One Hand Clapping

I know the sound of two hand clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Mr. YooWho decided yesterday to do his best to answer one of the more  famous of  Zen koans.

Buddha’s Birthday. BohdiSong’s ClownZen Moment

Please enjoy a description of what BhodiSong (a.k.a. LooneyTune) created as a Humor-full performance ritual to follow the Zen Center of Los Angeles’ celebration service of Buddha’s Birthday….

LooneyTune on the right. (from Buddha’s Bday. 07.Temptation of stealing flowers)

PS Buddhas Birthday was terrific – Bodhi-Song did a routine, which was quite funny!

To: jsgraham@
Subject: what did you do?

Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2008 12:21:06 -0700
what did you do??

From: jsgraham@ (a.k.a LooneyTune, BhodiSong)
Balanced the elephant on one finger.
Oh wait, that was the week before.

During meditation (since I already had the enlightenment thing happening) I was pondering some possibilities for sacred mischief. The story goes that when the Buddha was born he pointed one finger at the sky and one at the ground and said something profound. So the statue that we pour tea over has a finger in the air. A lot like the famous shot of Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I thought a little disco dancing might be fun.

During the story of the baby Buddha, I snuck over to the apartment and I put on a flowered komono, and grabbed some percussion instruments. I noticed a black bag with a strap, that if slung in front, looks like a rakusu, so I put a few things inside, and went back out. I gave Reeb, Katherine and Darla the drums and tambourine, and told them to be ready for a little disco beat.

Everyone had presented flowers already, except me, because I was playing the taicho drum, so after the story, Senshin in her big voice announced that there was someone who didn’t offer a flower yet. I had yanked a huge leaf off a squash plant, so that was my offering. People seemed to get it that there was mischief afoot, perhaps it was the nose.

I went to the flower bower and goofed with the incense box, removing the lid etc. Then I went around to the back of the Baby buddha alter so I could play the audience. I had to figure out a way to offer the big leaf, that took some solving. Then I picked up the spoon and poured some tea over the statue, but wasn’t satisfied with the volume I was getting. So I reached into my “rokusu” and found a nice sized ladle. (At this point someone, I think Egyoku muttered “oh no”) The major ladeling of tea was strangely attractive to the kids who came up close to watch.

The statue has it’s finger in the air pointing up, which I deemed a safety issue, so I carefully placed my nose over the dangerous digit, as a protective cover.

At that point I started imitating the skyward point then moved into the disco move. It got a chuckle, and the band, who had started playing from the beginning, didn’t pick up the back beat, so I went to plan B. I went to my rokussu and brought out a nice wine glass. I proceeded to ladle some tea into it and played with the notion of having a sip. I offered it to the kids, who were quite close, but no takers. Then I was inspired to offer the water wisdom, (from Jukai and Tokudo ceremonies) I found a choice bit of foliage to simulate the pine needle whisk Egyoku uses. I dipped it in and got immediate recognition from the crowd. I did the swirling and the spritzing, to great delight. Then got carried away dipping my finger in, using it for cologne, then flicking it on the kids. Finally I ran out and started flicking tea on the crowd, who clapped and cheered, indicating that I had come to the end of their attention span.

Good fun, about 10 minutes worth.
Keeping the pump primed for next time

Z ya Zoon,
Looney Tune

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.

Sayings by Marc Jondall







Marc Jondall and Judy Finelli, from Juggler’s World, 1987.

My upstairs neighbor, Marc Jondall, former performer with the Pickle Family Circus, gave me these comments as we quipped about clown and zen. We were in the midst of cleaning off construction dust on big sheets of plastic as the artist’s collective we live in, Developing Environments, is undergoing building code upgrades.

Here’s what he says:

What’s the sound of one clown laughing?

To the clown, the present is to be present.


Clown + Zen. Conversation with Bernie Glassman, Roshi

Roshi Bernie Glassman (zen master) is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers and guiding spirits of socially engaged Buddhism. He has based his life’s work on a commitment to service, born from his practice and mastery of the 2500-year-old tradition of Buddhist compassion and wisdom.

