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My Inner Philosopher

Last week, I was facing my shelves of philosophers, thinking about downsizing, and not ready to let them go. This week, I wrote a draft of new blog, which for at least a while I’ve stuck in the drawer in the cloud where my fiction writing guru, Stephen King, told me to stick to manuscripts while they ripen or ferment or do whatever it is that manuscripts do.

I shared the draft with my Dharma brother, Roshi Genki Kahn, who got back to me quickly with some feedback which is now in the drawer with the blog draft. I read his feedback first though, quickly, on my phone; and my immediate take-away was that I had launched myself into an arena which for me is littered with landmines. Genki, likely without intending to — I’ll know more when I reread his note once the blog comes out of the drawer and if we talk about it — reminded me of my painful years of footnoting and scholarly aspirations and acne.

And then I had to laugh. In a 1200-word blog about Zen’s patriarchal history, I had managed to reference both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, two of the heaviest of the heavyweights from my doctoral years.

This was worth noticing. I hadn’t seen it earlier in the week when I had failed to toss any of my philosophy books, but there is a shadow here. I want to bring him out, my inner philosopher.

My father held intellectuals, academics, and especially theorists in enormously high regard. Daddy was smart, probably the smartest person I knew and he read an enormous amount, everything, fiction and science and particularly politics and economics, but he had dropped out of college during his freshman year to run away to sea. As I kid, I loved the stories of his sea adventures, but I have never fully appreciated the powerful pull which his esteem for theoreticians had on me.

I wanted to impress Daddy whether I admitted that to myself or not. Why else did I choose to write my dauntingly difficult dissertation, a theoretical dissertation, unheard of in those days at NYU, while others sped through following the standard, empirical intro-research design-data presentation-analysis-conclusion outline?

The pull had been there a long-time. Look at all those philosophy books. Kant: I haven’t opened Kant in 60 years, and I am still carrying him around. I flirted with a philosophy major, two sour notes sent me in another direction. My freshman-year Ethics professor liked me a lot. I’m sure he meant it as complement when he wrote in the margin of a midterm bluebook, “Have you ever considered a career in the ministry?” I was shocked, felt I had to ask him if he knew that I was Jewish. He didn’t; he apologized. I had not the slightest idea then that 30 years later I would ordain as a Buddhist priest. At the time, the ministry suggestion was definitely a turn-off.

Sophomore year, I was still thinking about philosophy as a possible major. I was taking history of philosophy with department chair, Martin Eshelman. I went to ask him if he thought I should major in philosophy. He thought it was a great idea. He got really excited about it, told me about how much he had loved it and went into detail about his study habits. He would take extensive notes on everything he read, and then he would use a variety of colored pens to underline, red for names of philosophers, blue for philosophical schools, green for key ideas. He thought I would love this. It was way too obsessive-compulsive for me. I was not a great notetaker and didn’t like to reread my own notes. The idea of underlining in 3 colors was absurd, although I had friends who I knew would love that kind of thing. They were good students.

I majored in English instead, although I took the 5 semesters required for a minor in philosophy. And I kept all those books. 60 years.

Lurking in the background or in the unconscious all this time was a desire — I’m not sure it’s the best word — to be a “theorist.” We can call it my “philosophical bent.” I was drawn to first principles. I remember trying to write a theoretical opus during the 80’s, in the days when I had built an office in a walk-in closet, and the “book” was going in the wrong direction. I wrote chapter one, but before I could go on to the chapter 2, I was writing chapter zero and then I was writing chapter minus 1. I kept trying to make explicit the premises on which I was relying. I felt a lot like an Ogden Nash flea: the lesser fleas kept biting me. I never got to chapter 2.

It wasn’t altogether a bad trait, it turned out to be a useful skill in building our charter school network. We were able to get clear on our basic principles early on and that made decision-making so much easier moving forward than it would otherwise have been.

When I’m being honest with myself, as honest as I’m able to be at this moment, I see the pull of many shadows. The pull to write (to make art), the pull to philosophize (theorize), the pull to earn a good living. All of these things pulled on my father, and it looks now like I just picked them up, only partially realizing what he was doing or what I was doing. Overarching them all for my father was the desire to do good for others, to do whatever he could to make the world a better place.

He was so committed to social action, and I followed his aspiration there, although I took a different path. It took Roshi Bernie to show me the different approach to social action which led to the building of our charter school network. And I managed while doing that to earn a living, something that my Dad always struggled with.

Maybe if he hadn’t run away to sea, he would have become the theoretician he had always admired. I did my damnedest to do that for him. I kept butting my head against the wall. Am I ready to let go of my theoretician demon?

Oh, Te-shan. You burnt all your notes in a second, abandoned your hope of writing the great commentary on the Diamond Sutra. I wish I could say that I had let that go now completely, that that shadow was now firmly in the rearview mirror. But those philosophy books are still on my shelf, and I find myself with a blog in the drawer which has all the grand theoretical aspirations that have haunted me for as long as I can remember.

Well, at least I have seen that ghost. If and when I take that blog out of the drawer, will I be able to rewrite it, to say what I want to say without trying to impress anyone? Will I, finally, be able to say, “Daddy, we’ve done enough; we’re okay”?

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