The Ten Funniest Scenes from the Pali Canon

What? The Pali Canon is profound, difficult, revolutionary: but not funny, surely. And if it is, then why? What’s the nature and purpose of Dhamma humour?

Thankfully I’m going to leave aside weighty matters of interpretation and present here the definitive list of funniest scenes. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments. In this list I am only considering the early Suttas. There’s plenty more humour in the Vinaya, and even more in the Jatakas, but it would just be too hard to choose.

10. Saccaka gets his comeuppance

Where?

Majjhima Nikaya 35, Culasaccaka Sutta

What’s up?

Saccaka the wanderer features in a few Suttas. Here he threatens to take on the Buddha in debate on the five aggregates and not-self, giving an elaborate series of similes on how he will drag the Buddha about ‘like a huge elephant would enjoy a game of washing hemp’.

Where’s the funny?

While Saccaka is boasting, there’s no doubting his pride is due for a painful fall, and the Sutta doesn’t disappoint. He ends up thoroughly humiliated, seating and depressed. But like all good thrashings in debate, it turns out to be a necessary antidote for his pride. He ends up becoming an arahant.

9. The Boast of Brahma

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 11, Kevaddha Sutta.

What’s up?

A monk searches for an answer to the question, ‘Where do the four great elements cease without remainder?’ He questions the gods, but they keep referring him upstairs (which itself is a lovely satire on the bureaucratic nature of the celestial hierarchy) until he arrives in the realm of Brahma. Brahma appears and boasts, ‘I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, Father of All…’. But he keeps dodging the question. Eventually the monk is so persistent, he takes him by the elbow, leads him to one side, and whispers to him, ‘Actually, I don’t know the answer to your question. You should have asked the Buddha!’

Where’s the funny?

It is a brilliantly accurate skewering of religious pretensions. The bluster and bombast is revealed for what it is. While the story as it stands is directed at the Brahmans, other texts make it clear the Buddha respected the good practice of Brahmans of old (after all, he must have had jhanas to become a Brahma in the first place.) The point here is that religious authority is propped up by signs and displays, and with a little dedicated and persistent questioning anyone can see beneath the surface.

8. Sariputta gets Clubbed

Where do I find it?

Udana 4.4

What’s up?

A passing yakkha sees Sariputta meditating in the full moon, his freshly shaven head a tempting target for an ogre’s club. Unable to resist, despite the warnings of his friend, he lands a blow that would split a mountain in two. Sariputta sits there unperturbed and the blow bounces off. Later, Moggallana asks him if he saw anything unusual, and Sariputta says, ‘No, but I do have a slight headache’.

Where’s the funny?

Come on. A huge troll smashing a shiny bald head in the moonlight? How is this not funny? The episode is pure slapstick, and gives an entertaining contrast between the violent religion of the yakkhas – which, let us not forget, was a mainstream cultic practice often involving human sacrifice – and the peaceful cultivation of the Buddhists. We’re left with no doubt where the real strength lies.

7. Sakka Turns Back

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 11.6, Kulavaka Sutta

What’s up?

In the interminable war between the Gods and Titans, the Gods lost the battle and were fleeing, with the Titans hard at their heels. Their escape route led through a forest full of delicate birds, with their chicks nesting. Sakka cannot bear to endanger such innocent creatures, and so he instructs his charioteer Matali, to turn around, even though this means facing their enemies. The Titans, however, assume that Sakka has turned around because he has reinforcements. Terrified, they flee and the Gods end up victorious – and saving the birds.

Where’s the funny?

Sakka is the Buddhist version of the ferocious war god of the Vedas, Indra. He is the archetypal Aryan hero, leading his people on chariot raids, plundering and slaughtering in the joy of strength and victory. The Buddhist texts turn him, not without a struggle, into a spokesman for non-violence. Like the religious allegories, this provides, in its light-hearted way, a political allegory for the idea that non-violence can be a source of strength and political success.

