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:


My time has passed

Walking in the forest, I found a shovel sitting by a tree. So I dug a hole. A little way down I found a bone. Maybe a leg bone. Maybe human. I took the bone to the old woman who lives up the street. She deals tarot cards, reads palms and talks to the dead. The old woman told me it was indeed a human bone. She told me it had a violent past. Then she lit candles, burned incense, spoke in tongues, and communicated with the dead. Sitting in her living room surrounded by B-movie props I felt the air turn cold. A voice from the other side spoke; “leave me alone. My time has passed.” The old woman held out the bone for me and said, “bury it back where you found it.” So I returned to the forest, to the hole I had dug and I tossed in the bone. I picked up the shovel and filled in the hole. Then I took the shovel back with me and put it in the shed. Some stories were not meant to be told.


Comm 100 – Persuasive Speech

The Dalai Lama’s remarks [] on the 50th anniversary of his flight from Tibet and the failed uprising against the Chinese Communist occupation reminded me or a long delayed project; transcribing my 1999 speech—originally written for a communications class—about the plight of the Tibetan people. So, here we go. I just going to transcribe the outline I used for the speech (given in class and several times in Amnesty meetings around the DC Metro area). In 1999 there wasn’t the crazy cool Internet video there is today, so I actually had to show the video’s linked below using a VCR and I had to go and buy them from Save Tibet [] in downtown DC! Anyway, here is the speech, the crazy formatting is to reflect how it was actually formatted in Word at the time and printed out to use as a prompt:

Brian Beggerly
Comm. 100
Persuasive Speech
Specific Purpose: To persuade my audience to take personal action to end the situation in Tibet.


Main Idea: China has and continues to violate the human rights of the people of Tibet.



— What you just saw was a public service announcement prepared by the International Campaign for Tibet, the actors and actresses were reading passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

— The Declaration was passed by the United Nations in 1948 and subsequently ratified by all member states. Today all 188-member states are legally bound by it’s articles.

— The 30 articles of the Declaration are designed to guarantee the basic human rights of all citizens of the world.

Rights like:
— Freedom of speech
— Freedom of religion
— Freedom from torture
— Freedom from arbitrary incarceration
— and many others…

— Yet China, the largest country on Earth, a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security council, has been in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for over 50 years, almost since the day Eleanor Roosevelt first read out the worlds of the declaration to the world.

— China has and continues to violate the rights of many of it’s citizens according to Amnesty International’s latest annual report. The plight of the Tibetans in their own homeland, occupied for half a century is especially dire.

— And since the governments of the world, including the government of the US with it’s supposed moral leadership, seem not to care about the people of Tibet, it is up to us, to you and I, to ordinary people all over the western world to stand up and do everything in our power to put a stop to China’s Tibet policies and abuses. To put a stop to what Russian defector Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as

The most brutal and inhuman communist regime in the world.


  1. It began in 1949, only a year after China ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the communist Chinese army invaded and quickly overran the mostly pacifist country of Tibet.
    1. The invasion was uncontested by the rest of the world despite the fact that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, requested help from the free world; the UNITED STATES, BRITTAN, INDIA and other all ignored the pleas for help and protection.
    2. For ten years the Tibetans struggled to live under Chinese rule, but as time passed the Chinese began to take away the basic aspect of Tibetan Culture one-by-one.
    3. In 1959 when the Chinese government outlawed the practice of religion in Tibet, the Tibetan people revolted. The Tibetan people did not use violence as a means to revolt, instead the pacifist Buddhist people gathered in the streets and sang religious songs and chanted anti-Chinese slogans…
    4. The response from the Chinese was swift and violent. Half a million Tibetans were killed. The Dalai Lama and nearly one million other Tibetans fled Tibet on foot, traveling across the roof of the world—the Himalayan mountains into India to seek safety as a political refugee.
    5. Over the past 50 years China has done as it pleases in Tibet. Committing uncountable atrocities with complete immunity. According to the Tibetan Government, exiled and today based in India, and numerous human rights organizations around the world:
      1. Over 1.2 million Tibetans, approximately one-fifth of the population, has died as a direct result from China’s policies in Tibet.
      2. Hundreds more languish in prisons and labor camps, enduring what the Chinese authorities term “reeducation”.
      3. More than 6,000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historical buildings have been demolished and their contents pillaged. Today, less than 300 monasteries remain.
      4. Today China uses the Tibetan Plateau as a testing site for nuclear weapons and as a landfill for it’s toxic and nuclear waste.
      5. In 1995, Nagawang Choephel, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Tibetan, returned to Tibet to document the religious practices of this native people as part of his Doctoral Thesis. He was arrested and charged with promoting anti-government activities, based on his videotaping of religious ceremonies. He remain is a Chinese prison today.
      6. Then there is the case of Gedhum Nyima, recognized in 1995, at the age of 6 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism, was abducted from his home along with his entire family on May 17, 1995. He and his family have not been see or heard from sense, he remains the youngest political prisoner in history.
      7. The worst atrocities in Tibet are inflicted on the nuns. The nuns are the heard of the continuing peaceful struggle for freedom. In recent years hundreds of nuns have been arrested for gathering to sing religious songs and for possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama. They are kept in prisons without trial where they are systematically starved, tortured, raped and executed in an ongoing attempt to break the will of the Tibetan people.
      8. To show what the people of Tibet have been enduring for half a century the International Campaign for Tibet released their video “The World isn’t Listening” in 1998:


