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A Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi
Ajahn Brahmavamso & Gil Alon
interviewed by Rachael Kohn
"The Spirit of Things" radio program,
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Sunday 09 March 2003
Two Westerners who became Buddhists could not have chosen more different paths.
Details or Transcript:
Ajahn Brahm of the Thai Forest Tradition is the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia - a retreat for many a weary traveller and roaming Buddhist. Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi who travels the world as a theatre director and drama coach, and for whom Zen is the perfect philosophy for life on stage.
Rachael Kohn: How different can two Buddhists be? Hello, Iím Rachael Kohn and this is The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National. A Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi; the first prefers the tranquillity of a rural monastery; the other takes his tranquillity to the stage, where he acts and directs theatre.
In fact, this is one of the exercises that Israeli-born Zen Roshi Gil Alon teaches his acting students.
Gil Alon: One of the very basic Buddhist ideas which is not only Buddhist, but we use it as an example, they talk about the one-ness, the one-ness that everything is one, everyone is one, and of course you can talk about it for hours, but if you do not experience it, itís worthless. So one of the exercises I ask my students to find a partner, each one to find a partner and seat one in front of the other, folded legs, holding hands in a very relaxed way, and for something like 10 or 15 minutes, just to stare at their partnerís eyes. Thatís it. And immediately they are embarrassed, and itís difficult because we donít do it usually.
And I ask them not to talk while theyíre doing it, not to look in other directions, not to make funny faces and not to move with the background music that I play, but I tell them surprisingly you are allowed to laugh, because laughter is out of embarrassment, so when laughter is coming just laugh it out until its finished. But in one condition: donít use the laughter to remove your eyes from your partnerís eyes, just laugh into his eyes or her eyes.
And then after five minutes or so, it comes down, and people experience the real one-ness, because just staring into the other eyes for a certain time without removing your eyes, you discover endless depths of mutual one-ness. And then when they share what theyíve been through, each couple can tell you a different story, but they all share the experience of this one-ness. This is only one example.
Rachael Kohn: How does that help in the acting situation?
Gil Alon: It helps, according to my perception of acting, that they start to drop judgements, they start to drop competition because real acting, real creativity on stage happens only when you give yourself totally to your partner, and the partner is giving himself totally to you, and you both give yourself totally to the objects on stage and to the audience. And then creativity appears, not by competition, not by trying to show off or all these kinds of things. This is my perception.
Rachael Kohn: I remember doing one of those exercises; once you stop thinking youíll go crazy, itís quite good. That was Gil Alon, and later in the program weíll hear how one of Israelís television personalities became a Zen Roshi, off and on the stage.
* * *
Finding peace in the fast lane of the entertainment world is quite different from the kind of life that Ajahn Brahmavamso chose as a young man. Born in London and educated in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, he became a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. Now the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery, in Serpentine, Western Australia, heís in demand as a speaker and is known for his story telling.
Although simplicity is the essence of monastic life, and thatís particularly so in the rural setting of Serpentine, the whole point of Buddhist insight is to find tranquillity in the midst of chaos. And thatís how it was when I c aught up with Ajahn Brahm in the Bodhikusuma Buddhist and Meditation Centre located in the noisy inner city suburb of Chippendale in Sydney, where the transport trucks rumbled by just outside the door.
Ajahn Brahm, youíve been a monk for some years now, was it when you were 23?
Ajahn Bramavanso: When I was 23, I decided Iíd had enough of the world and became a monk. I used to be a schoolteacher before, and thatís enough to make anyone leave the world and become a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Now I thought you had been studying physics at Cambridge University.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, that was before I became a schoolteacher. I thought Iíd do something good with my life, instead of making bombs or things like that. And so I decided to try schoolteaching. However, after a while the whole feeling for a monastic life, or for something spiritual, was very strong inside of me. And one of the lovely things about Buddhist monastic life, in the Thai tradition was you can become a monk just for a short time.
So I decided I would take a couple of years off my career life, and then go off to Thailand, become a monk, get it out of my system, and then go back to the world again. But once I became a monk, something happened very quickly that I realised thatís what I always wanted to do, I felt so comfortable in the role of a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Were you actually taking refuge as it were, away from the school life, I mean teaching children? What was it that really made you take quite a radical step.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, what really made me take that step was a realisation that deep inside there was much more to life than just getting on in oneís career or in relationships. Perhaps one of the most moving experiences in my life was one of my first meditation retreats. I did get into a very deep state of meditation, which was so joyful, it was so much bliss. And that never left me, and I wanted to find out what exactly that meant and how it fits in to the scheme of things. So that degree of deep meditation was something which changed a lot of perspectives on the meaning of life. I wanted to explore those perspectives more, and that could only be done in monastic life.
