Current Philosophy Undergraduates Zulhaqem Zulkifli and Koo Hao Wei sat down to interview Dr Brook Ziporyn, a visiting scholar from the University of Chicago who taught HY4113 Special Topics in Chinese Philosophy: Theories of Buddha-Nature at Nanyang Technological University. They talked about Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, buskering, and language immersion.
Zul: The first thing we want to ask you is – we understand that you did your bachelor’s in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and currently you are a professor at Chicago University – what inspired you to start out your path? Why do you find this so attractive? Why East Asian Languages?
Ziporyn: I guess it began in high school, just randomly. I was just bored and avoiding doing homework, and began to pick up random books. And of the books – again, this wasn’t something anyone gave me or suggested to me, just browsing – was the Daodejing. I read the English translation of the Daodejing among many other things. This particular Daodejing translation had Chinese and English. It had photographs. The transliteration of the translator’s name was Gia-Fu Feng 馮家福, and his wife’s name is Jane English, I remember, who was a photographer. This was a big book and it was his translation, and her photography – arty photographs. That book really did speak to me, and I would say that was quite special. A lot of things interested me, but that one really resonated with me. I suppose it was something I had never encountered, which – two things: One was the notion of 無爲 (wu wei) or effortlessness or ‘non-doing’. The translation just said ‘non-doing’. It was perplexing to me but it was very welcome. I had never heard anything like that. The critique and the comments about value paradoxical stuff – what I would later call value paradox – is another thing that struck me. I suppose it was also my first encounter with sort of a non-theistic concept of an Absolute. So those three: wu wei, value-paradox, and non-theistic mysticism. I would say those three aspects intrigued me.
But I had no idea what was going on in that book. It was just poetic, and it has sort of this ancient pedigree, so it didn’t feel like some random dude shooting off his mouth. It mattered that it had some cultural weight. That’s the only difference when you come across a thing like this, and why you do not dismiss this simply as, “Well, it doesn’t make any sense. Next.” There was that, but also there was the fact that somehow a bit later, I did get another translation, possibly James Legge’s in Chinatown, in Chicago; then maybe two or three of the others. I got really intrigued because they were so different – ridiculously different. I mean they were absurd because they could have been translations of different books. I had no idea what was going on in the language, but I could sense something fishy was going on because they seemed to be talking about entirely different topics, to have different subject matters, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t realize they were parsing sentences differently, and the interpretations could legitimately be so totally different. So I started collecting Daodejing translations. I found them here and there in the usual book stores. I also had the Theosophical society one, for example, which was totally different – totally a whole other thing going on. I also got the Zhuangzi translation, the Inner Chapters translation of that from the same translator [Gia-Fu Feng].
Now that was more than I could really take in, but I was extremely intrigued. I got interested in Daoism, mainly in Laozi, Zhuangzi, and the Chinese language problem. There were kind of proto-New Age things back in the 60s. Books of that kind [New Age] came into my hands and one that really had an impact on me was by Alan Watts, who was a notorious sort of hippie guru guy – British guy. Anyway, he was like a Christian minister at Northwestern in Chicago. But he left the church, and he became this sort of freelance lecturer, writer and expositor. The last book he wrote was called Tao: The Watercourse Way, and that one had a whole long chapter about the Chinese language. That was really huge for me because that referred me to Joseph Needham. Joseph Needham’s Science And Civilization In China is a massive scholarly work. He was at Cambridge, I believe, and they are still adding volumes about the technological achievements, unrecognized achievements. The second volume was about Daoist Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, the I-Ching, and things like that. So I got a hold of that [Joseph Needham]. Because he was trying to sort of give conceptual groundwork for a particular conception of nature, and he actually had a lot of [Alfred] Whitehead in his blood, he was very influenced by Process Philosophy. He was interested in self-organizing systems, and he seemed to sort of interpret Daoism [that way]. So that was the beginning. That was stage one. I got really interested in the language.
