The Buddha’s Great Theater of Life

by Tonen O’Connor

There are six dangers attached to frequenting fairs: [One is always thinking:] Where is there dancing? Where is there singing? Where are they playing music? Where are they reciting? Where is there hand-clapping? Where are the drums?
Sīgalaka Sutta (Advice to Lay People), Digha Nikaya, tr. Maurice Walsh

As long as they live, the arahants abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music and unsuitable shows.-Anguttara Nikāya, tr. Bhikku Bodhi

Well, I didn’t abstain. I first performed as a (semi) professional actress in the summer of 1952 with a small company made up of students from the theatre program at Syracuse University. During my freshman year at Swarthmore College I had been cast in a play and been bitten, hard, with the theatre bug. Despite the hard work, lack of sleep and shaky nature of our performances, I loved those weeks at that little second-floor theater in Rome, N.Y.

During my sophomore year I was offered the opportunity to direct a play for the Swarthmore French Club and they generously bought me both train and theatre tickets so that I could go to New York and attend a performance of Louis Jouvet’s company performing Moliere. I sat in the second balcony to see Les Fourberies de Scapin, Moliere’s hilarious play about the outrageous scoundrel who at one point entices two competing gentleman into cloth sacks and ties them up. It still makes me laugh out loud to think of the uproarious sight of those two bags rolling and bumping about the stage accompanied by outraged cries. There is little in this world funnier than a man in a bag. (Or, as a Buddhist might say, rolling around in his illusions.) Right at that moment, watching those French actors take the stage with confidence and pull us into their story I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to bring all kinds of stories to life for an audience who would perhaps laugh, perhaps weep, and certainly realize something about life’s complexities.


Receiving a Master’s in Drama at Tufts University, I married and went off into the world of professional theater, where over the years I served as stage manager, actress, properties mistress, director, wardrobe mistress, box office manager, producer and, for many years, managing director of major theatre companies. It was due to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s exchange program with Japanese theatre companies that I stumbled into Zen Buddhism in 1982. The managing director of a company with which we were partnering took me to spend the night in a Zen temple, Sojiji Soin, on Noto Hanto. The experience struck me deeply and when I returned to the U.S. I began to seek out books on Zen and Buddhism. The rest is history: practice at the Milwaukee Zen Center (1986), receiving the precepts (1988), novice ordination (1994), summer ango at Shogoji in Japan (1997), dharma transmission (1999) and zuise at Eiheiji and Sojiji (2000).

But I continued to manage the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and to translate French plays for production until 1997 and in 1998 was the American producer of a bilingual English-Japanese production of Silence (Chinmoku), a dramatization of the novel by Shusaku Endo that toured in the U.S. and Japan. So my theatre career by no means ended with my discovery of Buddhism.

I was, of course, a bit dismayed when I found references from the early Nikayas like those quoted above. Was the Buddha really saying that the profession to which I’d devoted my life is something bad, something to be avoided by the devout? To be truthful, I mostly suppressed this conflict and just plunged on with my dual commitments. But as I write this article for a publication entitled Ancient WayI’m compelled to investigate the matter more deeply. Should I have heeded this ancient prohibition?

Despite the fact that the Buddha enjoined his monks and layhand 
followers from attending fairs or indulging in song and dance, apparently a tradition of early Buddhist theatre grew up, though probably unattended by devout monks. I found a reference on the web on the site titled Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance that states:

Buddhist literature indicates that early Buddhism also created a rich theatrical tradition. For example, the Pali Suttas (c. 5th–2nd centuries BC) mention theatre groups and various kinds of performers. It was by no means forbidden to portray the Buddha himself on stage, as has been sometimes the case later.

The Buddhist theatrical tradition spread later via the caravan route network, or the “Northern Silk Road”, to East Asia, and influenced the development of early theatre in Central Asia, China, Korea and even Japan. Another wave of influence spread to the regions of the Himalayas, where a rich tradition of monastery dramas evolved.