6. The Humiliation of Mara

Where do I find it?

Sutta Nipata 3.2, Padhana Sutta

What’s up?

Mara tires to defeat the Buddha, but ends up routed. While later accounts depict Mara’s army as a vicious mob of monsters, this early story lists 10 purely psychological factors as Mara’s army: desire, cynicism, and the like. Mara tries to tempt the Buddha to live a life of wholesome merit and give up striving for Awakening. But the Buddha is impervious, and Mara ends up depressed, saying he couldn’t get any more entrance to the Buddha than a crow poking a stone. It ends with the unforgettable image of the ‘depressed troll’ letting his lute droop from his armpit and vanishing.

Where’s the funny?

Mara is hardly the paragon of evil we might expect by comparison with the Christian Satan. He is more akin to the Trickster figures of folk mythology; except he ends up being the one getting tricked. His inevitable defeat is a standard trope, repeated in countless stories. Like the wily coyote (another trickster figure), the fun is watching his (admittedly admirable) persistence and ingenuity, knowing all the while his efforts are doomed… I could have chosen any number of Mara tales for this spot, but I felt this major archetypal episode deserved the gong. A special mention, though, for Majjhima 50, Maratajjaniya: Mara enters Moggallana to possess him, and Moggallana says it feels like his belly is full of beans.

5. The Doctrine of Dighanakha

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 74, Dighanakha Sutta

What’s up?

Dighanakha approaches the Buddha and without ado declares his doctrine to him. With a name like ‘Long-nails’, you know this is not going to end well. His doctrine is, ‘Nothing whatsoever is pleasing to me’. The Buddha responds with one of the best one-liners in the Suttas: ‘Well, this view of yours, is that pleasing to you?’

Where’s the funny?

The Buddha’s response is sharp, witty, and cuts to the heart of the matter. Like the best humour, it’s not just amusing, but it points to a deep truth: religious people often claim to have let go of the world, but it is their attachment to their religious ideals that is really holding them back.

4. Ratthapala’s Wives

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 82, Ratthapala Sutta

What’s up?

Ratthapala is the son of a wealthy family. He is permitted to go forth by his parents only after he nearly starves himself to death. When he returns to his family after attaining enlightenment, they try to tempt him to return to worldly things, placing a large pile of gold before him and serving delicious food. Ratthapala’s former wives come to attend him, intent on seduction. They ask, ‘What are they like, the divine maidens for whose sake you are following the holy life?’ Ratthapala says, ‘Sisters, we do not live the holy life for the sake of divine maidens.’ They cry out, ’He called us “sisters”!’ and collapse in a faint.

Where’s the funny?

Your mileage might vary! Yes, it’s a standard ‘woman tempts ascetic’ scenario; but I don’t think it’s as sexist as it might appear out of context. The bulk of the sutta has Ratthapala dealing with his clinging parents, and later with a king. The wives only appear in this one scene, and are a transparent narrative device. I just find the image of the wives crying, ‘He called us sisters’ and fainting to be so over the top. They’re vapid valley-girls; and for me the humour lies in the naivety of their response, in stark contrast with the strong, wise women found elsewhere in the Suttas. It strikes me as a throw-away bit of camp, contrasting beautifully with the sombre and profound teachings that the sutta ends with. The sutta as a whole is one of the most dramatically accomplished in the whole canon, and the effect is partially accomplished with the fusion of dark and light elements. Anyway, if you still think the story is proof of the sexism of the Pali Canon, perhaps you’re not familiar with…

3. Mutta’s Song of Freedom

Where do I find it?

Therigatha 1.11, Muttatheri

What’s up?

An awakened nun sings of her freedom from the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband.

Where’s the funny?

Sexual politics have, it seems, changed but little. The short verses segue blithely from the mundane to the sublime, speaking with wit and pith of the reality of domestic disappointment. Rather than offering a Cinderalla-solution (the handsome prince will take you away and you can live in a castle – with someone else to do the cooking and cleaning), this offers a genuine solution: freedom from birth and death.

