Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Kay Larson
The Penguin Press, 2012
478 pp.; $29.95 cloth

Zigmond ReviewThis will be the summer of John Cage anniversaries: 100 years since his birth, 20 years since his death, and 60 years since the first performance of his best-known composition, 4’33”. Cage was the preeminent avant-garde composer of his time, but his work had an even broader reach, profoundly influencing all the arts in the second half of the 20th century. Cage revolutionized music composition primarily through his use of what he called “chance operations” and “indeterminacy,” each a novel way of sacrificing a composer’s control. Through random events, such as the coin tosses involved in casting the I Ching, he allowed chance to guide his artistic process, rather than relying on his own taste and judgment. When he realized that chance operations allowed freedom to the composer but not to the performers, he devised indeterminacy, yielding many final decisions about a work to the performers themselves.

In Where the Heart Beats, her timely new biography of Cage, art critic Kay Larson attempts to illuminate the essentially Buddhist motivation behind these innovations. Chance and indeterminacy enabled Cage to create music that was not the product solely of the composer’s own ego, as she puts it, but a pursuit that flowed directly from his intense study of Zen. Although Cage said he did not wish his work “blamed on Zen,” at the same time he insisted that “without my engagement with Zen…I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.”

A longtime Zen practitioner herself— her teacher was the late John Daido Loori, to whom she dedicates the book— Larson begins with a loving chronicle of the early blossoming of Zen among the Beat generation. She devotes the first chapter and many subsequent sections to Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the largely self-taught Japanese Buddhist scholar who began translating texts and explicating Zen for an American audience in the 1920s. At that time, Buddhism was virtually unknown in the U.S. outside the Asian immigrant communities on the East and West Coasts. By the time Cage began his own spiritual explorations around 1950, all the available English-language books on Zen would have fit comfortably on a single bookshelf, with most of them by Suzuki.

D. T. Suzuki’s somewhat dry, erudite approach has largely gone out of style, as has his single-pointed focus on the personal enlightenment experience. (Several of the books Larson cites as most influential in the 1950s are now out of print.) Yet Larson does not exaggerate Suzuki’s role in the spread of Zen to the West. His philosophical rather than overtly spiritual texts were a good match for the heady intellectualism of Cage and his artistic peers. If later Zen teachers found fertile ground in America for their teachings, it was often Suzuki’s lectures and books that had prepared the soil.

The Japanese teachers who would arrive in America in subsequent decades were true Zen masters, and looked like it in their black robes, their shaved heads tanned by wind and sun. In the 1950s, though, Suzuki didn’t intimidate Western friends. He was probably just Zen enough.

Many in the Beat generation, including the poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, first encountered Zen through Suzuki’s work. Larson takes the time to retell stories of their explorations in fascinating detail.

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