This is a story I’ve told this story many a time, yet never in writing. I dedicate it to Ensho’s memory, who is missed by many. This photo was taken 4 weeks after this story, at Buddha’s birthday celebration. Ensho is the one with the bowl on his head and hands in the sky.
“Would you please bring Mr. YooWho to the Gate of Sweet Nectar service” asks Egyoku casually. That would be Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Roshi, and Abbott of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. We are standing on the gravel by the doorstep of the Dharma house, where I am staying upstairs in the sunroom. I am 2 weeks into my 6 week residency at the Center, where I’m running “The Institute of Sacred Mischief and Contemporary Clown”, or ismaac for short. Indeed, I have a handful of weekday evening students, and a series of weekend workshops scheduled.
The residency culminates at Buddha’s Birthday celebration in early April where a clown performance ritual will follow the actual service. For Buddha’s birthday, the Sangha (community) creates a most beautiful flower pagoda on the lawn near the three tall redwood trees. In the service, celebrants individually offer flowers, and pour sweet water over Buddha 3 times while the Sangha chants the heart sutra. Indeed, in April, I would have a true Zen experience in the midst of the performance. Playing the Buddha, a huge 2 foot wide kitchen bowl full of water is poured over my head, and it’s so frigging cold… but I am getting a little ahead of myself in the story …back to the doorstep.
“What do you want Mr. YooWho to do?” I ask the Roshi. “Whatever he wants”, she replies. Her eyes have hints of mischief and are full of light.
As the reader, you are landing at a major career move for Mr. YooWho, my clown. This is an invitation to the main event of the week at ZCLA, the Sunday morning service, full procession and all. I had not even contemplated this as a potential residency activity. After all, how often is the clown invited into a religious ceremony. Almost immediately, my mind goes to work : what should I do at the service? Almost as quickly I resolve: Don’t think about it.
For those out of the Zen loop, the Gate of Sweet Nectar service is a major form of worship in certain White Plum Lineage Sanghas, evolving from older Japanese Soto Zen forms. At ZCLA, the ceremony takes place in the Buddha hall where there is a big beautiful altar with offerings, candles, incense. First, there is a call to service, with a slow to fast rhythmic knocking on the big wooden fish hanging on the outside of the temple. Congregants come, many in their black robes, most everyone has the cloth rakusus hanging around their necks. Inside, at the back of the room, there is one of those big long horns, and an assemblage of huge metal prayer bowls, cymbals and other percussive offerings. During the service there are chants and bows, alignments and choreographed movements of practitioners, prostrations, unison chants with percussive celebrations, prayers in English, prayers in Sanskrit, filings in, filing outs, everything in time engrained form. At the end, a long and solemn line of the practitioners, forms in meticulous manner, allowing Roshi stepping out last. The Sangha, many in formal black robes, then travels up to the Zendo for meditation.
So the next morning, as the knocking on the wooden fish begins, I’m next door in a corner of the Dharma hall’s children’s room, tying up my white shoes, and inviting in my YooWho state of being by looking at my various props assembled around me: the big orange sun flower, my suitcase, ukulele…. My eyes stop at the hug-a-planet, which is a sphere shaped pillow, covered in a cloth print of the earth. I hear it calling, I instantly associate the symbolism of the planet at a spiritual ceremony and I grab it.
Arriving late somehow feels right. I hold the earth in front of me in ceremonious fashion and proceed to the open doorway of the Buddha hall, my white loafers scrunching up sounds in the gravel path. Overnight I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best for YooWho to operate according to Bernie’s three tenets (not knowing, bearing witness, action), and enter the hall totally open to all humorous impulses and possibilities that might occur to Mr. YooWho, who’s usually not this loud and outrageous guy, yet certainly has an eye for the absurd. My intention is to somehow move in in the flow of the ceremony, yet perhaps I will be the big disturber? Who knows? Only the nose knows.
Some would call YooWho a clown, yet he wears not a red nose. Stepping into the hallway, YooWho takes in the scene: A man in the back of the hall, beyond 40 or so celebrants, is blowing the big horn, a taiko drum is pounding and the chanting is going full blast in a deeply felt moment. The chant is rather even, monotone. YooWho is slightly paralyzed by the totality, an impulse to fall asleep to the chant bubbles up. I let it pass by as I look around in YooWho’s curiosity taking note of my neighbors at the back of the hall. Right close-by is the priest Ensho in his black robes, whose eyes meet mine and widen in smiling complicity. Standing by his side is his 4 year old daughter Lily, who is the darling of the Sangha, a most pure bundle of joy.
The chanting musical dynamics calm down, and I sense that it’s time for YooWho to swing into action:
Standing there holding the earth in ritualistic, important yet humble manner, it occurs to YooWho that perhaps the earth should be placed at the altar. After all, if anything is important in this day and age, it is the planet that sustains us. Hmmm….Action.
YooWho starts a measured pace to the altar in between the orderly lines of chanters. Through the corner of my eyes, I catch several smiles and then someone appearing not too happy at all causing an intrusive thought to appear knocking on YooWho’s door asking if this is appropriate. I let it all pass as I stop with a ritualistic stance in front of the altar. YooWho slowly raises the earth above his head, then ceremoniously places it on the ground in front of the altar. AS I turn around to head empty-handed to the back, I catch more mixed expressions on the faces of the celebrants, there is delight and there is dislike.
I catch myself thinking: the Roshi asked me to come do whatever I want; I am being respectful, um, at least I think I am. Why the mad faces?. Years later, I discover that one does Not approach the Buddha and altar directly, but always sidestepping in. Whoooops, faux pas, stepping in ‘zee shit’ as one acclaimed French clown master would say.
As YooWho innocently returns to his spot along the back wall, he spots Ensho, with twinkling mischief eyes, stooping and having a whispered conversation with Lily. A moment later she is going up the aisle herself, and grabbing the hug-a-planet, and rather unceremoniously bringing it back and giving it to me, a rather surprised Mr. YooWho. Oh Ensho’s got some good sacred mischief up his sleeve.
There are a few chuckles nearby, evidently the sequence pleases some. More delight, more dislike. It’s obvious from the reactions that Roshi has said nothing to the crowd about Mr. YooWho’s participation. The service shifts momentum, from group chanting to a single man reciting in foreign tongue. He’s not far away from YooWho, reading from a book off a wooden lectern chanting away, bowing, chanting a few more words, bowing, chanting, bowing in a seemingly endless cycle. YooWho’s curiosity is aroused, and to get a better look, he gravitates to the action, moving to stand in an empty spot right next to the man, who seems in a rather deep reverent space. Feeling the urge of reverence, watching the man bowing, YooWho has a considering contrarian clown logic has an inspiration, Bow backwards!!
It’s the only thing that makes sense. Support the chanter, balance the energies. With the chanter’s next bow, YooWho bows in an equidistant opposite direction. Fun, feels good…and the chanter keeps going, there are a lot of bows it seems. ( I find out later that the man is chanting the reincarnations of the Buddha, 108, more or less.)
Repeated backward bows brings a joyful feeling to my heart. It also brings a number of large grins, and a few stern glares laser focused in YooWho’s direction. YooWho figures he must be firmly on the Heyoka path, although he’s not quite sure what the glares about, how could any man’s reverence be reason for scorn?
The man is done chanting, and Mr. YooWho’s back is feeing the workout. The ceremony shifts to the front again and there is a loud voice saying “Anyone who hasn’t had a chance to offer incense, this is a good time,” or something to that effect. YooWho takes this as a sign for action. He proceeds to the altar, all too excited about this amazingly devout opportunity.
There are 2 short lines on either side of the altar, each 3 or 4 persons long. YooWho realizes that he has no idea what he is supposed to and starts studying the fine details and nuances that accompany this sacred ritual of offering incense at the altar.
Each person in turn steps to the altar, bow then sidesteps towards the center of the altar getting closer to the Buddha. From a small bowl, they take a pinch of the loose incense granules with thumb and their middle finger. They bring the incense up towards their forehead almost touching the third eye before lowering their hand and carefully letting go of the incense just over this little cup containing a burning charcoal. Then there is a second pinch of incense, which they again sprinkle on the charcoal. Then there is a sidestep away from the altar, another bow, before turning around and leaving.
It’s YooWho’s turn. The incense smell is strong, but I ignore the impulse to play an inebriated stagger. I’m getting the sense that might be just a little too much. Facing the altar, back to the audience, I can feel the eyes on me, some embracing, some piercing right through my backside. Even though disturbing is the point (Roshi didn’t invite YooWho to get it right,) going too far won’t get me to the right place.
Mr. YooWho digs into a little backwards bow, enjoying that quite a bit. He then discovers a nice little geneflectual exaggeration in his sidestep to saddle up to Buddha. That’s fun, I realize laughing to myself, a sense of mischief re-awakening. I’m also feeling those piercing eyes digging deeper. A quick sideways glance reveals a woman with a glowing smile. Encouraged, YooWho reaches for the incense using multiple fingers and thumb. How much am I supposed to grasp? A detail I forgot to observe, so I grab a good amount just to be sure.
Mr. YooWho now is digging into the reverence to the intuitive powers as he raises his hand to his forehead. Fun within reverence, or reverence within fun? What’s it’s about? Holding the incense to his forehead, he closes his eyes praying deeply inside, Ohm to the holy clown, Ohm to the Buddha. I’ve forgotten the room completely, it’s just the altar and Buddha.
Opening my eyes, remembering I’m supposed to lower the hand down and sprinkle the incense on the charcoal. An illuminating contrarian prospect brightens my spiritual sense of fun, and I start raising his hand even higher, analyzing charcoal target practice angles. Why not? The release of the incense on high doesn’t go quite as planned, as the small cloud of descending incense pretty much misses the target. Who knew that incense aerodynamic properties could be so unpredictable. Zut alors (ahh shucks).. But what’s done is done.
Mr. YooWho kicks back into reverential gear, takes a nice geneflectual sidestep in the opposite direction, enjoys another backwards bow–and turns in celebratory mode to leave the altar. The line is shorter now YooWho notices, as he begins to walk away. Then he catches the eyes of the smiling woman which widen significantly as they make eye contact sparking an impulse, why not try it again?
Mr. YooWho is smiling brighter inside as he turns his feet to get back in line for a second landing. A quick glance around catches Roshi’s eyes smiling. No hesitation as YooWho steps up, last at the altar. I’m caught in a cloud of delight, no doubt, the piercing eyes have been deflected by invisible shields.
Backwards bow, genuflecting sidestep. YooWho grabs a nice pinch of incense when a thought crosses his mind, ‘take home a little souvenir.’ Sure why not put a little in zee pocket. YooWho starts casually inching his hand towards his jacket pocket while most innocently looking over the opposite shoulders to misdirect any prying eyes. Dropping the incense into the pocket, he is hearing some very audible laughter nearby despite some strong group chanting that’s begun. Guess that misdirection didn’t quite work. Delighted laughter, oh that sweet reward.
Any thoughts of getting into trouble with higher religious authorities or signor Buddha on the altar are nowhere in YooWho’s mind. He is just having too much fun. More. He digs into the bowl for a second pinch, and a second pocket deposit. They are busy chanting away now, and as he reaches for more incense, he can sense the moment passing. Despite feeling high about his subterfuge, the ‘enough’ signal has replaced the ‘more. ‘
So, YooWho, with his third incense grab, does a quick forehead stop, and in deep reverence, he lets the little gaggle of incense spiral downward from a slightly lower height and yes, a good number of granules hit the charcoal. Yes, Yes, Yes! A quick sidestep, taking time for slightly exaggerated backwards-bow, Mr. YooWho retreats to the back of the hall catching some nice smiling nods on the way. Perhaps there are some other opinions glancing his way, but somehow he doesn’t see them. Too much fun!
The ceremony shifts again, the chanting ends, and with a few robe swishes, bodies move into new positions. A line forms, a pause, a silence. Then, as Roshi moves into her place in line in measured steps she says: “Lest we take ourselves too seriously…” on which she executes her final turn into position, with a sharp twirl of her robes.
The line, in prescribed ritual and form, proceeds out of the Buddha hall into the sunlight, towards the Zendo and meditation time.
AS I make my exit in the opposite direction, Mr. YooWho is handed the earth by Ensho, who is grinning ear to ear.