Whose Line Is It Anyway?

by Rev. Jon Turner.

Whose Line Is It Anyway? was the title of a TV Show that ran from 1998 to 2007 on ABC. The host was Drew Carey. The show was filmed in front of a live audience. There were four actors who would improvise a scene given a short description and various props. The more random and disjointed the better since this opened up more space for the actors to create. Audience members often called out various professions and situations for the actors to integrate into the improvisation.

The show was very funny and truly amazing. Very intricate scenes were being created in real time – right before your eyes. In fact, it was so amazing that it actually hurt their ratings. The show had trouble gaining credibility with the viewing audience. People thought that it was too good to be true.  Viewers couldn’t believe that something that funny and entertaining was not scripted. The show was never able to overcome this cynicism. They were a victim of their own success.

I think the reason for this is that people really don’t understand the deep meaning of the word “spontaneous.” I am also one of those people. Ultimately, I too, quit watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? It just didn’t seem possible that four people could make up the same story at the same time, live. It seemed like they were reading each other’s mind but that is not possible. So it must be that they had a script and the audience participation was rigged.

But this is a misunderstanding of what it means to be spontaneous. It does not mean that one just wings it in the moment. This is a common misconception. “Spontaneous” means to be free within a given structure. It does not mean to be free from structure all together. Thus, trying to be spontaneous by being provocative or purposely ignoring rules is not being spontaneous at all. Cussing is also not a form of spontaneity. Breaking rules is not being free.

I noticed this feeling of structure while in Japan for the ten day ordination training called Kyoshi. Every minute of the 16 hour day was accounted for within a spreadsheet. It seemed overwhelming. There was very little free time and even less freedom of choice. It was about the group and not the individual. This is a very different way of living and can be quite stressful if one tries to fight the structure of the monastic life. However, it can also be very enjoyable if it is embraced, if one can relax and just move from cell to cell on the spreadsheet.

Surprisingly, improv is much like this. It is actually a highly regimented form of acting.  Each actor is “free” but only within some very strict guidelines that the group must adhere to. Improvisation is not everyone just winging it. It is a group of highly trained actors performing within a discipline called Improvisation. The reason why it works so well is that they are all playing by the same rules. And that rule is that no one ever says “no.” Everyone has to always affirm the action. Each player must move the story forward. They must accept every move made by every actor. This is what creates the scene and gives it life. This is what is going on within this show. Nothing is choreographed but at the same time nothing is left to chance.

To be good at improv takes years of training. First one must have faith in the rule of affirmation, then experience it through practice and finally, live it on stage with other actors. Once these three things occur, then it is as easy as humming a well-known song. What is difficult suddenly becomes easy. It can be done without effort. This is when one acts spontaneously.

This misconception of spontaneity has also influenced how Buddhism is understood. If ministers make it appear effortless it is not because they are not trying. It is because they are so highly trained that it has become spontaneous. They know the boundaries of the Dharma and can move freely within it. Language becomes an instrument they use to spread the true teachings. A Dharma Talk becomes like jazz rather than a recital.

I often noticed this during my training. It all seems so easy when Rev. Harada is doing it. You just ring the bell a couple of times, chant, talk and then sit down. But it is much different when you have to do it yourself. Rituals are very formal and highly orchestrated. However, their meaning is not truly felt until they become second nature. It has to be felt by the heart and not calculated by the mind.

Often times, I now give Dharma talks from a very rough and sparse outline. I know the notes I want to hit and then just play around that at the lectern. The structure is coming not from me but from the Dharma I have been taught. I know where the boundaries are now and I am able to freely move within those boundaries. This is true freedom.

I am sometimes told that my talks seem spontaneous. I take this as a complement but I hope people realize that I don’t just get up there and wing it. Instead, it is a spontaneity that has taken 15 years of study and practice. I have also been asked how long it takes to prepare a Dharma talk. And I answer over 50 years – my entire life.

And in a sense I am just repeating what I have been taught by others. So if someone ever asks me Whose Line Is It Anyway? I will answer that it is the Buddha’s line and the lines of all of my teachers that have trained me in the art of Buddhist improv – a practice where one never stops the action and always moves along with the flow of life.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner