Tuesday, September 13, 2011

a little giggle, s'il vous plaît

The Hindus, whose literature I came to know through a three- or four-year foray into Vedanta, always struck me as more willing to laugh than the Buddhists, on whose doorstep I eventually landed. Hindus seemed willing to tell tales on themselves, to laugh, and, in that laughter, to offer some open-hearted and pointed instruction when it came to spiritual endeavor.

While laughter is not the only way to offer instruction, I do think it is a very good way ... sort of agreeing with the old saw, "Laughter is the best medicine." Spiritual endeavor needs this ability because at its root it has a great pool of seriousness and solemnity that might read, "Spiritual life is important because I and my sorrows are important. This is no giggling matter."

It is true that human suffering is no laughing matter. But this does not mean that the instruments of alleviating that suffering cannot or should not be viewed with a wry smile and an occasional guffaw. I always liked what I learned of Hinduism because it took a moment or two to laugh.

 In laughter, as in music, the heart opens and the posturing defenses and soaring philosophies are, if only for a moment, lost. If there is a better instruction than that, I don't know it. No one with a human heart would laugh or make light of the uncertainties and tribulations that can impel a head-first dive into spiritual practice ... that sometimes desperate longing to right the foundering ship, to find peaceful waters, to rest easy. Suffering is not just some philosophical or religious talking point. Often it is plainly and unremittingly "ouch!" ... big-time. To skim over such facts with a giggle would be heartless in the extreme.

But having taken up the instruments of spiritual life -- even if it is just the thin-tea approach of an asserted belief -- I think that at some point laughter has to become one of those instruments if any honest conclusion is to be reached.

What brought this thought-train on was the recollection of a Hindu metaphor that wasn't especially good for a laugh. (I should be telling funny tales in here, but, although I can remember some, I haven't got the energy to write them down).

That Hindu metaphor was the suggestion that when a (wo)man feels the pain of a thorn stuck in the hand or foot, s/he employs another thorn to dig it out. Using the implements of pain, the pain is undone. And when the initial thorn is removed ... both thorns can be thrown away without a backward glance.

I like the thorns a bit better than I like the Buddhist metaphor of Buddhism as a raft with which to cross the roiling waters of this life: On reaching the further shore, the raft is left behind. It's the same notion, differently formed, but thorns hurt ... and sometimes life hurts terribly. Buddhism's metaphor is gentler, perhaps, but I like the ouch-accuracy of a thorn.

The solemnity and seriousness of spiritual endeavor -- the get-down-and-boogie determination and courage -- really is both necessary and impressive.

But at some point, if laughter is missing, something has gone seriously awry.

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