Rachael Kohn: Well the description you give of life in Thailand doesnít exactly sound joyful. I mean you spent a lot of time building monasteries, in fact I think it totals to about 20 years building monasteries, in rather difficult circumstances.
Ajahn Bramavanso: It was difficult physically, building the monasteries, but there was always a lot of fun around, and it was done joyfully. For example one of my stories was when we were building the main hall in my teacher Ajahn Chahís monastery, there was a lot of earth left over and we had to move that earth from one place to another because Ajahn Chah, my teacher, said it didnít look good over there.
It took three whole days of very hard work from 9 oíclock in the morning until about 10pm with hardly any breaks. Weíd already eaten our meal for the day, and that was one day after the other in the tropical heat. When we were finished, we were very happy but then Ajahn Chah left for another monastery. The following morning, his deputy abbot came up to us and said he thought the soil was in the wrong place and we had to move it. So for another three days we moved it to another spot, and again I was very happy when it was all finished.
But the next day, Ajahn Chah came back and he said, ĎWhat did you put the soil over there for, I told you to leave it over here.í And so for another three days we had to move the soil again. And of course by this time I was getting very angry and upset. And being a Westerner, in an Asian monastery, I could swear in English without anyone understanding. But they did understand because they could see my body language.
And I always remember one monk coming up to me and saying, ĎItís pushing the wheelbarrow is easy, itís the thinking about it which is hard.í And thatís changed the whole perspective of what I was doing. As soon as I stopped complaining and moaning, it was easy to push that wheelbarrow, in fact it felt much lighter. And this is actually how I learned about the secrets, one of the secrets, of monastic life. Didnít matter what you were doing, whether you were sitting for hours and hours and hours in your hut, whether you were working building a monastery, thereís a thinking about it which made it hard.
Rachael Kohn: Well it also sounds like one of the secrets of monastic life is learning how to take orders. I mean itís positively torture, isnít it? to be told to do one thing and then to undo it and then re-do it again?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well sometimes. If you look from my perspective it seems like it should be, look for another perspective, it wasnít at all. It was just again, one can make anything torture, one could make sort of eating torture, or being interviewed torture, but itís oneís attitude which is the most important thing, and this is one of the things you really found in monastic life, itís how you approached it. And a lot of times you had a choice. If you were going to keep those old silly ways of looking at life, then you would suffer. But if you actually changed the way you looked at life, in other words you did learn some wisdom, you find it was no problem at all.
Rachael Kohn: Were you always interested in your attitude to things? I mean were you always a kind of perfectionist, to try to find just the right sort of happiness, because when I think of happiness and most of us are quite content with some happiness and some unhappiness, you know the combination is what life delivers in most cases. But you seem to be going for the kind of almost magical solution to find happiness in all things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Correct, yes, because I always thought that the search for happiness is the underlying force of life. No matter what weíre doing in our world, in our life, itís always a search for some sort of happiness. Then again, one of those early experiences of deep bliss in meditation gave me a taste of some happiness which was out of this world. And so once youíve tasted that you wanted to make even a deeper search into the meaning of happiness.
The meaning of happiness is the meaning of life. And so it wasnít just the meaning of happiness in meditation, it was also the meaning of happiness in anything you were doing. Because even sometimes your body gave you orders in saying, ĎNow you have to sleepí or ĎNow you have to be sickí or ĎNow you canít do what you wantí. So it didnít matter whether there was something else in life which stopped you doing what you wanted to do. That was like the orders of life, and you had a chance there to actually let go, to surrender to the moment when you canít change things, and be content. And thatís one of the wonderful things which I found in Buddhist practice. You can be happy, no matter whatís going on.
Rachael Kohn: In fact you tell a story about going to a prison and speaking to prisoners, where you described your life to them, and theyíre so shocked, they actually say, ĎGee, come and live with us, itís a lot nicer here than a monastic lifeí. In fact stories are quite important to you, in the way that you communicate.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Life is lived in stories, not in thoughts. Thoughts are almost like a second-hand report of what actually happens in your life. So if you can take the stories of life and illustrate from them the meanings of life, I think people can relate to it much more easily. So I like those stories.
