Walden And The Art Of Zen Essay

, 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

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 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

as follows,

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

the point,

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

civilized life.

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.



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