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In both Western and East Asian traditions, large claims have been made about the power of aesthetic experience, whether of art (especially music) or of nature, to foster a sense of transcendence. There are, however, important differences between the traditions and, in consequence, between the characters of these claims. After illustrating these claims, I identify and elaborate on some of their salient aspects. I then argue that East Asian traditions possess greater resources than Western ones for explaining or accommodating these aspects, and hence for substantiating the claims about experience and transcendence.

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I am grateful to Dr Xiao Ouyong for his helpful and erudite comments on a draft version of this paper.

Aesthetic experience and transcendence

  • 1 Quoted in Godwin 1982: 233.
  • 2 Beethoven’s instrumental music, in Strunk 1998: 151-152.

1Music, declared Robert Schumann in a letter of 1832, is “the language which permits one to converse with the Beyond”.1 Here, the composer is repeating what had, by 1832, become almost a cliché of European Romantic aesthetics. Twenty years earlier, in a famous account of Beethoven’s instrumental music that became a manifesto for the Romantics, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of the music “disclos[ing] to man an unknown realm”, leading him to a “spiritual world of the infinite”, “immeasurable” and “unsayable”, and evoking emotions beyond any that can be “defined by words”.2

  • 3 On a host of such claims, see Taruskin 2010, ch. 4-6.

2Since then, a large number of important composers – including Mahler, Schoenberg, Ives and Stravinsky – have made similar claims on behalf of their art.3

3Such claims about the power of art are not, of course, confined to music, even if, in the view of Hoffmann and Schumann, music is unique in the strength of its power. But it is music that has inspired by far the greatest number of these claims and it is to music that I confine my discussion. The reader is free, naturally, to ask how much of this discussion carries over to other art forms.

  • 4 Kang 2014: 173.
  • 5 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 77.
  • 6 Takemitsu in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus 2009: 186 and 192.

4Claims about music and transcendence are not restricted to the West and are found, from ancient to contemporary times, in Chinese and Japanese writings. For the third-century CE Daoist thinker, Ji Kang, the aim of music is “transcendence from the realm of the secular world” and “transcendental union with nature”.4 Thirteen centuries later, we read in a treatise on the lute-like Chinese instrument, the guqin, that the consummate player “shall be in harmony with the wonderful Way […] [and] correspond to the Mystery of the Way”.5 A comparable claim is made by the best-known Japanese composer of the twentieth century, Toru Takemitsu: music is able to “unit[e] the player with the immense ‘life’ in Nature” and to effect a “mysterious harmony”.6

  • 7 Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, in Gill 1984: 134.
  • 8 Hepburn 1996: 200.

5If a player’s or listener’s experience of music is able to inspire a sense of transcendence so, according to long Western and Asian traditions, is appreciation of nature. European Romanticism, once again, supplies many examples. William Wordsworth, looking down into the Wye valley near Tintern Abbey, famously experienced “something far more deeply interfused […] [that] rolls through all things, while to Giacomo Leopardi ‘the eternal comes to mind’ as he gazes from a hilltop, seeing ‘unending spaces’ and hearing ‘superhuman silences’ ”.7 More recently, the philosopher Ronald W. Hepburn expresses sympathy for the view – which he refers to as “Nature-mysticism” - that aesthetic experience of nature may “keep alive some view of the world […]that we cannot precisely articulate” and points to “a transcendent source for which we lack words and concepts”, to something that “transcend[s] the Lebenswelt”.8

  • 9 Zhuangzi 2009: 86.
  • 10 Suzuki 1973: 363.

6Turning to the East, we find in the Tang poets of China and the Zen Buddhist poets of Japan many testimonies to the power of experience of nature to awaken a sense of what is beyond the reach of everyday perception, thought and language. The Daoist sage, partly through communing with forests and animals, is able to “arrive up”, beyond ordinary things, “to the source of [all] things”,9 the dao. For the person sensitised to nature by the “impetus” of Zen, “the snow-crowned peak of Fuji is now seen as rising from the background of Emptiness”,10 the ineffable source of whatever can be described.

7Of particular interest – and something that reflection on claims about transcendence must surely consider – is the large number of claims, Western and Asian, that, as it were, combine music and nature. It is as if there is an elective affinity between musical experience and experience of nature that enables the two to cooperate in promoting or “keeping alive” a sense of transcendence.

  • 11 Harris 2009: 224.
  • 12 Zhuangzi 2009: 67-68.
  • 13 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: xi-xii.