Just to actually complete that story which you only mentioned in part when one of my monks, it wasnít myself, another monk was teaching in jail, after the session they asked him about what it was like in a Buddhist monastery in the West, and we told him we get up so early in the morning, 3 oíclock in the morning and then we have to go to this cold hall to sit for hours cross-legged, meditating, and doing some chanting. And then only afterwards, maybe at 6.30, we might get a cup of tea, and then you have to work for three or four hours, hard work, before you can get some lunch. And that lunch is just what youíre given, youíve got no choice, and itís all eaten in one bowl, all mixed together. So itís not very delicious at all. And in the afternoon itís usually more work in those days. And then you canít watch the television, there is no television or radio, and you canít follow sport, you canít play sports, you canít play music or listen to music. Thereís no movies to watch, and thereís nothing in the evening, you canít eat in the evening, except just to go to the main hall and to sit in more meditation, cross-legged on the hard floor for hours, and when you do go back to your hut to sleep, itís on the floor, in the cold.
And so when I said this, or when this monk said this, the prisoners were very shocked, and this is when one of the prisoners forgot where they were and said, ĎThatís disgusting, thatís terrible, thatís awful; why donít you monks come and live in here with us, in the jail?í which was crazy, they forgot where they were. But the important part of that story was the reason why my monks and other people who visit the monastery like to stay there, and itís because theyíre content, they donít look upon a monastery as a prison, simply because itís where they want to be. Whereas prisoners in a jail, because they donít want to be there, therefore it is a prison.
Rachael Kohn: Itís all about freedom, isnít it, about our perspective on freedom, what constitutes freedom. I mean when I think about what constitutes freedom for me, itís spontaneity, itís learning, itís choice. What is it for you?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well thereís two types of freedom. The freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, and most people in the world only know the freedom of desire, the freedom of choice. In Buddhism, especially in meditation, weíre looking at the freedom from choice, the freedom from desire.
So one is so content, so at peace, that desires donít come up. One is free from the tyranny of these desires always pushing or pulling you, and telling you what to do. And itís those are the orders which are coming from inside of each one of us, ordering us to be somehow different, ordering the pain to go away, ordering us to achieve some sort of goal, which we donít really know why weíre reaching for this, but weíre supposed to do it. So these are the orders which in meditation weíre becoming free of.
Rachael Kohn: Did you always know why you were reaching for this goal to be a Buddhist monk, to be an abbot.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No, an abbot just happened by bad luck, but being an Buddhist monk, Iíd always had an inclination, that even though you saw many, many people who had so many things, that they did seem to have the opportunity to live their dreams, their dreams never stopped, they were never free from this, always reaching out, this stretching, this hunger, this thirst, and that hunger, that thirst, like any hungry person or thirsty person, is not all that comfortable. Sometimes we want to end thirst, we want to end hunger and be satisfied forever, but that never seemed to happen. But when I came across some Buddhist monks, they were the happiest people Iíd ever seen.
They appeared to be free, and even though that many wealthy people, successful people in the world, they are looked upon as being icons, looked upon as being people we try and emulate. If you actually asked them, or interview them and ask the question ĎDo you really feel free?í then I think they would give some very interesting answers. But if you ask a monk who lives in a monastery with many rules, and many things you canít do, if you ask a monk ĎDo you feel free?í actually the feeling is freedom. So the ideas of freedom, the freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, in our modern world, weíve got so much liberty to follow our desires and actually achieve those desires, basically we can do almost anything we want. But how many people feel free?
Rachael Kohn: It all depends on what we expect from life. I know that your message is often about happiness, and how the point of life is kind of like that song, ĎDonít Worry, Be Happyí, which is all about changing oneís attitude, not really about changing the world. And yet you would know, that that kind of an attitude can also be breeding a certain indifference to the world.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, well I donít think this relates to indifference at all, because many people change their attitude and the world changes with it.
Now the attitude of anger, of trying to get rid of problems, is like the attitude to the pest exterminator, and the attitude of the pest exterminator is instead of trying to live with nature, he always wanted control and eliminate all those things which create problem for us, and that could be a husband or a wife or it could be sort of some enemy which we perceive as being our pest. And you find you canít eliminate all the pests in the world, nor can you eliminate the pests in your own body, like cancers and other sicknesses. Nor can you eliminate the pests in the world. Some time there comes a time to learn how to leave at peace and in harmony with nature.
