk who wants a deva to warn him of any misdeeds she sees him committing. She tells him, rightly, that she is not his hired hand, and that his own behavior is his own responsibility. Just because you can see devas doesn’t mean you have rights to any special favors from them. Even though divine beings don’t deserve worship, they should still be treated with ordinary good manners and respect.
The Canon’s most distinctive and artful use of humor lies in its satires on sensuality. Two of the most literary dialogues in the Canon are devoted to making fun of people who act and speak under the power of lust. The use of literary language in both dialogues makes clear that they are intended to subvert one of the principles of ancient Indian literary theory.
Indian literary theory as a whole is based on the concept of rasa, or savor. Literary works, such as poems and dramas, are supposed to present emotional states that the reader or audience “savors” at a second remove. The emotional state and the savor are not identical: This is how the theorists explained the fact that some of the emotions felt by the characters, such as grief, might be painful, but the audience was meant to enjoy savoring those emotions from an aesthetic distance.
Classical literary tradition listed eight main savors, of which the comic was one. And although the theorists argued about how the savors were to be mixed in a work of art, one area of general agreement was that the comic savor went naturally with the sensitive or erotic savor, and never with the horrific: Humor intensifies and adds spice to an erotic tale.
So when the compilers of the Canon use humor to poke fun at lust, they are turning this theory around. For example, in §2.1, Sakka the deva-king sends a gandhabba, Pañcasikha, to put the Buddha in the proper mood to meet with a deva, i.e., Sakka himself. Now, gandhabbas have the reputation for being the adolescents of the deva world, obsessed with music and sex, and Pañcasikha is no exception. He chooses to sing a song for the Buddha, in which he illustrates his lust for his lady love by making analogies with the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha: His longing for her is as one-pointed as the Buddha in jhāna; his love for her has grown in power like an offering made to an arahant. The language of the song is lovely, in line with the erotic savor, but part of the humor of the passage lies in the situation: Pañcasikha is totally oblivious to how inappropriate the analogies are, and what a gaffe it is to sing such a song to the Buddha. The Buddha, having been raised in a palace, nevertheless humors him and compliments him knowledgeably on the technical aspects of his song, but another part of the humor lies in guessing at what must be going through the Buddha’s mind as he converses politely with such a hopelessly deluded being.
In §2.2, the Canon’s use of humor to poke fun at lust is even more radical. A young man tries to seduce a nun alone in the forest, speaking in poetic language of how much he loves her, finally focusing on how nothing is dearer to him than her eyes. She—coming from a position of total detachment—calls his bluff and, taking out one of her eyes, offers it to him: You want it? Have it.
Two things in the poem make its use of humor radical. On the one hand, the man’s lines are among the most sophisticated pieces of literature in the Canon. His vocabulary is exquisitely sensual, and he uses it artfully. Having set up this atmosphere, the dialog’s swift denouement is even more startling. The mixture of the nun’s sense of humor with her horrific solution to the situation is so unexpected that many people miss the fact that she’s probably laughing to herself at her own bravado as she carries it through.
In both §2.1 and §2.2, the sophistication and sensuality of the language make a subversive point. Ordinary human culture all too often measures sophistication and refinement in line with the level of one’s appreciation for sensual pleasures: the best wines, the most exquisite food and art. These passages, however, show that the Buddha’s rejection of sensuality did not result from a lack of refinement on his part. After all, he was acquainted not only with the sensual pleasures of the palace, but also with the divine sensual pleasures in the heavenly realms, which far outstrip any sensual pleasures possible in the human world. He rejects sensuality, both human and divine, because he can see how even the most sophisticated tastes for sensual pleasures are foolish and vain.
In contrast, the humor in §2.3 is, in formal terms, somewhat more conventional, but it’s still subversive in its own way. Here the Buddha takes an ancient Indian wedding custom—throwing dust, ashes, and cow dung over a new bride—and provides it with an origin story that reverses the meaning of the dust, ashes, and cow dung, turning them into symbols of disgust at the sexual act.
3. Palace life
Related to the Canon’s satires of sensuality are its satires on palace life. These focus primarily on two points: first, that palaces, with all their pleasures, are dangerous places to live—or even to visit—both for kings and anyone else associated with them; second, that the position of being a king is not all that enviable. Because kings were the richest and most powerful people of the time, the satires of kings would apply at present to anyone who is rich, powerful, and famous. The satires of palace life would apply to anyone living in close contact with people in high positions.
