One morning as I sat in the stillness of the Green Gulch zendo, the resident children ran by hooting and hollering. Joining them in spirit, I realized that my soul wanted to practice “in motion,” as kids do. I had recently returned from Basel, Switzerland, where I participated in the festival of Verkehrten Welt (inverted world), known as Karneval. Inspired by the Green Gulch children, I felt challenged to translate my experience with Karneval into a Buddhist practice.
Karneval is an ancient celebration of life and creation whose origins run like a great river beneath the cobblestones and recent asphalt of our modern European cities. As from sleep, the participants awaken into their trancelike parading, a timeless multidimensional, collective pavane. Beginning at 4 a.m. and continuing for 72 hours precisely, the entire town parades playing fife or drum, outfitted in full mask and costume. During Karneval the universe is balanced by reversal. Donkeys approach the altar braying, clergy wear masks, the sexes reverse and the commoners run the affairs of state. In this upside-down and backwards world, the child in each of us comes out to play, to awaken into a timeless present.
Buddha’s Birthday already existed at Green Gulch as a day when children were invited to participate in the traditional ceremonies of the Green Dragon Temple—to parade with parasols, pour sweet tea over the baby Buddha statue, chant the Heart Sutra and share lunch. Building on the existing ceremony, Norman Fischer and I envisioned a pageant involving the children, the community and the story of the birth of the Buddha. Under the ancient oak at the head of the glorious promenade to the sea, this was the perfect opportunity to practice “in motion.”
After immersing myself in the ancient sculptures of the Buddha, I began to create the Buddha mask. Capturing the spirit of so large a being was totally engaging and challenging. I started with an upside-down plastic five-gallon bucket to establish the space for the performer inside. After layers of computer paper, wheat paste and paint, I added gold leaf, which I worked to look very old.
Seeing the Buddha come to life, set in motion by a different community member each year—the baker, the gardener, a head priest—is magical. The experience of masking is essentially one of transformation. By becoming invisible within the dark private space inside the mask, the wearer is able to begin anew, to change, to reincarnate. As the mask settles onto the face, the wearer is free to explore within this new form for the duration of the ritual.
Each year I create new masks and they join the familiar ones. Whoever shows up is in the cast. We have three rehearsals and a performance the Sunday closest to April 8th. My original impulse was to do something new each year, but by the third year I began to feel the ritual power in repetition and the opportunity that the fixed form gave us for individual exploration. The piece took on a life of its own, connected within by memory. (I am always amused, for example, when Norman tells the zebra to hold its hooves up—in the first pageant the zebra was a rabbit!)
Every year we laugh at our astonishment that what we forgot and rediscovered still exists. As in Basel’s Karneval, in Green Gulch’s Buddha’s Birthday seeming opposites are joined into a seamless reality which allows the participants to enter the timeless present where we can awaken again and again. And again.