On being silly at the dinner table

orange peelA sample chapter from my book, Coming Home: Refuge in Pureland Buddhism.

Every Friday evening, the temple residents eat together. The people who live here are more or less involved with the Buddhist activities here, and so this meal gives us an opportunity to meet with each other at least once a week, in this big building where we might go for days without bumping into each other. People take turns to cook a vegan meal, and I usually fail to refuse a second portion.

The conversation tends to be light. We tell each other bad jokes and we make up puns. We tease each other with fondness. It has somehow become a tradition that we play a game where we all guess the answer to a random question – how long does it take frogspawn to turn into frogs? How many billionaires are there in the world? How many flavours of crisps are there? – before asking Google for the answer. This can lead to intense competition…

I sometimes experience moments of self-consciousness when guests from outside of the temple join us for these meals. What will they think of us? Should we be discussing the Dharma, checking our behaviour against the precepts, or eating in contemplative silence? Should we be a bit more Buddhist-ish and a bit less, well, silly?

It was a relief to read Jean Vanier’s ‘Community and Growth’, which describes life in his L’Arche communities for people with developmental difficulties and those who support them. He says that where he lives, when they have oranges with their communal meal, it has become a custom to throw the peel at each other afterwards. He speaks of the delight of suddenly finding a curl of orange peel on one’s nose. This once even happened when a Bishop was present. He says:

“True belly laughs are important in community life. When a group laughs in this way, many pains are swept away. Laughter is something very human. I am not sure if angels laugh! They adore. When human beings are too serious they become tense. Laughter is the greatest of relaxations. And there is something funny about humanity. Little as we are, poor as we are, with all our ‘animal’ needs, we are called to become more than angels; brothers and sisters of God, the Word made flesh. It seems so ludicrous and wonderful, so crazy and yet so ecstatic. And the most rejected are called to be at the heart of the Kingdom. Everything is upside down. No wonder some people at sacred moments have the giggles.”

There is plenty of seriousness here in our community. The Dharma is at the heart of everything we do. We bow to each other in the shrine room, and we greet each other warmly with ‘Namo Amida Bu’ in the hallway. The shrine room flowers are arranged with care, and the same care is taken when we water the plants, clean the guest toilet and hoover the carpets. We touch into these sacred moments when we eat too – when we say grace at the beginning of the meal, when we ask each other how we are doing, and when we help each other to clear away the dirty dishes.

But if they throw orange peel at each other in Jean Vanier’s inspiring communities, then I shall continue telling bad jokes without compunction. I will fondly remember the time in service when the celebrant got something wrong and we all broke into giggles and couldn’t stop. I shall trust that there is a time for lightness, and that belly laughs leaven our community here. One of the things that most attracted me to my teacher, Dharmavidya, was the frequency of his hearty chuckle. Maybe others will be drawn to the Dharma by our silliness. Have you heard the one about the Buddhist hot dog seller?

Read the introduction to the book here, or endorsements of the book (with links to buy) here.