The Perfection of Wisdom is Humor

I’m glad you could delight in MN1, cause the monks that heard it did not! :joy:


This is actually the most fascinating thing about MN1. From this I know that even practice is not to be relished, practice is just practice. Vinegar is just vinegar.


He didn’t seem into mollycoddling them!

With metta


MN 122

Ānanda, treat me as a friend, not as an enemy. That will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. I shall not mollycoddle you like a potter with their damp, unfired pots. I shall speak, pushing you again and again, pressing you again and again. The core will stand the test.

(I’d love to make this quote into a doodle but I’m still waiting for inspiration… :wink: )





I was thinking more along the lines of cattle prods myself :rofl:

cattle prod is an electric shock stick , just a small electric shock :sweat_smile:


This isn’t from a prajñāpāramitā sūtra, but it is marked by the same Mahāyānika playfulness with words that characterizes a lot of the puns and double-meanings used in prajñāpāramitā sūtras. When we read it aloud, we get a sense of how its first audience might have encountered it:

idaṁ ca me saṁdhāya bhāṣitam |
na satvadhātor ūnatvaṁ vā pūrṇatvaṁ vā prajñāyate |
tat kasmād dhetoḥ |
asatvāt satvadhātor viviktatvāt satvadhātoḥ |

I say this with hidden intention:
no diminution or expansion of the realm of beings is discerned.
Because of the lack of be-ing in the realm of beings, because of the isolation of the realm of beings.

(Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta, T668, 不增不減經, “The Discourse on a Lack of Increase and a Lack of Decrease,” trans. Jonathan A. Silk)

No be-ing in the being,” get it?

It cracks me up. :rofl:

“Asatvāt satvadhātor viviktatvāt satvadhātoḥ,” try to say that five times fast! Phonetically alone, it’s a tongue-twister on the consonant cluster “tva,” complicated by the fact that you have to differentiate between “tva” and “tvā.” Systematically, every word contains either “tva” or “tvā,” giving the passage a certain “ring” when it is chanted.

Solid flashy fancy wordsmithery like that is what gains your sect an entire subcontinent of Buddhist followers – forget all that boring old wisdom-ethics-concentration business!

It seems I, like perhaps the Prajñāpāramitā, have been known to joke.

I had a suspicion that this might be more of a feature of what I am tenuously calling “the more narrative Mahāyāna sūtras” versus the dialogue-based question-and-responce driven prajñāpāramitā sūtras that form the oldest layer of this literature, bhante, if you’ll give me a second to explain what I mean by “more narrative.” I checked some sources and here’s what I found, following my explanation of what I meant by that term.

“More narrative” Mahāyāna sūtras often feature metaphorical or pedagogical events within themselves that are design to teach a lesson. I am thinking, when I think of this, in particular of the episode with Ven Śāriputra and the gender-swapping goddess in (I think) the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa and the episode with Ven Śāriputra and the Bodhisattva Sāgaranāgarājaduhitā in the Lotus Sūtra. Both have to do with the Buddhahood of women, but only by coincidence, because these are the only examples I could think of. In the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, a gender-swapping goddess swaps her gender to prove a point to Ven Śāriputra about the suitability of her male body and the unsuitability of her former body, namely that the distinction is arbitrary. In the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka episode, the Bodhisattva Sāgaranāgarājaduhitā (龍女 Lóngnǚ, the “Dragon’s Daughter”) demonstrates a miraculous achievement of Buddhatva that defies convention and logic, itself a point about the six perfections and bodhisattvayāna versus the (Sarvāstivāda?) Abhidharmika Buddhism Ven Śāriputra often gets depicted with in these stories. In both of these, Ven Śāriputra plays the role of the skeptical and ultimately confounded Abhidharmika, doubting the suitability of the female form, etc.

It should be noted though for the sake of not making these characterizations too rigid and one-sided, when Ven Śāriputra doubts the attainment of Sāgaranāgarājaduhitā bodhisattva, he is joined in his doubt by Prajñākūṭa bodhisattva, a bodhisattva practitioner of the mytho-historical assembly gathered on the Vulture Peak, who is depicted as sharing this stance concerning women and bodhi with his śrāvaka peer.