Rachael Kohn: Does Buddhism ever teach a resistance to things which are dangerous, which are bad, which are evil?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, we teach a resistance to anger, we teach a resistance to jealousies, we teach a resistance to stupidity. Those are the things which we should really be resisting, you know, the anger and the feelings of revenge, the hurt, the grief, the guilt inside of us, all those negative emotions which make our world. Those are the things which we want to resist, to understand, to overcome, by letting go. And so those things arenít there any more.
Rachael Kohn: I like the story that you tell about the lecturer who comes into the classroom and brings a jar full of rocks. Can you tell that story?
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, yes, thatís actually from the internet, so many of your listeners will probably know that one, but itís a good story. There was a lecturer at a university who was showing just how broad his wisdom was, and instead of reading out his lecture notes one morning, he came with a big jar and put it on his desk. And while everybody in his class was wondering what he was up to, he started to put in some stones from a bag, one by one, into the jar until he could get no more in. And once he could get no more stones into his jar, he asked his class ĎIs the jar full?í and the class said, ĎYes, it is.í
He smiled, and from under the desk he got out another bag, and that bag was full of gravel, small stones and one by one he managed to fit those small stones in the spaces between the big rocks. And once he could get no more small stones in, he looked up at his class and asked ĎIs the jar full?í Now they all shook their heads and said, ĎNoí. They were on to him by now. And so he smiled and got another bag, of sand. He poured that sand on top of the big rocks and small rocks, shook the jar, much of the sand went into the spaces between the big rocks and small rocks. After he could get no more sand in, he asked once more, ĎIs the jar full?í And gain the class said ĎNoí. And he got some water and poured that in. And after he could get no more water in, he stopped, he asked the class, ĎWhat am I trying to prove? What is the purpose of this demonstration?í
Now this was a business school, so one of the students in the class put up their hand and said, ĎSir, it shows to us that no matter how busy our schedule, we can always fit something more in.í And he said, ĎNo, no, no, thatís not what Iím trying to show. What Iím trying to show is if you want to fit the big rocks in, you have to fit them in first. Donít leave them to the last, otherwise you will never get them in.í It was a story about priorities, what you should really fit in to your schedule of your day, of your life first of all.
So there are some things which many people realise are the precious stones, the big rocks of their life, like their family, like their relationships, like their peace of mind, whatever it is, and sometimes we leave them till last in our day, in our week, in our life, we find we never have the opportunity to fit them in. And thatís one of the reasons why people donít find happiness. Their priorities are not correct. We should always remember that story of the stones in the jar, and put into our life whatís very, very important first of all. The other things you can always fit in, but later.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, are there any more things that you want to fit into your jar?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Fit into the jar? Just peace and happiness for myself and for others. I mean after all, thatís whatís most important to me in my life, is the happiness of myself and the happiness of others, but what I found after many years of life as a monk, I cannot distinguish between the happiness of others and the happiness of myself. So thatís why I go out and serve as much as possible, to give talks, to tell stupid stories to make them laugh.
Rachael Kohn: Youíre very good at it.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Thanks very much.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, weíre sitting in front of what looks to be a fairly traditional altar I suppose, with the great Golden Buddha in the centre, and lots of lotus flowers around. Can you explain the symbolism of this?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes certainly. I mean we have at the very top there, a golden Buddha sitting in meditation with a bit of a smile on his face, and obviously thatís a symbol of peace, and when people see images like that, itís meant to engender a very soft and gentle feeling inside of them of peace. We have the candles on the sides of the Buddha, thatís always been like the symbol of wisdom, because you have to light a candle to dispel the darkness, and for a long time that has been a symbol of enlightenment, so the wisdom is there, no-one owns wisdom, but we need to have a candle in order to actually see it for ourselves.
We have also on our shrine here, the lotus. The lotus is also a very potent symbol of Buddhism. Some of the lotuses we have there are ornamental, with many, many leaves on them, many petals, which is a symbol of the thousand petalled lotus, which is one of my favourite symbols for meditation, because to open the petals of a lotus, it means that the sun has to maintain its warmth on the thousandth petal before that opens up to reveal the 999th petal, and the sun has to stay on that thousand petal lotus a long time before it starts to open up the innermost petals.
