If you want to dance Butoh, the first thing you must do is kill the self.

Tatsumi Hijikata

The first thing I learned from Buddhism is that there is no self. But Buto-ka love the drama of life and death and nobody ever talks about Zen (even though Butoh is saturated by it).

In Butoh, we often practice dying. At first people approach it gingerly, thinking it will only bring sadness, but eventually they find it brings relief or release or enjoyment, and sometimes hilarity. I enjoy this practice and I seem to be getting better at dying. And then we also practice rebirth.

Denise Fujiwara in Sumida River; Photo by Cylla von Teidemann

I remember playing Cops & Robbers as a child with all the kids on the block. Nobody wanted to get gunned down but when it happened it turned out to be an opportunity to have a wonderfully extravagant death. I enjoyed that, too.
When we practice dying in Butoh, we also practice killing one another. This sounds so immoral, but actually I don’t think it is. I set clear parameters for the exercise. In Peter Blue Cloud’s great story of Coyote claiming to kill himself (twice!), the Trickster shifts the animals from bloodthirsty battle-cries to reasoning and feasting not by appeals to their moral sense, but by breaking through their habitual ways of contemplating this taboo. So that’s what we do. We have immense fun and kill our many selves (and revive them, too).

The next time I lead a dance session at a Zen retreat we will practice dying, although this exercise takes much more than my usual allotted hour. Perhaps Coyote will help.

Field Notes

“Lying, for all its bad points in daily living, is a very quick way to the world of the imagination. It is also a competitive pastime. Like the Mississippi riverboat men in Huckleberry Finn, the children at P.S. 61 were eager to do each other one better, to tell an even bigger, more astonishing untruth: I live on the moon; I live half the year on the moon and half on the sun; I live on all the planets: January on Jupiter, March on Mars, December on the Planet of the Apes. Different kinds of lies could also please and astonish: I am ten years older than my teacher; I like school. These fourth-graders, with only the slightest encouragement from us, began to create strange realities with great gusto…”

“Once the students began to write down their individual poems, there was terrible chaos, since they were bursting with untruthful inspiration, eager to write, and unable to spell half the words they wanted to use. All the time they were writing, there would be a few students, frantically excited, shouting at me at the head of the table. I couldn’t tell them, as I had told children in other classes (and even there not always with success), just to write the word any way they could, that spelling didn’t matter, I would understand it anyway. They knew perfectly well they couldn’t write it at all, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell January from an elephant if I didn’t show them how the words were spelled. Showing turned out to be better than telling. I had paper in front of me, and when they asked me a word, I wrote it down—or rather, I printed it—as fast as I could. Telling them how to spell all the words would have taken forever, since no one could hear anything I said. It is tiring to work at the center of an inspired mob, and also rather heady.”

– An Excerpt from Kenneth Koch’s “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry” (1970), on teaching poetry to “so-called deprived or disadvantaged children” in 1960s New York City.