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Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde: 1942 - 1962
by Ellen Pearlman

Reviewed by M. M. Owen


Published:

Published by Evolver Editions, 2012   |   264 pages

Arnold Toynbee—for a time the most famous historian in the Western world—purportedly said that “the coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the Twentieth Century.” Though this prediction probably strikes contemporary readers as an overstatement, the arrival of Buddhist thought on Western shores has indeed had a major cultural influence. The Westward spread of the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, as well as related fruits of ancient Indian philosophy, such as the Vedas and the Yoga Sutras, has been gradual and at times subtle—but also undoubtedly profound.

As detailed in J. Jeffrey Franklin’s The Lotus and the Lion, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that British societydeveloped an interest in Buddhism. “Oriental” ideas such as karma and rebirth both intrigued and deeply unnerved the British reading public. Passages in the writings of David Hume (1711-1776) suggest that he may have encountered Buddhist ideas, but this is disputed. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was the first continental philosopher to subject Buddhism to its first full-scale Western analysis, and the arch-pessimist was delighted to find in Buddhism what he saw (incorrectly, many would attest) as confirmation of his own views. A small statue of the Buddha was on prominent display in his Frankfurt living room. American Transcendentalism was the lens through which Eastern wisdom first crossed the Atlantic. In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal The Dial published Henry David Thoreau’s translation (from the French) of the Lotus Sutra, the most revered scripture of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Though these early engagements were somewhat slapdash, relying on a small amount of texts often in poor translation, Western interest in Buddhism intensified as the century went on. In 1879, Edwin Arnold’s book-length poem The Light of Asia (1879), a biography of the Buddha, became a best-seller. In its wake, the first Westerners (including the famous occultist Helena Blavatsky) converted to Buddhism. Over the next couple of decades, the Greek-born writer Lafcadio Hearn’s poetic dispatches from a still-insular Japan deepened Westerners’ literary impression of Buddhism as a genuinely alternative, even profound, way of life. Philosophers too were increasingly devoting significant analysis to Buddhist philosophy. “Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche—though he ultimately argued that, though it faced the world objectively and bravely, its ultimate response was still a retreat into pessimism and life-denial.

By the beginning of the 20th-century Buddhism had made significant inroads into the West. It was widely discussed in both popular and intellectual circles, and a sizeable number of Westerners had begun to experiment with its practices. Carl Jung read extensively within Eastern philosophy over many decades, increasingly integrating insights from Buddhism into his psychological theories. (On his deathbed, he read from the teachings of the Chinese Zen master Hsu Yun.) In 1922—having become “convinced that the European spirit is on the wane, and is in need of a return to its Asian roots”—the German novelist Hermann Hesse published Siddhartha, a fictionalization of the life of the Buddha which later became an iconic counterculture novel of the sixties. In a well-known anecdote Martin Heidegger, while reading one of D. T. Suzuki’s books, is said to have remarked: “‘If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.”

By the late forties, there is a sense that some sort of major cultural reaction was due. The first decades of the century had been brutally tumultuous, witnessing two of the most devastating wars in human history, and people were hungry for a new perspective, a new philosophy through which to view the human condition. “After witnessing the Holocaust’s horrors” and “the power of the nuclear threat,” Ellen Pearlman writes in Nothing & Everything – The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde: 1942 – 1962, “there was a cold exhaustion among young poets, writers, and artists, and they looked for another way.”

Many turned towards Eastern religions. The radical metaphysics of Buddhism gave many young people a new way to perceive their existence, a way unassociated with a culture that had come to feel corrupt, fallen: “The idea that one’s own consciousness creates one’s universe was such a radical idea that it basically fell off the philosophical and religious map.”

Combined with this was the way Buddhism (particularly Zen Buddhism) seemed to many to be so akin to the unfolding cultural mood of postmodernism, a defining feature of which was the blurring (if not the outright erasing) of the line between art and life. “The Zen approach to making art,” Pearlman writes, “is the work of art—that emphasis on being on the spot… Life, art making, process and environment combined.” This meshed well with the influence of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades were just then challenging traditional notions of artistry, artwork, and, arguably, the phenomenology of lived experience.

Buddhist philosophy was simply too new, too radically exotic and simultaneously well-aligned to the counterculture currently just then swelling up, for Western artists to ignore. Ellen Pearlman’s Nothing & Everything is an examination of the moment when Buddhism’s influence over the American avant-garde broke through, in the process reshaping the very practice of art in the West.

