The translation is not exact. Atisha's whole meaning is: Don't gossip about people with a deliberate intention to hurt them, because that is not really joking, that is not fun, that is not humorous. Atisha can't be against the sense of humor, it is impossible. No man of his intelligence and awareness can be against the sense of humor. In fact, it is people like Atisha who have given the best religious humor to the world. Atisha comes from Gautam Buddha's tradition-the same lineage as the Zen people. And Zen is the only religion which has accepted humor as prayer. It is not possible, not possible at all, that Atisha had no sense of humor.
Then the sutra cannot be really against jokes. It is against hurting people. What he is saying is going deeper into the psychology of the joke, into the rationale behind the joke. It is what Sigmund Freud did one thousand years later. Sigmund Freud thinks that when you joke about somebody there is every possibility that you are aggressive, that you have anger, that in a vicarious way you are pretending to be humorous but you really want to be offensive.
But that cannot be decided by anybody else from the outside; only you can be the judge. If there is a deliberate effort in your mind to offend somebody, to hurt somebody, if it is violence disguised as humor, avoid it. But if it is not violence but just a pure sense of humor, the sense of fun-the sense of not taking life seriously, not taking it too seriously, then there is no problem.
If I meet Atisha some day, I am going to teach him a few jokes. And my feeling is he will enjoy it. Jokes can be just pure humor without any violence in them. Sometimes on the surface one may think there is some violence, but the point is not what others think, the point is what your intention is. It is a question of intention. You can smile with an intention to offend, then smiling becomes a sin. Anything can become a sin if deep down the desire is to do violence. And anything can become virtue if deep down there is a desire to create more joy in life, more laughter in life.
My own understanding is that there is nothing more valuable than laughter. Laughter brings you closest to prayer. In fact only laughter is left in you when you are total. In everything else you remain partial, even in lovemaking you remain partial. But when you have a really heartfelt belly laugh, all the parts of your being-the physiological, the psychological, the spiritual-they all vibrate in one single tune, they all vibrate in harmony.
Hence, laughter relaxes. And relaxation is spiritual. Laughter brings you to the earth, brings you down from your stupid ideas of being holier-than-thou. Laughter brings you to reality as it is. The world is a play of God, a cosmic joke. And unless you understand it as a cosmic joke you will never be able to understand the ultimate mystery.
I am all for jokes, I am all for laughter.
Atisha has been wrongly translated. What he actually means is: Don't be violent, even in your words. Even while joking, don't be violent, because violence breeds more violence, anger will bring more anger, and it creates a vicious circle that has no end.