Improvisation, Buddhist Meditation, and Koans

by Michael Gold
Submitted for publication to Words on Action
5 April 2005

A long time ago, a fellow named Sakya improvised poetry in response to people's questions. Some of the verses he made up used the image of crossing over the stream to reach the other shore. People understood the stream to mean the flood of afflictions that we all suffer, and they understood the other shore to mean nirvana. Nowadays we know the fellow as Buddha, so when one of the editors of Words on Action told me the theme of this issue was "crossing the streams" and the relationship between Action Theater with other forms, it seemed like a good idea to go over some of this. I hope it's not saying too much.

Buddha wasn't the first to improvise poetry as part of a a spiritual journey, and he wasn't the last, either. But before we get to that, imagine a meditation student. We learn to sit still for a half hour at a time, more or less, sometimes several times a day. Different varieties of Buddhism give different instructions for this, but they pretty much all have in common the fact that you're hearing your own breathing a lot, as well as birds calling, dogs barking, traffic sounds, and droning airplanes. We practice concentrating on even the least thing. Such behavior might sound pretty weird. So I'll say that some people find it helps us tune our awareness, to help us notice things that otherwise are drowned out by the noise of life.

Now imagine a meditation student stumbling into an Action Theater performance for the first time. Often at the outset of a performance, there's something meditative about the slowly shifting landscape of the performer's body, or the soundscape ebbing and flowing like the call of cicadas. I noticed that action is all the more dramatic when preceeded by rest; change is all the more compelling when it follows repetition. It's not conventional narrative. We're way off of Broadway now. Frankly, I find it hard to explain to many people what attracts me to Action Theater. But it's no problem explaining it to someone who's alrady used to watching carpet fibers intently for long stretches of time, who's learned to not demand that everything make sense. Because life doesn't.

Another thing I notice is that characters in Action Theater are fluid. They evolve in a gradual transformation, or they take an abrupt turn via a dramatic shift. This is reminiscent of Buddha's teaching that there is no fixed self. In Buddhism, we cultivate integrity by means of certain abstentions--not lying, not stealing, you know the drill--but also in not adhering to rigid roles as a member of a family, economic class, gender, or what have you. Most varieties of of Buddhist doctrine teach that our basic nature is not fixed. It's just barely stable enough to serve as a pivot upon which we revolve in order to transform. In a workshop, one performer told us about the role of Action Theater practice in transforming her life, not just her technique. In Buddhism and in Action Theater, the confident character becomes vulnerable. The coarse one becomes eloquent. Caterpillars and moths intermingle.

Beyond text

Now, in Zen Buddhism in particular, we have this thing about going beyond texts. In fact, it's pretty much orthodox Zen doctrine that there's no text of the doctrine. Don't get me wrong, everybody likes a gripping story. And Zen, though it is supposedly a teaching that does not depend on words, has produced an embarrassment of literary riches. Even so, in Zen we leave room for something that has no text whatever. This is not the same thing as saying that anything goes. I'm going to ask you to just trust me on this one. It's not something that can be explained in a magazine article, or for that matter, in an entire library.

Having no text fits perfectly with vocalization in Action Theater. Every "yah", "wah", "whoosh", and "aw" carries a multivalent message that's prior to language. If I have to put words to it--which, remember, is technically impossible, but I'm trying anyway--it would be that the performer calls out to the audience with an emotionally charged audible gesture. That call defies the lumping and splitting that language imposes. It reminds us to pay attention, reminds us of the inconceivable, reminds us that though inconceivable the message might be accessible to our intuition.

Hello, inconceivable calling

Zen students are intimately familliar with that call. In fact, these calls became formalized in the ritual and literature of the Zen koan. Koans are teaching stories that pass the boundaries of conventional narrative. You've probably heard of one famous koan, namely "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?" In some varieties of Zen, meditators concentrate on a koan, and teachers demand instant improvised responses in private sessions. Sometimes the response comes in the form of a shout, pounding the floor, or even barking like a dog. I can't explain how to respond appropriately to a koan. Nobody can. One thing that appropriate responses have in common is that they are all improvised instantly, prior to any thinking about "correct" and "incorrect". In advanced koan practice, people improvise poetry in appreciation of koans.

So improv is the heart of Action Theater and, I dare sey, it's crucial to Zen koan practice. I'd like to close with some hunches: First of all, simply based on watching Action Theater performances, it became all but certain to me that Ruth Zaporah must be quite familliar with Buddhism on some level. So I hope everyone will forgive my presuming to write about it. But I've also asked several Action Theater performers, and inferred that she doesn't push Buddhism on her students. That said, I'm wondering if Zen practice might help Action Theater performers accelerate their ability to cut through the desire for intimacy with the audience that might interfere with actual intimacy. And I'm thinking Action Theater workshops might be good for Zen students to cut through the desire to show off to the teacher that interferes with koan practice and appropriate response. And even if I'm out to lunch on all of that, I'm quite sure that Zen students are a natural audience for Action Theater performances. There's enough water in the stream for everyone to get wet together.