Nothing & Everything begins with a brief introduction, which is followed by the book’s six main chapters, each of which analyses a major example of Buddhism intersecting with figures within the American avant-garde. As would one expect, the composer John Cage receives prolonged attention, as do the Beats, primarily Jack Kerouac. Amongst Pearlman’s lesser-known examples are the loose New York arts collective The Club and various collaborations between Japanese and American visual artists. Much of each chapter is given over to a detailed biography of its subject, and its engagement with Buddhist philosophy is usually kept rather light. Pearlman is generally uncritical of her subjects, and takes their descriptions of how their work reflects Buddhism at face value.

Nothing & Everything isn’t particularly scholarly in tone; most of the time it treads a very readable line between the anecdotal and the analytical, documenting clearly and meticulously the various ways in which Buddhism influenced various American artists between the forties and the sixties. It is a slim volume, far from exhaustive, and Pearlman concludes by dubbing her book “a small beginning in what should turn out to be decades worth of future research.” Perhaps the most interesting questions raised by Nothing & Everything are those concerned most directly with the basic notion of Western artists appropriating Buddhism for their creative ends. These issues float in the background of each of Pearlman’s chapters, and animate, implicitly, the endeavors of each of the artists she profiles. Namely: to what degree, if any, were the works of Kerouac, Cage and company authentically Buddhist? Secondly, and more significantly: is it possible for “Western” art to ever actually be Buddhist?

*

Between 1911 and 1913, T. S. Eliot studied “Indic religions” at Harvard. In 1933, as part of a lecture series delivered at the University of Virginia, he recalled his experience thus:

Two years spent in the study of Sanskrit under Charles Lanman and a year in the mazes of Patanjali’s metaphysics under the  guidance of James Woods, left me in a state of enlightened mystification. A good half of the effort of understanding what the Indian philosophers were after—and their subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys—lay in trying to erase from my mind all the categories and kinds of distinction common to European philosophy at the time of the Greeks. My previous and concomitant study of European philosophy was hardly better than an obstacle. And I came to the conclusion … that my only hope of really penetrating to the heart of that mystery would lie in forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European: which, for practical as well as sentimental reasons, I did not wish to do.

What did Eliot mean, when he talked about “forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European”? What was it about the “subtleties” of the Indian philosophers that was so at odds with his inherited philosophical disposition?

Perhaps the work of Cage—a man who, in principle, positively embraced the idea of “forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European” – offers a clue. During the summer of 1952, at Black Mountain college in North Carolina, Cage staged his first “happening,” with his friends as performers. Pearlman describes it thus:

Charles Olson and M. C. Richards climbed up ladders and recited poetry. Cunningham danced in between triangular rows. Cage, wearing a somber black suit, white shirt, and black tie, climbed up a ladder and read from the fourteenth-century mystic and philosopher Meister Eckhart… David Tudor played piano… four “white paintings” hung from the ceiling at odd angles, covering the space in a crazy canopy… footage of the sun projected onto the canvases to imitate a sunset.

 

Each seat had a plain paper cup on it, doubling as an ashtray. At the end of the performance, girls marched out of the kitchen holding big pitchers of coffee that they poured into the cups-cum-ashtrays.

How did Cage arrive at such a radically strange version of a musical performance? (A vision which culminated, famously, in four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.) Pearlman explains how, in reading into Zen, Cage had come to understand that “distinctions of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly… fell away, liberating a composition to be itself.” Buddhism’s conceptual shatterings of ontological and metaphysical hierarchies led Cage to the idea of the essential non-hierarchy of all sounds. He told his students to “do away with likes and dislikes… to prove the lack of separation between music and nonmusic.”

The Fluxus arts collective—“a floating, mixed community of 351 individual artists,” to which a chapter of Everything & Nothing is devoted—adopted a similar approach. Performing across Europe, their “action music,” also described by Flux multimedia artist Alison Knowles as “anti-music,” was meant “to train people to listen to the sound of rainfall, the babble of a crowd, a sneeze or the flight of a butterfly. Knowles continues: “The event scores were strongly flavored with Eastern philosophy because there were no designated parts, no costumes, no sets, no scenarios; there was simply an action to be performed.” In 1963, the Fluxus poet Jackson Mac Low published an essay venerating Buddhism’s meditative poise of “choiceless awareness,” in which phenomena is perceived without attachment or bias.