Moshe:  That’s good.  So do you think the world needs more clown?
Bernie:   I would say: Needs more  honoring of the clown part of ourselves.  Everybody has some clown in them and to make it so that it empowers people to let their clown part speak is good.
Moshe:  To share their humor?
Bernie:  Yea, and it is not just humor, to share the clown doesn’t make mistakes, that’ s part of clowning.  I mean the clown can operate in a full sphere; and many things that we would call clowning, people would get embarrassed about.
Moshe:   So did you say that the clown does not make mistakes?
Bernie:  No, because if the clown trips somewhere, well that’s not a mistake, they  just tripped somewhere.  But most people, if they trip somewhere  where they are in the spotlight, they feel embarrassed like they made a mistake, whereas the clown- they tripped!  Or when the clown is making big proclamations, everybody takes it, Oh they are making big proclamations. But if you are not a clown, if you are not empowering that aspect of you, then you’re making big proclamations, then people will ohh….dismissive gestures…
Moshe:  Serious, or they’re self importance
Bernie:  They…yes …they don’t…. we don’t let…. like I always say, if you put a nose on Bush, then he says whatever he says and we could take it, OK that is what Bush is saying, because he’s made it legal by the nose for people to accept or not accept.  Without the nose you get really pissed off and you are ready to kill him because, ah…. yea put a nose on the prophet and it’s not quite the same.  You still hear it and still sinks in and it still means something; and you can take it or not take it but it’s not the same place at all.  It’s the prophet saying…who does he think he is; or vice versa the prophet saying so I got to do whatever he says.  For me that makes it very human to be able to see everything as it is and I take it or I don’t take it and if it seems funny to me I can laugh.  If it seems absurd I can laugh if I want or whatever…….

Moshe:  So the other question: What caused you to seek out a clown teacher and to bring clowning into your world
Bernie:  Well, it’s been part of my world in some kind of natural way for a long time, but when I was sort of phasing out of being in charge of different kinds of organizations and Zen centers and things of that nature and installed a lot of people into running these things; one of the things that kept grabbing me is how people felt, how they were taking themselves too seriously.  So I was really looking more at the trickster role, coyote role than the clown role.  When I thought of clowning, that was more to getting some technical skills to be able to do the other work in a better way.  But I really felt it very important that one phase of our work has to be to make sure that people don’t take themselves too seriously or see the gates or the armor that they are building in doing their job and how to make it more inclusive.  I thought that a fun way of doing it or a good way of doing it is to sort of visit them in the role of the clown or the jester and poke fun at ways that I felt they were blocking the world from entering their spheres.

About Borders
You know it is interesting that Clowns Without Borders, that very term ‘without borders’ that is the kind of word that I use-I talk about no inside no outside, that everybody draws a circle and that’s their border.  Everything that they don’t see as part of them is outside that circle.  So, when you say without borders, that means the circle is infinite, everything is inside.  Yet it’s very hard for us to be open to all sides. Things push our buttons and then we really build a border, and point to the enemy.  I think that it is an important role trying to really get rid of those borders.  That doesn’t mean that you don’t do a lot of work with pieces within you that you think are not so healthy; just like in your own human body.  I mean cancers they’re part of you, you’ve got to work with them but just to call them the enemy is not good enough.
About Clowns and Fools
Moshe:  Do you think that there is any difference between clown and fool and jester?
Bernie:   Well the way people use the words, probably.  Even between ‘jester’ and ‘nar’, I think there’s a different feeling.  I think the European sense of ‘nar’ is deeper than the English sense of ’jester’.
Moshe:  Define ‘nar’.
Bernie:  Well there was the court jester, but it was really clear that that was the role of pointing out that….what word am I looking for…the arrogances…or the….
Moshe: … power problems….
Bernie:  Yea all of that stuff.  Every system needs that role and creates it in some way.  The ‘nar’ was created in medieval Europe to do that role in the kingdoms.  It is like ‘carnival’ for the catholic world.  It is so straight, you need release, so it something you can allow to point out the various armors or borders or whatever…if you don’t do the release, release isn’t enough.  I mean it’s got to be worked on more; because systems will create a release so they can last longer, so they won’t have as many revolutions and all.  So even with the ‘nar’, if you went too far they could get killed even though they were supposed to be protected.  Whereas a jester, I am not sure what English means by the jester.  It is a little bit more like a fool, huh?
Moshe:  Yes
Bernie:  It had that role but we sort of forget that a little.  Some people think that the role was more to bring humor, to make everybody laugh there; not necessarily to help change the system or keep the system honest whereas with the coyote, definitely, that is part of their job, to make sure that the priests, the leaders, that they walk their talk.  That was definitely part of their job.  It was part of the jester’s job but we’ve lost sight of it I Think in the way people think of the word.
Moshe: Would you find any parallel in modern day’s society?  Is there something going on in the entertainment world that you can point to that has a similar role?
Bernie:    yea, Saturday Night Live, Mort Saul, Trousdale…we allow that world, it is not so huge and we don’t have a government role or a corporate role but it would be good to have that.

