A few years ago, I traveled throughout India looking for spiritual inspiration. Naturally, I wasn’t the first person to have done this. At all the temples, ashrams and holy mountains, I found crowds of Westerners looking for something as well, and presumably it wasn’t the bedbugs, diesel fumes and diarrhea. It was easy to identify the seekers in a crowd. While regular tourists wore shorts or khakis or brightly colored Indian shirts, spiritual tourists wore a lot of white. They walked across temple courtyards, a slow-motion blur of white drapes and scarves, their faces a vision of sobriety and introspection.
Inside the shrines, they sat perfectly still, unfazed by the heat, various itches and their gurgling tummies. They sat in full lotus or Zen kneeling positions. Their eyes were sublimely closed. Rarely did they smile, and when they did, it was more of a knowing smile.
Their manner perplexed me, especially when I walked out of a shrine into the chaos of color, sound and personality that is India. Everywhere I turned, Indians were smiling, shoving food in my hands, cracking jokes, playing with kids—theirs or a stranger’s. And when I met a real-life Indian guru, she seemed to be laughing most of the time. Amma is known as “the hugging saint” because she gives affectionate embraces to the thousands of devotees who line up to see her everywhere she goes.
A petite, plump woman with a perfectly round face, warm dark eyes and a beaming smile, Amma could also have been called the laughing saint. One of my clearest memories is of her squinting her eyes closed, leaning her head back and breaking into peals of laughter.
If the very gurus the seekers come to see are laughing, why are the seekers themselves so serious? I decided I wanted to learn something about laughter’s ability to unlock the spirit. After all, as James Baraz, a Buddhist meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, told me, “It’s called enlightenment for a reason. Lighten up!” I went in search of some lighthearted tips on the spirit.
Why don’t Buddhists vacuum in the corners? Because they have no attachments.
Baraz didn’t always have such a merry outlook. He’s been a serious—dead serious—student of Zen since 1974. For a number of years, he says, he interpreted Buddhist teachings on the illusory nature of sense perception as an instruction to regard everything with a kind of gloomy existential detachment. “The Buddha started taking on a very stern look to me,” he recalls. “I somehow mixed up [the Buddhist concept of] the end of suffering with the end of living.”
The spell was broken in 1990 when he met H.W.L. Poonja, better known as “Poonjaji,” an Indian teacher of advaita vedanta, or non-dual, philosophy. Poonjaji was a jovial man who loved to laugh, even while explaining that enlightenment means awaking to the realization that your true nature is indistinguishable from the indefinable source of the universe, or what Baraz calls emptiness. Baraz remembers asking, “Poonjaji, why is your emptiness so much more fun than mine?” To this the irrepresible guru replied, “My emptiness rejects nothing. It includes stillness and activity and sorrow and joy, laughter and tears.” And then he burst out laughing.
From that time on, Baraz understood Buddhist teachings differently. He reread the scriptures and discovered that joy was one of the seven factors of enlightenment. Now in his Awakening to Joy workshops, he teaches students to smile and laugh, to cultivate wholesome, happy emotions, to celebrate. Even the physical effects of laughter have a spiritual component, he says: “Sometimes, just changing your face and your body language can create more space in your mind. Laughter is a real aid to bring about that spaciousness.”
A rabbi, a Lutheran pastor and a Zen monk walk into a bar. “Hey, what is this, some kind of joke?” the bartender asks.
Bernie Glassman likes to inject a little humor into his Zen teaching, too. People at Buddhist retreats tend to ask “really heavy, serious questions, like, What is life? Who am I?” Glassman says. His answer: He slips on an imaginary banana peel or knocks down a shelf of books, skills he learned from professional clown Moshe Cohen.
“My clown actions will arise out of bearing witness to the situation, and that’s what Zen training is all about,” he says. “The basic principle of Zen is ‘not knowing.’ It’s to not be fixed to any idea or concept, to not be attached to them.” If you start thinking ‘my way is the way’—that’s when Glassman gets out his clown nose.
One of the founders of American Zen, Glassman, 70, received the title “sensei” (which means teacher) in 1967 from revered Japanese master Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Glassman earned the title “roshi” (or master) in 1995. But Glassman is fond of another title he gave himself: Bernie, the Boobysattva. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened soul who voluntarily enters the world to spread compassion and grace; the Boobysattva—as Glassman lives the role—is one who voluntarily spreads laughter and mirth.
With inspiration from 1960s icon Wavy Gravy and help from Michel Dobbs, who runs a Zen center on Long Island, New York, Glassman formed the Order of Disorder (OD or “odd” for short), a loose alliance of Zen practitioners who know enough clowning skills to get any group of overly serious monks laughing.
