My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.


Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage


From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”





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In my last post, “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”  I discussed Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with “transubstantiation” and provided an interpretation concerning the meaning/impact of “Fountain”.  To quote a little known authority on not much of anything, (i.e. myself):

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?” His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators. If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as “just a urinal”. If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art? Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”. (From “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”)

I ended the last blog post with the assertion that Buddhist and more specifically Zen philosophers had been making similar proclamations for thousands of years; not specifically about “art” but life in general.  So I want to play some more with the concept of “transubstantiation” focusing on spiritual practices.


Let me start first with Christianity, since this is where the term “transubstantiation” was first developed. As I said in the previous post, the term refers to the idea that in Communion, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood but are his body and blood, although in another form. I went on to suggest that, later interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion. In other words it is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.


The general idea of my last post was that by shifting our perception so that everyday life is seen “as if” it is ”art”, we are more likely to be “present/awake/alive” with it.  Similarly, spiritual traditions can help foster this “as if” attitude and help practitioners develop a more comprehensive shift in consciousness.

However, It seems to me that the teachings in all spiritual traditions often foster a tendency to view a particular event or phenomenon as “fact” rather than as a metaphor/similie  (i.e. “as if”).  I can imagine that a great deal of confusion might have been spared, if over the years, Christ was seen “as if” he were the son of god” or that it was understood that that his teaching could lead to one’s transformation “as if” one was being “reborn” or “resurrected”.  It is my opinion that most enlightened Christians have discovered this “as if” perspective on their own and understand that their aim is to live their lives “as if ” they were Christ; in other words to develop “Christ Consciousness”.

I think the same kind of confusion can be found in some varieties of Buddhism as well, and much of this might be due to what the historical Buddha said or was said to have said.  For instance,let us look again at the Sutra, I mentioned in the last blog, where Buddha supposedly said the following to his student Subhuti, :

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.  I agree with my fellow student’s reaction to this when he said it “sounds insane”(see previous post and Discussion #3 in FORUMS).

The historic Buddha would often not answer questions such as “Is there a Self?”, presumably because he understood that by answering either “yes” or “no”, the interlocker could misunderstand the true nature of things…  I wonder whether if Buddha’s advice to his student Subhuti would seem less “insane” if he had said something like “a Bodhisattava should act as if both he or she, and all others, have no perception of a self………?”  My guess is that, if the words above is truly what the Buddha said to Subhuti, he was using language fitting for his students advanced understanding at the time and perhaps did not feel the need to signal that he was talking metaphorically.

I am currently reading “The Embodied Mind” which was suggested to me by fellow blogger Sean Voisen (The Koan).  This fascinating book draws on elements of Buddhist philosophy to solve several theoretical dead ends that current scientist’s working in the area of Cognitive Science have run into.  Their main point is  similar to that made by Buddha in the Sutra above; i.e. there is no scientific evidence pointing to anything substantial that we could call a “self”.  Their careful review of research and theory in the Cognitive Sciences leads to the same conclusion that is summed up by the authors in a quote from Tsultrim Gyamtso:

 Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self.  It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, it as if one believed that there were a self  (Underline is mine) that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found.  ” (The Embodied Mind, pg 72)

Note the use of the term “as if”. What I have taken away from The Embodied Mind  is that we all tend to ignore the moment to moment variations in our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. because of our need to have something stable to provide a sense of meaning.  It is this grasping which is the cause of suffering that Buddha said that we can overcome.  It is through meditation that we slowly come to see and accept then fact that our notion of being a Self is just a convenient fiction. And, when we begin to see this in ourselves we realize that this is also  the case for so called other “selves” as well, which seems to be what Subhuti was being taught by Buddha in the Sutra in queston.


Now even if one were to come to this understanding about the nature of the Self, he or she would still need to act, in some cases, as if selves exist.  This is why, I am guessing that the historic Buddha frequently refused to answer one way or the other when asked whether there was or was not a Self.  However, all of this suggests that we are  capable of holding both of these perspectives (the “self exists” and “does not exist”) and can become free to shift our perceptions regarding selfhood depending upon what is required by the current situation.

