Monthly Archives: June 2012

Riding the Ox Home 6

“Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom.”  D.T. Suzuki 

We are all tied down by the chains we have forged for ourselves.  Charles Dickens said this in A Christmas Carol  about Scrooge.  He said it about all of us.  It took Scrooge one night to undo a lifetime of links.  It takes the rest of us a little longer.  If we could get through all the muck that we have built up over our lifetime and see our true nature, we would be better actors.

Zen Koans are puzzles asked by the master to the student.  The student has to go away and try to figure out the answer.  If he gets it right, the master gives him another Koan.  If he gets it wrong, he has to think about it some more.

A famous Zen Koan is “What was your original face before your mother and father was born?”  In other words, what is your soul really like?  It is a quest that each of us should not undertake lightly.  But we must all undertake it.  For how can we truly understand Hamlet’s nature if we don’t understand our own?

Once you understand yourself, every character is easy.  This is true because every character is you.  I am Hamlet.  I am Willie Loman.  I am the third guy with a spear from the left.  There is no difference.  We are all one.  Just as I am one with every other being on this planet. There is nothing you cannot understand.  There can never be an unmotivated action or an unsupported vocalization.  There is just you.  There is just truth.

How does one start on this journey into one’s own nature?  There are many paths.  Mediation is a good way to start.  It doesn’t take a lot of money and it’s non-fattening.  Just find some time in your day that you can spend quietly by yourself.  Get comfortable and let your mind wander.  Use the breathing technique discussed previously.  Try not to hold on to any thought but let it enter your mind then pass through.  Explore the aspects of yourself through meditation.  Don’t make any value judgments; just accept them as part of yourself and move on.  Learn to love and accept who you are and you will learn to accept the world.

Give yourself two weeks of meditation.  Start with five minutes per day and gradually increase the time.  If you find this process soothing and uplifting, read more about meditation or study it with a teacher.  If you realize that this is not for you, find another way.

Riding the Ox Home 5

“When breath is all out and stopped of itself, or all in and stopped – in such a universal pause, one’s small self vanishes.” Lakshmanjoo

 Why talk about breathing at the start of our journey?  I believe that breath control is the most important technique an actor can master. If we cannot control our breath, we cannot control anything else.

Never take breathing for granted again.  The breath is the most important thing we can work on when we start our acting training.  You may think I am exaggerating its importance, but I am very serious.  Let me prove this to you by asking you the following question.  How good are your powers of attention?  You would probably say better than average.  But let us try a simple experiment.  Pick out a point in the room.  With your eyes open, concentrate on that point and try to stop any ideas from coming into your head.  Try this for one minute.  Were you successful?  Probably not.  Now run through the same exercise but this time stop, or nearly stop, breathing.  You were most likely more successful this time.  Your eyes reflected the object but did not dwell on it.  How was it possible to prevent thoughts by holding your breath?

Even though there is a very complicated explanation for this, think of it this way: Your breath controls everything in your body.  When you get excited, what happens to your breathing?  It becomes quicker and shallower.  Did you ever feel angry while breathing slowly and deeply?  Of course you haven’t.  There is the expression “When you get angry, hold your breath and count to ten.”  This naturally dissipates your emotions.  Breath control is the key to your power.  The center of your power is in your tanden, the region a few inches lower than the navel.

Reason dictates that if we control our center of power we control our body and spirit.  The tanden is the seat of our being and is of the utmost importance in the development of concentration and spiritual power.  Through the concentration on the tanden we develop breath control.  The breath is the key to controlling both mind and body.  Without the control of the breath we can manipulate neither.

Many acting, voice, and movement classes explain that when you breathe in, you should expand your belly. When you exhale, you should contract your stomach muscles forcing the air out of your lungs.  This is none other than working on your tanden.

Let us concentrate on our breath.  Breathe in for a count of three and then pause.  Hold your breath for a count of two and then pause.  Exhale for a count of four and then pause.  Start the process all over again.  It is important that you maintain the same speed as you count throughout this exercise.  Gradually, either slow down the pace of your counting or increase your numbers proportionally.  Inhale for six, hold for four, and exhale for eight.  Zen masters, in deep meditation, appear to stop breathing entirely.  They haven’t, but their breathing has slowed dramatically.

You will notice during this exercise that you will become calmer.  Your thoughts become secondary to the breath.  The next step is to count the breath.  You can count in three different ways.  Count your inhalations, count your exhalations, or count both inhalations and exhalations.  If you count both, use the same number for both inhalations and exhalations.  Try to count to ten without letting wandering thoughts in.  This is very difficult, but after a few weeks you will train yourself to block any stray thoughts.  You have started on breath control.  Congratulations.

