April 16, 2008

Big Dream on the Bare Stage

[The following is a guest post from Tricycle's Copy Editor Karen Ready.]

I'm puzzled that virtually no New York bloggers have posted anything about Evan Brenner's work in progress The Buddha-In His Own Words, a one-man performance of excerpts from the life and teachings of the Buddha taken directly from the vast collection we know as the Pali canon. These texts form the basis of the Theravada tradition: discourses, teachings, monastic rules, and philosophical texts attributed in large part to the Buddha and his disciples, they were passed on orally and committed to writing only after the Buddha's death. The play is the result of some four years of work (so far) on Brenner's part to "assemble the life of the Buddha." I like his choice of "assemble": in fact, Mark Epstein has referred to the play as "masterfully crafted," and both terms provide a good sense of Brenner's deceptively simple eighty-minute creation, like the attentive folding of an origami shape. Here the actor-playwright takes on all the roles, from the young prince who leaves his royal surroundings to seek an answer to the world of suffering and death he finds beyond the palace gates, to those he encounters along the way (including Mara the tempter), to members of his ever-growing following as well as opponents who brought tragedy to his later years.

The Buddha has played steadily on Wednesday and Saturday evenings at the 75-seat Lumber Theater on West 25th Street (Manhattan) since its move from Boston to New York in early December. Philip Ryan mentioned it on the Tricycle blog (November 21), tipping his hat to the pop-culture site The Worst Horse, where a link to the play's website was posted for a time. Otherwise thus far I've encountered many other links to the website here and there on the Internet, a standard listing in New York's weekly Time Out, a notice in the quarterly Buddhadharma, and an appealing if chopped-up set of five YouTube snippets of an interview with Brenner; but I've seen almost no blog postings of substance. Granted, the play hasn't really officially premiered-Brenner considers it to be in workshop mode and thus hasn't yet advertised or invited reviewers (though in Boston a number of non-Buddhist newspapers and radio shows gave it publicity and thumbs up all around). Still, it's there for those who know.

So I'm back to my question: in an age when almost everyone is online with comments, is the bloggers' silence simply a reminder that honest practitioners (such as Brenner) aren't looking for praise or blame but rather are just following what they know they need to do to serve the dharma? Is the play-in-formation ordained to be an underground find for the happy few? or a reflection of the blunt fact that things are what they are-from the birth of a Buddha to the whirl of New York at night-and we don't need to be concerned about it? After all, word of mouth and links on the Web keep filling seats at the Lumber, and the author-actor expects to keep the play running twice a week for some time to come. Yet I can't help wondering about the responses, the thoughts and questions that I believe must have begun to stir in the minds of audience members, Buddhists and not, since their evening of attendance, and I wonder why more haven't been expressed online. I saw the play on two evenings: a Saturday, the more heavily attended night (when I was there, the appreciative audience included Sharon Salzberg); and a Wednesday (the weekday show has tended to have sparser attendance but thereby confers the benefit of a heightened sense of intimacy). I hope the following notes will indicate enough about the performance to inspire you to go see The Buddha for yourself.

The playwright-actor Evan Brenner, a Buddhist practitioner for more than twenty years and a former Zen novice, has focused on the study of the Pali canon since 2003. He took a dual undergraduate major in theater and religion and holds an M.A. in dramatic writing, which background serves him excellently in presenting the Buddha along with an entire cast of supporting and opposing characters through direct excerpts from the canonical scriptures of early Buddhism. As he remarked in an interview on YouTube, there's something strange about having the Buddha (who would most likely have waited for questions before stepping to the front of the stage) actively speak to the audience in the first person for eighty minutes. But you get used to it pretty quickly: Brenner's focused vitality and engagement with all he presents is infectious, and the straightforward texts keep one's attention as the streaming scene shifts from intense (encounters with Mara, here "the Devil," an appreciation of Stephen Batchelor's preferred term) to quiet, decisive moments; from humorous (when a disciple presses him to answer some abstract questions, he draws on the analogy of a man fatally hit by an arrow, who postpones help while he stubbornly insists on knowing everything about the one who shot him) to stark (his raw description of the results of having taken on the most extreme austerities).

A primary theme from the Buddha's teaching is given voice at the start and echoes several times as it threads its way to the closing minutes: All that is born dies; all that arises passes away; but there is something that does not die and does not pass away. Repetition, in fact, is a potent dramatic tool here that captures the tone of scripture (echoing down through the ages of memory) and offers listeners the experience of an oral teaching being passed on as well as the chance to absorb a few key statements by heart, all in the space of eighty minutes. In eighty minutes, a listener can hardly resist learning the Four Noble Truths-the heart of the Buddha's gift to us-even if the last one turns out not to be so clearly explained. But Buddhist and non-Buddhist theatergoers expecting a straight recounting of the outlines of the Buddha's life and teachings will be surprised, for although there are widely familiar scenes of Gautama's youth, quest, and transformation, Brenner has woven into the performance excerpts from less popularly familiar texts that for some may require some reflection, or even a little research to aid reflection.

