By Charles Creekmore
Quite early one morning in the fall of 2009, I experienced one of those life-changing events that show us how meditation can be the portal to untapped wisdom.
I was perched before my little Buddhist altar, my legs wrapped around a kneeler and mind wrapped around my breathing, when a thought drifted up from the infinity of each now. This spark of mindfulness told me how to re-imagine my whole spiritual life by using Henry David Thoreau as my trail guide on a noble new path.
That moment of truth has turned me into a much better Buddhist than I ever was before. What’s more, Thoreau can make a better Buddhist out of you, too. How? By serving as a role model – like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Śākyamuni himself – for all of us.
Thoreau, in fact, was an accidental Buddhist. A Buddhist in Transcendental clothing. A Buddhist looking for a place to happen. Many of his writings, especially Walden, seemingly resound with the insight of a reincarnated Bodhisattva. In part Walden details the spiritual adventures of a Western pilgrim as he distilled the Dharma of Eastern philosophy. Thoreau blended Transcendentalism, Buddhism, and Hinduism into a new spiritual credo with authentic Oriental antecedents. Yet it was also distinctly American.
Thoreau’s method for treating our “lives of quiet desperation,” as he paraphrased Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, was even more fundamentally sound than the tight little cabin he built on Walden Pond. Live simply and wisely. Seek your muse in nature. Lead a mindful life. Regenerate yourself with spiritual energy. Reduce existence to its basics. Challenge the status quo. Shun materialism and luxury. Raise your consciousness with every thought you make. Meditate. And, faced with any problem, gauge fact or fiction with your own inner “Realometer,” as he characterized our intuition.
I was born exactly a century after Thoreau built his cabin in 1845, and for much of my life I didn’t realize how desperately I needed his method of coping with desperation, quiet or otherwise. In fact, I spent my first few decades leading a life of unquiet desperation. I was the anti-Thoreau, living the antipathetic Walden, while dodging the same essential facts of life that Thoreau had cornered so skillfully at Walden Pond.
By the time I reached midlife, after all those years adrift, I was motivated like Thoreau to rebel against the deeply shallow culture I saw in America. Like Thoreau, I thirsted after something truer, more meaningful, more plumb. But, unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know where to look. So I began mining the dog-eared edition of Walden I kept on my bedside table for the wisdom to transcend my confusion and attachment.
During this time of searching, beginning in the 1990s, I came gradually to Buddhism, at first practicing meditation and a few other mind-training techniques that I referred to whimsically as “Buddhist Lite.” With time I became a much more serious Buddhist, but had trouble accepting some of its basic principles because they were just too alien to me. One good example is the Buddhist idea of anatman, or “no self.”
Passages such as this one by the Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Ther left me quite boggled:
“The Buddha teaches that what we call ego, self, soul, personality, etc. are merely conventional terms that do not refer to any real, independent entity. According to Buddhism there is no reason to believe that there is an eternal soul that comes from heaven or that is created by itself and that will transmigrate or proceed straight away either to heaven or hell after death. Buddhists cannot accept that there is anything either in this world or any other world that is eternal or unchangeable.”
To Westerners such as me, this sort of passage can sound strange, if not downright terrifying. If there’s no soul, what in the world becomes reincarnated from life to life? By Western standards, existence without a soul is like Gertrude Stein’s complaint about Oakland: “There is no there there.”
It was conflicts of this kind that prevented me from committing myself more fully to Buddhism. Then came that moment in 2009, during one of my breath-counting meditations, when I received a message that I like to think rose from the clear light of pure consciousness. As I was concentrating on the place at the base of my nostrils where air enters and exits, this bubble of thought floated up from my inner self.
“Why not do what Thoreau did?” it said. “Combine his beloved Transcendentalism with his beloved Buddhism?”
And bingo! Suddenly, my conflicts over Buddhism resolved themselves. By seeking refuge in those ideas resonating deep within me from each philosophy, Transcendentalism and Buddhism, I was able to commit myself to my own noble path. East meets West. Śākyamuni, my compassionate Buddha, shake hands with Henry David Thoreau, the rugged individualist.
Accordingly, I was able to make Buddhist “no self” more understandable by couching it in the lovely Western tradition of a Transcendental over-soul; the concept that each human soul is part and parcel of a collective divine soul, a sort of metaphysical Gaia.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson (above) explained this idea (probably developed from the Vedic concept of paramatman), “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE…We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the over-soul.”
For those of us who have struggled to understand and accept the sometimes mysterious knowledge of Buddhism, Thoreau is an inspiration. Thoreau finally made me comfortable in my own Buddhist skin.
You can make your Buddhism much richer, deeper, much more profound by reading, as I did, how Thoreau reached his own kind of enlightenment at Walden Pond and how it can happen to you, too.
As Thoreau summarized his philosophy in Walden, “To be awake is to be alive.” I mean, how Buddhist is that?
Biggest Bargain in Real Estate History
In March of 1845, Thoreau borrowed an axe and ambled down to the woods by Walden Pond, near where he intended to build his 10-foot-by-15-foot cabin. There, as he wrote in Walden, he “began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.” His axe blows, as they hewed and rippled into the tranquil air around Walden Pond, stirred up sound waves that still echo to this day.
On July Fourth of that year, Thoreau, already suffering from the TB that would eventually kill him, moved into his tight, shingled, and plastered house with a garret, a closet, a large window on either side, two trap doors, an entrance at one end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The cabin cost him a grand total of 28 dollars, 12-and-a-half cents.
By any measure, it was the biggest bargain in real estate history. From such economical beginnings, Thoreau’s Walden experiment spread in all directions as the mystical taproot of American Transcendentalism. It warned of the mushrooming materialism, overindulgence, decadence, and emptiness throughout Western society in wake of the Industrial Revolution. And it conferred on the world a spiritual model that even now – especially now! – can dissolve the quiet desperation that still muddles the mass of American lives.
“I went to the woods,” Thoreau explained in Walden, “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, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Walden Pond was also the proving grounds for American Transcendentalism, which was cobbled together from such wide-flung sources as Buddhism, Hinduism, Plato, Emmanuel Kant, Quakerism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Romanticism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarianism. Basically, Transcendentalism holds that an ideal spiritual state transcends the emotional turmoil triggered by culture and society. In the Transcendental view, we achieve spiritual insight through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine.
Thoreau, the avant garde of Yankee Transcendentalism, was the undisputed wild man of 19th-century literature. He was “out there” in 1845, just as he is “out there” now. Since the 1840s, his unorthodox ideas, which left the most brilliant intellectuals of his day scratching their heads, have quietly shaken the foundation of Western thought.
Thoreau’s solution for the distractions of an over-indulgent culture? “My greatest skill is to want but little. I found thus that I have been a rich man without any damage to my poverty.” In other words, 86 on materialism.
His philosophy of civil disobedience and peaceful revolt profoundly influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau studied Buddhism and Hinduism a century before they came into vogue in the West. He was one of the first conservationists. Many credit Thoreau with starting the environmental movement in the United States. He was an early advocate of preserving wildlife refuges. His life is a role model for the anti-war movement, tax resistance, conscientious objection, and civil rights. He was a staunch abolitionist and among the earliest advocates of Darwinism. Moreover, his keen observations on the over-development, over-indulgence, and over-complexity of modern society have proven as prophetic as they are wise.
And yet, to my mind, Thoreau’s most lasting gift is his simple but robust method for dealing with a world gone postal. No one has ever devised a more practical blueprint for merging the philosophies of East and West while seeking truth, wisdom, and peace of mind.
What Thoreau proposed in Walden was nothing short of a Thoreau-ly radical social revolution, perhaps the only kind that can change America for the better; a movement of rugged individualists, united by their idiosyncrasy, each marching to a different drummer.
Thoreau the Buddhist
“Happiness is like a butterfly,” as Thoreau mused in Walden, “the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
This sage observation might have come from the Diamond Sutra, from a Zen kōan, some gentle monk in a Himalayan monastery, or the Dalai Lama.
Thoreau and his over-soul mate, Emerson, helped launch Buddhism in America. According to James Hilgendorf, the author of The Buddha and the Dream of America and Life & Death: A Buddhist Perspective, Thoreau was the harbinger of a great revolution in Buddhism as it would flower in the West.
