Meet the Johnnies: Eastern Classics Graduate Student Tim McGuire
June 24, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
Since its inception at St. John’s Santa Fe in 1994, the Master of Arts in Eastern Classics (MAEC) program has offered graduate students a chance to explore great works of China, India, and Japan. Students examine 2,000 years of the philosophical, literary, and religious traditions of those countries, essentially following the path of Buddhism as it spread throughout the region. They also study either Chinese or Sanskrit to gain enough facility to translate short passages from classical texts.
For MAEC student Tim McGuire, the exploration of great texts and ideas began nearly 30 years ago, when he completed just over a year of the undergraduate Program in Annapolis. That initial taste whetted his appetite for a lifelong journey of learning for its own sake. Recently, he spoke with us via Zoom from his trailer in nearby Glorieta Mesa—where he is completing his final weeks of the MAEC online—to discuss baking, Buddhism, and the quest for a simple life.
You did an undergraduate year in Annapolis and couldn’t complete your degree at that time. Now, years later, you’re doing the Eastern Classics program instead. How did that come about?
I just loved St. John’s. I had experienced four or five different post-high school education environments, but there was no doubt that St. John’s was my favorite approach to education. And I had an interest in the Eastern classics.
I actually did another part-time year at St. John’s after my original class had graduated. Then I went off to a Catholic seminary for a year and a half. I had a fabulously inspired philosophy professor there who did a lot of independent study with me because I wanted to engage with philosophy in a real way. But unfortunately it became clear that the diocesan seminary was not the place for serious theological or philosophical inquiry.
It sounds like exploring religious and philosophical ideas has been a thread in your life. Did that thread continue after seminary?
Yes. And I wanted to live according to those ideas, to take them seriously, and to learn for the sake of modifying and enriching my life. I started baking in Annapolis after I left seminary. I was earning as fast as I could to get back to St. John’s after a one-year break. And the reason I started baking bread—aside from having the opportunity—was that I was inspired by the sort of simplicity Socrates laid out in the beginning of the Republic. It seemed like the kind of simple work that would fit into the lifestyle I wanted.
Then some folks were starting The Light House Homeless Shelter in Annapolis, and I sort of took the helm of that shelter and ran it for four years. It grew from something in the back of a church that was open just two or three days a week to a seven-day-a-week shelter. We had 16 beds and a transitional apartment at the time I was there. Now it is huge. It has a whole transitional housing program, and a cafe, and it’s run by a Johnnie alum, for the first time since I was there.
Eventually I moved up to New York for a head baker’s gig, where we baked bread seasonally for the Omega Institute. It was a night job, and the Omega orders always increased my weekend burden so much that I had to stay later than usual and couldn’t see friends. At first, I resented the heck out of Omega. Then I read their catalogue and found out they had interesting stuff going on. Thich Nhat Than, Jack Kornfield, and Stephen Batchelor often taught there. Now—having learned a little bit more about Eastern thought in general—I still think these guys are not just popular authors on the subject, but actually say something that speaks to an academic mind.
So it turned into an important connection. In time I also worked at Omega: cooking, baking, sometimes housekeeping or running their cafe, out of an interest in their ideas.
You’ve baked for a long time. Do you still feel that it helps fulfill some of your spiritual needs?
I’m coming up on my 30th anniversary as a baker. I used to joke that I went from breaking bread to baking bread. But I’ve always felt it to be a fulfilling job. Over and over again, as I was baking for that community of several hundred people in New York, I felt very profoundly that the work was meaningful to me in some sort of vaguely hippie, spiritual, New Age way.
In the past six weeks [in MAEC] we read the Dōgen’s Instruction for the Tenzo. “Tenzo” is the name for “cook” in a Japanese monastery, and Dōgen was a significant teacher of Zen Buddhism, bringing it from China to Japan in about the 1100s. I was gobsmacked by reading Instruction for the Tenzo. It just said everything that I’d had in the back of my mind about the 10 seasons I spent at Omega, baking bread and providing food for people in my community. I had thought that only hippies felt that way, or the people who made Like Water for Chocolate or Babette’s Feast or all the magical food stories that you get in Hollywood. Reading Tenzo felt very affirming.
Why are you thinking about going on to study more? What do you hope to do, ultimately?
I really firmly and deeply believe that if you’re learning for the sake of learning, you’re doing yourself a great good. Because you are just enriching yourself. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about St. John’s and why I’m here. So I would be utterly and completely delighted to go on for further schooling, just to give me the opportunity to go deeper and deeper—especially into Buddhist texts. I’d like to study the Pali language or get a fuller understanding of the old Vedic scriptures and the Sanskrit text. I feel like I have barely skimmed the surface of those texts right now. And I would love to teach. I’ve had inspiring teachers here, as I did way back when I was at St. John’s as a freshman.
Do you imagine you’ll go back to baking?
I am awfully stingy with the word “love,” but I love baking. When somebody asks me why I’m doing this graduate program, my flip answer is because there’s a lot of downtime and quiet time and contemplative time when you’re baking bread, and I need to give myself something interesting to keep my mind on. I’ve forgotten Socrates so I can’t think about him. I need something better than listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks—though they’re so good.
Who do you think would benefit from and enjoy this program?
People who are interested in the philosophical texts and don’t have a technical background in this, but who do have curiosity and a passion to know and to engage with the material. I think this would be ideal and perfect for them. If somebody thinks Socrates is the bee’s knees, but they haven’t encountered Buddhism and the early Buddhist discourses, they’re missing a whole half of something. The Buddhist texts are not substandard as far as I can tell, and I was one of the biggest Socrates fans out there.