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John Cage and collaborator/partner Merce Cunningham

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson has been my mainstay for the last several weeks. Every page has now been marked and annotated, leafed through many times. This is an unforgettable, inspiring, deeply moving book about a towering and yet famously accessible figure. Larson weaves this story through written words by John Cage himself and the historical evidence of the network of extraordinary people that Cage knew, learned from, influenced and collaborated with. For anyone interested in 20th century culture, art, dance, music, cultural history, Buddhism, Eastern thought or the varieties of spiritual experience, put this on your list.

Larson is an art historian (longtime denizens of Boston may remember her writing for The Real Paper before moving on to Artnews and New York magazine) who changed the trajectory of her life by entering into Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1994. From her unique dual perspective of seasoned art observer and practicing Zen Buddhist, Larson is the perfect chronicler of John Cage’s richly lived life and inspirational work.

Larson describes her undertaking of this project :

This book has been a fifteen-year journey into the world of John Cage, who was teacher to so many, and who taught me, too. As real Zen teachers do, he modeled a way of life for me. This kind of teaching doesn’t need physical proximity. It is best displayed within the life of the person who teaches. What choices did he make? Why did he make them? What questions did he ask? Cage modeled a life that lives on in the daily moments of those who knew, loved, and were taught by him.

There are so many ways to slice into this complex, multi-layered biography, and perhaps over the next few weeks I will write a few more posts that explore some of the many themes that weave their way through this book. But for now I start with Larson’s account of Cage’s existential dilemma while he was still a relatively young artist. In his words:

So what is beautiful? So what’s art? So why do we write music? All these questions began to be of great importance to me, to such a great importance that I decided not to continue unless I could find suitable answers…

I had been taught in the schools that art was a question of communication. I observed that all of the composers were writing differently. If art was communication, we were using different languages.

The answer came through an Indian friend, Gita Sarabhai. Steeped in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Gita answered Cage’s question with this: The function of art is to “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”

From Cage’s journal:

I was tremendously struck by this. And then something really extraordinary happened. Lou Harrison, who had been doing research in early English music, came across a statement by the seventeenth-century English composer Thomas Mace expressing the same idea in almost exactly the same words. I decided then and there that this was the proper purpose of music. In time, I also came to see that all art before the Renaissance, both Oriental and Western, had shared this same basis, that Oriental art had continued to do so right along, and that the Renaissance idea of self expressive art was therefore heretical.

Cage becomes particularly compelled by Indian aesthetic theory and an art that measured itself by its reflection of the immeasurable. And to that end Cage wrote:

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

And this deeply moving quote from Cage on the last page of the book:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

Cage’s evolution as an artist, particularly his merging of wisdom traditions with creativity, is a personal and inspiring narrative. But in addition to a biography of Cage, this book is also a profound contemplation of the spiritual dimensions that can characterize an artist’s life. Larson delivers on the title of her book by all counts.

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I’ve been in a deep relationship for months now with Lewis Hyde’s rich and fragrant book, Trickster Makes the World. Yes, fragrant. That’s how it feels to be enraptured by this amazing volume in all its lush, verdant and seductive power. While it can be approached with the traditional “start at the beginning and read to the end” sort of treatment, it has a more rhizomatic appeal to me, one that invites you to just open it up and bite down into the deliciousness anywhere, everywhere. And I’m needing deliciousness of the deep kind right now.

Here’s a passage from a chapter where Hyde spends a lot of time discussing John Cage’s aesthetic, one that was primarily centered on chance. (Cage often quoted a line from the mystic Meister Eckhart, “we are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do.”)

It is especially by our “likes and dislikes,” Cage says, that we cut ourselves off from the wider mind (and the wider world.) Likes and dislikes are the lapdogs and guard dogs of the ego, busy all the time, panting and barking at the gates of attachment and aversion and thereby narrowing perception and experience. Furthermore, the ego itself cannot intentionally escape what the ego does—intention always operates in terms of desire or aversion—and we therefore need a practice or discipline of non-intention, a way to make an end run around the ego’s habitual operations. Zen Buddhism, Cage says, suggests the practice of cross-legged meditation: “you go in through discipline, then you get free of the ego.” Cage thought his own artistic practice moved in the other direction to the same end: “I decided to go out. That’s why I decided to use the chance operations. I used them to free myself from the ego.”

cage
John Cage

I received a book in the mail as a gift from a friend* I haven’t seen for some time: Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh. As is often the way these things go, I opened it up to a few passages that had deep resonance for me. While I have many friends who are seriously walking the Buddhist path, my interest and knowledge is more of the sideline variety. But as is the case with most mystical writing, wisdom can speak to anyone regardless of context or commitment.

The book features the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen teacher. He used the term “the businessless person” to describe the person with nothing to do. “As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary–put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” What a thought. That’s about as far from American consciousness as it goes.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s overview of Master Linji’s message:

Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.

But the following extract is the passage that speaks most poignantly to me. For any artist, the question–the project–is everything. To rethink the concept of a question as something that does not require an answer but has the capacity to destroy obstacles and shift everything–“tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us”–is a humbling thought.

In school, when we want to ask a question, we remain seated and put up our hand. We use our head, our intellect, to ask a question in order to get a bit of knowledge in return. But Zen isn’t like that. Here our aim isn’t to find out and store up knowledge about Buddhism; it’s to ask the right question, the question that has the capacity to destroy our obstacles. If we don’t have that question, it’s better not to come forward. Our question should be something that can tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us. Maybe it can teach our teacher and the whole community, too.

That’s a project for a life time.

*Thank you to Andria Klarer–seeker, mystic, friend.

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