In 1987 we had a poetry weekend at Green Gulch. We spent the weekend with five or ten poets and an audience of about thirty, talking about dharma and culture and how the two have interpenetrated in Asia and could interpenetrate in the West. We concluded the weekend with a huge public event that involved improvisation, readings, music, audience participation. Hundreds of people came. I remember the evening ended with everyone chanting very powerfully for about twenty minutes. The chant ended abrubtly—there was absolute silence. And then first one frog, followed by about ten thousand, began to peep. It was marvelous.
One person who attended that weekend was Annie Hallat, a mask maker and theater person from Sausalito. She approached me and said, “Why can’t we do some Buddhist theater here at Green Gulch?” So the next year when our annual Buddha’s Birthday celebration came around, Annie and I put our heads together. “You’re a poet,” she said. “You write the script.” So I did. It took an hour or two—the words pretty much came out just as they are. I was inspired.
Once we had the poem it was easy to see what to do next: create action for each of the stanzas. Over the next years we refined the pageant. We realized that part of what makes it good is the fact that it’s the same every year. Of course it’s never the same—every year there are some new performers and some new elements. But it’s enough the same so that it feels the same, and there is a power in that; it feels like practice. The image of the Buddha being born and walking his seven steps burns itself into your mind when you see it year after year. It has a compelling power, especially for children.
Over the years it has become clear that for many many people seeing this pageant is itself a strong practice. It’s a way to acknowledge one’s love and appreciation for the Buddha—as a person, as a myth, and as a deep symbol—and one’s appreciation for the tradition that still operates out of the Buddha’s experience. There’s something about repetition, something about doing the same thing at the same time of year, year after year, that draws our attention and respect. Ritual is like that. You can’t be casual about it or just make it up. It has to be elaborate and difficult and even a little dangerous. It takes care and commitment over time.