Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Man is a thinking reed..." ~ D T Suzuki and John Cage

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki said
"Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.  'Childlikeness' has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness.  When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.  He thinks like showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze.  Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage."
Yes, yes, yes.  These words encapsulate much of my own feeling about what a good life well lived actually is.  And it seems to me that how ever far I may be from achieving this remarkably natural state that this is the point of it all, the whole purpose of life here on this good earth: to be in accord with the elements and drawing on the same all-pervading life force; not separate but part of the whole.

I came across this quotation in the book "Where the heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists" by Kay Larson (2012).  It appears on page 164.
The quotation is drawn from the book "A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered" edited by Masao Abe (1986).

"Where the heart beats" is an exceptional book.  I came across it in the public library and enjoyed it so much that I bought a copy, an unusual treat.  It has been so worthwhile, as I often pick it up to remind myself of a very different way of looking at life.  Intertwined with this biography of John Cage, musician and composer, is the influence of Zen philosophy that came to shape his life and music.  I'm a compulsive problem-solver and creative thinker, so I find the Zen concepts of quieting the mind helpful.  I find it relaxing to take small rests from my usual busy thoughts and accept that I can just sit, just accept things as they are, and stop analysing and working things out, which is a relief!  This book is chock full of text that invites me to take a step back - in a good way.

I also found in it a raft of concepts that were new to me, and a fascinating history of the avante garde music, art and dance scene of the middle of last century, and the way in which Zen influenced all of that.  Congratulations to Kay Larson for writing this splendid chronicle.  

The story of John Cage's life is both fascinating and inspiring.  He lived and worked according to his inner principles and showed an enduring commitment to addressing intense and lasting difficulties both within himself and in his professional life.  In keeping with what I understand of Zen philosophy he does not seem to have drawn a distinction between the two. 

Cage was always experimenting with new forms of music.  One of them is described to the author by Ara Guzelimian, composer and concert pianist, who experienced one of Cage's sound installations at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1976.  Kay Larson wrote:
'At CalArts, without expecting anything, he walked into a two-story hall circled by a mezzanine.  Suddenly he found himself in the middle of Cage's Winter Music with Solo for Voice No. 45.  He heard "one delicate note here and one chord there," soaring in crystalline purity through the valuted hall.  The shining voice of singer Joan La Barbara floated in from the staircase.
'Cage had installed twenty pianos in distributed locations.  "You would hear one piano play a small delicate precise gesture, then silence, then a piano off on the mezzanine would play another gesture," Guzelimian told me.  "It was a magical arc of sound in space.  That was my first experience of a very different musical world, and it almost completely changed my feelings about music." '   (Page 259)
When I read this it occured to me that this is how sounds occur in nature.  Beautiful!

Perhaps this piece, "Ocean of Sounds" includes some of those elements:

Not all Cage's music was tranquil by any means.  I'll leave those readers who are keen to find out more for themselves!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

"Who knows what pain is behind virtue and what fear behind vice?"

Human behaviour is so often baffling: sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful; what lies behind it?  What we observe and react to is only ever a very partial measure of the whole.

The glimpse of the creatures in the rock pool shown below is similar in that we can only ever see a small portion of what is there, and are left to guess the rest, either by science or imagination, or a combination of the two.  Of course, we can simply stroll on by, glancing at things superficially, but that would be to miss a lot.  It's so interesting.

Sea anemones

Two thousand years ago Roman philosopher, Seneca, put his view of personalities well:
It is not possible for us to know each other except as we manifest ourselves in distorted shadows to the eyes of others; therefore why should we judge a neighbour?  Who knows what pain is behind virtue and what fear behind vice?  No-one, in short, knows his thoughts, his joys, his bitterness, his agony, the injustices committed against him and the injustices he commits.
This is unarguable, and, I think, beautifully put.
The quotation continues:
God is too inscrutable for our little understanding.  After sad meditation it comes to me that all our lives, whether good or in error, mournful or joyous, obscure or of gilded reputation, painful or happy, is only a prologue to love beyond the grave, where all is understood and almost all forgiven.
I find this second part less convincing, based as it is on conjecture about God and life beyond the grave.

It leaves me with a whimsical notion of some angel of the afterlife thumbing through a stack of papers on which past misdeeds and sins have been recorded, saying, 'Exempt... Exempt... Exempt... Oh, ... this one NOT EXEMPT!" and the long, ominous look, followed by a call to the guards to come and take away the poor wretch!

In my view Seneca's sentiment that almost all is forgiven, is entirely human: even in those we most love and respect there are often a small number of things, incidents perhaps, that we can't altogether let go of or properly forgive.  Of divine forces we can't know how, or even if, these exercise judgment and forgiveness.  Only from looking at the natural world can we see ample evidence that there at least, consequences of every sort follow every action.

Given the extent of human folly and destructiveness, both individual and collective, most of us would wish for forgiveness.  

One wonders what it was in Seneca's life that he considered unforgiveable, in himself and in others.  There were two Seneca's, father and son, both of whom were eminent in their time.  From information culled from Wikipedia, I infer that this quote is from Seneca the Younger.  Since the Wikipedia article about him dwells considerably on his rumoured hypocrisy - a clash between what he said and how he actually lived, and his enforced suicide as ordered by emperor Nero, there seems to have been plenty of scope.

Seneca doesn't seem to have been all that successful in walking the talk.  To me this emphasises both the fallibility of human nature, and the necessity of hope with a capital H.  Hope for what?  Perhaps Hope that each of us may better embody the high standards we espouse and expect of others; for better understanding, for increased tolerance, for less complacency, or for the existence of a comfortable afterlife and ultimate forgiveness?  Take your pick.

The yawning chasm between high ideals and human behaviour can be disturbing.  So why bother with ideals?  On an everyday level we have to be guided by something, a shared commitment to the greater good, for instance, which does imply decent standards of behaviour and a courteous regard for others. We all fall short of that at times.

I am interested in people and the human condition, but there are times when my experience and observations are painful.  When consternated by people I turn to Nature for solace.  My interest in rock pools has been part of that. 

If you like the photograph of the rock pool you might enjoy articles in my beach series which can be found by clicking on the link below:
That particular image is from an article about sea anemonies