Then I had to go to college. I actually went to a college called “Reed College” for the first two years, which was a small liberal arts college in Oregon. I am not sure exactly what happened or why, but I hadn’t really been dealing with the Chinese Laozi-Zhuangzi stuff. It started to come back in my mind; these problems about language and its relation to thought. The thing is you are in college; our system is a little different from yours. I felt and I always had a kind of resistance to doing the assigned readings. But I liked to read a lot. I spent a lot of time in the library just drawing out random books. But I did feel at a certain point that it was easier for me to learn on my own. And you can read whatever you want to read; it’s all available, right, if you really want to? I had interest in a lot of different things, but I felt like, what was the best way for me to spend the remaining years of college? With two more years of college or three more years of college, what was something I really need to be taught by someone else? Maybe this was either introvert character or arrogance or foolishness, but I had a problem learning from– I didn’t learn well from other people. I learn well on my own, but there are some things you can’t learn on your own. One of them was language. So I thought I can read Tolstoy. I can’t read Russian, but I can read Tolstoy in translation. If I look at two translations of Tolstoy, they are recognizably the same book, right? They are just different in tone or whatever. Or if I want to read Kant, or Nietzsche, however good or bad my German is, I can still sort of get what is going on. But these classical Chinese books – unless you can read the language, it seems like there is no way you can have any idea what is going on. I felt in terms of investment and time, it makes sense to do language – Chinese or maybe Sanskrit. But I think even Sanskrit you can get through translations better than Chinese.
So I transferred to University of Chicago in my third-year of college, and I basically just did Chinese. I had to do core requirements for the new school. I spent a lot of time just trying to learn classical Chinese. Then I went to Taiwan after I graduated to continue language study. Now that was at Taida, but it was a Stanford University run intensive language thing that we did, which was a lot on literary and classical Chinese. That was when I read Zhuangzi in Chinese for the first time, the Shiji, and the Four Books: Analects, the Mencius, and the like. It was one-on-one sessions with Taida professors, like four hours a day and it was amazing. That’s one of the things that really took for me, beause that’s when I finally really started to feel like – for example, when you read the Analects or Mencius in English, at least for me, it’s like there’s nothing interesting. I can’t get much. I don’t derive anything. Once I read them in Chinese, having been sort of guided through the original language, I saw the texture and the ambiguity, and all the stuff that’s been simplified in the translation. It was a completely different picture and I was fascinated by those works. From there, there was no turning back.
So what happened then was I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was out of college, and then I got into that one-year programme quite by chance. Toward the end of that school year, I saw an ad in our school for a translator job at the National Palace Museum of Taiwan. That’s the museum where they took all the stuff from the palace in China, Beijing, and had all these sorts of great works. It so happens that the guy who was doing this job, he was hired at a very low salary to do translations there. That meant translating the cards that they put with exhibits, and the handouts, and then like once a year they would do these long scholarly essays, i.e. history kind of stuff. I knew nothing about that. But the guy who was doing that job was also a graduate of this school, so this is sort of a pure nepotism, really. I went for the interview, and my Chinese was sort of good enough. He tested me and I got through that, and got the job. So the next two years were spent at the museum.
This is important to the story because I was living in Taiwan; I had a job which did not pay well, but it was first time I have ever been totally out of school in my life. It’s a huge change, right? It’s an amazing alteration as I am living in a foreign country, I am working a nine to five job, and I have to punch the clock. But that job in those days was a civil service job, which means it is a government job. What that meant in Taiwan when it was 1986 was there wasn’t very much to do. There was a lot of sleeping on desk, reading the newspaper leisurely. I had a lot of time on my hands, but I had to be there, and I had an office. It was air-conditioned, so it was big deal in those days, and I had to look busy. I also felt like I should not just like be reading the newspaper, but also doing something better, like a book at least, to be a little more constructive.