Early on in the performance, for example, the aging Buddha recalls that "aeons ago there was a prince" and begins to relay a life narrative that presages his own, about a prince who married, had a son, renounced his royal surroundings to ride off on a quest for enlightenment-at which point the Buddha-narrator returns to his own youth and the verbatim description of a similar life. In fact, the earlier prince is one of the twenty-four Buddhas who preceded Gautama and thus represents the Buddha's lineage through the ages. In another narrative echo that may further serve to loosen our attachment to the idea of Gautama as an individual, a scene shows Siddhartha's disgust as he awakens after an evening of entertainment in the palace to see the entertainers lying in ungainly poses, drooling or snoring; later, the exact same words describe the experience of Yasa, a rich man's son who leaves his home to become one of the Buddha's disciples. There isn't time in the moment for the viewer to think out these parallels and how they may serve to shake our sense of narrative sequence or our idea of who the experiencer onstage really is, but it's surely one kind of dramatic instant message, something to chew over on the way home. Playgoers may not be familiar with the stories of Gautama's early teachers and disciples; or with the many people, including the Buddha's own son, wife, and father (and Yasa's family), who came to join him; or with stories such as that of King Pasenadi and the slave princess, a prelude to the tragic destruction in the Buddha's old age of his own clan, the Sakyas. Still, the effect of the lineup is that known characters and scenes prompt delight; less-known scenes prompt a delight flavored with curiosity or an interest urging later investigation. If you like the play, in fact, you may well want to see it again. Brenner continues to examine the texts-this is an ongoing labor of love for him both as playwright and as actor-and to make changes in his script (can you spot them from one visit to the next?).

The men, women, and beings who parade, however briefly, through the Buddha's story offer Brenner the chance to manifest the big dream on the bare stage, as it were. They're intense, they're funny or threatening, they're shortlived or outlive the Buddha-the theater sets it right before us to witness: they're all manifesting against the dark minimalist curtain, arising from the Buddha-actor's mind and voice-they are him, whoever he is, and the shapeshifting of a one-man show allows for a kind of Brechtian distance with the cynicism removed. At times, just for a few seconds, I inadvertently recalled the entertainment of seeing a French one-man puppet show years ago in Central Park, where the curtain pulled close around the actor's head and his torso was the tent around the stage. Here, at the evening's close, the beings on parade are taking shape in our minds too, as vivid stories that never stop being told, or as the ever-present potential lesson that it's all Buddha-nature, right here.

What else did I come away with? For one thing, a desire to hear more in the play about meditation-and about the Fourth Noble Truth (maybe a tall order, given the effectively tight format, but some details about the Buddha's way out could move new viewers to next steps). A keen interest in the language of the play, for another. (It's recognizably formal, if you are familiar with some of the translations of the canon, but absolutely comes off the paper.) I did have questions about some of Brenner's selection of terms, such as "the Devil" for Mara and "The Gospel" for the second act. The choice of Sanskrit names and terms (Siddhartha Gautama, Dharma, Nirvana) is understandable in the sense that they will undoubtedly be more familiar to many viewers than the Pali words, but since the focus here is the early scriptures, maybe this is the perfect opportunity to introduce the Pali forms to those who don't know them.

Finally, I came away with a healthy respect for the enormous body of canonical texts containing all I don't know about the historical Buddha and what he presents and represents. I'm anything but a scholar in this area; but I've been inspired to explore more deeply and systematically the range of canonical stories, with Joseph Goldstein's words in mind (one of my favorite "Daily Dharma" emailings from Tricycle):

[We can] view the Buddha as a fundamental archetype of humanity; that is, as the full manifestation of Buddha-nature, the mind that is free of defilement and distortion, and understanding his life story as a great journey representing some basic archetypal aspects of human existence. ...We can then view the Buddha's life not as an abstract, removed story of somebody who lived twenty-five hundred years ago, but as one that reveals the nature of the universal in us all. ...We have undertaken to follow the same path, motivated by the same questions: What is the true nature of our lives? What is the root cause of our suffering?

(from "Seeking the Heart of Wisdom," in Everyday Mind, ed. Jean Smith)

- Karen Ready, Copy Editor

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