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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Travels with Epicurus

EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules

12 RulesFor LifeI really wanted to read this book objectively, separating it from the media hype and social media torrents of opinion and abuse that often accompany its author, Jordan Peterson. I wanted to consider it in the company of the vast number of already-published self-help or philosophical books, and the historical context in which they exist.

Sadly, I was unable to do so for one simple reason: there’s too much Jordan Peterson in it. You have to wade through far too much of him to get to the rules. He meanders quite a bit, mostly to ramble on about himself. The rules are, themselves, rather diluted by his presence.

Jordan Peterson is undoubtedly a smart, well-educated man and a reasonably good writer, but sometimes he comes across as a pompous, supercilious git. And that obfuscates the intended message, at least for me.

Peterson is, like I said, a smart man. I cannot dispute his statements on psychology or human development because he knows more about it than most of us. And he references several of his statements with citations to such awe-inspiring academic documents as “Allostasis and allostatic load implications for neuropsychopharmacology,” “Tool use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and “Dimension models of personality: The five-factor model and the DSM-5.” Who am I to argue with these sources?

For those of us on a less-lofty plane, he also references the Bible, poems of W.B. Yeats, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Lao Tse’s Tao teh ching and the Guardian newspaper. Whew. Something I can read and maybe understand. But these references don’t cover the voluminous number of claims and statements in the book. It’s full of pithy epigrams and aphorisms.

There are only 220 noted sources and no separate bibliography. Peterson makes a lot of statements that, without being referenced to a citation, are either vague generalities or simply opinions. For example:

Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. (p13-14)

I don’t know which “eco-activists” he spoke to, but that sort of romanticized, even naive (if not downright puerile) view of eco-activism doesn’t match any viewpoints I’ve heard or read from anyone who might fit that description.  And you can read a lot of them online. David Suzuki, for example, arguably Canada’s most well-known environmental activist, doesn’t say anything of the sort. His own website neatly defines his views:

We are interconnected with nature, and with each other. What we do to the planet and its living creatures, we do to ourselves.

I’ll chalk this one up as an opinion, and a politically-biased one at that. The Catholic World Report noted in its review:

Peterson wades into a muck of assertions without argument; disconnected similes and examples that insult reason; arbitrary and happenstance judgments; and implications that are dangerous in their banality.

Here are some other statements I pulled at random, also not referenced to any source or publication:
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The Ten Bulls

Search for the BullA series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)

I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.

Discovering the FootprintsI was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.

In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)

Perceiving the BullThe Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.

Catching the BullYou can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.

But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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