[L. 119 | 129] 18 May 1965


Thank you for your letter. The popular interpretation of uccāsayana-mahāsayanā seems rather odd. Surely laymen, even when observing the Eight Precepts,[2] are not expected to be more austere than monks? I should have thought that chairs and beds that are ordinarily allowable for monks (and we are not prohibited from sitting on chairs with our feet lower than our bottoms) would a fortiori be allowable for laymen. But no doubt this interpretation has a long and venerable tradition.

Yes, this existence of ours is no laughing matter, and yet we laugh. And the great laughers are not those who least see the grimness. Perhaps, then, laughter is something less simple than the sigh of pure innocent bliss. When do we laugh most spontaneously, with the least affectation? Is it not, possibly, when we have been threatened by some horrible menace and have just escaped by the skin of our teeth? The experience is familiar enough, and we may well take it as a starting point. It seems to suggest that laughter is in some way connected with fear. We are threatened; we fear; the threat passes; we laugh. Let us pursue this idea.

A few weeks ago, at the Hermitage, an unwanted young dog was dumped on the island from the mainland. I watched it, lying on its belly in front of one of the long-resident old curs there, whining and laughing (baring its teeth as dogs do when they are pleased) for all it was worth. Why? Because it actually was pleased? Because it was delighted to meet a new acquaintance? Far from it. There was every probability that it was extremely nervous and apprehensive about its reception by the other dogs, and was doing its utmost to placate them. But why should it laugh? In order, simply, to show the others and to persuade itself that no danger was threatening. Its laughter was a mode of conduct, a kind of charm, to keep danger at a distance. Since we laugh when danger passes, danger passes when we laugh—or that, at least, is the idea. The ingratiating grin that some people wear on their face (perhaps we all do at times) is simply to prove to themselves that they are not nervous—when, of course, they are shaking in their boots. So far, so good.

But why do we laugh at jokes? Let us ask, rather, why we tell one another jokes. Might it not be so that we can enjoy the pleasure of escaping from imaginary dangers? Most of our jokes, surely, are about somebody else's misfortune, are they not? So-and-so (a real or fictitious person, but in any case not ourselves) has some unfortunate—usually humiliating or ridiculous—experience, an experience that might have happened to us but actually happened to somebody else; and the relief we feel that the discomfort was his, not ours, takes the form of laughter. (Compassion, of course, may inhibit laughter; but some of our jokes are pretty heartless.)

We laugh, then, when fear passes; we laugh as a charm to make fear pass; and we entertain imaginary fears to make ourselves laugh. But do we not sometimes laugh when fear is not involved at all? Kierkegaard, much of whose principal philosophical work is concerned with humour,[a] says this:

The comical is present in every stage of life (only that the relative positions are different), for whenever there is life there is contradiction, and whenever there is contradiction, the comical is present. The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction. (CUP, p. 459)
He gives some examples; here is one:
It is for this reason that an intoxicated man can produce so comical an impression, because he expresses a contradiction in his movements. The eye requires steadiness of gait; the more there still remains some sort of reason to require it, the more comical the contradiction (a completely intoxicated man is therefore less comical). Now if a purposeful man for example, comes by, and the intoxicated individual, his attention drawn to him, gathers himself together and tries to steady his gait, then the comical becomes more evident; because the contradiction is clearer. He succeeds for a couple of steps, until the spirit of contradiction again runs away with him. If he succeeds entirely while passing the purposeful man, the first contradiction becomes another: that we know him to be intoxicated, and that this is, nevertheless, not apparent. In one case we laugh at him while he sways, because the eye requires steadiness of him; in the second case we laugh at him because he holds himself steady when our knowledge of his condition requires that we should see him sway. So it also produces a comic effect when a sober man engages in sympathetic and confidential conversation with one whom he does not know is intoxicated, while the observer knows of the condition. The contradiction lies in the mutuality presupposed by the conversation, that it is not there, and that the sober man has not noticed its absence. (CUP, p. 461)
According to Kierkegaard, then, we laugh when we apprehend a contradiction; there is not a word about fear. But might it not be that a contradiction is something to be feared—that it is, in some way, a threat?

Heidegger tells us that we normally exist in a state of 'fallenness.' By this he means that most men hide from themselves by identifying themselves with the anonymous 'one' or 'they' or 'the Others' and people in general.

We have shown earlier how in the environment which lies closest to us, the public 'environment' already is ready-to-hand and is also a matter of concern [mitbesorgt]. In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This being-with-one-another dissolves one's own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of 'the Others', in such a way, indeed, that the Others as distinguishable and explicit vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the "they" is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the 'great mass' as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness. (B&T, p. 164)
This kind of existence Heidegger calls 'inauthenticity'; and it is what Sartre calls 'serious-mindedness—which, as we all know reigns over the world' (EN, p. 721[3]). It is the inauthentic, the serious-minded, the solemn, who are your non-laughers. Or rather, they do laugh—but only at what the 'they' have decided is funny. (Look at a copy of Punch of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago; you will see how completely the fashion in humour has changed. The 'sick joke' was quite unthinkable in Victoria's day—'one' simply did not laugh at that sort of thing, it was 'not done'.) The inauthentic, absorbed by the world 'like ink by a blotter' (B&N, p. 626),[b] accept their views and values ready made, and go about their daily business doing whatever 'is done'. And this includes their relaxations. To be 'serious-minded' is to go to see comic films and laugh at whomever 'one laughs at', and see tragedies and have one's emotions purged by the currently approved emotional purgative—the latest version, perhaps, of Romeo and Juliet.

That, as you know, is to be 'well-adjusted'. But if one should happen not to laugh at whatever 'one laughs at', or should find Romeo and Juliet emotionally constipating, then one is accused, paradoxically enough, of 'not being serious'. Variations, of course, are permitted; Bach or the Beatles, both are recognized; and one is not obliged to laugh at Bob Hope or Kingsley Amis.

Now if we agree with Kierkegaard that both comedy and tragedy are ways of apprehending contradictions, and if we also consider how much importance people attach to these things, we shall perhaps at least suspect that contradiction is a factor to be reckoned with in everyday life. But all this is on the inauthentic level, and to get more light on the question we must consider what Heidegger means by 'authenticity'.

Our existence, says Heidegger, is 'care': we are concerned, positively or negatively, for ourselves and for others. This care can be described but it cannot be accounted for—it is primordial and we just have to accept it as it is. (Compare here the Buddha's statement [A. X,62: v,116] that there is no first point to bhavatanhā, 'craving for being'. The difference is that whereas Heidegger sees no way of getting rid of it, the Buddha does see the way and has followed it.) Care, says Heidegger, can be 'lived' in either of two modes: authentic or inauthentic. The authentic man faces himself reflexively and sees himself in his existential solitude—he sees that he is alone in the world—; whereas the inauthentic man takes refuge from this disquieting reflexion of himself in the anonymous security of people-in-general, of the 'they'. The inauthentic man is fleeing from authenticity—from angst, that is to say, or 'anxiety'; for anxiety is the state of the authentic man (remember that Heidegger is describing the puthujjana, and he sees no way out of anxiety, which, for him, is the mark of the lucid man facing up to himself).

But the normally smooth surface of the public world of the 'they' sometimes shows cracks, and the inauthentic man is pierced by pangs of anxiety, recalling him for a moment or two to the state of authenticity. Chiefest amongst these is the apprehension of the possibility of death, which the inauthentic man suddenly realizes is his possibility (death, of course, is certain: but this simply means that at any moment it is possible). He is torn from his complacent anonymity and brought up against the hard fact that he is an individual, that he himself is totally responsible for everything that he does, and that he is sure to die. The hitherto friendly and sheltering world suddenly becomes indifferent to him and meaningless in its totality. But this shattering experience is usually fleeting, and the habitually inauthentic man returns quickly enough to his anonymity.

