ZEN PLAY: EXCHANGES ON AUTHENTICITY OF PERFORMANCES

My last post “Authentic Vs. Inauthentic Performance” prompted some of you to send me emails.  I would like to thank those of you who commented on the post as they help me in thinking about all of this. I have chosen three comments to respond to in this post.  In all cases, I have changed the names of the Sangha members.

#1.

COMMENT:  ”Hi Manoj,  fascinating line of thought, to quote Mr. Spock.”,  Mufungo

RESPONSE: It may be “fascinating” because it is…”Most Illogical” to quote Mr. Spock.  Mufungo’s comment suggests to me that she found my post to be entertaining or engaging to some degree and that she may also be doubtful as to whether or not what I said is true or correct.  This is fine by me. Today’s “post-modern” society is characterized by a dwindling confidence in any authority (religious, political scientific etc.) purporting to offer “the truth” on some topic.  Since the term “author” is derived from the word “authority”, writers, such as myself, are also suspect.  I recently read an article called “Beyond Postmodernism? Towards a Philosophy of Play” by Robert Miller, who  points out that readers should remember that what authors (including himself) have to say should be best understood as something to be “played with” rather than some statement of truth. ( http://home.vicnet.net.au/~exist/pdf/2001_December.pdf).  Interestingly,  he also suggests that this is exactly what is encouraged through Zen practice.  Accordingly, I see my posts as being more like an art pieces than articles; where whatever is said is hopefully seen as fodder for “mind play”.  Even though I’m not sure whether or not there is any validity to what I am thinking,  I continue to write as if  I know what I am doing; as if  I was an real author; “faking it”, in other words.

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An essential characteristic of

child’s play is a dimension of pretend—that is, an action

and interaction in an imaginary, “as if” situation.

(http://crpit.com/confpapers/CRPITV34Verenikina.pdf)

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#2

COMMENT: Here is comment #2 from Makita:

‘To educate/clarify the teacher needs to make a point.

The student does not’.

Here is my response to Makita via email:

 

“Thanks for the comment.  Not completely sure of the “point” but maybe that is your “point”.

Maybe you could fill me in when we see each other.  Manoj

 

Makita responded to this via email saying:

“What I meant is just related to Buddha as a “performance artist”.

Every good teacher uses some elements of performance to make his/her point. We can add that when the performance is “sanctified” the essential point most likely would be forgotten. Maybe this is a link to the origin of certain rituals…..

RESPONSE:  Here is my response to the second email:

In the first of Makita’s emails, I was not sure to which part of the blog he was responding.  It turns out that he was commenting on another article “Buddha As Performance Artist” that was referenced in the latest post.  Now I understand where Makita was coming from and appreciate his observation on the topic. I think that his last point is important as it expresses a key point in Thurman’s article on Buddha as a Performance Artist.  In order to convey “knowledge” that goes beyond and can not be expressed in ordinary or “secular” (i.e. dualistic) language, one must use what Susanne Langer calls “presentational” (as opposed to “discursive”) symbols and this is where teaching and art begin to intersect. Certainly Zen has placed an emphasis on “presentational” communication throughout it’s evolution.  According to Robert Aitken (The Gateless Barrier) koan study helps students perform using “presentational” communication.

.#3

COMMENT: (The last email came from Zen-Doe and entails two separate comments.  Here is the first one.)

COMMENT #1:

When I substitute the word “behavior” for “performance,” the idea of “ritual as performance” makes much more sense to me.  Then, the phrase, “Buddha was a ‘performance (behavior) artist’ rings quite true to my understanding of who and what Buddha was.  I think “Buddha as a performance artist” can be misleading and very confusing.

 

RESPONSE: I am guessing that Thurman chose the term “performance artist” on purpose to emphasize that Buddha had to be “artistic” in his presentation of what he had learned to his “audience”.  In other words, Thurman was engaging in the kind of “post modern play” referenced by Miller (see my introduction above).  As the term “performance artist” is a contemporary term, I don’t believe he wants us to believe that Buddha said to himself “I’m going to be a performance artist”.  This was Thurman’s playful attempt to talk about Buddha’s use of upaya (skillfull means).  In other words,  Buddha used “presentational communication” to help the audience understand his teachings.

COMMENT #2:

“Faking it until you make it” certainly may work for some personality types, but not for all.  I’ve been hearing that phrase for 25 years and it has never “spoken” to me as a path I should follow.  I’ve been recently reading about Jung’s various personality types and there are major differences between them in how they understand and interact with the world and their experiences in it.  You having some (maybe a lot of) innate “performance” ability — along with others who may enjoy performing/acting — might be likely to find “faking it” a helpful approach to dealing with inner discomforts, but I doubt that would work for most.

RESPONSE:

I am not surprised that some people find all this talk of “performance” and  “faking it” off-putting.  But, remember it is just one perspective; one among many that could be used to talk about Zen and Ritual.  I recall Roshi lately saying something to the effect that we should always remember that our opinions are only one of the many possible perspectives on an issue, and that we should be open to trying out (playing with) other perspectives.

