The Laughing Buddha and Human Pomposity

Philip Woollcott, MD

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Last summer while at our cabins in northern Michigan working on my sabbatical project, my enthusiasm began to wane and distractions set in. Then I noticed the figure of the small laughing Buddha that sits on the desk. It was not just laughing, it was cracking up, hunched over in paroxysms of glee, eyes tightly clenched, one hand clasping a staff for balance, the other hand extended, reaching out.

As soon as I sat down at the computer to write a paralysis would come over me. Waiting for something profound, for something special to happen. Nothing. Nothing but the same stiff prose.. .and all the time this Buddha is laughing his head off.

This figure had been on a shelf there for many years. I cannot recall how it got there. I always liked it, and a few years previously I had moved it to its present position on the desk to keep me company while I worked. There has always been something incongruous about this statue. This is not the Buddha of the enigmatic smile. This is the rollicking side-splitting Buddha. The question arose: what was the source of his hilarity? I knew almost nothing about Buddhism, but I was intrigued by this figure of a laughing God. I had an intuition that he was breaking up over human pomposity. Shenzen Young, a Buddha scholar at Northwestern University provided me with some background information, and as I got into it I realized that it might be fun to share some of what I learned about the laughing Buddha here at Council Grove.

Where did this laughing Buddha come from? Buddhism originated in northern India 2500 years ago and became the dominant force in an essentially preliterate Indian and southeastern Asian culture. The original Buddha (Gautama) 2500 year ago was apparently a true ascetic, silent, holy, withdrawn from all attachments. When Buddhism appeared in China it encountered a well¬developed culture. The Chinese took Buddhist enlightenment which had been largely out of the world, and converted it into an enlightenment in the ordinary world. Chinese, and later, Zen intuition seemed to suggest religion had become too self-important, pious and sanctimonious. The image of the laughing Buddha suggested a return to simplicity and ordinary life as the vehicle of a fuller, more embracing truth.

Two Zen images emerged from the so-called "middle" Chinese period of Buddhism (about the 5th to the 10th centuries). The first was Bodhidharma, known for his strenuous ascetic practices - nine years meditating facing the wall of a cave - who confronted seekers of enlightenment: "with piercing eyes shooting daggers from beneath shaggy brows set in a great craggy forehead, seeing through all the schemes of desire and fortresses of ignorance."  (Hyers, C., The Laughing Buddha, Wolfeeboror, New Hampshire, 1989, pp25-26)

The other image of Zen is based on Pu-Tai, a legendary monk who lived in northern China about the 8th century who refused to enter the monastery on any regular basis. Pu-Tai was fat, disheveled, with a cloth bag on his back full of goodies, a jolly figure who danced gracefully in spite of his size, and whose religious life consisted of playing with children. In fact, he is often depicted as surrounded by children, who are often climbing all over him. After he died the local Zen Master proclaimed that Pu-Tai was actually a reincarnation of the Buddha, the enlightened one, but in disguise. It was Pu-Tai who gave rise to the legendary Laughing Buddha.

The tenth (and final) of the famed "ox-herding pictures" represents Pu-Tai entering the city with "bliss-bestowing" outstretched hands. Characterized by ordinariness and approachableness, Pu-Tai represented a totally different vision of the holy,, a shift from celestial other worldliness to the down to earth.

Zen enlightenment was accomplished through some pretty strange and uncommon ways: a tile falling off the roof and cracking your skull, a slap, a kick, a deafening roar, a rollicking guffaw, a single finger held up in silence, or a barrage of double talk in response to a weighty philosophical query. Curious techniques for spiritual realization.

Set against the tendency of religion to become pious dogma, the figure of the clown becomes in the Zen tradition the vehicle of truth and liberation, symbolizing a transcendence of the spiritual isolation of the cave, and a returning to the light in laughter. Mai-treya, the future Buddha, is likened to the fool who turns the hierarchy of human beings upside down. The appeal of the laughing Buddha, like Charlie Chaplin, is the undoing of hierarchy and pomp.