Why is this important?  Well, we can use this breathing exercise whenever we need to calm ourselves down or whenever we need to focus.  After you become accustomed to breathing in this way, try it during a noisy audition situation.  Suddenly, all those stupid distractions fade away.  How often have you gotten so nervous at an audition that you self-destruct?  Try breath control to alleviate the problem.

It is also wonderful because now you have the capacity to control not only your breath but your emotions.  You can use your breath to conserve your feelings or to spur on your passions.  All you really need to do to feel anything is to manipulate your breathing patterns.

This sounds unbelievable, but Meyerhold, the great Russian director,  realized this in his theory of Biomechanics.  He said that if you want to feel angry, just bang repeatedly on a table with a clenched fist.  You will start to feel angry.  He realized that if you perform an activity, you will subconsciously manipulate your breathing.  The breath controls any physical activity.  The tanden senses how much breath you need for a specific activity and produces it.  You don’t believe me?  Separately, say the following two sentences aloud.

“It is a lovely day.”

“Tomorrow, I have to go to the store and buy apples, oranges, and peaches.”

Isn’t it amazing that your breath lasted long enough to say each sentence?  You subconsciously knew how much breath you would need.  There was no real thinking going on, it just happened.  Now think of the possibilities when we start to control our breath instead of it controlling us.

The next step on this road is even more important.  Try to remember how you breathed as you experienced a strong emotion.  If you can duplicate the breathing, I guarantee you will begin to feel the emotion. If we look at breath control in this way, we begin to see its monumental importance to the acting process.

Riding the Ox Home 4

A monk asked Chao-Chou,
“If a poor man comes, what should one give him?”
“He lacks nothing,” answered the Master.
– Anonymous

Everything that you need, you already have. We do not need anything outside ourselves to be complete. This is an expression of containment, of self reliance. We just have to accept who we are. If you are not secure in yourself, no one can give you security. If you are not happy with yourself, no one or no thing can give you happiness. It is not necessary to seek fame and fortune to achieve contentment.

It is also not necessary to study acting to be a good actor. If you know who you are, you will be a good actor. If you are running from yourself, no amount of training will help you. With that said, I believe that every theatre artist should constantly study. Different styles and techniques will always make you more competitive. Just realize the thing that will make you a success is who you are.

Riding the Ox Home 3

Chapter One

Starting the Search for the Ox.

Alone in the wilderness, lost in the jungle, the boy is searching, searching!

The swelling waters, the far away mountains, and the unending path;

Exhausted and in despair, he knows not where to go,

He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple-woods.

What the heck does that mean?  I find it interesting that the boy just finds himself in a jungle.  The poem does not describe how he got there.  He is just there, like waking up from a bad dream and not really knowing where you are.  At this point there is no ox.  The boy is thinking only of himself.  He is scared and alone.  He doesn’t know where he is or what to do.  For me, the beginning three lines describe when I first got off the bus in New York.  I studied acting, but I knew nothing of my chosen profession.  I was lost in the asphalt jungle.

But enough about me, doubt has taken hold of your soul.  You know that the beginning of any search starts long before you take that first step. You have come to realize that something is missing.    The reason may be unclear at this moment, but it is forcing you to take those first tentative steps towards the truth.  What your truth is, who knows?  In this poem, the truth is an ox. In Zen, the ox is one’s own true nature.  To search for the ox is to investigate your true nature.

But this search is a bit misdirected.   You see, the ox has never been lost, so what is the need to search for him?  The boy does not know where the ox is, is because he is the one who is lost.  He has been misled by his senses.  His home is moving further and further away.  His grasping pulls him in the wrong direction. But at least he knows that his journey to enlightenment must begin.  And so do you.

Becoming enlightened and becoming a theatre artist is the same journey.  All is one.  In life, this search will take the rest of your existence.  In acting, we have many searches.  Each one begins when you are cast and ends closing night.  The methods are almost identical.  We have to question, question, and question.  We cannot waste a minute of rehearsal or a moment of our lives.  This is the start of your journey.  A major part of this process will encompass your training.  This is the time when you are able to explore a problem at your leisure.  You are able to view the problem from many different angles and come up with reasonable possibilities.

The most important thing in the rehearsal process is that we must be comfortable enough to take risks.  Taking risks just means that we avoid the easiest, most obvious answers.  We must ask better, more probing questions.  We must try things that we know will be wrong because sometimes they will be right.  We must listen to the director and our fellow actors and respond with a pure vision of our character’s reality.

