The Cosmic Joke behind Enlightenment

By Chad Foreman on Sunday January 19th, 2020

Image: Denis Agati

Is Seeing the Humour in Enlightenment the Key to Finding It?

The great cosmic joke is that you are what you are seeking. All the religious and spiritual seeking on this planet and you end up back where you started. If that’s not a fantastic joke worth a good belly laugh I don’t know what is. We all look for happiness, peace and fulfilment in the things of the world, yet all along these things are our very nature – our very own centre of being. Meditation masters and mystics throughout history have seen the joke of it as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.

Have We Been Taking Enlightenment Too Seriously?

The Buddhists have been onto the joke for a while, their main training is to not take things seriously. What else is being unattached than a great sense of humour? Buddha realised that all conditions of the world are temporary and taking any of it too seriously creates suffering.

I’m not sure how humans made such a big a deal out of this simple truth but it’s because everyone else was taking things seriously and causing a lot of problems for themselves they held up Buddha to be all enlightened, worshipped him, created another religion and over the years have mostly missed the basic point. Another Buddhist meditator, Longchenpa, realised this simple truth again some two thousand years later and said:

Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.

Alt text hereThe Buddhists have been onto the joke for a while. Image: Nishant Aneja

What about the warning from spiritual teachers that every single thing you imagine yourself to be is a clever lie constructed by a psychological defence mechanism against the existential truth of transiency.  In other words, you are not who you think you are. That’s pretty funny, isn’t it? However laughing about it, not taking yourself seriously, is another wonderful coping mechanism to be able to digest such seemingly harsh truths. As Longchenpa says, you may as well burst out laughing,  or as a modern Zen master Adyashanti explains:

We realize–often quite suddenly–that our sense of self, which has been formed and constructed out of our ideas, beliefs and images, is not really who we are. It doesn’t define us, it has no centre.

I have watched hundreds of spiritual teachers and the best ones have a common trait – they giggle a lot. Even my main Buddhist teacher, an intellectual giant in the Gelug-pa Tibetan Buddhist tradition, would consistently forecast his arrival into the temple with bouts of laughter. Another favourite teacher of mine is Alan Watts whom you can’t watch for 5 minutes without getting to hear his infectious cackling and the current Dalai Lama is almost famous for his warm giggle. Alan Watts once remarked:

People suffer only because they take seriously what the gods made for fun.

Laughter and humour are not just frivolous. They can be sharp tools to cut through the bullshit. Sometimes in society, it’s the comedians who are the only ones telling the truth. Not the politicians, not the priests and not even the school teachers but the people who can step back and see the ridiculousness of current affairs. In fact, more and more people are getting their truthful political information from The Late Show and from comedians like the late Bill Hicks and George Carlin, who would deliver sobering doses of reality which was actually very true and therefore very funny. Comedians often point to the discrepancy between how we think things are and how they actually are, fortunately, that evokes laughter, unfortunately, people tend to go back to living a lie after the laughter subsides.

Alt text hereLaughter is so healing. Image: Savannah Dematteo

The enlightened fool is the one who sees the ego trips of society and can still find joy and laughter in its midst. The fool is often the enlightened one, the one with crazy wisdom, with laughter and jokes as their weapon, they cut through the mundane conformity and bring to light the latent child like bliss bubbling just beneath the surface of all seriousness. The fool possesses a wisdom that is out of reach of the conformist. A playful attitude in touch with enormous amounts of creativity.

Humour is also extremely healing, they say laughter is the greatest medicine and it’s true. It can also ease the stress and tension of daily life, reduce boredom at work and unite people of different backgrounds. Everybody takes themselves and others too seriously.

So if humour can heal, relax, unite people, undo the ego and entertain all at the same time that sounds enlightening enough for me.

