Next week (on Tues. Oct. 27, 2015) I’ll be in Cincinnati, Ohio as part of a presentation about the music of John Cage. In order to prepare me to talk about Cage’s relationship with Zen Buddhism, the director of the event sent me a book called Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson.
At the beginning of chapter seven Larson has this to say about Zen; “In countless Zen stories, the practitioner asks profound questions and gets no answers — throws himself against his own walls time and time again — gives up and goes off to sweep the graves of his ancestors.”
John Cage’s most famous manifestation of what he learned from Zen Buddhism is his composition 4’33”. Probably everybody knows about this composition by now. It’s the one that instructs a pianist to open the lid covering the keys and then close it and open it again two more times indicating a total of three movements, each with a different length. At the end of a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist closes the lid for the final time then exits the stage.
In this way, Cage is trying to be like a Zen Master, answering his audience’s request for music with silence.
This little koan-like move that has served Zen teachers so well for hundreds if not thousands of years is one of the easiest things in the world to figure out. There’s no need for anyone to ever throw themselves against walls and give up. It’s so simple it’s kind of pathetic how many people react to it in entirely the wrong way.
So now, at the risk of getting everyone else in the Zen teacher club pissed at me for giving the game away, I’d like to spill the whole secret.
There is no silence.
These teachers are not answering their students’ urgent questions with silence. Nor is John Cage answering his audience’s request for music with silence.
Go to YouTube and look up any performance of Cage’s 4’33”, put on some headphones, turn them up and listen. I’ll wait.
What did you hear? Was it silence?
The pianist didn’t play anything on the piano. But you weren’t listening to silence were you? Maybe the pianist shifted on her stool and made it squeak. Maybe the audience shuffled around or whispered amongst themselves. If some smart-ass made a version with the sound turned all the way off, then you no doubt heard the whirring of the fan in your computer, or your idiot neighbor on his loud motorcycle, or your own stomach gurgling, or birds or crickets chirping. What you did not hear was silence.
Zen teachers who refuse to answer their students’ questions in words are never answering with silence. It’s a way of indicating that life itself is the answer the student is searching for.
Words are useful. They can really mean a lot. Nobody should ever be dismissive about the power of words.
But words are limited. By their very nature, they limit things. An apple is an apple because it’s not an orange or a pomegranate or a quince. The word apple is limited in its scope. That’s why it works to indicate a specific fruit. But you can’t eat the word apple. The word is not the thing.
Sometimes when a question is too big for words, the best answer you can give to it is to not say anything at all. Just listen.
So if you ask a Zen teacher something and she says nothing in reply, don’t throw yourself against a wall. Listen.
Listen to the sounds around you expressing the truth that you’re seeking. Listen to the kids playing down the street. Listen to the wind rattling the leaves outside. Listen to that idiot with his stupid fucking motorcycle.
Reality is explaining itself to you right now, at this moment.
If you’re looking for a place to listen to silent answers, consider helping me and my friends in Los Angeles make a place where you can come and do that with us! Contribute to our fundraiser to make the Angel City Zen Center come alive! Every little bit helps a lot! Click here to learn more!
I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
October 27, 2015 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
October 30, 2015 Canton, Ohio ZERO DEFEX at Buzz Bin
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany)5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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