The term “fake” has a negative connotation associated with it and most of us would not want to be thought of as a “fake”.  However, I would suggest that all of us engage in the kind of actions described in the three articles covered in the post “Authentic Vs. Inauthentic Performance”. That is, we play roles in various social situations even though we are not convinced that our actions in that role are expressing who we really are.  One example of this is when we take on a new role such as being a new parent or a new marriage partner.  When I first started painting I certainly felt “inauthentic” whenever I referred to myself (or was referred to) as a “painter”. I certainly feel like something of a fake when thinking about being Shuso at The Vista Zen Center.   In my first Shuso talk, when I referred to not knowing why I was taking on the Shuso role (and thus jumping into the abyss), it was due to my extreme self-consciousness about my performance and the feeling of not being authentic. in that role.

The first reason I posted “Authentic vs. Inauthentic Performance” is that I am wondering whether that distinction is very useful.  For one thing, when we feel authentic it is because we feel that our performances capture or express our “true” or “inner” self.  Well, we know that from a Buddhist perspective (as well as contemporary social psychology) there is no authentic, real or true self.  In Zen, we are supposedly authentic when we are expressing our true nature (Buddha nature) which is who or what we are without the conditioned self concept that results from socialization.  And supposedly this expression can be recognized by teachers who have supposedly also expressed this authenticity to those who conferred transmission to them.  Often this expression of authenticity is displayed in the context of being tested by the teacher during Koan study.  However,  most long time Zen students  I have talked to portray this as a  highly subjective and arbitrary process.  We can also  look at the number of students who have gone bad after the  authenticity of their expressions have been validated by their teachers.  Also an article by William Bodiford (Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practices), concludes that throughout the history of Zen the criteria for transmissions have been inconsistently applied so that  which student does or does not receive transmission can be best explained by looking  to matters of politics and personal ties than evaluations of performances expressing students’  true nature.

The second reason for posting “Authentic Vs. In Authentic Performance” is that the “performance perspective” on ritual seems to resemble the ideas behind “faking it until making it”  I am going to go in more detail in my next Shuso Talk but Dale Wright seems to suggest that this idea has been incorporated in Zen training since days of old.  For instance he states:

“Ritual practitioners proceed in the ritual “as if” things were different than they seemed before entering the ritual.  They imagine a state of affairs other than common sense would dictate and proceed as if something other than that were true.  Zen practitioners engage in zazen as if they were enlightened Buddhas, and in the act of imagination, something really changes.” (p. 12, Zen Ritual; Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice.)

Is this way of understanding true?  At first blush it sounds like a bunch of hooey to me.  However, because of my interest in art, theater and music , I am willing to explore this new perspective to see whether I might find it helpful in feeling more “authentic” as a Zen student and Shuso.  The journey continues.

AUTHENTIC VS. INAUTHENTIC PERFORMANCE

In talking with others about the idea of “rituals as performance”, I’ve realized that many people are uncomfortable with the term because it implies “acting” or “faking”.  This brought to mind an earlier blog I had posted where I suggested  that “faking it” may not necessarily be a bad thing.  I will probably play with this notion more in upcoming Shuso talks, so I  thought that maybe those who did not read the original blog might find it of interest.  Below I have reprinted most of the original post. I would be very interested in hearing from you about your reactions to this post.  Are there times when you “fake it”?  Do you see this as a problem?  How can you tell if you or someone else is authentic in their actions?  Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman wrote that Buddha was a “performance artist”.  Does that mean Buddha was not authentic? (see:  http://artandzentoday.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1226&action=edit)   PLEASE SHARE YOUR REACTIONS AND IDEAS WITH ME VIA EMAIL OR IN PERSON; I’VE FOUND YOUR COMMENTARIES THUS FAR TO BE VERY USEFUL.

 

1. The first case is a review of the documentary movie KUMARE. by Roger Ebert    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/kumare-2012  A number of members of The Vista Zen Center watched this film and it has been the object of a great deal of discussion afterwards.

“Growing up in New Jersey, Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who resented the way his family tried to enforce Hindu beliefs and practices. He found it ironic that Americans began to popularize gurus and yoga just at the time he was growing away from such things. On a trip to India, he says, he found that “real” gurus were no more real than the American frauds who copied them.

That led him into the deliberate deception that he filmed in “Kumare.” He grew a long beard and a pony-tail, exchanged his shoes for sandals, switched his slacks and suits to flowing orange robes, and started carrying an ornate walking stick. Then he moved toArizona, hired an expert to teach him yoga and a PR woman to promote him as a guru, and began to attract followers in meetings at shopping malls, community centers and around the swimming pools of his affluent clients. His accent was modeled on the way his grandmother spoke English. His teachings were deliberate gibberish: talk of inner blue lights, “finding the guru within,” and chants of fabricated mantras.

