Student Seeks Enlightenment in Graduate School, Gets Engaged

Kevin Taylor VP for Communications

Kevin Taylor
VP for Communications

By James Anderson

Does a dog have Buddha nature?

The question is a kōan, a riddle intended to confuse rational thought, requiring meditation.

Kevin Taylor, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said the answer to the question is “yes, a dog does have Buddha nature,” but that alone does not make it a kōan.

Taylor, 34, is GAUnited vice president for Communications. He primarily studies the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism particularly known for the kōan.

The Buddhist concept of reincarnation after death and principle of interdependency suggests everything has Buddha nature, he said.

The reason the question about the dog is a kōan is because one cannot just passively accept “the answer that’s been handed to you,” he said. “You really have to struggle with it.”

Zen, the Japanese word for insight or meditation, was called Chán in China, and originally came out of the tradition of contemplative thought, dhyāna, in India, Taylor said.

“A lot of the different philosophical systems and religions in India at the time did various forms of meditation,” he said. “They were usually coming out of these different practices of yoga.”

As the philosophy moved from India through China it picked up Daoism and Confucianism, “and for a while they begin to blend,” Taylor explained, “because Buddhism is known for its syncretism, where it can harmonize different aspects that might not even agree with each other, and yet they work.”


Yet the differences presuppose unity, like both the dialectic and Zen Buddhist ethos.

What the Buddhist monks in Japan learned from the Chinese is that everything has a Buddha nature, given “the interconnectedness of everything,” Taylor said.

While everything has a Buddha nature, “only humans can actualize it,” he added.

The tenet echoes a facet of Marxian philosophy that draws a distinction between humans and animals. While other animals (e.g. bees, spiders) can create wondrous products through concerted efforts, humans differ because at the end of every human “labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally,” Marx wrote in “Capital” about sentient human doing. He added that humans must subordinate their will to their conscious projections so as to realize purposeful production.

Mencius, the only other Chinese philosopher besides Confucius known to the West by a Latinized name, proffered his own philosophy of man that did not deny the desires of the flesh, but also intimated human nature implies something more.

“Slight is the difference between man and the brutes,” Mencius wrote. “The common man loses this distinguishing feature, while the gentleman retains it.”

“The Buddha’s teaching is pragmatic insofar as it provides a solution to an existential crisis,” Taylor wrote while working through the pedagogical praxis of Siddhārtha Gautama in his first master’s thesis, “Did the Buddha Have a Method?”

“I got nauseated I said that so many times,” he confessed.

Yet he persevered. That same dogged nature helped him go from being “a very close-minded” teenager to a natural graduate student.

The Gradual Journey to Graduate School Enlightenment

Replete with video games, Taylor said his childhood “was really uneventful,” until he turned 16 when he got a car and a job at McHugh’s Double Drive-Thru in his hometown of Mattoon, Ill. He likens McHugh’s to a Rally’s.

“Best fast food in Coles County,” according to a comment by Brandon Lee Heselton on the establishment’s Facebook page.

And “hey gotta tell ya, besides good food, u have AWESOME messges on ur sign out front,” another McHugh’s Facebook fan wrote using sort of comprehensible social media cyber-slang.

Taylor started at McHugh’s because his friend Christian Peacock worked there while both were still attending Mattoon Senior High School, the home of the fighting Green Wave.

After graduating he took a year off from school.

“I knew I wanted to go back to college, but I wanted to take a break,” he said. “So I just worked full time and my parents let me. I was really lucky that they let me.”

While working at McHugh’s he became a full-time manager.

“I made more money then, than I make right now as a grad student, easily,” he lamented.

Taylor used the extra income to pay off his car, buy a computer and pay for other things he would need for when he started school at Lakeland Community College. He attended community college “for basically free” thanks to the MAP grant, he said.

While at Lakeland he needed a health credit. His friend Peacock was already a martial artist, specializing in Shotokan Karate. Peacock already had a purple belt in Shotokan and some Kempo Jujitsu training before they met.

So he and Taylor decided to try Taekwondo.

“I always thought that Taekwondo would be my thing,” Taylor admitted. “And it fits my body type really well, and I got into some of the best shape of my life.”

He went from being the self-described “fat kid” – a muscle-less 215 pound mess who never went to the gym – to a slim 165 pound athlete with improved flexibility.

“And then I was eating Subway everyday so I was like Jared,” he said.

Taylor said Subway diet success stories and competitions were not en vogue until later, so he missed out.

“I remember seeing people posting pictures and winning contests for these things, and I was looking at it and going, ‘Dude, I just dropped 50 pounds on that and now you’re making contests? Bastards!” Taylor said.

Reading books like Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings,” Taylor and Peacock became enamored with martial arts. Their passion for it only heated up.

One year into Taekwondo they saw an ad in the paper for the Iwanami Dojo, a Shinkendo Dojo in Champaign, Ill.

