Zen, Shiatsu and the Art of the Clown

A Zen master is walking along the road. A Clown is coming in the other direction. They meet. How do they know which is the Zen master and which is the Clown? This is a koan I just came up with, inspired by the extraordinary life of Bernie Glassman, whose combination of Zen and clowning suggests some fascinating possibilities for how we might think about shiatsu. From a New York Jewish background, Glassman found himself drawn to the study of Zen in the 1970s when interest in it was just beginning its exponential growth in American popular consciousness. Working in Los Angeles as an aeronautics engineer, he became a student of Maezumi Roshi, an intense young Japanese Zen priest who had learned English as a boy by hanging out with the occupying American soldiers billeted at his father’s Zen temple in Japan. Glassman plunged into Zen, studying with Maezumi for fifteen years and becoming ordained as a Zen priest himself. Soon after that he got into trouble with many in the Zen establishment by pursuing his own more socially-engaged form of Buddhism. Returning to New York, he set up a bakery to help unemployed people back into work, which eventually turned into a multi-million dollar philanthropic enterprise. Later, he co-founded Zen Peacemakers, an international group dedicated to bringing witnessing and healing to sites of conflict and suffering, including annual visits to Auschwitz with multi-faith groups.

From Trauma to Clowning

So how did he become a Clown? In interviews, he says it was when he noticed that the people he appointed to responsible positions in Zen organizations were taking themselves too seriously. He needed some way to help them lighten up. That no doubt is one reason and it points to one of the key principles of clowning – and shiatsu – never try to solve problems, just play with them until they solve themselves. But a glance at Glassman’s biography shows that there was almost certainly more to it than that. In the space of just three years before he took up clowning, he suffered two traumatic bereavements. In 1995 his teacher Maezumi died suddenly and bafflingly – almost certainly a suicide – leaving a will that appointed Glassman as the head of his White Plumb community. Then in 1998, after Glassman had just moved from New York to New Mexico with his wife, the Zen teacher Sandra Jishu Holmes, to a house she had set her heart on as a peaceful and beautiful sanctuary from the demands of their twin careers, she had a heart attack and died, aged only 57. Shocked to the core, Glassman – whose diary was usually fully booked two years ahead, cancelled all his commitments and simply sat with his grief for as long as it took.

Soon after that, his study of clowning began. The teacher he found was Moshe Cohen, who had not only studied classical and modern European clowning, but also Japanese Kyōgen, a kind of comic antidote to the formality of Nōh theatre, and Butoh, the modern Japanese dance form noted for its utter physicality and raw emotional honesty. Perhaps it was his commitment to that same sort of honesty that drew Glassman to clowning, where whatever happens on stage, you accept it, welcome it, play with it, build on it. This clearly resonated with Glassman, the socially engaged Buddhist and peace activist. The trips he organized to Auschwitz with groups that included the children of both camp survivors and SS guards who had worked there, were about finding ways as a group together to witness and accept everything that had happened, to find a common humanity and a compassionate connection in the face of the worst that humanity can do.

For his part, Cohen found having a Zen master for a student transformed his teaching. Up till then he had concentrated on training performing artists. Within a couple of years, he and Glassman began teaching Clowning Your Zen workshops, helping everyone from Buddhist monks to corporate teams if not to become enlightened then at least to ‘lighten up’, to use the basic principles of clowning to develop more mindful and collaborative ways of communicating with each other, caring for each other and looking after themselves.

The Zen Clown Does Shiatsu

So what would happen if we bring this Zen Clown approach to the way we learn, teach and practice shiatsu? Let’s look at four basic principles and how we might apply them. The first we could call Emptiness. In the purest form of clowning, you come onto the stage with no script, no agenda, no plan and no ego. You are simply there, present, listening with your whole body, ready to respond. The space you enter is also empty, except for some simple object – a piece of cloth on the floor, a chair, a broom. Your task is simply to engage authentically with whatever you find there. Peter Brook, one of the most innovative theatre directors of his generation, begins his book ‘The Empty Space’ by saying that any empty space becomes a stage as soon as someone walks across it while someone else is watching. In shiatsu, as soon as a client enters the empty space which I am holding for them, something begins to happen. That something may be subtle and may be easily missed, which is why the clown – like the shiatsu practitioner – needs to listen with the whole body. The more embodied we are, as Reg Ray says, in ‘Touching Enlightenment’, ‘The more we uncover a vast and expanding interpersonal world of connection with other people…the more we sense others as inseparable from ourself.’ And the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor has pointed out that this kind of embodied awareness is what the Buddha himself originally meant when he said, ‘I mainly dwell by dwelling in emptiness’…not a negation of self but fully inhabiting the embodied space of one’s sensory experience, undisturbed by habitual reactions. ‘To dwell in emptiness’, Batchelor says, ‘brings us firmly down to earth and back to our bodies. It is a way of enabling us to open our eyes and see ordinary things as though for the first time.’ That is definitely the kind of emptiness the Zen clown aims to dwell in.

