It would be interesting to examine this subject in terms of what is not a sense of humor. Lack of humor seems to come from the attitude of the "hard fact." Things are very hard and deadly honest, deadly serious, like, to use an analogy, a living corpse. He lives in pain, has a continual expression of pain on his face. He has experienced some kind of hard fact -"reality"-he is deadly serious and has gone so far as to become a living corpse. The rigidity of this living corpse expresses the opposite of a sense of humor. It is as though somebody is standing behind you with a sharp sword. If you are not meditating properly, sitting still and upright, there will be someone behind you just about to strike. Or if you are not dealing with life properly, honestly, directly, someone is just about to hit you. This is the self-consciousness of watching yourself, observing yourself unnecessarily. Whatever we do is constantly being watched and censored. Actually it is not Big Brother who is watching; it is Big Me! Another aspect of me is watching me, behind me, just about to strike, just about to pinpoint my failure. There is no joy in this approach, no sense of humor at all.
This kind of seriousness relates to the problem of spiritual materialism as well. "Inasmuch as I am part of a particular lineage of meditators, associated with the church and its organization, because of my religious commitment, I must be a good boy or girl, an honest, good, church-going person. I must conform to the standards of the church, its rules and regulations. If I do not fulfill my obligations I will be condemned, reduced to a shrunken body." There is the threat of solemnity and death-death in the sense of an end to any further creative process. This attitude has the feeling of limitation, rigidity; there is no room to move about at all.
You might ask then, "What about the great religious traditions, the teachings? They speak of discipline, rules and regulations. How do we reconcile these with the notion of a sense of humor?" Well, let's examine the question properly. Are the regulations, the discipline, the practice of morality really based on the purely judgmental attitude of "good" as opposed to "bad"? Are the great spiritual teachings really advocating that we fight evil because we are on the side of light, the side of peace? Are they telling us to fight against that other "undesirable" side, the bad and the black? That is a big question. If there is wisdom in the sacred teachings, there should not be any war. As long as a person is involved with warfare, trying to defend or attack, then his action is not sacred; it is mundane, dualistic, a battlefield situation. One would not expect the great teachings to be as simple-minded as that, trying to be good, fighting the bad. Such would be the approach of the Hollywood western movie-even before you have seen the conclusion, you already know precisely that the "goodies" will not be killed and the "baddies" are going to get smashed. This approach is obviously simple-minded; but it is just this type of situation that we are creating in terms of "spiritual" struggle, "spiritual" achievement.
I am not saying that a sense of humor should be wildly unleashed. I am speaking of seeing something more than just warfare, struggle, duality. If we regard the path of spirituality as a battlefield, then we are weak and feeble. Then our progress on the path will depend upon how great an area we have conquered, upon the subjugation of our own and others' faults, upon how much negativity we have eliminated. Relative to how much dark you have eliminated, that much light you have been able to produce. That is very feeble; one could hardly call it liberation or freedom or mukti or nirvana. You have achieved liberation by defeating something else: it is purely relative.
I do not want to make a "sense of humor" into something solemn; I am afraid that people are going to do that. But in order to really understand rigidity, that which is represented by the corpse, one cannot avoid the danger of making a sense of humor into a serious thing. Sense of humor means seeing both poles of a situation as they are, from an aerial point of view. There is good and there is bad and you see both with a panoramic view as though from above. Then you begin to feel that these little people on the ground, killing each other or making love or just being little people, are very insignificant in the sense that, if they begin to make a big deal of their warfare or love making, then we begin to see the ironic aspect of their clamor. If we try very hard to build something tremendous, really meaningful, powerful-"I'm really searching for something, I'm really trying to fight my faults," or "I'm really trying to be good,"-then it loses its seriousness, becomes a paper tiger; it is extremely ironic.
Sense of humor seems to come from all-pervading joy, joy which has room to expand into a completely open situation because it is not involved with the battle between "this" and "that". Joy develops into the panoramic situation of seeing or feeling the whole ground, the open ground. This open situation has no hint of limitation, of imposed solemnity. And if you do try to treat life as a "serious business," if you try to impose solemnity upon life as though everything is a big deal, then it is funny. Why such a big deal?
A person might attempt to meditate in a 100% or 200o/o correct posture. Big Deal. Funny. Or on the other hand, a person might try to develop a sense of humor, trying always to make fun of things, to find humor in every corner, every crack. That in itself is a very serious game, which is equally funny. If you build up physical tension to the point where you are clenching your teeth, biting your tongue, then suddenly something will tickle you because you have been building too much; it is too absurd to go to such extremes. That extreme intensity itself becomes humor, automatically.
