Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Six Degrees of Laughter

Monk of Tashi Lhunpo monastery make us laugh by pulling funny faces, Tibet 2015

Take the comedian and the scholar; of the two the fool that makes people laugh comes out on top.  The comedian takes home the money, while the scholar goes away broke and empty.  

bzhad gad mkhan dang mkhas pa gnyis ||
blun po bzhad gad byed pa mchog ||
bzhad gad mkhan gyis nor rnyed kyis ||
mkhas la nor med stong par ʾgro || 159 ||

— Nāgārjuna, Prajñādaṇḍa.

Sometimes I read in the tub. I avoid reading holy scriptures or any kind of Tibetan book for that matter, because it would seem sacrilegious somehow. Under such self-imposed strictures, I content myself with printouts of journal articles on subjects that are supposed to be entertaining more than informational. Just now I read a piece by a Norwegian professor in religious studies named Ingvild Sælid Gilhus with the title “Religion, Laughter and the Ludicrous.” 

I’m not sure I learned anything all that new about why humor happens (we brought this subject up before), just the modest and usual idea that it arises out of the unmanageable clash of systems, strange juxtapositions, or incongruity in general. Something doesn’t fit, and however we try just can’t be made to fit, leaving our usual ways of responding in a treadmill that's well on its way to nowhere, leaving us nothing better to do than laugh at the predicament we've fallen into. First comes a sense of release as we give ourselves over to the laughter followed by a kind of relief. All this depends a lot on timing, opportunity and context. If unwelcome truths are too unwelcome within the situation they get told in, the attempted humor falls flat and the buffoon is booted out of the room without benefit of ceremony. I’m not a professional, of course, but I have had this experience. Some people find humor in failed humor, as we know, although it comes with a large helping of scorn. It isn’t nice to laugh at the misfortunes of others, but you must confess, we aren’t always nice, and we bellow out a big one when what we really ought to be feeling is the pathos.

I’m not sure about the general point of the article, that there is something in the laughter response that is analogous to mystical experience. I’ll admit that the idea did make me smile, perhaps just because I didn’t know what to do with it. Would I be condemning this fine article if I regarded the conclusion as absurd? I rather think not. One thing did surprise me, and that is that Buddhism was mentioned at all in what is a general piece on laughter as a broadly human phenomenon. Do we not all feel pain and oppression alike? Ditto with the ludicrous. Usually, in the world at large, Buddhism is regarded as the least humor-prone of all religions, with a laser-like focus on the discomfort and pain. This of course is funny because in practice Buddhists are observed to indulge in laughter to an inordinate degree. And unlike other web-based theorists, I haven’t noticed huge sectarian differences in this particular area. I mean among the Buddhists. It sometimes seems to me it’s the Christians that don’t know how to enjoy a good belly laugh. Or wait, maybe I’m really only talking about the hardcore Calvinists.

Even if so much is so good, I’ll admit there is nothing inherently or remotely funny about the Buddhist penchant for making lists of things, one after the other. The three this and the five that. You know what I mean. But since the professor mentioned them I was thinking already in the bath how I ought to look a little further into the (purportedly) Buddhist list of the six kinds and degrees of laughter, and perhaps compare it with the listing of the types and degrees of earthquakes. You think it’s a joke attempt? Oh well, come on, listology is a thing. Get used to it.

For the numeric lists we have a genre known in Tibetan as རྣམ་གྲངས་ or enumerations. The longest compilation of these has appeared in print only a few years ago in three very thick volumes. That’s kind of funny, isn’t it?  It’s also funny that I looked in vain through them for the six types of laughter. Not a hint of them in the section of sixes, not even a whisper. Somewhere along the way this bit of non-Buddhist Indian literary theory has gotten applied, by somebody, to Buddhism as if it would help make sense of Buddhist laughter, and it’s not even there to be found in the mother of all lists of lists.

What I do find in the section of eights is the eight laughs of heroes. I believe that this, too, is a literary idea about the kinds of laughs to be used by the heroic figure in a dramatic context, although its proximate source is likely to be found in Indian tantric treatises. I guess it amounts to eight because there are four pairs of laughs that always come in pairs:

The threatening laugh: ha ha. 
The joyous laugh: hi hi.
The flirtatious laugh: he he.
The overpowering laugh: ho ho. 

GAD MO BRGYAD — dpa' bo'i gad mo brgyad ni / ha ha bsdigs pa'i gad mo / hi hi dgyes pa'i gad mo / he he sgeg pa'i gad mo / ho ho zil gyis gnon pa'i gad mo rnams so.  This is from my small dictionary of enumerations, the 1992 2nd printing (in 183 pages) of the text listed here, at p. 108.

