Buddhism on actors

General discussion, particularly exploring the Dharma in the modern world.
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Re: Buddhism on actors

Post by SilenceMonkey » Sat Jul 28, 2018 7:13 am

I used to study acting and was hell-bent on becoming an actor in high school and college. I found some serious inner conflict between the art of acting and my buddhist way, to the point where I dropped out of school to come back to Chicago and see what it would be like to be a professional actor, to answer some of these questions for myself.

I ended up in a school for the Meisner technique, which is a type of Method acting focused on emotional spontaneity and psychoanalytical self-work. (For those of you who aren't familiar, Method acting is a style of acting where you are to "become" your character. You do this by fully believing in the reality of your imagined self and world so the audience has no doubt that it's real and not just a performance.) In this style of acting, we were taught techniques to enhance our extreme emotions and "shorten our emotional fuse" so we would, when provoked, become explosive like an artistic bomb.

During my training, I was closely observing the inner mechanics of the system. It was based on a type of "Observation" of the other person on stage that automatically developed an emotional opinion about them, which was always changing. Eg. "The way he's curling her lip, so damn smug. Who does he think she is?" or "You like like puke and you smell like puke. Get away from me, you hag." or "Wow, look at that dress! I want to know this person." It could be anything. We were taught that as human beings, we inherently have opinions about everything, though we may not consciously realize it. That means you like it or you don't like it. (Sound familiar?) In their ideology, there is no neutral. Everything is extreme. We were taught to enhance those extreme feelings (and thoughts) and project them onto other people and our surroundings in a way that would "activate" us to be able to engage in a dynamic way, in a way that was "playable."

Naturally, I felt conflicted. I also realized that my training as an actor and my training in meditation literally undid each other. Why? Because they were inherently opposite. One did all the work necessary to create identity (there are ways to make this intentional illusion very convincing to even your own mind), and the other emptied out those concepts. One makes you tight and emotionally reactive to every stimulus, the other makes the mind loose and open... gives patience. The two arts wire your mind in a different way.

Meisner and Method acting are quite extreme techniques (although this is the common way of acting in the US). There are other more representational styles of acting, such as what they have in Britain. Perhaps the Chekhov technique, although I've never tried. The Viewpoints is a fascinating technique based on tuning into abstract aspects such as "Sound" "Music" "Space" "Light" etc... The SITI company in NY was founded on this technique, and I think Viewpoints might be most suitable for Buddhists. Viewpoints was invented by a dancer.

The nature of Drama is conflict. (Whereas Dharma is exactly the opposite.) To play conflict on stage is to play conflict in yourself, which means to create conflict in yourself. Anything that enhances the emotions brings the person plummeting into confusion of samsara. It's interested to contemplate, as our culture is so entertainment-driven. What gives us pleasure to watch? What is it that churns our emotions? A Ch'an master I studied with in Taiwan would have his students watch movies as a practice. There were two ways to do this: 1) Watch the movie with complete equanimity, awareness. Don't get swept up in the "reality" of it. Once you get sucked in and forget that you are a person watching a movie, you believe into the illusion. Don't be fooled! 2) To choose a character in the film and identify with them and their circumstances as much as possible, to try and feel their emotions, etc... I believe this method is to tap into empathy and compassion on a relative level, to understand human illusion. It may also have to do with identifying completely with an Yidam. (It was a Ch'an and Vajrayana group.)

My Meisner teacher told me that in all of his 25 years of teaching, he's never had a successful Buddhist student. Yogis, yes. But never Buddhists. This really shook me up. I decided to stop meditating for the sake of the art. And I got better. So much better. But I also started to become a terrible person (in mine own eyes), very judgemental and uptight.

It's all about the view. Are you projecting ego? Are you creating illusions? Or are you uncreating them? Acting can give you deep insight into what society calls "human nature." But this is what the Heart Sutra calls 顛倒夢想 lit. upside-down dreams... topsy-turvy views... lopsided and unbalanced projections. As an actor, you choose to live in a dream, with all it's dreamlike pleasures and sufferings. You actually get paid to perfect your illusions, to create them in such a way that brings out the raw "Truth" of human experience and display it before an audience. Acting is basically a drug. It's for thrill-seekers.

When you start talking about emotions and enjoyments as being poison for the mind, people usually say something like, "But what about Tantra? They use emotions AS the path." I would say, if you have a tantric guru who has given you very clear instructions on how to "use" emotions on the path, trust your guru. But without a guru, there is no vajrayana. Without a guru, the sutra path is the safest way to go. (Maybe the only way to go if you want to practice Dharma.) Then there's zen... But almost everybody misunderstands zen, so I wouldn't take "zen" as a reliable guide to skillfully "using" emotions on the path. Anyway, it's all about attachment and non-attachment. Good not to get distracted from this Truth, as it is the essence of all Buddhadharma.

A question to ask in life: Am I more attached or less attached? Has this caused me more emotional affliction or less? Is this an antidote for the mind's clinging, or does it only enhance the poison?

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