The Asian Factor in John Cage’s Aesthetics by Holly Martin

An Introduction with a Previously Unpublished Interview from 1976
Holly E. Martin

Introduction: Composing by Chance

John Cage’s controversial ideas about art come together to form one of the most intriguing aesthetic statements of the twentieth century.[i] With the advent of John Cage, silence becomes sound, purposelessness has a purpose, and even chance happenings do not happen by chance. Cage’s aesthetics are not nonsensical, but are built upon a careful blending of both the current trends of modern art in Cage’s time, and Cage’s interpretation of Asian thought, particularly the teachings of Zen Buddhism and the Chinese classical oracle book, the I Ching. Cage utilized his studies of Zen and the I Ching to bring a new perspective to twentieth century art. Whereas twentieth century artists frequently used chance to depict a chaotic universe, Cage began with the basic premise that order is inherent in the universe, and proposed that this order could only be discerned through art when the artist did not have complete control over the creation of the work. Control could be relinquished in composing, for instance, through such actions as tossing coins to determine a sound or plotting musical notes according to imperfections on a piece of paper.

Cage’s understanding of Asian thought, including Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Chinese oracle book known as the I Ching, came from westernized sources. Alan Watts, whose writings influenced Cage’s aesthetic ideas, was an American attempting to explain Asian thought, notably Zen, to the West. D. T. Suzuki, the Japanese writer and philosopher, was Cage’s primary source for his interpretation of both Zen and the I Ching. Suzuki had a special interest in Western psychology and tended to describe Zen in psychological terms, a practice which led to his interpretations of Zen to be considered as westernized. Whether Alan Watts’ and Suzuki’s approaches represent authentic Zen in the opinions of scholars or modern Zen masters is not an important question in understanding Cage’s aesthetics. The interesting question is how Cage’s interpretation of Zen, as presented to him by Watts and Suzuki, and of the I Ching, as translated into English in Cary F. Baynes’ rendition of Richard Wilhelm’s famous German translation, influenced the development of Cage’s unique aesthetic ideas.

In the foreword to his book, Silence, Cage states, “What I do, I do not wish to be blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen . . . I doubt whether I would have done what I have done” (Cage, Silence xi). Cage acknowledges the influence Zen has had on his work, but he hesitates to say that Zen principles can actually be found within his music. He also does not mention traditional Zen aesthetics or traditional modes of Zen art. The statement above is purposely ambiguous. Zen is not, of course, a concrete entity that can be picked up and placed within a musical framework. In traditional Zen art, Chinese and Japanese artists have evolved a means of expressing Zen principles through their own art traditions. Cage devised a means by which he could also produce art influenced by Zen, but within the context of Western art. The difficulty for those well versed in Zen and in its traditional application to the arts in the East to conceive of such thoroughly western, experimental works as Cage’s as having a relationship to Zen, creates a problem in interpreting Cage from a Zen aesthetic standpoint. Cage’s final products do not explain or embody Zen, but the stimulus for the work and the process of composition Cage uses definitely stem from his studies of Zen.

Alan Watts, at one time, claimed that Cage’s music had nothing to do with Zen Buddhism. In Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen, he wrote:

Today there are western artists avowedly using Zen to justify the indiscriminate framing of simply anything—blank canvasses, totally silent music, torn up bits of paper dropped on a board and stuck where they fall, or dense masses of mangled wire. The work of composer John Cage is rather typical of this tendency. In the name of Zen, he has forsaken his earlier promising work with the “prepared piano,” to confront audiences with eight Ampex tape-recorders simultaneously bellowing forth random noises.(Watts 11)

What Alan Watts knew about Cage’s music was that he did not understand it and was appalled by critics who attributed Cage’s artistic ambiguity to Zen. Watts dismissed the influence of Zen on Cage’s music on the grounds that it was not Zen art. However, once Watts read the thought behind Cage’s work, according to the interview below that I conducted on 29 July 1976, Watt’s changed his views and became enthusiastic about Cage’s music.

The Asian Zen artist is concerned, as Cage is, with removing his or her own intentions when creating a work of art. In regard to an artist painting in accord with Zen aesthetics, D.T. Suzuki writes:

The artist must follow his inspiration as spontaneously and absolutely and instantly as it moves; he just lets his arm, his fingers, his brush be guided by it as if they were all mere instruments, together with his whole being, in the hands of somebody else who has temporarily taken possession of him. Or we may say that the brush by itself executes the work quite outside the artist, who just lets it move on without his conscious efforts. If any logic or reflection comes between brush and paper, the whole effect is spoiled. (Suzuki, Essentials of Zen Buddhism 420)

In the above explanation, the key to understanding the major differences between Cage’s aesthetics and traditional Zen aesthetics are the words “as if.” The Zen artist identifies himself so completely with his subject that it is as if his own self were removed. Traditional Zen art is still very concerned with the artist himself or herself—with the artist’s interpretation of the essential qualities of the subject, the inspiration, the technical abilities in terms of the materials, and the ability to create beauty albeit in an imperfect form. Chance occurrences are retained only if they are fortuitous, and the artist chooses whether or not he or she wishes to preserve the final product.

Cage rejects both the desire to create objects of beauty and the notion of communicating through art his own interpretation of reality. By means of chance operations and indeterminate music, Cage removes his own intentions almost completely. He does not create “as if” the act of creating were being done by someone else; he often actually lets someone else do it. Cage differs in this respect from traditional Zen aesthetics, and in numerous other ways, but with the formulation of his own aesthetic ideas, many of Cage’s aesthetic theories come directly from studying Zen.

The Zen belief in the interrelatedness of all things is a key inspiration behind John Cage’s desire to integrate art and life. He incorporates sounds from everyday life into his work, and in turn, incorporates art into everyday life (as in the Happening). To Cage, art and life are one and the same. An awareness of the oneness of art and life can serve to alter one’s attitudes so that the same attention and enjoyment which is usually reserved for art can be brought to life. In Silence, Cage describes his view that composing should allow for the interruptions of life:

The moment it [composing] becomes a special continuity of I am composing and nothing else should happen, then the rest of life is nothing but a series of interruptions, pleasant or catastrophic as the case may be. The truth, however, is that it is more like Feldman’s music—anything may happen and it all does go together. There is no rest of life. Life is one. Without beginning, without middle, without ending. The concept: beginning middle and ending comes from a sense of self which separates itself from what it considers to be the rest of life. (Cage, Silence 134)

Cage incorporated everyday sounds in his work in the attempt to alter perceptions of those hearing the music. Sounds once thought to be lacking in any inherent aesthetic quality, or to be irritating or boring, placed in a new context could be viewed from a new perception and, hopefully, with a new appreciation. A transformation takes place, ideally, within the individual. The sound does not change, the way of hearing changes. What once was merely irritating is suddenly given full attention and found to have interest.

