LA WEEKLY

There are an estimated 500 million practicing Buddhists in the world today, one of whom is Evan Brenner, the creator and performer of this one-man play about the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha. Drawing on material from the Sutras, the sacred Buddhists texts, Brenner weaves a simple yet engaging narrative that tells of the Buddha’s early life of luxury and wealth in India; his chance encounter with suffering and subsequent disillusionment with the world; and his fateful decision to renounce his birthright and trod the difficult path of salvation to find a solution to the pain and misery of human existence, which at the age of 35 culminated in his attaining enlightenment, or nirvana. Despite the esoteric subject matter, none of this is difficult to understand. Brenner touches on the faith’s basic concepts while sidestepping the dense thicket of theory and philosophy. His conversational style, in concert with an unpretentious script and good direction by John Reilly, makes this an entertaining and, yes, enlightening 70 minutes.

Lovell Estell III

‘The Buddha’

By Terry Byrne
Boston Globe Correspondent

Actor Evan Brenner, who conceived “The Buddha: In His Own Words,” enters the room and begins to spin his tale of one man’s journey to enlightenment in a gentle, soothing voice. What makes his story so enchanting is that the man is Siddhartha Gautama, and we meet him before he became known as the Buddha. By starting with the stories of his earliest years and moving through his long life, Brenner creates a compelling portrait of a man who struggled to find his life’s path. “The Buddha: In His Own Words” is made up of choices from the Pali Canon, stories that form the heart of the Buddhist philosophy, but in Brenner’s hands they become poignant, amusing, revealing moments in the life of a man whose teachings may be more than 2,000 years old but, in Brenner’s telling, become remarkably contemporary.

Born into a life of wealth and luxury, Siddhartha Gautama rejected the “household life” at age 29 and chose the “holy life,” going out into the world to seek enlightenment.

He spent the next several years learning from a series of teachers, experiencing grueling ascetic practices in his quest to achieve unwavering mindfulness, and ultimately nirvana. It may sound a little heady, but Brenner, dressed in a nondescript shirt and pants and with the most straightforward delivery, makes the Buddha’s choices, failures, and frustrations feel human, simple, and recognizable.

Brenner has a way of telling his stories as if he’s speaking to each member of the audience individually. His gaze is steady and intense, and yet there’s a peacefulness about him that is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure. Brenner also finds the humor and adventure in the Buddha’s life, as well as his feelings of loss and longing. “Short is life,” he says at one point. “You should live like your hair is on fire.” The Buddha’s development of the four Noble Truths feels far less abstract when we hear about the specific experiences that led him to them.

At a time of so much fear and uncertainty, with the constant attention on the worldly distractions the Buddha counsels his followers to avoid, “The Buddha: In His Own Words” is a refreshing and calming reminder that life is “a tiny drop of dew, a star at dawn, a phantom, a dream,” and that “all that comes into being passes away.” Although Brenner, for one, has been studying Buddhism for over two decades, in his 70-minute presentation, he makes the journey toward nirvana feel like one worth taking.

‘Buddha Reaches Nirvana’

The Great Sage comes to the stage


Boston Metro

In his one-man show “The Buddha Play,” writer/actor Evan Brenner recounts the story of the man we know as Buddha in a wonderfully crafted series of stories and teachings that are both funny and informative while also explaining the Buddha’s path to enlightenment.

Alone on the stage with no props and minimal lighting, Brenner oozes the enthusiasm of a child in a candy store as he speaks of being “mindfully aware” and of “a state without suffering.” Somehow Buddha, through Brenner, manages to point out that “all that begins ends” and “all that is born dies” while evoking great joy and optimism in the audience.

There’s a lot in this story that most people probably don’t know. As a young prince the man who became Buddha had at his disposal every luxury that every nonroyal only dreams of. Palaces, servants and riches beyond compare kept the privileged royal sheltered from any hint of struggle, sickness or death. But at the age of 29, upon realizing that material wealth did not guarantee happiness, he gave it all up to search for the key to human happiness.

Brenner uses Buddha’s actual text in his telling of the story and makes it seem like the original path to enlightenment was filled with great humor and great enthusiasm for the journey. If the Buddha were half as charming a storyteller as the actor now telling his tale, it’s easy to see why so many people have embraced these “Noble Truths.”

It’s really quite marvelous to experience. And though it’s low on theatricality, Buddha and Brenner provide a wonderfully entertaining and, yes, enlightening evening of unusual theater.