So I read a lot of stuff in classical Chinese in those days, hours and hours every day, because I had a lot of time to kill, and then also because it was this weird institution. When I wanted to study Buddhist Sutras and also learn more Chinese classics, to learn to read them, I achieved both through basically connections of the museums, because basically those jobs were nepotism jobs that they had got through being students to teachers who were somehow interconnected to each other. There’s a lot of this complicated web of great scholars – Qian Mu being one of them. He is one of the great Confucian scholars of the 20th century. He was officially actually employed by the museum before, as some nominal honorary thing. Ninety years old and he lived down the road, literally. A lot of his students were brought in just to have these civil service posts. I had one colleague who wanted to read Buddhist Sutras, and she found like this sort of independent scholar in town. So we would go like twice a week to read and study the Lankavatara Sutra, which we are doing in class now. First time I did that I was interested in Chan from the Laozi and Zhuangzi connection. It made no sense at all. Then Qian Mu had a student, and I got introduced to him because I wanted to do the I-Ching. He taught at the arts college and was this brilliant, brilliant guy, and fortunately was willing to teach me. So I got Qian Mu’s version of reading the I-Ching, the Book of Changes. Much of the story of early Chinese philosophy was through there, and that really deepened my appreciation for it.
Haowei: Is the job still the same in the museum?
Ziporyn: They still do it. I have subsequently met many people who were there doing one of those jobs. It wasn’t just one, there were – I was in the Antiquities department, so Bronze, Jade, 3D Objects; there’s also the Calligraphy and Paintings department, the Literary Documents department – four or five different departments. I’m very nostalgic about those two years at the museum. That was the happiest time. But also it was really a rich experience for me as a learning experience. It was perfect for me because, as I said, that’s like my perfect learning environment. There were people around who were deeply classic-trained. There’s no programme; there’s nothing going on. My job was just to do this, and then I have all this time to kill.
Zul: So is this around the same time where you started to pick up singing? [Everyone laughs.]
Ziporyn: No, I did not. You heard about that from the guy who interviewed me previously. That was actually quite a bit later. Those first three years when I was in Taiwan I didn’t do any singing. After I was in graduate school, fellow students and I had formed a band. So although I have sung recreationally for my own amusement, I hadn’t really performed before that. Then I returned to Taiwan for a couple of months here and a couple of months there, and then later I had a full stay there for like a year or a year and a half, and it was then that I got the courage or the crazy idea. I had seen buskers, street musicians in Taipei. I was also, at that time, writing my dissertation ostensibly. But I really had a lot of time. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but for me that was a very good way for me to think and learn, which was to walk around Taipei, which is an amazing great city to walk in. It’s an all-day and all-night city. It’s open everywhere, and I used to just carry books around and go walking. Taipei is the kind of city that without just planning, really 逍遥游 (xiaoyao you) [wandering freely], really good wandering wu wei, because you don’t really have to have a purpose or plan. You step out of the door and things happen. Then I had a lot of time, so I would read and I would think and write my dissertation, thinking about it, trying to work through this. But I also needed like temporary places to go. So busking was great, I am able to make a little money too. And then, at certain point, I started doing a couple of other types of gigs, like there’s these coffee shops. Those are gone unfortunately. It’s called “民谣咖啡厅” (min yao ka fei ting). They used to have an hour log, like singers all day, you know?
Haowei: They used to have that kind of stuff. I think we have it here it here in Singapore too, in one of the cafes that had time slots with singers singing.
Ziporyn: Exactly! Is it like a chain business? Because they were like chains; there was one called 木吉他 (mu ji ta), wooden guitar. So they open at like noon or something like that, and then they have like hour-long singers, just local acts, basically kids, teenagers, twenty year olds. Usually they play the guitar and have a keyboard, and they would sing, and you have to take requests and they would serve little meals. So I did a regular gig at a few of those. There was also another place, a really cool bar that I used to play at every Wednesday night. That was the best.
Zul: You are obviously non-Chinese. Did you find it hard to learn Mandarin? As Singaporeans ourselves, we find it hard to do simplified Chinese, and you did classical Chinese. Was it very hard for you?
