Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why the Buddha Laughs

Buddhism often gets a bad rap for being pessimistic or taking life too seriously, especially with its famous teachings on suffering, impermanence and emptiness.

But the reality is quite the opposite. Those who have developed any genuine realization of the teachings of Buddhism are often among the most joyful and happy people you could ever meet. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who is famous for, among other things, undergoing extensive brain scans and laboratory testing while in meditative states, has been branded by neuroscientists as "the happiest person alive."

There is a particularly baffling slogan in the Lojong teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, which says: "Always maintain only a joyful mind." That sounds like a tall order! Always?!! Only?!! I often feel lucky if I can experience a truly joyful mind for just a few intervals throughout the day.

But that constant, all-pervasive joyful mind is exactly what many realized Buddhist teachers manifest. When I picture the Dalai Lama, the image that comes to mind is one of him smiling and laughing and literally beaming positive energy to everyone around him, which he seems to do 365 days a year.
The 16th Karmapa

My own teacher, the very learned scholar Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, frequently laughs and plays with childlike joy, and constantly seeks ways to make his students drop all of their serious trips and do the same. When you spend time with a realized teacher like Dzogchen Ponlop, you never know how or when he's going to sneak up and pull the rug out from under you—maybe figuratively, or maybe literally. That's part of his job as a teacher. Many of the most direct and personal teachings I've received from him were designed to puncture whatever bubble of excessive seriousness in which I happened to be floating and to make me stop, see the absurdity of my own habitual patterns, drop it all, and just smile, relax, and laugh at myself.

"Since everything is but an illusion, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one might as well burst out laughing!"
—Longchenpa, 14th-century Tibetan meditation master

Laughter is medicine for the heart, mind and body. It lowers blood pressure, dispels self-pity and depression, triggers neurochemical reactions that increase feelings of well-being, and strengthens our positive feelings of connection with other beings. It creates a sense of openness and space that wasn't there before, and an open mind leads to new possibilities.

Taking ourselves very seriously, on the other hand, is most often a recipe for unhappiness. The more we invest our attention in all of our personal dramas and our inflated sense of self-importance—the storm that rotates around the illusory center of I, I, I, me, me, me, mine, mine, mine—the more miserable and isolated we become. It's an ancient habit, a dysfunctional skill we've been developing since before we were born. But each time we drop the overly serious trance of selfing and open to a mind of spontaneous joyfulness, we reconnect with our deeper nature and shed a piece of the baggage of the small, tragic self.

"Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing."
—Frida Kahlo