Where the Heart Beats
John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
A “heroic” biography of John Cage and his “awakening through Zen Buddhism”—“a kind of love story” about a brilliant American pioneer of the creative arts who transformed himself and his culture (The New York Times)
Composer John Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself—and found it in Zen Buddhism, a spiritual path that changed both his music and his view of the universe. “Remarkably researched, exquisitely written,” Where the Heart Beats weaves together “a great many threads of cultural history” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings) to illuminate Cage’s struggle to accept himself and his relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Freed to be his own man, Cage originated exciting experiments that set him at the epicenter of a new avant-garde forming in the 1950s. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, Morton Feldman, and Leo Castelli were among those influenced by his ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching.’ Where the Heart Beats shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.
My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was eighty years old when he set foot in New York City in 1950, and was renowned around the world as an author, speaker, translator, and living embodiment of Zen. For all that, Dr. Suzuki was something of an anomaly.
He was barely over five feet tall, and almost invariably wore sports jackets and slacks. He had not actually graduated from a university—the “Dr.” was an honorary degree. He was occasionally so immersed in his thoughts that his audiences had trouble hearing him. And he was not a Zen master, having spent a mere four years as a young lay student practicing Zen in the renowned Engakuji, a sprawling monastery-temple complex set within a canopy of dark trees south of Tokyo, in the Kamakura region of Japan.
What Dr. Suzuki had in his favor was a powerful mind and a humble demeanor, coupled with a quiet desire to transmit the way of Zen to the West, and to all mankind. His learning was prodigious, and almost entirely of his own doing. He taught himself Sanskrit from a book. He was fluent in Pali (a language of the early sutras, closely related to Sanskrit), as well as Japanese, English, and classical Chinese. He could get by in Tibetan Sanskrit (a derivative of the Indian) and several European languages. He applied these gifts to teachings that are upwards of two thousand years old and that, in the early twentieth century, were in the process of being translated for a modern world.
The Japanese teachers who would arrive in America in subsequent decades were true Zen masters, and looked like it in their black robes, their shaved heads tanned by wind and sun. In the 1950s, though, Suzuki didn’t intimidate his Western friends. He was probably just Zen enough, at the time.
Buddhist texts had been circulating in the West for a hundred years, but they were a rarefied taste for a scholarly few. In the 1950s, all that was changing. An oncoming Beat Generation of “dharma bums” was getting ready to popularize the teachings and make Buddhism into something cool and useful to a new image of freedom. Suzuki arrived in New York just as the Beat era began. By the end of the decade he would have his own New Yorker profile, and celebrity status to match.
John Cage was thirty-eight years old in 1950. He had earned a bit of notoriety for his percussion music, which honored the voices of ordinary objects as instruments. His music was being performed alongside dances choreographed by Merce Cunningham, but the New York establishment was stubbornly indifferent. He was living downtown, amid modern artists who were also being ignored while they squabbled among themselves in the “gold rush” toward a new American art.
From 1950 to 1952, Cage’s work and life changed dramatically. He made a great leap of the heart, a “turning”—the word “conversion” comes from vertere, to turn—that opened his eyes to the boundless sky all around him. He introduced chance, indeterminacy, process, and a host of other new ideas into his music. At the high point of the leap, in August 1952, he accompanied
David Tudor to a little rustic music barn in Woodstock, New York, and handed his friend a score that instructed the pianist to sit quietly at the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The title of the piece was 4'33".
Beginning in 1951, when he discovered an “accomplice” in twenty-five-year- old neophyte Robert Rauschenberg, and all through the 1950s, Cage was “teaching” and “preaching” to some very young and eventually very famous artists. His circle of students and allies originated what we now know as Pop Art, Happenings, Fluxus, performance art, installation art, Process Art, and Minimalism. He became the “John Cage” of legend, the pioneer of a new vanguard—the inventor of “the ephemeral and transitory poetics of the here and now,” in the memorable phrasing of an exhibition at the Reina Sofi a museum in Madrid in 2010.
“Cage was the river that dozens of avant-garde tributaries fl owed into and from,” Kyle Gann eloquently praised him in an obituary in the Village Voice.
The sound of no-sound has gone round the world. Link to YouTube, the Internet video outlet, and you can watch the BBC Symphony Orchestra as it performs 4'33" at the Barbican Centre in London: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of dead-stop quiet, televised all over Britain in 2004.
“I promise you, this is the piece everyone here tonight has come to experience,” says the boyishly cheerful announcer, Tommy Pearson.
