Philosophy Weekend: Ellen Pearlman on Buddhism and the Avant-Garde

Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything – The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 – 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.

Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very “successful” Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he’d stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki’s ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.

John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia, but it wasn’t until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4’33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

It’s impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything‘s purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).

Others notable figures profiled in this book include Willem and Elaine De Kooning, Ibram Lassow, Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi, Franz Kline and, eventually, the rising stars of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Anne Waldman.

The otherworldliness of Eastern religion has always attracted Western artists (in this sense, many elements of 20th century modernism can be traced back to Vincent Van Gogh’s meta-sketches of Japanese paintings inside his self-portraits). But Nothing and Everything points to a more specific, more intentional common ground between Buddhism and the avant-garde: the interest in confounding the mind and defying expectations. We have all heard our share of Zen koans — some of them more persuasive than others — but the koans Ellen Pearlman chooses to retell in this book are the ones that resonate most loudly with Western fascinations:

Hasegawa told the audience a Zen story. “Once” he said, “two young monks on their way to buy iron noticed a flag flapping in in the wind. One said, ‘The flag is moving,’ and the other said, ‘No, the wind makes the flag move.’ A senior monk who was on his way to buy gold walked by and overheard them talking. He intervened. ‘You are both incorrect,’ he said. ‘It is your heart, your mind, which is moving.'”

Nothing and Everything may be most surprising to readers who are deeply familiar with either Buddhism or the avant-garde arts scene of the 20th century but not both. I was an easier sell for this book, since I’ve long understood the two traditions to be linked, and have followed my own inquiries in this area. The case, as far as I can see, is quite clear: Zen Buddhism stands for (among other things) a vigorous, nearly fanatical rejection of any settled ways of thinking. Modernist or avant-garde art, from Paul Cezanne to James Joyce to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein to Marcel Duchamp, stands for exactly the same thing. A cool sense of discipline and calm openness to raw experience pervades both. I wonder if other readers will find the basic equation at the center of this book more challenging than I did, though the fact that I was pre-convinced by Pearlman’s argument before I reached page one did not blunt my enjoyment of the book at all.

Nothing and Everything is a work of appreciation more than a work of analysis; the brisk, encyclopedic coverage sometimes reads like a museum catalog, and at times I wished to hear the author’s private opinions, or to enjoy the kinds of darker tales of artistic rivarly, conflict or moral failure that often accompany histories of creative movements. Then again, this kind of treatment would disrupt the tone of rock garden Zen cool that permeates this book, and which is highly consistent with its subject. To break the shimmering surface of placid appreciation is not very Zen. Or is it?

Zen and other forms of Buddhism are impossible to define in strict terms, of course (this is something else that Buddhism shares with avant-garde arts). One section of this book points out the vast differences between the cultural connotations of Zen Buddhism within Japan (where it was often associated with one virulent political movement or another) and in the West, where it stood far apart from the realm of conventional politics. At times, this difference was unbridgeable, and at least one Japanese artist found that he could not go home again.

According to Noguchi, when [Saburo Hasegawa] returned to Japan, he discussed Zen practice with artists. Because of its association with the militarists and the war, however, they asked him, “What are you talking about?” Feeling out of step with his country, he wound up in San Francisco, teaching at Alan Watts’s American Academy of Asian Studies.

It’s particularly surprising to read that Zen Buddhism had once been used as a pillar of Japanese militarism; this confounds Western notions of Zen in ways that may hurt even more than a blow with a sharp stick to the back. But there are infinite facets to these cultural differences. When we read of Suzuki’s New York City lectures in 1952, or of Yoko Ono’s controversial 1965 artwork Cut Piece in which she sat on a gallery floor and asked viewers to slice off pieces of her clothing with scissors until she was nearly naked, we must remember that during these years the incomprehensible violence of the Pacific theater of World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Midway to Iwo Jima to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was still a vivid living memory for every artist in the world. This is certainly one key to understanding most or all of the experimental works discussed in this book.

Aside from political or historical differences, there may also be vast areas of misunderstanding between the East and West in terms of the core meaning of Buddhism (which is not to say that the East must have it right and the West must have it wrong — that would also not be a very “Zen” way to think). In the late 1950s, D. T. Suzuki was clearly amused to receive a chaotic visit from the current literary celebrities of the moment, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (the Beat poets were at least careful enough to leave the rambunctious Gregory Corso out of it). Suzuki remarked after the meeting that the Beat Buddhists appeared to have only reached the very early stages of letting go of their egos and their intellects. The meeting, however, seemed to have pleased all the attendees.

If you’re interested in exploring the syncretism of modern Western culture and ancient Asian philosophy (and, as I see it, how can you possibly not be?), Nothing and Everything will give you a fine kickstart.

4 Responses

  1. Wow, I’ve been out of town
    Wow, I’ve been out of town and away from the internet for 9 days, and return to find several great LitKicks articles to catch up on. I remember buying John & Yoko’s LP, “Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions” (1969), which included a track called “Four Minutes of Silence,” and another track called “Baby’s Heartbeat.” Both tracks were exactly what their titles indicated. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I wish I still had that album today.

  2. I hadn’t heard of this book,
    I hadn’t heard of this book, and now I’m very interested in reading it. I suppose great thinkers and great artists are also great seekers. I wonder if artists are more open to religions and philosophies than others, if intangibility and creation and experience and faith resonate more with artists.

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