Peacock and Taylor started Shinkendo in 1999. They would attend classes in Mattoon at 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, and as soon as those classes ended, they would drive to Champaign to make Shinkendo sessions at 7 p.m.

Taylor continued taking Taekwondo for a little more than a year, eventually attaining brown belt status, even as his friend had to take an extended break after contracting mononucleosis.

But the prerogatives of those teaching him Taekwondo came to clash with his own evolving philosophy – and with the focus on respect, honesty and virtuous activity taught by Shinkendo.

“It’s based off the Japanese bushido etiquette,” Taylor said about Shinkendo, likening it to the way of the samurai.

He said he would like to return to Taekwondo someday, but not through the American Taekwondo Association.

“ATA was too business oriented,” he said, later expressing similar concerns for the policy and direction of the enterprises and educational institutions he would become involved with.

About the same time he dropped Taekwondo and devoted himself fully to Shinkendo, he also left Lakeland and went to Eastern Illinois University for his junior and senior year, majoring in philosophy. He kept working his fast food job while taking about five classes per semester at EIU.

One class on religious philosophy taught by Young Lee, a professor specializing in Asian studies, introduced him to Buddhism. Taylor loved Lee’s teaching and became fascinated with Buddhist teachings. That fascination did not die.

Graduating after two years at Eastern, he was unsure of what he wanted to do, so he entered the job market.

Taylor landed a job as a bank teller at First Mid-Illinois Bank in Mattoon, an eight-lane drive-up facility across from the bank’s headquarters.

“I wasn’t working that job for more than a month before I decided that I needed to go back to grad school because, basically, seeing the kind of people that work at the bank and what their values were and how they sort of went by, day by day, I said, ‘Nope, this is not for me.’ I don’t want to grow up to be like any of these people,” he recounted.

First Mid-Illinois is not in the same league as the big Wall Street banks that garnered a government insurance policy, but widespread dissatisfaction and ire at the entire financial sector remain high, for many reasons. “To their credit,” Taylor added, “First-Mid prided itself on responsible lending. Not sure if it was true but they said they were above the norm when it came to loans.”

Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, recently recalled how “the amount of money that eventually got spent on homeowner aid,” as a result of the major bailout “now stands as a kind of grotesque joke compared to the Himalayan mountain range of cash that got moved onto balance sheets of the big banks more or less instantly in the first months.”

Nomi Prins, investigative journalist and former managing director at Goldman Sachs, documented how the bailout far exceeded the $700 billion TARP payment. She also explained how even the limited backlash against the financial industry has been misdirected.

“The bloodlust reserved for Bernard L. ‘Bernie’ Madoff and the other new villains ultimately only serves to cloak larger systemic crimes: specifically the $13 trillion that the federal government doled out from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to back the biggest players on Wall Street,” she wrote in, “It Takes a Pillage,” her 2009 exposé.

Taibbi, who once referred to Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” also reported that big banks have “increased their investments in junk-rated companies by 74 percent,” since 2011.

This is the on-going crisis that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn,” Taibbi wrote.

Max Zahn, former labor activist at Oberlin College and founder of Buddha on Strike, took to meditating outside Goldman Sachs every day to “extend compassion and demand that they extend that same compassion to the billions of people across the world affected by their practices.”

Taylor never meditated outside First Mid-Illinois, but he did decide to pursue graduate studies in Asian philosophy with a focus on Japanese Buddhism.

He came to SIUC in 2005 to begin work on a master’s degree. He said he would regularly spend three days per week in Carbondale, Ill., taking Wednesday/Thursday classes, and would then take the train back home to continue working, temporarily, at the bank.

Martial arts and a growing interest in Buddhist praxis provides one kind of guidance, he said, but he lacked professional guidance – and an assistantship, which meant no funding and no tuition waiver.

“I didn’t know how to be a grad student,” he said.

Still, he was learning. Part of that process entailed a semester spent studying abroad in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture.

Upon return, another friend of his helped him land an internship with the Secretary of State at the Illinois Regional Archive Depository.

“They tend to hire history and political science people, but they never apply because those departments tend to fund their students and philosophy has overflow,” he said about how he ended up there when his department was unable to offer him a position.

The job, which is not covered by the GAUnited collective bargaining agreement, gave him archive experience, about $800 a month and a partial tuition stipend.

Meanwhile, Taylor and his friend Peacock taught Shinkendo classes on the side in the Student Rec Center, with some success.

They had reached the point where they could test students without an instructor present. Both The Southern Illinoisan and the Daily Egyptian reported on the burgeoning club back in 2007.

As Taylor taught Shinkendo and explored the Buddha’s method in his master’s work at SIUC, his brother started talking to him about the University of Illinois.

Keith Taylor, who is 14 months older than Kevin, earned a bachelor’s in political science from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s in public policy from the University of Illinois Springfield. He was working on a doctorate in human and community development, a subset of sociology, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he started talking to his younger brother about joining him there to go to graduate school.

The younger Taylor said his older brother “started gaining momentum as he was going along – started finding direction – when he was in his early twenties,” after the older Taylor initially started at EIU, majoring in art.

He said his brother got a staff position with then-congressman David Phelps in Washington, DC, which he used to network and make connections.

Once at UIUC, the older Taylor got involved in graduate student council and the Graduate Employee’s Organization.

“I give him all of the credit for getting me into U of I,” said the younger Taylor, who would also become involved in GEO.

His thesis unfinished, he left SIUC and joined his brother at UIUC to work on a second master’s degree.

Taylor said his thesis could have been completed earlier, but he lacked the requisite discipline, and perhaps the intellectual acumen, his girlfriend displayed.

“She’s definitely more disciplined, and I absolutely think she’s smarter than me,” he admitted.

When they dated for the semester and the summer before he left for UIUC, he still had yet to acquire the graduate school mentality his partner had.

“When we were dating that semester and that summer I was watching her finish her thesis [while] me and my friends were playing Rock Band,” Taylor said.

But he buckled down and got to work once he moved back to central Illinois. Despite the long-distance relationship and the highly intensive languages classes five days per week, he finished his first thesis.

The newfound work-school continuity and fiscal wherewithal helped.

“They funded me every step of the way,” he said. “I came in, they gave me a fellowship.”

Taylor became a TA for an Intro to Japanese Culture class. He held the position for two semesters, under two different professors.

One had taught the class for decades and had it “down to a science,” Taylor said. The other professor who taught it the following semester had just completed his PhD, and came in with a new, nuanced perspective, drawing on work in gender and queer theory.

“Whereas the first guy would start from the importation of people from China into Japan, the other guy was starting from the Mejii Restoration in 1868,” Taylor said, “so he was much more social-political.”

Taylor said he learned a lot between the two.

When the University of Illinois administration initially refused to guarantee tuition waivers for graduate employees in 2009 and GEO went on strike, he said he learned a lot then too.

His brother had encouraged him to get involved with the union, and so he had become a department steward.

“I was in a department of professors who were very supportive of the strike,” he said. “They were all on our side. Nobody was going to punish us for striking, for missing classes or anything like that.”

Taylor said he was in a “unique situation,” serving as mediator between the many international students in his department and the rest of the union. The former supported the union, but many were worried about getting in trouble with their home countries.

The concern turned out to be a bit overblown.

“When we met at Willard Airport and brought the arbitrator in to do the negotiations, a lot of the international students from the department were there,” Taylor said.

Taylor took to the picket lines for about an hour around the quad during the strike. He said he planned to spend the entire next day out there, but the strike only lasted one day.

It only lasted a day because it was successful. It was successful, Taylor said, because grads dialogued with students and faculty, put informational materials up all around campus explaining how much work is done by TAs and pushed the idea, “The university works because we do,” while continually stressing the importance of tuition waivers for making higher education possible.

The strike ended after GEO got a guarantee that the University would not mess with tuition waivers, Taylor said.

Later, as he neared degree completion, he said his advisor approached him about future prospects in graduate school.

Taylor said his advisor basically told him, “‘Don’t count on it,’ in the nicest possible way,” regarding acceptance into the PhD program at U of I. “He was trying to warn me how competitive it was but it took a few hours to sink in. We’re still friends and he’s helping me on my dissertation now.”

With deadlines passed and no time to apply to other programs, Taylor put further graduate study on the backburner and sought employment at UIUC. He had a “so-so” interview with the director of the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, Poshek Fu.

Taylor emailed the professor back after the interview to follow up, and included a small calendar he had put together in just two hours using Photoshop CSi, similar to the kind he was told he would be expected to make should he get the job.

“So I skated in with my limited web and graphic design knowledge,” Taylor said. “I got a job I was probably not qualified for, but I made it happen.”

As part of his job, he said he maintained the CEAPS the website, “frantically” taught himself how to use Adobe Dreamweaver – the Center’s program of choice – worked with professors, organized conferences and did “a lot of calendaring.”

He did that for one year and then applied to a slew of schools and PhD programs: Montana, Hawaii and even the history department at UIUC.

“And everybody was sending me letters back saying, ‘Yeah, we’re just taking one person this year, and it wasn’t you, sorry,’” he said. “One University that will remain nameless was a big pain in the ass because the department secretary wouldn’t even confirm that she had received my transcripts. The bureaucracy of the application process really got in the way of a simple problem.”

After multiple email exchanges about the transcript, the secretary quit responding and Taylor got upset. He said after a while he just wanted to get his rejection letter.

“Finally I got one and I was like, ‘Good. I’m done,’” he said.

“I also reapplied to SIUC. When I was doing philosophy, I wanted to learn Japanese but when I was learning Japanese at U of I, I kept writing American philosophy.” He returned in 2011, but with no guarantee of funding. “They were very honest and upfront with me and I’m glad for that.”

He returned to his IRAD job for a time, which helped defray the high costs of continuing higher education.

He later landed a GA position with the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, where he would spend 10 hours a week as webmaster and another 10 hours working as an RA.

The job started out creating and updating faculty pages while the RA work was lots of hands on instruction and learning by online tutorials how to do advanced graphic design, he said.

His older brother meanwhile completed his dissertation – a write-up of field work conducted at wind farms to document the decentralized power of wind cooperatives and illustrate how the Midwest power grid could be better channeled.

In addition to publishing in peer-reviewed journals, the older Taylor, now a PhD, writes commentary for sites like the Center for a Stateless Society, a Left Libertarian media center that declaims against concentrated power but favors market systems.

Richard Wolff, co-founder of Democracy at Work and proponent of worker self-directed enterprises, recently assailed markets for the many shortcomings associated with commodity exchange. Debates about the moral limits of markets continue.

The older Taylor analyzed the consequences of that general trend for University education.

He explained how “workplaces have externalized their costs onto society,” as colleges “are paying their administrators loads of money while holding campus wages down,” and often demonstrating an unwillingness “to enter into fair trade certified buying programs for university apparel” because of their “reluctance to open their books to the general public.”

He added that although he has more pressing things to do, students protesting debt “have the higher ground” in the debate about repayment, “particularly considering the industrial bailouts we have seen over the last few decades given to people who were never truly in need,” including banks, he wrote with a hint of sarcasm.

The younger Taylor said he too owes a lot of money in student loans, but he also made it a priority to focus and get through graduate school.

Actualizing Activist Potentials: A Natural Evolution

Granted, graduate school has not been problem free, Taylor said. The notion of always existing Buddha nature likewise poses a problem, he said.

Why try to reach enlightenment if the Buddha nature is already within you? The practice gave rise to many “do-nothing Zennists” during Tokugawa Japan, Taylor said.

But just as how dialectics suggests something beautiful existing in the form of being denied must be made manifest through negation of the negativity suppressing it, Taylor reiterated that although everything has Buddha immanence, one must still work to bring it into being.

“The point is to struggle,” make the best of our “interdependent co-arising situation,” and help to reduce the suffering of others, he said.

Taylor said there are several exemplars of this “engaged Buddhism,” such as the contemporary Thich Nhat Hanh and the 17th century Japanese Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku.

Ekaku “leveled some of the harshest criticism against do-nothing Zen,” Taylor said about the influential teacher’s attempts to reform Zen from the inside using neo-Confucian arguments to stress good governance.

Soka Gakkai, a Japanese lay Nichiren Buddhist movement that became popular on the West Coast in the 1960s, practices a “more social-political” Buddhism, Taylor noted, citing the codification of environmental concerns in its charter. The school attends to pedagogy has worked with the Center for Dewey Studies and SIUC professor Larry Hickman.

Taylor cited the Dalai Lama, who expressed sympathies with Marxian moral ethics, as “engaged Buddhism” par excellence.

Previously, the Dalai Lama said he is “not a Leninist,” but he does consider himself “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist,” because he admired the objective of democratized control of production and equitable distribution of wealth.

Pronounced inequality prevails in the present. The wealthiest one percent in the world possess $110 trillion, 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world population, according to an Oxfam report. The richest 85 people in the world own as much as the bottom half of the world’s population, the report, released Jan. 20, 2014, also stated.

Most Americans – 65 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center – recognize that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years.

Recognizing the pronounced inequality and struggle even within the confines of University, Taylor got actively involved in GAUnited, the union for Graduate Assistants at SIUC. As VP for Communications, he sits on the Executive Council. As chair of the Communications Committee, he helps produce GAU’s monthly e-newsletter, The Advocate.

Despite describing himself as “more behind the scenes,” Taylor played an instrumental role in helping GAU present “The PhD Movie,” handling logistics and passing out literature at the event.

As a “lay Buddhist,” Taylor said he appreciates the “particular orientation to the world” the spiritual philosophy offers. It somehow harmonizes his doctoral work, personal life, union participation and Zen praxis.

“There are no doctrines, there are no blind beliefs,” he said regarding how the outlook can lead to greater sociopolitical engagement. The philosophy gave way to his own “engaged Buddhism,” which seems all the more natural now as he seeks enlightened understanding as a graduate student.

“I’m well aware of how my life has been shaped by the people around me. I often think, ‘If I hadn’t seen that newspaper,’ ‘got that job,’ or ‘came to SIU’ how different my life might be. Everyone I’ve met has enriched my life. I hope I can give that back to others.”

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

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