Literature and Laughter

Thursday September 25, 2008

Heart Sutra

Three posts in as many days: it’s uncommonly busy here on the thinkBuddha blog. But I do want to write a brief post to say that my review of Ralph Flores’s book Buddhist Scriptures as Literature has been published in volume five of the Western Buddhist Review. The link to the review is here, and explores some of the themes that I have taken up on this blog, in particular in my recent post where I argued that one of the best ways of reading religious texts may be by thinking of them as lies in which not everything is false.

One of the themes I’m interested in thinking about in the review is that of laughter. If one reads texts as literature (i.e. as lies in which not everything is false) then – as I wrote in this earlier post – it allows the possibility of laughter to return, causing havoc amongst the high-seriousness of interpretation, just as Monkey, in the Journey to the West, caused havoc amongst the many berobed officials of heaven. It is striking how little good, subversive fun there is in most interpretation of religious texts. But it should come as no surprise that the Gate-keepers of Truth often seek to abolish laughter and play: they have done so ever since the Greek gods banished the god of laughter, Momus, from Mount Olympus. However, this does not come without a cost: for in so doing, they also threaten to abolish much of the power of the texts that they claim to be speaking for.

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#1 · David Chapman

30 September 2008

I have just been reading Ronald Davidson’s book “Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement”, which speaks to the subject of your insightful review — sniggering, in particular. Davidson has a chapter on “Siddhas, Literature, and Language.” A couple quotes:

“…the sheer outrageousness of their texts emphasized the humorous discontinuities of Buddhist existence, providing an extreme version of literary play. It is no exaggeration to state that the reader never really knows where the lines are drawn in siddha literature.” (p. 237)

“…we might see in them something of a playfulness and comedic expression based in the Indian aesthetics found within village or regional audiences… I have consistently been impressed by their level of grotesque humor. Sometimes this is quite crude, as in scatological humor, but other times it appears embedded in the simple outrageousness of the language… there could be no possible parody of siddha literature. Parody requires that the sociocultural register be reified and extended beyond the boundaries of the consistent message of the genre, whether in the case of sacred literature or poor fiction. However, there are simply no boundaries beyond which siddha literature does not go. Indeed, I have often heard a Tibetan teacher of esoteric literature—layman or monk—read some extreme statement from a scripture, burst into laughter, and exclaim that this obviously needs interpretation, for no reasonable person could possibly take such items at face value. Yet it is equally clear that many of the extreme statements were taken at face value…” (pp. 277-8)

Davidson’s book is pretty much the state of the art (2002) on the important question “how and why did Buddhist tantra arise, as a matter of objective history?” It’s intermittently interesting, but key questions are not asked — never mind answered. And overall (like his 2005 “Tibetan Renaissance”, on tantra’s subsequent vicissitudes) it is depressing. It is difficult to understand how so much that is so brilliant could have come from such wretched circumstances.

That, I suppose, is a dramatic teaching on the inseparability of samsara and nirvana.

#2 · Marcus

30 September 2009


Just to let you know that I’ve written a piece in response to your review of Flores’ book:


All the best,


#3 · Will

30 September 2009

Thanks, Marcus, for the link to your interesting and thoughtful piece. I’ve written a (snigger-free) comment by way of a response on your blog.
All the best,

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