There is the Tibetan story of a certain monk who renounced his samsaric, confused life and decided to go live in a cave in order to meditate all the time. Prior to this he had been thinking continually of pain and suffering. His name was Ngonagpa of Langru, the Black-faced One of Langru, because he never smiled at all hut saw everything in life in terms of pain. He remained in retreat for many years, very solemn and deadly honest, until one day he looked at the shrine and saw that someone had presented a big lump of turquoise as a gift to him. As he viewed the gift, he saw a mouse creep in and try to drag away the piece of turquoise. The mouse could not do it, so it sent back to its hole and called another mouse. They both tried to drag away this big lump of turquoise but could not do it. So they squeaked together and called eight more mice who came and finally managed to drag the whole .lump back into their hole. Then for the first time Ngonagpa of Langru began to laugh and smile. And that was his first introduction to openness, a sudden flash of enlightenment.
So a sense of humor is not merely a matter of trying to tell jokes or make puns, trying to be funny in a deliberate fashion. It involves seeing the basic irony of the juxtaposition of extremes, so that one is not caught taking them seriously, so that one does not seriously play their game of hope and fear. This is why the experience of the spiritual path is so significant, why the practice of meditation is the most insignificant experience of all. It is insignificant because you place no value judgment on it. Once you are absorbed into that insignificant situation of openness without involvement in value judgment, then you begin to see all the games going on around you. Someone is trying to be stern and spiritually solemn, trying to be a good person. Such a person might take it seriously if someone offended him, might want to fight. If you work in accordance with the basic insignificance of what is, then you begin to see the humor in this kind of solemnity, in people making such a big deal about things.
Q: Most of the arguments I've heard for doing the good thing and the right thing say: First accumulate merit, be good, give up evil; then later on it will be even easier to give up the "good hang-ups." What do you make of this approach?
A: If we look at it from the point of view of a sense of humor, the idea of "giving up" seems to be too literal and naive. If you are attempting to be good and give up everything, ironically it is not giving up at all; it is taking on more things. That is the funny part of it. Someone might think himself able to abandon the big load he is carrying but the absence of the load, the giving up, is heavier, hundreds of times heavier than what the person has left behind. It is easy to give something up but the by-product of such renunciation could consist of some very heavy virtue. Each time you meet someone you will be thinking or will actually say, "I have given up this and that." "Giving up" can become heavier and heavier, as though you were carrying a big bag of germs on your back. Finally it might become a big fungus that you are carrying, growing faster and faster. At some stage a person begins to become completely unbearable because he has given up so many things. For that matter, if we treat the practice of meditation as a serious matter, a matter of consequence, then it will become embarrassing and heavy, overwhelming. We will not even be able to think about it. It would be as though a person had eaten an extremely heavy meal. He is just about to get sick and he will begin to think, "I wish I were hungry. At least that would feel light. But now I have all this food in my stomach and I am just about to be sick. I wish I had never eaten." One cannot take spirituality so seriously. It is self-defeating, counter to the true meaning of "giving up."
Q: Is a sense of tragedy then something that an enlightened person has overcome?
A: You do not necessarily have to be enlightened to give up tragedy. If you are involved with the intensity of crescendo situations, with the intensity of tragedy, then you might begin to see the humor of these situations as well. As in music, when we hear the crescendo building, suddenly if the music stops, we begin to hear the silence as part of the music. It is not an extraordinary experience at all: it is very ordinary, very mundane. That is why I said it is one of the most insignificant experiences of all, because we do not attach our value judgments to it. The experience is hardly there. Of course if we employ the basic twist of ego, we could go on and say that because the experience is hardly there, because it is so insignificant, therefore it is one of the most valuable and extraordinary experiences of all. This would just be a conceptualized way of trying to prove that what you are involved in is a big deal. It is not a big deal.
Q: Is sense of humor related in any way to the experience of instant enlightenment, satori?
