John Cage

Live the Mystery

John Cage

In early August I discovered my favorite book of this year. I came across Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson at two wonderful places on the web: First “The Art Critic and the Enso,” a remarkably insightful piece by Lynette from 108zenbooks, and then a a day or two later, Deborah Barlow’s (who writes at Slow Muse) inspiring review “Leaving the Path At Any Moment” showed up in my blog feed. It seemed an unlikely coincidence. That was it for me. I promptly wrote Deborah: I’ve come across this book at least three times this week. A few days ago I put a hold on it at the library. I am seventh in line. After reading your excellent post this morning, I said to myself: “That’s it.” I biked down to my local bookstore in the rain and bought myself a copy. And I did just that arriving home like a lunatic, wet with rain with the book tucked protectively under my arm. I read the book slowly and intermittently throughout August and September, savoring it slowly, making notes in my notebook, underlining passages, folding over corners, and reading passages out loud to my wife, who may or may not have been listening. For two months, I carried this book everywhere. I loved this book.

The first time I heard of John Cage was in the early 90s. I was in my early teens, and was just beginning to discover. mostly through books and art, that there was a much larger world beyond the small sleepy town of Belleville where I grew up. I had left home and was boarding on a farm just outside of town. I suffered from horrible insomnia those days, so I would stay up reading too much, and smoking too much. I also use to listen this late night radio show on the CBC called Brave New Waves that came on just after the news at midnight following Ross Porter’s excellent jazz  program After Hours. Brave New Waves was on air until four in the morning, so it was perfect for insomniacs. In fact, there were many evenings where I stayed up until the very end, listening to the far out in left field records that were spun in the last hour. On other nights, when my tiredness won out, I taped the show onto cassette, and listened to it the very next day after school so that I wouldn’t miss anything important. The show specialized in the Avant-garde, showcasing music, writers, and artists. Almost every evening, I discovered someone or something entirely new.

Anyway, on one particular evening there was an interview with John Cage that I have always remembered. It was a cold, autumnal night and I was smoking by the window to hide the smell. The house was quiet, with everyone locked away in their rooms. I could hear a TV down the hall. The news was on. I smoked and waited eagerly for the show to begin. The artist being interviewed on that particular evening was a man named John Cage, interviewed as a writer, poet, artist, and composer. A real renaissance man who dabbled in just about everything. He was well learned, and absolutely captivating as a speaker, with a contagious passion for knowledge. The moment that was burned into my brain forever came at the end of the interview when the host, Brent Bambury asked John Cage, who was in his mid-seventies then (he died when he was 79), “Who was your greatest teacher?” What followed was one of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced listening to radio. There was a long tremendous silence. Total dead air. The length of it was extraordinary, so extraordinary, that you could actually hear the clock in the studio ticking away the seconds. After a moment, maybe a lifetime or two. John Cage said in his soft gentle voice: “I’m still looking.”

William Gedney shot of John Cage
William Gedney shot of John Cage

The show ended on that note, but something lingered  within me and resonated to Cage’s final remark, either his words, or something that was behind them. In retrospect, I think it was the sense of his search that struck me.  I thought it was remarkable how a man of his age, stature, and influence could be so humble and still be searching.

After that, I sought out everything I could find about him. It wasn’t until later in my life that I discovered that what attracted me to John Cage was his relentless search for the truth, and how he was able to reconcile a worldly life with a spiritual pursuit. I feel that Cage is a tremendous example of someone who managed to bridge that duality. With the recent publication of Larson’s extensive and meticulously researched biography on John Cage, the inner life, or the essence of the man becomes more apparent. Throughout his life Cage was a spiritual seeker: a devoted student of Zen Buddhist scholar and translator, D.T. Suzuki, a follower of the Indian sage, Ramakrishna and acknowledged his debt to the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Huang Po, and The Chinese book of divination the I-Ching. He was also open to the Christian mystic Meister Echhart. To read about John Cage is to discover a life long quest through a time when all the arts: painting, music, literature, and dance were undergoing massive revolution in the early part of the 20th century. But what I find of interest is in Larson’s account of Cage is the story of  man on a spiritual journey in the direction of self perfection–a man who relentlessly aspires to marry an inner life with his outer life in order to allow the inner to inform the outer. Cage wrote in his journals:

John CageOur 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 once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires our of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

and later:

It is not a question of decisions and the willingness to make them. It is that we are impermanently part and parcel of all. We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.

