REFLECTIONS ON A NEW PORTRAYAL OF THE BUDDHA’S LIFE
Rev. John Merz
Episcopal Chaplain, New York University
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.
Brenner: Smooth as ‘Buddha’
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.