Romancing Emptiness

Contemporary Buddhism 7 (2):129-147 (2006)


The John Cage that the world came to know made his dramatic entrance in 1952, a year that Cage scholars generally refer to as his landmark year. Artistically, three of his works, in particular, stand as points of arrival, Music of Changes, 4’33”, and the multi-media Black Mountain Piece, but these works could also be seen as important vehicles through which Cage conveyed his new vision shaped by Eastern philosophies and Zen, particularly as taught by the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki. Of the teachings that Suzuki had imparted to his American audience, Cage seemed to have appropriated at least three: kegon, satori, śūnyatā. I will examine Cage's use of them by focusing on two religious texts that Cage had read and known: the Heart Sutra for its key teaching on Emptiness; The Ten Oxherding Pictures, a classic Zen pictorial depiction of the stages of Zen discipline that a Bodhisattva necessarily undergoes. I show that for all of Cage's lofty intentions, he had only romanced the idea of Shunyata in particular, and Buddhism in general.

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