In early Buddhism the religious bureaucrats had classified humor into five levels and proclaimed that only level one, symbolized by the almost imperceptible Buddha smile, was acceptable. Against a tradition like that boisterous Zen humor developed, and in fact, Zen emphasized level five, atihasita, the most uproarious laughter attended by movements of the entire body. Such a belly laugh was a sign of sanity. The laughter of scorn is not a belly laugh. If you are not convinced, try a scornful laugh, and compare it to a good belly laugh. Laughing to scorn does not use the whole body and distorts the face.

Chinese art and religion see the whole range of earthly life as itself a sacred mystery, the "Pure Land" immediately available to experience. Rather than focus on mystery in certain unusual if not supernatural moments, the oriental focus is upon mystery in the ordinary, mundane situations in life. Thus, the ordinariness of Pu-Tai, the laughing Buddha. In Zen there is no secular-sacred dichotomy. It is transcended. The categories of importance and unimportance no longer apply.

The zany ability of the fool, or comic, is to momentarily ease the duplicity of our too-conscious minds, enabling us to experience for an instant the truth of our shared destiny, our social solidarity as human beings.

The sense of self that we hang onto so fervently Buddhism regards as actually a transitory, discontinuous event. Since in our confusion we take this self to be real and solid, we try to nourish and protect it at every opportunity. These efforts at self-promotion and enhancement consume an enormous part of human energy, but are over-compensatory, and ultimately futile. According to Buddhism this struggle to maintain the sense of solid continuous self is the action of the ego.

The enlightenment of the laughing Buddha is the realization of the extraordinariness of the ordinary life, ordinary life that is shared by all, rather than a select elite who are beyond the common life of people. Rimpoche called it a "sane, awake quality" that manifests itself only in the absence of strain and struggle.

My own interest has been in extraordinary episodic experiences of religious and creative illumination, perhaps a bit unbalanced in that direction, the laughing Buddha might say. I have thought breakthrough experiences of inspiration might reveal some basic essence of the phenomena of consciousness itself ordinarily hidden by the preoccupations of waking life. I have been responding to the hiddenness of truth, whereas the laughing Buddha revealed the extraordinariness of mundane life itself.

From an early age I was fascinated by the ways things transformed themselves into something new. My earliest memory is of dough being placed in an oven, becoming a beautiful loaf of bread. As a child this was a true miracle. But my vision of the miraculous in life was so appealing that I came to feel I was quite special myself, an event that inevitably led to my becoming something of a petty tyrant in the family. My mother called me King Poo Poo. She had the loudest laugh of anyone, so perhaps it was inevitable that I would become intrigued with a God who laughs!

Enlightenment from the Buddhist perspective is the burning up of ego, the release from self-deception, and a new beginning, hence its connection with the child. Jesus realized the same connection. But the ecstasy of enlightenment does not guarantee liberation. All too often the elation of enlightenment leads to self-congratulation and grandiosity. A poet has suggested that what the ego wants most of all is not to be loved, but to be loved alone. This is the golden fantasy of our infancy, never entirely relinquished. To be better than, to be special, is the basis of the self-deceptions which divide one person, one tribe, one nation from another, and divide each person from his own true nature. Humor is the antidote. The greatest intellect is not enough. Wisdom alone is not enough. It is laughter that collapses hierarchies and separateness among people.

The ambiguity of humor shatters all dualities, and the invincibility of comic heroism is maintained even in the face of death. A Zen anecdote tells of a Zen master who lay dying. His monks had all gathered around his bed , from the senior monk to the most novice. The senior monk leaned over and asked the dying master for any final words of advice or instruction for his monks. The old master slowly opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered, "Tell them Truth is like a river". The senior monk passed this bit of wisdom in turn to the monk next to him, and it circulated around the room. Then the words reached the youngest monk he asked "What does it mean, 'Truth is like a river"?' The question was passed back around the room to the senior monk, who leaned over the bed and asked, "Master, what do you mean, 'Truth is like a river'?" Slowly the master opened his eyes and in a weak voice whispered "OK, truth is not like a river." (Hyers, op cit, p. 103)

Presented at the Council Grove Conference, March 23, 1991