This year the San Francisco Zen Center turns 50 years old, and they have a calendar of events to celebrate. The premier event, a conversation with multimedia artist Laurie Anderson and Senior Dharma Teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson, took place last week on the intimate stage of Mill Valley's Throckmorton Theater.
These are the questions a zen monk has for a performance artist:
Are you afraid of mice?
Can your art love war?
Is it true that we are living in a dream?
These are the questions a performance artist has for a zen monk:
Do you see yourself as American?
Is sense of place important to your identity?
Are you intimidated when people seek answers from you?
A hand-painted sign greeted visitors. They had paid a generous ticket price in order to benefit the renovation of the Zen Center's Hope Cottage, a place to retreat for Zen practitioners and the public. The cottage is one of the few buildings resting on the cliffs above the Marin Headlands. It is accessible only by foot. And it needs a new roof (read more about it here).
The Andersons sat in deep chairs in front of a welcoming audience. Laurie Anderson has deeply inset dimples in her cheeks from a perpetual smile and eyebrows that press together and rise in the center when she speaks sincerely. She speaks sincerely often, even switching over when she strikes on a subject that she knows well, into the voice she uses in her performance. "When your government breaks at...what point...do you stand up and...do something."
It is something of a novelty to see so practiced a storyteller being asked questions by a teacher of Zen. After words of greeting, Reb Anderson stated his first question: "Are we living in a dream?" Laurie and the audience laughed, and then decided it was too early in the evening for such a question. When laughter or solemnity waved through the audience, Reb Anderson's expression was unchanged. Instead he smiled a content smile, while his eyes fixed deeply at Laurie's.
They talked about when Laurie Anderson stayed at Hope Cottage, and about learning from dogs (Laurie: "my dog taught me how to get old"). They talked about Occupy, and Philip Glass reading the Bhagavad-Gita in "mic-check" style. They talked about helping people deal with fear and paranoia.
There were many questions for Laurie Anderson. One man asked her about "sense of place" in her work, a question Anderson thoughtfully passed on to her host. "Is sense of place important to your identity?" she asked Reb. "I mean, how local do you define that?" Reb took his time in replying, "Well, I am in this mind and body. So, pretty local."
At the end of the night (after deciding that, yes, we do indeed live in a dream), Reb Anderson confessed that they had been worried it would be a depressing affair. "To feel sad without being sad is one of the goals of my life," Laurie Anderson said. Reb replied, "What about loving feeling sad?" Without pause, Laurie answered, "Well, that's music."