The Perfection of Wisdom is Humor

A (New?) Theory on the Genesis of the Indian Mahayana Apocrypha

When people get together, they often tell jokes [citation needed], especially when they are colleagues. Far from “pointless,” such humor serves a useful function.

Take, for example, Alvy Ray Smith’s memorable 1995 paper to his colleagues in Computer Graphics: “A Pixel is Not A Little Square, A Pixel is Not A Little Square, A Pixel is Not A Little Square!” Or take this recent randomized controlled trial of parachutes. When a field becomes noisy, especially with people making very silly, fundamental errors, humor can often help “cut through the noise” in a way that dry analysis often cannot.

The Situation in Ancient India

With that in mind, let’s take a step back and picture the situation for Buddhism in India a bit after King Ashoka.

Buddhism was well supported. There were many great Buddhist universities, filled with many bright minds. Most monks (and especially the scholars) would have had a great deal of the Early Buddhist Texts committed to memory.

The Abhidhamma project was reaching a stage of considerable maturity. Long gone were the days when the Abhidhamma Pitika was a simple concordance! Scholars debated many fine (and some less fine) points of doctrine. Different universities started to develop their own curricula. Curriculum became emphasis, emphasis became content, and content started to become doctrine.

The Genesis of Apocrypha

It is in this milieu of early sectarianism that the earliest apocryphal sutras first appeared.

But this poses something of a challenge. It would be rather incredible if such conservative institutions and well-educated scholars would immediately fall under the sway of new, inauthentic scriptures. To imagine this gives no credit to the critical thinking skills of these, the most advanced, Buddhist scholars of antiquity.

Nor does this “earnest apocrypha hypothesis” give credit to the authors. What could possibly motivate a smart and well educated Buddhist to put ink to palm leaf and pretend the Buddha said something he didn’t?


Now, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā makes no claims at being the word of the Buddha. It is merely an epic response to the frustrating trends in Buddhist scholarship at that time:

Without having essence or otherness essence, how can there be entities?
If there are essences and entities,
entities are established.
If the entity is not established,
a nonentity is not established.
An entity that has become different
is a nonentity, people say.
Those who see essence and essential difference and entities and nonentities,
they do not see
the truth taught by the Buddha.

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is a brilliant refutation of the entire Abhidhamma project: the pointless sophistry and increasingly fractious debates between the schools. It’s witty and heartfelt and inspiring. Even millennia later, and in translation, I laugh out loud and applaud Nagarjuna’s masterpiece.

The Ur-Apocrypha

I doubt we will ever find the original prajñāpāramitā sutra. But based on the common features of those we do have (Śāriputra as a foil character, the use of absurdity and contradiction, the focus on literary aesthetic, etc), I imagine that it came about like the MKK.

An old hand sick of the debates pens a parody sutra. The words of those self-styled “Śāriputras” are put into the mouth of the actual Śāriputra, and found a bit lacking.

I imagine the contrast between contemporary behavior and the format of the suttas would have been highly amusing:

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was scrolling on Facebook. Now, at that time Sāriputta had posted a picture of his cat, Migarāja…

The Problem of Context

I propose that parody sutras became a kind of literary trope during this period of Indian Buddhism.

There would be little danger that you’d get confused and think the Buddha actually was scrolling on Facebook! But once the taboo against putting words in the Buddha’s mouth was broken, there was no going back. Many people tried their hand at the new genre and, inevitably, the line between parody and polemic got blurry.

And then Buddhism left India.

Taking this literature out of its context, hundreds of miles away, the joke, as they say, was lost in the translation.


I have proposed a sympathetic theory for the genesis and early evolution of apocryphal Mahayana sutras, which I believe fits all available evidence and explains how such literature could arise in educated, Buddhist India.


Not sure how plausible this is, it is entertaining though

My pet theory the reason sariputra get bullied a lot in prajnaparamitta is because he is sari (essence) putra (son), and essence (non?) Is The Topic


I have yet to find the Buddha himself telling a joke in any sutta. I often laugh at the wisdom of what is written in the suttas (MN1 made me laugh loudly), but quite oddly, have not found any jokes. Indeed, in MN65, the Buddha advises Rahula:

So you should train like this: ‘I will not tell a lie, even for a joke.’

However, I have noticed that tellers of tales do gather followers. And I have also noticed that many who call themselves Buddhists have never read the suttas. For these, perhaps any tale would do. :cry:


Yeah, that’s definitely been the case. But typicallly this would take the form of existing (folk) stories getting dragged into the Buddhist Canon. The Apadāna literature and the Jātaka Tales have this kind of feeling: popular stories that get lightly Buddhistized and don’t think too much about the implications, just leave your dāna in the box over there.

But the prajñāpāramitā sutras are a very different kind of apocrypha. They’re polemic. They’re philosophical. They’re well educated. They’re not trying to encourage you to donate to the monks, they seem to be arguing against academic trends. At the very least, they must be from the mind of someone literate in the suttas, because they were written parallel to that form.