Aside: musings on intersectarian mythologies

In some other Mahāyāna sūtras, Ven Śāriputra is instead presented as Śāriputra bodhisattva, a Mahāyānika, but this is only a minority tradition of texts. Mahāyāna has varied approaches to addressing the issue of the saints of what is considered “the previous dispensation,” in many ways, and sometimes this is by absorbing them into the Mahāyāna fold. In some quasi-docetisms of Mahāyāna, a über-Buddha figure of one sort or another emanates a fleshly embodiment, like in the Lalitavistara, which is called “the Play in Full” because it concerns itself with the “play,” the show, or falseness of the appearance of the Ascetic Gautama’s life, the true narrative supposedly being that his enlightenment precedes this, and that the over-Buddha (this is my language, not the sūtra’s, obviously) is “performing” as the ascetic Gautama in the “play.” In such Buddhisms, sometimes the entire śrāvakasaṁgha is re-cast as bodhisattvas who become embodied temporarily to appear to live life as a śrāvaka practitioner for the sake of inspiring the followers of the Buddha. The stories are many and varied and hardly the most foundational aspects of what makes Mahāyāna any the wiser for their presence, that’s for certain, being instead more like fascinating lore for a wonderful television series based on an alternate history take on the life of the Buddha where everyone is a sky god who puts on a show to inspire mere mortals. That isn’t what these Buddhisms are trying to present, but that can be the effect nonetheless.

I just perused quickly the Mahāprajñāpāramitāsūtra (very briefly) and there are a lot of sections where Ven Śāriputra is the interlocutor with the Buddha, but more times when it is Ven Subhūti. Similarly, the entire Vajracchedikā/Diamond Sūtra, IIRC, is between the Buddha and Ven Subhūti, and there are many times when Ven Subhūti is corrected by the Buddha as well in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā (though not nearly as many times as the text has the Buddha correct Ven Śāriputra), so it’s not a case that Ven Subhūti is the good student and Ven Śāriputra the bad. The Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā though has a lot of dialogue between Ven Subhūti and Ven Śāriputra, and almost seemingly not as much between the Buddha and Ven Śāriputra directly, from these quick perusals. The Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya is famously between Ven Śāriputra and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, but this can’t really be called an early specimen of this literature.

There are a bunch of prajñāpāramitā sūtras I haven’t checked yet to see if Ven Subhūti or Ven Śāriputra show up more. I’m wondering if the interlocutors of the Buddha could be a sign of age.


Another piece of evidence: I can’t read this Prajñāpāramitā Sutra as anything other than parody:

The “tell” here is that Ananda attains at the end: an over-the-top counterfactual that serves as a nod to the author’s satirical intent.

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It could be parody. Who really knows?
But having trained for over 25 years in the Zen tradition, there’s more than meets the eye going in these sutras.
One way to “see” it: in the non-dual Mayahana, the “A” or any sound “contains” and manifests all things. The entire cosmos in a single sound, in a single leaf, in a single gesture. This derives from the emphasis on interdependence, or inter-being as Thich Naht Hanh called it.

In the Mahayana, thoughts, notions, and concepts cloud over the inherent radiance and pure knowing of the merging of Relative and Absolute – all in the simple sound of: “A.”

This is not to advocate or push the Mahayana view here. Just sharing about ways this sutta can be more than a parody.
Just saying… :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:

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It could be both parody and dharma. Why it couldn’t be both?

The ancient Buddhist masters are expert, when they joke around and create parody to mock something, they insert profound dharma inside.


Maybe “satire” is too strong, but I tend to agree with Bhante Sujato’s occasional comments that at least some Mayahana texts seem to be designed to engage the audience by presenting things in unusual and unexpected ways. Probably better pedagogy than just repeating yourself…

We see that even in the wordplay of some suttas. When the Buddha says:

“‘Lujjatī’ti kho, bhikkhu, tasmā lokoti vuccati.
“It wears away, mendicant, that’s why it’s called ‘the world’.

surely he’s not giving a dictionary definition, but punning on the similarity of the words. It’s an effective pun because “the world wears away” does capture how one might well feel about the world, and it is therefore be quite memorable.

The audience for those Mahayana texts would presumably already have studied the teachings. It would probably be a mistake to think that they were supposed to be an introduction, or a complete description.

Exactly! And if we don’t get the joke, don’t understand the historical context of what these masters were poking fun at, then we’re likely to miss the intended wisdom.


This…feels really possible. Also considering the possibility of, say if this was the case, then some newer monastics that may not have had context for these written parodies meant to point back to the original texts may possibly just take these “sutras” to be Buddhavacana while the Buddhist organizations moved and changed throughout time and the landscape of India.

