“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” –William Blake
Most of us are familiar with the prototypical clowns: red-nosed clowns, court jesters, and Tarot fools. But sacred clowns take clowning to a whole other level. The Ne’wekwe “mud-eaters” were the Zuni equivalent of a sacred clown. The Cherokee had sacred clowns known as Boogers who performed “Booger dances” around a community fire.
In Tibetan Buddhism it’s referred to as Crazy Wisdom, which the Guru adopts in order to shock their students out of fixed cultural and psychological patterns. But perhaps the most popular type of sacred clown is the Lakota equivalent of Heyoka, a contrary thunder shaman who taught through backwards humor.
Almost all types of sacred clowns combine trickster spirit with shamanic wisdom to create a kind of sacred tomfoolery that keeps the zeitgeist in check. Their methods are unconventional and typically antithetical to the status quo, but extremely effective. They indirectly re-enforce societal customs by directly enforcing their own powerful sense of humor into the social dynamic. They show by bad example how not to behave.
The main function of a sacred clown is to deflate the ego of power by reminding those in power of their own fallibility, while also reminding those who are not in power that power has the potential to corrupt if not balanced with other forces, namely with humor. But sacred clowns don’t out-rightly derive things. They’re not comedians, per se, though they can be. They are more like tricksters, poking holes in things that people take too seriously.
Through acts of satire and showy displays of blasphemy, sacred clowns create a cultural dissonance born from their Crazy Wisdom, from which anxiety is free to collapse on itself into laughter. Sacred seriousness becomes sacred anxiety which then becomes sacred laughter. But without the courageous satire of the sacred clown, there would only ever be the overly-serious, prescribed state of cultural conditioning.
Lest we write our lives off to such stagnated states, we must become something that has the power to perpetually overcome itself. The sacred clown has this power. Christ was a sacred clown, mocking the orthodoxy. Buddha was a sacred clown, mocking ego attachment. Even Gandhi was a sacred clown, mocking money and power.
Like Thomas Merton wrote, “In a world of tension and breakdown, it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness.” Sacred clowns are the epitome of such integration.
Heyokas, for example, remind their people that Wakan tanka, the great mystery, is beyond good and evil; that its primordial nature doesn’t correspond to human platitudes of right and wrong. Heyokas act as mirrors, reflecting the mysterious dualities of the cosmos back onto their people. They walk the Red Road, following in the bloody footprints left behind by their Heyoka fore-brothers.
They go forward, to that place where emptiness is full, and fullness empty. “As a representative of Thunderbird and Trickster,” writes Steve Mizrach, “the heyoka reminds his people that the primordial energy of nature is beyond good and evil. It doesn’t correspond to human categories of right and wrong.
It doesn’t always follow our preconceptions of what is expected and proper. It doesn’t really care about our human woes and concerns. Like electricity, it can be deadly dangerous, or harnessed for great uses. If we’re too narrow or parochial in trying to understand it, it will zap us in the middle of the night.”
Sacred clowns are adept at uniting joy with pain, acting on the higher and more inscrutable imperatives of the Great Mystery. They tend to govern transition, introduce paradox, blur boundaries, and mix the sacred with the profane. They are called upon to reestablish the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. They dare to ask the questions that nobody wants answers to.
They are the uncontrollable avatars of the Trickster archetype, constant reminders of the contingency and arbitrariness of the social order, poking holes in anything taken too seriously, especially anything assuming the guise of power. They are a conduit to forces that defy comprehension, and by their absurd, backwards behavior, they are merely showing the ironic, mysterious dualities that exist within the universe itself.
Sacred clowns understand that humans fail, and failing means that sometimes we need to change. They remind us that the goal is not to stick to the same old path, but to embrace the vicissitudes of life and to discover new paths and the courage it takes to adapt and overcome.
Taking the universe into deep consideration, letting it be, and then letting it go, is far superior to clinging to a “belief” and becoming stuck in a particular view. Sacred clowns realize that the highest wisdom lies in this type of counter-intuitive detachment, in accepting that nothing remains the same, and then being proactive about what it means to change.
Most importantly, they teach us that there is no such thing as an enlightened master. We’re all spiritually dumb. The closest we can ever get to being “enlightened” is simply to understand that we are naïve to it, and then to laugh about it together as a community. Sacred clowns have the ability to plant this seed of sacred humor. They are constantly in the throes of metanoia, disturbing the undisturbed, comforting the uncomfortable and freeing the unfree. They remind us, as Rumi did, that “the ego is merely a veil between humans and God.”