  2. In recent years, and especially since the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace, the world has begun to look more and more into the realities of China’s occupation of Tibet.
    1. Today there are many organizations working to inform the world of the atrocities which continue to be committed by the Chinese government. Including:
      1. The International Campaign for Tibet, based here in DC publishes many resources to educate people on the situation. Both the videos I have shown tonight were provided by the International Campaign for Tibet.
      2. Amnesty International, based in London, with offices around the world engages it’s members in letter writing campaigns to attempt to gain freedom for the prisoners of conscience in Tibet.
    2. Thou the actions of these and numerous other grass roots organizations around the world has helped to focus more attention on the situation in Tibet there is still a long way to go.


Why should we care about what happens to this remote, isolated, third-world country of Tibet?

According to the International Committee of Lawyer for Tibet;

World peace shares it fate with the outcome in Tibet. A peaceful resolution of the Tibetan struggle will send a message to the world community that international disputes can be resolved peacefully through the rule of law. On the other hand, if such a resolution does not come about, the message to other peoples is that only war, terrorism and violence will force effective international attention on our situations.”

Each and every person who believes in human rights has a responsibility to act to help end the atrocities in Tibet. What good is a belief in human rights if countries can ignore them at will? Elie Wiesel said it best when he said:

If to be free is the most important goal of all, the to help someone else to be or become free must be the most sublime and rewarding of human endeavors.

Here’s what you can do:
— You can seek out the organizations which work for a peaceful resolution, help them, learn from them and help to educate others.
—You can exercise your rights as Americans by addressing our Representatives and Senators in Washington, telling them that the US should use all it’s economic and political power to help the oppressed people of Tibet.
— But most importantly, you can vote with your wallet; refuse to by goods made in China. It’s hard but there are alternatives and if there are not, ask yourself if you really need that new gadget or that pair of shoes more then an entire country needs it freedom.

Because the old saying holds true;



Fish Fetish: Reading Animal Liberation

Fish Fetish got it’s share of strange customers over the years. From the typical moms-buying-the-kids-a-goldfish to Schools buying 200 goldfish for the carnival. We even had at least one heart doctor in town who thought that we needed business; he sent patients with high blood pressure to us with prescriptions for elaborate fish tanks. They where instructed to sit and watch the fish tank for 1 or 2 hours every day to lower their blood pressure. Insurance picked up the setup and maintenance fees. Sweet deal really, in order to make a tank interesting enough to watch for hours you have to go all out; amazon inspired plant takes with dozens of small fish and fresh water shrimp or coral reef tanks with all kinds of invertebrates. And at $50 to a $100 an hour for maintenance it’s a good long term cash cow. The doctor did get a discount for this service.

One of our more unusual customers showed up late one night while the three of us were unpacking a large shipment of fish and corals from just in from Jakarta. We all notices the woman who wondered into the freshwater section. She was a blond bombshell in jeans and a tee shirt with the local university logo. After a couple quick rounds of rock-paper-scissors J████ got to stop opening endless bags of livestock and headed over to help her.

“Good evening ma’am. Can I help you?”

“Yea, good evening.” She hardly glanced at J████, but then she pointed to one of the tanks and said, “I need 500 Zebra Danios, a 50 gallon tank, filter and food. Can you do that?”

“500 Zebra Danios? We’d have to order them.”

“That’s OK.” She said. “I also need to know if you can give me a quote so I can get a PO and have a check cut for you? How long will it take to get the fish?”

“I have to check with the suppliers as 500 is a larger order than we usually get, I can check tomorrow if you would like to leave a name and number so I can call you back.” Walking behind the counter and searching for the live stock lists J████ continued; “normally Zibra Danios are three for a dollar, but if you are going to get 500 I think we can get a deal. Can you leave your contact details here. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“I’ll need to pick up the quote a few days before I can get a check. Let me know what the price is and I’ll come by and pick up a quote.”

“No problem ma’am.” J████ smiled at her as she turned towards the door. “We’ll call you tomorrow. Thanks.”