Dobbs even wrote a joke version of the four solemn vows Zen monks say every day: “Creations are numberless, I vow to free them/Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them/Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it/The awakened way is inexhaustible, I vow to embody it!”
Dobbs’ disorderly rendition—meant with no disprespect—runs a bit differently:
“Creations are numberless, I vow to count them/Delusions are inexhaustible, as if you hadn’t noticed/Reality is boundless, and so are parts of Long Island/The OD way is unavoidable; what were we chanting about?”
Dobbs points out that there’s always been a tradition of humor in Zen. The ancient Zen masters were known for their quirky slapstick antics, like kicking their students to shock them into realization. Many of the classic koans are witty and paradoxical, like this one, from a master wielding the stick used to rouse meditating monks who have fallen asleep. “If you call this a stick, I’ll hit you 30 times; if you don’t call it a stick, I’ll hit you 30 times.”
“In the U.S., Zen is so new, so we’re working really hard at it and sometimes it gets a Puritan flavor,” Dobbs says. He was struck by the somberness of students at some of his early Zen retreats, where people “walked around looking like they were at a funeral,” he says. He, on the other hand, was beaming. “I was like, This is just amazing. It’s great. I’m not at work!”
One of the key teachings of Zen is awareness, and laughter can be a tool to reinvigorate alertness to the present moment. “Life and death are of great importance; pay attention” is a verse frequently chanted by Zen monks. “But there are different ways of paying attention,” says Dobbs. “We can walk around like zombies thinking we’re doing this hard work. Sometimes, having someone shake us out of that is real ‘paying attention.’”
The Order of Disorder doesn’t plan its meetings far in advance—or at all, for that matter. No one is really sure how many members it has. “Really, everyone’s a member,” Dobbs says. “The scripture says we are all Buddhas already but we don’t realize it. Well, we’re all disorderly. Our real nature is chaotic. You know, ‘I can’t find the car keys! Where did I put that piece of paper?’ There is a tendency, even in Zen, to say, ‘I joined. I’m special.’ But there’s nothing to join.”
God, you help complete strangers. So why won’t you help me?
Daniel Marshall, 30, is A disciple of Amma, the hugging saint I met in India years back. He says Amma’s laughter restored his optimism. Before he went to live in her ashram, he’d been living in New York City and had succeeded in getting his first novel published at age 21. But his literary success left him jaded and depressed. He felt there was nothing left to achieve.
At the ashram, he began meditating regularly and studying spiritual texts. He moved into the section where the long-time Indian disciples of Amma live, rather than the area for Western guests. He thought he had more to learn from Indians than other Westerners. “I got into a ‘more Indian than thou’ frame of mind,” he recalls.
But his depressed mood only increased as he saw that everyone around Amma “just had the biggest smiles on their faces. I’d wonder, How did they get there?” He always felt sad and worried. Amma would try to make him laugh. “Welcome, my daughter,” she would say when he approached her. When he didn’t laugh, she would make ridiculous faces, wiggling her eyebrows. When even that failed, she reached out and pulled up the corners of his mouth into the shape of a smile. Eventually it worked. “My whole frame of mind just shifted into a much more relaxed, optimistic state,” Marshall says.
Swami Dayamitra, one of Amma’s senior disciples, explained the philosophy behind making fun. “Our true nature is pure happiness.” he says. “A momentary laugh may give us pleasure, but bliss is eternal. The nature of spiritual laughter is maintaining that attitude throughout so you are not bogged down by the experiences of life. Ultimately, the attitude that we have to develop is that this life is a big joke.”
The Buddha’s laugh fills the entire universe, according to one Buddhist teaching. Recently, I felt as though I was the only one who didn’t get the joke. I’d been so bogged down with work, I could barely crack a smile, let alone laugh. I started to worry I was the kind of person Voltaire had in mind when he wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” It was time for a vacation.
I visited Green Gulch Zen Center, a pristine Japanese-style monastery by the edge of the Pacific. I meditated. I slept. I read. I slept some more. And I took a long walk along the green cliffs, watching the waves roll across the sea, illumined to a near-blinding brightness in the afternoon sun. And that’s when it happened.
As I squinted into the sun, holding my hat down against a strong breeze trying to lift it off, I suddenly felt so totally free—from regrets, from worry. I felt free to make of life exactly what I wanted. I breathed the feeling in, looking out at the whitecaps, at the swimmers below. And then I felt something else, something bubbling up inside, almost like a hiccup. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe from the pressure inside me. Then I just let it out. I threw my head back, faced the sun and laughed.
Carmel Wroth is a writer whose funniest moments happen unintentionally.