8“What”, asks the eighth-century poet, painter and musician Wang Wei, “is the principle for achieving the Way”, as he plays his zither in the moonlight: his answer is, listening to “a fisherman’s song going into the deep river bank”.11 In the book of Zhuangzi, a remarkable passage describes how the legendary Yellow Emperor, when he plays music that interacts with the natural environment, is “wordlessly” being “carried along”12 by the dao. Playing the guqin in “close harmony” with the moonlight, rocks and pines, a Chinese text on the instruments maintains, causes one to be “borne away to unearthly regions”.13

  • 14 Quoted in Franklin 1997: 99.
  • 15 Debussy 1977: 248.

9Before the nineteenth century, it is difficult to find corresponding claims in the West, but by the end of that century several composers of the first rank were, as they saw it, trying to exploit a dialectic between music and nature. Gustav Mahler explains in a letter that the first movement of his Third Symphony was inspired by a “plunge” into “the depths of nature”, and is expressive of “nature’s mystic powers”14 – ones beyond the scope of science and other arts to capture. According to Claude Debussy, nature – as manifest, for example, in the sounds of the sea or of the wind in the leaves – “issues forth to express itself in the language of [his] music”. This is the “mysterious nature”, beyond the grasp of the natural sciences, that Debussy refers to as his “religion”.15

10Here, then, is a sample of the claims made by Western and East Asian writers alike, that attribute to music, nature - or to a fusion of the two – a capacity to induce a sense of the transcendent, of what is “beyond” the grasp of everyday and scientific understanding. In the next section, I comment on these claims and identify certain salient aspects of them.

Transcendental claims: aspects and challenges

11The first comment to make is that the examples I have given of claims about aesthetic experience and transcendence are only a small fraction of those that have been made over the millennia. Such claims are not confined to small bands of people – Romantic poets, say, or Daoist wanderers – but instead register attitudes and feelings shared by large numbers of people who reflect on their experiences of music and nature.

  • 16 Two examples, Christian and Sufi respectively, are Kūng 1993: 34 and Khan 1991.
  • 17 Scruton in Stone-Davis 2015: 76.

12Second, however, it is clear from the examples that there is considerable variety among the claims. For example, different authors variously refer to experience as “inspiring”, “permitting”, “keeping alive”, or “achieving” a sense of the transcendent. More importantly, the claims register different conceptions of the transcendent. Emptiness, the dao, mysterious nature, the infinite and immeasurable, unknown realms, a spiritual world, mystic powers – these are just some among the terms used to refer to the transcendent that we have encountered. Nor, of course, should one ignore the many theological claims that it is God of which music and nature alike are “ciphers”.16 Mention should be made, too, of the idea – articulated by Schopenhauer and Proust among others – that it is certain emotions, or “pure” passions, “transcendent versions” of everyday emotions, that music and encounters with nature have the power to arouse.17

13My concern in this paper is not with the truth or otherwise of any particular conception of transcendence, but with how one needs to think about the relation between aesthetic experience and transcendence in order for large claims like those cited to be cogent and credible. It may well turn out, in the course of the discussion, that some conceptions of transcendence are more apt than others to render these claims persuasive, but it would be unwise to privilege or exclude particular conceptions in advance.

  • 18 Stone-Davis 2015: 1.

14There are, to be sure, limits here. The editor of a book on music and transcendence distinguishes between what she calls “absolute” and “immanent” transcendence. The former “lies beyond the material” world while the latter is “situated within the material realm”.18 I am not sure how helpful the terms of this distinction are. The dao of the classical Chinese texts, for example, is not “contained” within, or a part of, the physical world, but it is not obvious that it lies “beyond” it either. There are, however, “immanent” conceptions discussed by contributors to the book that are not helpfully thought of as accounts of transcendence – the idea, for instance, associated with Theodor Adorno, that music plays a role in helping to liberate “down-trodden” people from their oppressive social conditions. I want to stay with what, it seems to me, is the familiar understanding of the transcendent as what goes beyond everyday or scientific understanding and defies description in literal terms. To be open to a sense of transcendence is at least to be receptive to a sense of mystery. The conceptions of transcendence exemplified earlier, various as they are, all fit this general rubric.

15With transcendence understood in this liberal, but not entirely profligate, way, I turn to three features of the large claims that provide challenges which should be met by anyone sympathetic to these claims. The better a claim about experience and transcendence responds to these challenges, the more attractive it becomes.

  • 19 Chōmei 1996: 65.

16The first feature I have already identified: this is the manner in which experiences of music and nature respectively appear so easily to combine, interact or “fuse” in promoting a sense of transcendence. On the surface, this fusion can seem puzzling. How can something belonging so much in the realm of culture and artifice combine so effectively with the natural realm in shaping experience? That it can do is attested to by countless writers. Consider, for example, Japanese tradition. Here we find the many passages in the eleventh-century classic, The Tale of Genji, that describe koto or flute players “jamming with” the natural sounds of wind, water and animals. In another classic, Kamo No Chōmei’s Hojoki, the poet writes of how when “the wind blows and makes the leaves dance […] I play the biwa [lute]”19 in harmony. Japanese composers over the centuries, right down to Takemitsu in the twentieth century, have made great use of sawari, natural or other non-musical sounds, in combination with instrumental sounds.

