The Function of Humor in Zen Religion

by Bruce Bigenho


Among the many facets, social styles, and traditions within the general Zen practice, one characteristic that is most intriguing and unique is its relationship to humor. Zen distinguishes itself from the many religions of the world by being able to laugh at and satirize virtually everything, including itself.

The various anecdotes and teachings of Zen, handed down through its rich history, often read like a well-crafted joke, or a humorous riddle . The master-disciple relationship, so integral to Zen, is rife with stories that seem like slapstick interactions, where the master belts, kicks, hits, or tweaks the nose of his disciple-- to which the disciple would sometime reply, "Thanks, I needed that." In no other religion is the figure of the clown or the fool celebrated and even regarded with respect. Indeed, the Zen master might take it upon himself to act in "foolish" or "clownish" ways, such as shouting, playing, dancing, or laughing up a storm.

As author Conrad Hyers elaborates:

"In no other tradition could the entire 'syndrome' of laughter, humor, comedy and 'clowning' be said to be more visible and pronounced than in Zen...In no other religious movement are its principal records (comprised largely of anecdotes relating to the lives and sayings of masters), its techniques for spiritual realization, its art and aesthetic, and its portrayals of the spirit and style of those masters whom one is called to emulate, so intimately intertwined with the comic spirit and perspective." (1)

A typical Zen anecdote, such as the one following, is universal in its comic appeal; anyone can appreciate its humor. It is also revealing of the absurdist humor characteristic of Zen:

A Zen master lays dying. His monks, from the senior monk to the novice monk, have gathered about his bed. The senior monk leans over to ask the dying master if he had any last words of advise for the assembled monks. The old master replies in a whisper, "Tell them Truth is like a river." This bit of wisdom is then passed around the room from monk to monk. When it reaches the novice monk, he asks, "What does he mean, 'Truth is like a river?' The question is passed back up the room to the senior monk, who then asks the master, "Master, what do you mean, 'Truth is like a river?" Slowly the master opens his eyes and in a weak voice whispers, "Okay, Truth is not like a river." (2)


Religions and the blasphemy of humor

This humorous aspect of Zen stands out in stark contradistinction to such stoic and solemn religions such as western Catholicism. The Pope and the Catholic church conduct their rituals in a style characterized by a somber, mannered, and liturgical tone. By contrast, the holy leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, personifies relaxed levity and calm wit (this is an oblique example, but Zen, Ch'an, and Tibetan Buddhism do share a common Mahayana lineage.) Similarly, it is not unusual to see photos of Buddhist monks involved in a good belly laugh.

This is not to say that the Pope would not appreciate a good joke, or that other religions are devoid of humor. In other religions, however, humor might seem antithetical to the serious spiritual pursuits. There exists an ingrained taboo against mixing humor or sarcasm with the solemn setting of the church ritual. In these settings, it would be a breach of social protocol to laugh or joke.

As German G.F. Meier remarked in this regard:

"We are never to jest on or with things which, on account of their importance or weight, claim our utmost seriousness. There are things so great and important in themselves, as never to be thought of and mentioned but with much sedateness and solemnity. Laughter on such occasions is criminal and indecent...For instance, all jests on religion, philosophy, and the like important subjects." (3)

If humor has its place in institutional western religions (and many of the eastern religions), it is treated perhaps as a reprieve from its rigors. The "serious" religions may very well view laughter as being counter to the pursuit of spiritual wisdom-- attained only by earnest and dead-serious contemplation.

Zen-humor relationship

Why is it then, that humor and-- what some have called-- the "comic spirit" is so integral, and perhaps even paramount, to the Zen practice and lifestyle? Why does the Zen master go to a mountain top to laugh so hard as to keep the villagers awake? Why would the great monk Pu-tai of the tenth century China spend his time clowning and playing with children? Why would a monk burst into laughter at the moment of awakening? What would lead a venerable Daisetz Suzuki to remark, "Zen is the only religion or teaching that finds room for laughter." (4) Or for Author R.H. Blythe to take it one step further by flatly stating that humor is the essence of Zen: "Zen is the only religion in which laughter is not only permitted but necessary." (5)

A number of possibilities arise, but a general shortage of written analysis suggests that this subject has not been deeply delved into-- at least in the west. However, it becomes readily apparent that above all else, Zen, while placing emphasis on awakening and transcending the illusions or trappings of the material world, gives more than an acknowledgment to the human spirit. It especially engages the comic side of human nature-- which other religious systems and institutions view as inappropriate to the concerns of spiritual attainment.

Certain areas and aspects of the relationship between Zen and humor that might be explored are:

Humor as a means to demystify the Buddha Nature; integrating Zen into the commonplace and ordinary everyday life.

Humor as exemplifying the absurd. The noble clown or the fool as a representation of Zen spirit and existential absurdism.

