22 The Clown Dharma

Oh!  Hmmmm…  Aha!  Voila!  Whoops!

Peter Gould


This is my favorite teaching moment:

            I am standing in front of a group of students–of any age! They can be energetic first graders, cool college undergrads, or dignified executives at a swanky management retreat.

            “Okay now,” I go; “Let’s all say it together:  ‘Oh. Hmmmm…  Aha!  Voila!  Oops!’ “

            “Oh. Hmmmm…  Aha!  Voila!  Oops!”

            “Clown Dharma,” I call it.

            I’ve been teaching it for twenty years.


Sometimes I do clown. Not the painted-face, big-shoe, come-in-and-get-your-car-washed clown. No, my models are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball… I have a hat, a nose, a necktie, and a kazoo. Fun to perform, fun to watch, and fun for me to share in workshop form.

It’s no accident that, after many years, the physical comedy and clown work that I perform and teach have begun to look like Buddhism, particularly the Four Noble Truths. I am a mediator, a meditator, and a theater guy. I solve problems. The friends I like to hang out with are problem-solvers, too.

For me, Buddhism has never been a religion. Tell me I’m wrong about that; I don’t mind. For me it is a problem-solving approach to living. A positive way of thinking that you can build a performance, a career, a life, around. It’s worked for me.

Some of the most renowned Buddhist scholars agree with me. Robert Thurman says, “Buddha was not the founder of a religion–he discovered no omnipotent God who charged him to move the masses.” Instead, says Thurman, he created a revolution in how individuals build their own identities and deal with reality. For a clown like me, the Buddha pointed the way to how I can best engage my audience in our innocent, outsider confrontation with the world.

According to Professor Ananda Coomaraswami, “the whole of the doctrine of Buddha is simply & briefly capitulated in the Four Noble Truths:”

  1. (dukkha). There is suffering.
  2. (samudaya). Suffering has a cause.
  3. (nirodha). Suffering can be relieved.
  4. (magga). There is a way to accomplish this relief. (in Buddhism, the specific, eightfold, path is suggested to you. )

There is another way of expressing and applying these four truths–it’s the essence of positive living, and the essence of masterful clown work as well:

1.There is a problem.

2. Every problem has a cause.

3. You can know the cause, and figure out the solution.

4. You take the steps to solve the problem.

Can you think of an incident in your life that has taken this form? Take a moment, have a sit or take a walk, then come right back with your response. If you have difficulty answering this question, it may be that you belong to that growing group of people who expect our problems to be solved for us. That’s a problem. You’ll need to quit that group before it’s too late.

Back to my Clown Dharma. The Five Noble Truths.

Years of watching great solo clowns perform have informed me. (Avner the Eccentric–he had his own Broadway show!–comes to mind. Just thinking about him makes me smile.) Years of building my own logical clown sketches have solidified my learning.

As the human race evolved, we adopted a nearly global rule: don’t hurt the clown. The clown’s combination of innocence and commitment to truth makes them special, like a child. The clown is less interested in their own identity, and more interested in what is suddenly standing in front of them. We would not want to hurt them, because they’re our representative. They explore life on our behalf.

Clown logic is inescapably attractive. We all share in it. Here is how it works:

  1. First, the clown encounters a problem. (Oh! )
  2. With the curiosity and reasoning of a child, the clown tries to figure out the cause of the problem. (Hmmmm…)
  3. Further study by the clown reveals an idea for a solution. (Aha!)
  4. The clown solves the problem, in a way that you and I, rational adults, probably would not. (Voila!)   
  5. The clown’s solution nearly ALWAYS creates a new problem. (Whoops!)

Are you ready to become a clown problem-solver now? Then you should know the only exception to the fifth truth of this dharma. You may arrive at  the end of a sequence of problems following problems. You need a pay-off, so you clearly frame it, you accept the applause, it’s over, but then–just when the laughter is nearly over–you hold up your hand and silence the crowd yourself, because you have JUST NOTICED another unrelated problem over there: Oh!  And then Hmmmm….

Be a problem solver, and you may yet become a successful clown. At least you will become a human who functions better in the world. You will learn not to over-react at a sudden obstacle thrown in your way. Deliberately, you’ll reclaim a little bit of your childish wonder. People watching you will reclaim theirs, too. And if you add a light heart to this positive, step-by-step approach to difficult encounters, to the next difficult dispute, you can’t lose.

Where does this light heart come from? Are you born with it, or can you learn to cultivate it? Embracing clown dharma can get you there. Watch a good clown at work. They never get discouraged–well, unless that’s meant to be part of the act. Every problem is an opportunity. Every perceived setback is just a new “that’s interesting” moment. Clowns live with and profit from blowback, unintended consequences, the “didn’t see that coming.” The whoops!

Where else can this light heart come from? From teamwork, perhaps. In a class, a workshop, a retreat–or in actual life, there’s a great potential for collective fun. Working with people you may not have known well before, you combine to create solutions; you use your mind and body in a new way. I’ve seen a bunch of middle managers—co-workers who only knew each other via email, phone, text, zoom, and reputation—laughing as they made up a sky-diving skit, short on dialogue and long on sound effect; and encouraging and appreciating each other as they made up solutions to the unexpected problems that arose from their other solutions.

When I perform my physical comedy show, I slowly move through the Five Noble Truths. The stage is littered with problems I have solved, and with new ones that I am about to discover for the first time. I have faith that I can solve them all!

The faith of my clown is blind faith. Like a newborn, I haven’t yet found a reason not to have it. I trust myself; I even revel in that trust—making appropriate sounds on my kazoo—but that trust is based on nearly total ignorance of everything in the world.

Did someone say “beginner’s mind?”

As I move through the Truths, I frequently report to the audience, generating compassion in them, making sure that they are with me in my work. They root for me. If they are kindergartners, and they think that I have never seen a chair before and don’t know how to sit in one, they jump out of their seats; they holler advice. They want to help me. Some of them may storm the stage to lend me a hand. They show the empathy and concern that adults think they’re way too young to have. While they help me, we all become friends.

Be a problem solver, and you can be my friend, too.

Oh!     Hmmmm…     Aha!     Voila!     Whoops!



Robert Thurman, INNER REVOLUTION, p. 100

Ananda Coomaraswami, BUDDHA AND THE GOSPEL OF BUDDHISM, p. 90



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