  • 20 Directed by John Junkerman, Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden was released in 1992; (...)
  • 21 Debussy 1927: 32.

17Presupposed in such practices is the recognition that musical and natural sounds may mutually inflect one another, producing an experience that cannot be broken down into separate components. It would, for example, be idle, when watching the celebrated film about Japanese gardens, Dream Window, to separate out the contributions of nature – of the sounds of birds and water, as well the sight of stones and bushes – and of Takemitsu’s score to the whole aesthetic experience the film provides. The score inflects how we see and hear what is present in the gardens, just as this inflects how we listen to the music.20 Such mutual inflections are not confined, of course, to Japanese, or East Asian, tradition. Debussy’s ideal – one that he partly realised – was that of a “music for the open air […] which would sport and skim among the treetops in the sunshine and fresh air”,21 at once enhancing and being enhanced by its environment.

  • 22 Beethoven’s instrumental music, in Strunk 1998: 155.
  • 23 Franklin 1997: 121.
  • 24 Nichols 1998: 164-165.

18One challenge, then, to someone who makes large claims about aesthetic experience and transcendence is to understand the significance of this “fusion” between music and nature in fostering a sense of transcendence. Another is to secure a conviction that surfaces in many of the claims I cited and hovers just below the surface in several others. This is the idea that experience of music and nature, often in tandem, offers a retreat or refuge from an everyday world, a Lebenswelt, that is perceived as profoundly flawed. For Hoffmann, music transports us to “an unknown land, more glorious and beautiful than here in our constricted world […] our circumscribed earthly air”.22 Mahler and Debussy, among others, inherit this sentiment. In a letter to his wife, Mahler speaks of music and nature alike as “escu[ing] us from the commonplace”.23 For Debussy, who dreamt of a fusion of music and nature, music offers “oblivion” of the mundane world, a refuge for those with a “reluctance to engage with what the material world calls ‘reality’”.24

  • 25 A Portrait of Shunkin, in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus 2009: 227.

19The same sentiment is equally prominent in Asian literature. When Wang Wei plays his zither in the moonlight and listens to the fisherman’s song, he is escaping “all the affairs of the world”. The Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki speaks for many writers when saying that “art rivals nature” – or, better, joins hands with it – in enabling us to “forget the dusty city”,25 a favourite East Asian metaphor for the hectic, constraining, stressful world of everyday human business.

  • 26 See Schopenhauer 1988.

20Sense needs to be made of this idea of music and nature as alternative worlds or spaces – places of retreat, emancipation or redemption – if we are to understand how aesthetic experience generates or keeps alive a sense of transcendence. For these metaphors surely record the sentiment that regards a sense of the transcendent as one that we want to keep alive, for it is a sense of a realm where, as Schopenhauer alleged, a “better consciousness”26 than our everyday one is assured.

  • 27 Landscape and the metaphysical imagination, in Hepburn 1996: 193-194.
  • 28 Scruton in Stone-Davis 2015: 83.

21A third challenge is to respond to certain suspicions that the claims about transcendence are liable to attract. One of these is well-stated by Hepburn. Aesthetic experiences, he notes, tend to be “fleeting and unrepeatable”: as a result, they also tend to have only a “fugitive and tenuous hold”27 on our understanding of the world. Like Wordsworth or Leopardi, I may have glimpses of the transcendent as I look down onto the river or across to the far horizon, but the experiences are likely to be forgotten or passed off aberrant or illusory. And then there’s the sceptic’s suspicion that there is no good reason to infer from our subjective experiences to how things in reality are. There is, writes Roger Scruton, no clear way of getting from “our states of mind” to “what lies beyond”, “no proof of contact” between our feelings and “the transcendental”.28 It is too much, no doubt, to expect a “proof” here, but it must speak in favour of a claim about experience and transcendence that it at least renders plausible that we can “get from” the first to the second.

22I will return later to considering which claims best meet the challenges I have presented, but first I need to identify some important differences between the typical backgrounds against which Western and East Asian claims respectively are made. It is time, that is, to dispel the impression that, similar as they may often sound, the claims made in the two traditions are equivalent.

Gardens, music and ways

23The differences I want to identify are especially salient in the case of a greatly honoured art or craft in East Asia – gardening. It will be helpful to illustrate them by reference to gardening before showing how they operate, as well, in the cases of music and experience of nature.

