In Memoriam: Philip Yampolsky

Philip Yampolsky, renowned translator and scholar of Zen Buddhism, died of complications due to pneumonia on July 28, 1996. He was seventy-five years old.

Yampolsky, born in New York City on October 20, 1920, was the grandson of anthropologist Franz Boas, who founded Columbia’s Department of Anthropology. He graduated from Columbia College in 1942, at which time he enlisted in the Navy. While being trained as a translator for the Navy, he learned Japanese. He served as a lieutenant in World War II, fought in the battle of Iwo Jima, and was awarded the Bronze Star “for meritorious service as a translator.”

In 1954 he received a Fulbright scholarship to study Buddhism in Kyoto, where he became associated with a group of Beat scholars and writers studying Zen. With poet Gary Snyder, scholar Burton Watson, and Japanese scholars Yoshitaka Iriya and Seizan Yanagiga, he helped translate such influential publications as“Zen Dust”and“The Record of Lin-Chi,”which helped popularize Zen outside of Japan.

In 1962 Yampolsky returned to Columbia University, where he taught until 1994. From 1968 to 1981 he was the librarian of Columbia’s East Asian Library, now the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, which holds more than 600,000 volumes in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other languages. A scholar of Chinese and Japanese religions, Dr. Yampolsky is best known for having made Zen Buddhism more accessible to Western readers. His translations include“Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch; The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings; Selected Writings of Nichiren;”and“Letters of Nichiren,”all published by Columbia University Press. When he retired in 1994 he received the Buddhist Studies Senior Scholar Award, which was created in his honor in recognition of his lifetime of research and teaching.

Yampolsky is survived by his wife, Yuiko, and three children: Susan Niland, Ruri Yampolsky and Robert Yampolsky, as well as six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

For the memorial service Gary Snyder, who could not attend, wrote a piece in which he said: “Scholar, librarian, teacher, family man, sometime bon vivant, full of humor, unpretentious, a hearty man with a joke and a shot of whiskey, a keen critic of shoddy thinking, Phil worked with Buddhist ideas and texts for his whole career. . . . [His] life was lived in the mode of a dharma friend and supporter, a quietly wise layperson, a generous friend.”

From the Hot Seat

According to researchers in the current issue of“Nature,”the lotus flower - the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment upon which the seated Buddha is often depicted - has the remarkable ability to regulate the temperature of its blossoms to within a narrow range, just as mammals do. Only two other species of plants have been found to be able to regulate their temperature, both in the arum-lily family: the skunk cabbage and a philodendron known as elephant ear.

Just how the lotus does it is unknown, but it begins heating up as its flowers start to bloom. Then, as the night air cools its petals, the flower takes in more oxygen and gives off more carbon dioxide, converting more carbohydrates to energy. As the sun rises, heat production wanes. A single lotus flower can put out one watt of energy. That means that forty lotus blossoms can put out the same amount of heat as one livingroom light bulb, and seventy flowers can produce the heat of a human being at rest.

It is believed that lotus flowers may act to lure in pollinators, most likely beetles. Beetles trapped in a closed blossom all night were found to be very active while inside, spending the night mating and feeding, and emerged covered in pollen and ready to complete their work as pollinators.

The Five What?

The International Meditation Center (IMC) - a Buddhist center in the Burmese tradition located in Westminster, Maryland, and founded by Sayagyi U ba Kyin - allegedly turned away a student last May because he is HIV-positive. Madison Jones, a Vipassana practitioner, tried registering by telephone for a retreat at IMC, which is near his home. He requested to be permitted to sit in a chair and to sleep eight hours a night. Michael Kosman, the resident teacher, indicated that this should not be a problem. Jones then explained that he was making the requests because he was HIV-positive. Shortly afterward, Kosman telephoned Jones back to say that he had been instructed that Jones could not attend if he was HIV-positive. When questioned later by Jones’s legal counsel, Kosman stated that he had not told Madison that HIV was a factor and that a “personality conflict” was the reason Jones was not welcome. However, according to Jones, his answering machine had accidentally recorded the earlier conversation, during which Kosman had stated that HIV was the reason for turning him away. When informed about the tape, the IMC board agreed to allow Jones to attend future retreats, but subsequently rescinded the offer.

Since most retreat centers do accommodate participants with HIV and other disabilities, Jones, along with his legal counsel, requested that IMC adopt a nondiscrimination policy and provide accommodations if necessary to enable a person with a disability to participate in a retreat, but the center refused. IMC replied in a letter that admitting and accommodating persons with physical illnesses and other disabilities “conflicts with the requirements of the Buddhist meditation process. . . . The Five Elements of Effort, or“�Padhaniyanga’”. . . are Faith,“Health,”Sincerity, Energy and Wisdom.” When“Tricycle”contacted IMC, we were told that Buddhist meditation can be physically stressful and can call up many difficult emotions, thus good health is a requirement.

Stolen Buddhas

At the Lao Revolutionary Museum in Vientiane, Laos, thieves stole about half of a group of eighty-nine rare Buddha statuettes that were on display there last September. The statuettes had been discovered in July in a large jar during the construction of a university dorm that was being built on the site of a former temple. It is believed that the statuettes were put there for safekeeping when the Thai army sacked Vientiane in 1828.

Of all the statuettes - fifteen covered in gold, seventy-three in silver, and one in bronze - the two most valuable were among those stolen. About ten inches tall, they were made of clay and resin, and covered with gold leaf and garnets.

Bowing Out

Australian Bob Dent, a former Church of England missionary who turned to Buddhism when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, was the first person in the world to legally commit assisted suicide. On September 22, Dent was injected with a computer-delivered lethal injection at his home in Darwin. A Buddhist funeral service was held the following Friday.

The euthanasia law was passed amid much controversy in the Northern Territory, and took effect in July. It allows terminally ill people to kill themselves with a lethal injection or pills, provided three doctors support their choice.

Dent wrote an open letter on the eve of his death in which he stated, “What right has anyone - because of their own religious faith, to which I don’t subscribe - to demand that I behave according to their rules and endure necessary intractable pain?”

Burma Ban

On October 3, the Clinton Administration imposed an immediate and indefinite ban on entry into the United States by Burmese government leaders. The move was in response to renewed repression by the Burmese military against democracy advocates, including the detention of hundreds of supporters of Buddhist democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi in September. The new law prohibits U.S. assistance to Burma, except for relief aid and antidrug activity. It also authorizes President Clinton to block new private American investment there in the event of “large-scale repression of or violence against” the country’s democratic opposition.


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