2. Citta’s Faith

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 41.8, Nigantha

What’s up?

Citta, a highly intelligent and capable lay disciple, goes to see Mahavira (known in Pali as Nigantha Nataputta), the leader of the Jains and the Buddha’s chief rival. Mahavira asks him whether he has faith in the Buddha’s claim that there is a state of mind so still that all movement and applied thought has vanished? Citta replies that he does not go by faith in the Buddha’s claim. Mahavira is delighted in this, puffs out his chest, and declares, ‘See, even the Buddha’s followers don’t believe him!’ And he praised Citta for his honesty. Citta, however, asks Mahavira, ‘Which is better, faith or knowledge?’ Mahavira agrees that knowledge is better. Citta then declares that whenever he wishes he enters the second jhana where there is no movement or application of mind, and indeed enters even higher attainments. So he does not need to go by faith: he speaks from personal knowledge. Mahavira is devastated: he glances aside at his following, and says how deceitful and insincere Citta is.

Where’s the funny?

Unfortunately, neither the Jain nor Buddhist scriptures record that the Buddha and Mahavira ever met in person, so exchanges such as this are the best we have. As well as the usual pricking of religious pretensions, Citta exposes some of the flaws of the Jain system as seen by the Buddhists. By focussing so much on self-torment, they do not have the tranquillity necessary for deep meditation, and so cannot see the truth. Moreover, Mahavira bombastically claims to be all-knowing, yet he can be so easily fooled – and by a mere layman at that.

1. The Love Song of Pancasikha

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 21, Sakkapanha Sutta

What’s up?

Sakka wants to ask the Buddha some questions, but can’t seem to arrange an interview as the Buddha is on retreat. Pancasikha the gandhabba offers to help, and standing neither too close nor too near, he serenades the Buddha with a song extolling the ‘Buddha, arahants, and love’. He sings of his beloved Suriyavacchasa, ‘maiden fair of thighs’, whose glorious beauty he covets ‘as the arahants love the Dhamma’. His desire grows as does the merit of gifts given to arahants; and were he to be made one with his beloved, he would rejoice like the Buddha attaining Awakening! Despite the outrageous inappropriateness of the song, the Buddha rewards him with a nice compliment: the sound of your voice blended well with the sound of your lute. Sweet, and neatly avoids commenting on the content of the song. (Incidentally, certain later myths make this lute of Pancasikhas none other than the very lute that had dropped so ignominiously from Mara’s armpit in the episode mentioned above. Not so implausible, perhaps, as both events are closely related with the of the Buddha’s Awakening.)

Where’s the funny?

A love song in the Pali Canon! Though the verses are perhaps the earliest attested love song in Indian literature, they are clearly playing with well-practiced tropes. Even when the song doesn’t directly speak of Buddhism, it uses standard Buddhist imagery: like an elephant plunging into a cooling lotus-pond, Pancasikha longs to plunge into the bosom of his beloved. Foreshadowing later Indic literature such as Ashvaghosa, the verses are ironically aware of their own tension: her love will grant him sweet release like water cooling flames, but at the same time he is like a fish stuck on a hook, his heart bound, and his thoughts confused. You can read it either as a genuine erotic song, or as an exposure of the sufferings of lust. And, like the Ratthapala Sutta, the narrative is sophisticated enough to move from such light fare to the weighty matters that are dealt with later on.

42 thoughts on “The Ten Funniest Scenes from the Pali Canon

  1. Thanks for posting these Bhante. I have always found the scene of Ven Moggallana using his psychic power to shake Sakka’s heavenly palace with his big toe in order to bring Sakka to his senses very humorous (MN 37 (Culatanhasankkhaya–sorry I don’t have ability to to do diacritics)

  2. Can you recommend any good online sources to read the primary (translated) texts? A few of these I have just heard from teachers/professors, but I would actually like to read some more suttas on my own. That being said, I wouldn’t really know where to begin. Is it fitting to follow a storyline or to read chronologically?

