Monday, May 05, 2014

Nothing much

Well, were we ever experimental in "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today. Could it be that we were "Zen" too? Our focus was John Cage. (Actually I first gave the promised summary of the dāna conference. In Western theories, I recounted, the minute a gift succeeds in being a gift - freely given and accepted as a gift - it ceases to be a gift because it establishes or continues a quite unfree relationship of reciprocity. Buddhist traditions can outwit this, I proposed. When a liberating gift succeeds it evaporates into pure freedom: it reveals that nothing has changed hands, as there was never a distinction between giver and receiver to begin with: no giver, no receiver, pure gift! Say what? I meant for this to be opaque and to seem unrelated to the topic of the day, and I think I succeeded. A good start for the discussion!)
We took a roundabout way in. Already before class began I called up this image on our screen, some of the "White Paintings" by Rauschenberg which Cage said opened the way to the (in)famous "silent piece," 4' 33". As planned, nobody had realized it was an image of something. Check!
Students discussed our texts on their own as I made some photocopies, perhaps galvanized by Cage's "Ten rules for teachers and students," which I shared with them before leaving the room. I returned to find D. T. Suzuki's blithe claim (in the opening chapter of  Zen and Japanese Culture) that Zen outwits words provoking strong verbal reactions: the possibility of going beyond words is tantalizing but wasn't Suzuki using words, too? Borrowing one of his images I opined that we should regard words as like the clouds that are generated by the peaks of really high mountains (mountains again!): they're not the mountain, but to wish them gone or even to wish they wouldn't obscure the mountain peak is to misundertand both their nature and that of the mountain. It is because it is a mountain that its peak is shrouded in cloud; it is because it is a mountain that the clouds are clouds. To wish there were no clouds is really to wish there were no mountains. Wordclouds indeed!
In any case it was time for a change of pace so I distributed the translation of the Heart Sutra Kay Larsen appends to her book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (our other main reading). It's the most compact of sutras (see image above) so we read it aloud, everyone taking a few lines. The Heart Sutra famously negates everything, including everything you knew about Buddhism, like the Four Noble Truths:

... no ignorance
and no end to ignorance,
no old age and death
and no end to old age and death,
no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no extinguishing, no path,
no wisdom and no gain.
No gain and thus the bodhisattva
lives Prajna Paramita ...

Despite a noble struggle we failed, of course, to have a satisfying discussion of the Heart's Sutra's nestled negations - what could one ultimately say? - so it was time for another intoning, the first page of Cage's 1951 (?) Lecture on Something. It's scored like a piece of music.
 
Piece of music, you may ask? The talk is ostensibly about composer Morton Feldman (though Feldman said it was not his but "John's"), who, inspired by Cage, invented the "graphic score" as a way of creating musical events. (I called up an image of his very first such score.) See it?
 
Dazed at the words we had uttered without being able to follow their meaning - we had just channeled Cage saying (and not saying)

it is of the 
utmost importance not 
to make a thing but 
rather to make 
nothing. And 
how is this done? 
Done by making 
something 
which then goes 
in and reminds us of 
nothing.

we were ready for our discussion of what on earth Cage was up to, and what in heaven it could be said to have to do with Zen.
 
As photos of Cage's legendary course on "Experimental Composition" at The New School looked down at us (how exciting to think he taught here, I enthused) we faced the provocation which is 4' 33". It's hard to approach for us today, as it's known as a monument of contemporary art: we project a something into what has to be experienced as a nothing. (Larsen recounts that when Cage presented his Thoreau piece at Naropa Institute the rowdy followers of Chögyam Trungpa booed and hissed and mocked and catcalled so energetically - for over two hours! - that Trungpa offered Cage a job the next morning). We didn't watch one of the many videos of performances of the 4' 33"; instead I had someone read aloud a reaction to the first performance: "sound pompous," I exhorted. (Next time, I think I'll have us all declaim it together!)

This form of phony musical Dadaism, built up by sensational publicity, frightens audiences away from the real music of our times. The arrogance of its nihilistic sophistries might be just amusing to most people. But there is a war of nerves against common sense today particularly in all fields of art. And if we don't check these insipid fungus growths that eat into the common sense of our people, their destructive influence will grow and gradually undermine the health and vitality of our civilization. (Larsen, 274-5)

Two plucky students dared to agree. One invoked the common experience in a modern art gallery that "I could have done that, though I didn't." I suggested Cage wanted you to think that, indeed he wanted you to go do it yourself, maybe even realize you already were doing it. Still: is this art? Is Cage an artist or a con man? Are we supposed to thank him? Surely something's wrong when someone gets celebrated for doing nothing!! (When I asked the other scoffer at the end of class "are you indignant or are you jealous?" he replied, after a rather brief pause, "both...!") Our time was running out. We had just enough time for each of us to read - one by one now, not in a group as with the other - four lines (sixteen bars) of Cage's Lecture on Nothing (1950?). You try, too!
Cage and Zen? About that we had nothing to say, and we've said it.

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