Laughter — the Best Medicine: What the Dalai Lama and Patch Adams Have in Common

Feature Contents

    Have you noticed how the Dalai Lama projects authority through laughter, with his charming chuckle and warm smile at every stop, in every situation?

    He’s always ready with the joke that makes large crowds gasp for breath as they laugh.

    This isn’t just an act of empathy with the people around him. Laughter connects us to the very universe itself at a deep level. This power is not limited to enlightened teachers.

    The Dalai Lama teaches by doing. Every teaching is liberally punctuated with the Dalai Lama's infectious, irresistible laughter.
    The Dalai Lama teaches by doing. Every teaching is liberally punctuated with the Dalai Lama’s infectious, irresistible laughter.

    The Dalai Lama, like the famous “laughter doctor” Patch Adams M.D. both emphatically believe in the power of laughter to heal, energize, enable, and inspire. The Dalai Lama famously laughs at every opportunity and often cracks jokes at his teachings. Patch Adams spent his entire life using laughter to comfort — and even heal — the sick.

    Patch Adams: trying to make laughter and compassion the core of “what medicine is”

    Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, M.D., took awareness of laughter as therapy to a new level of acceptance within the medical community as a valid treatment option. His life inspired the movie, Patch Adams. In his lifetime, he opened a free hospital to pilot a treatment regimen with thousands of patients — a hospital where the main element of common therapy was humor.

    “We’re trying to make compassion and generosity the centre core of what medicine is,” said Campbell about the Institute. [1]


    This hospital became the Gesundheit Institute, famous for volunteer programs with clowns going to hospitals, refugee camps, orphanages and prisons. Patch Adams is a living model for comedian Charlie Chaplin’s famous quote: “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” (For more on the scientific evidence for “laughter” as a prescription for health, see the last section of this feature.)


    The real-life Patch Adams demonstrated the real healing power of laughter and compassion.
    The real-life Patch Adams demonstrated the real healing power of laughter and compassion.


    Laughter’s Power: heal, banish, energize

    If you laugh when you are ill, you feel better. (Mom always said, “Laughter is the best medicine.) If you laugh in the face of sadness, you transform grief. If you giggle at your own stupidity, you learn wisdom. Laughter has the power to banish demons, both internal and external. If you smile in at the end of the day, you look forward to the next morning. Laughter is the ultimate magical power. If you can laugh, you are already a magician. If you tap into the magic of laughter, you have started on one of the paths to enlightenment.

    Video: “Laugh with the Dalai Lama”: When the Dalai Lama laughs, everyone laughs. It’s a form of mindful medicine.


    Mindfulness meditation pursues the blissful state of non-thinking, or rather, being in the present moment. Emptying the mind by sheer will is difficult, and methods include simply observing your thoughts, distraction, visualization, and mantra repetition.

    All of these methods achieve a blissful state. Yet, an easier path, one we pursue intuitively in our lives, is laughter. When we laugh, in that instant, we enter the state of “no thought” or emptiness, if only for a microsecond. With practice, laughter can be a powerful path to enlightenment.


    The power of laughter to heal

    Laughter’s power is of benefit to anyone, of any spiritual path:

    • science has proven that laughter is a genuine medicine, with real healing powers (various peer-reviewed articles and studies) [2]
    • laughter has the power to charm and influence those around you in daily life
    • laughter can extend life, and make those days truly worth living
    • laughter supports us on the eightfold path, teaching equanimity, compassion, patience, kindness (Metta) and supporting us along the difficult path.
    • laughter is beautiful.


    Lama Yeshe was famously happy.
    Lama Yeshe was famously happy.

    Laughter and Mindfulness

    Think about the moment of laughter. When you laugh, you are possessed by the laugh, in the present moment, no longer worrying about past or future. Laughter is a very powerful mindfulness meditation method. Thinking simply stops when you laugh. You experience genuine moments of no-mind.


    Mother Teresa, famous for her laugh, always left people feeling "happier."
    Mother Teresa, famous for her laugh, always left people feeling “happier.”


    Laughter Teaches Emptiness

    For those who “fear” the emptiness of enlightenment—often misunderstood to mean nothingness of extinction—laughter teaches us what true emptiness is. In that moment of pure laughter, our mind is still. It is empty. But it is bliss.


    Gelek Rinpoche of Jewel Heart often laughs during teachings.
    The beloved Gelek Rinpoche of Jewel Heart (recently deceased) often laughed during teachings.


    Laughter, in Buddhism, is a very powerful daily meditation. I think of the innocent child, always laughing and giggling, smiles coming as naturally as tears, but everything spontaneous and real. Isn’t this the goal of meditation? To seek what is the inner truth. What is real. To be in touch mindfully with the real you?


    Why do Enlightened Masters Laugh?

    Throughout history, enlightened ones are the ones readiest with the smile or laugh. From Gandhi to Mother Theresa to the Dalai Lama, the smile is what people remember first. Gandhi, through hunger strike and strife, was always ready to smile.


    The Dalai Lama in Australia teaching by example. He laughs at every opportunity.
    The Dalai Lama in Australia teaching by example. He laughs at every opportunity.


