a Zen Master's Perspective on Sacred Clown

from moshecohen.net

The deeper I delve into clown from the teaching side, the greater the desire to put a finger on this word clown, what and all it represents. This has led me to explore the traditions of the sacred clowns amongst many of the indigenous tribes here in North America. Their function in their communities depends on the tribe. They have different social and ceremonial roles that they play, yet invariably there is laughter involved.

For example, one thing the Hopi clowns do, is to clown problems that exist in their society ( such as obesity, diabetes, alcoholism) allowing people to laugh around the problems. Another aspect of sacred clown has deeper meaning. I offer up a paragraph from Joseph Eppes Browns’ book “Teaching Spirits”, this is the beginning of 4 pages of the book that discuss clowning:

Breaking Through with Laughter. The Lakota Heyokas

That these are serious, sacred rites doesn’t mean that the rites do not contain some humor. Very often, right in the middle of a sacred ritual such as the opening of a sacred bundle, people may start telling funny stories. Suddenly, in this most serious context, people are laughing and holding their sides. Their laughter may seem to ridicule the rite, thus destroying it, but it does this so that the deeper truths contained within the rite can come forth and reveal themselves. Among many tribes on the Northwest coast, certain rites and ceremonies cannot be started until the guests who have been invited to participate start to laugh. Once they are laughing, the ground is prepared for a real quality of participation. In many traditional societies, the clown is the first one to break through the solemnity of a ceremony…

In December of 2006, I was invited to perform at the Anjos Do Picadeiro festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Anjos do Picadeiro means Angels of the (Circus) Ring. What a nice way to refer to clowns. One of the extraordinary things about the festival was the presence of the Hotxua, the sacred clowns of the Kraho tribe in the Amazon. I had wonderful encounters with them, backstage at a documentary film shoot in the Hotel Gloria, and at various moments of the festival. They came to my show, loved it. I went to a demonstration of their rituals, more than loved it. There is a whole story about their rituals to be written, sometime soon.

Hotxua hopping In the meantime, here is an extract from a discussion with the Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, at the Zen Center in Los Angeles. I find her observations most illuminating on the nature of sacred clown. I showed her some photos of the Hotxua, and then read to her the translation of a conversation that I had with Liberto Kraho. Here is the discussion with the Roshi that followed:

Moshe: So the words spirit or spiritual don’t really apply in Zen, I am wondering about the word ‘sacred’. What does that mean for you? I had certain expectations about Sacred clown, yet when I saw the Hotxua play, they were so human…

Egyoku: Well yes, that’s the key in Zen, IT IS so Human. So (the words) sacred and secular is just another dichotomy.

Moshe: So sacred for you it just means being human?

Egyoku: Yes, but not just being human, but JUST being human-so fully human!!! There is no notion of sacred, secular, spiritual, not spiritual, you are just so fully embodied, which sounds like what they (the Hotxua) are doing, their completely embodied activity of human life. This complete embodiment is a very Zen thing: you are completely poured into it, and it’s poured into you; it goes both ways. There is no gap between anything really. That sounds like what they are doing. They are IT. They are playing, they are fighting, singing, dancing. They’re celebrating all these facets of life.

I love also what he says (Liberto), we don’t put anything on, we take it all off. We strip down to being human. (Egyoku is reflecting on Liberto’s earlier comments about how they don’t wear any costumes or big shoes, but just shorts. )

Hotxua trading hat

What to say about all this? Perhaps that as clowns, here in this increasingly complex modern world, we can remind people what it is to be truly human, and to laugh about it all. Could this be our role as ‘sacred’ clowns ?

(there is a surprising amount of information about sacred clown on the web, links in the ‘about clown’ section of yoowho.org) [1]

[1] corrected the link so redirects don't happen, and takes a load off the remote admins ;)

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