For instance, if you and I are together and I am fully present/awake/alive with you, I am not concerned about our past or our present and so, for all practicable purposes, neither you or I have or are “selves” in that moment.  I think that Buddha’s advice to Subhuti could be easily translated to simply say “to be a Bodhistava, “be present/awake/alive.” (Be sure to read “The Artist is Present“)

In the next post, I plan to look once more at the concept of transubstantiation and explore the possibilities more of incorporating the attitude of “as if” into our daily lives.

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Right after I posted the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? (see previous Post), my wife called me from Florida where she was visiting relatives.  She told me that she had just watched it in the company of her six year old grandniece, Catalina.  Apparently after viewing it, Catalina simply said “It’s like kind of crazy”.

 My painting teacher, Sally Pearce, once told me that the most useful critiques of my painting would come from children.  So it occurred to me that I should give this comment some thought.

First, Catalina’s comment brought to mind, a couple of similar comments I’d heard recently coming from fellow Zen students.  The first was elicited after the person had read the teachings of Buddha in the Diamond Sutra which includes the central Buddhist notion that what we think of as “self” is not real. The verse in question has Buddha saying the following to his student Subhuti:

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”"

The Zen student wrote me that the Buddha’s comments “sounds insane”.  Most of us would agree. (For more details see Discussion #3 on the FORUM page of this blog).

 The other comment was one of those commonly heard observations about the state of the world; i.e. “everyone’s crazy”. This student didn’t really say whether he considered himself in this category or not. Certainly one possible translation of the rapper’s dialogue in the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? could be “IT is crazy”, where IT refers to what Jiyu Roshi often refers to as “the whole ball of wax”. EVERYTHING’S CRAZY!

Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers, didn’t use the word “crazy” but did say that we all live in “delusion”.  And for those who are used to thinking that “enlightenment” is somehow an antidote for or the opposite of “delusion”, he argues that they are one and same.  Now, THAT sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  (If you haven’t already, you may want to check out an earlier post titled “SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY”)

Whether something is considered to be “good” or “bad”, “crazy” or “sane” or “enlightened” or “delusional” depends on how that “thing” is defined. As Dogen and many Western philosophers’ have shown us, definitions are not fixed and do not enjoy complete consensus as to their meanings.  This seems to be the point of Duchamp’s “Fountain”.


In doing research for the video, I learned that Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by the concept of “transubstantiation“.  If you watched the video closely you saw that I played with this concept in the video.  According to Wikipedia this term was first, or most famously, used at The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) where it was stated that Christ’s “body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.” From this perspective, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and bread but are his body and blood, although in another form.  Later, more liberal interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion.  In other words it  is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

Here is how Duchamp used the term transubstantiation:

  • “The spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place… …All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
    • “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)” e.d. Michel Sanouille and Elmer Peterson,New York1973, pp. 139-140

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?”  His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators.  If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then  it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as  ”just a urinal”.  If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of  “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art?  Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”.  As I suggested in an earlier post ”Performer/Audience Communication“, some works of art allow the artist and the audience to share this unusual mode of consciousness.


"An Oak Tree" by Michael Craig-Martin

The piece pictured to the left is a continuation of Duchamp’s dialogue  by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin.  His work “An Oak Tree”, installed in the Tate Modern consists of a glass of water, which the artist has declared he turned into a “full-grown oak tree”, “without altering the accidents of the glass of water”   Craig-Martin is claiming that, although the form of the piece looks like a glass of water, it is in fact or in substance an oak tree, which is transubstantiation of the kind that is central to the Christian doctrine.  Of course such work is likely to provoke remarks such as “Is it really art?” or “It’s like kind of crazy”.


Since Duchamp created “The Fountain”, artists of all stripes have been interested in exposing the tenuous nature of the distinction between art and all other aspects of life.  For instance, in “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life”, Allan Kaprow wrote:

“Consider certain common transactions–shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye– as Readymades (a term Durchamp used for pre-existing “art objects” like the urinal).  Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them.  They aren’t someone else’s routines that are to be observed but one’s own. just as they happen”.

What Kaprow seems to be saying is that living life attentively is making one’s life an art piece, which begins to sound  pretty “Zen-like”.   He strengthens this association by writing :  “Lifelike art in which nothing is separate is a training in letting go of the separate self”.  In the next Post, I will explore how the kinds of philosophical discussions prompted by Duchamp and others have been going on for centuries among Zen and other Buddhist’s philosophers.