J████ still had that dumb about to be clubbed baby seal look on his face when J███ and I came over to the counter. “Well then. Ms. W—- E—— of 405 Jordan Hall.” J████ was quickly scribbling down the list of items Ms. W—- has asked for so he didn’t forget.

“What the hell does she want 500 Zebra Danios for?” J████ asked.

“Maybe she has a god complex?”

“Beautiful goddess then,” was about the most intelligent thing I could think to say.

“Yea right. I bet she doesn’t need to act out her god complex on fish. She’s got men lining up to be abused.” J███ took out the latest live stock list from one of our suppliers. “We can do the Lillyponds order early this week. Danios are 10 cent each for less than 100, 7 cent for 100 to 400 and 5 cent for more. 20 for a buck? Think she’ll pay 200?”

“She’s not paying,” J████ said, “she said something about a PO.”

“Then charge her 100 for the fish, regular price on the tank and supplies.”

“I still don’t get it,” I said, “what does she need the 500 Danios for?”

“Who cares.” J████ said.

“Yea, you should ask her when she comes back.” J███ said. “What was she driving?”

“Old Volvo station wagon.”

“Hum… She looked like a college girl, maybe it’s for a carnival.”

The next day J████ made the call to tell Ms. W—- what it would cost for the setup and fish. When he was done he hung up the phone, turned to me and said, “the guy who answered the phone, said ‘Keck brain research facility.'”

“That sounds like a horror movie.”

“Their infected.”

“Infected with what?”


“Haha. But will she pay?”


A few days later the Lillyponds shipment included five extra bags of Danios. 100 fish per bag.

Ms. W—- showed up about 45 minutes later in her Volvo with a check from the university and some forms that had to be signed to make everything official.

While filling out the forms J████ asked “what are you going to do with 500 Danios?”

“Stick electrodes in their brains and see what makes them tick.”

Laughing J████ said “no really. what are they for?”

“No really, I’m going to stick wires in their brains for research.”

“Really?” J████ was not laughing anymore. In fact he was not slouching and filling out the papers anymore. He was standing up strait, all 6 foot 4 of him skinny as ever looking down at Ms. W—-. Who was about 5 foot 6. “I’m not sure I like that.

It should be noted at this point the everyone who worked at Fish Fetish was a vegetarian based on a shared ethical epiphany about the mistreatment of animals in the name of food and human chauvinism. None of us had been vegetarians or even ever given a second thought to meat prior to opening the store. It was a decision based on shared conversation after the store opened. This awakening would in the long run lead to the closing of Fish Fetish but that was still years away. At the time Ms. W—- showed up to purchase her 500 Zebra Danios for Frankenstein experiments J████ had only been a vegetarian for a few months. The idea of selling 500 fish to be poked and prodded for some thesis was not a happy thought.

“What do you mean you don’t like it?” Ms. W—- asked looking up to J████ and somehow making him look unimposing.

“That’s cruel. You’re going to experiment on 500 living things for some sick science experiment? Have you thought about the fish.”

“Yea I thought about the fish, I chose the Zebra Danios because they are well studied.”

“I don’t mean what type of fish to use,” J████ said “I mean how would you like it if someone stuck wires in your head and electrocuted you.”

“I’m not going to electrocute them…”

“Have you ever read Animal Liberation?”

“Yes. Have you?”

“Um. No. Actually, No.”

By this point J███ and I were laughing our asses off on the couch across the store. This little college girl with her blond pony tail was standing there with her hands on her hips yelling at J████ who should have been imposing towering over her. But instead he looked tired and confused looking down at her like an elephant scared of a mouse.

So Ms. W—- got her 500 Zebra Danios with no more lectures. Eventually she came back to buy a tank for home and some fish to take care of instead of to ‘take care off.’ She became one of our regulars and sometimes joined us for life outside of Fish Fetish. And her 500 Danios helped her get her PhD.

And J████ read Animal Liberation.

We all did.


Fish Fetish: Breatharianism

It was a slow Thursday afternoon when we met the breatharian. J███, J████ and I were in the fish shop browsing a livestock list from a big west coast supplier with D██. D██ was looking for some bread-and-butter fish for one of his high powered lawyer client’s salt water tank. Nothing too exotic, just some color please. So, Sgt. Major Damsel’s at 15¢ each, minimum 10? And Yellow Tangs $1.00 or Coral Beauty’s for $1.50? Wholesale prices between friends.

Pricing livestock is a tricky business; you have to pay a fortune in shipping costs when you ship live fish; fish have to be in water, water weighs a lot, fast shipping by air is by weight. Combine that with the loss rates of shipping and holding till the fish is sold and you can end up with a Damsel that cost 15¢ wholesale costing $2.00 in store. High powered lawyers in plush law firms don’t care how much the fish cost as long as it swims around in the tank to pacify the socialites waiting for to sign their divorce papers at $500 an hour. Hence D██ buying 15¢ Damsels for $2.00 each selling them on for $5.00.