Which brings me to the laughable way most people understand enlightenment, that is an enlightened person is a perfect person. Perfect virtue, perfect love, perfect knowledge and as a meditation teacher jokes even perfectly smelling sandalwood farts. This idea of the perfect person is a joke and does not exist in reality. It creates cults of worship around people who are seen as perfect and just stresses the rest of us out with guilt for not living up to these idealistic fantasies.

If Nietzsche declared ‘God is dead’ and Zen Buddhists urge us to ‘kill Buddha in the street’ I would like to add if you believe in a perfect Guru – slap yourself across your face, and see if it doesn’t hurt. That’s reality. Reality is perfect because it can deliver all range of human emotions from sadness and despair to elation and joy. Trying to just have perfect emotions and a perfect life only invites a massive come down of disappointment. As Alan Watts says, you cannot have up with down or even right without wrong.

Alt text hereHow enlightening it is to be yourself! Image: Aa Dil

All You Have to do is Be Yourself

So all that’s left is to just be your natural self. As someone once said if you can laugh at yourself you will never be short of material. Or as one of my favourite Zen teachers Brad Warner says:

The state of ambiguity – that messy, greasy, mixed-up, confused, and awful situation you’re living through right now – is enlightenment itself.

Another cosmic joke is that we will all die. This is not scary it is reality. Of course, religions have made a business out of promising you that there is life after death and there are consequences to all your actions after death, the fear of fire and brimstone or the desire for virgins in heaven are potent motivators to act responsibly in our lives and also a powerful invocation to take the priests, churches and traditional lineages seriously. It’s the oldest trick in the ‘book’. But it’s time to grow up and be able to act responsibly without the need for fairy tales. We live, we love, we grow, we die. That’s absolutely beautiful and enchanting enough. As Osho says:

Life as it is should be enough of a reason to laugh. It is so absurd, it is so ridiculous. It is so beautiful, it is so wonderful. It is all sorts of things together. It is a great cosmic joke.

So where does the cosmic joke lead us? Back to where we started; to the unadulterated pure joy of just being alive – laughing for no reason and grinning like a mad hatter. Life becomes play instead of a chore, a cosmic dance on the needle head of eternity.


Have you ever tried laughter yoga? Or had an experience where humor and laughter have helped you in some way? Please tell us about it in the comments below and share the joy!

Much love and laughter to you all,


How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.



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38 Responses to The Cosmic Joke behind Enlightenment

  1. While the joke is indeed identity realized, it’s only half enlightenment. Absolute is a Father of sorts, raising relatives to itself. An all good Father has a problem in multiplicity, so Samsara is the set and setting for cultivation of the only hope unity has for returning a soul to unity. You see, there can be no unity of absolute apart from the nature of absolute love for relatives, which is why the three jewels are Buddha (awakened identity), Dharma (awakened love) and Sangha (awake to oneness of relatives). Half enlightenment may be a joke, but the required nature is cultivation and struggle through compassion’s journey. No joke to reach the goal, but only great joy when complete.

  2. I would like to know where this quote about the cosmic joke from Thich Nhat Hanh came from. Did he publish it in a book? I would like to include this quote in a publication.

  3. I pretty much agree with all of this, but playing devil’s advocate, I would surmise it might sound like a load of garbage to anyone who has spent a lifetime in prison in an authoritarian state or similar nightmarish unending (until death) torture. That’s where Buddhism comes up short for me I guess. If you can figure out how to get a person being tortured on a daily basis and having their beautiful mind gradually destroyed to find it all amusing then I will salute you.

    • This is a very valid point Rob, sometimes these philosophies and ideas aren’t always necessarily easily applied. Thank you for bringing this up.

      Team UPLIFT

    • In reality, it sounds like to load of garbage to many people with far less extreme circumstances 😉
      No matter the circumstances one finds themselves in, the joke remains, it’s just that the veil mind/body creates may be more difficult to break in some situations. Consider the one who has every creature comfort available and has no reason to look beyond the veil. They will miss the joke, too. Those tortured by external forces have a great excuse for missing the joke but those torturing themselves on the inside are a tragedy.