:thinking:polemic as in divisive speech?

Or polemic as in admonishment to “let’s get back to basics!”

1 Like

My hypothesis is: both. That originally it was a kind of “let’s get back to basics and forget all this sophistry” but eventually devolved into something more divisive.


Oh…I see. That makes sense. Flapping madly at a fire can sometimes just make it bigger. A proliferation of views. :fire: + :infinity:

You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses or found in the texts on monastic training. --DN22

Which we apparently all have to…memorize. :open_mouth: :see_no_evil: :laughing: :scream_cat:


Beautiful words and phrasing! Now to go memorize it…


:pray:Ajahn @sujato: as SuttaCentral’s resident expert on S̶e̶x̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶S̶e̶c̶r̶e̶t̶a̶r̶i̶e̶s̶ Sects and Sectarianism, I’d love to hear your reaction to my proposal. :slightly_smiling_face:


Richard Gombrich and Thanissaro Bhikkhu have pointed out jokes by the Buddha. The latter has made a thin book of them! There are puns dependent on Pāli wordplay, difficult to render in translation. Somewhere he mocked brahmins, I think DN but I can’t check it out now.

@Khemarato.bhikkhu Check my apocryphal Facebook Sutta! It’s done quite well!


Nice! I must thank you, then, cause your Facebook Sutta was a major part of the inspiration for this essay. :smile:


I have indeed noted a wry sense of humor in the suttas, and Sariputta himself mocks the Jains in DN33, but the classic joke with a punch-line is a bit absent. The similes are presented with a canonically thorough enumeration of possibilities (“Suppose a …” ) that invite the listener to investigate for themselves. There is no punchline per se since all the possibilities are enumerated beforehand.

Another example is MN57 The Ascetic who Behaves like a Dog, wherein an ascetic behaves like a dog and the Buddha quite blandly proclaims:

So if the dog observance succeeds it leads to rebirth in the company of dogs, but if it fails it leads to hell.”

In reading this, one laughs at one’s own inclinations to “behave like a dog” and feels compassion for the misled ascetic simultaneously. But it’s not a joke a stand-up comic would use. It’s too gentle and only results in a smile. I personaly laughed at MN1, “delight is the root of suffering,” but it wasn’t spoken as a joke.

Thanks you for your Facebook Sutta. Now THAT is humor.


If you were totally at peace, would you make a good stand up comedian?!


:laughing: touché

I will just leave this here… :rofl:


:turtle: :fast_forward: whoosh :eyes: :laughing:

Although Ajahn Brahm’s joke is well received, it brought to mind a subtlety I’d like to share.

Meditation “slows us down”, as Ajahn Brahm points out in his joke, but it also speeds us up. The clarity brought by relinquishment of daily cravings leads to firm, decisive and quick action unhindered by deliberation.

One of the odd things one learns when climbing is that one cannot rest totally because in letting go, one literally falls down. :scream_cat:

Paradoxically, one of the most important things in climbing is learning how to rest mindfully. Being unable to rest, one exerts oneself and becomes exhausted. At that point, one also lets go in defeat…and falls down. :scream_cat:

The middle way is to rest partially, to rest continuously while exerting oneself. One blends mindfulness of exertion and rest moment by moment. This is also exactly the mindfulness that helps me with walking meditation.

Oddly, crucial as I have found the above, the Buddha does not mention this. Instead, what is said is the following in AN5.29:

“Mendicants, there are five benefits of walking meditation.
What five?
You get fit for traveling, fit for striving in meditation, and healthy. What’s eaten, drunk, chewed, and tasted is properly digested. And immersion gained while walking lasts long.

So, yes, although everybody sees me walk as fast as a turtle, somehow, oddly, we arrive at the same destination at the same time. No turtles were lost.


Precisely why I think the Buddha didn’t tell jokes. I imagine someone with low self esteem who moves slowly would become rather self-conscious after hearing a “joke” like this.

But, who am I to criticize the teaching style of the Great Infallible Ajahn Brahm?


It’s definitely the case that the Prajnaparamita sutras, or at least some of them, contain humor, and in some cases this is a major theme. The most obvious example is the Vimalakirti, where Sariputra plays the role of the literal-minded fool.

I couldn’t say how widespread this is as a deliberate policy, though; the Vimalakirti seems more literary and playful than the majority of Mahayana texts. But there is surely something to this thesis!


There is at least one tradition of Buddhism that views Nagarjuna as authoritative. They don’t laugh at what he’s saying. I don’t think it was written to be laughed at.

Within a certain exegetical framework, these have a legitimate place in the text, in particular contradiction. Non-duality plays a huge role in the Mahayana.

The Perfection of Wisdom is Humor

Doubt it. It’s taken seriously by many traditions.

1 Like

I laughed when I read MN1 precisely because I was taking it seriously. In laughing, I changed my world view. Even now, taking it seriously, MN1 makes me smile.