The BBC cameras turn toward the audience. People fill every seat to the rafters. Conductor Lawrence Foster walks to the podium amid loud applause. For the next three silent “movements”—plus two interludes when audience and orchestra stretch, breathe, rustle, then resume their concentration—a collective crescendo builds. The hall is one body, one mind. Everyone is awake and full of questions.
What is this silence? Why is it so riveting?
And what do we make of it?
This book is conceived as a conversation with Cage, who died in 1992. My model is the conversations Cage devised with Erik Satie, one of his mentors and predecessors, long after Satie’s death. Cage speaks here in italicized excerpts from his writings and recorded talks, like the one below. He speaks in his own voice, as I think he would want to do.
He loved to tell D. T. Suzuki stories. Here is one:
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”
It’s just one of those mystifying Zen sayings—until it happens to you.
In 1986, I toured Japan with nine other art professionals on a trip sponsored by the Bunkacho, the Japanese government’s ministry of culture. We stopped for the night in a little inn on the flank of a ridge near Mount Fuji. At 4:00 a.m., with three friends, I crossed a stream in the predawn chill and stepped into a tiny Zen temple. We sat down on black cushions facing a long, low table on the floor. The room was completely dark—lit only by candles next to the priest opposite me. Three monks sat on his right, facing us down the row. Glints of gold from the flame glanced off gold bells and bowls. The priest began intoning a chant in Japanese.
At the time I had no idea what I was hearing—although I do now. Every morning in temples all over the world, Buddhists chant the Heart Sutra. In a few phrases the Heart Sutra sums up millions of words of teachings and two millennia of practitioners’ wisdom. Midway through the service I said to myself, “I’m a Buddhist.” I had no idea what that meant.
Nothing came of it for eight years. I was far too busy with what I used to call my ten-day-a-week job.
The seed grows in darkness and silence.
Then the job abruptly ended, and I found myself walking through a heavy oak door into an American Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. I sat down on a black cushion and began to meditate intensively, unrelentingly, as though my life hung in the balance.
This book is being written to honor what happened next.
What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.
The structure of this book follows the arc of revelation. In the first part, mountains are mountains. Suzuki studies Zen in Kamakura. Cage is born in California and pursues his sunny investigations into the joy of sounds, until a personal crisis threatens to destroy his peace of mind and his belief in music.
In the second part, Cage meets Suzuki, the mountain flies apart and vanishes, and we walk with Cage into spaciousness and emptiness. In Suzuki’s class on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University, Cage hears teachings that crack open his mind and show him a way out of suffering on a path of transformation.
In the third part, Cage has been transformed, and the “green light” that shines in his life illuminates a way forward for those whose paths cross his. Many—but not all—are artists.
Then comes a moment when the heart of art, culture, and society cracks open and a riotous new world pours out with Cage at its center.
What is the light? And how is it transmitted?
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
Cage said that he regarded 4'33"—his “silent piece”—with utmost seriousness. For him it was a statement of essence. Three years before he died, he told an interviewer: “No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day. . . . I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it. I realize that it’s going on continuously. So, more and more, my attention, as now, is on it. More than anything else, it’s the source of my enjoyment of life.” The important thing about having done it, he said, “is that it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life.” And so it does.
In Suzuki’s teachings, and in all of Buddhism, “silence” and “emptiness” are shorthand terms for the inconceivable ground luminosity—the Absolute “nothing”—out of which all the “somethings” of the world arise in their multitudinous splendor.
This is the teaching at the heart of the Heart Sutra, the brief text that is the heart of Buddhism.
Cage was taking Suzuki’s class, he tells us, but he just couldn’t understand what Suzuki was talking about. A few days later he was walking in the woods looking for mushrooms. Not thinking. Not trying. Just paying attention. Then, as he wrote, “it all dawned on me.”
What was that dawn? He didn’t say.
The story of what John Cage didn’t say fills this book.
“Heroic… fascinating.” --New York Times
“Inspirational… exuberant.” --Los Angeles Times
"Revelatory… Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it’s probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought… one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable."--Slate
"Absorbing… no future commentator on Cage's work or influence will be able to ignore Larson's contribution…a milestone in contemporary cultural criticism." --San Francisco Chronicle
"Remarkable… without a doubt the richest, most stimulating, most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence… Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender. "--Brain Pickings
"Strange and wonderful... a gloriously rich reading experience, studded with layers upon layers of deeply inspiring and endlessly fascinating paths. One of the best books of the year in any category." --NPR.org (A Favorie Music Book of the Year)
You have been a practicing Buddhist for many years now and are a longtime art critic. Can you talk about these two aspects of your life and how they led you to this writing project?