Ziporyn: It was hard at first. So again I started during my junior year in college, and the way it was set up then was that we had to have one year of modern Chinese and then we could start taking classical Chinese. So I must have had one year of classical Chinese in college, and two years modern Chinese; then I went to Taiwan. Having said that, when I first went to Taiwan, I really could not speak or understand anything at all. I mean I think I won’t bore you with my standard funny stories about me making a fool of myself for not being able to speak Chinese, not understanding what people said, this kind of comedy of errors. There were a lot like that, and I would say for about six months I really could not understand anything that was being said to me. So again I was at Taida. I was doing everyday basically four hours just doing Chinese language texts and four hours of homework. It was crazy. I was also teaching English. I had an American roommate so we were speaking English with each other. But other than that, it was all Chinese. We hung socially with people. I just force myself to try and listen and couldn’t understand anything for months. Then one day, suddenly, weirdly, almost all at once, I could understand. It’s like my ears tuned in. Almost like when you get a signal on this (smart phone). Up until that moment I couldn’t even find the words. I couldn’t even tell where one word started and another word ended, and then suddenly it like came into focus, and, of course, my vocabulary was still limited and everything like that.
But that was it. It was just living in Taiwan, having to speak daily. It was a sink or swim kind of situation. If I needed to buy socks, I needed to know how to say ‘socks’. If you have an option, you can fall back. I know everybody can speak English so I’ll just go in English when I need to. I think it’s like a full language immersion and that your life has to depend on it in some way. I was doing Chinese pretty intensively for those three years. I was very motivated and got really into it. – flashcards with characters and all that sort of stuff. I was really fascinated by Chinese characters. I still feel very aesthetically responsive to Chinese characters and the way the language works, the literature and the philosophy of the culture. Because if you are learning a language and culture, if it’s purely instrumental – like I got to do this if I want to read Shakespeare; when the language itself is just a means to an end, something like that – the motivation is a little hard to drum up. So I think it was those two factors. I came to love the language in its own right and I was living fully immersed in that environment. I don’t think I would have called myself fluent in Chinese until like, maybe two years into that Taiwan living experience. So four years of Chinese to be able to really comfortably speak.
Zul: So just now you mentioned about your interest in Buddhist and philosophy and all the Chan stuff. Why did you choose Buddhist philosophy? Or why the heavy lean towards Buddhism? What led you to it?
Ziporyn: So initially that wasn’t the case at all as I said, as I was originally interested in Laozi and Zhuangzi. Chan, I can tell you exactly. Zen was a much better known thing in America, though not necessarily as it exists in Asia. It had taken on a life of its own within American culture. The first encounter I had with it is from a book called Gödel Escher Bach. Gödel is the mathematician, a German, right? Escher was a Dutch painter, and Bach the composer. So the book is called Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This was a kind of cult intellectual classic book when I was in college – big thick book. Starts out with Lewis Carroll and logical paradoxes of reference and self reference, but in this very unique style. So he’s modelling on this Lewis Carroll dialogue. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician – the same Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in the Wonderland. So it’s kind of in that tradition, but Hofstadter was, I think, a computer scientist and mathematician, and it was a brilliant book. Really brilliant, but really kind of like a crazy book. He had all these dialogues between Achilles and the tortoise, from Zeno’s paradox, because that was what Lewis Carroll wrote and Hofstadter picked that up. Every chapter begins with a new dialogue of Achilles with the tortoise, and he’s got this whole lot of things about artificial intelligence and these self-referential structures of the Escher paintings. These are all these things where a hand is drawing a hand which is drawing a hand, or these interlocking foreground/background figures.