    • Hi,

      You can start with Access to Insight. A site I’ve helped with, suttacentral.net, has links to original language, translation, and comparative texts.

      Shamefully, there is no single, quality, complete translation of the Pali Canon in English; and many of the best translations are not available online.

      I was going to put in links for these passages, but i didn’t, as many of the translations were so bad that they actually missed the joke altogether. Still, i might go back and put some links in when I get a chance…

    • I’ve recently been told that Ven. Bodhi will be putting some of his new Anguttara translation on-line. That great news, since these translations are probably the best we have. Hopefully there will be more to come.

    • This is terrific.

      The badness of Buddhist scriptures in digital format is beyond large. Have a look at what is available for Bible students; for example the Glo Bible, with full multi-media interactive goodness, or this Digital Bible concordance if you prefer free, or the Bible Gateway if you like to read online.

      Then compare with Access to Insight or Wikipitaka or Suttacentral and weep deep and long. There, there, I’ll give you a moment to just be with yourself; here, have some tissues.

      We can’t even get a full translation online or as an app or whatever, many of the common translations are abysmal; and STILL no translations of any collection of early Buddhist material from Chinese has been published at all. Scattered bits and pieces systematically ignored, it would seem, by pretty much all Buddhists.(endwhinge)

    • Dear Vens Brahmali & Sujato, great to hear that some of Ven Bodhi’s new translations will be on-line. Will you keep us posted please? Does he know yet when the translation will be published (is it Wisdom Pubs or another)?

    • Dear Linda,

      Wisdom is apparently aiming at an autumn 2012 release. That would mean roughly October.

    • The book is being typeset now. With any luck we’ll have it out before summer. It will be available both in hard copy and as an eBook. Since the diacritics are in Unicode, should port well to eBook form.

    • Thanks, David, for that information. It’s great to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Not that you are a horse of course …

  3. I found the one I found very funny (MN 90):

    King Pasenda decides to go to see the Buddha, the sisters Somā and Sukalā hear this and go to the King when he’s having breakfast and ask him to pay respects to the Buddha on their behalf. The King dutifully does their bidding, saying “‘Bhante, the sisters Soma and Sakula pay homage with their heads at the Blessed One’s feet, and they ask whether he is free from illness and abiding in comfort.'”
    The Buddha replies “But great king, could the sisters Somā and Sukulā find no other messenger?”

    I find this not only amusing in itself, but apparently the Buddha also found it amusing, proving the Buddha did have a sense of humor (or, the Buddha was gently trying to point out that the King was being made fun of by his court, but the king completely misses this and gives a straight answer, so the Buddha just says “May the sisters Somā and Sukalā be happy”)

  4. Thanks Bhante for this very interesting selection.

    I have a question for you about another possible example of humor. In Ven. Dhammika’s “The Buddha and His Disciples,” which is highly recommended (http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/bud-disciples.pdf), it is written that “When Brahmins said that they could wash away their sins by bathing in sacred rivers, he [Buddha] joked that the water might wash away their good deeds also.”

    I cannot readily find a reference to such an utterance by the Buddha, but I assume it’s canonical. (Do you know a reference offhand?)

    If so, it is the most unequivocal evidence I have come across that the Buddha was not only not humorless but something of a “stirrer” even.

    • Yes, in the Vatthupama Sutta: I considered this one. You know, when I started the list, I didn’t know if I could think of 10 funny bits – but it turns out there’s a lot more!

