Kao Ra Zen
11 min readDec 28, 2022


Kenya Fulton
ARTHI 4122–001: John Cage: Concepts & Ideas
Fall 2020


John Cage was already on his way to becoming an accomplished composer before he encountered the philosophies of Zen Buddhism. His musical compositions would begin to take quite the turn in the late 1940s and early 1950s after he was exposed to the lectures and writings of people like Japanese born Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and Englishman Alan Watts. Chance, indeterminacy, and purposelessness began to become important ideas to explore in his compositions. Silence would become an equal partner to sound. Music would become inseparable from the noises of the natural world. “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.” (Cage, Silence xxi)

Cage would begin to experiment and create work that would challenge any notion that he had before in composing predetermined musical pieces. Inspired by his fascination with Zen philosophy and his interest in the Chinese divination text known as the I Ching, Cage would introduce chance and indeterminacy into his compositions. Zen philosophy would forever shift his artistic intentions to the point where he had no specific intentions at all as he wanted his work to reflect the randomness of sounds in nature. The quiet acceptance of this randomness as being in proper order is perhaps one of the basic fundamental teachings of Buddhist Zen philosophy. Cage would continue to challenge the standard ideas of goal-oriented music.


The story of Zen Buddhism begins with the story of what we know about the historical Buddha. Siddhartha Gotama lived some time during the 5th to 4th century, BCE. He was born in Lumbini, located today in modern day Nepal. He would be raised in Kapilavastu (now known as Taulihawa), a capital city of the Shakya clans. Siddhartha’s father Suddhodana was a leader within the Shakya Republic, though there is historical debate on whether or not he had official royal status. There are numerous interpretations of the life of the Buddha, and it is difficult to distinguish fact from myth, but it is generally told that his family was a part of the aristocracy and that Suddhodana wanted his son to succeed him to become a great leader of the Shakya people.

Though he excelled in sports such as fencing, wrestling, and archery, which greatly pleased his father, the young Siddhartha was also a very contemplative child, who seemed more curious about the nature of things than he was in military training. Siddhartha would spend much of his early life within the palace walls, while most of the population were poor farmers who lived in the hinterland beyond the palace. Siddhartha’s sheltered upbringing and naivete about the outside world would lead him to be completely shocked when he was first allowed to roam about outside the gates of the palace and become acquainted with the realities of the outside world. It was at this time that he first encountered the mortal sufferings of poverty, aging, sickness, and death. This experience would forever leave a mark on Siddhartha as it was his first time realizing that even he, would one day be subject to the suffering of old age, sickness, and death.

Later in life, Siddhartha, now married with a young child, would depart the gates of the palace and renounce his royal privileges and responsibilities to become a monk and adopt an intensely disciplined ascetic existence in which one abstains from material possessions and earthly pleasures to aid in their spiritual development. Siddhartha would study under yogic sages, before eventually becoming disillusioned with the rigors of ascetic activities such as fasting, that while helping him develop his meditative practice, did not provide the complete awakening that he desired to experience. Siddhartha would adopt “the Middle Way” which promoted a balanced meditative practice that broke away from the self-masochistic approaches of the ascetic monks.

Legend continues that Siddartha would sit underneath a large and sacred fig tree (that would come to be known as the Bodhi Tree) and that he was determined to not leave the spot until he finally attained full awakening (satori).

After having achieved enlightenment, Siddhartha would become known as the Buddha (awakened one). He would gather followers to teach the “dharma”, which refers to the cosmic laws and principles of the universe. During one of his teaching sessions, known as the “Flower Sermon”, the Buddha silently held up a white flower before the assemblage of his disciples. Most of the Buddha’s followers would become confused as to what wisdom was to be gleaned from this strange demonstration. One perceptive disciple named Mahākāśyapa, would simply respond to the Buddha by smiling. With his gesture of a smile, Mahākāśyapa was said to have received direct transmission of prajñā (wisdom) from the Buddha. With this direct experience between master and student, Zen Buddhism is said to have been born.

Upon the Buddha’s death around the age of eighty, Mahākāśyapa would assume leadership of the monastic community. He would serve as the first patriarch of the earliest Buddhist schools in the Chan and Zen traditions.


Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE), part of a period known as China’s “Golden Age” of power and culture. As the Tang Dynasty grew, it would absorb lands to the West inhabited by Buddhists who would then spread the religion as they traveled in China. The school of Buddhism that developed in China would be known as the Chan school. Legend has it that an Indian (or Persian) Buddhist monk by the name of Bodhidharma, who also trained the first Shaolin monks in kung fu, would help transmit Chan Buddhism throughout China. Bodhidharma was part of a lineage of Indian Zen patriarchs and would become the first Chinese patriarch. The etymological lineage of the Japanese word zen reaches back to the Chinese word chan, which then reaches back to dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation.

Zen Buddhism would begin to be established in Japan during the Kamakura period in the 12th century, when Dainichibō Nōnin started the first Zen school. Within Japanese Zen Buddhism, there are 3 main sects, Sōtō, Rinzai, and Ōbaku. D. T. Suzuki studied under the abbot, Soyen Shaku in the Rinzai tradition. The school of Rinzai Zen emphasizes zazen (seated meditation), and the use of koans, largely paradoxical stories or sayings that when meditated upon, help students of Zen develop intuitive understanding regarding the nature of one’s self and all things.


D. T. Suzuki is one of the people directly responsible for helping to introduce the ideas of Zen Buddhism to Western civilization. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was born October 18th, 1870 in Kanazawa, Japan. As a young man, Suzuki would study at a temple under abbot Soyen Shaku, in the very disciplined Rinzai tradition. Soyen would study English with the hope of spreading Buddhism to the West. During the World’s Parliament of Religions (hosted at the Art Institute of Chicago), that took place as part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Soyen would deliver an address on Zen Buddhism. The English translation of his speech was read by the President of the Parliament, Dr. J. H. Barrows. This translation had been written in Japan by Suzuki.

Under the recommendation of Soyen Shaku, D. T. Suzuki would move to Lasalle, Illinois to work for Paul Carus, a German doctor who also ran his own publishing company, Open Court Press. Carus wished to translate ancient Buddhist writings into English, as he strongly believed that Buddhism could mend the rift between science and religion.

Suzuki would live and work in Lasalle, Illinois for eleven years, teaching Paul Carus the subtle nuances of the Chinese language. Suzuki would write Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism in 1898, his first book written in English, as well as the first work published in the West on Mahayana Buddhism, the original source of Zen teachings.

Over the years Suzuki would travel and establish many contacts in the States as well as in England with the goal in mind of transmitting dharma to the Western world. His book Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series would be published in London in 1927 and would mark a turning point in Zen Buddhism being understood by the West.

As a teenager, Alan Watts would be introduced to the writings of D. T. Suzuki through discovering Essays in Zen Buddhism. In 1936, Watts would purchase a ticket to hear Suzuki address the World’s Congress of Faith at Queen’s Hall in London.

Gary Snyder, once primarily associated with the Beat Poetry movement, would read a copy of Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series on a desert roadside highway and his life would be forever changed as he would be inspired to study Oriental languages in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Snyder would translate Zen poetry from both Chinese and Japanese. One of the most famous Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, would be introduced to Buddhism through Snyder in the mid 1950s. Snyder would serve as the inspiration for Japhy Ryder, a main character in The Dharma Bums, a novel written by Jack Keroauc, and originally published in 1958, that loosely recounted Kerouac and Snyder’s various adventures. In the 2006 documentary A Zen Life, directed by Michael Goldberg, Gary Snyder is quoted as saying: “Suzuki’s works on Zen Buddhism are among the best contributions to the knowledge of living Buddhism…We cannot be sufficiently grateful to the author, first for the fact of his having brought Zen closer to Western understanding, and secondly for the manner in which he has achieved this task.”


Alan Watts became fascinated by the writings of D. T. Suzuki as a teenager and would begin to read any of Suzuki’s writings that he could come across. Watts would eventually dedicate his life to interpreting Buddhist philosophy in a way that would be easier for Westerners to understand. Before Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series in 1927, there had only been a few academic writings on the subject. Watts would attend a lecture given by Suzuki in 1936, where Suzuki would announce to the crowd: “Really I do not know what Spiritual is, what Ideal is, and what Supreme Spiritual Ideal is.” (Larson, Where the Heart Beats, pg 17) He would spend the majority of the talk discussing his home and garden back in Japan. This would elicit a standing ovation from the audience.

