21 November 2008

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?

Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?Sometimes Buddhism and Buddhists can seem a bit dour - a half smile is permissible, but a belly laugh might be out of place - which can be problematic for me! And yet there are some definite examples of the Buddha displaying his quick wit and sense of humour in the Pāli texts. One of my favourites - partly because I discovered it for myself, and partly because it really is witty - occurs in the Sutta Nipātta.

In the Pūraḷāsa Sutta the Brahmin Sundarika-Bhāradvāja is wandering about with the leftovers from his ritual sacrifice to the gods looking for someone to give them to. He is concerned to give the offering to a Brahmin and thereby make the maximum amount of merit from his generosity. If this sounds a bit venial recall that this is exactly what modern lay Buddhists do except their offerings are to bhikkhus not Brahmins.

Sundarika-Bhāradvāja meets the Buddha, who as an ascetic is a likely recipient of the offering, however he is cautious and enquires what caste the Buddha is, or more specifically: "is he a brahmin?" The Buddha answers that caste is irrelevant to a renunciant, but Sundarika-Bhāradvāja insists that it isn’t, and that Brahmins always enquire about caste. The Buddha is not playing that game however, and he says:
Brāhmaṇo hi ce tvaṃ brūsi, mañca brūsi abrāhmaṇaṃ;
Taṃ taṃ sāvittiṃ pucchāmi, tipadaṃ catuvīsatakkharaṃ.
If you call yourself a Brahmin, and say that I am not a Brahmin;
I ask about that Sāvitrī (mantra, of) three lines and twenty-four syllables?
I use the Anglicized 'Brahmin' for brāhamaṃa because there are also texts called brāhmaṇa and because it is more familiar. The Sāvitrī (Pāli Sāvitti) mantra is also called Gāyatrī because it is in the gāyatrī metre which has three lines and twenty-four syllables. It comes from the Ṛgveda, and in Sanskrit goes:
Tat savitur vareṭyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (2)
Which Saddhatissa translates as:
May we attain that excellent glory of Sāvitrī the god, that he may stimulate our thoughts. (3)
The Sāvitrī mantra is pronounced at dawn and dusk in daily Brahminical rituals - and this is as true today as it was in the Buddha's day when it was a centuries old practice!

Fausböll comments in the introduction to his translation that “The commentator understands by Sâvatti the Buddhistic [going for refuge] formula, which like the Sâvitti, contains twenty-four syllables”. (4) This seems an unlikely interpretation. For a start the refuge formula is definitely prose and not verse, (5) but the Buddha is talking here to someone who has not gone for refuge to the Three Jewels. The Buddhist refuge formula may have had little or no meaning to him. He was a Brahmin, practising Brahminical rituals, and the reference to the Sāvatrī mantra would be completely in context, whereas the going for refuge formula would not. By mentioning the number of lines and syllables the Buddha may well be emphasising that though he is not a hereditary Brahmin he knows a lot about the practices of the Brahmins.

Actually it seems as though the Buddha is gently ribbing the Brahmin by saying that if he thinks that he is superior because he was born a Brahmin then his thoughts need ‘stimulating’ (pracud). "Brahmin” was one of the words that the Buddha tried, but ultimately failed, to adopt and reform. He equated the terms 'Brahmin' and 'Arahant', and told people that one became a Brahmin through striving for Awakening, not through birth.(6)

Now this joke was probably quite quickly lost on later Buddhists as they seem to disconnect from the culture around them, and to be unaware of Brahminical practice - you have to know what the Sāvitrī mantra says for it to be funny. But the Buddha himself is well versed in Brahminical ideas and he uses this knowledge to poke fun at and parody not only Brahmins, but Jains, and other sects. Interesting that these things were preserved even though the sense of them was lost. There will be a chapter on this in Richard Gombrich's forthcoming book What the Buddha Thought (Equinox Publications, due Spring 2009).

So the answer is yes, the Buddha did have a sense of humour! He was a great satirist!

  1. Saddhatissa translates: “if you can say that you are a Brahmin and that I am not / then I must remind you of Sāvitrī’s mantra of three lines and twenty-four letters”. Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipātta. Surrey : Curzon Press, p.51 (Sn 457; 459 in the VRI version). However the verb is pucchāmi "I ask", and akkhara are syllables rather than letters.
  2. Sanskrit text from Padoux, A. 2003. Mantra. in Flood, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, M.A. : Blackwell Publishing. p.481
  3. Saddhatissa ibid. p.55, note 2 (my emphasis)
  4. Fausböll, V. 1881 The Sutta-nipâtta : a collection of discourses, being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Delhi, Motilal Barnadidass, 1968. (Sacred Books of the East Vol. 10). p.xiii, note 2.
  5. Richard Gombrich, personal communication.
  6. see Sutta Nipātta 650, and the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) for instance

image: Maitreya/Laughing Buddha
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