  4. This is such a great article, thank you for the reminder. I have always had a weird sense of humour and it can get you through the clouds but sometimes we forget. I did take a one day laughter workshop which was a lot of fun but also interesting. We were in a field with horses as our backdrop. First we did a walking meditation as the sun just began to set. We stood in a circle but as we laughed began to walk around laughing as we walked. My stomach hurt. My heart felt light. I have been through dark times and this is a wonderful exercise. One of the things that stood out was how inhibited one man was. He simply could not do it. He was embarrassed, couldn’t let himself go. Very serious. We didn’t care. But I would have liked to chat about it openly. We didn’t obviously.

    I attended Kadampa Buddhist workshops for about a year. My teacher left and it wasn’t the same. His joy and caring was immense. I was really able to make a shift during a difficult period with his help. Part of my journey. Namaste.

    • We’re so glad the article spoke to you Susan, and thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Well done for embracing the journey, in all its ups and downs 🙂

      Team UPLIFT

  5. Yes, thank you for sharing. Understood this without religion. Yes, life is absolutely beautiful when you see it with your real eyes!
    Yes, I spend most of my time laughing at my self!!! 🤣🤣🤣

  6. So true! I feel the danger may be if one imagines oneself to be spiritually enlightened, one may become spiritually arrogant. I live in Southern Spain where there is a huge cult around the Virgin Mary and Christ. Every Easter, I see people worshipping statues, even crying hysterically and it is so easy to feel pity for them and to wonder what it is they actually seek. But pity is a form of arrogance, specially spiritual pity. It is a way of saying “I am spiritually far ahead of you”. So thank you for that article, I won’t go out and laugh at these folk but it does make me realise that each person develops in their own time and way and I should look to myself and my development and take it all lightly.

  7. Just Love this ( I need to change my concepts immediately) Laughed ( my way thru this message since I’ve been a Diligent searcher for enlightenment) and will now go back to Living Living and Laughing … ….that’s IT🥰

  8. I’ve tried laughing yoga. I didn’t believe it could possibly work. It did! It made me see so clearly that happiness is a choice.
    Thank you for reminding me.
    I forget to laugh 😊

    • Laughter yoga is quite amazing, isn’t it? I’m glad you had this experience also Janet 🙂 Much love to you on your journey.

      Team UPLIFT

  9. acintya beda beda tattva , bengali, we are simultaneously and inconceivable one, and different from God . we are never God, but we may learn to love God and become eternally happy. we never die . bhagavad gita as it is .

  10. I used to lead sessions of laughter in a Yoga class. One way to get it going with a group is to first just exhale fast – HA. Then twice HAHA. Then, you guessed it – 3 times HAHAHA. And just keep building. It becomes hilarious and very energising.

  11. Great thought. If you ever want to develop this piece I’d love you to give a bit of humour, the sort of jokes kids love, they stay in the memory.
    Plus, and some of your commentators have mentioned this: embracing the perfection of Now, because it all as it should be, rather as if we are actors starring in some great play or drama or comedy we have written for ourselves.
    Knock knock
    Who’s there?
    Hatch who?
    Bless you!

  12. The point of enlightenment is to recognize the truth of life, that we are Infinite Beings who have created the finite body to go thru lifetime experiences to finally see that all is energy, we and everything else is energy. That energy we all share fills all space and the Universe and is Love. Check galacticmessenger.com.

    • That’s an interesting viewpoint, but what about the Christians for example? I don’t believe that this is their paradigm? Many different cultures and traditions differ from this thinking. Are you one to believe that the many different paradigms exist in their own right, or that they have just got it wrong?

  13. Hello,

    I recently read that whatever is funny, there is a deep lesson. And these jokes proved it to be true. Really meaningful and deep inside. Especially, Alan Watts made my day.

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