The Buddha Should be as useful as a can


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 12, 2023

There is a probably segment of you who have come to the conclusion that this is a strange service. Avant-garde music, even if it is several decades old, is not part of our regular Sunday routine. Music for religious services is generally supposed to be beautiful or energizing, not pushing the definition of song or, perhaps, let us admit, confusing the listener.

So, at the outset, I want to share a little about why and how this service came to be. I have long been inspired by John Cage’s art, music, and philosophy. I was introduced to it in my early twenties when I was part of Detroit’s emerging techno scene. It was a heady time of late-night parties, DJs who performed complicated feats of turntablism—one friend of mine, the musician Claude Young, was renowned for mixing into his sets records that he played upside down and backwards—and long hours of dancing. After all of that, late in the morning or even early in the afternoon, I would sometimes find myself in intense conversations about the origins and future of electronic music. Names of composers would be thrown around with abandon. Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Sun Ra, Laurie Anderson, and Wendy Carlos might all make appearances. Someone would probably mention the seminal artist Derrick May’s vision for the future of music. Future music was to be “a complete mistake … like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

And then, almost inevitably, Cage would enter the conversation. A composer, artist, philosopher, devotee of Zen Buddhism, he was active from the late 1930s to the end of the 1980s. He often wrote work to accompany the modern dance choreography of his longtime partner Merce Cunningham.

It was Cage, someone might mention, who, in 1939 with his “Imaginary Landscape No. 1,” likely first used a turntable in a musical performance. It was Cage, someone else might interject, whose use of tape recorders and radios in compositions prefigured the practice of sampling so prevalent in electronic music. It was Cage…

It is important to note that a lot of the people involved in these conversations were self-taught. Some of them had not gone to college or graduated from high school. But they cobbled enough money together to purchase two turntables and a microphone, a used drum machine, and they were passionate about playing dance music just about anywhere that they could—which included some places I probably should not even talk about from the pulpit.

So, Cage… I got a bit older. I went to seminary in Chicago to study with the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka. Some of you know her because she preached from this pulpit and helped start a series of small groups in the congregation about a decade ago.

She had also been influenced by Cage. His music and philosophy helped her to articulate a theology that has moved so many Unitarian Universalists. It assisted her in understanding the “way to spiritual awareness.” Against those who celebrate reason as all important, she places the experience of connection to the all that is, which she describes as “the luminous darkness of feelings enveloped by infinite life,” at the heart of both religion in general and our tradition.

Inspired by all of this, I offered a service devoted to Cage and his music a bit more than a decade ago when I was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. I found it to be one of the most meaningful Sundays of my time with that congregation. I hoped to offer some variation with of it to you.

Imagine my delight when, about a year ago, Isabelle Ganz came into our sanctuary. Isabelle was the Director of Music here in the early 1970s. Jolie invited her to be part of our spring music festival. She sang some in Yiddish. I was moved. When I was a child, my grandmother and great aunts used to speak to me a bit in the language. I have rarely heard it since.

After her performance, I struck up what turned out to be the first of several conversations with Isabelle. Within a little while, I learned that in the 1980s she had been one of Cage’s close collaborators—he had composed pieces with her in mind. Here, I realized, was an opportunity to offer a service in which, through an exploration of Cage’s art and music, we might experience the beauty of the world a little differently and a little more spiritually.

I turn now to the piece that was performed during the meditation sequence, 4’33”. Jolie conducted our orchestra, but they played no notes. No melody emerged. Nothing happened.

This nothing is the entirety of the piece. Yet the very presence of nothing makes 4’33” one of the twentieth century’s most influential musical compositions. Its central premise is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a pew, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur, is the music. 4’33” can, like the samples that would follow it decades later, be understood as expanding music’s definition.

Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to use an anechoic chamber. The chamber deployed a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone… There was supposed to be nothing.

Instead of pure silence, Cage discovered two sounds in the chamber, a high-pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving it he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that he had heard the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low tones.

From this experience Cage learned that hearing people are surrounded by sound at all times. “Sounds,” Cage wrote, “occur whether intended or not.” He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, “an ideal situation, not a real one.” When conceiving of a piece of music a classical composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed, listeners hear something different than what the composer intended them to hear. They hear the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment’s, and his body’s, unintended sounds into music.

4’33” derives from Cage’s realization about the constant presence of sound. The unintended sounds of the body and the environment are the only ones in the piece. Normally ambient noise is the background upon which music unfolds. 4’33” reverses the situation and turns ambient noise into music itself.

Shifting our understanding of the nature of art and music is one of Cage’s central tasks. Such transformations of perception are spiritual work. They are why we have, unusual as it might be, focused today’s service on his avant-garde music. For, profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism, Cage saw art as having “the function of awakening people to the life around them,” a pursuit we engage in together as a religious community.

The Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, one of Cage’s teachers, put the situation differently and told him, “the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, … making it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage came to an understanding of the divine that would be familiar to Unitarian Universalists. It was, for him, “all things that happen in creation.”

Such a perspective challenges us to find everyday life beautiful. Cage’s music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what you or I find pleasant to listen to. This is intentional. The work is meant to provoke us to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, “People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard ‘noise’ but … then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life.”