In Zen teachings, the inclination to form general notions about reality is seen as a major block to perceiving reality as it truly is. Filled with preconceived notions of the world, one walks through life as though wearing blinders. Life loses its freshness, each event being easily categorized into a well-worn filing system. The purpose of art for Cage is to involve one intensely in life so that life may be clearly perceived. According to Cage, expectations and perceptions create prejudices which prevent one from enjoying, among other things, music with noise in it, and conversely, from enjoying noise in life. If one can refrain from adhering to rigid formulations of what constitutes art, then the realm of aesthetic possibilities and enjoyment becomes limitless.

When one approaches reality with a mind free of expectations and preconceived notions of what constitutes reality, one is also free from intention. Having intention implies that one presupposes a particular state or condition and sets about purposely to create it. When the mind is used to perceive and not to discriminate or analyze, it is referred to in Zen as no-mind, because it is refraining from the processes commonly associated with the function of the mind. Using the mind without intention is no-mind. If the paradoxical kind of thinking involved in the concept of no-mind as the mind without intentions is applied to Cage’s cryptic statements on silence and purposelessness, then meaning can be gleaned from his more perplexing writings.

There is no such thing on earth as absolute silence. Cage tells a story about entering an anechoic chamber and hearing two noises. A high noise turned out to be the sound of his nervous system, and a low noise was the sound of his circulatory system. Thus, there are always sounds to hear as long as one can listen. Upon realizing that silence is not absolute, silence in music became for Cage a means by which sounds not intended, sounds from the environment, could enter music. Silence is not a void, but a limitless potential in which anything can happen. Anything can happen because nothing, no specific thing, is intended to take place for the duration of the silence:

I think of silence as the sounds which I don’t intend, and so I compose by means of asking questions, and my work is essentially silent even though it has sounds in it, for the simple reason that I haven’t intended them. I ask questions that bring them into existence, but I didn’t bring those particular ones into existence anymore than I will the next sound that is louder than that fan. Nor will I bring the sounds into existence when I shut the fan off, and we’ll hear other softer sounds. And that’s what silence is—is an openness, openness of the mind to the things which, from a neutral point of view, are outside it, but from a Zen point of view are part of it, are in flux with it, or it is in flux with them. (Martin interview)

Silence, therefore, is a duration from which Cage removes his own intentions—intentions that would place unwanted limits on the realization of potential sounds within a given moment. His silent piece, “4’33”, for example, makes maximum use of unintended sound for the duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Sounds that occur within this duration become the music.

John Cage’s concept of purposelessness also relates to the removal of intention. His use of the Chinese oracle book the I Ching in composition begins with the basic premise that there is an order in the universe, and that the order may be discerned through art if one is willing to give up the desire to control the creative process. It is the responsibility of the artist to remove his/her own desires to control the evolution of a work of art, and to provide an environment in which art can virtually create itself. Without the artist’s interference, art evolves in accordance with the order inherent in nature. As Cage states in A Year from Monday, art’s fundamental purpose is to “imitate Nature in her manner of operation” (Cage, A Year from Monday 31).

In order to minimize the control and self-expression that would go into a work, Cage turned to the use of chance operations. Although his use of the I Ching is often referred to as a chance operation, according to the basic premise of the I Ching, there is no chance as we normally think of it. The basis of the I Ching is an assumption that there is order in the universe, and one discerns the order by removing his or her own intentions, i.e. by doing an action such as tossing coins. The coins fall in accord with the current order prevailing in nature.

Change is an essential element in understanding the worldview presented in the I Ching. In ancient times the occurrences in life were placed in a context of a universe seen as continually changing, changing naturally, and changing in accordance with basic orderly patterns. The I Ching is consulted by either the counting of randomly divided groups of yarrow sticks or the tossing of coins. Consulting by means that avoid personal intentions eliminates the possibility of manipulating the answer in any way. The coins or sticks are then free to follow the pattern of change in operation at the moment of the consultation without interference from conscious influence. To eliminate his own intentions, Cage used the I Ching to compose music in accord with nature’s manner of operation. He thus purposefully used the I Ching to attain purposelessness. Purposelessness, according to Cage, is a removing of one’s own intentions and one’s own desires to attain a particular goal. By not having a goal when one begins a work of art, then the work itself can be perceived as purposeless because it is not the result of a predetermined end. Nevertheless, the creative process has a purpose, the purpose of avoiding intentions or goals.

For “Music of Changes” Cage devised a number of charts each consisting of sixty-four different elements to match the sixty-four hexagrams (diagrams consisting of six lines) that compose the text of the I Ching. Each chart represented a basic music parameter. He used one chart for superpositions (how many events are to happen simultaneously during a given time), one for tempi, and eight charts apiece for durations, sounds, and dynamics respectively. Certain charts were designated mobile and others immobile with the elements on the mobile charts available for repeated use. The first toss at the beginning of each major unit of the piece determined which charts were to be mobile and which immobile. An odd number designated change and an even number a continuation of the present state.

Half of the sounds (thirty-two) on the eight sound charts were silences. The charts also determined if the sounds were to be heard singly or in combinations with other sounds. The charts included various types of sound including noises. In another of Cage’s pieces composed with the I Ching, “Imaginary Landscape No. IV,” the sound chart consisted of settings for tuning dials on the twelve radios used in the piece.

The dynamics charts for “Music of Changes” designated changes in sound level, accents, diminuendi, and crescendi. Only sixteen of the possible sixty-four numbers created a change, otherwise, the present dynamics of the piece were maintained.

The duration charts contained note stems awaiting the appearance of a sound. When read in accord with the designated sound and tempo for the moment, the stem corresponded with the sound and gave the indication of the duration for the sound. The tempi chart contained thirty-two elements for changing tempos and thirty-two blanks for retaining the tempo already in use (Cage, Silence 57—61).

Through the use of the above charts, the numbers of the sixty-four hexagrams determined by coin tossing were used to work each of the aspects of the piece throughout the entire work, determining when and in what manner an event was to occur. The result was a piece composed by hundreds of coin tosses and a great deal of labor in devising charts and systems for their operation. Of course, choice was not eliminated completely. Cage did choose the elements for the charts and chose which numbers indicated change and which did not, but he certainly minimized the exercise of choice and control in relation to traditional methods of composing.