While we were debating the ethics of potential markups on the various fish one of our regulars, S████, came in. S████ was a punk rock skinny-mini ex-marine that topped out at about 90 pounds. With a huge colorful tattoo of an octopus covering her right shoulder and neck as a memento of her time in Okinawa. Her fish tank was at the heart of a bitter divorce and custody battle. Not that the tank was the cause; maintenance was the issue, because when J███ did the maintenance J███ he did S████ too.

Besides being a punk rock ex-marine girl, S████ was a Wholefoods nut. She regularly came into the fish shop raving about this or that new diet fad; One month she’d be macrobiotic vegan, next month it was raw foods only. It was always going to be a miracle cure for her chronic lethargy and insomnia. We all laughed behind her back about it; and as D██ once said, “there’s nothing wrong with that girl a Big Mac wouldn’t fix.” And D██ was a vegetarian.

Today S████ had a tag-along; an even skinnier girl who stood a head taller but looked more like Skeletor than a real person.

“Hey guys. This is A███. And my tang died.”


“So sad, which one?”

“Yellow one. I brought some water to test.”

“OK. Test kits in the back.” With that J███ took the zip-lock bag of fish tank water and lead Sandy to the back counter. No real need, there was a test kit at the front counter. This of course left J████, D██ and me alone with Skeletor.

Mark, did the dirty work of starting the conversation with the third wheel. “So, A███. Have a fish tank?”

“Not since fifth grade. S████ says you guys are all vegetarians?”

“Yep. Except J███, he’s a vegan. We all make fun of him.”

“That’s cool that your vegetarians. Cruel that you make fun of him. I’ve been vegan for a few years; training to be a breatharian.”

None of us had ever heard of this term before. D██ looked at J████ and I. Then J████ opened the door; “What’s a breatharian?”

“It’s the science of living on the nutrients of air.”

I watched too much PBS as a kid to let that one go. “You can’t live off air.”

“Oh no, see that’s what most people think. Really it’s just fear that kills you…”

“… Not starvation?”

“No, just fear. We’ve all been taught for so long that we can’t live without food and water that when we don’t have food and water we become scared and our minds cause us to get ill and die.”

“So,” J████ took the bait, “if I stop eating and drinking today, I won’t die, as long as I am not afraid of death?”

“It’s not quite that simple.”

“Oh,” D– said, “it never is.”

“To succeed,” A███ continued, “you have to unlearn all that you know about food and nutrition and all the science mambo-jumbo. You have to train yourself, you can’t quite cold turkey.”

“And where did you learn all this from?”

“There are a number of people all around the world that have been teaching this system for years. It goes way back.” By this time A— was really into it, her eyes were starting to light up in a remarkably Skeletor like way, only she had blue eyes not red, “but the media doesn’t want to report on it. Big Agro doesn’t want people to stop buying food, so it’s hard to learn about it from the TV or newspapers.”

“So how did you learn about it?” I asked.

“I met this guy in California who was just back from Australia where he was studying under a wonderful woman who is like the high priest of breatharianism. She hasn’t eaten or had a drink in almost seven years.”

“Seven years?” We all said that, more or less in unison, same patronizing tone the flew of Skelator’s head.

“Yes, really. Isn’t it amazing? Seven years, but it took here a lot longer to build up to it.”

“I still don’t believe you can live on air.” I said.

“So how is your ‘training’ going?” D██ asked.

“Well, I’m quite weak. I went two days last week without food, but I did drink water. I felt so tired…”

“There’s a reason for that…”

“… I had to.”

“… because you have to eat.”

“I hope that by the end of the year I can go a whole week. Next year a month. It will take at least a few years to be off food and water forever. Then I’ll be so much healthier None of the man-made chemicals, no death hormones.”

By this time S████ and J███ wondered back from testing the water.

“S████,” I started, “what do you think about this living on air thing?”

“Breatharianism? I haven’t looked into it too much,” She said.

“You think that will fix your health issues,” D██ asked.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I just started the raw food diet.”

“Does sashimi count?”

“No, vegan, of course.”


“Well, we’re off guys, I’m going to drop A███ at Wholefoods. So I can pick up a new tang next week J███?”

“Yea if nothing else gets sick.”

“See ya.”


“Nice to meet you guys.”

We watched the breatharian walk with S████ to her ancient Volvo. They got in and drove off and we all started laughing hysterically.

“You know,” I said, “if you could live without food or water, the ‘Ethernopians’ would have figured it out in the ’80s.”

“I think she needs more than one Big Mac to fix her issues,” D██ concluded, “that girl is Darwinism at work. Hope she doesn’t have kids.”