He has a chapter on Zen, and what does he know about Zen? What he knows about Zen is like stuff probably from Alan Watts or something. But what he has is the 無門關 (wu men guan/mumonkan) [The Gateless Gate] that had the Koan collections, and he then links that in with the tortoise and Achilles and Zeno’s paradoxes. One page in that Hofstadter book had this giant “Mu”. Remember that koan, “Does a dog have a Buddha Nature? Wu.” In Japanese it is ‘Mu’. So there’s ‘Mu’, and then he had this made from these words: ‘holism’, ‘holism’… all the way. And then each of these letters was made from the word ‘reductionism’ and each of the letters and ‘reductionism’ was made by ‘holism’ and then each of the letters of ‘holism’ was made by ‘Mu’! You have to see that thing to believe it.
Anyway I recognized that this had something to do with Daoism. I knew that from other literature, but I didn’t know this literature at all, and I was interested. That got me really interested and I had a friend maybe like you guys, who I talked philosophy with and we were way into this book. So at that point that’s when I had the thought that I mentioned before: if I really want to learn about this maybe I need to learn Chinese, right? I didn’t know much about Buddhism, as Indian Buddhism and original Buddhism. I never had a class on that while learning in college. But I was really starting to read up a little bit on Pali Buddhism. I learned a little bit about the whole Non-self idea, and I did know about that back in high school, and I can tell you that I was very resistant to it. Very resistant. Took me a long time to come around to that idea. I learnt about Nagarjuna and that emptiness stuff. I think in Taiwan I may have first read that in Chinese actually. So I’d haunt the bookstores and they have great bookstores in Taiwan. I had a friend, a colleague, who was into Buddhism and we sought out a teacher. There were books like the Lankavatara sutra and another thing which was a book called A Buddhist Bible.
So this I just found in a bookstore; this is Dwight Goddard, and again very kind of loose. This had the Surangama sutra. I don’t know where the hell he got that translation – a very loose kind of translation. It had a bit of the Lankavatara, D.T. Suzuki’s translation, and the Platform sutra. It had “The Word of the Buddha”, this sort of selection of Pali texts that I still use in class to this day. I think it’s a great selection, and a few other pieces: some Tibetan things and it’s just sort of this weird anthology from the 30s. It’s just all sorts of things, and it’s kind of his personal collection. Anyway, I don’t know what the backstory of that guy was, but I did get to know about the Surangama sutra, the Platform sutra, and the Lankavatara. I did get quite excited reading the Surangama sutra. I remember reading that in college in Chicago, and that hit me really hard. I can remember that moment exactly. I mean I wasn’t totally following the argument, much less convinced by the argument. But I was aware of when I read that first section in the Surangama sutra about seeking the mind in the seven that – again, this is sort of like the Daodejing experience – this topic has never come up. I have never seen anyone address this topic before, and this is a topic I actually really care about. It wasn’t like the stuff that seemed to be in other philosophical and religious works that were about either the creation of the world or moral laws; it was the nature of the mind. It addressed the kind of mystery of subjectivity – like the Hofstadter book – and the kind of paradox of being a conscious being. So you could say that was where I started to read early Buddhism and emptiness theory. It kind of was working backwards from there. And again, when I read stuff like this on my own, I wouldn’t read it seriously. I mean I didn’t seek a deeper explanation, just sort of like, “Hmm… really?” [As in, “Oh, is that what the text says?”]
Zul & Haowei: [Laughs.]
Ziporyn: I still think that’s the right thing to do. I must tell you this is something I will go on record saying, pedagogically, unfortunately you can’t do it in school now, because you have to write a paper and you have so many weeks to deadlines and it’s like “boom, boom, boom, boom” one thing after another. Honestly, I think at least for me that was the right way to learn, which was to touch on this a little and wonder what that’s about. Then I would get bored with it and ignore it, and then go walk around Taipei for a few days, and then come back to it. Then gradually sort of plot the points that come easily or take shape that don’t require you to force them. If you have enough time and enough leisure, and you are constantly thinking about them, they start to fill in. That’s how it works for me. So I would say it was there. When I first said went to Taiwan, that [Buddhism] wasn’t my main interest. But when I started reading sutras with my friend, and really looking at the texts, then I got a little more deeply into it, started understanding and getting interested in it more.
