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.

From 1842 to 1844, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist periodical, “The Dial”, which published a series of translations from Asian sources called “Ethnical Scriptures.” In 1844 it printed portions of the Buddhist scripture “Lotus Sutra”, translated by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Apparently it influenced Thoreau.

In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau wrote, “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha, yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing.”

In Walden, Thoreau laid out his belief in the value of the contemplative “here and now” – a focus on the present that echoes Buddhist and Zen attitude.

Thoreau has also been compared to Chinese Taoists for his contemplation of nature, and the parallels are also there. As he wrote in Walden, “I once had a sparrow alight on my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” Lin Yutang later compared Thoreau to Chinese Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, in his “ruggedness and hardness and his individualistic impatience.”

Writer Rick Fields  called Thoreau a,

“…pre-Buddhist who “forecast an American Buddhism by the nature of his contemplation… lost himself in nature as the Chinese painters did, by becoming one with nature… not the only one of his generation to live a contemplative life, but he was, it seems, one of the few to live it in a Buddhist way. That is to say, he was perhaps the first American to explore the nontheistic mode of contemplation which is the distinguishing mark of Buddhism.”

Thoreau is also described by some essayists as a Confucian, largely because he paraphrased Confucius and Mencius in some of his works, particularly Walden,which contains passages from The Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. Confucius no doubt appealed to Thoreau’s more pragmatic side, especially his political leanings.

Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience that the law is not to be respected merely because it was the law, but rather when it proved right and just. If unjust laws exist, he concluded, civil disobedience is an effective way to oppose and change them. His attitude towards law is similar to what the Buddha taught in the Kalamas Sutra: that one should not respect teachings simply because they were written down.

Thoreau also wrestled with the value of life – not merely human life, but all life, and he strove to be a vegetarian for reasons that are also deeply sympathetic to Buddhist beliefs. In Walden he wrote, “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” And in one of his letters he wrote,

“The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.”

This attitude was one reason Thoreau was one of Gandhi’s favourite writers. In fact, Gandhi quoted from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in his own prison writings. But where Thoreau saw his philosophy as that of an individual’s conscience, Gandhi translated it into a vehicle for mass political action. Thoreau leaned towards passive political protest; Gandhi towards active.

As a teetotaler, like traditional Buddhists and Muslims, Thoreau avoided not only alcohol, but also all stimulants including tea and coffee, which he considered “demons.” I suppose that’s where he and I part company.

In 1862, three years after Thoreau’s death, John Weiss described him thus: “His countenance had not a line upon it expressive of ambition or discontent; the affectional emotions had not fretted at it. He went about like a priest of Buddha who expects to arrive soon at the summit of a life of contemplation.”

While Thoreau cannot be considered an American Buddhist, per se, he can best be understood as having great sympathies towards Buddhism, as well as towards other Oriental philosophies, which helped him formulate both his personal views, as well as to articulate them in his writing. And his views held later American Buddhists meld their teachings with American values and outlook.

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One comment

  1. bill F

    You say ” 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.”. i say you have more to learn.

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