    The Dalai Lama who lost his entire country laughs more than most. The Dalai Lama suffered invasion, the death of his fellow monks as he fled Tibet, the ongoing struggle of his people, violence and bloodshed in his homeland. But he is the first person with the laugh and smile. That’s enlightened behaviour.


    My Teachers all Laugh and Smile

    From my root teacher through all the teachers I respect, one thing certainly connects them all. They are always willing to smile and laugh. If only it were so easy for the rest of us.

    Zasep Tulku Rinpoche teaching Mindfulness of Feelings at Mahamudra mini-retreat.
    Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, spiritual head of Gaden for the West and Gaden Choling always finds a reason to laugh in all his teachings.


    What happens between childhood and maturity, that we lose the spontaneous, ready, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute willingness to laugh? Stress, life, struggles, more stress, worry, clinging, on and on. But those who endured far more suffering than most of us—from Mahatma Gandhi to Mother Theresa to the Dalai Lama—were always the ones able to laugh and smile in any situation.

    Laughter is also energy. It has been called “the best medicine” and perhaps it must also be considered the best meditation.


    What do the Dalai Lama and Patch Adams M.D. have in common? They both believe in the power of laughter to heal.
    What do the Dalai Lama and Patch Adams M.D. have in common? They both believe in the power of laughter to heal.


    What Science says about laughter: “stress-relief, pain reduction, improved healing…”

    In an Official Publication of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, William Stream (PhD) concludes:

    “There are, however, several good reasons to conclude that laughter is effective as an intervention. Although the evidence (detailed below) demonstrating laughter’s benefits could be stronger, virtually all studies of laughter and health indicate positive results.” The evidence Professor Stream mention include “an exhaustive review of the medical literature.” [2]


    Patch Adams, M.D. uses laughter as a powerful medicine.
    Patch Adams, M.D. uses laughter as a powerful medicine.


    The article maps out extensive clinical evidence, including randomized controlled clinical trials, “validating the therapeutic efficacy of laughter” particularly in the fields of geriatrics, oncology, critical care, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care and broad general patient care.

    The great Mahatma Gandhi laughing.
    Mahatma Gandhi laughing.


    Groucho Marx once said, that ‘A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.’ Patch Adams would certainly agree.

    Laughter Researcher: “get all the laughter you can!”

    Robert Provine, a well-known researcher on laughter said, in the documentary “Laugh Out Loud”:

    “Until scientists work out the details, get in all the laughter you can!”

    Provine is Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, an Assistant Director of the Neuroscience Program, and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. [3]


    [1] The Gesundheit! Institute, Founded by Patch Adams M.D. 

    [2]  “Laughter prescription”, Official Publication of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, William Stream (PhD) 

    [3] Laughter, A Scientific Investigation, Robert Provine, Viking, ISBN-10: 0670893757; ISBN-13: 978-0670893751 




    More articles by this author

    The very face of compassion, Metta personified in glorious Avalokiteshvara, the compassionate Buddha.
    Avalokitesvara compassion practices can “enhance treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma” say some scientists and clinicians. For the rest of us, his compassion brings us closer to bliss and wisdom.
    Thangka depicted the 15 days of Buddha's miracles.
    15 Miracles and 15 Days: Chotrul Duchen, the Day Buddha’s Great Miracles: Buddha, reluctant to use miraculous powers, displayed 15 miracles to help correct the errors of six prideful teachers
    Practicing generosity creates positive karma. Here, a kind lay-Buddhist gives alms to three monks who, like the Buddha, eat only before noon and only from food given to them. Merit for good deeds is an intuitive concept in karma.
    Karma is Not Fate: Why Karma is Empowering. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can we escape the wheel of suffering?
    The great Lotus Born, Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, the second Buddha.
    Padmasambhava Guru Rinpoche’s condensed “all teachings into one — which is concise and easy to practice”at the time of death: as requested by Lady Tsogyal
    Shakyamuni Buddha teaches Singala the householder, instructing him in Buddhist responsibilities from a Lay person's point of view.
    Buddha: How to protect wealth, associate with virtuous friends and relate to your spouse, employer, children: guidance for lay practitioners in Sigalovada Sutta
    Shakyamuni Buddha teaching.
    11 essential subjects for meditation according to The Sutra on the Eight Realizations

    Please Help Support the “Spread the Dharma” Mission!


    Be a part of the noble mission as a supporting member or a patron, or a volunteer contributor of content.

    The power of Dharma to help sentient beings, in part, lies in ensuring access to Buddha’s precious Dharma — the mission of Buddha Weekly. We can’t do it without you!

    A non-profit association since 2007, Buddha Weekly published many feature articles, videos, and,  podcasts. Please consider supporting the mission to preserve and “Spread the Dharma." Your support as either a patron or a supporting member helps defray the high costs of producing quality Dharma content. Thank you! Learn more here, or become one of our super karma heroes on Patreon.

    Josephine Nolan

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.

    Invalid Email
    Buddha-Weekly-Latest Features on Buddha Weekly-Buddhism
    Buddha-Weekly-Buddhist prayer feature on Buddha Weekly-Buddhism
    Translate »
    Scroll to Top