Clown + Zen. Being in the Moment.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.


Being in the moment-Clown Perspective

That is what the clown often has the freedom to do, play the moment. This Spontaneity is often the most magical aspect of clown performance. For that magic to truly generate laughter and touch the audience, the clown is not acting, the clown is playing his/her clown world. This clown world is created from one’s own life experience informing one’s truest feelings with a sense of humor, absurdity and ridiculousness.

Being In the Moment-Zen Perspective
(the abbreviations are E for Egyoku, and M for Moshe)

E: It’s a tricky one in a way because it has become such a common place expression. Every body says that (be in the moment). Even George Bush said (in his speech last night) ‘here and now’ (state of the union 2007). I said hey, don’t steal our language.

M: Ram Dass said ‘Be here now’

E: You know Maesumi Roshi had a great expression about the moment, he said “ Whatever the moment is”. I never knew whether he was saying ‘whatever is manifesting’ or ‘what is a moment? What is that?’ What is that?

M: yes, what is that?

E: I think pretty much it means ‘being present’. There is a sense of presence with a clear mind so that we are actually connected to what is really going on.

M; Yes

E: Present with a clear mind, open heart. So that we are available for what is there, and not in cased in our own little world. It is very very hard, when you think about the challenge of having a clear mind.

Clown + Zen. Clown at the Zen Center. 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.


Moshe: What is the clown doing here?

Egyoku: I think it is a great question, and I think that it is a question that we should keep raising actually. For one thing, I think that is the first question that arises. What is he doing here? What place does he have here?

M: Some people are still a little skeptical…

E: Yes it just challenges, what should we be doing here? What is Zen? What is spirituality? What is it really? This is why we have to take it out of the clothes, and the words. This is where we have to trust that we can really make it our own.

M: I really find the creative side of life akin to all this, because that is where it comes from. It comes from letting go.
this weekend, I was talking to my brother about a script he and his writing partner were writing (they are comedy screenwriters). His story was about how all week he couldn’t get around a problem in the script. This one part didn’t feel right, they felt stuck.

E: that is part of the process…

M: That’s what you said in the koan class and I shared with him your thoughts about being stuck. You said “you get used to that. OK here I am in this stuck place and just be there, accept it. Just know that you are going to be there, and that it will pass. That it is just part of the process.”

E: Yes it is wonderful.

M: My brother said something very interesting. He said, “we were going with this fix to the script, and I knew in my gut that it was wrong. I knew and I was upset all week. I knew that I wasn’t going with my gut feeling.

E: And we keep canceling it out. We cancel it out.

M: I think as an artist that is what you do; you go with your gut.

E: Well life is a great artwork. It is a creation. We kind of think that it is happening to us. But actually we are creating it every moment. It’s all our creation, karmically and otherwise. When you start to step into that way of seeing things, it becomes a whole different now.
M: Art is Zen in that way, isn’t it? It demands letting go of the thought process. One becomes so deeply concentrated in the art that everything else dissolves. Which is why for me the practice of clown is akin to Zen.

E: Yes, it is just another way to reinforce that way of being, that way of complete embodied presence. From a Zen perspective we would look at it that way. We have our forms, but there are other forms that could really get us to…I mean look at how hard it is for us to be a pillar (referring to the Koan workshop)

Post conversation notes:
Indeed in the koan workshop, at one point, we went around the oblong circle of some 40 participants in the dharma hall, and different participants stood up and physically embodied being a pillar. The koan is “Hide yourself in a pillar”, or sometimes they say “show me a pillar”.

Clown,Heyokas and Zen @ZCLA’s 40th anniversary celebration

Heyokas, and the 40th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
by yoowho, photos by kuku cunningham (
this story took place in May, 2007.

He is tall and wears a baseball cap, thick smoky glasses. He is tall, did I say that. I try to remember the cultural aspect of native tradition that I read about, not to look in a person’s eyes when they are speaking, then dang he is looking straight down at me as he speaks. Pete who came with his partner, is part of the fabric of this 40th anniversary celebration. He is a Lakota man who spoke earlier, about the parallels between Zen and other eastern traditions, and those of the native peoples. He spoke of colors, of directions, of rituals and other things that I did not catch in the Sunday morning open mike session: ‘what zcla has meant for me’.

A lot of the speakers invite in humor to their tributes, some of them have the sangha in stitches. It’s the last morning of the gathering, a major celebration this 40th, that brings together all the teachers of the White Plum Teachers, the lineage of the Maesumi Roshi who founded the center in 1967.

The tributes continue. I stand next to the redwood trees, above on the little hill, removed from the action on stage. Pete has come over to talk to me. Funny enough I have a desire to talk to him too. I am little versed in Native lore, though oh so interested in the presence of clown in indiginous cultures of the earth. I am curious what he knows.

He opens the dialogue, telling me that he has been watching me these past two days, and he wants to know what role I am playing in this gathering. I tell him ‘clowning’ and briefly describe the existence of the order of disorder, i.smacc and such things, creating these humorous interventions

He then starts talking about the Heyokas, the sacred clowns of the Lakota. He is figuring that I am playing that clown role at this gathering.
I tell a few of the stories and ask him for a few too.

i ask about the directions, North and so forth, telling him about the dance of life that I practice, that I learned so long ago from Txi Whiz, one that is offered to four directions. He chooses to tell about how his direction in life is west, and how that can be viewed as a blessing, or as a curse. That is the direction of the Heyokas, amongst other things, but that he would not really want to take on the Heyoka pathway. He tells me that you have to do what the intuitive voice tells you, even if that means dancing naked in public. Pete does not wish to be caught in such a situation.

