Introduction to the Issue

The concept of zero has a fascinating history. Originally invented by the Babylonians to give their sequences of digits a permanent meaning, it was banned by the Ancient Greeks before it was celebrated and worshipped by Indian culture. It is difficult for moderns to imagine that such a seemingly innocuous and ubiquitous concept like zero could ever have been considered dangerous or a source of controversy, but so it was.1

Zero is synonymous with “void,” “nothingness,” and entails “infinity.” The emergence of zero led to philosophical and mathematical implications that not all cultures were ready or willing to accept. When it was accepted, it overturned Aristotelian philosophy, subverted the existing mathematical logic, and provoked a dismantling of the geocentric worldview.2 In short, zero is a radical notion. It is therefore not un-ironic that this inaugural issue of Tarka is the “zero issue,” for in it we embrace Embodied Philosophy’s commitment to the radical position of the “scholar-practitioner.”

In this issue, the contributors argue for the acceptance and integration into scholarly life of what has otherwise been deemed controversial by the reigning epistemology of modern industrialized culture. Here we mean something that is indicated by a number of terms that in various ways imply one another: subjectivity, experience, embodiment, and – perhaps most importantly – practice

Like the concept of zero for the Ancient Greeks, the domain of inquiry that these terms point to has been largely banned by the prevailing norms of much academic study. Resultantly, certain assumptions arise, such as: (1) subjectivity is an obstacle to rigorous scholarship; (2) experience is polluted by personal bias and the ambiguity of perception; (3) focusing on affective states and embodiment can lead to anti-intellectualism; and (4) contemplative practice encourages a slip into mystical obscurantism. And there are indeed many more such assumptions that silently police the coordinates of what is considered legitimate scholarship, especially in the study of religion and spirituality. 

The contributors to this issue are all in various ways identifying themselves with the position of the “scholar-practitioner,” a position contributor Patricia Tillman describes as existing at the “semi-taboo intersection of personal religious experience and putative academic impartiality.” The issue proceeds by way of four article types: (1) short articles on key terms (H-k das, Kyle, Lidke, Olsson), (2) biographical narratives of historical scholar-practitioners (Banerji, Garfield, Long, Tillman, Williams), (3) personal accounts of living as a scholar-practitioner (Chapple, Clooney, Loizzo, Slatoff), and (4) a selection of articles that extend from the polemical to experimental (Banerji, Corigliano, Cuomo, Goldstein, Kyle, Nichols, Simpson, Wallis). Together these articles paint a comprehensive picture of who the scholar-practitioner is, what her obstacles are and why a renewed (or newfound) commitment to her multifaceted position is in the best interest of future contemplative study and research.

Even though this issue is numbered “0,” the Tarka Journal has published three issues prior to this one (On Bhakti, On Illusion, and On Ecology). Our aim in retroactively publishing an issue #0 is to ground and define one of our primary objectives at Embodied Philosophy: to forge an intersectional, multidisciplinary space for the scholar-practitioner to research, discuss, explore, and experiment. As modern industrialized culture continues to reckon with its colonialist history and the mythologized objectivity that has reigned as a result, the need for such spaces has never been more timely and poignant. 

Those moments in history when zero was feared and banned are somewhat analogous to our own moment, during which methods of embodied inquiry are at best regarded with a cautious interest (or avoided) and at worst deemed mythical by an intellectual orthodoxy. Those moments in history when zero was embraced (and transformed existing belief systems and knowledges) are analogous to that moment we wish to cultivate. By centering voices of scholar-practitioners from a variety of traditions and contemplative contexts, Embodied Philosophy’s Tarka Journal will help to fill a yawning lack in the conversation between scholars, practitioners, and practitioner-scholars. 

Perhaps the threshold we find ourselves on as a culture further warrants such a project, for all around us notions of truth, fact, and sources of solidarity are crumbling. When contemplative traditions are no longer quaintly studied as cultural artifacts but are instead harnessed as fruitful avenues for the discovery of new forms of truth, new trajectories of experience, and new constellations of practice, perhaps we will find ourselves on the edge of discovering the resources we need. By embarking on new adventures of zero, perhaps contemplative philosophy and practice can rise to the next level, and we will finally move in the direction of healing our fractured world.

  1. Charles Seife. Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Penguin (2000).))
  2. In the “geocentric worldview,” the Earth was considered the center of the solar system. By contrast, ours is a “heliocentric worldview,” with the Sun at the center. By dabbling with the new notion of infinity, Nicholas of Cusa declared: “Terra non est centra muni” (The Earth is not the center of the universe). Ibid, 87.