The 3-volume dictionary of enumerations has an entry for the ten circumstances when Bodhisattvas enjoy a good laugh. It's in the section of tens as you may expect, page 2059. 

I wasn’t going to go into it, but Indian dramatic theory (yes, India has made a science of acting/dancing since forever) has identified 9 types of emotional moods or dramatic experiences that can be conveyed to an audience by the skilled stage actor/dancer, with good advice on how this may best be done. Since one of the nine is hāsya (བཞད་གད་), or the comedic mood, someone came up with six sub-types of it. The set of nine is fairly well known in Tibet, although I haven’t yet found that the six sub-types of the comedic mood have gotten attention from Tibetans. I’m skeptical it is even there to find.
In practical terms, for readers of classical Tibetan it is most important to distinguish ordinary laughter, that is called གད་མོ་, from the wilder more hilarious laughter called དགོད་པ་ or བཞད་མོ་.* It could just be me, but I like to imagine the etymologies of all but one of these Tibetan words reflect degrees of openness. 

Let me explain:  First we have the smile, which is not (yet) a laugh and does not involve opening the lips at all, otherwise it would be more like a grimace or something. The syllable གད་ implies a gap between the lips, as it is related to verbal roots འགད་ and འགས་, with meanings of cracking or splitting open. དགོད་པ་ doesn’t fit in my theory since it connects with words for wild and untamed, but བཞད་མོ་ is used for fully open blossoms and not just a hearty laugh, so it fits perfectly.  When we meet with the compound བཞད་གད་ it can be understood to cover the entire field from chuckling to hilarity, and for this reason forms the main part of the classical word for comedian, which is བཞད་གད་མཁན་ (used to translate Sanskrit vidūṣakathe stage clown or fool in Indian theatrics). Laughter begins its life as a bud that can start to open and then might fully flower. More truth than metaphor, or just truth in metaphor, if you ask me. To go through all the stages of laughter is to blossom as a human being.
(*True, there are still more ways of expressing degrees of laughter. One kind of laughter I have often encountered in the literature is khrel-gad, with many spelling variants. It specifies the ridiculing type of laugh meant to shame or scorn the other person. Not every laugh is nice or worthwhile.)
In case I may have given a contrary impression, I’m not at all saying that Tibetan specialists in Tibetan kāvya (སྙན་དངགས་) literature knew nothing of the six Indic degrees of laughter, just that they were the only ones likely to know about them, so its applicability to Tibetan (or any other) Buddhist society as a whole can hardly be assumed. It would be analogous to the strange fact that some of our contemporary feminists want to critique Tibetan culture on the basis of Indic kāvya epithets for women (as found in the abhidhāna or མངོན་བརྗོད་ literature, known only to kāvya specialists), as if these could tell us anything of significance about Tibetan society’s gender issues. The whole point of kāvya is to bring the alien world of India to life in Tibet. It creates an exotic poetic universe that was never entirely naturalized and was never meant to be. 

For an example of a discussion of humor as a kāvya category by Dondrub Gyal, regarded by many as the tragic founder figure for modernist Tibetan poetry, look here. He has some interesting ideas about degrees of hilarity that ought to be studied more carefully than I am prepared to do right now. And finally, if you are the kind of person who peeks at the last sentence to get straight to the conclusion, I’ve got news for you. There isn’t any except the one you come to yourself. Now you can just go back and read the parts you skipped.

• § • § • § •

More funny stuff to read if you feel like it

June Campbell, Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism, Athlone (London 1996), pp. 31-32. 
This long paragraph dealing with “synonyms for woman” is drawn from the classic dictionary of Sarat Chandra Das. However, what the author misses is that this list is ultimately drawn from an Indian text, the Amarakoṣa by Amarasiṃha, its “Manuṣya” section, verse 2 and following. This list may tell us something about Indian characterizations of some or all women. If these terms were used at all in Tibetan language, they were used for women in dramatic or elite-literary contexts, not as everyday actors in human affairs. 

Shayne Clarke, “Locating Humour in Buddhist Monastic Law Codes: A Comparative Approach,” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 37, no. 4 (2009), pp. 311-330.

Michel Clasquin, “Real Buddhas Don’t Laugh: Attitudes towards Humour and Laughter in Ancient India and China,” Social Identities, vol. 7, no. 1 (2001), pp. 97-116.