Cage used combinations of chance methods and indeterminacy (where the performers are only given bare outlines of how the piece is to be played) in the desire to remove his own intentions from the work. Often his actions were looked upon as artistic irresponsibility, but one must keep in mind that Cage viewed the artist’s responsibility as something quite different from controlling the creation of an art object. Instead, in Cage’s view, the artist has the responsibility of imitating nature in its manner of operation. For the most part, this means getting one’s intentions out of nature’s way and operating only as a vehicle through which the way of nature can be manifested. For Cage, chance music creates an increased involvement in life for the composer and the listener and allows life to reveal itself. “And life the same!” he writes in Silence, “always different, sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, sometimes gently pleasing and so on; and what other important questions are there? Than that we live and how to do it in a state of accord with life” (Cage, Silence 131).

Interview with John Cage (29 July 1976)[ii]

Martin: You said in the foreword to Silence, what I do I do not wish blamed on Zen, but yet if I hadn’t become involved with Zen—I’m paraphrasing—I wouldn’t have written the kind of music I do write (Cage, Silence xi). Now, that statement can be understood in two ways: You can either say you were influ­enced to write your music because of Zen, or it can be seen in another way, that there actually is Zen in your music.

Cage: That’s a question that is difficult to answer and that’s why my remarks are put in the way that they were put, so I wouldn’t have to answer such a question. (Laughter) I don’t have the right to say that I have put Zen into the work. If I love Zen, which I do, and am speaking to someone who also loves it, I don’t have the right to say I have acquired this thing which we love and have put it into my music. Furthermore, it’s not something one can be certain of anyway. And furthermore, it changes each time it’s heard by a different person. It becomes the experience of that person rather than something I know anything about. So we can’t say really at all that Zen has been put someplace even. We just hope that it enlivens and goes on enlivening, that we go on receptively, so to speak, to it, or are animated by it, how­ever you want to put that. Haven’t you had the experience of things coming to life that have not been lively for you before? A book, for instance, that you picked up and couldn’t read, and then ten years later you pick it up and can’t put it down. What has happened? Has the book changed or have you changed? Obviously, you’ve changed. So was Zen in the book? And if it was in the book, why didn’t you see it before and so forth. The fact of the matter is I think something like what Suzuki meant when he said “pure subjectivity” is involved. And so I can’t say at all that I’ve put it into the music. And in one of the stories in Silence, I think it was about—what was it?—the rose petal ritual or something, that some Zen monk had performed up there on Riverside Drive, and then afterwards, after we’d had tea and rice cookies, his wife sat down at an out-of-tune piano and played this horrible Italian second-class opera music and her husband sang and the monk was just delighted, whereas I was ashamed (see Cage, Silence 6). I was thinking it was poor music, whereas he was somehow just plain inhabited by Zen. The most miserable experience turned into it; there was alchemy going on there.[iii]

Martin: I guess that answers my question, more or less.

Cage: Don’t you wish you hadn’t come from Arizona? (Laughter)

Martin: I have more questions. Many pages, in fact. I’m just going to pick and choose. I read an article by Monroe Beardsley entitled “Art and Accident.” He talked about uses of chance in art, and he didn’t view it as a legitimate art process. He suggested that some artists cop out and say, “I create art this way because of Zen.” I’d like to read you just a short part of what he said, and get your comments. He says about chance art:

…there is, of course, the appeal to Zen: considering that the true wisdom of life consists in living without pressure or push, without fuss or fret, the right sort of art for man is that which makes no effort, which doesn’t try. And what could be less effortful than to shuffle the pages or the transparencies, or cast the dice? As Cage says in his “History of Experimental Music in the United States”: “there are people who say, ‘If music’s that easy to write, I could do it.’ Of course they could, but they don’t.” I suppose those are the ones who don’t know how to reply when you ask them to make the sound of one hand clapping—they need to be rapped by a Zen master, so they will learn how to relax. (Beardsley 31)

So, you see the sarcasm that he’s using there. Do you think artists do use Zen . . .

Cage: What he’s objecting to is what he imagines to be a renunciation of responsibility. He doesn’t understand that responsibility is merely changed to another responsibility than the one he expects. He expects the artist to be responsible to make a choice and to make a statement. When you use chance operations, as I do and many others do, you’re not making choices, you’re asking questions. But you have formulated the questions. Otherwise, the chance operations don’t work. You wouldn’t know, for instance, what the number forty-three meant unless you had asked the question in relation to which the number forty-three had a meaning.[iv] And if you do that, then you’ll come to what I think Schoenberg would have called the principle underlying all of the answers.

When I was a student of Schoenberg, he sent the whole class—there was a class of about thirty—he sent us all to the blackboard and he gave us a problem in counterpoint which we were to solve, and when we had it solved, we were to turn around so he could see what we had written and okay it or not. And I turned around and I had a solution and showed it to him, and he said, “That’s correct. Now find another.” So I found another solution, and another, and another, and another; it went on—always the same problem. And finally—I’d always virtually worshipped him, his was a great musical mind. But now, he was elevated even more in my estimation when after I said there are no more solutions, he said very quickly and calmly, “What is the principle underlying all of the solutions?” When he said that, I couldn’t answer, but the fact that he knew that there was such a principle made him even more grand in my estimation (see Cage, Silence 93). I always had the impression that because I had no feeling for harmony, he had lost any interest in my work. But about fifteen years after I left him, I learned that he remembered me. When he was asked whether he ‘d had any interesting American pupils, he said “No, I didn’t have any,” but then he smiled and said, “There was one. Of course, he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor of genius,” and he gave my name. I didn’t know that he had that kind of regard for me. But I now feel that, were he still alive, I would be able to persuade him that I have not been unfaithful to his teachings, and that the questions weask are in fact the principles underlying all of the answers or solutions. Doyou follow that or not?

Martin: Yes, for the most part. Now, does the opinion that you have about the question…

Cage: So this man wants you to give one of the solutions; Schoenberg wants you to find the principle underlying all of the solutions. I think it’s much more useful to do that.

Martin: Do you see that view as coming from studies you have done with Zen? Do you see similarities?

Cage: It is certainly at the basis of the I Ching, wouldn’t you say? Suzuki was never very clear about whether one should connect the I Chingwith Zen or not. He said that Zen was the result of translating the Indian texts into the Chinese language so that there is a mixture of Indian thought with the necessities of Chinese language, together with Lao Tze [Lao Tzu] and Kwang Tze [Confucius], and he would now and then mention the I Ching, but he never spoke much about it. Nevertheless, the I Ching is the oldest book in China. And the principle of it is,’ as a book of wisdom, the principle is that any one of the answers will answer any one of the questions.

Martin: That’s true, that’s true.

