, Research Paper
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
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 Thoreau and
Zen religion appear to place animals on a higher plane of existence for their intuitive
behaviour. In Walden’s Economy, (or “philosophy of living”), Thoreau writes,
One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it
furnishes nothing to make bones with;” and so he religiously devotes a part
of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking
all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones,
jerk him and his lumbering plough along in spite of every obstacle. (732)
Irmgard Schloegl’s book, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters, contains a Zen quote
conveying a similar message on the elevation of animal behaviour in life. The quotation is
Master Nansen, asked by a monk, “Where does he go who knows what is
what?” replied: “He becomes an ox of the monastery supporter down the
hill, to requite him for his help.” When the monk thanked him for his
teaching, the Master added: “At midnight yesterday, the moon shone in at
the window.” (69)
Thoreau was known to have said, “Our life is frittered away by detail . . . Simplify,
simplify”. However, this regard of simplicity seemed to conflict with the opinions of
If one were to follow the advice that Walden give’s us for living, as Thoreau puts
it, “God will see that you do not want society” (823). In The Norton Anthology of
American Literature, Hershel Parker, of the University of Delaware comments that,
“[Thoreau's] life became a refusal to live by the materialistic values of his neighbours”
(709). Henry David Thoreau had no desire for material possessions. He writes: “I had
three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be
dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out in
disgust” (746-747). After all, as Zen master Mumon said, “The treasures of the house do
not come in by the front door”. Thoreau abandoned the objects that did not necessitate
the living of his life. Often in life we acquire new things even though objects still
possessed could do the desired job. Thoreau was uncomfortable with that quality of man
pronouncing that, “bare feet are older than shoes, and [one] can make them do” (739).
This statement is quite similar in thought to a Diogenes quote found in The Little Zen
Companion: “I threw my cup away when I saw a child drinking from his hands at the
trough” (133). Thoreau believed that money unnecessary for the lifestyle of his choosing.
He believed that, “None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the
vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty” (735). This belief is shared
with the Zen masters. Zen text says:
A monk asked Chao-chou, “If a poor man comes, what
should one give him?”
“He lacks nothing,” answered the Master.
By chatting unnecessary things, you are left, in turn, with fewer things to worry about.
Thoreau’s own comment about the society around him was that, “We worship not the
Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion” (740). In Walden, Thoreau spins a tale to illustrate
Madam Pfeiffer, in her adventurous travels round the world, from east to
west, had got so near home as Asiatic Russia, she says that she felt the
necessity of wearing other than a travelling dress, when she went to meet
the authorities, for she was now in civilized country, where — people are
judged of by their clothes’. (739)
This curious anecdote brings into mind an ancient Zen Story,
Wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet. The Master arrived
there dressed in beggar’s robes. His host, not recognizing him in this garb,
hustled him away. The Master went home, there changed into his
ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his
host’s doorstep. He was received with due respect, and ushered into the
banquet room. There he put his stiff robe on the cushion, saying, I expect
you invited the robe since you showed me away a little while ago,’ and
These were, according to Thoreau, the “childish and savage taste of men” (741). Walden
powerfully displays how deep the routine of tradition and conformity are entrenched into
Thoreau believes that the problem with society is their dependence on conventional
habit. Men are “machines” and “are so occupied with the factitious cares and
superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (730).
Further into Walden, Thoreau comes to the realization that, “the life of the civilized people
[is made] an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in
order to preserve and perfect that of the race” (744). It can be seen that Thoreau thinks
that individualism has been lost in civilized man. He concludes that civilization would be
“Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might
have seen with clearer eyes the field that they were called to labour in” (729). This may be
related to the thoughts of Tao te Ching, who said “Act without doing; work without
effort”. Tradition may be broken as well. In Walden, Thoreau’s insight is that “It is
never too late to give up our prejudices” (731). Social biases are shunned in Zen Religion.
There are no separations; you are one with everything. Thoreau repeats his point by
saying that, “The finest qualities of our nature . . . can be preserved only by the most
delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly” (730).
Henry David Thoreau is the Master and I am the student. He truly believed in
living his life rather than wasting it. I believe that he attained Buddhahood by finding the
nature of his own true being. Using Walden as a vessel for his awakened wisdom,
Thoreau would like everyone to experience Kensho and identify with their own true
nature, “Let every mind his own business, and endeavour to be what he was made” (821).
In Thoreau’s mind, life was not constricted by rules. He boldly states in Walden, “Here is
life, an experiment” (732). It almost seems as if Thoreau had based his own life on the
teachings of Chinese philosopher Tao-te-Ching:
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
Yamada Roshi, great Zen master declared that “The purpose of Zen is the perfection of
character”. Keeping that in mind, I believe that Walden has secured Henry David
Thoreau’s place as one of the greatest Zen philosophers.
Schiller, David, trans. and ed. , The Little Zen Companion. New York: Workman, 1994.
Schloegl, Irmgard, trans. and ed. , The Wisdom of the Zen Masters. New York: New Directions Books, 1976.
Wood, Ernest, Zen Dictionary. Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1973.