Clown + Zen. The Three Tenets

The Three Tenets-Zen Perspective.
During conversations with Roshi Egyoku, we looked at the parallels between clown and Zen. One that comes up is how Roshi Bernie Glassman’s Three Tenets can be applied to the spontaneous aspects of clowning…

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Moshe with Boobysatva (Bernie) at ZCLA 07. photo: kuku

Bernie is known as a pioneer in the American Zen movement. One element he has brought to the Zen world is the practice of street retreats and the Retreat at Auschwitz Birkenau. His approach on how to take on these retreats are to follow these Tenets.

Not Knowing-Open space of not knowing.
Bearing Witness-Deep listening
Loving action, healing action. Roshi Egyoku commented that this is really is a Unifying Action-Action that serves the whole.

The practice of Not Knowing involves letting go of all preconceptions and knowledge, so as to bring full awareness to the situation at hand. As preparation for the 5 day retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau, one is required to prepare by watching films, and reading books about what took place during the holocaust. Once in the retreat, however, one is asked to let all that knowledge fade out, and the focus is on awareness in the present moment; what feelings sitting in this place calls up. The witnessing triggers the recall of some of the knowledge one has accumulated, at the appropriate times.

A further question to Egyoku about the origins of these Three Tenets brought this explanation:

These three tenets are derived from the 3 pure precepts of Buddhism but the language was such that we thought that needed to be recast.

Do Not do Evil-do not separate yourself out
Do Good-Deeply Listening to what is going on .
Do Good for others. What is the action that serves the whole.

The Three Tenets-Clown Perspective

A Clown performance is very much a constant practice of the three tenets. The performer is usually at his or her best when they are completely present on stage playing the moment, in other words they are not thinking about what they are doing next, or what comes next. One can say that this thinking would take them out of the place of Not Knowing/Bearing Witness but even more important, the audience can feel this slight absence of the performer’s presence.

Another aspect for a clown performer, and one of the greatest delights, is when an unexpected situation occurs, and everyone in the room is aware of it. The focus on what will happen next is usually palpable in the room. If the performer operates from instinct and intuition, the situation becomes an opportunity for great humor to be shared in the room.

These three tenets speak to one’s ability to allow one’s intuition to guide the performer’s actions:

Not Knowing: An unexpected moment in a clown performance. The audience notices the clown noticing

Bearing Witness: The Clown operates from a place of not knowing, and bears witness to the situation at hand.

Loving Action: Operating from instinct, wishing to uplift the audience, the clown’s resulting actions are most often unifying actions ,as the humor involved is both a loving action, and the laughter it generates serves the whole unifying the audience through laughter.
A good example is a story from Cirque Du Soleil’s Kooza performance last weekend (as told to me by my friend Maica). In the show there is a wonderful pickpocket number. The Magician goes into the audience looking for a volunteer to bring up on stage. That evening, the performer chose a man who really was uncomfortable. Once on stage, as the performer was addressing the audience, the man eyeing a back staircase escapes the stage and starts to make his way back to the seat, a spotlight following him through the audience. The performer caught by the situation spontaneously launches into a spiel about how that volunteer wasn’t quite right and he is going to find a better one. The evening before, the show I saw, the volunteer stayed on stage and participated in the act. The volunteer taking off, according to Maica, was very funny, as the Pickpocket worked the situation for maximum comic effect.
Moments of spontaneity in Clown performance hold such strong humor potential as the audience becomes doubly keyed in to see what will happen NOW.

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