“Henry David Thoreau…in 1844 introduced the Lotus Sutra to America through an issue of the Dial magazine, the publication of the New England Transcendentalist Club. It was a translation of the ‘Parable of the Medicinal Herbs’ chapter of the Lotus
Sutra, the core and heart of the Buddhist teachings.”
One message of the Lotus Sutra, explained Hilgendorf, was that all people are Buddhas, possessing an extraordinary inner state of life, a concept that closely parallelsTranscendentalism’s stress on the genius of human intuition. Thoreau’s openness to Buddhism and his advocacy of many Buddhist practices did more than any other person to initiate America with the message of Śākyamuni.
Many ofThoreau’s reflections, indeed, sound more Eastern than Western. Take this one:
“The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little
stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
Beyond what Thoreau said, the way of life he practiced so religiously at Walden Pond and beyond could have been the daily rites of a monk. In fact, his fundamental beliefs can easily be worded in the language of the Three Jewels that we Buddhists recite before every meditation.
1. Thoreau sought refuge at Walden Pond, the site of his enlightenment. He committed himself to enlightenment by stripping away all life’s luxuries.
2. Thoreau sought refuge in nature, the source of his enlightened Dharma.He committed himself to the truth as it is in natural laws.
3. Thoreau sought refuge in the Sangha, his fellow Transcendentalists. He committed himself to the enlightened way of life.
Another uncanny similarity between Thoreau’s philosophy and Buddhism can be found in the themes of his writing. According to Joseph Wood Krutch in his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings, Thoreau wrote about four distinct subjects that correspond directly with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. Compare our truths, as we know them, to Thoreau’s main themes, paraphrased below.
1. “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.”
2. The origin of our desperation is attachment to the material luxuries and fallacies of “over-civilization.”
3. Liberation from such attachments is possible.
4. It can be attained by letting go of those attachments, going back to nature, and leading a simple life of contemplation, virtue, truth-seeking, and meditation.
Thoreau spent his time at Walden Pond in reflections about life, in daily rituals based on monastic simplicity, in observing nature, in writing, meditating, daydreaming, working his garden, sauntering, and doing the elemental, elegant things that make life worthwhile.
“Sometimes, in a summer morning,” he wrote, “having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise til noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness…I grew in those seasons like corn in the night…I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of work.”
Thoreau’s reward for the monastic way of life he practiced at Walden Pond was as steadfast and observable as the nature he loved. As Thoreau’s contemporary, author and clergyman John Weiss, described him:
“His countenance had not a line on 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 as the summit of a life of contemplation.”
He did arrive at that summit, and all too soon. Thoreau suffered from TB for his whole adult life and died of it on May 6, 1862, at the age of 45. Accounts of his final conversations reveal the Zen of Thoreau throughout his days.
On Thoreau’s death bed one of his friends, Parker Pillsbury, told him that “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, I almost know the opposite shore may appear to you.”
Thoreau’s Buddha-like response: “One world at a time.”
When one relative observed that he was about to make his peace with God, Thoreau replied: “I was not aware that we had quarreled.”
I invite you to follow Thoreau’s lead by mixing healthy measures of Transcendentalism into your Buddhism, and thereby making it richer, more fun, more intuitive to your own culture. To do so, simply go back to Walden. How do you get to this crossroads, where East meets West? Just take the Noble Eightfold Path and turn left at the Henry David Thoroughfare. From there, all roads lead to Walden.
And, during your journey, you’re liable to pass a helpful road sign, written by Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalist, Walt Whitman. These are the best directions I’ve ever read for traveling on the enlightened way of life:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyranny, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss what insults your very soul, and your very flesh shall become a great poem.”
What are your thoughts on Thoreau and Walden, can they help bridge the gap between Buddhism, and our daily Western lives?
Charles Creekmore’s 2003 spiritual book, ‘Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance’, was published by the American Diabetes Association. For a more detailed discussion of Thoreau, you can read his eBook ‘Back to Walden’, which is posted complete and free of charge on BackToWalden.com.