Humor as a tool for collapsing and reversing categories; and uniting dualities and opposites.

The delight within Zen tradition of punning and "playing" with words (paronomasia).

The identification with the spirit and laughter of the "pure" child; as a reaction against rigidity and "seriousness;" i.e., to be able to laugh at oneself.

Humor and laughter itself as an expression of liberation and awakening.

Buddhists have long debated as to whether, and to what extent, the Buddha laughed. They have even devised an elaborate system of categorizing laughter, from the subtle, Mona Lisa-like smile called sita, to the other extreme of hearty, uncontrolled, belly laughter called atihasita. Over the centuries, a consensus seems to have been reached that the Buddha, in his serenity and enlightenment, would have displayed the only the sita-- being that a more uproarious atihasita is perceived to be a display of the lower and unruly class.

However, Zen rejects any absolute on this score. As well as smiling, Zen believes that Buddha may have also roared out a hearty belly laugh. It seems generally agreed that Buddha had a sense of humor after awakening. But according to some, this would have been closely tied to his sense of compassion, born of a "greater understanding of greater connections, from an insight into the inter-relatedness of all things and all living beings and the chain reactions of cause and effect...A man with a sense of humor cannot but be compassionate in his heart..." (6)

In Zen, the laugh is a legitimate expression of authentic enlightenment or awakening. Zen seeks to "humanize" its beliefs and practices and to demystify the great Buddha; to "bring him down to earth." The Zen master participates in everyday chores as well as spending time teaching or meditating. As far as the Ch'an and Zen schools are concerned, distinctions of hierarchy in everyday activities are meaningless. One might as easily attain awakening while sweeping as during meditation. As D.T. Suzuki put it:

"Zen took away from Buddhist figures that aloof, unconcerned, rather unapproachable air which had hitherto characterized them. They came down from the transcendental pedestal to mingle with us common beings and with common animals and plants, rocks and mountains...The Buddha in his Chinese Zen life does not carry his Ganhavyuka atmosphere ostentatiously about him, but quietly within him." (7)

Therein lies perhaps, the root of the long tradition of Zen masters' erratic and clownish behavior and antics. In this regard, the monk Pu-Tai is the most famous (or infamous), along with the two poet-recluse-fools : Han-shan and Shih-te. Also included in this list are the three laughing monks of Hu-hsi, and the "Great Fool" Ryokwan who similarly spent his time frolicking with children and dancing in the villages.

The implication is that the fool and the clown are the truly liberated. They have transcended social categorization, norms of behavior, and various attachments, and therefore are supremely "wise." Their "way" represents higher truth and nobility that have superseded the human propensity for earthly attachments and discriminations.

According to Conrad Hyers:

"Defeating the mentality of seriousness is...seen as fundamental not only to the defeat, but also to the marking and maintenance of victory over [ego, desire, and attachment]. If this is all that Zen achieves, then even the little child knows more than Bodhidarma. If this is the terminus of Zen, then even the fool is wiser than the supreme wisdom of Prajnaparamita. For if Bodhidarma cannot laugh, it is because he has not seen through his meditation wall. If he cannot play, it is because he is still imprisoned in his cave. If he cannot dance, it is because his legs have indeed rotted off." (8)

In this context, the cinematic-comedic figure of the "little tramp," portrayed by Charlie Chaplin, would be well received by the Zen tradition. His is a comic, clownish figure that always finds and maintains dignity and nobility within situations of social and economic malaise. His is a figure who symbolically dons the noble man's vest, tie, hat, and cane, while his pants and his shoes are disheveled and practically falling apart. His compassion is boundless and his spirit is pure. Ultimately, there is profound wisdom, aestheticism, purity, and freedom in the eccentric, comic fool that Zen might revere and emulate.

The giggle and laughter of the common fool or the Zen master is a laughter of "freedom and spontaneity that lies beyond the tensions and dualities of an unenlightened perception of things. The comic spirit and perspective manifest in Han-shan and Shih-te [or Charlie Chaplin] is no ordinary or vulgar hilarity. It represents the achievement of a larger wisdom and a liberation from bondage to ego, ignorance, desire, and attachment." (9)

The Zen masters have similarly indulged themselves in unpredictable, unrestrained "quirky" behavior and frequent belly laughs. It is a laugh of one's own folly, the folly of the human condition and predicament, the folly of existence, and the folly of illusions and limited perceptions. In the realm of simplicity and non-dualism, one is confronted with the absurdity of one own existence. Whereas the French philosopher J. Paul Sartre might find cause for despair in the face of this existential crisis and conundrum, the Zen practitioner would laugh in total delight. Insofar as existence is a paradox, Zen presents itself as a paradox of twisted logic and comic modalities.

Zen and absurdity

In Zen, the paradox and absurdism of existence has been a comfortable partner and a welcomed bed-fellow. Laughter is the inevitable outcome. In the words of Conrad Hyers...