Add to that moving across national borders and the texts being taken literally, along with the propensity of Buddhist scholars and monastics to argue over points in the Dhamma and text, you’d get people arguing against whether or not these sutras really were the word of the Buddha.

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Definitely an interesting theory, it would be quite a revelation. But I can’t say there is any evidence for this in the sources of the history of Mahayana.

From what I’ve read on the topic, Mahayanists were quite serious from the beginning and they had to be if they wanted these sutras to get copied (which was expensive back then).

Scholars who carefully study the early PP sutras like the 8000 line PP, like Matt Osborn, have found a very complex structure which shows they were carefully written literary works. I don’t think someone would do that unless they really believed the message they were trying to communicate.

That message was the bodhisattva ideal. The archeological evidence also shows that people venerated the figures associated with these sutras, like Manjusri and Prajnaparamitadevi. People don’t really venerate jokes in shrines.

So I think that the best and most simple explanation is that Mahayanists were just people who were inspired by the Buddha and the bodhisattva idea as a way to imitate the Buddha. The bodhisattva idea is not a Mahayana idea, it is pre-Mahayanist. It can be found in proto form in Jatakas and in some sutras as well (in the Chinese Tripitaka for example there is a sutra in the Ekottara where the Buddha teaches Maitreya the perfections, see EĀ 27.5). And of course in the Pali we have the Acchariyabbhutadhamma-sutta where the Buddha’s previous life in Tusita heaven is briefly discussed. The idea is discussed more extensively in Abhidharma texts of many Buddhist schools including Theravada. For more on this see wiki for bodhisattva, the early Buddhism section.

Thus, we don’t have to see Mahayana as some radical new development, but rather it is building on ideas that are already there in early Buddhism, but just are not fully developed.

They also took issue with some views of the Abhidharma project, and put those critiques in these sutras in the mouth of the Buddha, since this is what they thought the Buddha would say to these Abhidharma scholiasts.

I’ve also heard some scholars say that it’s possible these sutras first arose through visionary experiences, dreams and meditative visions. This is not unlikely, as some Mahayana sutras discuss dreams and various visionary episodes. This would also not be some revolutionary thing, as there it at least one EBT that discusses the Buddha’s dreams before his awakening…

So really, while Mahayana seems to be radically different from early Buddhism, it’s actually working from ideas which are already there in early Buddhism. We shouldn’t think there was some moment when some mistake or radical break was made and then seek to explain how that happened (was it a heretic? A jokester?).


The origin of the development of Mahayana teachings is also found in SA/SN, which is composed of the three angas, according Ven. Yinshun. SA/SN is the foundation of both the four āgamas/nikāyas, and the Mahayana Madhyamaka and Yogācāra’s essential teachings, including the devotional faith in both āgamas/nikāyas and Mahayanas.

Idk. I reshare jokes very easily: little willful effort required.

Are Shakespeare’s comedies poorly written?

Really? I was under the impression that the early Prajñāpāramitā / Madhyamica texts were not especially Mahayana in this sense, but were specifically refuting the Abhidhamma.

Not right away. But there’s a shorter path from lolz to cult than you may think: look at Q-Anon, etc.

Exactly. I’m talking entirely about the pre-Mahayana period here. I’m saying literally nothing at all about the Mahayana.

Exactly my point! :slight_smile:

Sure, but I’m attempting to make a distinction here as I think the Prajñāpāramitā, with its wordplay and irony, is quite different from the more “visionary” Mahayana Sutras. Again, at this period there was no unified “Mahayana” but different reactions to the changing circumstances.


Right, but in the ancient world, it takes a lot of effort to copy a text.

Regarding Shakespeare, I think that is a great point, however, if you look at the structure of the PP texts and what it actually says, it just does not look like a comedy at all. I am not sure if you’ve read Matt Osborn’s work on the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita sutra, but if not, I highly recommend it. Anyways, when I read this and the sutra itself, most of the content is just not humorous, but reads like its trying to communicate a genuine religious message across through a standard sutra like exposition (the Buddha said this, Subhuti replied that, etc).

Not really, the core message of all these sutras is the Bodhisattva ideal and Prajñāpāramitā itself. It’s really Nagarjuna that focuses on refuting certain specific Abhidharma ideas. But the PP sutras actually contain some Abhidharma content and lists and do not reject it wholesale (just the idea that dharmas have svabhava is rejected). This is actually a common misunderstanding in Western literature on Mahayana and it seems to arise from mixing up the ideas found in Nagarjuna’s works and the PP sutras (which of course, are related, but aren’t the same). Obsorn talks about this in his various essays on this topic, again, really worth checking this out if you haven’t.