24Here, it seems to me, are four features characteristic of traditional Western discourse on the garden. First, the focus of the discourse is firmly on the products – gardens – rather than on the practice of gardening. Gardeners – who they are, what they are like – are of interest only insofar as they bring about the existence of gardens. Second, aesthetic experience of gardens is understood primarily as appreciative experiences of these products, for example, the visual pleasures we enjoy when looking at a parterre. Third, gardening only counts as an art in the attenuated sense that other “useful” activities, such as cooking and hairdressing, do: it is not one of the “fine arts”, like painting or poetry. Because of the garden’s utilitarian functions, gardening generally occupied a lowly place in the hierarchy of arts drawn up by, for instance, Kant and Hegel. Finally, the aesthetics of the garden is sharply distinguished from and contrasted with, the aesthetics of nature. The latter is primarily concerned with “wilderness”, or at least with environments that do not bear the mark of culture in the emphatic way that gardens do. Environmental aestheticians who do not ignore gardens altogether frequently denounce them as perversions of nature.

  • 29 See Slawson 1991: §63.
  • 30 Takei and Keane 2001: 4.

25These characteristic features of Western garden discourse are not similarly typical of East Asian traditions of reflection on the garden. To begin with, the focus in these traditions is as much on gardening and gardeners as upon the products of that practice. A fifteenth-century Japanese treatise on gardening is typical in emphasising the attitudes – reverence, respect, mindfulness – that the gardener must adopt, and in not attending simply or mainly to the staple ingredients (form, structure, colour design and the like) of Western discussions of gardens.29 The garden matters, in part, because it is an arena in which a person exercises the virtues of gardening. The placing of a stone, for example, is to be admired not simply for its visual effect, but because it shows that the gardener has, in the words of another Japanese treatise, respectfully “follow[ed] the request of the stone”.30

  • 31 This is how John Dewey understands the term “experience” in the title of his book, Art as Experienc (...)

26Second, in East Asian traditions aesthetic experience of gardens is pre-eminently understood, not as occurrent mental events, such as visual pleasures or judgements of taste, but as a prolonged engagement with gardens. This is experience in the sense intended when we speak of, say, a person’s university or army experience: a way of engaging with or participating in a certain environment.31

  • 32 Pilgrim 1993: 10.

27In Shinto and Zen, for example, aesthetic concern is with how the gardener brings “purity, cleanliness […] and impeccability”32 into the environment of a shrine, or how – as an Abbot interviewed in Dream Window put it - he “keeps the world beautiful” through tending a monastery garden.

  • 33 See Historical overview of Japanese aesthetics, in Nguyen 2018: xxxi. See also Saito 2017.

28Third, gardening is not, in East Asian cultures, relegated to the status of a “mere” craft, or placed low in the hierarchy of the arts. This is not because it is held to be an art rather than a craft, or placed high in the hierarchy, but because the contrast between arts and crafts and the privileging of certain arts-and-crafts are foreign to these cultures. What Yuriko Saito has called “aesthetic egalitarianism” is pervasive in China and Japan, so that gardening – and flower arranging, packaging, even laundering – are not regarded as less “legitimate vehicles for conveying aesthetic values”33 than, say, painting. That a practice may have a utilitarian purpose is no obstacle to its inviting aesthetic appreciation.

  • 34 See Charles Jencks’s remarks on Dream of the Red Chamber in Keswick 1980: 193 ff.
  • 35 Johnson 2007: 27.

29Finally, aesthetic experience of gardens is not opposed to that of nature in East Asian traditions. While, of course, it is possible to distinguish “humanised” landscapes, like gardens, from wilderness, the distinction does not play a decisive role in the appreciation of nature. In the discussion of gardens in the eighteenth-century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, it is recognised that artifice goes into the making of a garden, but also that the garden may nevertheless be natural.34 It is a place where natural things, like plants, live, where natural processes operate, and where the success of the artifice relies on natural conditions. In these traditions, there is nothing of the antipathy to gardens found among European Romantics whose reversal of an older attitude in which “culture takes precedence over nature” only served to “reinforce the split”35 between the two. East Asian hospitality to the garden is a mark of the rejection of that same split.

30The differences I have identified between characteristic attitudes towards gardening in Western and East Asian cultures have parallels or analogues in the case of music. In the attention given primarily to the products of musical practice (songs, sonatas and so on) and to the experience of music as occurrent listening experiences (emotional arousal, pleasurable feelings and so on), Western musical discourse bears comparison with its discourse on gardens. It does so as well in its endorsement of the contrast between fine arts and crafts and its opposition of culture and nature. “Serious” music belongs firmly among the arts and is a major component of a society’s culture.

  • 36 Ames and Rosemont 1998: 174.
  • 37 See Wallmark 2012: 2 and 4-5.