"...[laugher is] an explosive response to a situation which has suddenly been plunged into contradiction or reduced to an absurdity. And yet out of that absurdity has come an unexpectedly different way of perceiving and responding to life. We commonly laugh in response to gaining some new insight into things, or solution to a perplexity, or resolution of a conflict...Or we exclaim over our dullness in not having seen a truth that seems so simple and obvious and natural, a truth that has stood before us all the while, waiting for us merely to open our eyes to see it. We laugh at our former foolishness and blindness in the light of this new realization, a laughter which also signifies our gratitude for the freedom from our former ignorance, and our enjoyment of the new being and new understanding that is ours. Hence, as R.H. Blyth also has suggested, 'enlightenment is frequently accompanied by laughing of a transcendental kind, which may further be described as a laughter of surprised approval.' " (10)

Therefore, one can find humor in banality. To laugh is a release and a break through internal and external barriers including stoicism. Laughter is an acceptance, appreciation, wonder, and reverence all rolled into one. For the Zen monk, the laughter of joy accompanies clarity of insight. In the case of a Chinese monk named Shui-lao, his master, Matsu, kicked him in the chest, resulting in satori (enlightenment). Afterwards, the monk said, "Ever since the master kicked me in the chest, I have been unable to stop laughing." (11)

Enlightenment, therefore, may be akin to getting the point of a joke, but to explain that joke is antithetical to enlightenment. The awakening is an experiential occurrence beyond the limits of language and rational thought, It cannot be conveyed and it would be irrelevant and self-defeating to even try. One might experience similar difficulties in trying to explain the experience of music or sex. There are some things that just cannot be verbally communicated.

Zen and wordplay

The Zen tradition also delights in the play on words. As such, master-disciple discourses, anecdotes, koans, sutras, etc., are full of hidden meaning, puns, and double entendres. Although unfamiliarity with the Chinese and Japanese languages limits one's understanding of their word-play, it is sufficient to understand that it plays an important part in their tradition. A riddle or a joke is a metaphor to the nature of Truth. A comical anecdote or a saying is apt to end in unanticipated ways; with a "twist" ending. The comic "technique" by its nature is analogous to the Zen technique. It is full of irrationality, contradictions, absurdity, nonsense, shock, or incongruity. One cannot draw rational conclusions from a Zen joke and must therefore enter into another modality of understanding that is beyond words and beyond the intellect. As Hyers further elaborates:

"All have the same general intent of calling an abrupt halt to an unenlightened plane of perception, and projecting the hearer onto a more fundamental plane of experience. The disciple is never allowed to rest in an intellectual understanding or an attachment to names and forms...Anything that does not point to or proceed from the 'self-nature' and one's 'original mind' is foiled and frustrated...The problem, as Fa-yen (Hogen) put it, is that 'reality is right before you [and within you]; yet you are apt to translate it into a world of names and forms. How are you going to re-translate it into its original?' " (12)

Because the Zen tradition to some extent rejects the significance of written text and scriptures, anecdotal teaching became central to it way of transferring of knowledge. In contrast to other religions where the scripture is an all-important focus of their traditions, to be revered and sanctified, the anecdotal tradition of Zen, with its humorous scenarios and lessons, has, over time, taken on more of an 'official' function. The extensive anecdotal tradition of Zen teachings points one toward the path of understanding and awakening, rather than delivering simple morals or 'preachy' lessons.

For example, a monk once asked Sozan, "What is the most prized thing in all the world?" Sozan answered, "A dead cat." The surprised monk exclaimed, "Why is a dead cat to be prized at all?" Sozan replied, "Because no one thinks of its value." (13)

It is an irrational reply to a question that can have no rational answer. If one is befuddled by such a typical Zen discourse, it is because that was the exact intent of the author. Once again, we are reminded by an anecdotal riddle of the limits of our perception, language, and thought. As Conrad Hyers says,

"...categories are turned upside down, and thus relativized and finally collapsed. The prize is given to the ugliest man in town; fools are declared wise, a child is named pope for a day, Buddhas are found in bullfrogs. The effect is that of challenging the whole valuational structure of the discriminating mind, like the fool who spurns a proffered diamond and picks up a common pebble instead, admiring and fondling it as if it were the most precious of stones...Instead of the story arriving at some reasonable conclusion or climax, the whole intellectual progression collapses. Yet it is just such a collapse that is the necessary antecedent to the realization of another order of truth -- whether in comedy or in Zen" (14)

While the sutra method of other Buddhist traditions calls for memorization and recitation, and therefore probable interpretation and intellectualization, the Zen system of anecdotal methodology requires one to immediately internalize the lessons. Therefore, Zen's use of humor facilitates one's internal discovery.