In rehearsals, we wrongly look to the performance and try to figure out the quickest most efficient way of getting there.  We should enjoy the process.  It is in the process that the magic occurs.  In rehearsal, as in life, we try to foresee the future.  When you are looking into your future as it stretches out a great distance in front of you, you become impatient.  A little impatience can be helpful, a lot of impatience can wreck us.  Let us begin…slowly.

If you enjoyed this preview of my book, please leave a comment.  Also consider purchasing it.

Riding the Ox Home 2

Here is the introduction to the book.  Please comment and tell your friends.


Life is a journey and we are all on different paths.  Just how do we all get to our own destination?  It is very difficult normally, but it is downright impossible if we follow someone else’s trail.  How can we accomplish anything that we can call our own if we are living another’s life?  So I propose a startling concept – never follow!  If someone tells you that he/she has the answer, smile and walk away.  That is not your answer.

Lin-Chi, the Zen Master, said the same thing hundreds of years ago. “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”   Strange words.  Why would you want to kill someone who holds so much knowledge and is so wise?  The truth of the matter is that Buddha’s truth cannot possibly be your truth.  You don’t get truth in a can, from a TV show, or from a book.  You have to go out and find your own.  Now I am not saying to put this book back on the shelf without reading another word.  Cans, TV shows, and books can all serve as good starting points.

So this book is about your search to become a true artist of the theatre.  Once you become that artist you will see value in everything, in everyone.  In other words, you will have become enlightened.  What can be more  Zen?

A book about Zen and Acting.  Gee whiz, Zen Acting?  What kind of crap is that?  What do we do – just sit around on stage and meditate?  How exciting is that?  I can see where there might be a problem.  But using Zen to deepen one’s art should not be considered new.  When I was in college, back in the seventies, we studied a book in Acting class entitled Zen and the Art of Archery.  A great book.  It taught me how to focus.  It taught me how to concentrate and center myself.  It taught me how to lose myself while holding on to myself.  Grotowski, Artaud, Andre Gregory, and many others have worked with actors in heightened states of consciousness.

Riding the Ox Home is a way not only to great, connected, focused, intense acting but also maybe, to enlightenment.  In the frenetic profession of acting sometimes we lose our way.  This book not only addresses our technique but our existence.

Every chapter begins with a part of the Ox herding poem.  The original poem was written by Kaku-an Shi’en (1100-1200),  a Zen master of the Sung Dynasty.  The poem is a metaphor of attaining enlightenment.  It tells the story of a boy trying to bring his lost ox home.  The boy has some troubles along the way but eventually resolves the situations that he confronts.  Within each chapter, each page starts off with a well known Zen quote which is related to an acting technique or issue. What you do with those ideas is up to you.

You will not be a great actor when you finish reading this book.  No one can make you a great actor but yourself.  What this book talks about is a path, not “The Path”.  It is a method, not “The Method”.  Whether you want to travel down this path is your personnel choice.  Only you can decide.  It is not intended for everyone.  And there is a reason for that.

We already know that once a method becomes accepted and formalized and taught in colleges and universities everywhere, it has already died. It has become useless to everyone except academics.  If you don’t believe me, just think of how many bad Shakespearean productions there are out there.  How can we do Shakespeare poorly?  We know everything about him, or think we do.  How many bad Brechtian shows pretending to alienate the audience have you seen?  I’ve seen a few.  Don’t we have volumes on Brecht also?  The truth is that the only one who could do justice to a show by Brecht was Brecht.  That is because he didn’t have a manual.  He followed his own path to his own truth.  The same goes for Shakespeare, and Meyerhold, and Artaud.  They were not trying to define a style.  They were trying to make great, fun, interesting theatre their own way.  So should you.  Does that mean we should never do Shakespeare or Brecht again or burn all the masterpieces as Artuad propounds?  I don’t think so.  We should listen to what those great artists are saying to us and then move on.

I hope this book isn’t taught everywhere by stuffy professors.  Let me tell you right now, the guy standing in front of you “explaining” it all to you has misspoken.  He doesn’t know what this means for anyone but himself.  My only hope is that it gives you the courage to find your own way.  Because your way is the only way you can go if you want to become an artist.

Riding the Ox Home 1

In this thread I will post parts of the book, Riding the Ox Home, a Zen approach to Acting.  If you like this, please buy the book.

It is available at:


A.F. Winter

Jumping In.

This is a blog about writing and theatre.  I hope to feature some of my books and tell you where you can get them.  I will also write stuff on the theatre, where it has been and where is is going.  I hope you will visit often and share your comments.