By Nick Dussault

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of In The Buddha’s Words:

“In its origins, Buddhism was an oral rather than a written tradition. The Buddha’s teachings were presented as discourses rather than treatises, and for centuries Buddhist monks and nuns transmitted the teachings by word of mouth, from generation to generation, enriched by an expanding body of narratives about the Buddha and his achievements.

Evan Brenner has revived this oral tradition with a one-man play about the Buddha’s life. When I saw his play this past summer, I was astonished by the versatility with which he assumes a variety of identities, from that of the contemplative young prince, the future Buddha, to an irascible king to a devout disciple. Brenner uses only minimal props–really, nothing more than a stool–yet with his acting skills he transports us back to ancient India and carries us through the whole course of the Buddha’s life. Based solidly upon the ancient texts, his presentation is lively, moving, and remarkably contemporary.”

“The story of the Buddha is a thrilling one and Brenner’s rendition is masterfully crafted . Layered with a rich tapestry of anecdotes and teachings, the narrative is delivered with joy, accuracy, and freshness. A must-see for anyone interested in the spiritual quest or good drama. I whole-heartedly recommend it.”

Mark Epstein, M.D., author of Open to Desire & Thoughts Without a Thinker

REFLECTIONS ON A NEW PORTRAYAL OF THE BUDDHA’S LIFE

Rev. John Merz
Episcopal Chaplain, New York University
Spring, 2009

It is not surprising that “Buddha – Triumph & Tragedy in the Life of the Great Sage” has attracted a wide and devoted audience since it presents an opportunity to dramatically encounter one of history’s great minds and experience his journey in a most unusual, engaging, and surprisingly orthodox form. The epic story of Siddhartha Gautama (later to become The Buddha), is enacted in utmost simplicity. But the presentation is deceptively simple since its form combined with the underlying narrative structure make it a complex and layered work.

Dramatic portrayals of Shakyamuni are not new – they typically focus on the man’s spiritual struggle and end with his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. Though neat, this is a bad story because it’s ultimately false. For this was not the totality of the man’s life – triumph is not the totality of anyone’s life. Like Jesus, The Buddha dealt with tremendous hardship and challenge until his dying breath. While the life of the Buddha as narrative has been celebrated through the ages, never to my knowledge has the entirety of his life, as both ideal and tragic yarn, been so unflinchingly recounted. By balancing these opposing forces throughout – the transcendent and the mundane — Buddha – Triumph & Tragedy in the Life of the Great Sage exponentially broadens the spectrum of philosophical issues addressed by preceding Buddha biographies.

Among these questions is the confounding issue of Enlightenment in this very life. Through laying bare the Buddha’s humanity – his struggles and doubt even after his enlightenment – the drama implies the persistence of spiritual, ethical, and human struggle for even those perfected through practice. Paradoxically, it is the Buddha’s shortcomings as a human being which give us hope. By portraying the Buddha as nothing more than a man, his philosophy is not denigrated, but instead raised to greater heights since his humanity combined with his achievement implies that liberation is possible for us all.

The contemporary American Buddhist scene is no less consumerist and eclectic than contemporary Christianity in its acquisition and promotion of particular aspects of the tradition: people tend to take small pieces that suit them and jettison the rest. But this work forces the audience to deal with the figure of the Buddha, the “historical” figure and historical context out of which the texts were produced and therefore force people to wrestle with the tradition. It is in coming to grips with tradition, wrestling with the decent and unsavory elements equally and not jettisoning according to personal or contemporary prejudice that a real experience begins to take place. Perhaps most apparently and most poignantly, this is illustrated in the tragic ending of the play, when the Buddha having become enlightened still attempts, and fails, to stop the massacre of his people.

Other scenes normally sweetened by apology in Buddha narratives but here plainly depicted include the Buddha’s first attempt at conversion – a funny failure; His agonizing and brutal departure from his wife and newborn son; His self-doubt as embodied by an unconquerable Devil who tracks him till the very end.

Confronting the humanity of the Buddha may be hard to take for some who would seek to deify the man. However, consistent with scriptural sources, the Buddha as portrayed in this narrative repeatedly warns against this tendency. Historical and scriptural accounts of prophets and sages of the past, Moses and Muhammad to name but two, often railed against their deification. They warned repeatedly not to lose sight of the message through glorification of the messenger. This pattern repeats through history, and one could say the history of world religion, Buddhism and Christianity to name but two, is a process of peeling back the onion, of rediscovering the original message.

But perhaps the final word in this dispute lies in the fact that the work is composed of only the most ancient texts and thereby stymies would be critics who would quibble over interpretation. Surprisingly, the show embraces orthodoxy not just in content (ie. ‘assembled from the ancient texts’) but in the mode of their transmission, the oral tradition. To encounter the spoken word is an entirely different experience from reading the scriptures. The words are brought to life, their meaning nuanced, interpreted, alive. Although notably modern dramatic techniques are employed in the play’s construction such as beginning with the Buddha’s death (Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Cane, among others) the texture and flavor of the canonical literature remains including extensive use of repetition, fire imagery, etc.

Buddhism is a relatively recent acquisition to Western Culture and particularly rife with misinterpretation. The play entertains, but perhaps more importantly it illuminates some basic tenets of this intricate, at times difficult, but ultimately precise philosophical tradition.

Religion and drama have circled one another throughout history, sometimes near, sometimes far but they share parentage and, in this case they share identity. All serious religious practitioners, those of us professionally engaged with our faith, know on a practical level that ceremony and ritual, that religion itself is at its core and at its best great drama. And devotees of great drama and great story call the greatest of those experiences ‘religious’. It is no accident that Broadway theaters and classic cinemas are adorned like cathedrals. And meditation rooms, with their altars and depictions of Buddha, the costumes of Vajrijana, the spare and delicate ceremony of Zen call to mind theatrical performance. This is because ultimately they are one in the same, and The Buddha – Triumph & Tragedy in the Life of the Great Sage embodies this unity. There is much more than meets the eye in Buddha – Triumph & Tragedy in the Life of the Great Sage and for this viewer, it represents an extraordinary achievement, perhaps inflection point for modern Buddhism.”

A Buddha-ful Mind

By Francis Ma

Buddha. The name immediately conjures up images a portly prophet and – if those little $7 ceramic statuettes can be trusted – a mischievous, knowing smile. But ask someone for details about his life and his philosophy, and you’re likely to draw a blank stare.

Actor-writer Evan Brenner may be changing that, one show at a time. He’s performing the words of the Buddha with a simplicity that the religious icon probably would have embraced – no sets, no costumes, no soundtrack. It may be very similar to the way Buddha spoke to his followers in northern India more than 2,500 years ago.

“Some people have suggested I’m translating the Sutras into a theatrical production,” says Brenner. “I would suggest it’s more a return to their original practice. These were passed down orally and the Buddha was a great storyteller.”

The 43-year-old Brenner spent three years of his life researching Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become Buddha, and compiled the prophet’s stories and teachings into a one-man play called ” Buddha: Triumph and Tragedy in the life of the Great Sage.”

It’s strange at first, seeing a regular guy playing the Buddha. But that’s the point. Brenner thinks that most people forget the most important aspect of the Buddha: He was human.

“The play raises Buddhism to a higher level because it encompasses the Buddha’s humanity and shortcomings,” says Brenner. “To see the Buddha as a god reduces the philosophy, the man and his life.” Those who do know something about him will recognize one glaring problem right from the beginning: The Buddha wouldn’t just walk into a room and start talking.

“One major dramatic challenge was speaking so much as Buddha and doing it unprompted,” says Brenner. “The Buddha would have entered, meditated and waited for someone to ask a question. I imagine that someone asks me a question and that’s how the play starts. I’m the Buddha on a particularly talkative and jovial night.”

The philosophy of Buddhism is about one’s personal journey towards “enlightenment” or the truth. For Brenner, the production has mirrored that sentiment and has been a spiritual journey for the actor.

Three years ago, a friend brought over a video of Alec McCowen’s one-man play “Saint Mark’s Gospel” where the English actor performed the entire gospel on stage.

“After that, I was telling my then-girlfriend the story about the Buddha’s conversion of a mass murderer,” says Brenner. “As I was telling it to her, she had the appropriate reactions like ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ and I had a ‘eureka!’ moment.”

Brenner knew he had a story fit for an audience. He began his research, relying heavily on Bhikku Nanamoli ‘s translation. He also used Stephen Batchelor who, according to his website, has “an agnostic approach to Buddhism.” Batchelor’s work helped Brenner with the narrative and furthered the biography of the Buddha, post-enlightenment, a part of Buddha’s life that’s often neglected in biographies.

And if “Buddha: Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Sage” creates a little enlightenment in the audience, that’s fine with Brenner. And probably Buddha, too.

THEATER REVIEW

Brenner: Smooth as ‘Buddha’
Boston Herald

You can’t keep a good story silent. We’ve taken to engaging with texts one-on-one (that is, alone with a book) these days. But once upon a time, stories were shared orally – person-to-person with all the attendant variations.

Actor-cum-writer Evan Brenner tells it old-school in “The Buddha” his one-man show on the making of a holy man. Using excerpts hand-picked from Buddhist scriptures, Brenner traces Siddhartha Gautama’s life from birth to death. “In His Own Words” is only about 70 minutes, but it’s as calming and expansive as a well-brewed pot of tea.

Brenner sets out to humanize the exalted guru. His wanderings took him on the road, under trees, even through piles of rotting corpses, but never to the top of a pedestal.

Many of us are familiar with the basic story of an Indian prince who left his decadent life and achieved enlightenment. But Brenner’s choices from Buddhist texts show the Buddha to be a complex, flawed and very mortal individual. After all, this is a man who abandoned his wife and newborn son, who in his ascetic fervor took to eating his own excrement, and who was unable to prevent a slaughter in his homeland.

It’s clear from watching “The Buddha” that Buddhist sutras, even in English translation, were meant to be spoken aloud. Many of the stories in the piece unfold with the familiar rhythms of a fable or a well-told joke.

It helps, of course, that Brenner is a subtle and masterful storyteller. Brenner makes the transformation from a man reading in his living room into a riveting narrator, and finally into the Buddha himself. He speaks quietly but powerfully, taking us from tale to tale with the proper balance of tranquility and tension.

Under the direction of David Fuhrer, “The Buddha” is a rare – and in this case, appropriate – thing for a one-man show: an entirely egoless production. What could have easily been a grand, self-exalting vehicle is subdued and humble, a gentle but persistent whisper.

JENNA SCHERER

‘Finding the way to Nirvana on stage’

By R.J. DONOVAN
BostonNOW Theater Editor

Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was born in India 500 years before Christ. He began life as a priveleged prince, but in his late 20s gave up his royal existence in the pursuit of enlightenment and spiritual awakening.

Now, his life and teachings are the subject of the one-man show, The Buddha – In His Own Words, written and performed by Evan Brenner.

The idea came to Brenner after he saw Alec McGowen perform his one-man show, St. Mark’s Gospel. “I was immersed in the Sutras (canonical texts held to convey the words of the Buddha),” he said. “They are very dramatic and I was reading on of them to my girlfriend at the time. She sort of ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at the right points and I thought – why not do the story of the Buddha.”

Far from a religious lecture, the play has drawn traditional theatergoers interested in the artistic dramatization of the prophet’s life. “I consider the story to be a celebration of an imperfect man with a perfect theory,” he said.

Since the Buddha shared his philosophies and teachings orally, the evening emphasizes the message over the elaborate staging. “Theater at its core and at its best, is a live spontaneous experience,” Brenner said.

 

THEATER REVIEW

Brenner: Smooth as ‘Buddha’
Boston Herald

You can’t keep a good story silent. We’ve taken to engaging with texts one-on-one (that is, alone with a book) these days. But once upon a time, stories were shared orally – person-to-person with all the attendant variations.

Actor-cum-writer Evan Brenner tells it old-school in “The Buddha” his one-man show on the making of a holy man. Using excerpts hand-picked from Buddhist scriptures, Brenner traces Siddhartha Gautama’s life from birth to death. “In His Own Words” is only about 70 minutes, but it’s as calming and expansive as a well-brewed pot of tea.

Brenner sets out to humanize the exalted guru. His wanderings took him on the road, under trees, even through piles of rotting corpses, but never to the top of a pedestal.

Many of us are familiar with the basic story of an Indian prince who left his decadent life and achieved enlightenment. But Brenner’s choices from Buddhist texts show the Buddha to be a complex, flawed and very mortal individual. After all, this is a man who abandoned his wife and newborn son, who in his ascetic fervor took to eating his own excrement, and who was unable to prevent a slaughter in his homeland.

It’s clear from watching “The Buddha” that Buddhist sutras, even in English translation, were meant to be spoken aloud. Many of the stories in the piece unfold with the familiar rhythms of a fable or a well-told joke.

It helps, of course, that Brenner is a subtle and masterful storyteller. Brenner makes the transformation from a man reading in his living room into a riveting narrator, and finally into the Buddha himself. He speaks quietly but powerfully, taking us from tale to tale with the proper balance of tranquility and tension.

Under the direction of David Fuhrer, “The Buddha” is a rare – and in this case, appropriate – thing for a one-man show: an entirely egoless production. What could have easily been a grand, self-exalting vehicle is subdued and humble, a gentle but persistent whisper.

JENNA SCHERER