“The Trinity”—a frienship triangle between Japanese artist Saburo Hasegawa, the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the American painter Franz Kline—operated off a similar aesthetic. Hasegawa drew on the philsoophy of calligraphy in his painting, attempting to see into the “essential nature” of an artistic idea, and then producing it in one fell swoop. “In calligraphy,” explains Pearlman, “once the brush touches the painting surface, there is no possibility of second guessing… It must be executed, and the artist cannot change its momentum. Referred to as a ‘controlled accident,’ it is also known in literary technique as ‘first thought, best thought.’” This notion was of course also the basis for Jack Kerouac’s ‘Spontaneous Prose’, in which he strove to, in his words, “make the mind the slave of the tongue with no chance to lie or re-elaborate,” utterly disregarding the oft-quoted idea that the best writing is rewriting, instead resolving himself to “never afterthink.”

Insofar as they were trying to actualize Buddhist philosophy, these approaches undoubtedly succeed to some extent; at the very least, there is certainly a way in which Kerouac’s method can be seen as more Buddhist than Hemingway’s, Cage’s as more Buddhist than Stravinsky’s. Traditional forms of Buddhist poetry, calligraphy, painting and even tea ceremony do possess a spontaneousness and unpretentiousness that Cage and Kerouac clearly aspired to. There are ways in which the aesthetics of the techniques described above can be seen to mirror the psychological project of Buddhism: passively accepting, non-perfectionist, and relinquishing of all forms of control. This group of artists, under the impetus of Buddhist philosophy, undoubtedly opened up original, refreshing, and exciting new directions for Western artistic practice.

But the question remains: to what degree, if any, were the works these artists were producing authentically Buddhist?

*

Scattered references to the British-born philosopher and writer Alan Watts appear throughout Nothing & Everything. That they are only scattered may strike some as strange: after all, Watts was, as the New York Times puts it, “perhaps the foremost Western interpreter of Eastern thought for the modern world.” Watts’ relative absence makes more sense, though, in light of his opinions regarding the artistic experiments celebrated in Pearlman’s book. At best, Watts was dismissive; at worst, he was contemptuous. In his autobiography, In My Own Way, he expresses horror at the idea that “my easy and free-floating attitude to Zen was largely responsible for the notorious ‘Zen boom’… which led on to the frivolous ‘beat Zen’ of Kerouac… of Franz Kline’s black and white abstractions, and of John Cage’s silent concerts.”

Whether or not one accepts Watts’ opinion of the work covered in Nothing & Everything as essentially “frivolous,” his ideas bear consideration. Watts was a leading scholar of Buddhism, penning almost thirty books on the subject. In the context of Western avant-garde art, his most relevant piece is an essay he published in the Chicago Review in 1958. “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” receives a brief mention in Nothing & Everything—Pearlman describes it as “controversial.” It deserves closer scrutiny, for Watts’ brief essay goes to the very heart of the question of how far Cage and company’s work reflected actual Buddhism.

The central point of Watt’s essay is that the artistic ostentatiousness, the formal deliberateness which runs through the work of Cage and others, undercuts any aspirations such art may have towards Zen-ness: “The Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply… must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously… He must be free of the itch to justify himself.” In all the manifestations of the ‘Zen boom’, Watts perceived a fundamental self-consciousness. “Beat Zen, he wrote, “is always a share too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen… the true character of Zen remains almost incomprehensible to those who have not surpassed the immaturity of needing to be justified, whether before the Lord God or before a paternalistic society.”

There is a risk of falling into a sort of spiritual one-upmanship with discussions such as these, but one doesn’t have to agree with Watts to take the basic point: viewed from a certain perspective, the Zen products of the fifties and sixties were in fact arguably not very Zen at all. Certainly it is true that in the work of all the famous Zen poets—from Han-shan and P’ang Yun in China, to Ikkyū Sōjun and Hakuin Ekaku in Japan—the literary atmosphere is relaxed, candid, deeply unselfconscious. One gets the sense that most of them might just have easily never have written anything at all, and that whether or not anyone reads their work is entirely irrelevant to them. (“Clouds endless clouds climbing beyond / Ask nothing from words on a page,” writes Ikkyū. “If someone asks about the mind of this monk,” writes Ryōkan, say that it is no more than a passage of wind in the vast sky.) Perhaps, in some sense, these literary examples still “fail” as Buddhist art, insofar as sitting down to write anything will always be further from Buddhist practice than taking that time to meditate. But there is a good case to be made that, on Watts’ terms at least, they fail less.

