Humour (parihāsa) is the characteristic of something that evokes laughter. Having a sense of humour is the ability to see the funny side of things or the knack of being able to make others laugh. The Buddha had a poor opinion of the humour of his time, probably because most of it was rather coarse – slapstick, ribaldry or based on sexual innuendos. He also must have noticed, as many have since, that a lot of humour is derived from making fun of and ridiculing others, and thus contains an element of cruelty. Ancient Indian actors (naṭa) and comedians (hāsaka) believed that because they ‘use both truth and falsehood to entertain and amuse the crowd’ that they would be reborn in the heaven of the laughing gods. The Buddha had a different idea. He said that they would be more likely to be reborn in the purgatory of laughter (S.IV,306). Such was his belief in the importance of speaking the truth that he told his son Rāhula, ‘Do not lie, not even in jest.’ (M.I,415). This same idea is referred to several times in the Jātaka (e.g. Ja.I,439; V,481).
Nonetheless, the Buddha seems to have approved of humour that would raise a smile or lighten the mood, because the Tipiṭaka contains many examples of his urbane, subtle humour. His discourses are full of puns (silesa), a pun being the use of a word that has two different meanings or two words that sound the same, for humorous effect. For example, brahmans were also known as ‘reciters’ (ajjhāyaka) because they chanted the Vedas. The Buddha joked that they were really called this because they couldn’t meditate (ajhāyaka, D.III,94). Another way of evoking humor is by juxtaposing two connected but incongruous things, something the Buddha often did in his similes. Having good intentions but wrong practice, he said, will no more leads to Nirvāṇa than pulling a cow’s horn will give milk (M.III,141). He said that a fool does not benefit from his association with a wise person any more than a spoon tastes the soup (Dhp.64). Occasionally the Buddha used parody (parihāpajja) to critique certain persons or ideas, particularly the pretensions of the brahmans. Once, an arrogant young brahman insisted to him that brahmans are superior to other castes because ‘they are born from the mouth of Brahma,’ an idea found in the Vedas. The Buddha quipped, ‘But surely brahmans are born from their mothers’ wombs like everyone else.’ (M.II,148). In the Dīgha Nikāya he gently parodied the idea of a supreme god in a way that can still raise a chuckle in the modern reader (D.I,17-18; 220-222).
Laughter is sometimes called ‘the best medicine’ and the Buddha would have agreed that humour can sometimes have a therapeutic value. On those occasions where a particular way of thinking has made a problem look unsolvable or a burden appear unbearable, making a joke of the situation can sometimes open up a different way of looking at it and suggest a solution. Humour can also trigger a catharsis, a therapeutic release from anxiety, tension or fear, or lift one out of depression. The Buddha occasionally used it to this end. At one time, King Ajātasattu went to visit the Buddha and asked him if he could tell him one advantage of the monk’s life that could be seen in the present life. The king had only recently murdered his father and was starting to feel increasingly regretful and uneasy. The Buddha asked the king what he would do if one of his slaves ran away and became a monk and the king later came to know where he was staying. Would he, the Buddha inquired, have the monk arrested and returned to slavery? ‘No,’ answered the king. ‘On the contrary, I would stand up for him, bow to him and offer him alms.’ The Buddha replied, ‘Well, there you are. There is one of the advantages of the monk’s life that could be seen in this life.’ (paraphrase of D.I,51-61). This unexpectedly whimsical answer to a serious question must have at first surprised the king, but then made him either smile or laugh. Having lightened the king’s mood and put him at his ease, the Buddha then proceeded to answer his question more seriously.
See Smiles and Laughter.
Humor in Pali Literature and Other Essays, W. Rahula,1997.