31Meanwhile, East Asian attitudes to music characteristically correspond to those to gardening. First, there is a marked focus on the people – musicians, instrument makers, composers and other – who are engaged with music. To recall some earlier quotations, it is not the music but the player of the guqin who is “in harmony with the wonderful Way”, and the player, once more, who Takemitsu tells us is “united with the immense ‘life’ in Nature”. Like gardening, music making is not a mere means to producing something – sounds to be listened to, written notes to be played – but an opportunity for exercising virtues and cultivating spiritual awareness. It is partly through playing music, remarked Confucius, that “persons can be consummate”.36 Many players of the shakuhachi bamboo flute, for example, insist that their instrument is less a musical instrument than a “spiritual tool”, and are impatient with what they see as a Western-influenced obsession with aesthetic qualities like beauty of tone.37

  • 38 Keister 2004: 101.

32As this might suggest, there is a corresponding emphasis in Chinese and Japanese texts, not on the staccato, occurrent experiences of the listener, but on musical experience in the sense of a prolonged engagement with musical practices. When the Yellow Emperor describes his experience of playing, there is no mention of the pleasures and sensations the sounds might cause: instead, he speaks of how he is responding to “the mandates of things”, accommodating to the harmony of yin and yang, interacting with nature and so on. In various Japanese musical genres, the emphasis is not on the experiences prompted by music – on music as “entertainment” – but on the “internal process”, as it has been called, of players engaged in music from apprenticeship to maturity.38

  • 39 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 82.
  • 40 See Johnson 1999: 296, and Takemitsu On sawari, in Everett and Lou 2004: 200 ff.

33Third, since the distinction between an art and a craft is not marked in East Asian traditions, music is no more an art than gardening is a craft. Confronted with the Western conception of the arts, it is not surprising to find Chinese or Japanese writers on music rejecting the label “art”, since they reject the idea that, in contrast with, say, gardening, music has no practical purpose and is therefore a more refined activity. Playing the guqin, wrote an eighteenth-century Chinese author, is a “way to wisdom and not one of the arts”.39 It is not especially surprising either to find some East Asian musicians rejecting the very name “music” for their practice. As they see it, the Western notion of the art of music implies a sharp contrast between musical tones and the ambient sounds of nature, the home, or the city. This is an opposition alien to traditions in which players and composers make great use of these non-musical sounds.40

  • 41 Tsuge Gen’ichi, quoted in Johnson 1999: 296.

34Finally, the point just made helps to confirm that, with music as with gardening, no “split” between culture and nature is recognised. It may be an exaggeration to say that in the Japanese tradition “music is considered a sub-set of nature”,41 but it is true that musicians in Japan and other East Asian societies readily acknowledge – and incorporate into their practices - the many relations between music and nature. We saw earlier how, in several ways – jamming with natural sounds, for instance – music and experience of nature can “inflect” one another to the point of “fusion”. In recent years, it is true, several Western composers have produced “sound art” in which natural processes are, in one way or another, incorporated. But it should be emphasised that this is indeed a recent development and that, unlike in East Asia, it remains at the margins of Western musical culture.

  • 42 Saito 2017: xli.
  • 43 Watazumi 1981: 7.

35Several of the points I have made about how characteristic East Asian attitudes differ from Western ones are implied by the status, in China and Japan, of both gardening and music as “Ways” (Ch. dao, Jap. do). The term has no real equivalent in English. Words like “skill”, “craft” and “discipline” do not bring out the essential feature of Ways – that they are forms of “self-cultivation”, “secular means of enlightenment” and “self-transcendence”.42 Playing the guqin is variously described as “a Way to wisdom” and a Way of “nurturing one’s nature”, while the most famous shakuhachi player of the last century, Watazumi Dosa, refers to “the Way of Watazumi” as training one’s “life-force into being stronger and healthier” and “expressing it in sound”.43

36When music, gardening or any other practice is perceived and followed as a Way, the East Asian attitudes towards it that I described become readily understandable. If music is first and foremost a Way of self-cultivation, then naturally the emphasis is liable to be upon musical practice and practitioners rather than their products. The place of music in the spiritual and moral development of practitioners, not the qualities of the pieces they compose or play, will be a main object of reflection and discussion. This does not mean that these qualities will be ignored, since they may, of course, manifest or fail to manifest qualities of the practitioners. Maybe, for example, a shakuhachi performance fails to “express in sound” the “life-force” of which Watazumi spoke, or its flashiness indicates the player’s vanity.

37With music regarded as a Way, we would also expect attention to experience of (or with) music to be directed, primarily, at prolonged, engaged experience, not at particular, occurrent mental states, such as the momentary pleasures of listening to a piece. It will be “internal processes”, as they develop and change over the course of a person’s musical engagement, not staccato sensations and emotional reactions, that matter most when one reflects on musical experience.