I clearly remember the moment when the two parts of my life came together. I was riding a train curving around the upper end of Manhattan, on my way to teach an undergraduate seminar at New York University on art of the 1960s. In researching the course, I had been finding John Cage’s name associated with artists I thought I knew well. I was startled to realize that something was going on that didn’t resemble standard art history.
I had by then been practicing as a Buddhist for three years. I entered Zen practice almost by accident (a traditional method, by the way). After 14 years writing the art column for New York magazine, I heard the fax machine in my apartment spit out a letter one Thursday evening. There was a new editor at the magazine and he was asking me to move on. The next day, literally, my husband was leaving for Woodstock to begin his introduction to Zen training. I thought, well if he can do it, so can I.
Zen Mountain Monastery in Woodstock was founded by an American roshi (teacher), and follows a traditional Japanese model. Once a month there is a week-long retreat—called sesshin—in which lay students from the “outside” join ZMM’s handful of resident American monks and maintain a strict monastic schedule of silence and meditation. Sesshin is the most powerful mind training I’ve experienced. It’s physical, exhausting, and daunting. Yet the end result is quiet, silent healing. Urgent questions bang around in your mind: Who am I? What is this life? How do I live it to fullest capacity? How do I live it with compassion for others and openness to all experiences?
I thought of John Cage. He had always seemed mysterious to me. I bought his book Silence (1961) when I graduated college in 1969. I remember reading it and wondering what I was missing. It seemed to be based on assumptions I didn’t recognize and had no way of accessing—as though it had been written in code and I didn’t have the key. Yet I took the book with me every time I moved, for four decades.
When I started Zen practice, my hand reached out and grabbed Silence off my bookshelf. I said, “Oh, John Cage is really and truly a Buddhist!” I was hearing themes I now recognized: Life is ceaseless process, going nowhere, achieving nothing, rooted in indeterminacy and change. The way to live it is with pure attention. Thoughts come and go; they aren’t real; their unreality, when glimpsed, is liberating, because you don’t have to be controlled by them. When the cramped hand of self-obsession opens, the heart opens to the wide world and all beings in it.
As the train glided around the tip of Manhattan, a small thought arrived, as silently as a needle dropping into water. In the early 1950s, before there was serious Buddhist practice in America, John Cage was seriously practicing Buddhism. And he was doing it a decade before his friends and allies invented postmodernist art. What’s going on here? I wondered. That question is the genesis of this book.
How did you begin researching and writing this book?
Cage said, “What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions that I ask.” So I had to dive into his work to see what questions he asked.
My four decades as an art critic turned out to be essential. The kinds of questions Cage was asking were surprisingly familiar to me. Artists had been posing similar questions throughout the 1960s. I had been part of it. I performed in a Happening on campus in my sophomore year, for instance. Later, my art professor handed me a stack of back issues of Artforum, which served as my graduate education. I learned I was an art critic when I noticed I was always arguing with Artforum.
Cage’s answers showed up in his music. After some investigation I realized that nobody was looking at his music that way, as a product of his spiritual quest. It became my mission—I can tell when I’m on a mission because I get impatient and short-tempered and upset that the rest of the world doesn’t see what I’ve just seen—to “save” John Cage by letting him truly be himself.
Did you run into any difficulties in the process?
The whole process was full of challenges from beginning to end. I began by asking myself, “What’s going on here?” But then I had to keep asking the question, over and over and over. I didn’t stop asking until the book went into final draft.
Very quickly, I learned I had to listen to Cage’s emotions. He mistrusted his emotions, but of course that was because he felt them so intensely. Why were they so painful to him? What could have hurt him so deeply? And why did he turn away from “expressionism,” which is the traditional Western view of art?
I began digging around in Cage’s life story. It was easy to see why he delighted in European modernists, who were his first teachers. But he was living in Los Angeles, so how did he find them? The answers led me to Galka Scheyer and Walter and Louise Arensberg, who introduced Cage to modernist art in the 1930s.
Then Cage fell in love with a young dance student named Merce Cunningham.
