Friday, August 28, 2009

Does Comedy Give us Access to Buddha Nature?

I am going to get waaaaaay in over my head here. Y'all should know, I'm no Buddhist scholar, I'm just a guy who reads a lot of books and sits on a cushion every day. Lately, I've been thinking about comedy and compassion, and how they're related. At age eight, I spent countless hours repeating Steve Martin routines, getting the inflection just right:
He kept wanting her to sing... from her diaphragm. [wait for laughs]
I mean, that would take years to learn that, wouldn't it?
Take a look at this video from Full disclosure: June Diane Raphael who appears in the video is a client.

So here we are in the world, having this big nationwide healthcare debate, and people are pissed. And the thing is, each one of them believes he or she is right. Remember: whatever you think is a 100% incontrovertible fact ain't necessarily so. Someone else has a completely different opinion, and to them, it's a hard fact.

Lama Marut has a great way of showing this to us. He gives a lesson in this video about deceptive reality vs. ultimate reality.

The lesson consists of Lama Marut showing his students a pen, and pointing out that all the things we usually think about a pen ain't necessarily so. To a casual viewer, the pen seems fairly permanent, but under a microscope, it's changing in every nanosecond. To a dog, it might appear as a chew toy. Marut says, "Is the dog wrong to see this object as a chew toy? Not from the dog's point of view."

The "death panels" video takes something that someone actually might believe, and showing the absurdity of it. It's giving access to a different point-of-view through comedy. You might believe that death panels will come after your grandparents, and after watching this video, you might rethink your point-of-view. And you might laugh at anyone who believes there could be a such thing as a death panel, but after watching this, you might understand another's fear of it. I'm not saying the people who created the video intended this, I'm just saying it's possible.

So here's where buddha nature come in. All you Buddhist scholars out there, please feel free to correct me where you think I'm missing something. Here's Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's explanation of buddha nature from his book Joyful Wisdom.
"It's not a characteristic exclusive to the historical Buddha or to Buddhist practitioners. It's not something created or imagined. It's the heart or essence inherent in all living beings, an unlimited potential to do, hear, or experience anything. Because of buddha nature we can learn, we can grow, we can change. We can become buddhas in our own right.... [the Buddha] described it... in terms of three qualities.. boundless wisdom... infinite capability... and immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion––a limitless sense of relatedness to all creatures, an open-heartedness toward others that serves as a motivation to create the conditions that enable all beings to flourish."
Rinpoche talks about Buddha Nature Blockers, which he says are, "cognitive structures that lock us into a limited and limiting view of ourselves, others, and the world around us.... that inhibit us from experiencing our lives with a deep awareness of freedom, clarity, wisdom, and wonder that transcends the conventional psychotherapeutic model of simply becoming okay, well-adjusted, or normal."

The second Blocker, he says, is "a critical view of others" which can show up in different ways, including the "point of view that everyone is less important, less competent, or less deserving than oneself..." or, "a tendency to blame others for the challenges we experience." And the fifth Blocker is "traditionally interpreted as self-obsession... We cling to our opinions, our storylines, our personal mythologies, with the same desperation with which we hold to the sides of a roller coaster cart."

So comedy, then, can give us respite from these Blockers. When we're laughing at the prospect that bureaucrats might come for an elderly couple, we know this is an extrapolation of someone's actual experience. Who hasn't heard of an insurance claim denied? Suddenly we're laughing, and we're also understanding that someone else being afraid doesn't mean they're stupid or wrong. They're just afraid.

And perhaps if we're convinced that liberal bureaucrats are out to get us, that they want to kill our grandparents to save on healthcare costs, laughing might allow us to let go of our storyline, our personal mythology, for just long enough to see something through a different lens. To see a pen, just possibly, as a chew toy.


  1. Excelent Jon! I am a firm believer in comedies ability to free us from judgement and anger. Check out the video I did about The Drunk Monkey (my nickname for the mind). My goal is to use comedy to help the viewer to let go of judgement and open to compassion and acceptance.

  2. Thanks for that, Matthew - it was great to watch that video, it was probably one of the first ones of yours I ever watched! Totally inspiring! I still go around telling people "your mind is not your friend." Started me on the journey, as Sakyong Mipham would say, into "turning my mind into an ally." Thank you!!!

  3. Matthew you might want to check this posting out - - what I call my "little voice" (thanks to Landmark) is probably that same "drunk monkey."