There is an old proverb that states, “one book opens another,” and in this case that statement could not ring out more truthfully. So I have broken down the book into categories in order to navigate the wealth of material Larson’s book has to offer.

Breaking it Down Wisdom Traditions & Spiritual Influences Mentioned (in no particular order of importance):

John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki
John Cage with Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

Daisetz Teitaro Susuki (his name means Great Simplicity) and his teachers: Imagitsa Kosen & Soyen Shaku, Paul Carus who was convinced that Buddhism held great potential to heal the modern breach between science and religion, because it was based not on beliefs, but on practice and observation; Chogyam Trungpa, Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin Buddhism–the path of faith and compassion, also known as Pure Land; the Zen traditions of Soto Zen and the tougher discipline of Rinzai; Soyen, Joseph Campbell, Oskar Fischinger;, Morris Graves and Nancy Wilson Ross who was a student of Rinzai Zen master Nanshinken and Goto Zuigan Roshi; Zen teacher Yvonne Rand, Hui Neng, Dogen Zenji, Mark Tobey, Gita Sarabhai, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Meister Eckhart, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Chuang-tze, Carl Gustav Jung, Aldous Huxley, Paramahansa Yogananda, Christmas Humphreys, Richard DeMartino, Philip Kapleau, Yasutani Roshi, Hue-yen, Shen-Hui student of Hui-Neng; Lin-chi, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisatttva of compassion; Thomas Merton, Koun Yamada Roshi, Seung Sahn, Taigen Dan Leighton, L.C. Beckett, Hotei (The Laughing Buddha); Sofu Teshigahara, Robert Aitken, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg.

Key Spiritual Texts:

I wanted to be quiet in a non-quiet situation. So I discovered first through reading the gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and through the study of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism–and also an important book for me was The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley…–that they are all saying the same thing, namely, a quiet mind is a mind that is free of its likes and dislikes. –John Cage

D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which was also the first book in the West on the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), the teachings that are the source of Zen; Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot.

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world. We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity. This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance. Zen, therefore, wants us to open a “third eye,” as Buddhists call it, to the hitherto undreamed-of-region shut away from us through igmnorance. When the cloud of ignorance disappears, the infinity of the heavens is manifested, where we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.D.T. Suzuki

Essays in Zen Buddhism Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy The Lankavatara Sutra Hua Yen, Flower Garland Sutra The Heart Sutra Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate) The I Ching (The Chinese Book Changes) Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noise

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Here is one of Cage’s favorite Ramakrishna stories he loved telling:

Ramakrishna spent an afternoon explaining that everything is God. Afterward, one of his disciples entered the evening traffic in a euphoric state and barely escaped being crushed to death by an elephant. He ran back to his teacher and asked, “Why do you say everything’s God when just now I was nearly killed by an elephant?” Ramakrishna said, “Tell me what happened.” When the disciple got to the point where he heard the voice of the elephant’s driver warning him several times to get out of the way, Ramakrishna interrupted, “That was God’s voice.”

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, The Dance of Shiva

Meister Eckhart, The Sermons

Coming back to Eckhart, for the sake by the way the way of a brilliant conclusion. A tonic and dominant emphatic conclusion to this talk about something and nothing and how they need each other to keep on going, as Eckhart says:, “Earth (that is any something) “has no escape from heaven.” (that is nothing) “flee she up or flee she down heaven still invades her, energizing her, fructifying her, whether for her weal or for her woe. –John Cage, from Lecture on Something

L.C. Beckett, Neti Neti (Not This Not That) 1955 The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures Buddha’s Fire Sermon Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen The I-Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records A Buddhist Bible edited by Dwight Goddard Ashvaghosha, the second century commentator on the Buddha, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana The Surangama Sutra The Bhagavad Gita Jean Paul Satre, Being and Nothingness Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art; Evelyn Underhill Mysticism Huang Po, Doctrine of Universal Mind Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle expounded in his book, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science

Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden and the essay Civil Disobedience

What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me…Talk of mysteries!–Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? –Henry David Thoreau

A couple of other passages related to spiritual practice by Kay Larson that I found noteworthy:  Kay Larson on waking up,

Bardo–the Tibetan Buddhist word for a “becoming” or transition. Although the bardo is usually identified as the passage after death, it can also be a turning moment within ordinary life. You’re walking in your daily reality and there is a slight shiver in the visual field and you sense that a door is opening in a wall. You haven’t known about the wall until the door opens. Do you walk through? –Kay Larson

On the practice of zazen:

What is zazen? Crossing one’s legs? Watching the breath? Saying nothing? Waiting for the bell to ring? That’s where the beginner begins. After a bit more practice, however, zazen expands. Everything interpenetrates, right? Sitting silently, where are you? Who are you? What are you sitting within? As you cross your legs on the cushion, singing a sharani of transformation, the whole world flows in and through you, and all around you. The totality of Creation is sitting with you. Where are the walls? Sitting zazen, you take apart the bricks one at a time, look at them carefully, and set them down. At the end of the process, where are the walls? –Kay Larson


Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham

Holy Places: Shokukuji, Daitokuji, Engakuji, Daitokuji (Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto)

Dancers: Merce Cunningham, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, Bonnie Bird, Syvilla Fort, Dorothy Herrmann, Katherine Dunham, Martha Hill, Jean Erdman, Erick Hawkins, Carolyn Brown, Robert Ellis Dunn, and Rashaun Mitchell.

Other Writers: Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Charles H. Ford, William Saroyan, E.E. Cummings, Rainer Maria Rilke, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Caroline Richards, Jackson Mac Low, John Ashbery, Erich Fromm, Charles Olson, Martin Heidegger, Arnold Toynbee, Arthur Waley, Jackson Mac Low. Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The rational mind only describes a tiny room in a vast cosmos, and beyond this we cannot speak”

Photographers: Jack Calvin, Edward Weston


The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences. –Gita Sarabhai There are two principal parts of each personality, the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and distractions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one. –John Cage

Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Buhlig, Virgil Thomson, Erik Satie especially “Vexations,” Morton Feldman, Webern Symphony, Opus 21 conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos; Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances; David Tudor, Earle Brown, John Cale, Nam June Paik, Terry Riley, La Monte Young; Steve Reich, and Janice Giteck.

Visual Art:

Robert Kushner "Eleven Orange Emperors," 2008
Robert Kushner “Eleven Orange Emperors,” 2008

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful, the first question I ask, is why do I think it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. –John Cage

Movements: Dada, Modersnism, The Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism & Fluxus Tristan Tzara, F.T. Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism;  Alexej von Jawlensky’s painting, Poetry of the Evening (1931); Edwin Rothschild, The Meaning of the Unintelligibility of Modern Art; Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Morris Graves, Paul Klee, Mondrian, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Max Ernst, The Bauhaus, Gyorgy Kepes, Marc Chagall, Leger, Andre Masson, Willem de Kooning, sculptors Richard Lippold and Ibram Lassaw, Philip Pavia, Jackson Pollock, Doña Luisa; Robert Rauschenberg. Sari Dienes, Karl Jaspers, Shuzo Takiguchi, Ibram Lassaw, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Robert Watts, Al Hansen, Adolph Gottlieb, Yoko Ono;, Andrew Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, The Fluxus Movement, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Al Held, Pat Steir, Bruce Nauman


John CageSome other quotations that I highlighted from Larson’s biography: Cage describes the concept of indeterminacy:

Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means that you don’t know where you are. How can it be otherwise, say the Buddhist teachings, since you have no fixed or inherent identity and are ceaselessly in process? …Life is filled with uncertainty  Chance events happen to all of us. Each of us must take responsibility and make decisions. None of us should be imposing our ego image on others. …There’s another way to live. Accept indeterminacy as a principle, and you see your life in a new light, as a series of seemingly unrelated jewel-like stories with in a dazzling setting of change and transformation. Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet. That’s when the path appears.