From the preface of his book, The Way of Zen, first published in 1957, Watts would write: “During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West.”

John Cage would be influenced by the aesthetic ideas put forth by Alan Watts, though Watts would, at one point, deny that Cage’s music had anything to do with Zen Buddhism. Initially, Alan Watts would not see any direct Zen influence on Western modern art. In his 1959 book, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen, Watts would write: “Today there are western artists avowedly using Zen to justify the indiscriminate framing of simply anything — blank canvasses, totally silent music, torn up bits of paper dropped on a board and stuck where they fall, or dense masses of mangled wire. The work of composer John Cage is rather typical of this tendency. In the name of Zen, he has forsaken his earlier promising work with the “prepared piano,” to confront audiences with eight Ampex tape-recorders simultaneously bellowing forth random noises.” Watts would famously change his mind about Cage’s music once he read Silence and had a more complete understanding of Cage’s thoughts about his approach to composing and how Zen Buddhism served as an influence.


By 1950, John Cage had already gained a level of attention for his percussion works, but it was the music he composed after he began experimenting with chance, that built his legend as an avant-garde musician and thinker. In New York, Cage would find himself living amongst a community of modern artists who created work that was ignored by the establishment.

In January 1939, before the opening of a Paul Klee exhibition at the Cornish College of the Arts, Cage would hear a lively lecture entitled Zen Buddhism and Dada, given by writer, Nancy Wilson Ross. In the early 1930s, Ross would begin to develop a passion for Buddhism and accepted Buddhist life as a life being in accord with an awakening. This experience would be one of the first important moments in Cage’s eventual acceptance of Zen philosophy.

In 1946, Cage would agree to tutor Gina Sarabhai, a singer and tabla player from India. In return, she would teach Indian music and philosophy to Cage, who would learn: “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” (Cage. “An Autobiographical Statement”. Southwest Review. Vol 76, №1, pg 62. 1991). Inspired by what he gleaned from Sarabhai, Cage would begin to compose works inspired by Indian concepts including: Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (composed 1946–1948), The Season (1947), and String Quartets in Four Parts (1950).

After becoming disillusioned with his previous modes and ideas of composing music, John Cage would be inspired by the philosophical points presented by D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. He would abandon the ideas of goal-oriented music and would experiment with using non-traditional instruments by incorporating the environment and everyday items and appliances. There was no hierarchy amongst the sounds in Cage’s works and silence was an instrument in itself.

Inspired by D. T. Suzuki’s lectures, Cage would write a series of koans. These anecdotes would be titled “Indeterminacy” and would be included throughout his most notable written collection, Silence, and also released as a spoken word vinyl record where he was accompanied by David Tudor, who provide randomized sound accompaniment.

Zen Buddhism has a long-storied history stretching back to Siddhartha Gotama, the original Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal. After the death of the Buddha, his followers would begin to spread Buddhism throughout Asia. There were many different sects that had different approaches to Buddhist practice. Japanese Zen Buddhism, which grew from the Chinese Mahayana tradition, would promote the importance of zazen (seated meditation) to reach satori (awakening) without the more self-punishing aspects of asceticism. Introduced to the West by the writings and lectures of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, and later, by the interpretations of Eastern thought by Alan Watts, Zen Buddhism would shift the creative paradigms of many Western artists, including John Cage. Though he would not label his compositions as Zen art, Cage admits that his ideas on silence, chance, and indeterminacy would not had developed if not for the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts.


Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013.

Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Kerouac, Jack. Road Novels 1957–1960 (Dharma Bums). New York, NY: Library of America, 2007.

Martin, Holly. “The Asian Factor in John Cage’s Aesthetics.” BMCS, June 24, 2014.

“Life of the Buddha: A Spiritual Journey.” BBC Teach. BBC, November 8, 2019.

Why Not Now? with Alan Watts. DVD., 2009.

The Essential Alan Watts. DVD., 2009.

The Animated Alan Watts. DVD., 2009.

Indeterminacy. Smithsonian Folkways, 1959.

Cage, John. “An Autobiographical Statement.” Southwest Review 76, no. 1 (1991): 59–76. Accessed December 13, 2020.