This question—of the degree of authenticity of the Zen boom covered in Nothing & Everything—is tacitly acknowledged by Pearlman. Though she doesn’t devote much time to Watts’ (or anyone else’s) criticisms, they linger at the edges of the book, most notably in her chapter on D. T. Suzuki. Pearlman describes how, during his “legendary” classes, Suzuki struggled to transmit the subtleties of Buddhism to a group of students eager to simply put its radical philosophical weirdness into action. She mentions how Suzuki’s highlighting of the importance of zazen—sitting meditation—consistently fell on deaf ears, and how “he felt extremely responsible for representing authentic Zen Buddhism, not the ‘Beat’ Buddhism taking hold in the public imagination.” There is a note of defeat in the words he spoke upon retiring from his Columbia teaching post in 1957: “One ought not to be in a hurry. It takes one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years to have Zen really planted in the West.”

To Watts, then, the Zen featured in Nothing & Everything was basically frivolous, a self-defeating ruse; to Suzuki, too, real Zen was centuries away from being “really planted in the West.” Such opinions raise the specter of a much bigger question, one having not to do with either the motivation or willingness of a certain group of artists to truly engage with Buddhist philosophy, but the capacity. In other words, it is easy to criticize Cage and Kerouac and others for not being truly Buddhist—for being dilettantes, poserish aesthetes. But the question arises as to whether a wholesale, authentic Western engagement with Buddhism is currently even possible?

The question, in a sense, has to do with whether what occurred in Cage’s 1952 Black Mountain college performance, or the Fluxus “happenings,” qualifies, in even the broadest sense, as “music” in the Western sense? This is not to celebrate artistic conservatism, but simply to ask a very basic question about what we talk about when we talk about art. To come at the point from another direction: In 1949, George Orwell—reacting to the arrival of “Eastern” thought into the British literary mainstream in the form of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography—penned a long, reflective essay. At its heart is an analysis of Gandhi’s spiritual project:

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.

Orwell was talking about life, not art—but there is an analogy here. Cage’s approach to his art mirrors (Orwell’s description of) Gandhi’s approach to his life. There is the same equalization of preference; the same total flattening of judgment. Both positions push egalitarianism to its very limit, so that it becomes a sort of creative blankness. Though Gandhi’s religious beliefs could be summed up as Jain-influenced Hinduism, whereas Cage was drawing on his understanding of Zen Buddhism, on the relevant point—the central importance of “non-attachment”—they are in general agreement.

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the minds worst disease.” So said Sent ts’an, the Third Chinese Patriarch of early Zen. We begin to understand what it was about “Indian metaphysics” that Eliot found so unnerving; why he thought its true comprehension meant “forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European.” It may well be the case that Sent ts’an’s words constitute excellent advice for achieving inner calm, psychic equilibrium; mindfulness is indeed about non-judgemental presence. However, to use Orwell’s formulation: To an ordinary human being, music means nothing if it does not mean preferring some sounds over others. The “separation between music and nonmusic” is the only thing, to Western ears, that affords the word “music” any meaning. Similarly, deciding whether to utilize (to be for) or not (to be against) say, a certain adjective, is microcosmic of the entire project of literary creation.

Furthermore, contained within all this is a far deeper sense in which Buddhism can be seen to cause the Western artistic endeavour—and particularly the Western literary endeavour—trouble. What is important to grasp is that Buddhism doesn’t view our “judging mind” as a mild hindrance; it views the unending psychic carousel of “attachment” and “aversion” to the contents of our consciousness as the root of all suffering. Buddhist practice is fundamentally about conditioning oneself to step back from—and in the process devalue—the innumerable of mental impressions and evaluations which rattle through one’s head at every waking moment. (Pearlman, at least, argues that Cage understood this: “Instead of collecting his thoughts,” she writes, “holding onto them, and cherishing them, Cage meant to abandon thoughts as soon as they arose.”) These impressions, Buddhism teaches, form a sort of brilliant psychic firework display which—though deeply enticing, deeply distracting—ultimately blinds us to a central truth: anattā, or “not-self.”