Cage: That’s why you’re not permitted to ask twice, because you’ve already got the answer the first time. If, however, you ask the wrong question, which is also a possibility, then of course you should ask again. You should find the right question to ask. Many people don’t know how to ask questions—I’m not thinking of you now. I was talking along these lines at Potsdam, a school that specializes in music, and this question finally came up, and I said you have to see the possibility of changing the responsibility to make choices to the responsibility to ask questions. So that even­ing, the wife of the music teacher said, “I have some questions for you,” and I said okay, and she said, “Don’t you think it’s true that such and such is the case?” Now that’s not a ques­tion. It’s the phrasing of one of her own opinions in the form of a question.

Martin: Right. Often people put words in your mouth when they ask questions by telling you what they want you to say.

Cage: They simply want you to say what they believe already and to okay it or not.

Martin: On to the next question. I feel odd sitting here and asking questions now. Alan Watts made the statement in Beat ZenSquare Zen and Zen that your music doesn’t have anything to do with Zen (Watts 11). Do you know why he said that?

Cage: Yes. At the time he had no feeling for music, and I don’t think he ever did have any feeling for music. He also had very little feeling for any of the arts. He had a great feeling for cooking—he was a grand cook—and of course he had a gift for speaking to people and for writing books. He had recourse always when the question of music came up to citing Beethoven as an example or Mozart, as almost anyone even now, who knows nothing about music, continues to do. And I pointed out once to Alan that Beethoven didn’t correspond at all to the ideas he was expressing. That rather, ideas of owner­ship and possession and control, and so forth and so on . . .

Martin: Goal-oriented music.

Cage: All such things as returning with certainty to the point from which you started out. He was quite amazed at that, and for awhile he stopped citing Beethoven, as an argument in favor of Zen. Then when I published Silence, which was after the article you mention, he was one of the first to write me a fan letter, and he was delighted with it because, you see, he could understand words, but with the music he wasn’t able to agree. Later, after I had published Silence, David Tudor and I went to Los Angeles to perform “Variations IV,” and Alan stayed throughout the whole concert and was absolutely delighted with it. But, you see, he wasn’t really using his ears; he had been converted by my text. So that when he heard the music, he was hearing the text. Like that Dutch musician I cite—I don’t know if you know that story—where he said we had time to waste before we made the recording, and he said, “What’s the music going to be like that I’m going to be recording?” I said, since he was Dutch, you may think it’s like Mondrian. So after we finished the recording, I said, “What did you think of the music?” And he said, “Oh, it was very much like Mondrian” (see Cage, Silence 127).

Martin: That brings in the idea of preconceived notions.

Cage: And Alan—he could reach others or be reached by means of words, but not by means of music.

Martin: So he did change his mind, though, after . . .

Cage: Yes, he did.

Martin: That’s interesting.

Cage: But it doesn’t matter that he changed his mind because he’s, so to speak, not an .authority on music. How would he know? (Laughter)

Martin: Okay, there’s an interesting point here also. Watts talks about how art . . .

Cage: He than begged me to come and give concerts along with his giving talks, you know. He wanted to make a kind of . . .

Martin: Tour?

Cage: No, not a tour—I think he wanted to stay in Sausalito. Isn’t that where he was? He had a thing going with people coming to him, and he wanted me to join in.

Martin: Watts also talked about the idea of art as being a framing of something, and he said that all art was in a frame, and the artist sets something apart, say, apart from the rest of life (Watts 11). Would you go along with that idea or not?

Cage: Partly and partly not. One can certainly do that, but I think it’s become interesting through Duchamp and others not to do it. But then Duchamp, too, would say, as I’m saying right now, yes and no, because “The Big Glass” doesn’t set itself apart from the rest of the environment. When you see through it, you see whatever there is to see. But in the last work, “Etant donnes,” he has peek holes and you can only see it, you can’t see anything around it. So, it’s the most utterly framed work that exists. But “The Big Glass” is the least framed work that there is. So you have in one man the expression of belief in both, you know, and it’s a non-dualistic . . .

Martin: Well, continuing the idea of framing, Watts makes the statement that if you’re not careful what you put in that frame, and call it art or call it music, then you’ll confuse people (Watts 14-15).

Cage: No, that’s a mistake. It’s not the putting that’s important, it’s the framing that’s Important.

Martin: It doesn’t matter what goes into art?

Cage: Well, no. We’re talking all the time about mind—any mind can act as that mind did, and not understand something. If Alan then says that it’s important that the mind of someone else is putting something in the frame, and then speaks of the confusion of other minds, he’s really not saying anything at all. He’s speaking about different minds and pleading with one mind to be careful not to confuse the others, and that’s not the case. A mind con­fuses itself. That Zen monk I told you about with the Italian opera was not ashamed in the presence of something that was shameful. It’s a question of who is looking at what’s in the frame, and certainly not the responsibility of the person who’s putting something into the frame. And put that together, if you will, with what I cite from Duchamp, that there can either be a frame or not. And I think, more and more, our experience is, as we’d say, ecological—that is to say, goes beyond any frame, and we don’t know where the limit of our seeing or experiencing is. And the more it does that, the more we apply that to our lives generally, the better off we can expect society and the environment to be. If they are going to get better, it’s going to be because people didn’t frame things, didn’t, for instance, think that by getting rid of mosquitoes they would improve life, and therefore invent DDT, and so spoil the things outside the frame of being bitten by a mosquito.

Martin: He also talks about your music as a type of therapy (Watts 11-12). Do you see it as being therapeutic?

Cage: Is this Alan?

Martin: Yes. Teaching people to hear.

Cage: Yes, it can be thought of that way. I think of it as a kind of post-graduate celebration. You see, if you say therapy, then you’re giving a reason for doing something. But if you say post-graduate celebration, you’re not giving a reason, because you don’t have to have a celebration after you graduate. It’s better if we do things not because we have to, but for somehow the joyful affirmation of it, I think. I think that idea of doing things because they’re necessary is a German idea. They’re never very happy unless things are miserable, so that comedy is not possible, and the only thing that’s really important is when you’re weeping.

Martin: The idea of life affirmation—does that tie in with Zen and . . .

Cage: I would say so. Suzuki said that the cry of the baby when it is first born, you know, is the cry of the Buddha saying, “I am the world­ honored one” (Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism 155).[v]

Martin: Okay, one more comment about Watts. He said that Zen art is an art of controlling acci­dents, and that through this accident, through this microcosm that’s formed, can be seen the ordering of the macrocosm, so there exists a relation between the two (see Watts 12-13). Do you go along with that idea?

Cage: No, no.

Martin: What do you think?

