Thoreau and the Lotus Sutra

For some reason, and perhaps subconsciously, I always believed there might be a tenuous connection between Henry David Thoreau and Buddhism. Certainly I seem to be creating one on this blog. And now I have it…maybe. I knew that the Transcendentalists of Thoreau’s day were enamored of Eastern spiritual traditions. Speaking in chapter sixteen of Walden (The Pond in Winter), he says, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” The Bhagavad-Gita is of course one of the most holy books of Hinduism, the faith that Buddhism grew out of. Now I have learned that Thoreau may have been involved with the translation from the French, along with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, of a section of the Lotus Sutra that was originally published in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s literary journal The Dial in 1844. The publication, in English, of one of the most sacred texts in all of Mahayana Buddhism would have represented the first time the sutra was available to Americans. I’m excited to contemplate the possibility that Thoreau was in some small way responsible for spreading the Dharma. I’m sure a Thoreau scholar might dispute this conclusion. But I’m more pleased to look at this incident as an example of the way wisdom can be shared between seemingly disparate cultures. When we think of Thoreau and his contemporaries, we think of sober, self-reliant Yankees, imbued with a kind of esoteric Christian naturalism. But the fact that these Yankees read some of the sacred books of the East makes me smile. They were stretching the boundaries of what Americans were supposed to think and feel. America back then wasn’t the finished product that we seem to think it is today. I just read in today’s New York Times that during the singing of God Bless America at Yankee stadium, ushers use chains to keep the fans in their seats. (I can’t help seeing the irony in the fact that this is taking place in Yankee Stadium). Being an American means so much more than knee-jerk patriotism. It means thinking for yourself, wherever those thoughts might take you. Maybe even to the feet of Krishna and Buddha themselves.

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