When it comes to religion, faith and spirituality, most people get pretty serious. If you want to wipe the smile off the faces in a crowd, all you have to do is say "Let us pray" - heads bow, eyes close and faces exhibit a stern, even severe expression. After all, praying is serious business and you don't take it lightly when you are talking to the Almighty. Religion is a serious and somber business.
A few years ago I had a chance to spend some time at a very large Buddhist monastery just outside Seoul, South Korea. My Korean colleague and I arrived at the monastery around lunchtime and joined the 100 monks who were having their mid-day meal. When we entered the dining hall, I noticed that the monks were obviously excited about something. As the conversation volume rose, I noticed some were pointing at us. I asked my Korean friend for a translation of what they were saying- why they were so excited? He laughed and said, "Oh they think you are the actor, Sean Connery. Old James Bond movies are big in this country."
Actually I don't think I look much like Mr. Connery, but I am an older Anglo male with a short white beard-so close enough.
Soon enough the word spread, that indeed I was not the celebrated actor, only a look-alike. I was just a Christian priest visiting from America. When they found this out, then the laughter began. First it was just a few small chuckles and then it spread into some pretty uproarious laughter. I can't remember laughing longer and harder than I did with all those monks who had confused me with Sean Connery. One by one they would come up and stand next to me so they could get a picture with the pseudo-celebrity in their midst. I am laughing even now as I think about the experience.
It was no surprise to me that Buddhist monks would be so light-hearted and laugh so readily. When you are on a spiritual path, you don't take your self too seriously. When you walk along any spiritual path, you live with less baggage, the burden is light.
We don't see too many portrayals of Jesus laughing, but we do know he went to lots of banquets and parties and wedding feasts. In fact, he compared the "Kingdom of God" to a wedding banquet. In his time that would have meant a 5 day party of eating, drinking and dancing. My guess is that Jesus laughed. He probably laughed a lot.
Buddhists display a statue of the laughing Buddha- depicted as a pot-bellied, jolly elf, like Santa Claus. He is not Gautama Buddha, but he is a Buddhist monk, and the "Laughing Buddha" is an icon and a reminder that laughter and lightheartedness are an integral part of an enlightened person's "Buddha nature."
In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad proclaims: "He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh."
The philosopher-psychologist, William James wrote:
We don't laugh because we are happy,
we're happy because we laugh.
As I walk my spiritual path, I want to laugh much and often. Religion, faith, spirituality- not really all that somber after all.