Dr. Andrew K. Whitehead, Assistant Professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy, presented a lecture on the philosophical poetry of the medieval Zen monk-poet IkkyÅ« SÅjun (1394-1481). IkkyÅ« SÅjun’s contemporary popularity in Japan is owed, in large part, to the various representations of his mischievous wit in hagiographic literature and popular culture. However, the actual figure of IkkyÅ« is one of controversy. He famously used poetry as a means of criticizing the Zen institutions of his times. Dr. Whitehead argues that one of IkkyÅ«’s goals was the critical philosophical practice of revealing inconsistencies in the ways of life and in the practices of his contemporaries.
IkkyÅ«’s poetry can be understood as a unique development of the Buddhist practice of ‘skilful means.’ ‘Skilful means’ refers to the appropriateness and suitability of the language and subjects in his poems, particularly as these serve to facilitate appropriate conduct and understanding of Zen. IkkyÅ« enjoyed using conventional language in unconventional ways in order to break deliberately with the status quo he criticized.
Dr. Whitehead discussed how the philosophical poetry of IkkyÅ« SÅjun embodies the idea that shared concepts and conventional language tend to unify groups as long as those in the group accept a shared understanding of conventional reality. When conventional language ceases to unify people, their conventional reality will also change and diverge. The effects of such changes and divergences can be felt just as strongly today as they evidently were when IkkyÅ« was composing his critiques.
Posted: March 9, 2016