Something is clearly going on here. The tradition reached Japan in the 7th century, when in 612 a Korean actor is believed to have first performed Gigaku or Buddhist Mask Theatre (closely related to Sangaku. predecessor of Sarugakuwhich eventually became Noh.Gigaku  was a form of Buddhist processional dance drama blending religious themes with comedy, even burlesque scenes, while the performances took place in temple courtyards. Its performance tradition died out in the Heian period (794-1192.) These processional dramas call to mind the English Mystery Plays performed on wagons in procession in the 15th  century, another dramatization of sacred stories filled with burlesque and humor. Human beings seemed to be irresistibly drawn to the dramatic portrayal of events in their religion and life.

But still, those early Pali texts clearly include as the 7th precept the avoidance of all such “entertainments.” What’s going on here? And why, to this day, do people inquire of me how I could make the move from the theatre to Zen Buddhism, two forms they’re sure must be incompatible. There seems to be a generally held view of the theatre as full of life, full of comedy, full of glamor, possibly full of free-living licentious activity, in contrast with a view of Buddhism as austere, acetic, humorless and withdrawn from life.

looking up

So what did, and do, I find compatible about the two life views? I’ll get to that in a moment, after noting an interesting change that occurred in the precepts with the advent of the Mahayana. The Brahma Net Sutra as we have it today dates to the 4th c. CE, the same time period as the Avatamsaka Sutra, which contains the same set of admonitions concerning behavior. And here we find changes in the nature of the precepts. Although the five major precepts remain roughly similar in the two cases, the remaining precepts in the Brahma Net Sutra differ from those in the early Nikayas in a manner suggestive of the difference between the narrow focus of Early Buddhism and the development of a more expansive and inclusive view within the Mahayana. Beginning with the 6th precept there are noticeable changes and/or omissions:

6. (Nikayas) As long as they live, the arahants eat only one meal a day and refrain from eating at night, outside the proper time.

(Brahma Net) A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva clerics or Bodhisattva laypersons, or of (ordinary) monks or nuns – nor encourage others to do so.

7. (Nikayas) As long as they live, arahants abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music and unsuitable shows, and from adorning themselves by wearing garlands and applying scents and ointments.

(Brahma Net) A disciple of the Buddha shall not praise himself or speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so.

8. (Nikayas) As long as they live, the arahants abandon the use of high and luxurious beds and seats and abstain from using them: they make use of low resting places, either small beds or straw mats.

(Brahman Net) A disciple of the Buddha must not be stingy or encourage others to be stingy. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods or karma of stinginess. As a Bodhisattva, whenever a destitute person comes for help, he should give that person whatever he needs.

9. (Nikayas) End with 8, although “not handling money” was added for monks.

(Brahma Net) A disciple of the Buddha shall not harbor anger or encourage others to be angry. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of anger.

10. (Brahma Net) A Buddha’s disciple shall not himself speak ill of the Triple Jewel or encourage others to do so.

I think it would be safe to say that the early precepts focus on individual behavior, with small reference to others, whereas the Bodhisattva precepts reflect the new Mahayana principle of saving all beings and place emphasis on relating to others.

So things change, just as the Buddha taught and while relying on many of the earlier teachings that are reputedly close to what the Buddha actually preached, as a follower of the Mahayana, I must also rely on the concepts that grew with that new stream of understanding: all beings may become enlightened; a Bodhisattva vows to save others before him/herself; the truth lies in the interplay of the Dharmakaya, Samboghakaya and NIrmanakaya; all things in the universe interpenetrate; self and other are one.

The result of this is to bring my self into vivid relationship with all other selves and with the world at large. To understand the full meaning of impermanence and interdependence, we must enlarge our vision. And our understanding of this truth has more to it than helping us relinquish personal grasping in order to reduce personal suffering. It moves us to understand that we ourselves are impermanent and interdependent and that we must live, move and breathe in this awareness with compassion for all other beings who live, move, and breathe with us.

