Monthly Archives: July 2012

Riding the Ox Home 14

“You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.” Deshimaru

 Yeow, that must hurt and the smell of burning hair is not very pleasant.  But even though it is unpleasant, it is something that must be done.  Everyday that you do not accomplish something that can lead to your success is another day wasted.  There are so many aspects of this art that you have to be aware of in order to succeed.  You can never sit back and wait for things to happen.

You should start each day with a physical and vocal warm-up.  You should do some “business” related activity everyday.  This could include going to auditions, writing a “thank you” for an audition, sending out pictures and resumes, pounding the pavement, or updating pictures and resumes.  You should learn about an aspect of the profession that you are not knowledgeable in, for instance, the technical side.  Finally, you should do something uplifting, read a play, see a production, talk to someone you respect in the field.

This is a full schedule.  You may not think it possible to accomplish even half these things in your busy day.  But if you want to be an actor, you should live your dream twenty four hours a day.  If you are not willing to, there are plenty of other people who will make that commitment.

Riding the Ox Home 13

“There is something blasphemous in talking about how Buddhism is perfect as a philosophy or teaching without knowing what it actually is.”  Shunryu Suzuki

 Acting, like Zen, is experiential.  You cannot talk (or write) about either without losing something.  That is why it may seem so strange to be reading a book on both together.  It is easy to say, “He gives us a reason to throw out his thoughts and his words.”  But you do not need a reason to reject this book.  You just have to put it down.  I can list a hundred different reasons for you to stop reading.  I can only give you one to continue.  Something makes sense to you.  Maybe you do not know what it is.  Maybe you do.  There are a thousand books on acting.  Most of them are credible in one way or another.  Is there something in this one that strikes you as funny, truthful, or meaningful?  It really doesn’t matter what I write.  All that matters is your interpretation.  And that is all that matters in acting also.

I have a confession.  The older I get, the less I know for sure.  The only thing I am certain about is that my life changes.  Each of those changes build a better me.  So who I was ten years ago, I no longer am.  The same is true of five minutes ago.  So how can I talk about Buddhism or acting when my perceptions are always changing?  How can anyone be sure of anything?

One way to attempt to solve this problem (in acting) is to be a part of every production you can.  It is not necessary to have a leading role or even a minor role.  Having a role is enough, and I don’t just mean as a performer.  Working backstage can be just as important to your growth as an individual, if you view it as a learning experience.  Watching how other actors approach their roles, asking questions, and discussing the play can be invaluable to your development.

So you need to know what it is and the only way to do that is by constantly being involved in the art.  I have been in the same play several times.  Every time I do it, I learn something new about the character, or how to interpret the role, or how a director, works or how our society changes its perception of the play.  The play grows.  I grow.  The audience grows.  This is the wonderful thing about the theatre.  Movies remain the same.  Live theatre is always changing.  We must change too.  So before we talk about the theatre, we must live the theatre.

Riding the Ox Home 12

“If you want to express truth, throw out your words, throw out your silence, and tell me about your own Zen.”

– An old Zen expression.

 People talk a lot of trash.  In this nation of sound-bites, we no longer speak what is in our hearts.  We speak phrases that are easy to understand.  But the truth is not easy.  We need to constantly work on our vision to see the truth.  It is a moving target that we always have to follow.  Once we can put our lips around the words, the words are useless to us.  This is why we shouldn’t talk about art to others because it usually is ox droppings.  A bunch of words strung together that even a child can dispute.

How do we express ourselves without words or silence?  This is a very big problem.  It is similar to a Zen Koan, although I do not believe it is one.  A Koan is a problem given to a student of Zen to bring about his enlightenment.

If you eliminate all outward limitations, you should find inner truth.  This discovery of your own Zen is a lifelong process.  But, your own Zen is the thing that makes you unique.  It is the thing that makes you special.  It is also the thing that ties you to the rest of us.

In acting we must know our own Zen.  We have to know who we are without the external trappings of our lives.  I know someone, who when entering his apartment, must turn on every electrical appliance he owns.    He will show you all his possessions with the greatest joy one can imagine.  But what is he without those belongings?  There are many people who define themselves by their jobs.  “I am an actor, but I’m waiting tables now.  I work at  Red Lobster.  I have an audition tomorrow.  My agent, who by the way thinks I’m great, set me up for it.  It is for a commercial.  I get to play a grapefruit!”

There is a middle aged man I know, who worked in a factory all his life but recently lost his job.  He sits around all day now because he barely has the strength to move out of his easy chair.  He lost his definition of himself and now, in his own mind, is nothing.

This is the problem with defining yourself by your profession or possessions.  What if we lose them?  We become nothing.  So without mentioning the role you play in life, your job, or your possessions, tell me about yourself.  Who are you without the external wrappings?  Take out a pen and paper and write down for the next five minutes who you are.

It is very difficult, isn’t it?  Were you able to write anything?  If you did manage to write something, did it describe your true inner nature?

Let’s try again with a different type of question.  If you were on a desert island, what three things would you take with you?  No people, please.  This will eliminate 99 percent of your possessions as unimportant.  See how easy that was.  What about the things you did take with you?  Why are these things so important to you?  What is the deeper significance of each item?  Now, if you didn’t have these three things or any others, how would you define your life?

After you have answered this question to your satisfaction, go back to the first question.  Don’t sell yourself short with easy answers to either of them.  They are tough questions, and you may not feel entirely satisfied with either of them for a very long time.  After all, Koans are not meant to be answered immediately.  Often the answer will not become apparent for many years.  When you truly know the answer, you will be able to tell me about your own Zen without words.