Zen and seriousness

One might consider the antithesis of humor, which is seriousness. What are the consequences and pitfalls for persons who take themselves and their lives too seriously? To Zen, seriousness itself is a sign of attachment and bondage. Although it might be said that seriousness and steadfast intent of one's spiritual pursuit is commendable, one should not take oneself too seriously and one should not even take Zen too seriously. From the Zen point of view, to be overly serious is to be anxious, afraid, insecure and clinging to objects of attachment. The serious person is not connected to one's "true nature". By not being free to laugh at circumstance, one's sense of well being is dependent upon external factors and events.

Acknowledging a place for a certain level of seriousness, Zen would advocate walking the middle line: To have intent without overt intensity, to be committed without being attached to outcomes, and to be serious, without taking oneself too seriously.

By taking this middle road, one remains flexible, unlike the proverbial rigid tree, which might fall over during a windstorm. Like the resilient and comic characters of Zen lore, humor affords one the opportunity to shrug off the weight of human ego and existential malaise.

To the extent that humor liberates us, one is "free to laugh in the deepest and most joyous sense-- to laugh even in the face of the misfortunes of life and the inevitability of death. Herein lies the fullness of the comic vision." (15)

Zen and the child

Lastly, we return to the affable characters of Pu-tai and Ryokwan ("The Great Fool"), who both loved games and children. In Zen, children and their unfettered sense of humor and play represent an important symbol of inner liberation. Children are not only pure and 'unpolluted,' but they also exemplify the "original nature," or an 'essence' of spontaneity and light-heartedness. The goal of Zen is recapturing the "paradise lost;"-- not as a return to the irresponsibility of childhood, but to a mature form of joviality and playfulness; a child-likeness as opposed to child-ishness. A freedom that, in a child, predates acquisition of the rationality and prejudice.

According to Zen, we achieve a "false" adulthood through the gradual negation and repudiation of our childhood. The adult, as he or she becomes older and more serious, forgets the experience of having once been a child, and is hardly wiser or richer for it. For Zen, maturity is attained by becoming once again like the child. Not a child of frivolity, naïveté, or wanton desires, but a child that enjoys immediacy, naturalness, and freedom from rational and ordered distinctions between self and the world, mind and body, good and evil, sacred and profane. A child that can laugh and play with the essence is one who is fully mature, re-born, inwardly serene, and outwardly compassionate.


Humor-- as playfulness, spontaneity, and a manifestation and expression of an awakened and liberated spirit-- resides within the core of Zen. The laughter of Zen monks break down barriers and unites disparate dualities. While other religious communities and monastic orders engage in stoic ceremonies and solemn rituals, the Zen monks and masters tell jokes, riddles, anecdotes, scream and do the belly laugh. Hyers:

"The world ruled by seriousness alone grows old, gnarled, sterile, wooden, rigid, lifeless. The grave world, indeed, is the world of the grave. But the world in the reign of the cosmic spirit grows young again-- lively, vital, creative, dancing, joyful. It is a world that is not guarded, like Eden, by an angel with a flaming sword, but by Pu-tai and Ryokwan, Han-shan, and Shih-te, and the laughing sages of Hu-hsi (16)...At every level of its manifestation, humor spells freedom in some sense and to some degree. Humor means freedom. This is one of [Zen's] most distinctive characteristics and virtues. Here, however, the freedom to laugh which moves within the conflicts and doubts and tensions of life-- the freedom, therefore, which is still relative to bondage and ignorance -- becomes the freedom to laugh on the other side (inside) of enlightenment. He who is no longer in bondage to desire, or to the self, or the law, he who is no longer torn apart by alienation and anxiety, and who is no longer defined and determined primarily by seriousness, can now laugh with the laughter of little children and great sages. Humor is caught up, and brought to fulfillment, in the joy of awakening and emancipation." (17)


  1. Hyers, Conrad, Zen and the Comic Spirit. Westminster Press, 1973, p15
  2. Paraphrased from: Hyers, Conrad, "Humor in Zen: Comic Midwifery," Philosophy East & West, July 1989
  3. G.F. Meier, Thought on Jesting (1794), ed. Joseph Jones, Austin University of Texas Press, 1947, pp. 55-56
  4. D.T. Suzuki, Sengai, the Zen Master, New York Graphic Society, 1971, p147
  5. R.H. Blyth, Oriental Humor, Hokuseido Press, 1959, p90
  6. Hyers, Comic Spirit, p165
  7. D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, New York; Pantheon, 1959, p 379
  8. Hyers, Comic Spirit, p31
  9. Ibid., p46
  10. Ibid., p 163
  11. John Wu, Golden Age of Zen, Taipei National War College, 1967, p100
  12. Hyers, Comic Spirit, p144
  13. Hyers, Comic Midwifery, p272
  14. Ibid.p272
  15. Ibid., p167
  16. Ibid., p183
  17. Ibid., p168