Does Humor Belong in Buddhism?

DATE: Friday-Saturday, February 9-10, 2007

PLACE: Toll Room, Alumni House, UC Berkeley

FORMAT: Conference

SPONSORS: Center for Buddhist Studies




The Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have asked, "How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease, and death?" Despite the severity of this rhetorical question, Buddhists through the centuries and across cultures have incorporated humor into their religious lives. The literary, ritual, and artistic traditions of the Buddhist world contain a variety of humorous and comedic elements that challenge the representation of Buddhism as a humorless doctrine of detached austerity. As a result of this image of Buddhism, scholars have tended to view humorous elements of Buddhist texts and practices as anomalous or marginal rather than as vibrant and vital aspects of Buddhist traditions. This workshop will explore the role of humor in Buddhism from early canonical theories of humor and the unexpectedly robust comedy of the rules for monks and nuns to the outrageous behavior of tantric gurus and Zen Masters.

  • Plenary address: What's So Funny About the Laughing Buddha?
  • Panel 1: Humor in the Leaves of the Tripitaka
  • Panel 2: Buddhism and Humor in China and Japan
  • Panel 3: The Logic of Laughter in Tibetan Buddhism
  • Closing discussion


Friday, February 9, 2007
Plenary Address
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

Donald Lopez, University of Michigan
What's So Funny About the Laughing Buddha?

Saturday, February 10, 2007
Panel 1: Humor in the Leaves of the Tripitaka
9:30 am - 11:30 am

Charles Hallisey, University of Wisconsin
A Man's Sense of Humor: The Buddha in the Sutta Pitaka

Gregory Schopen, UCLA
Doctrinal Jokes and Poking Fun at Learned and Meditative Monks in a Monastic Code

Alexander von Rospatt, UC Berkeley
The Psychology of Smiles and Laughter in Abhidharma Buddhism

Respondent: Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College

Panel 2: Buddhism and Humor in China and Japan
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

James Robson, University of Michigan
The Truth of the Trickster: Holy Fools and Loathsome Monks in East Asian Buddhism

Natasha Heller, UC Berkeley
Laughter Once Removed: Audience, Performance and Humor in Chan Texts

George Tanabe, University of Hawaii
Making and Having Fun in Japanese Buddhist Literature

Respondent: Robert Sharf, UC Berkeley

3:00 pm - 3:30 pm: Coffee Break

Panel 3: The Logic of Laughter in Tibetan Buddhism
3:30 pm - 5:30 pm

Jacob Dalton, Yale University
The Limits of Demonic Laughter: Translating Humor in the Buddhist Tantras

Janet Gyatso, Harvard University
A Tibetan Buddhist Biography Gets Down to Earth: Why Milarepa's Story is Funny

Georges Dreyfus, Williams College
We Will See Who Laughs Last: Dialectic and Rhetoric in Tibetan Debate and the Role of Humor

Respondent: Donald Lopez, University of Michigan

Closing Remarks
5:30 pm - 6:00 pm



Benjamin Bogin is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley. His doctoral dissertation focused on the autobiography of the Tibetan Buddhist lama, Yolmo Tenzin Norbu. He is presently engaged in research on the artistic, literary, and ritual traditions surrounding the Tibetan Buddhist pure land known as the Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain.

Jacob Dalton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. His early work was on the history of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. More recently, he has been examining the role of violence in the early Tibetan assimilation of Buddhism. His work focuses on the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang and in particular the genre of ritual manuals.

Georges Dreyfus was the first Westerner to obtain the title of Geshe Lharampa, the highest degree confered within the traditional Tibetan monastic system. He teaches Religion at Williams College. He is the author of The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (2003).

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School. Her books include Women of Tibet (2006; Co-edited with Hanna Havnevik); Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (1998) and In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (1992). Her current book project is on traditional medical culture in Tibet, its relation to modernity, and its relation to Buddhism. She has also been writing on conceptions of sex and gender in Buddhist monasticism and in Tibetan medicine.

Charles Hallisey teaches at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. His research interests focus on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Buddhist ethics and literature in Buddhist culture.

Natasha Heller is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2006-08. She specializes in the intellectual and religious history of China, with a particular focus on the intersection of Buddhism and literati culture. She received her Ph.D. (November 2005) from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, with a dissertation on the Chan monk Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323) and his literati followers. Other research interests include religion and the state, material culture, and concepts of law and justice in imperial China.

Donald Lopez is Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. His recent books include Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism and The Madman's Middle Way.

Reiko Ohnuma is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. She has published various articles on Indian Buddhist narrative literature, hagiography, and the role and imagery of women as well the recent book, Head, Eyes. Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (Columbia University Press).

James Robson is Assistant Professor of Asian languages and cultures and Helmut F. Stern Professor. He is working on a project called "Inside Asian Images: Religious Icons in the Context of Local and Ritual Practice" which is a study of a collection of small religious statuettes from the Hunan province in south-central China.

Alexander von Rospatt teaches in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. He specializes in the doctrinal history of Indian Buddhism, and in Newar Buddhism, the only Indic Mahayana tradition that continues to persist in its original South Asian setting (in the Kathmandu Valley) to the present.

Gregory Schopen is a Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. His research focuses on the history of Indian Buddhism, the Mulasarvastiavda-Vinaya, early and medieval Mahayana Sutra literature, and Indian Buddhist epigraphy.

Robert Sharf teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. He works primarily in the area of medieval Chinese Buddhism, but he also dabbles in Japanese Buddhism, Buddhist art, ritual studies, and methodological issues in the study of religion. He is the author of Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise (2002).

George Tanabe is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Religion at the University of Hawaii. He is editor of Religions of Japan in Practice (Princeton Readings in Religions), co-author of Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, and other books.



The conference "Does Humor Belong in Buddhism?" will be held in the Alumni House, UC Berkeley.

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Directions to the Alumni House

The Alumni House is located in the southwest region of campus. Please find the Alumni House in section D3 of this campus map.


If traveling by BART, exit the Richmond-Fremont line at the Berkeley station (not North Berkeley). When you leave the BART station, walk south down Shattuck Avenue to Bancroft Avenue (two or three blocks depending on which station exit you leave from) and turn left. Walk three blocks to Dana Street and turn left onto campus. The Alumni House will be on your right, across from Haas Pavilion.

From Interstate 80

To reach the site by car from Interstate 80, exit at the University Avenue off-ramp in Berkeley. Take University Avenue east to Oxford Street and turn right. Oxford becomes Fulton Street in a couple of blocks. Turn left onto Durant Avenue, then left onto Telegraph Avenue. Turn left onto Bancroft Avenue. The Alumni House is located on campus, closest to the intersection of Bancroft Avenue and Dana Street. The Alumni House is located across from Hass Pavilion.

From Highways 24/13

To reach us from Highways 24/13, exit 13 at Tunnel Road in Berkeley. Continue on Tunnel Road as it becomes Ashby. Turn right at Telegraph and drive approximately one mile north to Bancroft Way and turn left. The Alumni House is located on campus, closest to the intersection of Bancroft Avenue and Dana Street. The Alumni House is located across from Hass Pavilion.

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For parking near the Alumni House, we recommend the following lots:

  • MLK Student Union Garage (Bancroft Way, between Telegraph Ave. and Dana St.)
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