“Laughing at the Human Condition: Humor in Sinitic Buddhism”

Rick McBride
Brigham Young University

The thrills and agonies of human existence are no laughing matter, but in some Buddhist-inspired narratives in East Asia, people involve the Buddha in ways that, due to the intrinsic humor, cause people to reflect deeply on the inherent ironies of life and inspire some to take the bold step to renounce worldly pleasures for the promised inner peace that comes from pursuing the Buddhist Way to enlightenment. Getting caught up in the frivolous language and conceptualizations of life are what Buddhists call prapañca (xilun 戲論). This paper will analyze a few selected narratives, tales, and anecdotes from the East Asian Buddhist tradition in which people turn to the Buddha or bodhisattvas, buddhas in training, with questionable motives or for seemingly misplaced mundane matters and are spiritually transformed in the process. Spiritual realization or religious awakening may be initiated in different ways. Several stories, including “Playing Craps with the Buddha at Myriad Blessings Temple” and “Mr. Ma’s Wife” aka “Guanyin with Fish Basket,” employ the humorous but effective concept of “treating the passions with passion,” causing frail humans to acquire the courage to arouse the aspiration to enlightenment. Eminent monks, some of whom are remembered for their meditative prowess, engage in comical yet instructive encounters. All in all, Buddhist humor in East Asia points to the doctrine of dependent co-origination. Although all things are empty of self-nature and do not exist independently, things are produced and destroyed deriving from their interdependent existence—and from the (mis)conceptualizations of the human mind.