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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