Clown,Heyokas and Zen @ZCLA’s 40th anniversary celebration

by | Jul 24, 2007 | Clown + Zen

Heyokas, and the 40th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
by yoowho, photos by kuku cunningham (
this story took place in May, 2007.

He is tall and wears a baseball cap, thick smoky glasses. He is tall, did I say that. I try to remember the cultural aspect of native tradition that I read about, not to look in a person’s eyes when they are speaking, then dang he is looking straight down at me as he speaks. Pete who came with his partner, is part of the fabric of this 40th anniversary celebration. He is a Lakota man who spoke earlier, about the parallels between Zen and other eastern traditions, and those of the native peoples. He spoke of colors, of directions, of rituals and other things that I did not catch in the Sunday morning open mike session: ‘what zcla has meant for me’.

A lot of the speakers invite in humor to their tributes, some of them have the sangha in stitches. It’s the last morning of the gathering, a major celebration this 40th, that brings together all the teachers of the White Plum Teachers, the lineage of the Maesumi Roshi who founded the center in 1967.

The tributes continue. I stand next to the redwood trees, above on the little hill, removed from the action on stage. Pete has come over to talk to me. Funny enough I have a desire to talk to him too. I am little versed in Native lore, though oh so interested in the presence of clown in indiginous cultures of the earth. I am curious what he knows.

He opens the dialogue, telling me that he has been watching me these past two days, and he wants to know what role I am playing in this gathering. I tell him ‘clowning’ and briefly describe the existence of the order of disorder, i.smacc and such things, creating these humorous interventions

He then starts talking about the Heyokas, the sacred clowns of the Lakota. He is figuring that I am playing that clown role at this gathering.
I tell a few of the stories and ask him for a few too.

i ask about the directions, North and so forth, telling him about the dance of life that I practice, that I learned so long ago from Txi Whiz, one that is offered to four directions. He chooses to tell about how his direction in life is west, and how that can be viewed as a blessing, or as a curse. That is the direction of the Heyokas, amongst other things, but that he would not really want to take on the Heyoka pathway. He tells me that you have to do what the intuitive voice tells you, even if that means dancing naked in public. Pete does not wish to be caught in such a situation.

Our discussion is interrupted by loud Mexican music coming from the brick apartment building bordering the tent where everyone has gathered. The residents of course are used to the outbursts of music that often break through the open space with domination. However it is jolting, and suddenly difficult to hear the speaker. Pete veers his attention high up towards the third floor windows where the sounds seem to emanate from.

I try to draw him back into the conversation, as we have barely discussed the west, and there remains three more. I explain to him that this is normal, part of the barrio behavior, and the center is dealing with it. His response to my attempt to smooth the waters is: “you are about to have one angry Indian on your hands.’ He walks off to go find someone to talk to about the situation.

Clearly he finds it offensive, a lack of respect for the ceremony which is taking place. His seeking to redress the situation has me seeking my own form of intervention. I take back on the clown role, straightening my tux tails, and my sparse hair, with distinctive humorous gestures, and veering off to investigate the noise factor.

I spot the task force of two women heading, with flowers and an event t-shirt intended as presents, towards the offending apartment block. I am quickly informed that they had visited the night before as well. They agree to my proposal to join in after I suggest that magic tricks for the kids, el payaso, might just be the peace offering that is required. Time for a little sacred mischief.

The trio, one in full zen robes, one ‘civilian’ and me in black tux and all, head around the corner into immigrant worker housing land. The building entrance is disheveled, a little off kilter, with a heavy scratched wood and dirty glass door is slightly open, and we head in.

The heavy Orkin super strength pesticide stench assaults all my senses as we tread down a stained grey carpeted hallway past numbered doorways, pausing at one that the women believe is the right door. A Marx Brothers moment as we lean our ears into hear for the loud sound, but there is none. A few takes and double takes later, a little whispered conspiracy we head out the outside door to take a hear, indeed no more loud music.

Trepidations about what to do, a random conversation in Spanish with the one man we meet when we head back inside. The conversation, in Spanish, is well received, but he knows nothing. We leave the flowers in front of the doorway and head back around the block to the garden and the redwood trees.

Other posts