At this point let us see what the Suttas have to say about angst or anxiety (paritassanā). In the Alagaddūpama Sutta (M. 22: i,136-7; & cf. NIBBĀNA [c]) a monk asks the Buddha, 'Can there be anxiety, lord, about objective absence?' The Buddha says that there can be such anxiety, and describes a man grieving about the way his possessions slip away from him. Then the monk asks, 'Can there be anxiety, lord, about subjective absence?', and again the Buddha says that there can. In this case we have a sassatavādin,[4] holding himself and the world to be eternal, who hears about extinction (nibbāna) and apprehends it as annihilation. These two aspects, objective and subjective, are combined in the Uddesavibhanga Sutta (M. 138: iii,227-8), a passage from which I translate as follows:

And how, friends, is there anxiety at not holding? Here, friends, an uninstructed commoner, unseeing of the nobles, ignorant of the noble Teaching, undisciplined in the noble Teaching, unseeing of good men, ignorant of the good men's Teaching, undisciplined in the good men's Teaching, regards matter (feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness) as self, or self as endowed with matter (...consciousness), or matter (...consciousness) as belonging to self, or self as in matter (...consciousness). That matter (...consciousness) of his changes and becomes otherwise; as that matter (...consciousness) changes and becomes otherwise, so his consciousness follows around (keeps track of) that change of matter (...consciousness); anxious ideas that arise born of following around that change of matter (...consciousness) seize upon his mind and become established; with that mental seizure, he is perturbed and disquieted and concerned, and from not holding he is anxious. Thus, friends, there is anxiety at not holding.
This, you will see, fairly well confirms Heidegger's view of anxiety; and the more so when he makes the distinction that, whereas fear is shrinking in the face of something, anxiety is shrinking in the face of—nothing. Precisely. We experience anxiety when we find that the solid foundation upon which our precious and familiar self rests—upon which it must rest—is not there. Anxiety is shrinking in the face of a contradiction—or rather, not a contradiction, but the contradiction. This is the contradiction that we fear; this is the contradiction that threatens us in our innermost being—the agonizing possibility that, after all, we have no being, and that we are not. And now we can see why all the seemingly little contradictions at which we laugh (or weep) in our everyday life are really veiled threats, sources of danger. These are the little cracks and fissures in our complacent serious-minded existence, and the reason why we laugh at them is to keep them at a distance, to charm them, to exorcise them, to neutralize them—just as the young dog at the Hermitage laughed at the older one to ward off danger.

Anxiety—shrinking before nothing—is the father of all particular fears—shrinking before this or that. (Heidegger emphasizes that the prior condition to all fear is anxiety. We can fear only because we are fleeing from anxiety.) And the contradiction between our eternal self and its temporal foundation is the father of all particular contradictions between this and that. Whether we laugh because we have just crawled out unscathed from a car smash, or wear a sheepish grin when the boss summons us to his office, or split our sides when we hear how Jones had his wife seduced by Smith, or smile when we see a benevolent tourist giving a few cents out of compassion to an ill-dressed but extremely wealthy mudhalali—it can all be traced back to our inherent desire to fly from anxiety, from the agonized recognition that our very being is perpetually in question. And when we laugh at a comedy or weep at a tragedy what we are really doing is busying ourselves repairing all the little crevices that have appeared in our familiar world in the course of the day or the week, which, if neglected, might become wider and deeper, and eventually bring our world crashing down in ruins about us. Of course, we don't actually admit to ourselves that this is what we are doing; and the reason is that inauthentic existence is a degraded mode of existence, where the true nature of things is concealed—or rather, where we conceal the true nature of things from ourselves. Obviously, the more serious-minded one is, the less one will be willing to admit the existence of these cracks and crevices in the surface of the world, and consequently one will take good care not to look too closely—and, of course, since laughter is already a tacit admission of the existence of such things, one will regard all kinds of levity as positively immoral.