Clown + Zen. Amplify and Expand, 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.

What happens when a moment in Clown Performance is striking the audience as particularly funny? If the context allows for it, one tends to play with the moment, exaggerating the situation (amplify), improvising (expand) around the theme, to take the funny further. One could say that :

Moshe: you expand and amplify it.

Egyoku: Exactly. It is a wonderful thing. That is right in line with meditation, because that is what happens when a person meditates in a way.

M: You amplify and expand?

E: Yeah they do, actually they do without realizing it. Life becomes the moment. It is an exquisite thing. And then you connect with that.. That is what you do, you take this little moment. And it grows like that, and that ties right in with Zen because that is the experience of meditation, that is actually what happens: being able to rest in this moment, and to be able to taste it and appreciate it. To just be there with the moment, and that is what the clown does, you have to really be there. You are staying connected and at the same time you are communicating.

E: The other thing I think is interesting, we have this expression, we talk about it with anger but I think that it applies here too: I roll all negative experience into my practice, and we can also say: I roll all positive experience into my practice.

M: So in meditation you call up this anger?

E: You don’t call it up, you just sit with it. You just take it as part of the whole as opposed to ‘this is not supposed to be there.’ This is what I think the clown is doing, I see this, everything is just taken in, it becomes a clown moment. There is nothing that is not supposed to be there.

M: Right anything can be clowned.

E: Exactly.

M: So would you call these parallels to Zen.

E: I would call these parallels to a meditator’s experience. Zen is really about meditation, it is about sitting, we don’t call it meditation, we call it zazen, or just sitting. Vipassana also has this sitting. Some of the Buddhist practices don’t have a lot of sitting. I think it is this quiet meditative experience that allows us to touch the deepest places of life, of one’s self in life, because that is what you got to do.

M: There are many levels that you can touch, the clowning can also remain relatively superficial.

E: It is the same with sitting.

M: Sometimes they stay in their mind thoughts. As a teacher, can you tell that?

E: yes. One of the ways it comes up is what people bring up to share. You can see that this is so STRONG, they haven’t yet got that we are going to leave all that aside.

M: After months, years…

E: Sometimes it is years. Sometimes it is just different levels of it. It is hard to let go of what is going on up here ( gesture to the head) because that has been real for us. That is what is real! (Laughter).

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…


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.

Clown + Zen. Intuition-Inner Wisdom. 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.

In the clown world there is a strong reliance on one’s intuition or what you might call Inner Wisdom.


Roshi Egyoku at ZCLA. photo: kuku

M: intuition/inner wisdom, what is
that from your perspective?

E: It is our knowing. We talk about not-knowing and there is also the knowing that comes out of that place.

M: that might be our accumulation of wisdom from past lives?

E: Who knows what that is. It is like a profound wisdom that is who we are, and I think the clown accesses that a lot. It allows us to respond appropriately to any given circumstance. Because that is what you are doing. Your bag of tricks, that may or may no be you, it just depends on what is coming out of the situation. Something guided you, that is beyond all the studies, and learning and training that you have done. I mean that is how I always function here, I go by my gut, it’s the gut thing.

M: Common sense

E: Yes, I just sit back, something comes up and that is where I am going, and I go with total confidence. Someone may ask how can you be so confident? But I know, that is the way, my whole body is telling me that that is the way, that is what you need to do. Sometimes I surprise myself, because I find myself yelling at people. I used to see Maesumi Roshi do that, I’m not doing it because he did it. It would just come out of me, and then I would step back and ask myself where did that come from. I realized, and trusted it, that there is a wisdom coming out rather than telling myself to cut that out…laughter….
I think you do that.

