John Cage - Ryoanji

a beautiful, if chilling album of eerily atonal woodwind phrases and sparse percussive punctuation, the closest to traditional Japanese music I have heard of Cage recordings. an hour long track of indeterminate No Theater, like the proverbial moon lit night in Asian ghost stories where the borders between this world and the next is perilously thin and then altogether vanish, in which wispy shadows and transluscent spirits make their presence, and their woe, known to mortals.

click on back cover for recording details.


while listening to this, I could not help but think of the idealized and romantic view of Japanese Zen Buddhism through the Western eye. particularly, I wonder if Cage was familiar with the blood curdling history of Japanese Zen's close relationship to Imperialism, nationalism, and unspeakable war-time atrocities of early 20th Century. I wonder if he knew or even studied with any of the enlightened Zen Masters who waxed poetic, in the language of Buddhism, about the virtues of torture, rape, and murder on a mass scale.

excuse my digression on this extremely disturbing yet very important topic -- it has been, and still is, largely ignored and repressed by spiritual institutions world wide.

for more information:


it has just been brought to my attention that Cage learned what he knew about Zen from Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, several encounters with whom is described in Indeterminacy. and D.T. Suzuki was one of the instrumental spiritual proponents of the rise of Japanese nationalism, fascism, and milliatarization. he is extensively talked about in Zen At War.

an excerpt from ftrsummary.blogspot.com

The noted Zen writer D. T. Suzuki's early writing reflected the influence of Soen's teachings. (To be fair, by 1940, Suzuki had changed his tune considerably). In 1896 as the war with China began, he wrote, ‘religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state.’ Like his teacher, he saw the enemies of Japan as ‘unruly heathens’ who needed to be tamed and conquered or who would otherwise ‘interrupt the progress of humanity. In the name of religion, our country could not submit to this.’ Going to war, he called ‘religious conduct.’ Suzuki used poetic language in praise of Japanese soldiers. ‘Our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan (in China). Should they fall on the battlefields, they have no regrets.’ This metaphor of ‘goose feathers’ would become a major point of military indoctrination, teaching recruits and the young kamikaze (‘divine wind’) pilots that their individual lives were meaningless and had no weight. Only total devotion to the emperor would give their existence meaning. Suzuki also popularized the bushido concept of the ‘sword that gives life’ that was used over and over again to rationalize killing. Years later, the Japanese ambassador would use this phrase on ‘the sword that gives life’ in a speech at Hilter's chancellery in Berlin following the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the comment - it's very interesting and saddening. Especially this week after the Pope's speech and the IMO inappropriate muslim backleash. But everybody knows about the long history of violence and war in christianity, too...I've never heared about this connection w/ zen buddhism...Is violence rooted in the very roots of the idea of religion?

zhao said...

it is said that the Nazis who were present in the Nan Jing province of China during WW2 were absolutely horrified by the level of cruelty at the hands of the Japanese... whose actions were instructed by, and follow the teachings of the highest ranks of Zen monks in Japan.

the logic goes something like this: "you are nothing compared to the life of your master (army superiors), and the life of the enemy is less than nothing"


I don't think it's as much that violence is rooted in religion as religion, like many other ideologies, are used in the service of, to justify, violence.

I believe the sick times we live in started with the advent of civilization itself.

billy g said...

yes - religion and society are constantly making a volatile mix. I was not acquainted with Daseitz Suzuki's stance re his goverment (or governments in general). Cage's use of Zen is selective. The parts of it that inform (and enforce) his aesthetic programs and philosophies are the ones that he (and his followers/critics/academics) discusses . I am not sure how significantly he involved himself in Zen as an actual religion or as a world view, and I haven't read any text on this matter. Cage's writings do not seem to indicate a commitment to Zen (or any) religious practice. sadly, religion is still used as the justification for terrible atrocities around the globe. there are too many active examples to cite, from large scale atrocities to the smaller horrors that happen everyday in various "backyards." this being centuries after the Inquisition, and 50 years after WWII caused the international community to form organizations to prevent and punish such acts. I find it irresponsible to come down on people for being of any faith, as religion can provide stability and insight for those that need it, and can be a source of goodwill, but it is totally irresponsible to use religion as excuses for violence. anyway! as for this particular recording - it is very long for "Ryoanji". all other recordings or performances of this piece that I have encountered hover a little over 20'. the score does not have an exact timing, but is marked out in gestures for each performer to play. these gestures have timings - for example, a gesture is scored to be performed from 3:00 - 3:30 on a timeline. all of these gestures are wobbly curves that ascend or descend, with no pitch or key information given. obviously, the percussion plays a pulse-like role. I seem to recall that Cage specified the instrumentation, but that can easily be manipulated without sacrificing Cage's intentions or the integrity of the piece. what I'm getting at here, is that the "Japanese-ness" of the piece, while certainly present in Cage's inspiration, is more a product of the ensemble's performance. phew!

zhao said...

wow. thanks billy-G.

ofcourse, Zen is amazing, and has lots of beautiful and good things to offer (as does Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - with the possible exception of Mormonism - haha).

it actually bothers me tremendously when people who consider themselves progressive or liberal blame religion for the ills of the world. they sound just as ignorant as the fundamentalists who attack science.

this topic will become a major post on my other blog. promise.

Korpus said...

Anyway i dont have so much words
but i can say i truly enjoyed this music mucho gracias Zhao
and future gonna bring more enjoyment

Anonymous said...

Wow! I just back from Ryoanji temple in Kyoto Japan about a month ago. I would love to hear this piece.
Could you please make the link available so I could hear it. Please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...