Without leaving the sphere of the puthujjana, let us turn to the habitually authentic man—one who is anxious, and lucid in his anxiety, who keeps perpetually before him (though without being able to resolve it) the essential contradiction in human existence. Here Kierkegaard has quite a lot to say. (His expressions, 'the subjective existing thinker', 'doubly reflected consciousness', 'the ethicist', are more or less equivalent to Heidegger's 'authentic existence'.)

That the subjective existing thinker is as positive as he is negative, can also be expressed by saying that he is as sensitive to the comic as to the pathetic. As men ordinarily live, the comic and the pathetic are divided, so that one person has the one and another person has the other, one person a little more of the one, another, a little less. But for anyone who exists in a double reflection, the proportions are equal: as much of the pathetic, so much also of the comic. The equality in the relationship provides a mutual security, each guaranteeing the soundness of the other. The pathos which is not secured by the presence of the comic is illusion; the comic spirit that is not made secure by the presence of pathos is immature. Only one who himself produces this will understand it, otherwise not. (CUP, p. 81)
Once one has accepted anxiety as one's normal and proper state, then one faces the contradiction, and this, grantedthe anxiety, neither as plain tragic nor as plain comic, but as tragi-comic. This, of course, can be put in several ways (you can do it yourself). This is perhaps as good as any: it is tragic that we should take as meaningful a world that is actually meaningless, but comic that the world we take as meaningful should actually be meaningless. Kierkegaard puts it this way:
Existence itself, the act of existing, is a striving, and is both pathetic and comic in the same degree. It is pathetic because the striving is infinite; that is, it is directed toward the infinite, being an actualization of infinitude, a transformation which involves the highest pathos. It is comic, because such a striving involves a self-contradiction. Viewed pathetically, a single second has infinite value; viewed comically, ten thousand years are but a trifle, like yesterday when it is gone. And yet, the time in which the existing individual lives, consists of just such parts. If one were to say simply and directly that ten thousand years are but a trifle, many a fool would give his assent, and find it wisdom; but he forgets the other, that a second has infinite value. When it is asserted that a second has infinite value, one or another will possibly hesitate to yield his assent, and find it easier to understand that ten thousand years have an infinite value. And yet, the one is quite as hard to understand as the other, provided merely we take time to understand what there is to be understood; or else are in another manner so infinitely seized by the thought that there is no time to waste, not a second, that a second really acquires infinite value. (CUP, pp. 84-5)
What he is getting at is that man is a discrepant combination of the infinite, God,[c] and the finite, the world. Man, as he looks at himself, sees himself as pathetic ('pathos' in the sense of 'passion', as in 'so-and-so is passionately interested in his work') or as comic, according as he looks towards the Eternal or towards the world.

Without endorsing Kierkegaard's theistic bias, we can see the main point of all this. The tragi-comedy of the human (puthujjana's) situation as apprehended by the authentic man in his lucid anxiety is the source of all tragedy and comedy on the purely everyday level. And, whereas the inauthentic man laughs or weeps without knowing why he does so—in other words, irresponsibly—, the authentic man, when he laughs or weeps, does so responsibly. The authentic man, when he laughs at something (it will very often be at the serious-minded man, who is both very comic and very tragic), will always have the other side of the picture present to mind, as the shadow of his comic apprehension. (And when he weeps, the comic aspect of the situation will be there outlined on the background.) He laughs (and weeps) with understanding, and this gives his humour a depth and an ambiguity that escapes the inauthentic man.

