Anti-war Buddhist monk's story told in miniatures at Heart of the Beast

By Quinton Skinner, Special to the Pioneer Press, Nov 7, 2009

Minneapolis, MN (USA) -- There are a pair of emblematic passages in Masanari Kawahara's understated and gently affecting story of Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. In the first, we see the monk as a young child, laughing and gleefully declaring to his mother, "I want to be a monk!"

In the second, a miniature American warplane flies over a bucolic Vietnamese landscape; as it passes, Kawahara slams a hand down upon the greenery, which is replaced by stark flames. Such is the dichotomy between joy and grief that marked Thich's anti-war efforts and writings, which arguably made as great a mark in bringing Buddhist thought to the west as any of his contemporaries.

In "A Path Home: A Story of Thich Nhat Hanh," Kawahara uses an array of devices to tell this story in miniature. In a visual space no more than four feet across, he employs handheld figures, shadow puppets and painted scenery to move the narrative from Vietnam to France and Washington, where Thich tried to stop the war in his homeland from what he called its "roots" in America (making enemies of U.S. allies in South Vietnam in the process).

Appropriately enough, the mood here is meditative, an intent announced from the ceremonial bell chime that starts the proceedings. The action is accompanied by Kawahara's sporadic easy-going narration, and Matt Larson adds a slow, dreamlike score on guitar, whistle and a variety of stringed instruments.

There isn't much here in the way of conventional drama, nor a sense of Thich the person, other than his public persona and altruistic pursuits (although, given the egoless state to which he apparently aspired, operatic thunder of the soul might not have been prominent in his biography.) What we have instead is a simply elegant relaying of events, interspersed with humble profundities.

Yet it's not as though "A Path Home" is lacking in passion. When Kawahara's puppets representing Thich and Martin Luther King Jr. meet, we hear a recording of one of King's late-period speeches on Vietnam. It is far more revolutionary, more incendiary, than history generally remembers. To one side, a paper monk burns while Kawahara unreels his words on a long scroll, the holy man offering his body in flames to light the way toward peace.

With this comes the understanding that the quietude and tranquility of the monk marks a flame burning white hot, his search for universal understanding leading him to unbending compassion even for those who would do him harm. Kawahara communicates the quiet and the tranquil spirit, as well as a hint of the star-hot understanding burning beneath.

What: "A Path Home: A Story of Thich Nhat Hanh," by Masanari Kawahara. Directed by Sandy Spier.

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 22

Where: In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis

Tickets: $12-$17. 612-721-2535 or