Clown + Zen. Listening and Connection. Conversations with Egyoku

This conversation with Roshi Egyoku took place during my six weeks (Jan-Feb 2007) as an artist in residence at the Zen center of Los Angeles. A few times a week, we would sit down for a half hour chat to examine the relationship of Clowning and Zen.

Egyoku questioning

Listening, a clown’s perspective.

Performing as clown involves listening to the whole that binds the stage/performer(s) and the audience, with all ones senses. Each performer plays this in his/her own way, but the general rule is that one plays in relationship to the audience’s response, expanding moments where the audience is responding strongly. Performers will share their listening to different degrees with the audience. ‘The fourth wall is broken down’ is often how clown is differentiated from traditional theater; the fourth wall referring to the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. How a performer plays this differs greatly, ranging from direct conversation and looks/playing with the audience, to much more subtle and semi hidden reaction to audience response.
The degree of listening complexities is one of the aspects of clown that appears attractive to Zen practitioners. One person on stage will be listening to what he/her is doing, what impulses are being generated and suggesting responses, and to how the audience is reacting to his/her actions. If the number of performers is two three or more, the degree of listening increases in reference to the number of permutations of relationships that are possible in that situation. Often the performer is listening to two or three variables while trying not to allow the brain to interfere with one’s intuitive humoristic responses and impulses.

Dialogue about Listening and Zen

Egyoku: You want me to say about listening, what’s there to say?
Listening would imply a subject and an object, I’m listening to your breath, to a sound , to a voice, to another person’s ideas. I think in Zen listening we would take it even a step further, in that we become what we are listening to, you would call it deep listening, so that you are listening from a place where there is no separation at all, it’s more of an embodied place than ‘I am listening to you” kind of thing. So in terms of the three tenets, that would be the bearing witness place, where we are completely identified, or at one with, whatever is manifesting.

Moshe: To be at one with, so when I recall the Auschwitz (5 day bearing witness retreat) experience, that everything is one, so that you are part of that, not separate from that.

E: Yeah, that you are that. In these brief moments, that is what we are , completely. So I guess you could say that there are different degrees of listening, so that would, in a way, be the most profound listening, where the self and other disappears completely. In a so called relative world, how we function normally, I am listening to you, I am hearing the sound, I am whatever, aware of how you might be feeling, that is a different kind of listening, an emotional listening maybe, kind of a sensitivity which has to do our awareness, but also our capacity to be impermeable, like we are a membrane.

M: In clown we don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole body..

E: Yeah

M: Theoretically you can say ears and eyes, but beyond that there is just a sense, you can feel what is going on, an awareness, and that is a kind of listening too.

E: So that is the whole body, the engagement of the entire body, we say a thousand hands and eyes. Is an expression, all over the body, hands and eyes.

M: that is a Buddhist expression?

E: We have a koan like that.

M: Interesting, I immediately draw a parallel to Ohno sensei, Kazuo Ohno, the great butoh dancer that I studied with. One of his exercises was just that, imagining that you have eyes everywhere on your body, and that they are all seeing, because…

E: Because you do. Oh so that we say deep listening is, is the awakening your eyes throughout the body.

M: Nice.

E; You were saying about butoh?

M: One of the aspects of butoh is the connectivity with space. You don’t cut through space, you move space, you are part of the space, you are not separate from the space. The space being the stage, the image the audience sees, you are part of that, intimately and intensely part of that.

There are different exercises one works with: one is to be conscious of every body action and make sure that you are moving space, connected to the space, not cutting through the space. Another is using your eyes, so seeing everything, 360°, and never losing any of that focus. Ohno sensei worked with the concept that you had eyes everywhere on your body, alive and seeing, so that one is conscious of every minute body movement.

E: That would be a great way to teach meditation.

A parallel to listening is to consider being connected, in the case of clown, with one’s audience.

Egyoku, speaking about the role of the clown:

A vehicle of …, channeling…. bringing forth life. Breaking out, relationship of life, sometimes it is a hidden relationship, sometimes it is the most obvious relationship. This is how I feel when I watch you work-you are connected and you are connecting in many different ways-you are connecting with the person or the circumstance, and you are also connecting people (the audience) with the circumstance, and you are also connecting people with each other, a unifying force. You are connecting the audience with the ‘where’, of certain aspects of life, sometimes it’s the absurdity of it, sometimes there is a sweetness of it, sometimes the tenderness of it, sometimes the beauty of it. It just depends on what your particular thing is, but I think that often times we are just going through life, we are not aware of these things, and suddenly there it is. You are opening up our awareness.

M: A parable that I offer students in clown workshops is :The more connected you are inside, the more connected you are outside.
Is there a parallel in Zen?

E: Oh absolutely, that is what meditation is about, and just the subtle levels of life.

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