The innermost petals of a lotus are the most fragrant, the most subtle and the most beautiful, and if youíre lucky, and the sun maintains its warmth long enough, then the heart of the lotus can really open up and you can see what is called the jewel in the heart of the lotus. That is the very old mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, om mani padme hum, Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus. Itís a symbol for meditation because you have to have mindfulness, unremitting, without any interference or stopping for a long time, to open up this thousand petalled lotus of your mind and to see whatís truly inside, the jewel in the heart of you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No trouble, thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahmavanso was my guest on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National. Iím Rachael Kohn, and you can find details of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, on our website.
* * *
Rachael Kohn: Gil Alon is an Israeli-born entertainer, who started earning his living as an actor from the age of 16. He had an unusual but very popular television show for 8 years which youíll hear about. But his main work is now as a director and acting coach. In the midst of all this, Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi in the Soto School of Buddhism.
His interest in Buddhism was sparked by a collection of Chinese stories that he read at the age of 21.
Well to make him feel at home, I met Gil in a rehearsal studio down in the Sydney Wharf Theatre Complex under the Harbour Bridge. There he told me about the unexpected appeal of those Chinese stories.
Gil Alon: I donít think itís something logical. There were sort of what they call koans, you know, pointless stories, so-called. I think I was puzzled by the fact that although I didnít understand them, it didnít bother me that I donít understand them. Which was unique, because I have to understand, and somehow with these stories, I said, OK, I have no idea, no clue what is the meaning of these stories, so fine, OK.
Rachael Kohn: So was it something in the challenge of being an actor that made you turn again, once again, to those stories?
Gil Alon: Well later on, yes, but first of all, as looking for means to quieten the hectic life of an actor was the first reason to look for something to be relaxed, to find kind of technique, meditation or whatever. Because I knew that my schedule daily started at 7 in the morning, ends 1 oíclock after midnight. And I loved it so much, but I wanted to find the way to continue this kind of schedule, but with tranquillity. Then when I found the Japanese Zen meditation, it was again very natural for me.
Rachael Kohn: What did your Zen training involve?
Gil Alon: Well first of all when I started to look for something, I discovered that one of the alternative medicine colleges in Israel opened a Zen and High Awareness Department. So I went there and I started to study, and there was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher there because we had lots of teachers and we had kind of introduction, including all kinds of spiritual paths which are not Zen Buddhism. Thatís how we got glimpse and opened windows to all other kinds of disciplines.
So it was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher who was a Korean monk for seven years in a Korean monastery. Then gradually, as his disciple, I became his assistant and then when he could not attend the classes, one day he told me, ĎThis is your time, now you take it.í And I had to face the class. And then he took me with him to other parts of Israel where he would teach and yes, gradually it started to develop.
Rachael Kohn: But becoming a Zen Roshi is fairly demanding; did you think that youíd be able to maintain your acting career as well as being a Zen Roshi?
Gil Alon: Well I didnít mean to, it happened. You know, when I started to travel and to study in other countries, because I was interested in other kinds of Buddhism, and finally when I arrived to Japan I found the master and this master, being recommended by my teacher in Israel, and when I found this 83-years-old Japanese Master, again it was immediate contact, and something was very strong there. But again, I was there to study, thatís it. So he has a centre which has no discipline, which I like so much.
Rachael Kohn: What do you mean Ďhas no disciplineí? Surely all Buddhism has some form of meditation and study.
Gil Alon: They have the formal Zazen meditation which is the meditation that if you donít know nothing about it, the nun whoís taking care of this centre will show you once how to do it, then they leave you alone, they have four times a day in a regular day, official times for meditation, but nobody forces you, itís up to you how many times you meditate, how much time you spend in the library studying, and how many hours you spend with the Master, itís up to you, and this is what I like, because I donít like people telling me what to do. So when I have a free frame, I do more. So I spent hours upon hours with my Master, nagging him, asking, asking, and nagging, and then I understood that Iím going to convert, and I took the Buddhist precepts and became officially Buddhist and continued to be with him.
And suddenly one day, he said, ĎOK if you want Dharma transmission, we do it.í And I still didnít know what does it mean exactly. And they have more bombastic title for this, which for me was very frightening, because I said, ĎSo what does it mean?í He said, ĎYou will become the 91st Patriarch of the Lineageí, and I had the transmission and I flew immediately to South Korea because I had a tour planned for me, going all around the country teaching theatre groups. So I had no time to adjust, I didnít understand what happen. And I was in kind of a panic, because I said, ĎWhat shall I do with this title? What is it?í And then, kind of an understanding appeared that this is only a title, itís a door. Now I should start to walk, and then I started to calm down a little bit.