38In connection with these differences between Western and East Asian emphases, it is instructive to point out that the Chinese and Japanese characters that get translated as “music” also refer, according to context, not to music as composed and heard, but to musicians, musical instruments, and to activities of playing, singing or otherwise engaging with music (“musicking”, as it is sometimes called).

39Finally, it is understandable why, where the focus is on Ways, the opposition between fine arts and crafts is foreign to East Asian sensibility, as is any attempt to situate arts-and-crafts on a hierarchical scale. That some Ways may be more “useful” than others, as a mean to particular, practical ends, is insignificant in comparison to the general goal of self-cultivation to which all Ways are a means. Equally, there is no reason in advance to suppose that some Ways are more efficient forms of self-cultivation than others. It may be that some are more apt than others to cultivate specific virtues – courage, say, or humility – but each Way, when properly followed, is conducive to spiritual and moral maturity. An implication of this is that it is no reason to downgrade a Way because, as with gardening, practitioners get their hands dirty by dealing with the natural environment. There is no sense, in the literature on Ways, of a practice, including music, forfeiting respect because it is one in which culture combines with nature.

‘Retreat’, ‘fusion’ and scepticism

40Music in East Asian traditions, then, is a Way – with all this implies by way of characteristic attitudes to music that differ from those that prevail in Western traditions. I now want to show that when music is perceived as a Way it is possible to respond more effectively than otherwise to a number of challenges that, I explained, claims about music and transcendence need to address.

41One of these three challenges, recall, was to explain the idea of music providing a retreat or emancipation from the everyday business of living. This is not an idea that is easy to grasp if music is thought of, in the first instance, as a set of pieces to listen to, or as the “fine art” of producing such pieces for aesthetic appreciation. Admittedly, people speak of being “carried away” or feeling “transported elsewhere” by listening to music, but these patently figurative terms do little to clarify the idea of retreat. The idea is easier to grasp, however, with music regarded as a Way.

  • 44 Keswick 1980: 84.
  • 45 Spoken in the movie Dream Window 1992.

42The comparison with gardens is again helpful. If a garden is primarily regarded as a spectacle, like a landscape painting, to look at, contemplate and pass aesthetic judgement on, it is difficult to understand the long tradition in which gardens are experienced as places of retreat or refuge. But it is not the garden so conceived that, for example, the historian, Sima Guang, has in mind when he talks of how, in his own garden, the artifice and restrictions of the mundane world fall away. His is a garden as a place where he fishes, reads, cuts down bamboos and reflects on “the principle of things”.44 This is the garden as an arena of self-cultivation, of engagement and the exercise of wisdom and the virtues – a “device”, as the Japanese poet, Makoto Ōoka said of the Shugako-in garden in Kyoto, for “taking you away from the world” outside on “a path into the realm of the spirit”.45

  • 46 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 46-47.

43Likewise, when music is understood as a Way, metaphors of retreat and emancipation gain purchase. It is no accident that many compositions for the guqin were inspired by Daoist texts like the books of Zhuangzi and Liezi, works in which a lost harmony with the dao is only to be achieved through emancipation from the conventions and contrivance, the strictures and seductions, the prejudices and preconceptions, and the sheer busy-ness of everyday existence. It is in and through a practice like lute playing that it is possible to “subdue the scheming mind” and “banish low passions” and become attuned to the dao.46 By practising the Way of music, a person is, in effect, following the Way. Very similar remarks have been made about the Way of the shakuhachi and its contribution to realising the “emptiness” spoken of in Zen teachings.

44For our purposes, it does not matter whether it is the dao, emptiness or something else alleged to transcend the Lebenswelt that music attunes people to and brings their lives into harmony with. The relevant point is simply that the possibility of such an attunement surely requires us to think of music as practice, as prolonged, engaged experience, as a training in self-cultivation – in a word, as a Way.

  • 47 Hepburn 1998: 275.

45A further challenge to claims about music and transcendence was to explain how the “fusion”, attested to by many writers, between experiences of music and nature respectively fosters a sense of transcendence. This fusion of culture and nature is not easy to understand when experiences are understood as passing sensations, feelings and responses. It becomes more comprehensible when they are understood as engagements, for music, gardening and other cultural practices interact and intersect with our dealings with natural environments. So close and plentiful are these “mutual inflections” that it becomes impossible to say what experience of music and art might have been like in the absence of our intercourse with nature, and equally impossible to say how nature might have been experienced in the absence of cultural influences. As Ronald Hepburn helpfully put it, there is a “joint fashioning”, by culture and nature, of our experience, so that, for example, one cannot describe how a forest might be “left to itself”, uninflected by “culture, tradition, art” and myth.47

  • 48 I have discussed “fusion” in more detail in a number of writings, including A Philosophy of Gardens(...)
  • 49 The line of argument here owes much to Martin Heidegger. See, for example, his Discourse on Thinkin (...)

