When I was a kid, in the suburbs of Atlanta, the concept "demon-slaying laugh" was nothing I had encountered yet. Yes, I knew about snorting ginger ale out your nose while watching Monty Python. Yes, I knew about mocking Mr. Hell Toupee, after Bible class. I knew that sometimes the elements of the world could come together in combinations that wrestled something out of the body that went far beyond the yes/no/I don't know menu that school and home life seemed to require. But a demon-slaying laugh? No, that I hadn’t come up against. It hadn’t shown up in academic subjects, at Mass (which involved zero laughter), in PE class, or in the informal curriculum of my self-conscious, unconscious immigrant family.
Someone found out that a troupe of Tibetan monks was coming to perform at the Academy of Medicine. Of course, medicine is exactly what the monks were, but at the time, the location just seemed odd and interesting. REM and the B-52s played at the Fox; bigger acts were in stadiums; and scruffy punk bands had their own beer-sticky venues, half-glimpsed in the dark of all-ages shows. But the Academy of Medicine – a small Greek temple, respectfully surrounded by neat azaleas and parking lot – was something new.
My whole family decided to go. This is worth looking at, because, like any rebellious teenager, I was convinced that my parents were total idiots who hated me, and I knew I hated them. Had this been true, I doubt they would have forked over the hefty whatever-it-it was, and agreed to make a family outing of it. Maybe they were intrigued. My mother had loved all things Tibetan from girlhood, reading Tintin au Tibet and Le Troisième Oeuil. Her grandmother had some kind of Buddha on the mantlepiece in the living room, which once disgorged countless tiny prayer scrolls from a hidden cavity. My father did not seem Tibet-curious, but who knows? He may have been the one to find out about the monks in the first place, through the university where he taught electrical engineering. We all went.
Polite audience, good clothes, thick carpet. This I had all encountered before, on expeditions to the Atlanta Symphony, where my parents had season tickets, and to which they brought my brother and I for expensive naps from time to time. I could recognize some of the beauty of that music, but the passivity of being in the audience in that venerable hall never failed to bring me to sleep. I came to believe that the velvet upholstery was basted in unconsciousness, permeated with it. Anyway. Until the monks came out, everything seemed more or less familiar, even though their origin story – learned people exiled and dispossessed from their homeland – interested me.
Then they appeared. Tasseled, hatted, rainbowed, with long brass fart-o-phones, with skull-staffs, with masks both terrifying and splendid. That was all for the eyes. With deep rumbling of voice, high fluting, and clashing of symbols, for the ears. With expansion of body-space, throat, and belly – a visceral sense of breadth, joining and possibility. I knew, right then, in my fifteen-year-old body – that what they were up to concerned me, too, somehow. The leap I couldn’t make in a symphony concert – to seeing in the musicians’ prowess some sign of my own potential – for some reason I could manage, witnessing these monks in their wild saffron smurf-hats and heavy wine-colored cloaks. What they had to say to me was the equivalent of a two-hour immersion in demon-slaying laughter.
Don’t believe what you think you are.
Don’t believe what others tell you you are.
Don’t look to vengeance and competition for what you are.
Expand! Open! Drop your poisons into space and see them changed.
Those voices, which could be in two or three different places at the same time, meeting, writhing and dancing together, male and female, shook open man-roles and lady-roles, pretty and ugly, me and you. Also, unlike ballet, which I'd already been ejected from, these dances stomped AND flew. They fought AND surrendered. They did not rely on anyone else to do the heavy lifting, or to be lifted. Each monk was his own partner, and the partner of all the others, as well as of some far larger harmony brought into being through their collective, multi-sensory, whole-hearted action.
Seeing the those monks that night, at fifteen, with my family, at the Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, was as much an experience of art as it was an experience of spiritual awakening. I knew, even then, in my bones, that these categories didn’t really make sense as separate pursuits. You don’t need a separate demon-slaying laugh to deal with religion, and another one for aesthetics, and a third for sexism, etc. A real, whole-being demon-slaying laugh takes care of all of this at once, with war, stinginess, racism, insecurity, and professional ambition all falling simultaneously, if you let them. If you let the laugh go deep, and do its work.
Art is matter, and so is religion, and so it goes for entheogens, falling in love, and aching heartbreak. Only the small versions of ourselves, hoping for protection from the full reach of the demons’ laughter, attempt to box our up experiences into categories. We want to keep the transformative potential of what we know separate from certain cherished reaches of our lives. We want to keep this over here, and that over there, and we don’t much like stories that ask, Who’s the demon around here, anyway?
It's true – the monks didn't physically move into my family’s living room, hanging out on the wicker armchairs and berber carpet, to aid the transformation of my being. They had other stuff to do, other minds to open, and further funds to gather for their resurgent monastic school. Also, there was no need, because I was already on my way to other transformative experiences: a single acid trip, the love of a sweet blond boy, a ticket to college emerging from a thin, white envelope.
When we turn our resources and attention exclusively to science, theory, or formal education, we are relying on reason alone to do the job of the demon-slaying laugh, and this is absurd. A lecture and slideshow about the monks would not have touched the parts of me that opened to their embodied courage and fierce truth – their voices, costumes, and choreography, and the penetrating force of their meditation practice. You can read recipes all day long, and never know a thing about how searing heat turns bubbly gloop into bread. You can feel fire, and never know the taste and feel of crust breaking into food.
That concert, that evening, those voices and moving bodies, that path. All called to me in ways that I have kept answering ever since, astonished by the pull of a demon-slaying, demon-disarming laugh that rises from the earth, rolling out from my body, as from yours, in great pealing waves.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now