Rambling Without a Destination

I first became aware of Asian philosophy at age 17, in the kind of accidental serendipitous way that has characterized much of my life in philosophy.  It started with a paper I wrote as a senior in high school on Greenpeace for an English class.  The early founders of the group, it seems, had an interest in Asian thought, and the book I used for my source made repeated reference to the Yijing.  I was intrigued by this mysterious sounding work that apparently could be used for divination.  A trip to the local library turned up James Legges’ translation, and I spent some time poring over its exotic hexagrams and mysterious verse.  I didn’t understand much of it, but that didn’t stop me from making a trip to Chinatown in San Francisco to buy some old Chinese coins so I could take my hand at telling my own fortune.  I also bought my first translation of the Dao De Jing around this time, and began to fancy myself something of a Daoist, which if nothing else was a unique affectation at my suburban East Bay high school.  I have two regrets regarding my thoroughly naive teen years exploration of the Yijing, the first being that it would be decades before I learned I was mispronouncing the title–like many, I suppose, I took the Wade Giles romanization–I Ching–literally.  The second is I never did return the book to the library.  I have it still in fact.

My second exposure to Asian thought came by way of my father, who made the odd if somehow inspired parental decision give his middle son a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums for his 17th birthday.  I had my doubts about reading a book recommended by my father, but it proved to be deeply inspiring, albeit in ways I’m not sure he entirely anticipated, or would have approved of.  Kerouac’s lyrical version of his adventures in California with the likes of Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Ginsburg, and especially Gary Snyder, the inspiration for the title, certainly left its mark in the form of an infatuation with jazz and a couple kinds of tea, as well as a lasting interest in the Beats, Beat literature, and Zen Buddhism.  This too sent me to the library and book stores in search of more works by Kerouac and company, as well as works on Zen and from there other schools of Buddhism.  Here too my studies, if they could be called that, were undirected, uninformed, and mostly hopeless, as I made my way through the likes of Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Gary Snyder and others with excitement and wonder, but without a whole lot of comprehension.

My interest in Asian thought began to wane when I went to college, though not immediately.  Indeed, UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s was a very hospitable place for young people with an interest in things like Buddhism and Daoism, not to mention other elements of my Kerouac inspired interests, and I took some classes that did a little to fill in some of the gaping holes in what little understanding these subjects I had.  A class with Noel Q. King was a seminal event in this period, though memorable for reasons that didn’t always have to do with the subject matter of the class.  But by this time I had also discovered Western philosophy, and that I had something of knack for it.  As remains true for anyone pursuing a degree in the field, at a certain point choices had to be made.  And so I opted for Aristotle and Plato, and in particular Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and Asian thought began to fade from my immediate focus.

My graduate school career was almost entirely devoid of contact with Asian philosophy of any sort.  Indeed, as anyone familiar with the peculiarly long lasting cold war between so called analytical and continental philosophy knows, further choices had to be made as my studies advanced, and with regret I found myself having to abandon sustained study of the likes of Heidegger, as I instead took classes in formal semantics, possible worlds metaphysics, and causal theories of reference.  As it happens there was kind of close brush with Confucianism during this time, as I ended up doing my Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, the department in which Henry Fingeratte had long worked.  Alas he had retired a year before I arrived, and aside from a brief meeting I had no contact with him, and indeed was only vaguely aware of his celebrated book on the Analects.  I knew of him only by way of his reputation and his book on heavy drinking.

After graduate school I ended up teaching at Johnson County Community College, and promptly found myself teaching classes in philosophy with students who were most unlikely, to put it mildly, ever to find the semantics of proper names and singular terms–the sort of philosophy I’d been trained to do–particularly interesting or valuable.  What I came to find interesting and valuable, on the other hand, were the huge swaths of philosophy that I’d banished from the necessarily narrow intellectual world I’d come to inhabit while working on a dissertation.  I re-discovered, in short, how much philosophy I still needed to learn.  And it was in the renewed enthusiasm for philosophy I didn’t know that I came back to Asian thought, this time much better prepared to actually learn something of it.

For my return to Daoism, and for my exposure to Confucianism, I owe an enormous debt first and foremost to Doreen Morande, my immediate supervisor (since retired) at JCCC for the first several years of my employment.  Apparently understanding my intellectual interests better than I did at the time, Doreen steered me towards an Asia Studies Development Program workshop on Traditions in Dissent hosted by JCCC.  Among the featured speakers at this workshop was Henry Rosemont Jr., and though much of what I heard over those three days or so I still didn’t much understand, I was hooked.  A three week infusion program in Manoa followed that summer, and with that of course came an introduction to Roger Ames, Peter Hershock, Betty Buck and crew and from there numerous workshops, national meetings, and the friendships and associations that remain the delights of the ASDP world.  Since then I have come to count comparative philosophy as one of my main interests, and I have added readings in Asian thought to all my courses.  Along the way I also gained the confidence to develop and to teach a class on Asian philosophy at JCCC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*