A different picture of what a liberated life can look like Barry Magid December 4th 2010

I hope some of you managed to do your Zen homework and got down to see Saint Misbehavin’, the movie about Wavy Gravy. If you haven’t, it’s still there this weekend, down at IFC. It’s an important reminder that this Dharma, in addition to being incomparable profound, can also be simply ridiculous. It’s very instructive to see an alternate model of liberation once in a while. The filmmaker apparently spent ten years following this character around, and has, I think they said, maybe ninety or a hundred hours of film that they edited down to an hour and a half movie. But of the ninety hours that didn’t make it into the movie, I seriously doubt whether there was a section on his four time a week analysis or his ten years in a Japanese monastery. I think his liberation or enlightenment was of the old fashioned chemically induced kind. And it is an instructive reminder that there is not only our particular narrow path that leads to insight and compassion. Not to say that the old hippy model didn’t produce lots of casualties and fallout. I’m not sure I’m recommending a return to that, but when it worked, it worked.

This character, Wavy Gravy, whose name was Hugh Romney originally, started out doing improv with the Beats in the Village, and he got a gig in Los Angeles where he was an opening act for Thelonious Monk and apparently he had Lenny Bruce’s manager. And this character encountered Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and in that period turned himself into a clown, a prankster, someone who modeled a different kind of liberation than everyone was used to. Liberation then was performative, it was -- we will show you what it means to not live a straight up-tight bourgeois life, what it means to have an on-going party as a way of living.

It’s curious, though, that when I went back into my archives I found the original autobiography of Wavy Gravy published in 1974 with an introduction by Ken Kesey. It had lots of pictures and little biographies of them and all the pranksters and the original members of the Hog Farm, and it had a little note that Hugh Romney at this time was helping support the Hog Farm by having a day job at Columbia Pictures where he was teaching improv to Harrison Ford. Mrs. Gravy was a former Playboy Bunny who did regular TV shows. So it was a very complicated interaction, a lot of different things happening at once.

But in terms of practice, one of the things, I don’t remember if this was exactly in the movie, but in the book they were some of the first people to get ahold of little hand-held cameras, and they just filmed everything all the time, from morning to night, they just kept the movie going. One form of practice was to turn everything into a show, so they would say, Now’s the time for the laundry show! Now is the time to wash the bus show! And now we have the childcare show! And the cooking show! And everybody had to figure out how to make a show, a performance about how to do every little daily task, right? You know, straight out of Dogen! It’s ritualizing everyday life. This is kensho koan. Actualization of the ordinary. Now you can do it in a monastery with a particular ritual for everything or you can stay stoned witless so every activity just makes you giggle, right?

But really making everything a show was part of this notion of life as continuous performance, of practice. And it gets really interesting when you take the show to an anti-war demonstration and you have to do a show with all the cops there. One of the reasons he ended up wearing clown costumes was that he realized that the cops didn’t want to have pictures in the newspaper of them clubbing Santa Claus, so if you put on a silly costume, you’re less likely to be beaten up. And that was the other part of this time, the tension between the counterculture that was revolutionary and political and the counterculture that was hippy and drop out. And they really tried, in some way, to be an interface of those things, where they brought lightheartedness to demonstrations that otherwise were getting violent. You may remember the charge of security at Woodstock, but there were people trying to get in enough food for a crowd of 400,000 or whatever it was, and to run tents where people who were taking bad trips could be taken care of. And so the Hog Farm and Romney were people who were trying to bring order to that particular kind of chaos.

I did have a glancing acquaintance with all that, managing to go to Woodstock for one day, myself, under very controlled bourgeois circumstances. I was trying to remember the details of this and how it could have happened, but there was something like this -- I must have just been starting college but my girlfriend was still in high school and there was no way her parents were going to let her go away with me to Woodstock for a weekend, unchaperoned. So what we managed to do -- I must have planned this far ahead -- we actually rented hotel rooms in the neighborhood, and we took my father with us in the backseat of the car to Woodstock and dropped him off at this hotel and the two of us then went to the festival, where my entire experience of it was of traffic jams and of crowds. I don’t remember any music whatsoever, but we just saw a lot of people wandering around, so we just spent a day in traffic, spent a day wandering around, saw that there was a stage really far away, we couldn’t see anything, there was something coming over the loudspeakers that we didn’t recognize, and then we went back to the hotel and my father. That was my Woodstock experience. I was a very poor excuse for a hippie. But I digress.

It is something to see the footage of those old days, I think this being a relatively old sangha, many of us have memories of those days, although the cliche was, If you can remember it, you weren’t there. But a lot of what we see, also, in Wavy Gravy’s life, was the transformation of something that was just about getting high, fooling around, into a life of service and a life that got redirected, in a lot of very unpredictable ways. One line I particularly noticed, he said at a certain point lots of people in America started being interested in meditation and they would have these meditation retreats of one kind or another but there were lots of kids around and they didn’t know what to do with the kids, so Wavy Gravy said, you all go to meditation and I’ll take care of the kids. So he did his clown thing and entertained the kids while the grownups did their practice, and that seemed to evolve more and more into work with kids, and for a long time he worked with autistic and brain-damaged kids in hospitals and then he started a camp where he taught clowning and circus techniques to inner city kids and all sorts of kids.

Then he got involved with Ram Dass, probably through a chemical connection. Ram Dass is, you know -- his original name was Richard Alpert -- and there was Tim Leary, so they had lots of things in common to talk about. But they started a whole foundation where they traveled to India and Nepal bringing medical supplies, and one of the original hippies from the Hog Farm -- one of these bearded, hairy goofy-looking guys from this book in 1974, turned out to get an MD and traveled with them to India, being able to do all sorts of medical work there among the poor. And they got involved with Ram Dass in the Seva Foundation, which was doing cataract surgery for free out there. So there the clowns kept morphing into something that looked more and more like community service and less and less just performative getting high and showing up the bourgeoisie.

As I say, I was just very touched by this as a different picture of what a liberated life can look like. It doesn’t have to look religious, it doesn’t have to look like people in robes, it doesn’t have to look like pictures of engaged Buddhism. Sometimes, you know, engaged Buddhism gets a bad rap in the sense of, you know, there’s all this poverty and oppression, so don’t enjoy yourself too much. Make sure you eat your peas because there are starving kids in Asia. But Wavy Gravy had a kind of sense of what you want to do in the face of oppression: Be happy, spread joy. You don’t always help people by having a worried, sour, serious countenance, right? Sometimes what you need to do is have a center of joy that you let radiate out into the world.

My other loose association to that is back to the days of the war resisters in the First World War, where in England, if you wanted to be a conscientious objector you had to go in front of a board and answer questions to their satisfaction or they put you in jail. When one artist was brought before the board, they asked, How can you justify being a conscientious objector while your fellow citizens are off fighting to save civilization? He said, I serve the civilization they’re fighting to save. Lytton Strachey, when he was brought in front of the draft board -- he was a rather swishy, effeminate homosexual -- they asked him the standard question: And what would you do, sir, if you found a Hun trying to rape your sister? and he said, I would try to get between them. Which I think is in the spirit of Wavy Gravy.

I will end on that note and since it’s too crowded to see everybody in dokusan, I won’t see anybody. Maybe that will discourage a few people and we’ll get this group down to a manageable size.

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