Articles

What’s in a Name: Zen and the Art of Circus Performance

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Often times people approach us with the question of the reason behind our troupe’s name: why Zen Arts? No we’re not actually a group of circus-performing monks…although that would be pretty cool. The decision for the name lies much deeper than that.

To begin with, let’s start with what is Zen? Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main divisions of Buddhism. Which brings us to another question: what is Buddhism? Buddhism is a faith based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, who believed life is a cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth. The Buddha found that the suffering of life was caused by craving and ignorance, and the only way to escape this cycle was to reach an enlightened and liberated state known as Nirvana. Nirvana is a state of mind at perfect peace, free from craving and anger; it is the absolute highest form of happiness, beyond any sort of temporary worldly happiness.

The Buddha believed every sentient being – meaning life form with a consciousness, able to feel, perceive, and have subjective experience – possesses the ability to free itself from the cycle of suffering and reach enlightenment. This ability is also known as Buddha-nature. It is the essential nature of all beings, a universal nature of transcendent wisdom. He also preached that the path to this enlightenment was through self-realization achieved by meditation and following his teachings. Self-realization is defined as discovering one’s capabilities and bringing them to fruition. It is separate from the material world, not based on wealth, beauty, status, or power. To the contrary, it is finding and becoming that which you were put on Earth to do. The Buddha taught that it is only through self-awareness and self-realization that one can reach Nirvana.

Zen is a specific Buddhist school of meditation, thought, and practice that teaches that the path to enlightenment is through direct experiences, as opposed to strict studying of scriptures. Born in India and cultivated in China in the 1st century, Zen preaches that the wisdom of experiences is what allows the mind to be free. What distinguishes Zen from other sects of Mahayana Buddhism is that it does not rely on written words. Zen does not advocate memorizing and recanting doctrines, but rather just as the Buddha did, Zen states that the way to Nirvana is through meditation and self-realization, not through intellectual reasoning. In fact meditation is one of the primary practices of Zen. Usually done in a lotus position, meditation focuses on posture, breathing, and stillness of the mind. Those practicing Zen meditation often count their breaths in and out, or focus on the energy of their breaths, all to regulate the mind from human thought.

In the Western world, Zen often conjures up images of stacked rocks, sand gardens, and bamboo trees. These notions can be traced back to the fact that the origins of Zen teachings in the east were in temples and monasteries. Contrary to Indian Buddhism, which relies heavily on mendicants receiving charity to spread the word, Zen Buddhism developed in the structured social environment of the monastery where monks worked to maintain their surroundings. Thus Zen has found a way to incorporate the mundane tasks such as gardening, housekeeping, farming, and carpentry into its teachings.

Throughout history, religion and belief has always influenced art, and so of course has Zen. In the art world, Oriental style has long depicted the spirit, whereas Occidental style depicted the form. As East-West bridge-building author Sidney Lewis Gulick stated, to westerners “the physical world was an objective reality – to be analyzed, used, and mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations.”

Zen art focuses on showcasing the inherent nature of an aesthetic object. A Zen artist tries to show eternal qualities of an object, also known as its essence, in the simplest manner. Zen withholds a goal to display purity and clarity in the everlasting nature of things, while abandoning true to life perspective. It strives for an awakening to the dynamic reality of the present moment as the eternal now, boundless and timeless.

Although Zen Arts operations are completely secular, and we are by no means representatives of the Zen Buddhism faith, the principles of Zen that have been laid out are integral parts of every Zen Arts production. Aside from providing aesthetically pleasing entertainment, we strive to create pause and reflection. Reflection upon the ingenuity of the human body, and appreciation of what it is capable of. Of course all our performers are beautiful and talented, but they also possess a little extra something. It’s that ability to go beyond normal human appearance or behavior, exhibiting almost animal, ethereal, or mystical qualities. As founder Doug Miller once said, “Every performer we have has a quality about them that not only makes them mesmerizing, but makes you fall in love with them.”

zen-arts-aerialistAt Zen Arts we believe in transporting our audiences into another world. A world where the laws of physics and the limits of the material world are obliterated, and man’s true capacity is as limitless as his mind. Mixing the artistry of high fashion with state-of-the-art makeup effects, each of our performers is able to display an image of the human spirit, providing spectators a peak into the metaphysical. Mirroring the qualities of self-realization, our performances inspire people to find their greatest potential. Through the use of the mundane, be it a curtain, hoop, or even just arms and legs, our performers are able to compose unthinkable spectacles. And it is our hope that your event guests will walk away with not only a memorable and magical experience, but a discovery of their own capacities, as well as a spark of creativity.