Zen at Walden Pond

This is the first of two posts from an introduction to eastern philosophy class I took in 1997. I’m only posting this paper to tell a story about my own path to learning. The paper itself is not good, in fact it is quite bad. at best repetitive, poorly organized and altogether lackluster —showing no real insight into the material. For the second paper see here [], for the whole story see here [].

Zen. Simplicity. The feeling of simplicity i feel when reading Zen brings back memories of other writings. Simplicity connected not with a monastery in the mountains of Japan, but in the reflections of life on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Life on Walden Pond imparted to me the same feelings of simplicity in living that Maura O’Holloran wrote about in Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. Simplicity that is in the core of Zen. Simplicity of life living at Walden Pond. Walden helps me to understand Zen by relating to a more western perspective.

Henry David Thoreau’s Life on Walden Pond is a record of his everyday life during two years he lived there, alone, in a simple house he built in with his own hands. Zen is, Master Choa-chou said, “everyday thought.” Walden can be seen as the diary of Thoreau’s search for his version of enlightenment, living simply in the woods. In much the same manner as Thoreau, O’Halloran recorded her personal journey to enlightenment in the letters and diary that make up Pure Heard, Enlightened Mind. By documenting everyday experiences both authors allowed me to glimpse their personal journey down the path of life.

Living in Toshoji Temple O’Holloran learned the things no book could teach her. She learned the lessons of life, practical yet simple. The same lessons that Thoreau learned on the shores of Walden and recorded in his writing. “Walden, in short, is designed as a practical course in the liberation of the reader” (1676), writes Hershel Walker in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. In Walden Thoreau offers his everyday thoughts and experiences to the reader. Within its pages I shared in his journey to enlightenment. The idea that liberation comes through everyday living is summed up in one word in Japanese, “jiriki”. Jiriki refers to a persons attempt to “achieve enlightenment through his or her own efforts (Lindley). Jirkiki to me implies that to reach enlightenment we must learn from personal experience as opposed to what we can learn from outside sources, like books and people.

In Essays in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Sazuki says “Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom” (13). In Walden Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials facts of life” (75). Thoreau went to live simply. Alone at Walden Pond, without the distractions of others, he could look within himself. The simplicity of life on the pond allowed him to discard the bondage of society, peal back the layers and reveal himself.

To reach the Buddhist goal of becoming one with everything and gaining freedom from the bondage of life, O’Holloran struggled with the idea of “mu.” Mu is the Japanese word for nothing. O’Halloran concludes that she must “embrace mu”. To embrace mu a person must become one with everything. Abandon your ego and explore yourself outside the complexity of society. In modern society, many people have walled their true self behind the complexity of conformity. Thoreau left society because as he said “the life of a civilized people is an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed” (26). The institution forces most people to conform in each situation, adding a layer of complexity to them. The child whose clothing does not conform is pressured into buying the cool cloths, pressured into conformity. Else he is shunned by his peers, and made an outcast of society.

Our society grows more complex each day. Everywhere we look a new gizmo that promises to make our lives easier, in fact makes it more complex. My world is the ever-changing world of computers, the epitome of complexity, I must spend much of my time learning the new technology in order to continue to use the computer. Because of the complexity of my life the simplicity of Thoreau’s life, on the shores of Walden appeals to me.

Thoreau reduced his life to only the essentials, Hershel Parker, commented of Walden, that “[Thoreau’s] life became a refusal to live by the materialistics values of this neighbors” (1679). Thoreau himself said “I have 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, I threw them out in disgust” (30). The limestone on the desk is like the many things that I buy in a vain attempt to fill my world with beauty, but only clutter my life. Over and over I buy new things to put in my house to make it more appealing. Thoreau’s last of things is what made his life simple. The simplicity made his life appealing.

Thoreau abandoned the object of his life, like the limestone that were not necessities. Mumon, a Zen master said, “the treasures of the house do not come in by the front door.” The “things” that we bring into our house unnecessarily are just fluff, useless. Thoreau said “bare feet are older than shoes, and [one] can made them do” (19). A quote in The Little Zen Companion says “I threw my cup away when is saw a child drinking from his hand at the trough” (133). Both the shoes and the cup are items that perform as specific job, one that we can perform without them. They are examples of the fluff that my life has become filled with. It is the fluff that hides the true treasure of the house. The true treasure that enters the house when we enter, and leaves when we leave. Simple treasure that are always with us.

Our treasures have always been inside of us, but we have filled or lives with complexity and hidden them. Thoreau simplified his life on the shores of Walden Pond, by removing the materialistics treasure, leaving only himself, his treasures. In his writings I glimpsed an undiluted look into his journey to find himself. The simplicity of his life is a beacon of hope in the complexity of my world. Walden left me with the belief that a simple uncluttered life leads us to a simple uncluttered mind. A mind in which we may experience our true selves. O’Halloran, Suzuki, and all other Zen masters an teachers I have read have only help to water seeds planted by Walden. Thoreau likely never new what Zen was but his insights into life would have made him a master of Zen to me. His words taught me the essence of Zen before I know what Zen was, and he continues to help me understand the Zen I read.

The bibliography is missing, but as I still have most of these books, except the Norton Anthology. Here is what I have: