April 2, 2014
Growing up in San Francisco, Philosophy Professor Jason Wirth was exposed to Eastern traditions. Attending a Jesuit high school, he knew by his senior year that studying philosophy would be his life’s work. When he finished his doctoral studies, which focused on German and French philosophy, he immediately felt there was something profoundly missing.” He soon delved into the philosophies of indigenous peoples and Zen Buddhism. Today, as a philosophy professor and Zen priest, he brings a perspective to his courses that centers not on finding answers to some of life’s most perplexing issues but on asking the right questions.
Wirth encourages his students to cut through the barriers to living life philosophically, to embrace solitude, to open themselves up to the wisdom from the full range of traditions. The Greeks, for example, had some of the most profound writings on friendship and an “edgy” quality of not being afraid to look at difficult questions. Nietzsche warned against herd mentality. In Zen Buddhism, one must awaken the heart in addition to the mind. Wisdom traditions, including those in the Pacific Northwest, offer enlightened ways of living.
This past winter quarter, Wirth taught the Book of Job. With all the problems and pain Job experiences as a starting point, he opens his students to the very questions that Job asks. The material challenges the cliches that keep students from thinking seriously about the world.
“The Book of Job is really profound, but I have ulterior motives,” he said. “Sometimes we have a tolerance for half-baked lies and platitudes that keep us from thinking seriously about our world. Philosophy opens up in the spirit of Job. It requires students to cut though all those screens and half-truths that protect us from the very scary experience of thinking. It lets us get real.”
Wirth found in his study of Zen a way to fully awakening oneself, going beyond thinking into the heart.
“Even if your brain is smart, it doesn’t mean that your brain isn’t still neurotic,” he said. “People think Zen is about peace, about relaxation. If you want to relax, take a bath. If you want peace, practice Zen. It’s hard and takes time and effort to awaken the heart and the mind. That’s what Zen is about.”
Philosophy is a way to assess and gauge what matters in life, and Wirth encourages his students to continually ask questions: Who are you? What are the questions most worth asking in your life? What kind of life do you want? And if you want it, in what ways do you want that for everyone?
He leaves his students with this advice: “To live philosophically, be the change you want to see.”