Go Deeper

Rape And Enlightenment: “ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN”

Posted August 18th, 2010

“I had been working on a play about rape,” says actress and playwright Joanna Rotte, “and discovered Yeshe Tsogyal. She’s called the first Tibetan person to become enlightened, from 8th-century Tibet. The way in which she handled her experience of rape was different than anything I had heard of. She was able to see differently. Her presence—how she received the aggression and how she could transform it. The story is that the rapists became great practitioners.”

In this way, Joanna says, Yeshe became the founding mother of Tibetan Buddhism. For the 2010 Philly Fringe, Joanna has transformed Yeshe’s story into ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN, and Joanna will play Yeshe on stage at the Painted Bride.

In November 2008, on the occasion of the wedding of Mipham Rinpoche—the head of the Shambhala Center—Joanna was asked to speak about Yeshe and the installation of the feminine principle.

“Why would I speak?” Joanna asked. “I’m an actress. Why don’t I tell her story? Why don’t I do her story?”

After the jump: coming to Buddhism, cave dwellers, and humility.

Joanna turned information about Yeshe’s life into a first-person narrative, performing the initial version of what has become ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN in Shambhala Center’s shrine room. We’re sitting in a small area next to that room, where I try to keep my voice down so as not to disrupt the meditation session that’s going on. Joanna walks across the room to get a picture, of a Buddhist nun named Tenzin Palmo.

“She lived in a cave in Tibet, solitary for over twenty years, until her teacher told her to come out. She started a nunnery in India, for Tibetan women refugees.”

Joanna met her while Tenzin was traveling the world, teaching at various locations in order to raise money for the nunnery. She was invited to meet Tenzin face-to-face, and was moved to convert to Buddhism, known as “taking refuge.”

“We were in this room, sitting in those two chairs,” Joanna says, pointing across the room. “She was so open—I looked at her and said, ‘Do you do the refuge vow?’ She said yes, and I asked, ‘Could I take refuge with you?’

“She said, ‘If I have it on my computer.'”

When becoming a Buddhist, Joanna says, “You become a refugee. You take the intention to give up your devotion to believing that the world will be your refuge.”

The first Buddhist show Joanna did was a Fringe show in 2001, which may have been the last Fringe performance of that year. It wound down about 11:00 pm on September 10, the night before the terrorist attacks of September 11, after which the Fringe shut down that year. The show was Prajna, updated and adapted from a text written by the founder of the Shambhala Center.

“It was about the truth of emptiness. Emptiness means there is not a fixed identity, that we’re constantly in motion ourselves. Our delusion is that there’s a ‘me’ that’s fixed. Prajna means wisdom—high wisdom is the truth of emptiness.”

Joanna says that when she performed Prajna, her consciousness was pushing her to unite her spiritual and artistic paths.

“In that period I worked on Endgame, which I think is an accidental Buddhist play. I looked for sensibilities of emptiness and the truth of suffering as the fundamental condition of being born, the ground of anxiety that is human life. I learned to bring that to the stage.

“A lot of actors have worked out ways to pretend to be in the moment. It’s not very doable unless one learns to quiet the mind, being with whatever is arising even if it feels horrible.”

I ask Joanna how it’s possible to portray one of the holy figures of Buddhism.

“There’s no way I can approach this except with humility. I do all I can to settle my mind before I go and ask my—ask the lineage to show up, so that somehow I can be a good vehicle.”

And of course, what about sacrilege? Not all of the faithful enjoying seeing their holiest portrayed.

“Mipham is aware of the project,” Joanna says. “I asked him for his blessing on the project and I received that, so I feel that we have the energy to go forward with it. I feel like there’s a mandala in which we’re performing, which is in favor, and everybody who’s on the project is aware of the intentions—to provide an opportunity for people to wake up.”

As if to punctuate that idea, my phone, which I failed to shut off before our meeting, rings, ending our interview with a distracting tug from the world outside.

ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN runs September 3, 4, and 18 at 7:30 pm, and September 4 and 5 at 1:30 pm. Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street, Old City. $25.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Julia Wilkinson.