Zul: How relevant do you think Buddhist philosophy is in today’s world? Because usually what we hear is people’s perception, even within the philosophy department, that Buddhism is this kind of like hocus-pocus thing or some spiritual kind of philosophy?
Ziporyn: Hmm, yeah. Those are several things you brought up. Did you say within philosophy departments or do you mean on the street?
Zul: Actually both.
Ziporyn: The philosophy department issue – that’s a kind of institutional matter. So if you look at let’s say in the United States the same problem and you have people working, who really are trying to do something about that – people like Jay Garfield, for example, in the US – there’s someone who sort of devoted his life to making Buddhism respectable in philosophy departments. That means at the current moment in time in Anglo-American institutions, speaking the language of and addressing the concerns of analytic philosophy, ethics, epistemology, he has done that. Graham Priest whom he works with, is another figure. There’s a handful of people like that, I think. This guy Charles Goodman does ethics, Buddhist ethics, in a philosophy department. Mark Siderits was someone who I remembered in the US, whom my colleagues spoke well of. I read his book Buddhism As Philosophy, and that really showed me that you really can do Buddhism seriously as this kind of philosophy. That book puts it in terms of a procedure and methodology which Buddhism has a lot of resources in that direction, but that’s not the sort of traditional language of Buddhism. I would say, really, it is a repackaging for a particular market.
In America, I would say the place where Buddhism really has been taken very seriously in higher education and research institutions is in psychology, where you have people really doing a lot of Buddhism and it’s like cutting edge stuff. So all these therapies like mindfulness therapy and neurological studies of meditation and things like that. So it’s funny because it is like a category problem. It’s not in religious studies programs. It’s not in philosophy departments, but in psychology programs. So it’s kind of an interesting episteme type problem. It’s like this thing which sort of came forward in original lists of ‘religions’, but was not fitting very well there. But it kind of did, because it has rituals that has sort of deities and prayers and stuff like that. But then should we do it in philosophy? It worked kind of well in philosophy. One philosophy was doing a certain type of thing, but then it stopped doing that. Instead of doing another thing, you can kind of make it work there, because it definitely has what we would call religious elements and philosophical issues and psychological stuff. There’s a very well worked out psychological theory with its own apparatus and methods of investigation. So it may just be a question of which label is put on it, and that may change at different times. That’s my sense of it. I myself think that maybe continental philosophy is a better match, for me at least, in the way I understand Buddhism. This is an institutional question. It just changes what sort of reference points you have when you try to write about Buddhism. You can do it this other way too, and I think Buddhism is a very big thing. I am not sure how well it’s going to work out in terms of analytic philosophy. Chinese philosophy has a similar problem, right? Like where does that belong? Can we do it in the philosophy departments?
Zul: So the second part to the question is, why do you think it is relevant in today’s world?
Ziporyn: Relevant to some people?
Zul &Haowei: [Laughs.]
Ziporyn: Not relevant to others. I mean, what do you mean by that question?
Zul: Usually when people ask me, “Why are you studying Buddhist philosophy?”, they will follow up with the question, “Oh, is it relevant in today’s world?” How do you use non-self and like all these Tiantai interpervasiveness and all these?
Ziporyn: Well, yeah, of course.
Zul: I mean humans just want to have this pragmatic aspect of philosophy.
Ziporyn: Again, psychology might be the model or phenomenology if you want to tilt that a little further to the philosophical direction. But certainly it is about the primary motive of philosophy, and therefore you can say of all the human sciences, which is “know thyself”. Is that practical? It’s practical in that it has an effect on people’s lives. So put it this way. The only way I have an answer to that kind of question is to say: so you can imagine that there might be systems of thought that were very well developed in the ancient or medieval worlds that are not relevant, because they have premises which simply are incompatible with the state of knowledge now. For example, maybe alchemy. Is this like studying vast tracts of alchemical literature, or, you know, flat earth science?
