Laughter in the Afterlife

In the Seventies you could play a record backward and hear satanic messages. Since CDs, Satan’s been stumped by technology; he’s going to have to wait for some Japanese to go to hell and help him out

Brad Stine

If you haven’t read Okechimyaku yet then this would be a good time to go back and do so. Just click here, it won’t take long.

But if you’d rather read the cliff-notes’ version then here it is:

At the inner worship hall of Zenkoji Temple in Nagano Prefecture, is a Buddhist artifact called “Okechimyaku”, a kind of ink stamp traditionally used in Buddhist funeral rituals. For a pittance, bereaved survivors of bygone days had the Okechimyaku stamped on the forehead of the deceased, an act said to absolve the deceased of all sins and guarantee passage to Buddhist Paradise.

Thanks to the Okechimyaku, heaven is enjoying an economic boom as more “customers” are coming. In contrast, hell is in an economic slump since Paradise is now stealing their customers. This has brought about dire economic and social hardship in hell: devils are out of work; crime is on the rise; drug use is rampant.

In response to the crisis the bureaucrats of hell call a meeting to find the root cause and determine appropriate countermeasures. They conclude that the Okechimyaku is the cause of their woes, and enlist the talents of a legendary thief (in Kabuki theater), Ishikawa Goemon. They send Goemon to Zenkoji Temple to steal the Okechimyaku. Upon completion of his mission, Goemon congratulates himself in dramatic Kabuki fashion, does a formal bow, stamps himself on the forehead and is sent directly to Paradise.

This-Worldly Parallels

I love how this story portrays the afterlife and all its associated paradoxes. It brings the afterlife down to earth, just what you’d expect from a this-worldly lot like the Japanese–starting with the premise of the story: that heaven and hell are merely two tourist destinations competing for market share.

From this assumption, comedic logic dictates that the Okechimyaku stamp would give heaven a strategic advantage over hell. And it’s only natural that hell would employ its own advantage–thievery–in an attempt to neutralize the Okechimyaku advantage. The punch line doesn’t disappoint: an opportunistic Japanese thief makes his escape via the Okechimyaku–and foils hell’s grand plan in the process.

Interestingly, this-worldly parallels exist in the West. Just like the world of Okechimyaku, the late George Carlin loved applying this-worldly rules to the afterlife:

“…I was troubled at the time by the fact that my church would keep changing rules…Like eating meat on Friday was definitely a sin–except for the people in Philadelphia: ‘They were number one in the scrap iron drive!’ They would give it away as a prize!”

…It’s not even a sin anymore to eat meat on Friday. But I’ll bet you there are still some guys in Hell doing time on the meat rap. ‘I thought it was retroactive! I had a baloney sandwich! This guy had a beef jerky, right?’ How’d you like to do eternity for a beef jerky?”

Similarities and Differences

When it comes to the afterworld, Carlin has twice as much material to work with than comedians from Buddhist cultures, since the Catholics had not two, but four possible places to go: heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo. Carlin breaks it down for us:

…Heaven was always a lot of yellow and white light, lot of vertical lines. Lot of clouds. Might have been clouds, might have been apartment buildings; you weren’t really sure. And a lot of tall angels. Did you ever notice that? Except for the cherubs, all the angels were really tall dudes. And all blonde. They had far too many blondes in heaven as far as I was concerned.

Hell, they never showed you any pictures of Hell; Hell was real easy to understand. Hell was fire and anyone can dig fire, right? ‘Hey, Hell is like burnin’ a hundred Christmas trees an’ jumpin’ right in the middle!’

Purgatory was weird. Purgatory was temporary Hell. It was like it was as bad as Hell but you knew you were goin’ home. Often wondered if they had like, short time clubs in Purgatory. Little buttons- “I’m short two eons, man, hey. I could do an eon standin’ on my head…

The weirdest of all was Limbo. Limbo was where they sent un-baptized babies. The reasoning was, “It wasn’t their fault”. Yep. Can’t see God if you’re not baptized, but you were too young to make the decision- whip ’em into Limbo!

… I think they’ve since canceled Limbo. I’m not completely sure, but I think when they purged a few of the saints, they called off Limbo, too. Hope they promoted everyone, sent them to Heaven, didn’t just cut them loose in space!

I’ve heard Carlin say this many times over and it still makes me laugh. But what does it say about culture?

Final Thoughts

Digging below the superficial imagery, the most striking cultural difference we see is a major departure in assumptions about the meaning of death. In the West, death has moral significance: you are judged after you die based on the life you lived, no man-made loopholes to change God’s unbending will.

In Japan however, death has no moral significance: when you die you are automatically forgiven, as all deceased people are referred to as “hotoke-san” (“Honorable Buddha”). And that’s really what the Okechimyaku ritual was all about: a low-cost, man-made, moral loop-hole to make sure that anyone could get to heaven. Japanese optimism shining through!

The cosmic irony? What’s the point of  having hell in the first place, if anyone can get to heaven?

You have to wonder if maybe Nietzsche was onto something. Perhaps all humor is and always has been black? Could it be the magical elixir that alleviates our mortality blues, a built-in biological cushion that softens our existential loneliness? Are we any different from our primitive ancestors who stared death in the face and lived to grunt about it? Is it ultimately a clash between our inherent desire to live, and the undeniable reality that someday it will all be over?

The death angle sounds so philosophical, almost poetic. And it might have some merit. But it still doesn’t explain why monkeys love to tickle each other, or why babies giggle before they can talk. No metaphysical conjecture can capture the magic we call laughter. It’s possible we’ll never know what laughter and humor truly mean. And I’m okay with that. Dissecting humor is no laughing matter!

Still, it’s fun playing armchair philosopher and pondering the deep meaning of humor and why we laugh. But when all is said and done, I’m just in this for the laugh. And if I can get Japanese and American clients to laugh together along the way, then lucky me; I’ve got the best job in the world. 🙂

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010


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