One of my friends is fond of saying that Zen is Buddhism with jokes. Playfulness, laughter, and overall good humor was something I appreciated in my two teachers, Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. We can trace this humor, laughter, and playfulness all the way back to early Zen, as exemplified by Pu Tai, Han Shan, and Shih Te.
All three of these characters renounced the life of privilege available to Buddhist teachers in 10th century China. Instead, in their rambunctiousness and tomfoolery they demonstrated a childlike lack of self-consciousness. A few words about Pu Tai follow:
Pu Tai is the laughing Buddha that we see in so many Chinese restaurants. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather disciples. Instead he wandered around with a sack full of oranges, which he freely gave to children who gathered around him. Adults gathered around him too, thinking he was mad to laugh so much, but often finding themselves doubled over with laughter, themselves. Notice next time you have a good laugh, how your senses are sharpened and how much lighter you feel. It’s impossible to laugh and be anxious at the same time!
There’s a story about Pu Tai sitting down under a tree, with his eyes closed, not laughing, not even smiling, completely still and peaceful. A villager came up to him and asked “You are not laughing, Pu Tai?”
“I am preparing.”
The villager did not understand. He said, “What do you mean by preparing?” Pu Tai replied, “I have to prepare myself for laughter. I have to go within. I have to forget the whole world so that I can recharge, and then I can be filled with laughter again.”
The ability to re-charge our batteries so we can deeply enjoy our lives is something that naturally develops out of a steady meditation practice. In a future blog entry I will give examples of how my own first teacher’s playfulness and laughter rubbed off on me during my time with him.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher