Mr. YooWho at the Gate of Sweet Nectar (circa ZCLA 2006)

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.


Re-visiting ‘There is no room for ego”











Ja Woo: “There is no room for ego in clowning, no way for one’s ego to be present when one is in clown mode.”

When I mentioned Ja Woo’s comment to my friend Isabel, she said “Well of course, if you are present in the moment, then your ego is not present, and Clowning is all about being present in the moment.”
(comments from a 5-year old blog post of mine)


I’ve been re-considering the relationship of ‘ego and clown’ ever since a challenging conversational interchange during a recent workshop in Germany. In explaining an exercise, I had invited the class, to invest in their Lächerlich (ridiculous) and their absurd. At this point, I was interrupted by the quiet voice of a participant saying that Lächerlich is a bad word in German. Another participant quickly seconded her, which caused several other participants to start muttering their disagreement while looking at me with questions in their eyes. A discussion ensued where I sought clarification as to why this word was ‘bad.’

I was surprised as it’s the first time for such a protest, and I’ve been teaching a good number of years in Germany. At least, this is the first time I recall of… when I inquired about this ‘bad,’ if that referred to other people’s judgment of their ridiculousness, they replied that that was certainly a big part of it.’ I had the feeling that they were saying the ‘bad’ refers to an improper, frowned upon behavior (for an adult.) While the German translation of ridiculous seems to have a stronger meaning than it does in English, I wasn’t able to pin down how.

As the workshop was about Zenclown, I dived into the Zen of it, wondering openly about what that meant to have judgments, or to care about other’s judgments. How did that relate to ego and our attachments? Were they being held back by other’s judgments? True, it’s not that it’s easy to let go of long established behavior. True, it’s kind of a free fall into the unknown when one invites in the ridiculous, as one is likely in this freedom of expression to expose certain vulnerable aspects of oneself. And yet, wasn’t that the whole point of the exercise?

From a perspective of ego, I think it’s safe to say that letting go of ego involves letting go of opinions others have about you. Ja Woo has that down, shower cap, poncho and all. She is so embracing the fun.

The intention of the exercise wasn’t a Buddhist exercise in releasing attachment to ego. Plunging into the ridiculous is allowing oneself to listen to humorous, silly (and perhaps even embarrassing impulses) that one’s inner funny offers up. It’s tuning into another channel, an inner flow, perhaps an aspect of intuitive mind, certainly deeply rooted in Kokoro. I find great liberation in that action. It offers openings into aspects of life force that may have escaped your immediate orbit for far too long a time. Responding to this inner voice offering suggestions around having fun.

So when you are about to get doused with a kitchen bowl of water, forget about the realms of self no self no self self, kick the thinking mind into the back seat and drive with delight.

A post post comment from Joshin:

Some Zen dude once said Zen is an appropriate response.
When the situation is ridiculously serious, it’s appropriate to be ridiculous When the situation is seriously ridiculous, it’s appropriate to be serious



Please find articles on Clown + Zen in chronological order below. They are written by Moshe Cohen and include discussions with Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Roshi; Bernie Glassman, Roshi; Wavy Gravy, Closhi and others. Many photos  in the posts including this top one (with Egyoku and Junyu at ZCLA’s 50th anniversary) are taken by Peter Kuku Cunningham.

Constructive/Destructive Humor

“As long as the humor is not destructive” the woman explained in response to the interviewer’s question about the meaning, value of humor in daily life. The context is a German radio program about “What does humor mean” interviewing a number of people using humor in the positive, Eckart Von Hirschhausen (Humor Hilft Heilen-Humor Helps Healing) and Myriam Brenner from the German Clowns Ohne Grenzen (clowns without borders…) Interspersed in the program, the radio show played a series of ask the person on the street interviews, how they viewed humor, in which I heard this woman using the word destructive to describe humor.

That was a rather big eureka to me, as it answers a question that has been on my mind for a long time: how to qualify the use of humor. I am guessing that you might have considered this concept: when is humor a good thing? What is the difference between laughing at and laughing with?

As a professional humorist, the question often comes up in one form or another. I have never felt comfortable qualifying humor as positive or negative, something doesn’t quite jar right with that definition. Yet now, I feel I have found the answer, destructive describes why it is a negative.

The opposite term, Constructive, is just as excellent as far as a qualifier in my humble opinion. When the Humor is constructive, it brings people together to laugh in a most healthy way, in celebration. It is a life affirming, let’s celebrate the joy of living. It might be on a more minor scale than a spiritual awakening, yet that moment of connection where the constructive humor is shared opens up a sense of trust and enjoyment of being together, an affirmation of joie de vivre (joy of life).

There is surely more on my mind concerning this, especially looking at how verbal language, or the lack of it, affects the quality of humor.  However  for now, enough said….Further!

ps. If you are a German speaker, and wish to hear the interview (it was broadcast in early 2016) as of this writing, it’s still available at the following link:

Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny

A few weeks ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about what Google learned from its quest— code-named Project Aristotle— to build the perfect team. As a consulting team trainer at one of Silicon Valley’s major companies the past 8 months, I have immersed myself in this quest. Google’s research findings have me particularly enthused as they confirm that my interactive mindfulness trainings are on the right track.

Some of Google’s conclusions:

“what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another…. good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”

Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

In my  line of work, high social sensitivity and the ability to create an atmosphere of psychological safety are prerequisites. Awareness, listening and strong non-verbal communication skills are what we develop through methodologies I have used in the health care world. According to Google’s research, these skills are exactly what’s needed for effective team work. However Google, and many other corporate entities, might be challenged by the current negativity surrounding my field…which is…Clowning.

If scary images of overly made-up, obnoxiously loud, insensitive, immature characters come to mind, please travel further back in time than the media maelstrom of the past 50 years—which has popularized a very stereotyped and mostly negative image of clown. Blame it on Ronald McDonald, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King’s It and any other hosts of contenders. The majority of the world has forgotten that clowning is about the funny, that there is a finer, more subtle and smart version of clown circulating in the corridors of the theater, one who has audiences laughing night after night.

Clown is unique in the performing arts in that audience interaction is part of the game, and their level of enjoyment often determines the performer’s next steps. If something that’s usually funny isn’t getting any laughs, the good clown will move on rather than dig a hole in the ground. Thus the clown’s eyes, ears, and all their senses are listening for the subtlest of cues. These clowns have great capacity for non-verbal communication. Most having spent years training in physical/ movement/gestural theater, in voice, mime, tai chi…in my case butoh dance….

One thing that may surprise the reader is that these clowns are all about mindfulness—yes, it’s a hot topic these days. Clowns have a somewhat different version of mindfulness as their awareness is more focused on being present with others, on their outward interactions rather than inner navel gazing. This is especially true of the thousands of healthcare clowns around the world, who work in children’s wards and elder homes, where the main game is often personal interaction in intimate settings rather than full view on stage.

Perhaps Interactive Mindfulness is a good term. Whereas many mindfulness practices are centered around meditation with objectives of stress reduction, resilience, self-inquiry; here the objectives are on presence, social sensitivity and authentic interaction. In this context, humor acts as a facilitator, lubricant and communicator for mutual understanding.

Can humor be a useful tool for teams seeking to create an atmosphere of ‘interpersonal trust, mutual respect in which people are comfortable with themselves’ ?? If the humor is kind, well meaning, and looking to uplift the group, It certainly can. Perhaps it’s helpful to think in terms of constructive (vs destructive) humor.  So far, my team training results definitely point in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t be crafting these words if I didn’t think so.

Given  traditional hierarchical management structures, if one wishes for a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, the structure they work in, the upper management and corporate culture need to be fully supportive. There has to be a very strong wish for employees to feel comfortable being themselves, to remove the pressures causing people to put on a ‘work’’ mask to protect themselves.

One must also factor in cultures and upbringing where ‘just being themselves’ at work is not initially perceived as an option. Early on in our training sessions in Silicon Valley, I was informed by one of our Indian participants that in India, showing emotions of any kind at work was not considered professional.

As I continue to develop team training methods, I  occasionally glance over to the mindfulness movement to see what approaches they might be taking.

Here is a paragraph from the latest program offering, Engage, from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, of one of leaders in corporate mindfulness training:

Mindfulness-based emotional intelligence practices help individuals increase well-being, decrease stress and become more resilient. Through mindful communication practices, individuals can improve how they relate and collaborate with one another, the result being more enjoyable and effective teamwork.

Wonderful to read, several things caught my eye:
-One is the use of the word enjoyable connected to effective teamwork.
-Another is the phrase mindful communication.
A third is the word practices.

Starting backwards, the word practices is vital for teams, as in something one practices on a regular basis, to ensure ongoing collaboration  requires ongoing training.

How does one communicate mindfully?  It’s a hot topic. Being fully present with each other, AND really hearing what the other is saying.  Hard not to start formulating words/responses in one’s brain—which would remove one from being fully present.

I have practiced council, where the group sits together in a circle, passes a talking stick. The instructions are to speak  (and listen) from the heart, and only the person with the stick speaks. It’s a most wonderful way for a group to communicate deeply. For a time-stressed engineering team, this might not be the best option. What happens in a more spontaneous, and busy, environment?

After all, speaking from the heart may also not be exactly what the software engineers signed up for.

As the NY Times points out:
But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Yet even without meditation,  the ability to place their awareness outwards is important for collaboration. As mentioned earlier on, developing the capacity to be present—without an engaged thinking mind—does require practice, something akin to the Zen practice Menmitsu. With my team, we use juggling as an active form of mindfulness. No, it doesn’t take you to the same place as meditation, but that is another story.

From my perspective, that of clown and physical theater, the answer to mindful communication is obvious: remove words from the equation. Develop non-verbal expressiveness, and bring lightness to the table. Devise methods/structures/exercises for co-workers develop common non-verbal language, infused with humor and good will.

Expressiveness is explored at various ‘volumes’, from great exaggeration to light subtlety, I think you can guess which is ultimately the most useful tool. One of the major side-benefits for the team members are their interaction skills outside the immediate work environment, at conferences; as well as devising and offering public presentations.Create methods to enjoy resolving tensions. There is far more to say here but I have been going on for  a while now…

Before I go let me tie up one loose end, about that first point of linking enjoyment and effectiveness.  I have found that physical theater and clowning is both fun and offers great expressive tools to use in the workplace, pathways that ease rather than exacerbate tensions. I have also found that teams having fun together tend to like being around each other more.

For example, in the training, the team members have loud and spirited arguments without saying a word, and having great fun doing it. Having fun being angry with each other?? Could that possibly decrease tensions, stress, and result in a more enjoyable and effective teamwork? Yes!  By focusing on the funny, the arguers discover their ability to enjoy the disagreement,   to not take themselves too seriously and develop skills in listening, in awareness, in expression, and in positive connection to their co-workers.

A few years ago, I was teaching a workshop at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center.  In the closing circle, one of the participants, a business consultant, expressed his amazement at how much humor he could convey with just a look. Perhaps that look is worth a thousand words…

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.

On Clown, Zen and Sponaneity

Perhaps you are already aware that 15 years ago, Roshi Bernie Glassman, Zen master, started studying clown with me.  Up to that point, all my students were performers. Bernie’s intent was not to become a clown, rather he wished to use “tools of tricksterdom and humor” to address out of balance situations in his Zen world. As a result, my approach to teaching shifted, and has continued to change ever since. The focus shifted from being clown to clowning. Suddenly my teaching perspective expanded from appying humor to performance to applying humor to life in general, to most any given situation. Indeed, what became clear over time, was that most everyone could develop their capacities to offer and share humor.
After a number of years, Bernie and I started teaching “Clowning your Zen” workshops together, with Bernie integrating Zen wisdom with my clowning exercises. Along with many teachers from Bernie’s lineage, people from all walks of life came to participate. The results were dynamic.  Several years later, wishing to bring a sitting meditation practice into the mix, I began collaborating with Zen Master Heinz-Jürgen Metzger on a summer workshop at the Nell Breuning Haus in Herzogenrath, with alternating meditation and clowning sessions. We also took people out on the street to experience


Over the years, I have mused on the parallels between Clown and Zen, and written about it in my blog, here.

What struck me this summer, after our 9th summer Herzogenrath workshop, was how the stillness of meditation adds to the vitality of our spontaneity, and opens our capacity to improvise. Although these two qualities may seem like opposites, when one looks through the right lens, it makes total sense:
-Being funny is a state of being guided by our intuitive mind -Intuitive mind is strengthened by meditation practice
-Engaging in meditation practice strengthens our ability to share humor., our capacity for spontaneity….

As you probably know, meditation gets in the way of our thinking…whoops, I meant to say thinking gets in the way of meditation….let me try that one more time: meditation allows us to quiet the mind, to tell the thinking mind to take a holiday. Given enough time, enough practice, as Monsieur et Madame Think take a vacation, a sense of stillness evolves. Evoking this sense of stillness in one’s clown world is actually quite alive, and freeing. When one is a humorous state of being with thoughts at a standstill, spontaneity arises, easily, effortlessly, one is already in the flow…

Nosing the Buddha. disrespectful???

Holy Moley it’s already the 1st of May. Revolutionary workers day, almost everywhere except  good ol’ US of A.  It’s been a great day for online discussions about putting clown noses on buddha statues and whether that is disrespectful. The point of reference is the Nose A Statue contest that Clowns Without Borders was running the month of April on their facebook page. I posted my photo (image above) early on. Today Sarah, great exuberant clown in charge of the contest, lets me know that Stuart, of Portland, has posted that this photo is disrespectful… Time is of the essence in the social media world Sarah  informs me.   Here’s the  thread:

Stuart:  Red nose on the Buddha is extremely disrespectful. Buddhists consider it much more than a statue.
7 hours ago · Like

Moshe :  @Stuart. I took that Buddha photo and it has been circulating in the Zen world for more than a year. Your comment is the first I’ve heard suggest it’s disrespectful. I am not discounting your opinion in the least, and I have sent out a mail to a few of my Zen Master friends soliciting their opinions…stay tuned:)
6 hours ago · Like

Stuart:  I understand, Moshe. Travelers to Thailand are warned that tourists who make humorous poses with statues of the Buddha face arrest. In the 80s some tourists were jailed for several years each for taking a photo with one of them sitting on the head of a large statue. I guess they take their respect seriously in Thailand.
6 hours ago · Like

Moshe:  here’s how Joshin Roshi responds: Actually, I believe I understand Stuart’s intention. Buddhist statues should be treated with respect, not because they are special in and of themselves, but because of what they represent. But also, let’s be clear, this is simply a statue, made out of medal, and transposed into our digital, virtual world. To say it is more than a statue implies that you have relegated what should be symbolic and archetypal to a level of idolatry. Orthodox religious practitioners in all religious traditions have one thing in common. They seem to lack a sense of humor. They literalize objects of religious devotion which are meant to represent some quality in humans which we aspire to cultivate or emulate. We have a saying in our Zen tradition, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” So I think our Zen tradition is very sacrilegious, and may seem disrespectful to some, but we’re going to keep laughing anyway.

Generally, I think it’s a good practice to have clowns near by whenever priests are present or people are taking themselves too seriously.

Later in the afternoon, once the meeting had let out, I received several other wonderful responses:

from Nocando: yes- it is all very serious and more than statues-  there is precedent in zen circles, however, to say respectfully that it is not not firewood.  then turn and run-

from Eve: I think his hairdo looks a lot sillier

Clown + Zen. “There is no room for ego!”

During a photo session at a Clown-Zen workshop this spring,  Heinz-Jürgen Metzger in Zen robes, myself  in Mr Miniscule outfit, a comment offered up by Jawoo 10 days earlier floated to the surface. Jawoo is a Korean nun who participated in this year’s Buddha’s Birthday workshop/performance at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.  During our performance, she won the Baby Buddha contest, the ZCLA sangha giving her the win by an overwhelming voice vote. I suspect that her winning had more to do with her having spent the past 3 months at the center more than her ability to keep a Buddha like composure as a large ladle-full of cold water was poured over her head. Image

I am not sure that Jawoo appreciated the winning prize,  a surprise from behind bowl-full of water,  even if she was ritually appointed with rain poncho and shower cap.


Jawoo’s exact words have escaped, so I paraphrase: There is no room for ego in clowning, no way for one’s ego to be present when one is in clown mode.

When I mentioned Ja Woo’s comment to my friend Isabel, she said “Well of course, if you are present in the moment, then your ego is not present, and Clowning is all about being present in the moment.”

I had another perspective, clowning eliminates most of what I often associate with ego—feeling important, special, separate. When one is embracing one’s foolishness, the idea is to be the lowest person on the Totem pole. In the act of being ridiculous, or absurd—while taking on a willingness to be laughed at-as well as with— It becomes truly difficult to puff up one’s chest and strut one’s stuff.


Bateson’s Sense of Humor. Koan

I’ve been reading Michael Wenger’s recently published book : 49 Fingers, a collection of modern American Koans.  It’s a wonderful book that includes Michael’s sumi paintings and the Koans, complete with case, commentary, and verse. So reading #21, Bateson’s Sense of Humor, I thought to share a bit:

Case:  A famous writer who was known for being highly articulate and witty came to meet Gregory Bateson.  The chatted for a while and then the writer left. Bateson remarked to a student, “At first I thought he had a sense of humor, then I realized the he did not.”   The student was confused by Bateson’s remark and asked him  to explain what he meant by a sense of humor. Gregory looked at the student for a moment before replying, ” It’s knowing that you don’t matter.”