By Joe Lamport
This year marks the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, which explains in part why I ended up with a copy of Walden Pond in my lap this summer.
Even in this advanced age, it turns out that Thoreau has something very important to teach us about the successful integration of the spiritual traditions of East and West. Thoreau provides us with still fresh insight about the cultivation of Buddha-awareness within the framework of our familiar western ways of thinking; he points us down a path where we can discover a homegrown Dharma of our own.
I should note, though, there’s a difficulty in viewing Thoreau in this light. Reading Walden Pond, you will not find a single mention of the Buddha, albeit there are a few passing references to Shiva, the Vedas, and Sanskrit. Admittedly, this poses a challenge if we want to offer Thoreau up as one of North America’s first great Bodhisattvas, since his most widely read masterpiece makes no reference to Buddha, Dharma, or the Noble Truths.
Rick Fields, in his history of Dharma in America, helps us better understand this curious omission. He explains that the New England Transcendentalists were prone to confusion about the finer points of distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. Such confusion is quite readily understandable given the small amount of Eastern wisdom texts that had actually been translated into English at such at an early point in the 19th century.
But no matter how spotty and limited his exposure to Buddhist doctrine may have been, Thoreau appears to have been preternaturally gifted in his capacity for spiritual insight and growth because even he was without formal Dharma training, Walden Pond evidences a profound Bodhisattva awareness. This is far from unprecedented in the history of Dharma transmission. For instance, when the Sixth Patriarch was brought to awakening simply by overhearing the Diamond Sutra chanted in the street outside his window. It doesn’t seem to have taken much more than that to bring awakening to Thoreau.
In fact, prior to going off to live in the woods, Thoreau had read a chapter or two of the Lotus Sutra in translation. Apparently, it made enough of an impression on him that he helped publish part of it (for the first time in North America) in 1845 in The Dial magazine. Other than that, Thoreau seems to have apprehended the rest of the Dharma on his own, independently and spontaneously arriving at spiritual truth through his direct contemplation of nature. He developed a self-styled Yankee practice of his own, as described in copious detail in the pages of Walden Pond. As Thoreau himself put it: “The Vedas and their Agamas are not nearly so ancient as serene contemplation.”
Dipping into Walden Pond, it doesn’t take long to notice the Buddhistic qualities of Thoreau’s ways of thinking and living. Quite striking from the outset is his presentism and mindfulness. In no uncertain terms, he proclaims himself dedicated to the here and now, no less so than Baba Ram Das, or any Zen monk sitting in zazen.
For Thoreau, the depth of his attachment to the present also means he trusts more in the truth of his lived experience than in the wisdom received from books, no matter how ancient their origin. In that sense, he seems even more Zen-like, privileging the insights derived from his quiet contemplation over those found in the Sutras or Vedas.
It’s also not hard to see how Thoreau’s recipe for living is something of a 19th century American variant of Buddhism’s Middle Way.
It is a path of compromise between extreme asceticism and extreme indulgence, a path dedicated to simplification and relishing the mundane pleasures of daily life. In Thoreau’s case, it is a Middle Way between wilderness and civilization. He found it by living in a modest shack on the outskirts of town, close enough to town for regular visiting but remote enough to preserve the tranquility and space for quiet contemplation.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. Nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
To live more deliberately—there is no better way to sum up Thoreau’s practice of bringing a focused awareness, or mindfulness, to the routines of daily life. In some ways, this seems to be a far cry from a meditation-based practice—as we are familiar with it—of sitting cross-legged and concentrating on the breath. Thoreau also meditated, but more in the manner of a Romantic poet. He would meditate while traipsing across the countryside and paddling after the loon on the pond, in effect loosing himself in the natural world.
But it’s more accurate to view his spiritual practice as in no way confined to occasional meditation. Instead, Thoreau’s practice is fully expressed in the way he goes about daily life. It is inherent in the meticulous way he builds his cabin by hand, through his own plastering (after digging up his own lime) and stone masonry, keeping track of every penny spent in the process of doing so, and providing a detailed written account. It partakes of the way he plants his bean rows and sounds the depths of Walden Pond.
This extreme self-reliance and hyper-awareness of the natural world are the essence of Thoreau’s method of spiritual cultivation. In one beautiful passage, he describes the ideal habitation for the human spirit as resulting from the placement of the parlor as close to the kitchen and workshop as possible.
In other words, Thoreau’s practice of living more deliberately calls for stripping away all the trappings and indirection of civilization so man or woman may assume full and direct responsibility for his or her own material and spiritual well-being. An adz and an awl, it seems, have taken the place of a begging bowl.
If nothing else, this underscores just how different Thoreau’s notion of practice is from what we encounter in the teachings of more traditional Dharma masters. Thoreau strives for an intensification of self-awareness and heightened mastery over his immediate environment instead of a letting go. The Self thus becomes his pathway as opposed to an illusion he seeks to overcome. And yet what’s most remarkable is that Thoreau’s ultimate goal is so strikingly similar to that of any great Dharma master. “Not till we are lost, in other words,” as Thoreau explains it, “not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
Whether we proceed through the Self, or over or around it, Indra’s Net is waiting to catch us and hold us in its thrall. Different as Thoreau’s notion of practice may be, his homegrown Dharma begins to sound very much like what you would expect to hear from a Bodhisattva after all.
But how does Thoreau accomplish such a thing? It’s clear where he starts out. Right up front, Thoreau apologizes to his readers for his narrow field of vision:
“I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me…. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
This is certainly familiar for those of us who have grown up in the Western tradition. We are forever grounded in egotism, always instructed to write about what we know best. It’s not exactly a promising start for a spiritual seeker, to begin from such a limited perspective. Nor does it seem helpful that Thoreau seems inclined to think about himself, and to experience his life, in extremely dualistic terms:
“However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.”
How then does Thoreau manage to progress from narrow egotism to the discovery of such a mother lode of homegrown Dharma? How does he overcome such deeply ingrained dualism to achieve a far more integrated and holistic spiritual life?
It’s a narrow pathway, but Walden Pond is a perfect guidebook to let us follow close behind.
Joe Lamport is a writer and translator and a fellow traveler of the Middle Way. His spiritual practice is intimately connected with the translation of classical Chinese poetry, including the Buddhist inspired poetry of Bai Juyi and Wang Wang Wei. He has several published books to his credit, including most recently an all verse translation of The Adventures of Monkey King, by Wu Cheng En (you can read the first chapter of his translation which was published online by Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation here: The Birth of Monkey King). In addition, his translations of Tang poetry have been published extensively online and in print, as he previously served as a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. He has written a short essay on Tang poetics, which was published here: A Journey into the Yu Gong Valley. Follow him on Twitter and check out his personal blog, http://lampoetry.blogspot.com.
Editor: John Pendall