Riding the Ox Home 11

Chapter Two

Finding the footprints.

 By the stream and under the trees, he discovers footprints!

The sweet-scented grasses are growing thick – did he find the way?

However remote over the hills and far away the beast may wander,

His nose reaches the heavens and none can conceal it.

 Through your studies you have come to a certain awareness.  You have seen traces of the truth but have not yet experienced kensho or enlightenment.  You know that there are many paths but have not found your own way.  Unless you learn to discriminate, how can you tell the true from the false?  Not yet entering the gate, you have discovered what looks like a path.  At first you doubted your stamina, but now you see a path and your strength is doubled.

In your acting, you have discovered a myriad of styles or maybe you have realized that there is more than one way to act.  There are many things to learn, many paths to travel down.  All these choices are very confusing.  Which will take you where you want to go fastest?  Which is the easiest way?  Let me remind you that your true path may not lead you down a road that is easy or fast.  It is important that you begin to listen to your heart.  There is starting to be a sense in you that one way is clearer than the others, but at this point it is still a very small voice, hardly distinguishable.  Learn to listen to that voice and it will become as strong as a nightingale’s voice on a quiet summer’s night.

Riding the Ox Home 10


“When the student is ready, the Master appears.”  Buddhist Proverb 

 Things happen when they are meant to happen.  There are some things that you can accomplish immediately.  There are some things that need patience.  It is important to know which is which.

It is also important to be ready to accept any challenge that arises with enthusiasm and passion.  Everything is possible as long as you do not defeat yourself.  I know that this is an easy thing to say but a difficult thing to do.  Just remember good and bad are arbitrary labels we put on the events in our life.  You can just as easy call a good event bad and a bad event good.

Look at any major catastrophe and you will see examples of this.  Some people cry out in pity for themselves, calling for revenge while others speak of how lucky they feel to be alive.  And this was the very same event.

In the next five minutes, something will happen to you.  Register your immediate reaction and your feelings.  Then switch it and feel the opposite way.  See if you can make a good event bad and visa versa.  It might be difficult at the start, but soon you will become accustomed to doing this.  This is also a very good tool in rehearsal.  After you have decided your character’s reactions to the plot, change them around.  Some changes might work very well or lead you into more interesting choices.  Many of these reactions will be inappropriate for the performance, but they will give you a deeper understanding of the choices made by your character.

Finally, be open to what life gives you.  Know that things will come to you if you are ready.  The Rolling Stones concur: “You can’t always get what you want . . . but you’ll get what you need.”


Riding the Ox Home 9

To my readers,

I want to thank all of you who have been following this thread.

I believe several of you have bought my book,

Riding the Ox Home, a Zen approach to Acting. 

It is available at:

I’d love to hear your ideas and comments.


A.F. Winter

Riding the Ox Home 8

“When hungry, eat your rice; when tired, close your eyes.  Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.” Lin-Chi

 This simply means, do what you have to do.  The trick is finding out what you really need and then pursuing it.  There are so many things that an actor initially has to give up to achieve success.  It is important to find the thing that makes you whole.  For this you have to look into your soul or your true nature.  The thing that makes you whole will very rarely be drugs, alcohol, or wild parties.  These are distractions that will frustrate you from your ultimate goal.  Love, God, family are all things that can give you strength.  These are some of the positive, life-affirming things that you should fall back on during rough spots in your career.  Do not abandon them.

Another way of viewing this quote is that you should not deny yourself the things you need.  Some people get into the habit of living for tomorrow, or living for someone else.  This is wrong.  You were not put on this earth to live for someone else.  You are supposed to live your own life.  Sometimes that means being selfish, not often, but sometimes.  Mostly it means that you should not deny your own happiness for someone else’s happiness.  It is not a question of his way or your way.  There is always a middle ground where you can both come together.

Riding the Ox Home 7

“Your treasure house is within; it contains all you’ll ever need.”

– Hui Hai

 I once read that we experience every possible emotion that we will ever feel in our lives by the time we are five years old.  I believe this to be true.  Which means all we have to do is to truthfully look inside ourselves to find a connection to any character which we might have to play.  We all have good and evil inside, but we tend to deny the bad, the hard to take.  We must accept the bad and be ready to call upon those experiences when needed.

There is no good and evil, there are only our interpretations.  So we must remember what is hard to remember, what we have pushed down for so long, and embrace it as a part of who we are.

This seems as good a time as any to talk about emotional memory. Stanislavski was the first person to use it in acting.  Emotional memory is the conscious creation of remembered emotions from the actor’s own past, which is then brought to the role.  We achieve this by recalling the event sensually, through the five senses, in as much detail as possible.  The following is a description of an emotional memory exercise.

Sit in a chair and relax both physically and mentally.  Close your eyes.

Describe the area or areas relating to the experience.  The description should be as specific as possible.  “I feel uncomfortable” is far too general to be of any use.  Try to describe what makes you feel uncomfortable.  Are you hot?  Are you cold?  Where do you feel hot or cold?  At your fingertips?  The small of your back?

Describe the scene as visually as possible.  Then describe the sounds, followed by the tastes, the feels, and the smells.  It is not necessary to follow any sensory order since you cover them all.

Lead yourself up to and through the climax of your emotional memory, and then end it.

It is very easy to deride this type of exercise by letting your preconceived notions interfere with the act of remembrance.  Don’t expect to laugh or cry.  Just experience that moment in your life again.  The evaluation of the success of this exercise should depend wholly upon the strength of the experience and your depth of concentration.