Zul & Haowei: [Laughs.]
Ziporyn: Or maybe even astrology or something like that. Obviously, I don’t think it’s in that category at all. In other words, none of the premises of what Buddhists are doing depend on any falsified beliefs at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. Do you see this book that is a bestseller now, called Why Buddhism Is True?
Zul: Oh, yes. It was promoted by a philosophy site I chanced upon.
Ziporyn: Oh really? I haven’t read it, but it’s interesting because of the background of the guy. I think he’s a freelance writer, does things for The New Yorker and so on. That’s a selective presentation of certain things in Buddhism that, for him, are self-evidently in line with evolutionary biology and psychology it seems. At the very least, the claim seems to be that those central things don’t involve anything in conflict with any modern knowledge, and that seems to me very plausible. But I am just saying there’s all kinds of things in Buddhism – an enormous literature and an entire kind of a multi-continental culture. I mean, there’s nothing in the questionable ancient beliefs that are part of that system that affect its main philosophical and psychological claims. I would say no more so than in Plato and Aristotle, where at least some things you can say they had false beliefs about the way the world was constructed, about the planets as gods, about the origins of things and the spheres and all that. How much does that influence how much you can take seriously about their other claims? I kind of feel like the case is worse for Plato and Aristotle, because they are epistemological realists ultimately. So their empirical beliefs about the world tend to have a greater effect on the validity or invalidity of their philosophical views than will be the case for Buddhism, which develops rather radical forms of anti-realist epistemology. Buddhism can be kind of timeless in that way, because so little of its main points depend on any factual something turning out to be one way or the other. They are not making those kinds of claims.
Zul: Is there anything you would like to say to philosophy students or students with an interest in Buddhist philosophy, that you think is beneficial for them? Other than having patience?
Ziporyn: Don’t give up. I would say don’t be intimidated by the current ideas about what counts as philosophy. I mean I guess I feel bad for young people in philosophy. I meet people who have a great interest in doing certain things and there is just no place to do that, because of what have become the accepted forms of academic philosophy. This might be my prejudice, so I don’t want to make a big deal of saying this. But I just feel like if it were me coming up now and I had to go into the philosophy department and get a degree in philosophy in an analytic department, I think I will just be totally turned off about philosophy and I wouldn’t do it, honestly. That language does not speak to my existential concerns. But that might be because I haven’t learned that language, and I could be made to translate the things I care about into that medium. But I didn’t have to do that, and so to me it’s a very alien sort of procedure and it seems point-missing in many ways. You know, missing the point.
So to young people I guess I want to say, stick to whatever it is that interests you in Buddhism or in philosophy. Don’t be made to feel ashamed of that or deflected from that. Maybe it’s not called philosophy in certain places, so what? That again, I think, is an institutional question. And the second piece of advice is, school learning is one thing, and of course there are pragmatic reasons that’s important and you can learn a lot from other people if you are receptive in a way I wasn’t. But I do think be kind to yourself. And if you have an opportunity to follow your nose, follow your interests and read and think in that more unstructured way. That can be very powerful. Again, I think it is very individual thing. So everyone works differently and learns differently. But I would say that, for me, walking around, carrying a book and having kind of a day job for two years was really when I learned to think.
Zul: The last question is, if your house is on fire, and you can only choose five books that are precious to you, which of them will you bring along and why?
Ziporyn: So five books. Let’s do this as a desert island thing. Zhuangzi with collected commentaries. So I hope I can take 庄子集成 (Zhuangzi ji cheng) [Collections of Zhuangzi], something like that, the full commentaries. I would take 摩呵止观 (Mohezhiguan) [The Great Calming and Contemplation], by 天台智顗 (Tiantai Zhiyi). I would take Hegel’s The Science of Logic, because that’s something you could probably read over and over forever. I will take 景德传灯录 (Jing de chuan deng lu) [Transmission of the Lamp], an early complete version of the Chan dialogues. And Spinoza’s Ethics.