Rachael Kohn: Is that when you decided to somehow make your Zen part of your technique of acting, or something that you could impart to acting groups?
Gil Alon: Well yes, again I can say looking backwards it was a process of realisation because I was approaching from two different angles to the same point, and concerning art, I was always concerned, is it possible to be the art? Go on stage without all the rubbish that all the actors have in their mind, (ĎIím better than himí; ĎIím very bad todayí; ĎThe people laughed less than yesterdayí; ĎThe director is in the auditorium, today Iím very bad, I will not get the role in the next productioní) all this kind of rubbish is going inside our mind while uttering the text, while playing the scene. So is it possible just to be the art itself, in the moment, in the now. And this is my exploration.
Rachael Kohn: So in fact what youíre saying is that thereís a certain affinity between Zen Buddhism and the art of acting?
Gil Alon: Of course. With all the arts, but with the art of acting as well. Iíll give you an example of what I do with my students. Part of the introduction exercises, I play a piece of music and I ask them to move, but let the music move you; try not to decide, try not to judge, donít be dancers, donít make choreography, every movement is acceptable, and see if itís possible if you have an idea how to move your hand, do something else. And try to conquer the thoughts which most of us are haunted by. Just do. And we all face this very moment that we stand there, ĎWhat can I do? I have no ideasí. When you think that you have no ideas, or your ideas are finished, this is only your opinion, thereís nothing to do with reality because if you just do something physically, then ideas will come and you understand that ideas are endless, itís not possible that your ideas will be finished.
Rachael Kohn: How different is it from some of the traditional methods that actors use to prepare for a role, such as method acting, when you try to grasp the essence of a character. Is this Zen approach very different from that?
Gil Alon: Yes. I mean Zen approach is also inclusive, and when you work on a character there are many, many angles that you combine to one character finally. But I believe that each one of us as an actor or as a human being, we have all the emotions that exist in the world, it doesnít matter if they are repressed or on the surface, but we have everything now. So there is no need to remember my grandmother who passed away 20 years ago in order to cry, itís not necessary to remember something funny that happened to me, or someone tickled me yesterday and I have to remember this in order to laugh now. Just do it. And itís possible. Cry now. Laugh now. Feel pain now. Because everything is now in everyone.
Rachael Kohn: It sounds like some of your workshops probably look like group therapy sessions.
Gil Alon: Well I will not call it like this because I never deal with personal problems, I never ask someone to talk about himself. But it is emotional, yes. People cry, people laugh, because they discover themselves, and because there is a big relief when I say ĎPlease donít be good. Donít compete, Iím not interested, and I will never tell you if the exercise was bad or good, because if you manage to do what I ask you to do, youíll learn something about yourself, and if you cannot manage to do what I ask you to do, you also learn something about yourself. So itís not possible that a wrong exercise will appear in our workshop.
Rachael Kohn: Well the approach you take not to judge someoneís performance is probably very attractive to the actor who is often quite sensitive about judgements.
Gil Alon: Yes. We are all educated not only in the arts field, all our life to build our confidence with things from outside, you know, people love me, I feel better; Iím criticised, I feel sad; if 3,000 people came to see me in the auditorium, Iím good, if only 8 came Iím bad, but art doesnít care. Itís you who cares. So thatís what Iím trying to investigate and to share with the students.
Rachael Kohn: Gil, youíre from Israel, and I wondered how much Buddhism has made inroads into Israel?
Gil Alon: Well the spiritual trend in Israel is extremely big, and wherever you go, everyone is into meditation, reiki, aromatherapy massage, self-development, New Age stuff, whatever you want. So itís a secular country, everyone can practice whatever he wants, so itís there.
Rachael Kohn: Do you find any unusual affinities between Zen Buddhism and Judaism?
Gil Alon: Well as far as I understood from my other studies, when you go into the roots, the crystal root of the philosophies of the religions, they come to the same point from different angles. And for me this is the same, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Did you find the Zen koans or the Zen stories have any similarities to Jewish stories?
Gil Alon: Yes, I mean if you are familiar with the stories of Bal Shem Tov and the Rabbi Nakhman of Braslav, they are Zen stories, they are Zen koans in a way. And I think one book of the Bible, I hope I can pronounce it correctly in English, in Hebrew itís ...
Rachael Kohn: Ecclesiastes.
Gil Alon: Yes. So this is a Zen book.
Rachael Kohn: Whatís the quality, say of Ecclesiastes, which makes you see it as a Zen document?
Gil Alon: First of all this is my point of view, and second, I think itís a tricky book and itís up to you because you can choose to read it optimistic and you can choose to read it pessimistic. And itís up to you.
Rachael Kohn: Youíve been in many theatre productions in Israel, such as ĎThe Unbearable Lightness of Beingí by Milan Kundera. Is there any one that for you has a strong kind of Buddhist outlook or ethic?
Gil Alon: Well after my first tour in South East Asia when I came back to Israel, I got a role in a new Israeli production which opened new Israeli theatre up north and my role was a monk, a Taoist monk, crazy Taoist monk. So that was a very, very direct expression of what happened to me and it was amazing. And the play was so good, by an Israeli who knew nothing about Taoism and nothing about Zen, and it was amazing because he wrote it, you know, just like this. And I said ĎHow do you know whatís written there?í He said, ĎI donít knowí, and I opened the Scriptures that I got from Japan and I told him, ĎItís the same, you talk about the same words, even the same wordsí, and it was really, really a fascinating experience.
Rachael Kohn: Does the theatre mean something special, something more to you than entertainment?
Gil Alon: Well what is entertainment and what is theatre? These are kind of labels, because I did entertainment as well. I had a one man show that ran eight years where I used to tell jokes according to subjects from the audience, and this was in one hand pure entertainment, but on second hand I felt like military service because I was never relaxed, because I could be always surprised, and I had to keep myself on the edge all the time. It was unbelievable laboratory for me. Again it was an entertainment but I also consider it as a Zen experience because many koans are jokes, and a joke is a glimpse of enlightenment. This is one example; entertainment we consider lighter than theatre, more simple than theatre, or more shallow than theatre, but again, it depends on you what you do with it.
Rachael Kohn: Does your Buddhism serve your acting, or is it the other way round?
Gil Alon: I started to reconcile it in myself as an actor, and to find the way how can I go on stage and be the art, not bothering with the ideas, with the commentaries, with the reactions, I mean itís very nice when people clap you and laugh but not losing confidence if itís not. But itís an endless process.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think youíre a better actor now that youíre a Zen Roshi as well?
Gil Alon: I will leave it to the others to say, but I hope that I can be more connected to art itself than all the things around that we are burdened with usually.
Rachael Kohn: How does the Zen community actually feel about you being an actor? Are you breaking any kind of rules there, or is that the essence of Zen anyway, to break rules?
Gil Alon: Well first of all personally I think that rules are meant to be broken, and itís a must to break rules. But in Israel I donít know anyone who is into Zen and acting, but since I started to travel, I found, and I gave a Dharma talk in Perth, in the Zen community in Perth, and they told me, ĎOh, we have an actor in our groupí, and they introduced him to me, a musician is there, and a singer is there, and we all know it from all over the world, not only Zen but more and more artists are practising Buddhism in this way or another.
Rachael Kohn: Is there a certain philosophical affinity between the acting life and Buddhism? Because it seems to me Buddhist outlook talks about the transience of all things, that things are born and pass away, and the actor is also making a world that disappears after two hours, itís just, you know, heís inventing a world. Is there a kind of natural affinity there?
Gil Alon: Yes, and I totally agree with your definition, and I would continue it by saying that both my Zen and my drama masters used to say that the way to transcend this, what you said, is through action. Just the now is important, only what I say now on the stage. I cannot rely on the fact that I was good yesterday. Who cares? Or I will be good tomorrow. Now is needed. So this is what I heard from all my drama education, and suddenly I started my journey into Zen and I hear the same, in a way. So I said, ĎOh, something is similar here; it should be investigated.í
Rachael Kohn: And Israeli theatre director Gil Alon has never
stopped investigating it, to the benefit, it seems, of his students.
* * *
Thatís The Spirit of Things for this week. The program was produced by me and Geoff Wood with technical production by Stephen Tilley.
With the world spotlight currently on Iraq, next week we take a look at one of the ethnic minorities there, the Kurdish people and their complex and ancient religious history. In fact they might have been the very first monotheists. Thatís the Kurds next week on The Spirit of Things.
Till then, so long from me, Rachael Kohn.
* * *
Guests on this program:
Source: "The Spirit of Things" radio program, Australian
Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Sunday 09 March 2003, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/default.htm
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last updated: 23-08-2003