Cage: I think he has a mixture there of Oriental ideas and those German, Western ideas.[vi] Buckminster Fuller said that in going from the, say, the Middle East, where life is generally thought to have begun, you know, that if you go from there to Europe, that you go against the wind, and if you go from there to China or Japan, you go with the wind. And you can, for instance, put up a sail with great ease and go from India to China or from China to Mexico, whereas to go the other direction, you go against the wind and you de­velop philosophies and everything in opposition to nature and this desire to control accidents. If you go the other way, you will go much more toward the acceptance of nature. There aren’t many people who would speak as I am now speak­ing; they would agree, I think, with the neces­sity to control accidents. If, however, . . . how would he say, in asking the I Ching an answer to a question, and then he would say it’s not important to just take the answer from the I Ching, but I must control the answer. How would he control it? It’s the wrong idea, or at least it’s not an Oriental idea. Watts was thought of and persuaded others that he was explaining to Occidental minds Oriental ideas. That was his function in living. There is also a Japanese aesthetician, whose name you will learn when you get in touch with the man in Hartford, and he has written a book on aesthetics—and I also met him once in Japan—and the Hartford man who interviewed me brought up dicta of this Japanese aesthetician about what is a fine work of art, how it must be characterized, and I found I disagreed with every single one of the requirements that this Japanese aesthetician—who was supposed to be thoroughly cognizant of Zen—pronounced as essential.[vii] So, there you have it. Either from this point of view of the necessity of controlling accidents or from the point of view of the Japanese Zen aesthetician who says that things must, for instance, have a certain simplicity. Then I’m wrong and they may be right, but I think they’re wrong. I’ll tell you why I think they’re wrong.

One of the favorite sutras of Suzuki was the Lankavatara, . . . and in the Lankavatara the Buddha is asked whether enlightenment comes gradually or suddenly, and he said it comes gradually. And he gave examples from nature, such as the slow germination of a seed, and he gave other examples. Then, without transition, he said, continuing to answer the question, he said, it happens suddenly, and he again gave examples from nature—lightening and such things. He didn’t say it had to be one way or the other. Why should someone say that a work of art should be one way or another? Isn’t the magnificent thing about art is that we don’t know what the next one is going to be? And if somebody sets up a school and tells you how to do it, you can be certain that an artist outside of the school will make it so that it’s different. The whole history of art and the whole conjunction of cultures is something that can’t possibly be logically understood or put down as lawyers would put things down. They mostly base their statements on art from the past as lawyers would on crimes from the past, and they do this—the lawyers—in order to keep people from committing crimes, or making them go to prison if they commit them. And mostly the aestheticians do it so we won’t have any more art.

Martin: A plot, huh? (Laughter) Suzuki—did he ever express an opinion to you on your music?

Cage:  I wanted him to because that would have been my diploma, which I didn’t yet know I had gotten from Schoenberg. I several times went to Suzuki and asked him what his views on music were, and he simply said very quickly and simply, “I don’t know anything about music.” And yet he published a book, which I later read, about all the arts and the influence of Zen on them and so forth, and he knew a great deal. But what he was refusing to do was to answer my question or to give me any support. It’s the same as the student who went to the teacher of his choice in the woods and asked him a question, and the teacher remained silent, and this happened for the third time. Finally the student went away to another part of the same forest and built himself a house, and like his teacher when he first visited him was one day sweeping up leaves, and he suddenly realized why the teacher had not supported him by answering his question. And then he rushed back through the forest and said thank you.[viii]

Martin: How long did you study with Suzuki?

Cage: It was three years, and I visited him twice in Japan.

Martin: And Watts?

Cage: Did I know Him? I didn’t study with him, but I met him through Joseph Campbell. Do you know Joseph Campbell?

Martin: No.[ix]

Cage: He edited the posthumous works of Heinrich Zimmer in Indian philosophy and he teaches mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces—you must know some of his books. He was first a friend of my wife’s, from whom I was divorced about 1945, and then I knew him and his wife, Jean Erdmann, quite closely for many years. I became aware of both Oriental thought and mythology through him. It may have been at his suggestion that I read The Perennial Philosophy of Aldous Huxley; that was a kind of smorgasbord of all the various styles of religious thought, and in that, I saw that the taste I preferred was that of Zen Buddhism. It was at this time that Suzuki came to New York and I then studied with him for three years. I gave up my friend­ship with Joseph Campbell largely through rather profound differences. We had a talk, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and the essence of it was that he was saying that the skyscrapers were more important—or mountains—were more important than specks of dust, and I, convinced of the truth of what Suzuki was teaching—he said creation is a multiplicity of centers, but each thing, whether non-sentient or whether sentient, is the Buddha; and therefore, being whether a speck of dust or a mountain, is at the­ center of the universe. I claimed that this was true, and Joseph said no, it isn’t true, the speck of dust is not as important as the mountains. But I think it is. Wasn’t that also said by Wordsworth—something about a grain of sand and eternity?

Martin: Now, whether your music is or is not what would be called Zen art, there are certain elements that, when I listen to it, I think they’re like manifestations of Zen principles—like silence, for instance. Could you talk a little bit about . . .

Cage: You must remember that it is that for you be­cause you have prepared yourself to have that attitude, and another person would think of it as just a joke, you know.

Martin: How do you look at it?

Cage: Well, I have devoted my life to it, so I don’t see it as you do. I look at it as someone who is willing to die for it.

Martin: How do you see . . .

Cage: It was harder formerly than it is now. I mean, I’ll more likely die now, but when I wouldn’t have died it was harder. (Laughter)

Martin: How do you see silence working in your music, just to take one aspect?

Cage: I think of silence as the sounds which I don’t intend, and so I compose by means of asking questions, and my work is essentially silent even though it has sounds in it, for the simple reason that I haven’t intended them. I ask questions that bring them into existence, but I didn’t bring those particular ones into existence any more than I will the next sound that is louder than that fan. Nor will I bring the sounds into existence when I shut the fan off, and we’ll hear other softer sounds. And that’s what silence is—is an openness, openness of the mind to the things which, from a neutral point of view, are outside it, but from a Zen point of view are part of it, are in flux with it, or it is in flux with them. That structure of the mind, as Suzuki explained it, is like this—this is the ego.[x] Do you know this? And the ego has the capacity to cut itself off from its experience whether it comes in through the senses or in through the dreams. And this would be what we ordinarily call relative world or daily experience. This is what Meister Eckhart would call the ground or the absolute. But the mind is such that it is fluent, full circle, and the ego is capable of stopping that flow, and Suzuki said Zen would like that the ego not stop the flow, and that it is able to move in or out. So I decided to use chance operations to move out, in order to write something that didn’t have to do with my taste or memory or anything that had come to me through my intelligence or through my senses. Because, rather than doing as most artists do, to start dreaming and thinking that something has to inspire them—that they don’t understand. But, if it is true, which I believe it is, that this flow is full circle, then, if I change my mind by training it to like things which it previously didn’t like, but only got through chance operations, then it will move, out of its way, or at least be pushed, to go full circle (see diagram 1 below).