    • it was not the Buddha who converted on this matter, but his nun disciple, Ven Bhikkhuni Punna (formerly a slave woman). The text traNSLATION IS HERE:

      “Who taught you this — the ignorant to the ignorant —
      ‘One, through water ablution,
      is from evil kamma set free?’
      In that case, they’d all go to heaven:
      all the frogs, turtles, serpents, crocodiles,
      & anything else that lives in the water.
      Sheep-butchers, pork-butchers,
      fishermen, trappers, thieves, executioners,
      & any other evil doers,
      would, through water ablution,
      be from evil kamma set free.
      If these rivers could carry off
      the evil kamma you’ve done in the past,
      they’d carry off your merit as well,
      and then you’d be completely left out.
      Whatever it is that you fear,
      that you’re always going down to the water, don’t do it.
      Don’t let the cold hurt your skin.”
      [The Brahmin:]
      I’ve been following the miserable path, good lady,
      and now you’ve brought me back to the noble.
      I give you this robe for water-ablution.
      [Punnika:]
      Let the robe be yours. I don’t need it.
      If you’re afraid of pain, if you dislike pain,
      then don’t do any evil kamma, in open, in secret.
      But if you do or will do any evil kamma,
      you’ll gain no freedom from pain,
      even if you fly up & hurry away.
      If you’re afraid of pain, if you dislike pain,
      go to the Awakened One for refuge,
      go to the Dhamma & Sangha.
      Take on the precepts:
      That will lead to your liberation.
      [Thig 12.1, verses 236-251, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight]

  5. that’s great that you are adding a post on the suttas. I notice that these greatly lack in our modern Buddhist era.

    I find funny the part in the Udana when the Buddha brings his cousin Nanda to see the heavenly nymphs, persuading him to stay in the holy life and to forget about his former lady. I found it funny that the Buddha takes advantage of Nanda’s defilements of lust to keep him in the holy life! Whatever it takes i guess!
    then Nanda says “Lord, compared to these 500 dove-footed nymphs, the Sakyan girl, the envy of the countryside, is like a cauterized monkey with its ears and nose cut off. ”

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.3.02.than.html

  6. You left out the racy ones! My fave is from the Vinaya Sutra, in which we find the details about how the monastic rules were established. Early on, for example, some monks go to the forest to see another solitary monk. He’s not there, but his pet monkey is tied up on a leash in his camp. As soon as the monkey sees the monks approaching, she turns and offers her backside to them, clearly a habitual move. Deeply alarmed, they confront the solitary monk upon his return, after which he retorts, “What? All the Buddha said is we were forbidden to have sex with humans!” The monks recount this to the Buddha, who quickly gathers all the monks back together and says, “OK, new rule…”

    There are others along that line, as I recall, with the poor Buddha having to be more and more specific in his declaration of the details (and closing the loopholes!) of the monks’ celibay vow.

  7. And the one about the brahmin minding his birthfire. After being gifted an ox he went to get some seasoning to prepare his sacrifice. When he returned, the ox had been slaughtered by thieves, who left only the hooves and tail. In disgust, he douses his sacred fire, scolding it that it didn’t do a very good job of looking after its own offering.

    • I’m not familiar with this one – is it in the Nikayas? Or perhaps the commentaries somewhere? Whatever, it is still a fine piece of satire. It reminds me of the Islamic saying, ‘Trust Allah, but tie up your camel…’

  8. The story I like sounds similar to this one I’ve found on a website:

    One day the Buddha was waiting by the river bank for a boat to ferry him across the river. An ascetic passed by and proudly showed off his miraculous power, crossing the river back and forth by treading over the water.

    The Buddha smiled and asked him, “How long did you train to attain such power?”

    “It took me thirty years!”, said the ascetic.

    The Buddha replied, “Thirty years? Well, I can cross the river using the boat for only one penny!”

  9. I always start laughing at the beginning of the Gavi Sutta AN 9.35. “Suppose there were a foolish cow…” Really? A foolish cow? Well I never! What kind of supposition is that?
    I also laugh at the descriptions of how animals think – they always seem to think in exclamations! eg in the Sandha Sutta AN11:10 the unbroken colt thinks to himself “Barley Grain! Barley Grain” and the donkey in the Gradrabha Sutta thinks “I too am a cow! I too am a cow!”