In consequence of this, the authentic man is able to use his humour as a screen for his more authentic seriousness—seriousness, that is to say, about the human—or rather, the existential—paradox (he is looking for the solution and concluding, again and again, that the solution is that there is no solution; and this is the limit of the puthujjana's field of vision.) See, for a literary expression of the puthujjana's ultimate frustration, the passage from Camus that I have quoted with translation in NIBBĀNA [a]. Thus Kierkegaard:

In order not to be distracted by the finite, by all the relatives in the world, the ethicist places the comical between himself and the world, thereby insuring himself against becoming comical through a naive misunderstanding of his ethical passion. An immediate enthusiast assails the world's ears with his twaddle early and late, always on his feet and arrayed in buskins, he plagues people with his enthusiasm, and he does not notice that what he says does not inspire them, unless they begin to beat him. He is well informed, and the orders are to effect a complete transformation—of the world; but there he has heard wrong, for the orders are to effect a complete transformation of himself. If such an enthusiast happens to be contemporary with an ironist, the latter will know how to utilize him profitably as comic material. The ethicist is, on the other hand, ironical enough to perceive that what interests him absolutely does not interest the others absolutely; this discrepancy he apprehends, and sets the comical between himself and them, in order to be able to hold fast to the ethical in himself with still greater inwardness. Now the comedy begins. The judgement of men on such an individual will always be: for him there is nothing that is important. And why not? Because for him the ethical is absolutely important, differing in this from men in general, for whom so many things are important, aye, nearly everything, but nothing absolutely important. (CUP, pp. 450-51)
This sort of thing allows the authentic man to indulge in a kind of humour that horrifies and outrages the inauthentic. So an authentic man, dying and in a state of lucid anxiety, aware that he is dying, might protect himself from his oh-so-well-meaning inauthentic visitors (who are fully determined to hide, not only from the dying man but also from themselves, their awful suspicion that there is such a thing as death) by maliciously asking them if they propose coming to his funeral—and pressing for an answer.

It is obvious enough that there can be no progress in the Dhamma for the inauthentic man. The inauthentic man does not even see the problem—all his effort is devoted to hiding from it. The Buddha's Teaching is not for the serious-minded. Before we deal with the problem we must see it, and that means becoming authentic. But, now, when we consider your original question about the relation of humour to the Buddhadhamma, a certain distinction must be made. There is a cardinal difference between the solution to the problem offered by the Buddha and that (or those) offered by other teachings; and this is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Kierkegaard himself.

Kierkegaard sees that the problem—the essential existential contradiction, attā hi attano n'atthi, (his) very self is not (his) self's[d] (Dh. 62)—is in the form of a paradox (or, as Marcel would say, a mystery—'a problem that encroaches on its own data'). And this is quite right as far as it goes. But he does not see how to resolve it. Further, he concludes (as I have suggested above) that, in this temporal life at least, the solution is that there is no solution. This itself is a reduplication of the original paradox, and only seems to make the problem more acute, to work up the tension, to drive man further back into himself. And, not content with this, he seizes upon the essential Christian paradox—that God became man, that the Eternal became temporal—, which he himself calls 'absurd', and thus postulates a solution which is, as it were, a raising of the original paradox to the third power. A kind of paradox cubed, as one might say—(paradox)3.

But as we have seen, the original paradox is tragi-comical; it contains within its structure, that is to say, a humorous aspect. And when the paradox is intensified, so is the humorous—and a joke raised to the third power is a very tortuous joke indeed. What I am getting at is this: that in every teaching where the paradox is not resolved (and a fortiori where it is intensified), humour is an essential structural feature. You see this in Kierkegaard where he speaks of 'the comic expression for worship'. But perhaps the most striking case is Zen. Zen is above all the cult of the paradox. ('Burn the scriptures!', 'Chop up the Buddha image for firewood!', 'Go listen to the sound of one hand clapping!'), and the old Zen masters are professional religious jokers, sometimes with an appalling sense of humour. And all very gay too—but it is not the Buddha's Teaching. The Buddha alone teaches the resolution of the original paradox, not by wrapping it up in bigger paradoxes, but by unwrapping it—but for my discussion of this, see Notes, Preface, particularly note (m).