Martin: You composed a piece with radios—12 radios—because you hated the sound of radios, something like that?[xi]

Cage:  And just recently now in connection with this piece for Boston, I’ve written sixty-four pieces that have very closely to do with harmony, which has been my problem all through my life and that thing that I had no feeling for, and that Schoenberg said would always be a wall, that I’d never be able to write music, and I’d always come to a wall, and I said, “Well, I’ll beat my head against that wall.” Now I’ve actually written forty-four harmonies and fourteen tunes that are very harmonic, and so forth, and it all came about through a circumstance of the Bicentennial, a commission from the Boston Orchestra. And I, gave myself, through chance operations and everything, the responsibility to write imitations or something to do with sixty-four pieces of 200 years ago, which I arrived at through chance operations. And some of them are beautiful, and my imitations began by being beautiful because they were simply imitations of things that were already beautiful. But I had to continually go further, it seems to me, in the nature of the questions that I asked about harmony. Now, I finally found one way of writing it which I find beautiful. Wittgen­stein would say, of course, that beautiful simply means that something clicks for us. Most of the things that I had a serious prob­lem with I have been fortunate enough to en­counter in a struggle, and to come to the point where I no longer have the problem. Not that I’ve won, but that I no longer have that chip on my shoulder.

Martin: In the book that Richard Kostelanetz edited called John Cage, the story is recounted of a friend of yours—Gita Sarabhai—saying that the traditional reason for making music in India was to quiet the mind and thus make it susceptible to divine influences (Kostelanetz 77).

Cage: That’s the same as this—to quiet this wall thing and to make it susceptible to divine influences, because all those things that came to us from outside or inside, are the Buddhas. And I think that in the, particularly in Tantric Buddhism, and also I think that Suzuki would have said that even the things that we think are monsters are in fact only seen as monsters because of our fears. And if the mind changes, that those monsters are immedi­ately transformed into Buddhas—this is a very hard thing to accept, that idea that there is no difference between good and evil—and particularly hard for the legalistic aspect of the ego. And it’s one of the things that builds up governments, and the police, and all these things. But it is not implicit in Zen Buddhism. And this is the thing that one might—that say, a god-fearing president of the United States might—denounce Zen Buddhism for, not distinguishing clearly enough between good and evil.

Martin: Now how do you see how music can overcome, can help you to overcome this barrier, this ego barrier that causes you to . . .

Cage: Well, it’s very simple. We’re taught that things are beautiful and ugly, and that in the case of music, for instance, through European influence, you’re taught not to have parallel fifths or par­allel octaves, not to have certain dissonances unless you prepare them properly, and so forth and so on. And we gradually in modern music have found that that’s all nonsense, so that the situation actually of a modern composer was not so much a distinguishing between beautiful and ugly—because almost anything has been accepted as beautiful in the twentieth century already—but to find some, actually some reason for de­voting one’s life to music. Why would one do that? I got one of the answers you already quoted from Gita Sarabhai. And then the other answer that impressed me very much was from The Transformationof Nature in Art of Coomaraswamy—that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation (see Cage, A Year from Monday 31). At any rate, with those two, I decided to continue. Whereas had the answer been such as Arron Copland recently gave over the TV when he was interviewed by Bill Moyers—he gave the reason for writing music—the conventional reason of Western artists—that it was a question of self-expression. I’m not interested in self-expression. Nor was Thoreau. Thoreau at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two already said he wasn’t interested in self-expression. He was interested in learning to write in such a way that he would disappear and that what he was writ­ing about would become transparent to the reader. I don’t know why this idea of self-expression has been so popular. I couldn’t accept such a reason for continuing my work. But I could accept these other reasons—that of quieting the mind and thus changing it. If I can change my mind, then con­ceivably we can change society, which, as McLuhan has pointed out, is also a mind through electron­ics. There’s some hope for us if we can change our minds.

Martin: If we keep listening to the silence. You often mention concepts involving the purpose of purposelessness (Cage, Silence 12, 155). Could you go into that a little more—what you mean by it?

Cage: Well, if I use chance operations tediously over a period of months, or more than a year even, to write a work called “Empty Words,” which uses chance operations with regard to the journal of Thoreau, has no sentences, makes no sense whatsoever, and yet I do it day after day, finding out what questions to ask and accepting the answers through the chance operations, you have an example of my purpose­fulness, because it continues month after month after month, and hour after hour after hour. And yet each thing that happens is unforeseen by me. So, you have an example of purposefully doing something which I do not purpose.

Martin: I don’t understand.

Cage: Don’t you? I mean I’m just as surprised as you are over what happens.

Martin: So is it the element of spontaneity, discovery . . .

Cage: No, not spontaneity—that has to do with doing whatever comes into your head next. This is following a discipline. And the discipline is a discipline of the ego, to keep the ego actually from being concerned about whether it’s spontaneous or not spontaneous. It’s an ignor­ing of the ego and of its tastes and likes and so forth and so on, and it’s a setting up of a discipline which brings about something outside, over which I have no control. Now that, of course, is a situation which is permissible in the field, say, of poetry or music, which would not be permissible in a field controlled by the ego or by a government. For instance, if we are fighting a war and our intention is to win the war, then it is not permissible to use just any means and to kill just mindlessly, and yet that is what we tend to do and did in Vietnam. I’m trying to distinguish now between intention and its absence and purposelessness in connection with purpose, and the other is really either purpose or purposelessness but in connection with purpose. The purpose of killing people, for instance, makes anything that is done, whether it’s purposeless or purposeful, wrong, wouldn’t you say—to set out to kill people? Whereas the decision to write a poem I don’t think does that. I don’t think that that in itself—that’s almost a purposeless purpose to begin with. Or at least that’s what I’m saying it is. If, however, you were writing the poem in order to express yourself, then it would be connected with purpose. Then someone who’s very strict about the language would say, “Well, your purpose is not to express yourself.” But when you use language in that sense, you already have voided it of meaning so that it is no longer worthwhile talking—if you say that not having a purpose is having a purpose. But something like that is what I am saying when I say purposelessness purposefully. I don’t know. You have to figure that out for your­self, don’t you think?

Martin: In your music, the sounds are separated from each other. There’s no idea of going anywhere, as in a harmonic progression.

Cage: It’s not like a harmonic progression, no.

Martin: Can there be a harmony between sounds without that usual progression of things, of moving towards a point? Is there harmony without that?

