“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.
If we can 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.”
Anyone familiar with Zen thinking and practice likely knows that it is associated with a kind of perfection of surroundings, of the temple grounds and interiors, their fabrication and artwork being sublime. When I sit and see some cobwebs under a chair or a speck of lint on the black rug, it provides a convenient distraction for my ego, an excuse for a torrent of thoughts, including those that say: Get up and vacuum now so you can do your mediation without worldly distraction. This may very well be a partial driver of this pursuit of perfection in the Zen worldview. Partial in that it is mostly driven by the belief that all actions should receive full attention whether you are sweeping leaves, making tea or vacuuming.
But there is another Buddhist mediation practice that involves meditating in a room with a decomposing corpse, not just for hours but until it is nothing but bones. This is a very difficult and radical practice that would probably drive most people crazy. But in meditation difficulty is often rewarded by faster insight. For example, understanding that people who anger or disgust you have the most to teach you. But almost anyone would admit that a rotting body is very imperfect compared to a polished temple. Or is it?
The Cage quote above reflects the essence of what he learned from Zen and applied to his own work. He discovered that once you removed the ideas of like and dislike and simply listened, all kinds of things open up. We find a corpse disgusting but to a pregnant fly it is heaven. Are we any different than that fly? Not according to the Buddha.
*Taken from Where the Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Karson (Penguin 2012). An extraordinary book about the influence of D.T Suzuki’s Zen writings and teachings on the New York School of artists. This is among the best books I’ve read in years. Review later.