The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in the mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation….” (Presumably Suzuki would agree that the same is true of a “Zen-woman”)

                                                        D.T Suzuki, Zen and the Japanese Culture

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Today’s post is just a video entitled “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)?”
After Duchamp tried to submit a urinal as a sculpture to a pretigious art show in 1917, the art world was never the same.
Several scholars have argued that Duchamp was a closet Buddhist and my video tries to make the case that his submission
of the urinal as a piece of art is a pure expression of Zen.  Please watch the video when you are not distracted by other things
and see if you agree.  The link below will take you to the video on youtube.  If an advertisement comes up, you can skip it and go straight
to the video but, oddly, the one I saw was sort of amusing and seems to fit with the video.  If possible listen through headphones
to maximize the stereo quality of the music.
Click below to go to Youtube to see the video.



Buddha as a performance artist?  Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

Say you are a buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great–as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe- and then you see all of these miserable people.  Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness?  They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, ‘What does this person want?  So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first  of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time.  And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, a buddha, perceive. (The Wonderful Ambiquity of Art, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2002, pg. 7)

Thurman points out that the term upaya is usually used in Buddhist literature to refer to the “means by which compassion- the universal compassion of an enlightened being- manifests in action to enable other beings to find freeedom from suffering”  (pg. 7)  Usually translated as “skillful means”, Thurman suggests that upaya is best translated as “art”; art in the broadest sense, as in “liberal arts”.

One of the simplest definitions of “art” that I have seen says essentially that it is a set of skills learned to create something.  This is a pretty broad and useful definitionas it allows us to talk about artful skills in all aspects of life, not just what we traditionally think of as “the arts”.  It should also be pointed out that whatever it is that is being created, whether a painting, a garden, a dinner or one’s self/life, there can be variations in how creatively it is done.




Interestingly, even in “the arts”, the definition of art is constantly changing.  Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in a prestigious art exhibit the boundaries of art were being challenged.  Since then, as creativity, as I defined it ( See Art, Zen and Creativity) has become an integral value in the art world, artist have been coming up with new ways of expanding the boundaries of this world. It is commonplace today to hear comments such as “That’s interesting but it is really art”.

So, given all this, it does not seem too far fetched to consider Buddha, Christ and a variety of other spiritual leaders as performance artists.  Like Marina Abramovic, they realized that their insights were better demonstrated than talked about.  What are the insights to be shared or taught?  Essentially, to be present, alive or awake.  But, this is not easily conveyed through didatic teaching and, as Thruman says in the quote above, people need to know that it is possible to be present, alive or awake and what that might look like.

What all of these “performance artists” have in common is that they found it necessary

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

to supplement didatic teachings with demonstrations of their realizations by performing them in their everyday lives.

The other thing all of these artists (the spiritual artists as well as the performance artists) have in common is that their practices consist of setting up obstacles that provide them with challenges that, when overcome, can lead to self-transformation.  Usually these take the form of some sort of  ”rules” governing their performances.

Montano and Hsieh restricted how far apart they could get, the time they would remain teathered, and specified that they could not touch.  My last post on Abravovic specifies many of the rules that she set up for herself during various performance pieces.

In fact, the taking on of restrictions or obstacles is something found among all creative people.  It is common in all of the arts to hear of people setting up certain boundaries or restrictions for themselves as means for challenging themselves to greater creativity.  In fact, I think that committing oneself to any creative pursuit necessarily involves confronting barriers.  For instance, I commonly hear painters say something to the effect of “my painting is going badly” which simply means they are in the midst of resolving some issue in the activity that they voluntarily have decided to take on; one that can lead to a “creative breakthrough” later on.

So called spiritual artists do the same thing by, for instance, committing to a certain amount of time for meditation or committing to follow certain vows or codes.  For example, in formally becoming a Zen student a person commits to following four vows and to following 16 precepts.  Within Zen these “restrictions” are not seen as equivalent of “sins” in that transgressions will lead to going to hell or something like this.  Rather they are restrictions that one voluntarily takes on in “performing” everyday life and like the “obstacles” set up by artists like Abramovic are ultimately designed to help heighten self awareness; in other words to become more alive, awake or present.

In the next post I will look at this phenomena more closely and see how it relates to both artists in the conventional sense as well as “spiritual artists”.