Our discussion is interrupted by loud Mexican music coming from the brick apartment building bordering the tent where everyone has gathered. The residents of course are used to the outbursts of music that often break through the open space with domination. However it is jolting, and suddenly difficult to hear the speaker. Pete veers his attention high up towards the third floor windows where the sounds seem to emanate from.

I try to draw him back into the conversation, as we have barely discussed the west, and there remains three more. I explain to him that this is normal, part of the barrio behavior, and the center is dealing with it. His response to my attempt to smooth the waters is: “you are about to have one angry Indian on your hands.’ He walks off to go find someone to talk to about the situation.

Clearly he finds it offensive, a lack of respect for the ceremony which is taking place. His seeking to redress the situation has me seeking my own form of intervention. I take back on the clown role, straightening my tux tails, and my sparse hair, with distinctive humorous gestures, and veering off to investigate the noise factor.

I spot the task force of two women heading, with flowers and an event t-shirt intended as presents, towards the offending apartment block. I am quickly informed that they had visited the night before as well. They agree to my proposal to join in after I suggest that magic tricks for the kids, el payaso, might just be the peace offering that is required. Time for a little sacred mischief.

The trio, one in full zen robes, one ‘civilian’ and me in black tux and all, head around the corner into immigrant worker housing land. The building entrance is disheveled, a little off kilter, with a heavy scratched wood and dirty glass door is slightly open, and we head in.

The heavy Orkin super strength pesticide stench assaults all my senses as we tread down a stained grey carpeted hallway past numbered doorways, pausing at one that the women believe is the right door. A Marx Brothers moment as we lean our ears into hear for the loud sound, but there is none. A few takes and double takes later, a little whispered conspiracy we head out the outside door to take a hear, indeed no more loud music.

Trepidations about what to do, a random conversation in Spanish with the one man we meet when we head back inside. The conversation, in Spanish, is well received, but he knows nothing. We leave the flowers in front of the doorway and head back around the block to the garden and the redwood trees.

a bit of sacred mischief. los angeles may 19-20, 2007

(photos by peter cunningham)

Wondering just what might be sacred mischief?
One might consider it an act (or action) of sacred clowning.
Just what is sacred clowning?
I like Egyoku’s observation about the Hoxua when she saw a video of these sacred clowns of the Kraho of the Amazon basin:” they’re ‘just human’…but ‘JUST human’….

Hence one might conjecture sacred mischief to be humor that reaches our very essence. Well that is a lofty goal. Perhaps we just shouldn’t give it such deep consideration.


Hence straight to the matter at hand, the 40th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, ZCLA. In the spirit of Sacred Mischief. I am invited by the abott Egyoku to Clown ZCLA’s Anniversary Celebration. She says “bring Yoowho”- in other words: come and ‘clown’ the event , bring levity into the environment.

I have been teaching workshopa at ZCLA for a number of years now. the last two years have seen different incarnations of a clowning institute there, currently called i.smacc, the institute of sacred mischief and contemplative clowning. Hence the invitation for
the 40th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and the White Plum Assanga (Maesumi Roshi’s lineage) Teacher’s meeting rolled into one. Lots of Zen Masters and teachers visiting Los Angeles for three days. Some rituals, ceremonies, bell ringings and robes swirling. Lot’s of laughter and earnest conversations.
There is also a contingent of the Order of Disorder, OD, present. What is OD? hard to say in a few words. There is an entire web page:
Here is a photo of FoundOD and ElderOD touching noses, an OD ritual. (this is a 2017 photo:))






To get an better idea of an OD action, you might take a look at a little photo-montage of the OD action at Buddha’s birthday celebration this past April.

So once more, back to the subject at hand:

As the elder of the Order of Disorder, OD, I have convoqued an OD action for the second morning, Saturday, of the 40th to do . Egyoku and I have agreed that the inteverntion should be at the end of the panel discussion, which is about ‘Zen in America.’
Taking on the ‘fool’s’ hat to contemplate OD possibilties: an image of multiple laptops bubbles right up. Every Zen master I know carries one around it seems.
At 9 am I put out a call for OD participants. My request: 7 people and 7 laptops.
At 10:30 , we are 13 with 8 laptops and 1 yellow cardboard folder.
I supply the rest with a variety of bells-Tibetan, Swiss, Austrian.
In a 20 minute brainstorming creation, we create a lttle ritual around puntuated bell ringing and various images of laptops stuck together.


We process in hiding behind the laptops shaped like an arrow pointing backwards. The bells stop, we stop. We peer over the laptops. The bells ring, the laptops become a circle. Pause…Bells ring laptops are slowly moved through space into an absurdist shape. Bells ring, laptops recreate the arrow, pointing the other way, we process out in the opposite direction. Short sweet and hopefully to some point.

There are other smaller actions until the Sunday morning brunch.


Accompanying people to the evening awards ceremony with different sized umbrellas.


Early in the ceremony, when Roshi Bernie gets called up for an award, I accompany him by holding a paper cocktail umbrella over his head. He immediately goes into a clown walk and plays the moment.

At the tribute to ZCLA on Sunday morning, I attempt a short speech. I am led ontstage by a large orange sunflower. When I can’t get a word out of my mouth, the flower takes over and makes the speech, then drags me off stage, all at lightening speed.