46But how does this “joint fashioning” or fusion promote a sense of what transcends the everyday, of what is ineffable? In a number of ways, I think, but here I confine myself to just one of these.48 Appreciation of this joint fashioning forces us to recognise limits to any possible explanation of our experience of the empirical world. The joint fashioning of experience is pervasive, inescapable and, so to speak, goes all the way down. This means that there is no point or level at which we encounter a “pure” cultural experience uninflected by engagement with nature, and there is no “pure” experience of nature not already modulated by cultural influences. There can, therefore, be no explanation of, say, our experience with music and gardens in natural terms, and no explanation of our experience of nature in cultural terms. This is because, for example, understanding of the natural concepts employed in an explanation will already be invested with cultural preconceptions. The two modes of experience inextricably combine and their ‘ground’ – the condition of their possibility – cannot described. This is because it belongs neither to culture nor to nature, and cannot be captured in the vocabulary of either of them. Since to have a sense of the transcendent – of the dao, say, or “emptiness” – is to have a sense of a “ground” or “well-spring” for our experience, of culture and nature alike, it is therefore a sense of mystery, of what is beyond literal description and explanation.49

47The final challenge was to respond to various “suspicions”, as I labelled them, of claims about music and transcendence. With the first of these – Hepburn’s worry that aesthetic experiences may have only a “fugitive and tenuous” hold on our vision of the world – we can be brief. That worry was based on the idea of aesthetic experiences as ‘fleeting and unrepeatable’ mental events. But this, of course, is not how musical experience, for instance, is being primarily understood in East Asian traditions. When musical experience is thought of as a Way – a prolonged practice and engagement of self-cultivation – there is nothing fleeting and unrepeatable about it. Only for a person who is failing properly to follow the Way of music will the enlightenment it affords have a merely fugitive and tenuous hold.

  • 50 Kazuaki 1985: 143.
  • 51 Watazumi 1981: 7.
  • 52 Keister 2004: 118.

48The second suspicion was that any inference from our feelings or “states of mind” to “the transcendental” is questionable: there is “no proof of contact” between the two, as Scruton expressed it. As it stands, however, this worry does not apply to musical experience considered as a Way. Doubtless, feelings and states of mind punctuate musical practice – moments of pleasure or anxiety, contentment or anger. But it is the practice as a whole that constitutes a person’s experience with music, not these “fugitive” mental events. How the world may be is not, therefore, an inference drawn from such mental events, but something implicitly understood in the practice. The Zen master, Dōgen’s, insistence that “performing practice and attaining realization” are one is echoed in, for example, the remarks of many shakuhachi players.50 It is when he “play[s] a simple piece of bamboo in the forest”, surrounded by animals, that Watazumi possesses “understanding of the entire natural world”.51 His celebrated student, Yokoyama, it is reported, kept silent about his Zen understanding of music and reality, since his “awareness of being in the world” was shown in his playing.52

49The sceptic is likely to retort that no valid inference can be made from the understanding implicit in or shown in the following of a Way to the truth of that understanding. The intimations of transcendence afforded by a practice cannot entail the reality of the transcendental. But there is something idle about this form of scepticism. A person may, often without much effort, legitimately question whether on reflection such-and-such an occurrent experience – like Wordsworth’s near Tintern Abbey, perhaps – really testifies to the truth of a certain vision of things. But it is very different in the case of a vision or sense that informs, sustains and is in return honed and reinforced by a Way. To question the validity of that sense is, in effect, to call into question one’s whole way of life.

  • 53 These comments on scepticism reflect Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remarks in On Certainty (Wittgenstein 19 (...)

50This is something that is peculiarly difficult for a person to do, since it is this way of life that shapes what counts for him or her as certain or doubtful, secure or questionable.53 To advise a person to ignore or suspend judgement on the transcendental intimations of following a Way is, in effect, to advise the person to abandon this Way. For he is not being asked to avoid certain feelings or to dismiss certain states of mind, but to otherwise carry on with life as normal. A sense of transcendence – of a realm of retreat from the everyday world – is not something detachable from an authentic Way whose very purpose is harmony or consonance with the truth of things. For the authentic practitioner of a Way, therefore, the sceptic’s worry has no traction: it is not something that can be taken on board and internalised while at the same time following that Way.

51I have argued in this section that when musical experience and experience of nature alike are viewed, as they primarily and typically are, in East Asian traditions as forms of engagement, as Ways of self-cultivation, then it is possible adequately to address some challenges to claims about the transcendental significance of such experience. This construal of experience differs from the kind that is predominant in Western traditions of aesthetic experience. The implication is that, while, as we saw, many Western writers have made transcendental claims in connection with music and nature, they are in a less favourable position than their Asian counterparts to defend or secure these claims.