In short: Our thought-stream is a toxic distraction, which we need to de-identify with in order to perceive a great truth: that we are not individual selves separate from the world around us, that in fact we are not “selves” in the way we think we are at all. The illusory selves that we experience are in fact all illusory selves conjured by generally damaging mental chatter; and the illusions of realness that we labor under, being false, lead only to our own suffering and disappointment. Best to resolve all this, as soon as possible, via practices of silence and stillness, embodied most directly in the practice of meditation. This approach to life is deeply at odds with traditional Western notions of artistic practice. The British novelist Tim Parks wrestles with this issue in his brilliant 2010 memoir,Teach Us To Sit Still.

To summarise: Buddhism can be seen to cordon off and denigrate, in pursuit of psychic equilibrium, precisely those inner voices, those inner narratives, which are the wellspring for what Westerners generally regard as worthy of praise in the artsThis was surely what D. H. Lawrence was referring to when he wrote “The Indian, the Aztec, old Mexico! All that fascinates me… Not Buddha. Buddha is so finished and perfected and fulfilled and without new possibilities “ It may also be why Kerouac finally exchanged Zen Buddhism for Catholicism as the animating force for his writing, declaring in Desolation Angels that “I’d rather have drugs and liquor and divine visions than this empty barren fatalism on a mountaintop.”

One can, of course, make a strong case that Buddhism is anything but dispassionate, “without new possibilities”; that it is animating, colourful, immediate. Certainly as a practice Buddhism is undoubtedly highly involved, a moment-to-moment undertaking. But as artistic or literary motivation, in the sense that most people reading this will understand the words “art” and “literature”? It is as hard to picture a Zen master penning The Brothers Karamazov, or composing a 9th Symphony, as it is to picture a Dostoevsky or a Beethoven submitting to monastic silence.

*

Was Alan Watts right to call the Zen of those artists featured in Pearlman’s Nothing & Everything “frivolous”; to dub their ostentatiously Buddhist art fundamentally un-Buddhist? Was D. T. Suzuki right to fear that the true spirit of Zen was not even close to settling in the Western psyche? The matter is up for debate, and Pearlman leaves the question open. But if Cage, Kerouac and others did fail in producing genuinely Buddhist art, there is a good case to be made that it is because the very phrase “Buddhist art”—and certainly “Buddhist literature”—is something of an oxymoron, at least in the sense in which the West has generally understood the words “art” and “literature.” In Western art, is there not always an egotism, a conspicuousness, which is by definition at odds with the heart of Buddhist practice? Is not the unspoken first cause of almost all Western art the belief that the contents of one’s mind matter, and that the act of transmitting said contents has some sort of value? I am penning this book review in the early morning, having finished a thirty-minute session of sitting meditation. This process—writing— is so radically different to that of meditating that it is almost hard for me to comprehend that the human mind can be capable of both things. On the cushion, the so-called stream of consciousness is beyond irrelevant. (Words are endlessly ignored, cast off, forgotten.) Here, in the writing chair, it is paramount. (That “paramount” sprang to mind there, that I judged it, deemed it worthy, selected it with satisfaction, and committed it to the world—this is the whole task.)

Ultimately, Western art is forever, to use Watts’ phrase, “justifying itself,” because if it wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t understand itself. Everything & Nothing is replete with artists describing, meticulously, why their artistic approach is unique, why it matters. Even the most extreme examples of Zen avant-gardism—such as Cage’s “happenings,” or Jackson Mac Low’s poems—are founded on an artistic process rooted in non-attachment in which one is already self-consciously attached to the idea of non-attachment. Even as they fall off the map of what Westerners would normally consider music, they end up as half-breeds, detached enough to fall outside of the mainstream of Western art, and too self-consciously Western to qualify as authentically Buddhist.

These dilemmas form the backdrop to the artistic aspirations described in Pearlman’s Everything & Nothing. Buddhism is a deeply radical philosophy, the metaphysics of which, however you slice them, seem fundamentally at odds with deep aspects of the Western artistic project. (Cage, Kerouac and others knew this, and it formed part of the appeal.) To put it in Buddhist terms, the ego keeps finding itself. There is a sense in which Buddhism might be in the text, but the text is never in Buddhism. The Buddhism is always content; never form. In becoming form, it would erase itself. The best Western art can do, perhaps, is be like the finger in the famous Buddhist parable; pointing at the moon, but never the moon itself. Perhaps it will need Suzuki’s “one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years” before the real fruits are borne, if they are to be borne at all.


M. M. Owen is a British author who has published fiction and non-fiction with a range of online and print publications. He is currently working towards a PhD at the University of British Columbia.

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