Cage: I’ve found a number of things recently to do with harmony. One of the characteristics of harmony is that there are four voices—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—and they go along consistently. The first idea I had was to change that so that it sometimes might have only one voice, some­times two, sometimes three, sometimes four. And so my question was, for each chord in, say, a piece by Billings, written 200 years ago, for this chord, are all four present, or are there just three, just two, or just one? And the I Ching would answer, say it says one. And I say, “Well, which one of the four is there?” And then it tells me which one is there. And then I copy out that note. And then I make a music as a result, which moves from one to two to three to four unpredictably, and it is very beautiful. It is beautiful in the same sense that something that’s not completely there is beautiful. As Duchamp remarked that signs in the street which have been weather-beaten are beautiful in a sense that they weren’t beautiful when their full intention was clear—when things are wiped out slightly. Then I found that I had omitted to include zero which I’ve known for years was very important. So I gave zero at first a place of one-fifth in relation to these four, and changed it from there being four to five things, and then said of these five, how many are present? And then I had sometimes the possibility of nothing. Then I found that I was interested in what would happen if I increased the possibility of zero. So, I changed from one-fifth to one-fourth to one-third to one-half. And then I found that certain pieces which were very—if I may say so—stupid in the original remained stupid even when silence was given the position of one-half. But they were not transformed in this sense of alchemy, of turning things into beauty. This is how the mind changes. What was not seen as beautiful or what was seen as a monster is by alchemy—by changing mind—turned into Buddha. And this half presence of silence didn’t turn some pieces into magnificent pieces. So, I found another way. I went through each piece by phrases and I counted the notes in this phrase, and say there are fourteen, and then I asked the  I Ching which of the fourteen are sounds and which are silences, where do they begin and so forth. And then it would give me a series like this (see diagram 2 below). And then, the second, fifth, and eleventh would be sounds, and the second would last until the third, the fifth would last until the seventh, and the eleventh would last until the end of the phrase.[xii] And if when I did that for each one of the lines and then played the resulting music, I found that I had discovered something that was extraordinarily beautiful, and beautiful in the case of no matter how unbeautiful it was to begin with. This would be beautiful, for instance,if you had just one chord—the tonic chord—and this happened in the eighteenth century among some of the American composers who didn’t have any musical imagination. They just took a chord and played it over and over again as though they were idiots. I had happened, through chance operations, upon some of those idiotic pieces, and I had to find some way to transform this thing that was obviously ugly into something that was obviously beauti­ful, and this does it. And what it does is what you spoke of just a moment ago. It sur­rounds each sound with silence, do you see? But it makes a counterpoint of such things so there’re overlappings, and it remains unpre­dictable, and you can’t tell from hearing it what the question was that was asked that resulted in this music. And so you remain in the state of mind that you are when you are in nature, which is—how does it say in the Bible—the something that passeth understanding. It goes beyond understanding. And this is the difference between Zen and Confucianism, say. These ideas worked when the material upon which they were being employed had some degree of beauty. But these other ideas worked in the case of the monster.

Martin: In the case of the monsters, though, you are exercising choice by deciding what chance means you’re going to use.

Cage: No, I’m not exercising choice when I ask a question. No choice is being exercised by asking a question.

Martin: But didn’t you in a way reject some of the answers?

Cage: No, no, I rejected the questions, and I had to learn to ask these new questions.

Martin: So, you were asking the wrong questions.

Cage: That’s what I told you earlier. And we frequently do that. A wrong question is “How shall we kill mosquitoes?” That’s a wrong question, and it resulted in the invention of DDT.

Martin: There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. After the “Lecture on Nothing” that is included in Silence, you had six pre-written answers that you gave out in response to questions, and also, talking about these, you mentioned koans.[xiii] Is there a relation between what you were doing and koans—as things which appear paradoxical on the surface?

Cage: No, I was stating that—was I or wasn’t I? I was going to say that I was acting in accord with the thing we’ve already talked about in connection with the I Ching, mainly that all of the answers answer all of the questions, and that these questions were somehow relevant to whatever answers would be asked. That, of course, is true. Whether I knew that then I don’t know, or why I did that then I can’t precisely remember. It was clearly an illogical thing to do and I did very clearly want to go beyond the logical mind. And that’s what the koan wants to do, too. I don’t really know more than that. I can’t recall in an authentic way what else was in my head then. When I said “my back aches,” I think that’s the answer to one of the questions.

Martin: Yes, “my head aches.”

Cage: “My head aches.” That’s a reference to the Zen answer to questions, the monk frequently says to the student, “my back aches.” And so I said, “my head aches,” or something.

Martin: This is one that I like: “That’s’ a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.”

Cage: And another one was: “Would you please repeat your question?” And that’s, of course, nice, too. Because by repeating the question, the questioner no longer needs to have it answered. It answers itself, so to speak.

Martin: What about the notion that the process of creating music is more important than the music itself?

Cage:  That’s simply a belief that what we are doing is important at the time we are doing it. The music doesn’t exist until it is made, but the process of making it is what exists while it is being made. That process of making it is a very time-consuming one, and for a composer who is dedicated to doing that, it’s engrossing. When I finish a piece of music, I go on to the process of making the next one. For someone, then, to bring that piece of music, which is finished, so to speak, to life, or rather, to his life or her life, requires dedication. And dedication is rare. And if you give yourself to it only slightly it’s not going to mean any­thing. But if you take, as I did, eleven months with it, it’ll mean more than if you took eleven seconds. If you go, then, to hear it performed by someone who has spent eleven months—the same amount of time that I spent writing it he spends playing it, studying it—and you spend—say it lasts for fifteen minutes—you spend fifteen minutes hearing it, it’s obviously not as important. It’s very unlikely that it will be as important for you as it was for either the performer or me. On the other hand, as the Buddha said, things happen suddenly. So something that takes only a short time like that might, in certain cases, change minds, because that’s what we do. But if it doesn’t change minds, we shouldn’t be sur­prised, because it happens only so quickly. To dedicate yourself, for instance, to the question of listening is very difficult, because it doesn’t take much of your time, and anything that does happen to you in the situation of listening has to happen very quickly. If it is really live music, you will never hear it twice the same. If it’s recorded music, as so much people now have recorded music, then, of course, it isn’t really music. Then you have to start listening to the other sounds, too, and get away from the record, because all the record does is to dig a ditch in your mind. I remember a little boy at a concert where Stravinsky came to conduct here in New York, and Stravinsky conducted one of the pieces—“The Rite of Spring” or something or other—and the boy turned to his father after Stravinsky had finished, and he said, “That isn’t the way it goes.” (Laughter)

Martin: I recall reading—I don’t have it written down—that you said at one point in your career that the purpose of music can be to reconcile paradoxes (Kostelanetz 84).

Cage: The last thing I think I wrote that I thought was interesting about this idea of the purpose was that—I believe it’s in M, I said they told us that the purpose of music was self-expression, and I said they were wrong: it is self­-alteration (Cage, M 17).

Martin: Is that self-alteration for those who hear it as well as those who write it?