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Ames, R., Rosemont, H. (eds) 1998, The Analects of Confucius, New York, Ballantine.

Chōmei, K.N. 1996, Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, Berkeley (CA), Stone Bridge.

Cooper, D.E. 2006, A Philosophy of Gardens, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Cooper, D.E. 2018, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life, London, Routledge.

Debussy, C. 1927, M. Croche: The Dilettante Hater, London, Viking.

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Franklin, P. 1997, The Life of Mahler, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Godwin, J. (ed.) 1982, Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, London, Penguin.

Harris, P. (ed.) 2009, Three Hundred Tang Poems, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

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Hepburn, R.W. 1996, Landscape and the Metaphysical Imagination, “Environmental Values”, 5, 3: 191-204.

Hepburn, R.W. 1998, Nature Humanised: Nature Respected, “Environmental Values”, 7: 275.

Johnson, H. 1999, The sounds of Myūjikku: An Exploration of Concepts and Clarifications in Japanese Sound Aesthetics, “Journal of Musicological Research”, 18: 291-306.

Johnson, M. 2007, Ideas of Landscape, Oxford, Blackwell.

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Keister, J. 2004, The Shakuhachi as Spiritual Tool: A Japanese Buddhist Instrument in the West, “Asian Music”, 34: 99-131.

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Pilgrim, R.B. 1993, Buddhism and the Arts of Japan, Chambersburg, Anima.

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Scruton, R. 2015, Music and The Transcendental, in F. Stone-Davis (ed.), Music and Transcendence, Surrey, Ashgate.

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1 Quoted in Godwin 1982: 233.

2 Beethoven’s instrumental music, in Strunk 1998: 151-152.

3 On a host of such claims, see Taruskin 2010, ch. 4-6.

4 Kang 2014: 173.

5 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 77.

6 Takemitsu in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus 2009: 186 and 192.

7 Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, in Gill 1984: 134.

8 Hepburn 1996: 200.

9 Zhuangzi 2009: 86.

10 Suzuki 1973: 363.

11 Harris 2009: 224.

12 Zhuangzi 2009: 67-68.

13 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: xi-xii.

14 Quoted in Franklin 1997: 99.

15 Debussy 1977: 248.

16 Two examples, Christian and Sufi respectively, are Kūng 1993: 34 and Khan 1991.

17 Scruton in Stone-Davis 2015: 76.

18 Stone-Davis 2015: 1.

19 Chōmei 1996: 65.

20 Directed by John Junkerman, Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden was released in 1992; I borrow the phrase ‘mutual inflections’ from the musicologist Holly Watkins (2011: 404-8).

21 Debussy 1927: 32.

22 Beethoven’s instrumental music, in Strunk 1998: 155.

23 Franklin 1997: 121.

24 Nichols 1998: 164-165.

25 A Portrait of Shunkin, in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus 2009: 227.

26 See Schopenhauer 1988.

27 Landscape and the metaphysical imagination, in Hepburn 1996: 193-194.

28 Scruton in Stone-Davis 2015: 83.

29 See Slawson 1991: §63.

30 Takei and Keane 2001: 4.

31 This is how John Dewey understands the term “experience” in the title of his book, Art as Experience (Dewey 1980).

32 Pilgrim 1993: 10.

33 See Historical overview of Japanese aesthetics, in Nguyen 2018: xxxi. See also Saito 2017.

34 See Charles Jencks’s remarks on Dream of the Red Chamber in Keswick 1980: 193 ff.

35 Johnson 2007: 27.

36 Ames and Rosemont 1998: 174.

37 See Wallmark 2012: 2 and 4-5.

38 Keister 2004: 101.

39 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 82.

40 See Johnson 1999: 296, and Takemitsu On sawari, in Everett and Lou 2004: 200 ff.

41 Tsuge Gen’ichi, quoted in Johnson 1999: 296.

42 Saito 2017: xli.

43 Watazumi 1981: 7.

44 Keswick 1980: 84.

45 Spoken in the movie Dream Window 1992.

46 Quoted in van Gulik 2011: 46-47.

47 Hepburn 1998: 275.

48 I have discussed “fusion” in more detail in a number of writings, including A Philosophy of Gardens (Cooper 2006), and Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (Cooper 2018).

49 The line of argument here owes much to Martin Heidegger. See, for example, his Discourse on Thinking (Heidegger 1966).

50 Kazuaki 1985: 143.

51 Watazumi 1981: 7.

52 Keister 2004: 118.

53 These comments on scepticism reflect Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remarks in On Certainty (Wittgenstein 1969).

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

David E. Cooper, «Music, Nature and Trasncendence»Rivista di estetica, 80 | 2022, 48-64.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

David E. Cooper, «Music, Nature and Trasncendence»Rivista di estetica [Online], 80 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2021, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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