Buddhists train hard in order to see the nature of suffering—especially the suffering we cause ourselves, which quickly becomes the suffering we pass on to others. I recognized Cage’s suffering. Cage was torturing himself with thoughts. Being homosexual in America in the 1940s was a scary business. Those thoughts—self-loathing, fear of loss, self-doubt, self-recrimination—were all centered on “self.” Cage’s famous crisis—he talked about it for the rest of his life—originated, I realized, in a classic spiritual collision with the four walls of his own mind.
It’s at this point that I felt I recognized John Cage, the way you’re walking down a street in Tokyo and someone turns a corner and comes toward you and you just know beyond a shadow of doubt that he’s an American, that he grew up where you did, that he speaks your language.
Zen training presents a path out of suffering. Where did Cage hear these teachings? What did he hear? I investigated the story of D. T. Suzuki, the great Japanese scholar who introduced Zen to the West in the first half of the nineteenth century. As with many Cageian questions, everyone knew that Cage studied with Suzuki, but no one knew what Suzuki said to Cage. I had to find out. I learned that Suzuki was teaching the Buddhist sutras. I marveled more than once at how opaque these teachings would seem—unless you practice them, at which point they become urgent lessons in life and death, training for how to live, and a method of release from suffering.
I said to my husband that I was addressing three of the most esoteric of topics: the life of an oddball experimental composer, cryptic Zen sutras, and the origins of the art avant-garde. Yet the theme that unites them all—and that allowed Cage to open his arms to all of us and welcome us to a new world—was his realization of the path out of suffering. It’s available to anyone. And it’s transformative. In a sense, it’s our purpose here on this planet: to open our hearts; to open our arms; to walk with equanimity and compassion into this life.
Those were your research challenges. Were there comparable difficulties in the writing process?
This book contains multiple stories (narrative streams). First, I had to be certain I really understood these stories. Second, I had to put them together in a way that allowed them to flow meaningfully for a reader.
For years, I only had pieces of the narratives. Zen friends remind me that this is koan practice: As you keep asking “What’s going on here,” over and over and over, eventually a picture emerges out of the haze. During that period when all I had were answers, I didn’t yet have the heart of the Cageian transformation. This book didn’t come together until I wrote it as a love story. First, Cage fell in love with ordinary sounds—all the sounds, no matter what. Then he fell in love with Merce Cunningham, and proposed a choreography that would allow the two men to work in partnership. Finally, Cage fell in love with Zen—all the Zen questions and answers, plus the process of asking—and he turned his heart and mind and music toward the “music of the world.”
A number of books about John Cage and his music have been published over the years. What do you think differentiates WHERE THE HEART BEATS?
The book’s Prelude quotes Cage: “My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.” That was my intention also. What’s life? What’s death? These are experiences. Take the plunge! As Cage said, “The light has turned. Walk on. The water is fine. Jump in.”
I’ve set out to write this book in such a way that readers can walk the path with Cage, can know what Cage knows when he knows it, and can discover what Cage discovers as it arises. I refused to write a biography. By “biography” I mean a book that discusses everything Cage did, rather than why he did it. I would agree to the term “intellectual biography.” But there are significant differences even here. I thought it was urgent that Cage be allowed to speak in his own words. It’s not just what he said; it’s how he said it. His brilliance, his freedom of invention, his passion and compassion, his spiritual fire, his surprising insights are all embedded in his syntax and styling. I am convinced that it was how Cage spoke—how he modeled living and thinking—that inspired others, perhaps even more than what he said.
From the outset I knew I had to bring Cage onto the page. Fortunately he gave me his own model. His “dialogue” with his hero Erik Satie—who was long-deceased—seemed to suggest that Cage himself would be happy to speak in WHERE THE HEART BEATS, even though he had died before I started writing.
And since this book is not a biography in the conventional sense, I was free to focus on all the great “turning” moments in his life—all the “whys.” Once he found his path, he continued to walk it, and his thinking gradually changed as he aged—but the changes weren’t significant. So most of Cage’s story stops at his last great “turning.”
But it’s the nature of this life that everything we do interpenetrates with the whole of being. So it became vitally important to take up the story of Cage’s life in relation to others. His story does continue, then—just in a new form, one that participates in the whole cosmic rolling of the wheel.
You look beyond Cage’s life to the individuals he influenced and the art he inspired. Can you discuss your methods here?
I took an unusual route through the question of Cage’s influence. I mostly ignored the art-historical habit of stylistic analysis. I didn’t try to find direct thematic and formal correlations between Cage’s music and artists’ works.