‘Yes, and…’

We could call the second skill ‘Acceptance’. But in clowning that slightly bland, do-goody noun transforms into the energetic affirmative ‘Yes, and…’. The core interactive skill in clowning, as in every form of theatrical improvisation, is the ability to say ‘Yes’ to whatever your clowning partner, (or in our case, the shiatsu client) offers. Clowns feel all emotions, more deeply than anyone else, but they also have the skill to stay with those emotions without suppressing or ignoring them, until something positive can surface from the depths. ‘Yes, and…’ is an extraordinarily powerful way to amplify conversational connection, or in the case of shiatsu, your connection with Qi. If I remember ‘Yes, and…’ as I touch my client, it reminds me to be not just open but appreciative, in an almost aesthetic way, to what my senses are telling me about this point and this person, and it empowers the client’s Qi to communicate back to me in the most direct and honest way. In effect, ‘Yes, and…’ is a mindfulness practice in itself.

The third space, ‘Not Knowing’, is a continuation of that meditative connection. Allowing yourself not to know any of the things that you think you ought to know is like swimming underwater, suspended in a completely different element, where none of the sounds from the surface world can distract you and you are free to focus completely on your direct sensory experience. In both clowning and shiatsu it’s a reminder that knowing doesn’t come from the head and that it’s time to come back to whole body listening; an invitation to open ourselves to pure ‘Beginner’s Mind’ where there are no maps or preconceived notions whatsoever. Of course in clinical shiatsu we need our expert mind, with its left-brain ability to give things names and to put them into categories. Language allows us to conceptualize, to manipulate and edit our experience, to make the kind of connections that we couldn’t make if we lived, as mindfulness sometimes seems to imply we should, entirely ‘in the moment’. But language also separates us from our direct experience of the thing that is named and in shiatsu we need that more than anything else. Touch brings us back to the bodymind and to the right brain’s capacity for empathic connection. Stephen Batchelor describes this as, ‘A vivid alertness that…hovers on the cusp between ‘it is’ and ‘it is not’, resisting the seductive lure of certainty’. This space of Not Knowing, then, is an invitation to train ourselves to be able to inhabit, or be inhabited by, the emptiness that is there before any names or labels come, (always remembering of course that ’emptiness’ is also just another name).

Playing, not Fixing

The fourth principle, ‘Non-Doing’, may seem a paradoxical way to describe the playfulness that is the trademark of the clown, but it is also the core message of the Dao De Jing, the original textbook about how Qi works, which though it is not often described as such, is a very playful book. Who but a clown would start by telling you that the subject of their book is impossible to write about? From the Clown’s point of view, Non-Doing means never trying to solve a problem, but simply being with it, playing with it creatively until it finds some way to resolve itself. For me this is a perfect reminder of how we work in shiatsu, not pathologizing or trying to control the Qi, but simply being respectfully present with the energy in a system, and letting it make its own connections. That’s non-doing in action.

In his late seventies, Glassman had a stroke that severely affected the right side of his body and his speech. Applying his Zen Clown principles to what life had just thrown at him, he worked every day with Feldenkrais exercises, which include frequent periods of rest to allow the brain to process what the body has just done. In these rest times Glassman found himself in a profound state of Not Knowing, at a level he had never experienced before. He surprised his rehab therapists at the pace at which he was able to recover both movement and speech. Back home months later, some friends came to visit and in the conversation someone asked him, as someone usually does in these stories, ‘What is the essence of Zen?’ Glassman looked at her and realized that, even though he had fully recovered his speech, he had no idea what to say. He had been asked the question countless times and never had any trouble answering it; now all he knew was that he could feel it, but had no words to describe it. ‘What that did to me was huge,’ he said later. ‘A huge sense of joy. Or a sense of holy cow! I don’t know what this is, and now I can find out…that’s what I remember, this state where I was just, “Wow. I have a new chance to clarify what does that mean.’

‘One Continuous Mistake…’

In shiatsu, the verbal mind is always pulling us back into its own kind of thinking, into routine and technique, seeking certainty and wanting results. Zen originated as a reaction against this kind of thinking, and just as Zen has through the centuries found it necessary to refresh itself, (coming to the west was one way it did that), in shiatsu we can use the Zen Clown’s principles to refresh our way of being with the client, coming back again and again to emptiness, saying ‘Yes, and…’ to whatever comes without needing to know what it is or how to describe it in words. And when it comes to playing creatively, there is one more secret ingredient: get yourself into trouble and be fearless about making mistakes. That’s what makes clowns funny and, as the 13thC Zen master Dogen put it, ‘Zen is one continuous mistake’.

Nick Pole’s work integrates Shiatsu, Clean Language and various mindfulness-based approaches. He has over 25 years experience in both eastern and western forms of mind-body therapy and has also trained in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. He is the director of London Mindful Practitioners, a non-profit support group for health professionals who use mindfulness in their work. His book, ‘Words That Touch – How to ask questions your body can answer’ (2017), is a comprehensive guide to using Clean Language in mind-body therapy.

For details of his one-day workshop “Improv and Beginner’s Mind: Shiatsu as a Performing Art’ workshop in London on 14th Nov go to: 


article © Nicholas Pole 2019