Zen cleric finds simplicity in puppets, performance

Barbara Hootman

Judith Toy, writer, poet, Zen cleric and master puppetmaker, proposed an interactive puppet show about one of the Buddha’s “Jataka” tales. It was accepted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions to be performed in Salt Lake City in October.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the parliament. Some 80 countries and 50 religious and spiritual traditions will be represented.

“This is the largest summit of interfaith activists around the globe,” said Imam Malik Mujahid, the chair of the Parliament Board of Trustees said of an event that provides learning and sharing opportunities. “This marks the return of the Parliament of World’s Religions to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.”

Toy, whose puppets have appeared in the Montreat Fourth of July parade, has been creating life-size and giant puppets since the late ‘80s, when the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont caught her attention. Peter Schumann, a Germany native, started the theater. Thousands of people went to his Vermont farm to study. Toy remembers one puppet took more than 100 people to operate.

“I studied with him for a summer of workshops,” she said. “We wrote, acted and created giant puppets. I was so enthusiastic about creating giant puppets that I adopted the theme of world peace to work with children through them. I adapted his teachings to work with children, especially to promote peace.”

Toy and her late husband Philip, both ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, bought 70 acres in Pennsylvania with an old antebellum-type farmhouse and raised their children while worked with gifted writers.

“Our farm was called Mash and Biscuit,” she said. She and her husband held puppet-making workshops there.

Toy, a member of the Zen community Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in Black Mountain, has been working with children at Cloud Cottage, especially on the second Wednesday of every month., “The parents came to meditate, and I worked with the children,” she said. “I tell them ‘Jataka’ tales from the Buddha, about his former lives as animals. They are simply little stories and not religious ones.

“The Magic Pig” story that she will enact in Salt Lake City will require five custom-made puppets, all operated by volunteers.

“I was thrilled that my proposal was chosen from thousands of entries,” Toy said. “It involves art, storytelling, acting, and some music, especially percussion and singing.”

Toy has performed interactive puppet shows as an artist-in-the-schools resident and as a museum and religious educator around the U.S. and in France. She will teach a workshop for adults in puppet-making at Black Mountain Center for the Arts 1-4 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays July 6-30. The cost is not yet determined.

Gale Jackson, the center’s executive director, said she and her staff are working with Toy to find a suitable block of time.

“I am most fulfilled,” Toy said, “when I am teaching and involved in art work with children. It is the kind of expression that I need.”

To learn more about Toy’s puppet-making, call 669-6000 or contact Toy at