A short look at Clown and Zen

here’s a short piece about parallels between these disciplines written in October, 2005

About Clown and Zen.

It might seem a complete paradox to offer up for consideration that there are strong parallels between the world of clown and Zen. One first might have to be a little more specific by narrowing it down to the world of European or Contemporary Clown, one who engages in performance in complicity with the audience.
It might seem like a paradox to search for similarities as Zen Buddhism is such a serious endeavor and clowning, well isn’t that about joy and laughter. The first clue that leads beyond the paradox is the sheer good natured ness of many Zen practitioners. The second clue might be how serious many clowns can be when they are off stage. The true nature of the similarities however lies more in the practice than in the practitioners.

One might say in general is that the main similarity between clown and Zen is that if you are you are thinking, then you are not where you want to be. In metaphysical terms one might say that it is an activity led by heart and spirit rather than intellect. There are several ways to break this down:

Listening. Attention, concentration. One major parallel between clown and Zen is the practice of listening and hence focus and concentration. In the world of Zen meditation, the practice involves placing ones attention on breath, on listening to one’s breath, and whenever thoughts arise, letting those pass so that one can bring one’s attention back to listening to one’s breath. In clown, one’s attention is also placed on listening, in this case to one’s performative energy and to the audience’s response to it, listening to how the audience is reacting to one’s actions, or inactions. If there is more than one person on stage, one is also listening to what one’s partners on stage are doing, or not doing, and how the audience is reacting to that.

In the moment. In Zen, and Buddhism in general, there is a strong emphasis on being in the moment, in other words not thinking about the future or the past but to live what is happening in the moment. Clowning has a similar emphasis the focus is to play what is happening in the moment. Whether it be something being generated by the clown or by the audience, the focus and potential humor is what is happening for everyone, audience and clown (s).

Light-Enlightenment . On a more esoteric level one might consider the goals of the two practices. The Clown seeks to bring lightness into the hearts and spirits of their audience. This is most often interpreted as laughter, however poetry, charm, beauty are also a form of light that the clown seeks to share with their audience. In their most powerful moments, the clown brings light into the darker emotions such as anger and sadness. One goal in the practice of Zen is reaching enlightenment, which perhaps could be interpreted as being full of light? En-lighten, to bring in the light. Could one be so bold as to suggest that these are similar paths?

Of course there are many differences in the practices, perhaps the most obvious being that where the meditator will let what arises dissipate, the clown may well seize that as an opportunity for action.

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