If I were asked who my favourite Western Zen philosopher was, without any
hesitation, I would declare it to be Henry David Thoreau. Although he knew in translation
the religious writings of the Hindus, it may be unlikely that Henry David Thoreau ever
studied the teachings of the Zen Masters. Even then, the insight within his own personal
writings would irrefutably make him master of his own temple. The wisdom found within
Thoreau\'s Walden can be clarified through Zen Buddhist beliefs and ideas as the two seem
to typically compliment each other.
Where, you might ask, does religion fit into the travelling adventures of Henry
David Thoreau? Religion has been a part of the literary tradition from the very start.
Some of the first books ever produced were handwritten copies of the Bible. Pamphlets,
poems, odes, and epics throughout the centuries have continued to reflect religious
content. I have also read insightful essays about the hidden Christian Symbolism in A. A.
Milne\'s Winnie-the-Pooh. Well, why not the presence of Zen Buddhism within the
teachings of Thoreau\'s Walden? In accordance with the history of literature, one might
say "Why not?"; in accordance with Walden\'s content, I would say, "I couldn\'t see it
being any other way."
What is Zen Buddhism anyway? In the book Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki says that
"Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one\'s own being, and it points the
way from bondage into freedom" (3). In the theory of Zen, our bodies contain a spiritual
form of energy. When this energy is consciously tapped, we will be aware of all the
underlying impulses and desires of our heart. This "freedom" will cause us to experience
Kensho, (seeing into one\'s own nature), thus becoming happier and more loving to those
around us. To reach the Buddhist goal of becoming one with everything, a person has to
embrace "nothing". What is meant in the embracing of "nothing" is that one must
abandon his or her own ego and explore beyond the limits of social conformity. The
problem that lies in the way of reaching this "energy" is that most people have suppressed
it due to personal and society driven ignorance. When this barrier is overcome, we are in
tune with the significance and knowledge of life. In his thoughts and in his words,
Thoreau has seemed to utilize that energy in Walden, opening his "third eye" to the world
around him
Zen teacher Choa-chou said that, "Zen is your everyday thought" and Walden is a
collection of the everyday thoughts of Henry David Thoreau. Walden is a factual record
of Thoreau\'s life experiences living alone in a house that he built with his own hands, on
the shore of Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts. Zen suggests that to solve life\'s
problems, one must directly implore the elements of personal experience as opposed to
book-knowledge. This approach is known as Jiriki. Jiriki refers to a person\'s own
attempt to "attain enlightenment through his or her own efforts". In Walden, Thoreau
offers the outcomes of his experience to the reader in hopes that they too will gain
freedom from them.
While living on the shores of Walden, Thoreau\'s simple lifestyle can almost be
summed up with the Zen saying "Chop wood, carry water". Thoreau earned his living by
the labour of his own hands and considered his lifestyle, "very natural and pertinent"
(728). Thoreau achieved tranquillity by means similar to those found in Zen scripture.
He writes, "So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear
what was in the wind" (736). This is, to me, reminiscent of the Zen koan "What is the
colour of wind?"
Throughout the pages of Walden, Thoreau seems to praise the simplicity of the
animal world that is lacking in humankind. Commenting on survival, Thoreau states that,
"None of the brute creation requires more than Food and Shelter . . . for not til we have
secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a
prospect of success" (733-734). This simplicity of survival has been a constant part of
Zen life. Master Rinzai, founder of the Rinzai Sect of Zen, remarked, "When hungry, I
eat; when tired, I sleep. Fools laugh at me. The wise understand". Both