M: yelling?? No, but on stage I have to trust my intuition, or I am likely to step out of my clown world.

Clown + Zen: A language of the heart? Kokoro! 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.


Clown and Kokoro.

One of the great clowns of our time, CWB founder Tortell Poltrana, says that clown is a “lenguage de sentamientos”, a language of feelings..

M: I am always talking about clown, about where people interpret things. I’m always telling people that their eyes need to be alive leading their expression, rather than their mouth. The saying: “the eyes are the windows of the soul” (which exists in many cultures) is very applicable here. If the humor is in the verbal language, then we interpret with our intellect. If the humor is physical than we are more likely to laugh from the heart. If clown is language of sentiments, than perhaps it touches the heart.

E: Well you know it is interesting in Western culture we are so split, the mind and body split is so clearly defined. So in a way we have to use words like heart and spirit just to remind ourselves that there is a whole other dimension here that we are not honoring. It is not totally cerebral. I look at it that way. Really our language should be inclusive of both, I don’t know what that would be, we are going to come up with something.

M: I agree, it is all involved. What I am looking at here is where does it go first, where are you interpreting it, where is the filter, I don’t know if filter is the right word.

E: Well now here is another dimension, in Zen the brain is here-pointing to the center of the body (just below the bellybutton)-in the hara. So that really becomes your brain after a while. You are listening from here. I don’t know, maybe you do to as clown, you’re pretty centered and grounded.

M: I haven’t thought consciously about that, but if you are a good clown I think that you are doing that.

E: I think it is interesting. There is the term kokoro, heart-mind. In other words, the two can’t be separated. I think more and more we can do that.

M: Is that as opposed to the cerebral mind? Is that a different focus of the mind.

E: It’s the whole thing. It is not just here (pointing to hara) or here (pointing to brain), it’s the whole thing. WE may separate it to talk about it, but it is more than that in our culture, because we only value this part, the head, and we haven’t valued the heart. The opening of the heart for our culture(Americans) is really a huge thing for us. I think that it is really happening now. When you encounter Hispanics around here, they are very heart centered, you can feel their heart centered are different. When I look at all the Hispanic nannies, where all these couples in Larchmont, Mom and Dad, are working, and all the Hispanic nannies are raising their kids, thank Heavens. (Laughter) Because they are giving them all this heart energy, as opposed to all this goal oriented stuff.


The kokoro, heart-mind, means the whole thing, the whole thing. The cerebral, the emotions, the psychology, all of that is a totally integrated being. I think (this is) one of the reasons for Westerners to bring the emotions into Zen practice, (it) is really a big practice for us. Very very important because culturally we are numbed out. So I think we don’t know how to feel. And we don’t necessarily know what emotions feel like, and when they arise, we think that something is wrong with us, because we are so repressed. So a big thing that has to happen for Zen students-of course the first thing that happens when you start to sit quietly is that all the emotions come up, and people will come in and say “I’m doing something wrong”. And I will say “ what do you mean?”, and they will say “I am feeling sad” or “I’m feeling angry.” So they have this idea that we are supposed to be numbed out. That’s not true. So meditators over time, if you are really doing it correctly, feel more deeply, you feel everything much more vividly, just like a clown would. And you are able to just roll it all in.
That it is all part, start to accept it, to befriend all these aspects of oneself.

M: So in meditation when you are feeling that, you just sit with it.

E: You just sit with it. You FEEL it. You feel it. And a lot of people don’t know what it is to FEEL it. Very interesting to work with people, to see how long it takes sometimes for them to get: “ hey I’m feeling anger” or “hey, I’m feeling rage.” “ And you know what, it’s okay I can just sit there and feel it.”

M: You are recognizing it is there, you can be that.
E: We go back to being that. We may not be able to be that, but we may just be at the place where “I am feeling bad”. The observer is still there, the separation has to still be there. Some people can never quite close the gap, but for those who persist, at some point, you can just be that flash of anger.

M: Then it will go away.

E: Then it’s gone. “Hey, where did you go? I was just getting into this ! ” (Laughter)

In our discussions, we discussed how a clown needs to be open to one’s intuitive impulses…..