Instead, I looked at the factual questions. Who knew Cage? How intimately did they know him? When did they meet him? How did their work change after they met him? The nature of influence is non-linear. Artists have their hands in everyone’s pocket, as Allan Kaprow told me. Artists adapt whatever they find and their logic is often invisible.
In the 1950s, Cage was speaking like a teacher or a preacher, according to Jasper Johns in my interview with him. Cage’s voice dominated most of the conversation when young artists met him. And Cage in the 1950s was trilling with his Zen enthusiasms. I discovered—time and again—that Cage knew young artists just before they went on to invent radical new art forms. We’ve got the habit now of using stylistic labels such as Minimalism, Pop Art, Happenings, performance art, and so on. In 1958-1962, those labels didn’t yet exist. What did exist was a clear timeline. Artists who created these works had just crossed paths with John Cage. And he was giving them a Zen instruction: Be yourself. I concluded that artists, performers, musicians, composers quickly stepped into the new world that John Cage’s “green light” opened for them.
What kinds of questions were artists asking in the 1960s?
At the beginning of the century, Marcel Duchamp wondered whether he could make works of art that were not “works of art.” In many ways that’s the archetypal 1960s art question.
As Silence was being published, an old attitude toward art-making was being replaced by a mystifying new view of art’s relationship to ordinary life. The image is of a fern forest in which enormous dinosaurs of painting and sculpture stalked through the landscape discussing their own greatness, while small warm-blooded artists pursued little morsels of food in the undergrowth.
The warm-blooded denizens of the undergrowth were looking around with bare attention, without value judgments, without great ideas, with equanimity and curiosity, ready to pounce on any interesting development. That’s the postmodern revolution, 1958-1962.
When I began investigating Cage’s Zen answers, I realized that something important had gone unrecognized. Cage’s influence on artists, I thought, would be impossible to glimpse if you weren’t aware of the Buddhist sources of his ideas. To put it in positive terms: Cage would have seemed like just an unusual American composer who happened to have artist friends, unless you could draw a direct line from the questions he asked in the 1950s to the questions artists asked in the 1960s. Once it becomes clear that artists inherited the questions from John Cage, then something shifts in your consciousness.
I put “two” and “two” together and it took me fifteen years to understand why the answer was “four.”
Why did it take you 15 years to write this book?
I was talking to a friend, describing the many narratives that run through this book—which is also a proposition about a new view of American and international arts culture—and I was telling her how intricately all the themes interrelated. She said, “You’re essentially constructing a three-dimensional chess game.”
For my own part, I kept thinking of Gone With the Wind, a tale of social systems undergoing vast transformations because individual human beings—each with his or her own story, each at the center of his or her own universe—made individual decisions that collided with all those other little universes.
I had to find the story, then I had to tell it. Those two processes are not identical.
Tell us about Cage’s relationship with Merce Cunningham. What made their relationship so remarkable?
Through Cage’s tutelage, Merce Cunningham saw that ordinary movement—bodies doing what they ordinarily do—could be the primary subject of dance. Cage proposed this idea, which is based on a Buddhist principle: awareness of “what is,” without attaching judgments or labels. Cunningham immediately leaped into this new world of choreography. Cage and Cunningham traveled everywhere together, often with Robert Rauschenberg as set and costume designer. Their partnership—emotional as well as aesthetic—was vastly more influential for all the arts than anything they could have achieved separately. It’s not an understatement to say that Cunningham was as important for the Cageian revolution as Cage himself was.
What was it that drew you to John Cage?
Of the many possible responses, I think the most important is Cage’s courage. Cage walked a classic spiritual path of suffering, realization, and the release from suffering. The path is not a step-by-step progression toward a safe, comfortable place; not like riding a train with a cappuccino in your hand and getting off at the station. It’s more like a bungee-jump on a frighteningly long cord: a head-first dive into the realization that we are totally immersed in a mystery.
Paradoxically, the aftermath of the bungee-jump is joy and release. Letting go of one’s self—seeing the mythical and transparent emptiness of the four walls of ego—opens the heart and expands one’s life so that others can enter it. Cage’s story unexpectedly offers evidence for that teaching.
What do you personally find most inspiring about Cage and his story?
Cage offers a model of how to live. He has been a teacher for many, even after his death in 1992. He teaches me every day now.
Cage eventually came to be at home in his world. His close friends still number in the multiple thousands, all over the planet. He changed the arts—and he changed people—through his courage and wholeheartedness. As artist Pat Steir told me, Cage loved “the music of the world”—the whole inconceivable panorama of being—and he honored it in every moment.
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