And here is where I have found my answer to the IMG_1323
question as to the nature of the relationship between the theatre and Mahayana Buddhism: empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience what others are feeling, to put oneself in another’s place. This is what we need if we are to fruitfully live our Buddhist understanding of our responsibility to the whole. Empathy is essential for the development of compassion. And this is what we experience as we sit in a darkened theater, experiencing the unfolding of lives, of situations, of emotions that we may perhaps never experience in any other way. An audience and actor connect in this mysterious exchange of understanding. This is also why, here in my home city of Milwaukee, audiences pour into theaters large and small. This is why, despite the beauty and power of films, there is such power in experiencing a shared living, breathing moment between actors and audience. And, yes, to laugh as well as to weep. Laughter is the great acknowledgment of life’s absurdity and of the fact that we are really not in control. When I dedicated 46 years to a life in the theatre, it was this ability to produce empathy that drew me forward. The vast literature of the theatre offers us a vast expansion of our life experiences.

Also with reference to the apparent conflict between the early Pali scriptures and the importance of theatre to our lives, it is important that we not attempt to use Buddhist scriptures as immutable teachings, with the sometimes mistaken notion that the earlier they are the truer they are. The idea that any and all early sayings retain a higher truth throughout centuries of change contradicts the Buddha’s original teaching on the impermanence of all things. It is important to examine carefully all early teachings within their historical context and to be aware that interpretations of the core teachings of the Buddha may well have altered over time. I’m always nervous when people start quoting competing teachings at one another, each teaching being used as a proof text…..proof, that is, of the speaker’s personal position. Frankly, our views of the virtues of singing, dancing and attending the theatre have changed radically since the Buddha’s admonitions to his monks.

At the same time, I do appreciate this early admonishment to avoid escapism. Today, instead of fairs, the Buddha might suggest avoiding game shows, reality TV, scandal-mongering talk shows and addictive computer games.

Why was it so easy to step from a life in the theatre to the life of a Buddhist cleric? Empathy…..self and other are one. In addition, I think of my Buddhist practice as performing my role in the Buddha’s Great Theatre of Life. Each moment is a new scene in the unfolding script and I must be as attuned to everything with which I am interdependent as an actor working in close collaboration with the other actors on stage to offer the audience a richly lived experience. I keep sitting zazen to let go of this self and allow more of the world to come in. I keep going to the theatre to increase my understanding and empathy for the others who inhabit this world with me.

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Tonen O’Connor


In September, 2011, Tonen stepped down as MZC’s Resident Priest, having served in that role since 2001. She received ordination from Tozen Akiyama in 1994, dharma transmission in 1999 and in 2000 performed the ceremony of zuise at Eiheiji and Sojiji, head temples of the Soto school in Japan. She trained in Japan at Shogoji, Hosshinji and Hokyoji, and holds the rank of nitokyoshi within the Japanese Soto system as well as a four-year assignment as kokusaifukyoshi.  

For over fifteen years she has worked extensively with inmates within the Wisconsin correctional system, served on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Religious Practices Advisory Committee and gave a presentation on this work at a conference in Tokyo in 2008. Tonen served as chair of the Committee on Interfaith Understanding, is past President of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and, with Zuiko Redding of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center, is co-founder of the Great Sky Sesshin, held annually for eight years at Hokyoji Zen Practice Community in Minnesota.

Prior to entering the Zen world, Tonen had a 40-year career in the professional theater and was managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1974-1995. She holds a Bachelor’s degree with high honors from Swarthmore College and an M.A. From Tufts University. Tonen is the editor of Buddhas Behind Bars, has a response included in The Hidden Lamp and her translation of Kodo Sawaki’s Commentary on The Song of Awakening was published in spring 2015. She has two sons, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and lives happily with two splendid cats.

With the departure of Interim Practice Leader Hoko Karnegis at the end of September, 2013, Tonen is once again serving as guiding teacher at the MZC as the search for a resident priest continues.