The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Shozomatsu Wasan 54

Those who deeply entrust themselves
To Amida's Vow of great compassion
Should all say Namu-amida-butsu constantly,
Whether they are waking or sleeping.

Laughter & Tears


One of the great characters of our Australian wildlife is the handsome kingfisher (bird) that we call a kookaburra. In Coffs Harbour, where some of my family live, it was said by the original inhabitants that the sun would not rise except at the command of the kookaburra.

Kookaburras have a call that sounds uncannily like human laughter. It has an added sense of hilarity because it has a wheezy sound - as though the kookaburras are laughing at something that is so absurd that they cannot contain themselves, and that their laughter makes them breathless.

The laughter of kookaburras, indeed, always reminds me of the extreme poignancy of humour because, when humour is genuine and pure in intent, it accommodates a sense of deep hurt and pain alongside the absurdity of existence. When such laughter is shared, it responds to an inner pathos - and sense of irony - that defies description.

As it happens, the kookaburra clan of Coffs Harbour laugh about twenty minutes before sunrise. Whenever I hear them, I think of the way that the ancient nembutsu sage and military officer Chang-lun1 suggests that 'moments of the early morning' are the best environment for saying the nembutsu. This has become a tradition of the Pure Land way that has continued until the present day. Such associations make it impossible not to get out of bed early and spend some time chanting nembutsu. When I am in Coffs Harbour the kookaburras have become a living temple bell since long ago.

Although the association of the call of a kookaburra and human laughter is an outrageous form of anthropomorphism, there is something remarkable about the way that the sound of their laughter encourages me, at least, to think about the role of humour and laughter in human affairs. Like a swathe of other human activities, laughter is, at best, rather equivocal in its meaning and significance. Indeed, like other, most innocent activities, it is subject to distortion and derangement. For example, when laughter is associated with cruelty and derision, it becomes an entirely different thing, when compared with a shared and communal sense of absurdity.

Satire, sarcasm, ridicule and derision often lack the pure joy of genuine humour. True humour takes no victims and causes others no pain. It is refreshing and always a source of exhilaration. It can include the shared pain of an ethnic - or other identifiable - group of people, or a paradoxical story about the dilemmas and ironies of existence.

The trigger for laughter is almost always inscrutable. It often emerges from shared intangibles and inferences. Humour is at its best when it is ironic and it is the things that are left unsaid that lead to laughter.


It seems to me that there are selfish tears and true tears. Selfish tears arise from self-pity, a sense of rage and injustice about things that lead us to feel impotent. We all know all kinds of tears but the tears that have the most piquancy and depth are tears of shame. Unlike laughter there is little we can do to control tears or our reasons for shedding them. They arise from something slightly deeper than laughter and, whereas we can walk away from derisive or cruel jokes if we want to - jokes that demean us and others -, tears almost always take us by surprise.

Tears of self-pity are no different. At a funeral we rarely shed tears for the departed but from our own anxieties about death and the sadness of personal loss. It seems that such tears are deeply embedded in our mamalian organism. I have seen a cat cry at the death of her friend and I still wonder what her inner feelings could have been at that time. They must have been related to a sense of loss.

Tears of shame can also be the result of inner rage, but it is disappointment with ourselves for something ignoble or cruel that we have said, or done - or thought. Tears of shame and self-reproach are deeply personal but they invariably arise in the context of our relations with others. As we read in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, tears of shame define us as human. Although other species may be grieved by loss or disappointment, it is shame and self-reproach that distinguishes the human species. As the The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation says, one who does mot experience self-reproach at some time or another is barely human.


Laughter comes from a mysterious and inscrutable sense of irony, and tears from a greater depth that is integral to our existence: revealing truths about ourselves - and life - that show us things as they really are, and that we did not know were there. Both laughter and tears are only true when they emerge from our inner depths spontaneously and show us things that cannot fully be expressed in ordinary language.

Nembutsu is like both laughter and tears. It emerges in the context of sadness and joy, exhilaration and self reproach. It is integral to both laughter and tears and to our inner life. Like laughter and tears, it is spontaneous and comes to our minds when we see the play of light and darkness in ways that are ineffable and hard to describe.

1. CWS, p. 45

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