Unsuspected beauty, listening with Cage music becomes not a matter or performance but the result of an attitude. Sometimes, I listen to the rattle of the washing machine. Clearing my preconceptions, I find it equal to any other piece of music. One is not more beautiful than the other. Each is a collection of sounds—the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the machine’s metal, the piano’s hammers hitting the wires and the jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is value I assign to them. If I choose, or you choose, we can assign any sound the value of beautiful. Doing so offers the possibility of taking greater pleasure from the world. It opens up experience. If, as Cage said, we “got over our likes and dislikes,” then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.

Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of the nature of art. He is perhaps most famous for his ready-mades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to, and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel, and a urinal labeled “Fountain.” Duchamp hoped when we see such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery, we will ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?

The Frenchman’s work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview he shared this story about seeing some of the ready-mades: “his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from—not away, but among—the works of art … the light switch seemed to be as attention deserving as the works of art.”

Duchamp’s work has had a similar effect on me. One afternoon, soon after learning about it, a friend and I went to a grocery store in rural Ohio. There we encountered a clear jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.

The jug of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools, and placed in front of me by human hands. Really, when I paused to consider the jug, I recognized that its presence before me required the actions of thousands—the chemists who invented it, the workers in the factory who made it, the truck drivers who delivered it, the store clerks who stocked it… Under florescent light, it to cast a pale green shadow.

For Cage such experiences were an opportunity to celebrate the uniqueness of each object. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on a soup can in the supermarket: “when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They’re only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So it’s worthy of honor …”

In response Retallack replied, “Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can.” Witty repartee aside, Cage’s point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger insight. Each object encountered is both unique and connected with everything else. Considering these facts can turn the mundane into the spiritual. Any sound we hear, any article we see, or touch is an invitation into deeper connection.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han coined the word “interbeing” to describe the interrelation of all things. Han’s name is likely familiar to some of you. Like Thandeka, he once spoke from this pulpit. The time Bob Schaibly spent at his Plum Village monastery inspired him to help organize the Houston Zen Center. Bob often shared reflections with members of this congregation that his time with Han’s community helped him to develop “a kind of mysticism that does not compromise my humanism.” Cage has helped me to find such a mysticism myself.

Like Cage’s approach to interconnection, Han’s concept of interbeing is expressed in an exercise he invites us to engage in with an ordinary piece of paper. Look at the paper attentively and experience the revelation of interconnection. “Your mind is in here… You cannot point to one that is not here—time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper,” Han states.

Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not easy to obtain. We usually focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage’s work is helpful because engaging with it requires a shift of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine is heard for the first time; and background sounds come to the foreground.

It is possible to cultivate this perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground.

Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. One of things I appreciate about Unitarian Universalism is that our tradition recognizes that all spiritual practices serve the same function. They offer a method to center the self, point to the possibility of insight, and have flashes of what Thandeka has described as that “momentary experience … too vast and fleeting for religious belief … so intimate that the distance between … inner and outer worlds collapse.”

For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. He believed, “personality is a flimsy thing on which to build … art” and sought to transcend it through chance operations in his later pieces.

These are methods of generating art independent of conscious intent. Chance operations range from simple actions like rolling dice to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I Ching or computer programs.

Cage developed a complex method for composition using the I Ching as a base. He would set some parameters for a piece—its length, the number of performers, or the number of instruments—and then flip coins to derive a series of I Ching divinations to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led him to argue it mirrored the natural world. “What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature,” he wrote.

Cage’s understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got and even wrote a beautiful book on the subject.

Those of you who know me well know that mushroom foraging is one of my spiritual practices. A few of you have even gone on foraging trips with me. These are a chance operation. We commit to a particular technique—or really a specific area—pay attention and see what the world brings.

Sudden shifts of consciousness may occur. There is an inedible turkey tail. Let’s avoid that destroying angel. And then chance turns a leaf. Before there was nothing but the rich humus of underbrush. Now the ground is littered with the flame red wrinkles of cinnamon chanterelles.

Reflecting on this dynamic Cage said, “ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking.” The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, “a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time.”

Cage believed we are surrounded by beauty, writing “Beauty is … underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” In this attitude I find echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: “Direct experience of … transcending mystery and wonder.” Cage’s work challenges us to directly experience the world. It is not be meditated through interpretation or explanation. It is just to be experienced; openness leads to constant wonder.

If this view has a limitation, it is that, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his works Cage never seems to wrestle seriously with the subject. Instead, he focuses on the possibility of beauty. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful.

Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them—the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the chance arrangements of destruction—it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world’s problems inaction is not a moral option.

Art only pushes into life so far. It might be provocative to write, as Cage did, “When [the mystic] Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, ‘To thicken the plot.’” But it does little to inspire people into action.

It is no doubt that my own rooting in a religious tradition which has the objective, as we sometimes say, “to build the world we dream about,” is why I find limitations to Cage here. He does not point to the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. But he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.

Such was not his purpose. Instead, Cage offers us the invitation to experience the world as a blessing. Surely that is the first step towards wholeness.

He suggests that each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each object a thing of beauty. If we find beauty in the world how we can we do anything but cherish it? As Cage said, “Everyday is a beautiful day.”

Everyday is a beautiful day. So that we might each make it so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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