In many of these passages, the satire is gentle. After all, the Buddhist Saṅgha needed the goodwill of kings to be allowed to exist, so it wouldn’t want to appear too harsh in its judgment of them. But because the humor here can be so gentle, it’s often easy to miss. A prime example is §3.1. Read superficially, it seems conventional. But on reflection, it’s fairly remarkable. King Pasenadi is in his bedroom with his favorite queen, Mallikā, and in a moment of intimacy asks her if there is anyone she loves more than herself. Of course, being a king, he expects her to say, “Yes, your majesty: you,” as a prelude to even greater intimacy. And if this were a Hollywood film, that’s where the dialog would go. But this is the Pali Canon, and Mallikā is no fool. She, defiantly and truthfully, tells the king No, there is no one she loves more than herself. And she gets him to admit that there is no one he loves more than himself, either. That ends the scene. Even kings, with all their power, can’t get what most lovers want: the assurance that the person loved loves the lover as dearly as the lover loves him or herself.
The humor in §3.4 is also gentle in its depiction of an 80-year old king who is, from the standpoint of the Dhamma, still a child. Too weak at times to place his foot where he intends to, and surrounded by a court eager to see him die, he would still want to conquer new lands, even on the other side of the ocean, if the opportunity arose.
In §3.5, the humor is broader and cruder: Even King Bimbisāra, whom the Canon usually depicts as wiser than Pasenadi, is not immune to suffering humiliating teasing from his wives.
The most extended satire in this section is §3.2, which depicts one of Pasenadi’s visits to the Buddha. Despite his position, the king must still act the role of messenger for his wives. Because of his position, he finds himself surrounded by people he cannot trust—he never gets to the bottom of the question of who brought misinformation into the palace—and whose minds fasten on issues of overthrowing and banishing, most likely him. He is so preoccupied with his responsibilities that he doesn’t pick up on the Buddha’s gentle chiding about his servitude to the sisters Somā and Sakulā, can’t stick with an issue for any length of time, sometimes can’t even phrase his questions properly, and can arrive at no greater certainty about the Buddha’s teachings than that they seem reasonable. From a spiritual point of view, his power and position are not assets. They’re liabilities. At the end of the sutta he has to take leave of the Buddha, not because he has exhausted the issues he would like to discuss, but because one of his courtiers tells him it’s time to go. All in all, not an enviable position.
This passage also shows the dangers of living in the palace: Sañjaya the brahman gets accused of bringing misinformation into the palace, but the issue never gets resolved. In such a situation, everyone lives under a cloud of suspicion. Passage §3.6, concerning the Buddha’s doctor, Jīvaka, shows how palace life can be physically dangerous as well.
4. Viewpoints opposed to the Dhamma
Many people are surprised to learn that the Buddha would treat the opinions of other teachers as an object of satire, on the grounds that such behavior is partisan and would count as a form of wrong speech: divisive tale-bearing. However, the Canon’s treatment of divisive tale-bearing shows that when a person cites the misbehavior of X to Y for the purpose of Y’s genuine well-being, it does not count as divisive tale-bearing. It’s an act of compassion. Because the Buddha could see that the wrong views of his opponents, if adopted, would lead the person adopting them to a bad destination, he understood that compassion required him to show how wrong those wrong views were. When there is a clear right and wrong, it’s not partisan to help others see the issue clearly as well. And a very effective way of accomplishing this would be, at times, to expose wrong views to ridicule, either by pointing out their internal inconsistencies, or by examining the behavior of people who espoused them.
The prime targets of this sort of satire in the Canon are the brahmans and the Nigaṇṭhas, or Jains, but materialist views come in for some extended satire as well (§4.12). There are a few passages in which brahmanical views about the cosmos come under attack (§1.1; §4.3; §4.5; §4.6) but the primary brahmanical view subjected to ridicule is their racism: the belief that brahmans are superior to others simply by virtue of their birth. A common theme in the Buddha’s treatment of brahmanical ideas of superiority is that the brahmans of the past did follow admirable customs, but that those customs have since been abandoned. His most biting version of this observation is a systematic comparison between brahmans and dogs, with dogs coming off as better brahmans than the brahmans themselves (§4.4).
As for the Nigaṇṭhas, they are satirized for their crude ideas about kamma, and in particular for their idea that old bad kamma can be burned away through austerities (§§4.14–18). Because their beliefs can lead to pointless suffering, and because their attitudes on kamma are—superficially—so close to the Buddha’s, he went to extra lengths to show that their views were actually very different from his.
