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I remember reading somewhere a while back (it's pretty foggy) about what a modern-day Zen teacher (or he might have been Tibetan) said when asked about the skillfulness or use of laughter. His response was something to the effect of "I love laughter, because you can't think conceptual thoughts when you're laughing." The room full of eager students no doubt broke down in side-splitting non-conceptual thought.
It's an interesting point, but I'm not sure I agree with it. Concepts, some gross (in both senses of the word), some more subtle, are so often the basis of what is making us laugh that I have trouble believing that it just shuts off with the rising of the first giggle. I like the quote mostly because it is proof that Buddhist teachers aren't against laughter (and it is short enough to more or less remember). Personally, the dharma and humor have always been highly complementary, and I believe both cultivate the same healthy perspective on life. Humor is more volatile and dangerous, perhaps, but in its purest form, it fully embodies the four noble truths. When deep suffering and humor coexist, now that is a state powerfully beyond concepts.
I was pleased to hear today about an upcoming conference at UC Berkeley on this very topic, entitled "Does Humor Belong in Buddhism?" I hope that's at least a little tongue in cheek, since I'll be there, and it lasts all day Saturday, which will probably be the most beautiful day I've seen since early September here in NYC. Joke's on me, I guess.
I'm confident that there is more than enough humor in the teachings and history of Buddhism to make for a reasonably amusing day, even in the hands of academics. (I kid! I kid because I love.) I'm excited to hear from a number of the people there, including Donald Lopez, Jr., one of Tricycle's contributing editors, whose work is consistently fascinating. A notable omission: Bay Area Buddhist teacher and comedian Wes "Scoop" Nisker. I've never heard his schtick, but Gary Snyder had this to say about his book The Essential Crazy Wisdom:"Ah, the foolishness of the real! This is good medicine." That's the main thing, right there. Life is completely absurd. If we're lucky, at some point we stop sobbing and start to laugh at it.
-Andrew Merz, Associate Editor