Perhaps, but if there’s no evidence for this, then it seems more farfetched than the simpler explanation. Also, I think it would be an uncharitable reading of what ancient Buddhists were up to, I mean, you’d basically be saying that these people who wrote what some consider to be beautiful and insightful works of literature were so deluded that they could not tell what was initially a joke/conspiracy theory.

Hmm, I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think that Prajnaparamita sutras are that different than the other Mahayana sutras. PP texts have stories and visionary elements like other Mahayana texts as well, maybe not as wild as in other sutras, but they’re there. Likewise, the wordplay and irony is often even more pronounced in other Mahayana texts, like Vimalakirti etc.

With all this being said, let me throw my hat in the ring and say what my favorite pet theory is. Basically, I think Mahayana texts developed in literary groups of storytellers within the sangha, mainly people who memorized, composed and told Jataka tales as well as Avadanas (but perhaps other genres, like poetry, such as the Theragatha). These stories were already super popular by the time of the carving of the Bharhut Stupa railings (c. 125–100 BCE), which includes over 30 Jataka scenes). They are also found at Sanchi Stupa number 2.

Why do I think that? Well, this literature is where the idea of the bodhisattva is most often found in some of its earliest form. Also, many Mahayana sutras contain Jatakas inside of it, including the 8000 line PP sutra and the Bodhisattvapitakasutra (another very early and important Mahayana text, see Ulrich Pagel’s work on this). Thus, its possible that these communities of storytellers expanded these ideas of the bodhisattva over time, and that these became the core stories and ideas for the developed Mahayana sutras.

Basically, what I think happened was that, initially you have a group of storytellers that pass on and teach from Jatakas, Avadanas, and maybe poems on past lives of the Buddha and other people. These were seen as useful ways of teaching basic Buddhist virtues to people in a popular fashion. These stories contain elements that were found in early Buddhism regarding the Buddha’s past lives and his various exploits on the way to Buddhahood.

Since these storytellers were already accustomed to editing and expanding stories in which the Buddha (in his previous lives) as well as other figures (maybe even early ‘bodhisattva’ figures like Maitreya and Vajrapani, both of which are already found in the early suttas, albeit briefly) speaks, then it would not have been strange for them to keep doing this in different formats and to get creative. This job already attracted the creative people in the first place, the poets, the writers, the storytellers. They’re more liberal than the rest of the sangha, more open to new ideas and innovation and so they did what creatives do, they create new stories.

As time went on, these became very popular (depicted on Bharhut and Sanchi even!), people wanted more stories, they also became inspired by the bodhisattva ideal, they wanted to learn how to become like these superheroes (bodhi-satvan, satvan means hero in early Sanskrit, a possible etymology of the word!). So the storytellers get more creative and compose more stories, spin offs from the initial universe (like today’s superhero franchises) which expands on various topics that people want to hear about (how long does it take to become a Buddha?, how exactly does one become a bodhisattva? how do you practice the paramitas?). This inspires even more stories, which, by now, have become quite an ‘expanded universe’, but retain the same basic ideas (the perfections, the bodhisattva path, etc). This is a bit like the original Star Wars and its massive expanded universe (or any other modern franchise). It happens because people ask for it, popular demand and because a creative class is ready to provide that.



Sure. It could be both. But my response was to@Khemarato.bhikkhu : “I can’t read this Prajñāpāramitā Sutra as anything other than parody”

While I no longer practice the Zen/Mahayana style and am grateful to practice in line with the EBTs, I know of many koans that were humorous while being profound teaching devices.

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This pet theory of yours explain the rise of Bodhisattva ideal, the superiority of Bodhisattva compared to Listeners, and the expanded cosmology of many different Buddha and Bodhisattva.

But it didn’t explain the quite sophisticated formulation of dharma in those sutra. It is agreed that one of the earliest Mahayana sutra is the PP, and it is quite dense in explaining the six paramita, especially how the perfection of wisdom of Bodhisattva is superior, because it is about sunyata etc. Also that it actually contain critique against the doctrine of svabhava.

Well, maybe that group of storytellers grab one of the humorous text lying around in the next room, composed by monks in the abhidharma group, and then fit the teaching inside new narrative? :smiley: