I was asked to be part of a vocal piece staged at the NSCAD Academy building for their student show: No End of Insight. It was a 2-hour piece; three of us were stationed at landings on the central staircase. At first I doubted whether I could do vocal improv for two hours straight. As it turned out, I did vocal improv for 90 minutes—and something happened during the piece. I started deconstructing what it means to be a self, to break down a self, and to un-become a self.
As I vocalized, I shifted scenes and characters in my head. It became a kind of improv theatre, and I played many characters. I live in a building with old people who do lots of funny things. They get drunk late at night and shout and laugh and talk to themselves as their voices echo down the cement hallways. I reproduced those slurring, bellowing sounds. My next door neighbour, Margaret, often gets drunk and talks on the phone late at night, very loudly. I hear her voice through my bedroom wall. I never know what she’s saying; it’s loud, drunk babbling punctuated by an audible “fuck”. So I did “drunk Margaret on the phone” a couple of times. I ventriloquated conversations without words, only talking noises.
I did a set of chest breath noises that sounded like I was having an orgasm. It was a bit self-conscious but fun; I did a few versions of these gutteral sound-breaths. After an hour of performing, I started to get a bit punchy and started laughing hysterically like an insane person. Then I went into different emotional states; crying the way I did when I was a little child; moaning like a person in pain; bellowing like a person in a total rage; sighing like someone in love. I did “ghost theatre” and howled like ghosts. I became different theatrical characters and animals.
In another experiement, I repeated the word “I” continuously for about five minutes, to see if the meaning of “I” or the sense of self might change through constant repetition, like Gertrude Stein’s poetry, I found that it didn’t change much, but kept subtly reinforcing a sense of self.
Performing at No End of Insight took me to places I never expected to go. I called it “awakening theatre”. The process of the theatre was to keep improvising one character or mental state after another until I lost the sense of identity, of who I was. I let my self break down into parts. I could still function as an entity, but I no longer had an integrated self. It was split into pieces and those pieces become parts of the people that I performed. They become part of the sounds, the other performers, the world outside the window on the street. As I allowed myself to split into pieces, those pieces joined with the world, and then I suddenly fell in love with the world. By allowing my self to become permeable, unbounded, fragmented, I could integrate with the world around me; this is naturalizing buddhism.
I don’t have to be in a meditation hall, meditating and practicing “Buddhism” in order to awaken. In fact that’s the worst place to practice buddhism. You can spend years doing that and all you are doing is solidifying a buddhistic self; substituting the original false self for yet another false self as a Buddhist. And then you wonder why you feel so stuck, so unhappy trying to be a ‘good Buddhist.’ That’s completely the wrong approach. Awakening improv is a far better way to un-become, to lose self yet also fall in love with the world.
In awakening improv, one would not focus on doing ‘buddhist’ theatre, as in saying or doing “dharmic” things, but actually avoid doing anything ‘buddhist’, except perhaps as a parody. I don’t try to do “buddhist” music or theatre or art. That which is buddhist is that which cannot even be recognized as buddhist. Buddhism has no self, no identity. It is completely empty and only manifests as a playful deconstruction of the world around you. ‘Being a buddhist’ is nothing more than a performance anyway. Once you see everything as performance (a la Judith Butler), then you can un-become anything.
I once thought of staging Waiting for Godot, not as it was originally written, but as an ongoing improvisation of my experience with Buddhism. I’m beginning to do that now through the vocal improvisation work: un-becoming a buddhist, un-becoming Shaun, unbecoming a man or a woman, un-becoming a white person, un-becoming a student or a professor, un-becoming old or young, un-becoming anything.
The experience brought me back to Stephen Batchelor’s insistence (in Buddhism Without Beliefs) that a secular buddhist practice should give one an experience of total freedom; it should accelerate one’s creativity and imagination. That has been my experience when I’m not in a Buddhist institution, when I’m fully engaged with the culture I find myself in, deconstructing the milieu that shapes my consciousness, or when I’m just living my life in the world as an awakened person.
Western Buddhism is still in the fetish phase of trying to reproduce and preserve exact copies of Asian Buddhisms, which, as Batchelor says, results in small, isolated sanghas of petrified Buddhist cultures preserved like museum pieces. I would add that it also results in cult-like conditions within the sangha that invite explotation and abuse. The Buddhist cult envelopes you in an alienated, isolated micro-culture. Naturalized buddhism does not split off as a subculture by separating itself from the culture around it. Rather, naturalized buddhism becomes completely integrated with the culture, but also deconstructs it at the same time. It functions knowledgeably as a critique of society.
I’ll say it again, one does not become a buddhist; rather, practicing buddhim is a process of un-becoming, which is hard to describe. One can approximate it by saying that one un-becomes a buddhist, and then un-becomes everything else.
—by the Editor, Shaun Bartone