If humour is, as I have suggested, in some way a reaction to fear, then so long as there remains a trace of the contradiction, of the existential paradox, so long will there remain a trace of humour. But since, essentially, the Buddha's Teaching is the cessation of fear (or more strictly of anxiety, the condition of fear), so it leads to the subsidence of humour. Not, indeed, that the arahat is humourless in the sense of being serious-minded; far from it; no—it is simply that the need he formerly felt for humour has now ceased. And so we find in the Suttas (A. III,105: i,261) that whereas excessive laughter 'showing the teeth' is called childishness, a smile when one is rightly pleased is not out of place. Perhaps you may like to see here a distinction between inauthentic and authentic humour.

You ask also about play; but I can't tell you very much about this, I'm afraid. Sartre observes that in play—or at least in sport—we set ourselves the task of overcoming obstacles or obeying rules that we arbitrarily impose upon ourselves; and he suggests that this is a kind of anti-serious-mindedness. When we are serious-minded we accept the rules and values imposed upon us by the world, by the 'they'; and when we have fulfilled these obligations we feel the satisfaction of having 'done our duty'. In sport it is we who impose the obligations upon ourselves, which enables us to enjoy the satisfaction of fulfilling them, without any of the disadvantages that go along with having to do what 'they' expect us to do (for example, we can stop when we are tired—but you just try doing that when you are in the army!). In sport, we play at being serious; and this rather suggests that play (sport), like plays (the theatre), is really a way of making repairs in a world that threatens to come apart at the seams. So there probably is some fairly close connexion between play and humour. Certainly, we often laugh when we are at play, but I don't think this applies to such obviously serious-minded activities as Test Matches.

Rather an unhumorous letter on humour, I'm afraid, and rather quickly thrown together.


[119.a] Concluding Unscientific Postscript—the book itself bristles with wit, much of it still fresh after a hundred years. It is the only serious discussion of the comic that I know of, and I owe much to it. There is a theological background for which due allowance must be made, but some of K.'s studies on the Christianity of his day apply with full force to modern Buddhism. [Back to text]

[119.b] Cf. the Khajjaniya Sutta (Khandha Samy. 79: iii,87-8) where it is said that we are normally 'devoured' by matter, feeling, perception, determinations, and consciousness. [Back to text]

[119.c] Not, of course, the bearded old gent who is angry every day, but rather as Eternity, or perhaps the Eternal Law (which is rather what I understand him to mean by the term 'Idea'—something akin to 'dhammatā', though in a theistic sense). [Back to text]

[119.d] More freely: He himself is not his own. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[119.1] This and the following two letters were all destroyed by their recipient. They are presented here as editorial reconstructions from a somewhat confused handwritten copy of the earlier letters and from earlier drafts found among the author's papers. [Back to text]

[119.2] Eight Precepts: 1. I undertake the training precept to not kill. 2. ...to not steal. 3. ...to not be incelibate. 4. ...to not lie. 5. ...to not take intoxicants and liquors that cause carelessness. 6. ...to not take food out of (the proper) time (not between noon and dawn). 7. ...to not attend shows, fairs, dancing, singing, and music, and to not use adornments of garlands, perfumes, and cosmetics. 8. I undertake the training precept to not use a high or wide (i.e. luxurious) resting place. It is this last precept that is under discussion here.
     Laypeople traditionally observe, at least in theory, the first five precepts (number three modified to prohibit only 'wrongful sensual indulgence') at all times. Some of the laity will, for certain periods of time and particularly on new- and full-moon days, undertake the Eight Precepts, usually while in attendance at a temple. [Back to text]

[119.3] serious-mindedness: 'the serious attitude, which as we know rules the world' (B&N, p. 626) [Back to text]

[119.4] The sassatavādin, who holds that he and the world are eternal, and the ucchedavādin, who holds that he and the world cease to exist, are annihilated, at his death, are two holders of wrong views discussed in the Brahmajāla Suttanta, Dīgha 1. See L. 135. [Back to text]