A recurring feature of the humor in this section is that people with views opposed to the Dhamma are actually most foolish—harmful to themselves and to others—when they think they are being most clever. This point applies in particular to Saccaka, with his debater’s tricks (§4.13), and to Prince Pāyāsi, with the torturous experiments he devises to “prove” whether there is a soul that can survive death (§4.12).
5. Human foibles
Objectively, there is nothing impressive about human weaknesses, yet they have their power over the untrained mind. It’s all too easy to give in to your own weaknesses on the grounds that they’re “only human.” In this perverse way, you grant them far more respect than they actually deserve. The best way to overcome this tendency is to look at the same weaknesses in other people in a detached way, to see how foolish and harmful they can actually be, and then to apply that same perspective to yourself. In this way, when you laugh at other people’s foolishness, it’s with the purpose of learning how to laugh at your own.
The Buddha, when discussing ordinary human weaknesses that he wanted his followers to abandon, would sometimes use stories, similes, and parables as an attractive way of pointing to how foolish such weaknesses could be.
But what is especially striking in the Canon’s use of humor around this topic is the extent to which the compilers of the Vinaya—the monastic training rules—used humor in the stories explaining the origins of many of the rules. And here the element of humor seems to serve at least four possible purposes.
First, the monastic community needed people to memorize the Vinaya. Perhaps to make up for the repetitive and detailed discussions that such people would be required to memorize, the compilers sought to reward them with entertaining stories to memorize, too.
Second, the element of humor in the origin stories helps to give the listener a detached perspective on the behavior that the rules were designed to prevent. Having viewed other people’s foibles from that sense of amused distance, the listener would be more likely to view his/her own tendencies to give in to that sort of behavior with a sense of detached distance as well. This would make the listener more willing to live by the rules forbidding that kind of behavior.
Third, it is easier to trust a body of rules if you know that the people compiling them had a sense of humor. A humorless body of rules is oppressive.
Fourth, the humor of these stories is universal: Just like the Dhamma as a whole, they address issues of human behavior that have not changed over time. This shows that the rules were formulated by people who had a sense of what is constant in human nature, thus reinforcing the message that the rules themselves are universal, and so should apply wherever the Saṅgha may go.
6. Psychic powers
The Canon contains many discussions of the psychic powers that can be gained through the practice of concentration. And although the Buddha was able to use his psychic powers to great advantage in teaching the Dhamma (see Mv I.15–22), he also saw that the display of psychic powers could lead to damaging consequences. Cv VII.2–4 tells of the most serious case of the abuse of psychic powers, in which Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, employs his psychic powers to win a following and ends up creating such extreme bad kamma that he is destined to hell.
Other passages, however, show the drawbacks of displaying psychic powers in a more light-hearted way, focusing on how—human foibles being what they are—psychic powers can create amusing difficulties both for those who exercise them and for those who hear about them. In this way, this topic is an extension of the previous one. And as with the previous one, many of the stories in this section come from origin stories to the monastic rules.
The use of humor in these stories serves a two-fold purpose. One, it helps to remove some of the fascination and awe that can surround psychic powers: As the Devadatta story shows, a person with such powers is not necessarily spiritually mature, and fascination with these powers can actually be an obstacle to the higher goal of release. So, to remind the reader that there is a higher goal, the compilers of the Canon can afford to treat psychic powers in an offhand manner. By poking fun at the sorts of foolishness and controversies that can surround the use of such powers, the humorous passages dealing with these powers are aimed at preventing more of the same sort of foolishness or controversy in the future. This, in particular, is the point of §6.5, in which Ven. Mahaka displays a particularly deft psychic marvel to Citta the householder. The Canon doesn’t tell whether this incident happened before or after the Buddha formulated the rule against making such displays (§6.1), but in either case Mahaka is wise enough to leave the place quickly to avoid the sort of problems that will occur if word of his attainment gets out.
Two, the use of humor in these stories helps to make them more believable. In Indian literary theory, one of the eight primary savors is the astounding. This is the savor tasted in passages that report miraculous or amazing events. However, the risk when trying to create this savor is that the author may go overboard in trying to impress the reader, and as a result appear ridiculous. Thus the compilers of the Canon add a dash of humor to their depictions of psychic powers to show that, no, they have not lost touch with reality. This, in turn, helps to situate psychic powers within the context of ordinary reality, so that people listening to these passages, when they actually encounter psychic powers in themselves or others, will maintain a firm grasp of reality as well.
