Thoreau and Buddhism

Henry David ThoreauIn his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings (Bantam Books, 1962-1981), Joseph Wood Krutch described Henry David Thoreau’s writings as having four “distinct subjects”, which I paraphrase somewhat as:

  1. The life of quiet desperation most men live;
  2. The economic fallacy that is responsible for their condition
  3. The delights yielded from a simple life close to Nature, and
  4. The higher laws which people intuitively realize from a gentle life in Nature.

These appear similar in form to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhist philosophy:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The parallels are, to me, striking. Not that Thoreau was a Buddhist, mind you, not as we might consider one today, but he was familiar with many Eastern and Oriental scriptures. As were many of his transcendentalist contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor) and Walt Whitman in particular. Thoreau and his friends were actually more familiar with Hindu texts initially and Thoreau wrote enthusiastically about them.

In 1845, he read the Bhagavad Gita, and later wrote, “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” Thoreau had on his bookshelf his copy of the Gita when he stayed at Walden Pond, and he read it during his time there.

He wrote in Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Thoreau’s Walden was even the subject of a course on year at the University of Chicago. In the course description, it said, “Both books begin with despair and defiance and end with coming to some understanding of the ways of action and of knowledge, of devotion and nature, of self and the cosmos.”

Of course, this was during the American intelligensia’s first contact with alternate (and Eastern) philosophies, and it became a sort of intellectual epiphany that awakened a great creative surge barely a century after the nation was formed. Unlike today, many Americans in the 19th century were open to, even eager to learn about other cultures, other faiths, other philosophies. One cannot even imagine the current president and his followers learning, much less learning about an Asian philosophy.

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Cicero, Seneca and Confucius

As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.
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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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Horace and him. And maybe me, too.

Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

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Stoic or Epicurean?

Epicurus
Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.

Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).

I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others.  It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.

Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.

To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.

What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.

Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.

Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.

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