Cage: Yes, and that’s why it’s easier for the composer, because he generally spends most of the time; it’s more difficult for the performer; and it’s most difficult for the listener. The listener has all those other problems, too, of people whispering next to him while he’s listening.

Martin: But that’s part of the music.

Cage: Well, it’s very hard for the listener to realize that, or say he does realize it, then maybe there’s no problem. I also think the present usefulness of Tantric Buddhism in America is due to the fact that Tantric Buddhism posits meditation in unpleasant rather than pleasant circumstances, or difficult circumstances, is the better word. As, for instance, in the course of sexual intercourse or on the body of a corpse, to sit square-legged. This is obviously very difficult, and it’s obviously difficult to live in the world now, and I think that’s why so many people find a relevance of Tantric practices.

Martin: Like the idea of the lotus, staying unaffected by the mud in the pond?

Cage: No, it’s meditation in an unquiet situation. And that’s what you were saying that the cough­ing and whispering and so forth was part of the music. That’s the same idea.

Martin: You stated at one point that art which is useful is often irritating. Is this going along with the same train of thought? And that when it ceases to be irritating . . .

Cage: That is a quotation from Gertrude Stein.

Martin: Does this go along with what we were just talking about?

Cage: I think so, yes, because you see, what is being irritated is this ego, and if you irritate it enough, it will give up or will break down, whereas if you coddle it, it will only get fat and strong. That’s why irritation is more important, and why when our parents said you must eat your vegetables or you won’t get any dessert, they were right. (Laughter)

Martin: I’ve often wondered in reading about Zen, masters will sometimes take action that seems cruel, such as slapping people. This idea . . .

Cage: . . . of confounding the ego.

Martin: It’s like listening to a Cage piece. One more question. In The Bride and the Bachelors, in the chapter on you, it states that you said, ” . . . after the attainment of nothingness, one returns again into activity” (Tomkins 144). And you compared that with the series of Buddhist . . .

Cage: The Ox-Herd pictures, yes.[xiv] And the last picture in one of those versions is a picture of a fat man, with a big smile on his face, bringing gifts back to the village. In other words, not staying away in a monastery, or as we would have said, in an ivory tower, but coming back into the thick of it, and with the smile of the monk in the presence of the second-rate, poorly-played Italian opera.

 cagefig
Figure #1: Diagram of the Experiences of the Mind as Flowing in a Circle

  cagefig2 Figure #2: Diagram Representing the Vertical Aspects of Harmony


ENDNOTES
 


[i] John Cage’s dates are 5 September 1912—12 August 1992.

[ii] I conducted this interview at Cage’s home on Bank Street in Greenwich Village, NY on 29 July 1976. I was twenty-three at the time, working on a thesis for an MA degree in Humanities at Arizona State University. The interview was tape recorded, and what follows is a transcript of the recording. Although I used the interview in my thesis, I did not consider doing more with it until I attended a conference on Black Mountain College (Asheville, NC, 2009) and discovered there was considerable interest about the interview and its contents.

[iii] What Cage here refers to as alchemy is the sort of transforming experience related to the Zen experience of enlightenment.

[iv] The number forty-three refers to the hexagram forty-three derived from consulting the I Ching through chance operations.

[v] Suzuki writes that at the time of his birth, the Buddha is traditionally reported to have said: “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the honoured one!” (Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism 155).

[vi] Though the term Oriental is now considered to be Eurocentric and inappropriate for referring to Asia, in 1976 it was still commonly used.

[vii] I was never able to learn the identity of the man in Hartford, or the specific Japanese aesthetician to whom Cage was referring. Their identities, however, are not necessary to follow Cage’s point.

[viii]Zen literature contains numerous stories of a master answering a disciple’s question by remaining silent or by claiming not to know anything about the subject of the question. According to Zen teachings, affirmation should not be sought for one’s own actions outside of oneself in the form of praise from another. One must seek support from within. This belief is exemplified in the story Cage relates and also in the following koan translated by Chang Chung-yuan in Original Teachings of Ch’an Buddism:

One day a monk asked Master Ma-tsu what the real mean­ing was of Bodhidharma coming from the West. The Master told him he was tired and sent the man to see his brother monk Chih-tsang and ask him. When the monk came to Chih-­tsang, he was told to go and see another brother, Husi­-hai because Chih-tsang had a headache. But Husi-hai ad­vised him to return to seek the answer from the Master. The Master finally said to him “Chih-tsang’s hair is white and Husi-hai’s is black.” The color of one’s brother monks’ hair has nothing to do with one’s enlight­enment. What is important is the realization that en­lightenment comes from within one’s own mind, and that it is thus that one’s mind is opened. There is nothing that one can seek from the outside. (Chang 138)

In light of the fact that teachers of Zen often use this particular technique of avoiding the question in answer to their students, Suzuki’s lack of reply to Cage seems less unusual.

[ix] Just a reminder that I was only twenty-three at the time of this interview. (I now know who Joseph Campbell is.)

[x] At this point Cage drew a diagram representing the experiences of the mind as flowing in a circle. At one side of the circle he drew an area representing daily experience, and at the opposite side of the circle he drew an area re­presenting the Absolute. On the circle he drew two lines representing the ego preventing the mind from fully experi­encing what enters the mind from either dreams or the senses.

[xi] The piece referred to is “Imaginary Landscape No. IV.”

[xii] During this particular answer Cage was drawing lines on a piece of paper to represent the vertical aspect of harmony. He also wrote down fractions to indicate the in­crement of the possibility of zero from 1/5 to 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2. The diagram for the phrase consisting of fourteen notes can be seen on the upper right of the complete drawing.

[xiii] The six questions are:

1. That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.

2. My head wants to ache.

3. Had you heard Marya Freund last April in Palermo singing Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” I doubt whether you would ask that question.

4. According to the Farmer’s Almanac this is False Spring.

5. Please repeat the question. . . .

And again….

And again….

6. I have no more answers. (Cage, Silence 126)

[xiv] The Ox-Herding pictures are a series of ten illustra­tions accompanied by verse and prose commentary on the ten different stages of awareness leading to enlightenment. They depict a man searching for an ox, the embodiment of truth. The pictures, verse, and commentaries are the work of the Chinese master Kakuan who lived in the twelfth century. An earlier version of the pictures consisted of eight illustra­tions and ended with an empty circle depicting the attainment of nothingness (enlightenment). In Kakuan’s version, however, the enlighten­ed one returns to everyday life, and in the final picture he presents others with gifts to help them in their search for truth. Numerous later versions of the pictures now exist.

Works Cited 

Print

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Previously Unpublished Source:

Cage, John. Interview with John Cage at his home in New York City, 29 July 1976.