7. The advantages of Dhamma practice
This section contains two passages describing the behavior and attitude of the Buddha’s disciples in what Rhys-Davids called the American style (§§7.8–9).
However, in the vast majority of passages here, the Buddha uses similes and parables, often concerning animals, to present the benefits of Dhamma practice in a light-hearted way. While there can be an element of irony in the way these passages depict obstacles to the path—for example, in §7.2’s depiction of the man trying to make the earth be without earth—the humor here is primarily designed to make the listener smile, in response to joy in the Dhamma, in a happy and warm-hearted way.
8. Dhamma strategies
The Canon often describes the Buddha as a doctor, treating the illnesses of the heart and mind (Iti 100, AN 3:22; AN 10:108). In general terms, his four noble truths are like a doctor’s approach to treating an illness: diagnosing the symptoms, finding the cause, affirming that a cure is possible, and recommending the treatment that will effect that cure. In more specific terms, the treatment offered by the Buddha’s noble eightfold path is strategic, utilizing some mental qualities—such as virtue, mindfulness, and concentration—that will continue to function after awakening (MN 79, SN 54:11), and others, such as craving and desire, that will eventually have to be abandoned when the path has done its work (SN 51:15; AN 3:40; AN 4:159). This parallels a doctor’s course of treatment, which entails some treatments, such as a healthy diet, that the patient will continue to follow after the disease is cured, and others, such as medicines, that will be abandoned when the cure is complete.
To fully understand the analogy of Buddha-as-doctor, it’s instructive to study how the Canon portrays the Buddha’s own doctor, Jīvaka, to gain a sense of how the people of the time understood the range of skills that a good doctor possessed. And one of Jīvaka’s prime skills is his ability to induce them to undergo and persist with unappealing courses of treatment. In other words, without lying, he has to trick them into doing what is in their own best interest. His wit in finding effective strategies of this sort is something that the compilers of the Canon obviously admire.
In a similar vein, the Buddha sometimes has to trick his followers into following the path, to get them to undertake and persist with a course of training that goes strongly against their defilements.
The two passages in this section provide parallel examples of how Jīvaka and the Buddha adopt this sort of approach.
Passage §8.2 is the more famous of the two. In addition to showing the Buddha as a skilled strategist in teaching his own brother, Ven. Nanda, it also plays against a common assumption in ancient Indian culture: that men practicing the celibate life here in this lifetime are doing so in hopes of divine sensual pleasures in the next. The Buddha first induces Nanda to practice for the sake of nymphs after he dies, but Nanda, when he is shamed by his fellow monks, who call him a hired hand, eventually starts to practice more seriously and ultimately gains full awakening. This attainment causes him to lose interest in nymphs entirely. In this way, the passage as a whole ranks as one of several humorous passages in the Canon—§9, below, is another—in which defilements serve as an incentive to follow a path of practice that leads ultimately beyond defilement.
9. Stories that make the Buddha smile
There are three stories of this sort in the Pali suttas. In addition to the passage cited here, two entire suttas in the Majjhima Nikāya—MN 81 and MN 83—are devoted to extended stories in which the Buddha, in each case, recalls an event in a previous life that makes him smile. Ven. Ānanda, noticing the smile, asks for the reason behind the smile. The Buddha then tells the story, adding a moral at the end.
Of the three stories, the one included in this collection is the most humorous. And the humor lies in the fact that the protagonists use a defilement—conceit—to generate a competitive spirit that spurs them on to higher levels of practice, only to abandon their competitive spirit when they attain the highest goal. In this way, this story illustrates a principle articulated by Ven. Ānanda in AN 4:159: that it’s by relying on conceit that conceit is to be abandoned.
Even though this story of the Buddha’s smile differs from the other two in that it doesn’t involve one of his previous lives, all three stories are similar in that they deal with people who not only practiced the Dhamma but also incited others to practice the Dhamma as well. This sort of behavior—which the Buddha elsewhere calls acting for the benefit of both oneself and others (AN 4:95-96; AN 4:99)—is what makes the Buddha smile. And, of course, the smile is not ironical or satirical. It’s another expression of joy in the Dhamma, and it encourages the listener to behave in a way that, if a Buddha ever learned about it, would make him smile, too.