    There is one sutta that makes me laugh but I’m not sure I’m supposed to find it amusing (although some of my non-Buddhist friends have thought it funny). At Vesali SN54.9. Buddha goes away to meditate alone for a couple of weeks and before he leaves he gives the monks a talk on the unattractiveness of the body and many monks ponder this and go on to commit suicide. It’s an awful story but the reason it is funny (unintentionally perhaps) is the contrast between the ghastly seriousness of the monks’ apalling actions and the mild mannered way in which Buddha and Ananda discuss the situation. Buddha asks “why does the community seem to be depleted?” A rather calm, benign, vague way to respond don’t you think? Ananda explains and then suggests with such polite, tentativeness “it would be good lord if the Blessed One would explain another method.” Perhaps the contrast is deliberate and points to the importance of the middle way & equanimity and not taking views to extremes? Anyway I find it funny.

    • It’s the deadpan ending, coming after such horrific scenes, that makes this narrative irresistable. Black comedy, to be sure. I’ve sat in Vinaya classes with large groups of monks, and this and other stories always get a laugh. In fact, I am sure this was one of their main purposes – to keep the novices awake in Vinaya classes. That’s really why I didn’t put Vinaya stories in the original list – it’s kinda cheating, there’s just so much.

      Back to the ‘murdered monks’ story – it also raises a whole range of other, quite serious, questions, which I have never seen adequately addressed. It would be fascinating to see what a comparative study of this passage could reveal…

    • There is also another funny reference to incident at Vesali.

      “Well then, Punna. Now that I have instructed you with a brief instruction, in which country are you going to live?”
      “Lord, there is a country called Sunaparanta. I am going to live there.”
      “Punna, the Sunaparanta people are fierce. They are rough. If they insult and ridicule you, what will you think?”
      “If they insult and ridicule me, I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with their hands.’ That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I will think, O One Well-gone.”
      “But if they hit you with their hands, what will you think?”
      “…I will think, ‘These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don’t hit me with a clod.’…”
      “But if they hit you with a clod…?” … “But if they hit you with a stick…?” … “But if they hit you with a knife…?” … “But if they take your life with a sharp knife…?”
      “If they take my life with a sharp knife, I will think, ‘There are disciples of the Blessed One who — horrified, humiliated, and disgusted by the body and by life — have sought for an assassin, but here I have met my assassin without searching for him.’

      SN 35.88

    • And especially funny when read by a monk called Punna on his way to live in the wilds of deep north Canada – as happened at Wat Nanachat courtesy of Ajahn Punnadhammo!

  10. “It happened that one day venerable Sanjiiva attained to the cessation of perceptions and feelings. Then the cowherds, cattle-herds, farmers and wayfarers saw venerable Sajiiva attained to the cessation of perceptions and feelings, at the root of a certain tree. Then it occurred to them, it is wonderful, and surprising this recluse has fulfilled time seated. Then they collected grass, sticks, cowdung and dirt on top of him and set fire to it, and went away.” MN 50
    It’s really wonderful!

    Buddha’s words after his last meal also amused me:
    “Whatever is left over of the “pig’s delight” you should bury in a pit, because, Cunda, I can see none in this world with its devas, māras and Brahmās, in this generation with its ascetics and Brahmins, its princes and people who, if they were to eat it, could thoroughly digest it except the Tathāgata”. DN 16

    Bhikkhu Bodhi noted to this: “The trouble was, of course, that in fact even the Tathāgata failed to digest it!”.

  11. I know this is an old thread now, and also no doubt a serious problem in a country like India, but just today I started laughing at the bathetic nature of MN 140 where there’s a lengthy and deep exposition that culminates in death by runaway cow…

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