A remarkable outlook on the purpose of art:

If we conquer that dislike, or begin to like what we did dislike, then the world is more open. That path, of increasing one’s enjoyment of life, is the path I think we’d all best take. To use art not as self expression but as self-alteration. To become more open” –Cage

Cage describes the role of a teacher:

I do not think that a teacher should teach something to the student. I think the teacher should discover what it is that the student knows–and that’s not easy to find out–and then, of course, encourage the student to be courageous with respect to his knowledge, courageous and practical and so forth–in other words, to bring his knowledge to fruition. Don’t you think? 

On reality:

You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…It is more mobile than you can possibly imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say as it “presents itself”; that means that it isnot there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.

Cage’s advice on what to do when you feel bored:

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

And  lastly, one of my favorite passages in the book about how a great spiritual teacher or teaching works on you:

During recent years Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki has done a great deal of lecturing at Columbia University. First he was in the Department of Religion, then somewhere else. Finally he settled down on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall. The room had windows on two sides, a large table in the middle with ash trays. There were chairs around the table and next to the walls. These were always filled with people listening, and there were generally a few people standing near the door. The two or three people who took the class for credit sat in chairs around the table. The time was four to seven. During this period most people now and then took a little nap. Suzuki never spoke loudly. When the weather was good the windows were open, and the airplanes leaving La Guardia flew directly overhead from time to time, drowning out whatever he had to say. He never repeated what had been said during the passage of the airplane.

Three lectures I remember in particular. While he was giving them I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was saying. It was a week or so later, while I was walking in the woods looking for mushrooms, that it all dawned on me. Kay Larson’s book  is a wonderful portrait of  a man who embodied what it means to be a seeker in life, and by that I mean, someone who is able to bring a spiritual discipline into the uncertainty of their daily life. They live the mystery. And finally here is John Cage’s quintessential piece “4’33” which Larson describes so beautifully as a “statement of essence leading out of the world of art into the whole of life, it was born in the space, the silence, the nothing that supports us.


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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Deborah Barlowreply
November 24, 2012 at 9:43 am

This is such a rich and rewarding post. Thank you Luke for pulling so many insightful pieces of this story together. That book just continues to speak to me, directly and through writings like yours.

Luke Stormsreply
November 24, 2012 at 11:03 am
– In reply to: Deborah Barlow

Thank you for the comment Deborah, and as always for turning me onto such magical and wonderful things. You have a rare talent for that, just like the epigraph by Thoreau from Larson’s book: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”

Shankar Desaireply
November 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm

“What followed was one of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced listening to radio. There was a long tremendous silence. Total dead air. The length of it was extraordinary, so extraordinary, that you could actually hear the clock in the studio ticking away the seconds. After a moment, maybe a lifetime or two. John Cage said in his soft gentle voice: ‘I’m still looking.'”

The silence! (but he knew that)

Great piece.

November 24, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Great – really enjoyed that. Thanks.

November 24, 2012 at 4:39 pm

This is a wonderfully enlightening piece, Luke. You’ve inspired me to read the biography of John Cage as well as other books mentioned. Always in the search of truth. Blessings.

November 26, 2012 at 5:45 am

Thank your for this inspirational post.

December 3, 2012 at 1:11 am

Oh thank you so much for this and for so many wonderful posts over the years. Earlier today I was rereading parts of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, a book I come back to again and again, and your post inspired me to order the biography of John Cage from the library.

Luke Stormsreply
December 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm
– In reply to: Jane

Hello Jane,

I agree with you, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind is an excellent book. It’s my experience that the further you go, the less you know. I think you’ll enjoy this book, I certainly found many treasures within its pages. It was truly inspirational.

All the best,


December 24, 2012 at 10:34 am

A peaceful Christmas-time and a magical New Year to you and yours.

Monica Dias Willsonreply
September 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Lovely! Thank you so much for this!

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