The Great American Dharma Bum

by Kenneth Champeon, Mar 22, 2002 | Destinations: China / India

"Forests are delightful, where more worldly men find no joy." - from the Dhammapada

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Henry David Thoreau, the hermit of Walden Pond has always fascinated me, and I am proud to have waded in the waters of that holy New England oasis. Only recently have I realized that this fascination was mixed up with an admiration of Eastern philosophy, of which Thoreau was a student, and, more importantly, a practitioner. His masterpiece Walden is peppered with references to Eastern texts like the "Bhagvat-Geeta", the Vedas, the Vishnu Purana, the Sanchya Karika; the Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra; the Indian poet Kalidasa and his drama Shakuntala; the Tartar belief in the transmigration of the soul. Thoreau was a bridge between his "restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century" America -- which would certainly strike us as none of these things -- and the various Golden Ages of departed Asian civilizations.

Thoreau was not the only American of his time to be enchanted by the East. He was loosely affiliated with the Transcendentalists, who believed that there is "an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable only through intuition." A hybrid of European Romanticism and Eastern mysticism, Transcendentalism preached unity with a benevolent Nature and a rejection of worldly concerns. The movement counted among its numbers Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of a poem "Brahma" and proponent of a kind of Vedantist philosophy. But Thoreau was not fond of groups and isms. He liked to call himself a philosopher, whose best friend is solitude. "To be a philosopher," he wrote, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates." Thoreau could find wisdom by watching a battle between red and black ants. Doing and seeing were just as important to him as thinking. He was Zen before Zen was cool.

Of the Eastern thinkers, Thoreau appears to have favored Confucius, whom he sometimes calls Con-fut-see, or simply "the philosopher." Walden contains passages from the Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. No doubt Confucius appealed to Thoreau's pragmatic streak, and also to his contempt for vicious governments. The abolitionist Thoreau was jailed for not paying taxes to a government that condoned Negro slavery.

Of the Eastern texts, Thoreau favored the Bhagavad Gita, which he claims to have read in the mornings during his sojourn at Walden. To him, it was the pinnacle of Asian culture, of all culture. "How much more admirable," he wrote, "is the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East!" In the pond, he bathed his body; in the Gita he bathed his "intellect." Much of his preferred mode of living can be traced to the Gita's spirit. He even employs its tropes when he says that he must toil "to save the universe from annihilation." In Stephen Mitchell's adaptation of the Gita, the line is: "If I stopped acting, these worlds would plunge into ruin."

Like a good Brahmin, Thoreau was a vegetarian and a teetotaler. In Walden he repeatedly defends himself against skeptics insisting that man cannot live on plants alone. An ox can do so, Thoreau points out, and is indeed "strong as an ox," as the saying goes. His basic objection to meat is the "uncleanness" of it. Thoreau predicts that carnivorism will go the way of cannibalism, that future generations will consider it barbaric. "It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly," he says, "who loved so well the philosophy of India." When pressed by his contemporaries, he takes the argument into the realm of pure asceticism. "I could live on board nails," he says. "If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say."

As for intoxicants, Thoreau was unimaginably severe. He viewed even tea and coffee as demons: "Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!" For him, clarity of mind was essential for a philosopher, so he shunned wine as well. He preferred to get drunk on morning air and the "esoteric doctrines" of Hinduism. "Water," he says, "is the only drink for a wise man." In this, he puts even vinous Socrates to shame.

Thoreau believed implicitly in the Gita's Vedantism, which asserts that all living things have souls. Walden bursts with personifications. "Every little pine needle," he writes, "expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me"; he often speaks of keeping appointments with trees. He asks, How can I be lonely? "I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture."

A word that recurs frequently in Walden is "deliberate." Thoreau possessed a Buddhist appreciation of living mindfully. Discipline consisted in being able to "stand right fronting face to face to a fact." His contemporaries are not so much slothful as somnolent. Sitting idly outside his hovel for the whole of a day, he "realized what the Orientals mean my contemplation and the renunciation of works" - Raja Yoga, or the yoga of meditation.

But Thoreau was also a Karma Yogi, who progresses spiritually by doing. He is said to have thought a day wasted in which he did not take an hours-long walk. The fondest portrait he draws in Walden is of a certain "chopper," an indefatigable and imperturbable man, who takes a hearty joy in the felling of trees. Thoreau did not, however, relish "good works" a la Mother Theresa. Rather the opposite. "If I knew for a certainty," he says, "that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." Do not do good, so much as be good: your goodness will improve your fellow man just as the Sun warms the Earth. Do not become attached to your actions: "Rescue the drowning and tie your shoe-strings."

Although Thoreau disclaims any messianic motives in the writing of Walden, it is clear that he had them. Like the Buddha, he believes that most men suffer unnecessarily, and complain about difficulties that could be reduced or eliminated. His first Noble Truth was that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." But he does not locate the cause of suffering in desire, as the Buddha did, so much as in man's tendency to overcomplicate his life. He believes "anxiety and strain" to be a species of disease. "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" is his cure. A man may make ends meet in two ways: reducing expenses or increasing revenue. Thoreau favored the first, and pitied those who favored the second. It is with them in mind that he pays his most elaborate homage to Hindu imagery:

"I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders 'until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach;' or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars, -- even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness."

Thoreau was ambivalent toward technology. Was a telegraph useful if it conveyed no edifying information? A newspaper, if it contained only variations on the general theme of murder, robbery, arson, etc.? A railroad, if "I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing"? Thoreau valued technology insofar as it served his ends, but he believed that most men have become "tools of their tools."

Thoreau was seduced by the mythology of the "noble savage," whether Indian, Laplander, or African. Referring to miserable Irish workers, Thoreau writes, "Contrast the physical condition of the Irish with that of the North American Indian, or the South Sea Islander, or any other savage race before it was degraded by contact with the civilized man."

On the other hand, Thoreau was able to see continuity between these disparate cultures, even though he was generally averse to travel, which he considered an inferior alternative to flights of the mind. He notes with particular enthusiasm that the ice harvested from Walden Pond might end up as ice cubes in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, and thus "the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

Thoreau gave something back to the India from which he drew so much inspiration. Gandhi read Thoreau's seminal essay "Civil Disobedience" and came to embody its message of nonviolent resistance, and of being guided by laws higher than those of mankind. Gandhi had other Western influences, notably Ruskin and Tolstoy. But his kinship with Thoreau is more palpable. Only Thoreau may have loved the Gita and India as much as Gandhi did, and paid as much obeisance to "higher laws."

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Note: References to Walden in this article are to the 1997 Beacon Press edition.

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