Was the Buddha an Improviser?
I think he was. In fact, I’ll argue that Shakyamuni may have been the first improviser. Not the first comedian (although by all reports he had a good sense of humor) but among the first humans who came to perfect attitudes and behaviors that are central to the practice of improvising.
I’m not a Buddhist scholar. I’m more of a Buddhist dilettante, having sampled Zen, Pureland, and several Tibetan forms. I never met a religion that I didn’t like, and I’ve been keen to explore both the philosophy and the practices of the many incarnations of the Buddha way. I’ve chanted “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” and“Namo Amitabha Bu,”sat Naikan practice in a Japanese Zen temple in Kuwana, spent a week at a Vipassana retreat in rural Japan observing the sensations in my body; I’ve attempted the rigors of Zazen and have gotten lost in the intricacies of a Tibetan visualization in a monastery in Nepal. Alas, I have not been faithful to any of these fine practices, although I went a step farther than simply reading about them. It’s true, I lack credentials on things Buddhist.
What I do know something about is what it means to improvise and how improvisation works. I wrote a book about it: Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.I came to this work/play out of desperation. I was hired to lead the Acting Program in Stanford’s Department of Drama (during the Punic Wars or sometime in 1977). My students were incredibly bright men and women who could produce on cue whatever the director demanded. They were champs at “giving you the right answer.” What they lacked was the ability or reflex to access their own voices. “What do youthink/feel about your character?” often produced a deer-in-the-headlights look. To help these students I needed strategies for entering the creative zone.
During a tai chi workshop with Chungliang Al HuangI was introduced to Keith Johnstone, the Canadian “father” of modern improvisation theory and practice. His brilliant book, IMPRO, (and his teaching) hooked me. I discovered that one could learnto improvise. There were rules and guidelines. When I followed these improv maxims I could bypass the natural habit of planning everything in advance or looking for the “right answer.” Instead, improv training taught me to start where I am, look around and make sense out of the moment. (Does that sound like mindfulness?) “A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.” (p. 15 Improv Wisdom) Isn’t improvisation what we are doing most of the time? Yes, likely we are, if we are really paying attention.
Improvisation is founded on two principles that feature prominently in the Buddhist perspective: Impermanence and interdependence. The fact of groundlessness and constant change is a given in improv. Eternal instability: that is our playing field. The improviser practices her art on her feet with others. We learn that we aren’t in this alone. We need and depend upon our fellow improvisers. Only stand-up comics go it alone. Improvisers look to their fellows for help, inspiration, ideas and fuel. Improv training is a form of meditation in action.
So what are the principles that guide an improviser? I’ll call them the Five A’s of Improv
In order to move forward without a plan we must first pay attention to what is actually going on. And isn’t this what meditation is all about? Meditation always starts with attention. You stay on your cushion and attend to the reality of your situation. Sometimes there is an object of attention such as a mantra or the breath. And as we try to keep our mind focused on this object we discover the tendency we all have to hop all over the place. If we stay on the cushion we may find a way to return again and again to that object. We discover how to outwit or coexist with our propensity to be distracted.
When we step up to an improvisation our “job” is to notice everything that is going on: what our partner just said and did and the expression on her face as well as anything else that may be in our peripheral vision. The immediate past is also part of the picture. Then from this information we craft a story and place ourselves in it. “What is needed now?” becomes my mantra. The onstage player, pantomiming opening a newspaper, calls out: “Honey!!!” and I come on stage as his wife, placing my hand on his shoulder, “Yes, dear?”
If attention starts the ball rolling, then AFFIRMATION keeps it moving. I need to say YES to whatever is going on in order to join it. Affirming does not necessarily mean liking or approving of the scene, but it does mean saying yes to the basic premise and building upon what is known. The universal law of improv is YES-AND. This brings us to improv principle #3: ACCEPTANCE. I must accept the reality that is happening. I must look realistically at the scene and join it, accepting all that is known. It’s not my job to change this into something I’d prefer. I can work, however, to move the known scene in an interesting direction. As I accept the situation my job is to add something useful to move the scene forward. The next player in turn must accept my offer . . . and so on.
The fourth A is APPRECIATION. Improvisers know that the glass is never empty. “There is always something in the box” is their credo. When I look around with the eye of appreciation I begin to see that there is a gas fireplace warming me now, that an Ikea chair is caressing my butt and supporting my back, a painted ceramic mug holds the dregs of my tea, sunlight is casting light on the keyboard, prescription glasses focus my vision and turn the blur into clear words. A word processor holds this writing and a Mac laptop stores this essay. Appreciation warms my world. I am able to see even disagreeable things as “offers” . . . something to work with.
When we improvise we never take time to “come up with a good idea.” Life is too short. Instead, we take whatever idea is in front of us (that something in the box above) and make something artful with it. Everythingthat comes my way, that happens to me (pleasant or un . . ) is grist for the mill: an opportunity to advance the story of my life. “What can I make of this?” becomes the operating question. Notice the utility of this question as opposed to: “How do I like this?” We simply turn off the LIKE button and don’t ask the question. We don’t permit our preferences to push us around.
Finally the fifth A is ACTION. The improviser always starts before he is ready. Ready, fire, aim. Until we get going and have our bodies engaged in the flow of reality we simply don’t have enough to go on. By stepping into the river we discover its temperature, the speed of the current, if and where there are rocks and who else is in the water. The truth here is that we simply don’t have time for theoretical speculation.Deciding is not an option. After stepping we know exactly what the temperature is and so on. NOW we are engaged in life and follow what needs to be done. Cross the river? Fish? Gather stones for a garden wall? Cool our toes from a humid day? Take samples of the water for chemical analysis? Notice how the action of stepping into the water (without a plan) produces a myriad of possibilities. Improvisation teaches us the wisdom of action. The Buddhist notion of Right Action comes to mind.
The tenets of the Buddha way and the maxims of improvisation share similarities. Both invite us to show up, stand up and engage with the world in a constructive manner. Both involve waking up from the slumber of our preoccupation and getting involved with the everyday work of living. Great improvisers are generous folks. They listen, build upon what you are saying and always “make their partner look good.”
In a recent NPR interview the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield mused about the rise of the collective community as leader over the hierarchical Guru system of the past. “Community is the new Buddha,” he said. Perhaps there is mistrust of a single person to embody the wisdom necessary to provide guidance to those studying the Buddha’s path. Instead of a single teacher, the community may regulate, teach and inspire. Some suggest that the Sangha has replaced the need for an omniscient leader. We see this in the way social media is functioning: giving advice, helping an individual to correct a view or a behavior. If the collective whole of the Sangha is now the bedrock of sanity and wisdom, then advice which helps us cooperate and collaborate is important. Improv can do this.
The study of improvisation teaches us a way to be together, a method of cooperating in order to create the stories of our lives. Improv guides us to set our personal preferences aside in favor of the greater good . . . the story that is emerging moment by moment on stage. When Shakymuni stood up and took his first steps he was entering his first improvisation. He said yes to life. John Tarrant proclaimed: “Improv has become a wisdom tradition of its own.” Hanging out with a gaggle of improvisers might be a good way to strengthen your practice. I really do think that the Buddha was an improviser. Wouldn’t you like to be on stage with him?