Eugen Cuirtin, The Buddha's Earthquakes - I, Studia Asiatica: International Journal for Asian Studies, vol. 10 (2009), pp. 59-127, at p. 73 ff., found at 
For researchers limited to their native English, this is the only study I can recommend for the six types and degrees of earthquakes. Those who read Tibetan can for one thing go to the Enumerations, where they will find this:  [1] high in the east and low in the west, [2] high in the west and low in the east, [3] high in the south and low in the north, [4] high in the north and low in the south, [5] high at the edges and low in the center, and [6] high at the center and low at the edges. 
sa rnam pa drug tu g.yo ba ni / shar mtho na nub dma' / nub mtho na shar dma' / lho mtho na byang dma' / byang mtho na lho dma' / mtha' mtho na dbus dma' / dbus mtho na mtha' dma' ba'o.
Cuirtin also supplies (on p. 76) the Gómez and Silk translation of a passage from the King of Samādhis Sūtra:  
“this world system, which contains three thousand times many thousands of worlds, in six ways shook, shook much and shook entirely. It trembled, trembled much and trembled entirely. It swayed, swayed much and swayed entirely. It moved, moved much and moved entirely. It rattled, rattled much and rattled entirely. It rumbled, rumbled much and rumbled entirely. In the east it sank down, in the west it heaved up. In the west it sank down, in the east it heaved up. In the north it sank down, in the south it heaved up. In the south it sank down, in the north it heaved up. From the ends it sank down, from the middle it heaved up. From the middle it sank down, from the ends it heaved up.”

Michael Dunne, “Calvinist Humor and the American Puritans: The Just Hand of God,” contained in: Michael Dunne, ed., Calvinist Humor in American Literature, Louisiana State University Press (2007).  I haven’t read this yet, but it does have a remarkably unlikely title, perhaps even a funny one.

M. Fassihi, “Why Such a Big Deal? — The Didactic Function of Humor in Tibetan Buddhism.” A pdf exists at website, just that I haven’t gotten access, have you? It once existed at a link given at this YouTube video, but not any more. Funny how things disappear.

Peter Fingesten, “The Smile of the Buddha,” Oriental Art, vol. 14 (Autumn 1968), pp. 176-183.

Ruth Gamble, “Laughing Vajra: The Outcast Clown, Satirical Guru and Smiling Buddha in Milarepa’s Songs,” contained in: David Templeman, ed., New Views of Tibetan Culture, Monash University Press  (Caulfield 2010), pp. 137-166.

Ingrid Saelid Gilhus, “Religion, Laughter and the Ludicrous,” Religion, vol. 21 (1991), pp. 257-277.

Soraj Hongladarom, “Language, Reality, Emptiness, Laughs,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol. 25 (2018).  Seriously worth reading. Look here.

Keith N. Jefferds, “Vidūṣaka versus Fool: A Functional Analysis,” Journal of South Asian Literature, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1981), pp. 61-73.

Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, “Realism, Humor, and Social Commitment: An Interview with Phuntshog Tashi,” World Literature Today, vol. 78, no. 2 (May 2004), pp. 67-69.  This has interesting observations on the differences between Tibetan and Chinese senses of humor. 
Comedy performances have been increasing in the 21st century in both exile and ‘autonomous’ communities for some reason that ought to be pondered and pontificated upon more than it is. There are a lot of examples of Tibetan standup on YouTube, although the ‘autonomous’ won’t be able to see them without a working VPN.
Gregory Schopen, “The Learned Monk as a Comic Figure: On Reading a Buddhist Vinaya as Indian Literature,” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 201-226.

Lee Siegel, Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1987). 
Along with much else, this has many mentions of Buddhism-related humor, mostly satires in connection with monks. For our purposes most recommended is his discussion of the six types of laughter on p. 46 ff. You may be able to get to the passage through Googlebooks.

Sunthar, Abhinavagupta's Conception of Humor: Its Resonances in Sanskrit Drama, Poetry, Hindu Mythology and Spiritual Praxis, PhD dissertation, Benares Hindu University (1983).  This dissertation has all or mostly been posted on the internet here.

If you’d like some interesting things to read scattered here and there around the internet, look here and there. Take special note of this 2007 conference on humor in Buddhism.

"Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)"

This blog is dedicated to Ilana, 
a friend who will be much missed,
and not just for her good humor.

“I don’t think people who feel comfortable or happy 
are motivated to become comedians. 
You’re searching for something and 
you’re willing to pay a high price to get that attention.”

Jackie Mason, Comedian, 1987
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