Murder is abhorrent. Whatever one’s opinion of the Charlie Hebdo satirists and their line of work, the lethal violence against them was appalling. Yet, while Buddhism respects the protection of life as a cardinal value, alongside this vow stands a commitment to practice loving speech. Satire is an industry built around derision, mockery, and the intent to shame. This can involve techniques like irony, sarcasm, or even exaggeration of others’ weaknesses, and taking the opinions of others to logical extremes. In some senses, this is harmful speech, which Buddhists seek to avoid. Even so, satire (sometimes validly) purports to hold a mirror to the problems and hypocrisies of society and established structures—a form of tough love to embarrass the complacent to do better.
The common narrative around the Charlie Hebdo shootings was framed as a conflict between censure by violence and the right to aggressively disrespect the cherished beliefs of others. The former is of course unacceptable. Still, it is easy for not only Islam but also other traditions to be offended by the uncontrolled mass of material on television or in print, but this is particularly so with the Internet, where there is no limit to people seeking specific targets to insult. When one is subject to mockery regardless of intention, good advice can be found in Verse 64 of the sixth chapter in Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara: “Should others talk badly of or even destroy / Holy images, reliquaries and the sacred Dharma. / It is improper for me to resent it / For the Buddhas can never be injured” (Batchelor 1979, 29). In other words, being a target for even blasphemy should not give rise to anger.
For the Buddhist, there is one more question above all the socio-economic, cultural, religious, and geopolitical concerns, and that is whether the delicate art of satire can ever be reconciled with the Buddhist practice of loving speech. Can mockery and caricature be in any way beneficial to beings? And if so, why shouldn’t Buddhists deploy or express satire? Indeed, the Mahayana tradition has done it before. Perhaps the figure in Buddhism that comes closest to a punching bag is the monk Shariputra, who is mercilessly taken apart in the seventh chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra. Here, Shariputra is presented as the butt of Vimalakirti’s jibes. Depicted as a haughty and often ignorant fusspot, thanks to his attachment to Buddhist conventions he is easily goaded into the most basic of spiritual mistakes.
In the story, a majestic goddess appears and tosses flowers over the company gathered before Vimalakirti. While the petals and blossoms do not stick to the spiritually advanced bodhisattvas, they cling to everyone else, including Shariputra, who is unable to brush them off. “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off,” he complains. The goddess retorts that the flowers are indeed proper, for they have no constructual thought or discrimination. It is Shariputra, by contrast, who suffers from dualistic concepts and biases (Thurman 1976, 58–9).
Embarrassed and hoping to get one over on the goddess, Shariputra asks why she still possesses the inferior body of a woman if she is such an advanced being. Using powerful magic, she switches bodies with him, giggling: “Reverend Shariputra, what prevents you from changing out of your female state?” The flustered Shariputra therefore learns first-hand that all appearances are ephemeral, and admits that he does not know what there is to transform (Thurman 1976, 56–63). It would seem, then, that an understanding of non-duality and emptiness leads not only to enlightenment, but also to an appreciation of some light celestial teasing.
Balanced Buddhist satire today might follow the method of the Vimalakirti Sutra: a mixture of Horatian teasing of an individual’s frailties (such as Shariputra’s stuffy self-righteousness and indignant panic) and Menippean critique of wider institutional and societal attitudes (such as calling out the attachment to rules and regulations). Ethnic, cultural, or religious stereotyping should naturally be avoided, and the satirist’s guiding ethic that not everyone is equally targetable taken very seriously.
Humor will always have a unique way of holding power and hypocrisy to account. It is when satire begins dehumanizing “the other” (be “the other” another religion, individual, culture, or society) that it becomes unacceptable to Buddhist morality. The shadowy author of the Vimalakirti Sutra might have mocked Shariputra, but in his own curious way, he maintained respect for Shariputra by presenting him as the symbol of an institution that could benefit from change. In contrast, when satire relies on dehumanization for its punchline, it loses its power and may generate more ill will than constructive self-reflection.
There are limits to how beneficial insults can be, and the ethical satirist should always be sensitive to the distinction between edgy critique of ideas and low blows. More than ever, the basic intention to benefit beings must motivate an enterprise that, by definition, will engage in taunting or caricature. Perhaps “compassionate mockery” is best deployed only when there is a specific objective, like the goddess’s ridicule of Shariputra in the Vimalakirti Sutra. That objective is to tackle a fundamentally distorted way of seeing the world—the obscurations that veil our already enlightened nature. For the Buddhist, the cardinal error is in the separation of self and other that masks the direct perception of reality “as it is.”
Batchelor, Stephen. 1979. A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
Thurman, Robert A .F. 1976. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.