Excerpt from “The Last Philosophy Major: Conversations With Elvis Wu”
by David Kennedy Bird
There’s an eccentric cast of characters that my students become familiar with, if they’ve been in the Foundations Collegium program for any length of time. Some of the key players in this lineup would be Little Biffy, Fred Novice, Jennifer Smith, Stephanie Jones, The Monkey of Rational Thought, The Monkey of Illumination, The Monkey of Surrealism, and Tharg, the Primordial Man. These characters make frequent appearances in lectures and discussions, class handouts, and rhetorical dialogues that i’ve generated in order to illustrate logical principles, the contours of certain controversial issues, etc.
[The Good Reader is doubtless brimming over with questions. Do these people really exist, or are they fictional? Are they symbolic archetypes that occupy a kind of ontological space that’s not easy to nail down… kind of like flockbinkers? Mmmm. Hard to say, hard to say. Anyway, that’s not what this blog entry is about.]
At any rate, one of the oldest and most iconic of these characters is Elvis Wu, the last philosophy major.
Elvis is a Chinese-American philosopher (born and raised in Los Angeles) who claims (and who can doubt him?) to have been the last student ever to graduate from an American college or university with a philosophy degree. This occurred back in the dark days, when philosophical thought was being systematically phased out of all the instutions of higher learning.
At some point in the not-too-distant future i’ll introduce you to Elvis more suitably, give you some background on him, and explain how he ended up with the impressive title “The Last Philosophy Major.” For now, though, why don’t we just jump into the deep end of the pool and expose you to a conversation that he and i had once, many years ago? Hmmm?
“I would like to tell you a story,” said Elvis. “It’s a Zen story. You are familiar, yes, with the account of Bodhidharma? The Patriarch who brought Zen Buddhism from India into China?”
“Vaguely,” i said.
“You should be. The story is well known. I will save you the embarrassment of quizzing you about it.”
“Thank you,” i said through slightly clenched teeth.
“He was a great teacher. His name means ‘the knowledge of the way.’ Bodhi, knowledge, and Dharma, the way or the true path. Many stories have been told about him, and his name is considered by many to be synonymous with Zen. In fact, when a student asks a Zen master the question ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China,’ he is in reality asking the meaning of Zen.”
“Ah,” i said.
“Anyway, his successor Bodhifarma is not so well-known. And my story concerns Bodhifarma.”
“I see. You’re right, i can’t say i’ve ever heard of him.”
“Bodhifarma. A truly unique figure among the Zen Patriarchs. Do you know what the name means?”
“Well, no, i haven’t the foggiest.”
“It means ‘the knowledge of agriculture.’ Anyway, my story is about an encounter he had with one of his students. The young fellow’s name was Looh Pi. One day, the student approached his teacher with a question. ‘Great Master,’ he said, ‘what is the way of enlightenment? Is it the way of right knowledge, or the way of absolute emptiness?’
“Bodhifarma was at this time an old man and had grown somewhat deaf, so he said, ‘I do not understand.’
“Looh Pi was delighted with this answer, and replied, ‘Great Master, you have spoken well! I now see that the way of enlightenment lies beyond rational comprehension.’
“Bodhifarma looked at him strangely, and said, ‘Your lips move, but there is no sound.’
“With a yelp of happiness, Looh Pi replied, ‘Yes! It is so! True awakening comes through the nurturing of silence.’
“Somewhat helplessly, Bodhifarma turned to another of his followers and said, ‘I can’t hear him.’
“Looh Pi clapped his hands together in ecstacy. ‘Master! Your insights fill my soul, as the waters of the Yangtze River brim its banks! To become utterly deaf, to be closed off to the chattering noise of this illusory world—this is the true experience of the dharma.’
“Bodhifarma was getting exasperated. He got in the student’s face and loudly said, ‘What? What?’
“Looh Pi thought this was the greatest. He began leaping up and down, flapping his arms and shouting ‘What? What? What?’ and creating quite a scene. A crowd was beginning to gather.”
Elvis paused a few seconds for effect. I patiently waited. Then he went on.
“At the end of his rope, Bodhifarma shouted at the lad. ‘Your words are empty, they do not enter an old man’s head!’
“The student was running around, hooting like a peacock, and whacking himself and his fellow postulants over the head with a stick. ‘I have achieved satori!’ he hooted. ‘The universe opens before me like the fruit of the Banyan Tree!’
“Bodhifarma heaved one loud desperate sigh, meditated on the situation for a few seconds, and — unable to think of anything else to do — he pulled out a pistol and shot him.”
“He — wait a second. You lost me. Bodhifarma — shot him?”
“With a pistol.”
“So, this great Zen master just pulls out a weapon and blows the kid away.”
Elvis smiled to himself in a most irritating fashion. “That is right. Do you understand the point of the story?”
“Well, uhm, no, Elvis. I have to tell you that i don’t.”
“Good. Let’s go get a strawberry milkshake.”