A: Certainly. There is the story of a person who died laughing. He was a simple village person who asked a teacher the color of Amitabha which traditionally, iconographically, is red. Somehow, by mistake, he thought the teacher said Amitabha's color was the color of ash in a fire. And this influenced his whole meditation practice; because when he practiced visualizing Amitabha, it was a grey Amitabha. Finally the man was dying. As he lay on his deathbed he wanted to make sure, so he asked another teacher the color of Amitabha. The teacher said that Amitabha's color was red and the man suddenly burst into laughter: "Well, I used to think him the color of ash, and now you tell me he is red." He burst into laughter and died laughing. So it is a question of overcoming some kind of seriousness. There are many stories of people who were actually able to see the awakened state by breaking into laughter-seeing the contrast, the irony of polar situations. For instance there was the hermit whose devotee lived several miles away in a village. This devotee supported the hermit, supplying him with food and the other necessities of life. Most of the time the devotee sent his wife or daughter or son to bring the hermit his supplies; but one day the hermit heard that the donor himself was coming to see him. The hermit thought, "I must impress him, I must clean and polish the shrine objects and make the shrine very neat and my room extremely tidy." So he cleaned and rearranged everything until his shrine looked very impressive with bowls of water and butter lamps burning brightly. And when he had finished, he sat down and began to admire the room and look around. Everything looked very neat, somehow unreal, and he saw that his shrine appeared unreal as well. Suddenly, to his surprise he realized that he was being a hypocrite. Then he went into the kitchen and got hand-fulls of ashes and threw them at the shrine until his room was a complete mess. When his patron came, he was extremely impressed by the natural quality of the room, by its not being tidy. The hermit could not hold himself together. He burst into laughter and said, "I tried to tidy myself and my room, but then I thought perhaps I should show it to you this way." And so they both, patron and hermit, burst into laughter. That was a great moment of awakening for both of them.
Q: In each lecture you describe some seemingly inescapable situation in which we are all trapped, in which we have already become enmeshed. I just wonder if you ever mean to imply that there is a way out?
A: You see, the whole point is that if we are speaking of a way out all the time, then we are dealing in fantasy, the dream of escape, salvation, enlightenment. We need to be practical. We must examine what is here, now, our neurotic mind. Once we are completely familiar with the negative aspects of the state of our being, then we know the "way out" automatically. But if we talk about how beautiful and joyous our attainment of the goal will be, then we become extremely sincere and romantic; and this approach becomes an obstacle. One must be practical. It is like visiting your physician because you are ill. If a doctor is going to treat you, then he must first know what is wrong with you. It is not a question of what could be right with you; that is not relevant. If you tell the doctor what is wrong with you, then that is the way out of your illness. That is why the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching. One must begin with the realization of pain, duhkha, suffering. Then having realized duhkha, one goes on to the origin of suffering and the path leading out of suffering and liberation. The Buddha did not begin by teaching the beauty of the enlightenment experience.
Q: Following the usual patterns of evaluation and judgment, I find myself thinking that the errors and obstacles which you describe in later lectures are somehow more advanced than those described in the earlier lectures. Is this correct?
A: That is true. Even after one has stepped onto the path, as in the case of bodhisattvas, once you have begun to awaken there could be a tendency to analyze your awakened state. This involves looking at oneself, analyzing and evaluating, and continues until there is a sharp blow which is called the vajralike samadhi. This is the last samadhi state of meditation. The attainment of enlightenment is called "vajra-like" because it does not stand for any nonsense; it just cuts right through all our games. In the story of the Buddha's life we hear of the temptations of Mara, which are extremely subtle. The first temptation is fear of physical destruction. The last is the seduction by the daughters of Mara. This seduction, the seduction of spiritual materialism, is extremely powerful because it is the seduction of thinking that "I" have achieved something. If we think we have achieved something, that we have "made it," then we have been seduced by Mara's daughters, the seduction of spiritual materialism.
‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’
By Chogyam Trungpa (Author), Sakyong Mipham (Foreword)
By Chogyam Trungpa (Author), Sakyong Mipham (Foreword)
‘A useful, light read touching on mindfulness and spiritual psychology regardless of religious background.’
In this modern spiritual classic, the Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa highlights the commonest pitfall to which every aspirant on the spiritual path falls prey: what he calls "spiritual materialism. " The universal tendency, he shows, is to see spirituality as a process of self-improvement the impulse to develop and refine the ego when the ego is, by nature, essentially empty. "The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use," he said, "even spirituality." His incisive, compassionate teachings serve to wake us up from this trick we all play on ourselves, and to offer us a far brighter reality: the true and joyous liberation that inevitably involves letting go of the self rather than working to improve it. It is a message that has resonated with students for nearly thirty years, and remains fresh as ever today. This new edition includes a foreword by Chogyam Trungpa's son and lineage holder, Sakyong Mipham.
‘The usefulness of this book lies in Trungpa's uncanny ability to cut right to the heart of the matter and presents his understanding of Buddhism and the way of life it teaches in a manner that is applicable to his students' living situation.’
(Journal of the American Academy of Religion)