At this point in the film, it takes an odd turn. Kumare’s followers believe him without question. They share their deepest secrets with him and visibly appear to benefit from him. These people are not dummies. Mostly middle-aged, they take their health seriously, are somewhat skilled at yoga and follow schedules of meditation. “Kumare” seems to establish that a guru can be a complete fraud and nevertheless do a certain amount of good, because what matters is not the sincerity of the guru but that of his followers.

Gandhi narrates the documentary (in an ordinary American voice), introduces us to followers he’s grown close to, and begins to believe he may have started something that was out of his control.  He tells his followers the time has come for him to leave them. Now they are on their own. He returns toNew Jersey, cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and begins to practice a speech in the mirror: “I am not who you think I am.” Whether he ever says this, and how the movie ends, I will leave for you to discover.

It seems to me that “Kumare” reflects a truth that is often expressed in three words: “Act as if.” If you can act as if something is true, in a sense that makes it true. It doesn’t matter if a teacher’s spiritual teachings have any basis. It doesn’t matter if the supernatural even exists (Gandhi believes it does not). His followers benefit by acting ‘as if’.”

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2.  I discovered that a number of research and therapists in psychology have incorporated the ideas put forth by Hans Vaihinger in his book The Philosophy of “As If”.   Below is an excerpt from  a blog called “Mindfulness Muse” which provides a description of this approach in psychology:

“Most of us have some aspect of our lives or ourselves that we would like to change. Perhaps you have a clear vision in your mind of how you would like to be “different” in some way, yet all of the facts and positive self-talk in the world doesn’t seem to be enough to turn your vision into reality. It is not uncommon to know what we could do to be “better” in regards to some aspect of who we believe/wish ourselves to be, yet knowledge and piles of self-help books don’t seem to be enough. These are the times when it is more important take a step back and try a different approach. The first step is to get out of your mind and take action.

Do you really want to change? Attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors are so closely intertwined that the truth about change is that in many ways you can become different when you start acting as if you are different. This concept is at the heart of Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) principle of opposite action.

How to Change Your Life by Choosing New Behaviors

Take a moment to reflect on an aspect of yourself that you deeply wish to change. This type of self-transformation is one that is positive in nature and intended to move you closer toward living your life in accordance with your true values. Consider the person that you believe yourself to be today – in this very moment. Now reflect on the aspects of your core identity that you wish to materialize in your life. Do you wish you were more [.....]? You can be. Stop thinking about it and starting acting as if you already are.

(1) HAPPINESS: SMILE

Do you wish that you felt happier? Less depressed? You have indirect control over your emotions through consciously choosing new ways of behaving. Research has found that the simple behavioral choice to activate your facial muscles into a smile is enough to genuinely make you feel happier. Even if you feel a bit silly the first time you give this exercise a try, do it anyway! That’s what making actual changes through behavioral choices is all about.”

This is one of 10 examples of this approach.  You can read more by clicking here.

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 A while back an artist friend showed me her business card which had “Aspiring Artist” after her name.  I told her that I felt that she was doing herself a disservice by not billing herself as an artist, but had no convincing rationale for my response.  Since learning about “as if”, I think that my response to her made some sense.  Below are a couple of online articles that have to do with becoming an artist.  The first (A) is from The Daily Painter Blog .  The second (B) is from a site called Lateral Action.

(A)

How to Become an Artist, “Fake It”

Tuesday/08/2012 August Filed in: Art Marketing

Becoming an artist is easy. You just proclaim you are. You can not do this if you want to be a Brain Surgeon. You do not need a degree to be an artist. Heck, the best artist are children until a sibling or some bully says their art stinks. Some stop and never return until they realize what happened. That’s what I like about my job. Getting people hooked on art, again. I’m sort of a art pusher, I lurk in the back of art stores looking for people to turn on to art who gave up the dream.

(B)

How to Fake It As an Artist

Have you ever walked into an art gallery and thought “I could do better than that!”?

Or are you a contemporary art enthusiast, tired of hearing people criticize things they don’t understand?

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re bound to have an opinion on the story of Paul O’Hare, a painter and decorator fromLiverpool,UK, who was given just four weeks to transform himself into a fine artist and attempt to fool the critics at aLondon art gallery.

Paul’s story was featured in one of my all-time favorite documentary series, Faking It. In each program, a member of the public was given a month’s intensive training at an improbably difficult profession – and then put through a competitive test alongside experienced pros, to see if they could ‘fake it’ by convincing the judges they were the real deal.

The final test was an exhibition at a London gallery, where Paul’s work was displayed alongside three artists who had been exhibiting and selling work for several years. The work was judged by three respected critics, who also interviewed each of the artists, to see how convincingly they could discuss their work.

 

Paul was clearly feeling the pressure as he was grilled by the judges, and his performance wasn’t perfect. But in the event, one of the genuine artists did an even worse job of explaining his own work – it just goes to show you can’t always tell from appearances. And neither could the judges – out of three of them, only one spotted Paul as the fake.

Takeaway: There comes a point where you have to step out confidently and present yourself to the world as the person you want to be – even though you’re feeling terrified inside. And there are no guarantees that the world will buy your bluff.

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