Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thoreau Living Hinduism's Doctrine Through A Buddhist Lifestyle

               “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The recognition of this statement as reality is Truth. It is also the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. What Henry David Thoreau paraphrases into a simple sentence happens to encompass a much larger philosophy of dukkha, or suffering. Hinduism similarly points out that the human condition is samsara, which is life’s wheel of birth and death. The three beliefs, transcendentalism, Buddhism, and Hinduism prescribe medication, or rather certain rituals and practices to heal oneself of reality’s inflicting pain. The concept of life not being experienced fully is pointed out in Thoreau’s philosophy. Quiet desperation is prominent, hence “the mass of men lead” this short-sighted and ephemeral life style. Hinduism’s term samsara describes the limited life Thoreau mentions as innate; human beings are born with this dukkha, or the suffering of living in the veiled world.
Shiva Nataraja
               Hinduism’s definition of the human condition is the most complex of these three definitions. Samsara incorporates an identification of the unconscious because one is not able to recall previous lives. This belief that one has lead many lives through samsara is profound and seems irrelevant and foreign compared to Thoreau’s idea of quiet desperation. The dizziness that samsara can create, best depicted in the Hindu artwork of Shiva Nataraja sculptures does not encompass what the quiet desperation happens to embody. But if one was to look at these two concepts from a more general viewpoint, they both require the same medication. Quiet desperation calls for the recognition of nature as ultimately being God. The process through which one recognizes the ultimate reality of God is samsara’s opposite, moksha, or liberation from life’s repetative cycle. Moksha can be achieved through the Four Yogas which inevitably lead a yogi, the equivalent of a transcendentalist following Thoreau’s ideals, through several stages before reaching the final goal of moksha. These two medications are the same because “desperation” is in fact samsara; it is the fear of life’s unending cycle and consequently, the fear exclusively in desperation is a continuation of samsara.
               Thoreau’s prescription to cure a man’s life of his quiet desperation put in the simplest of terms is experiencing nature. It is crucial to understand that the quiet desperation derives from Thoreau’s previous life in New England life before becoming a transcendentalist. It’s also worth noting that the desperation is quiet because it is shameful. It is a weakness in Thoreau’s New England world to visibly wear the weight of life’s burden.  What Thoreau is escaping from in the “real” world, the world that is noisy, despairing, and hedonistic, is what yogis try to escape through the prescription of the Four Yogas. Raja yoga best exemplifies a transcendentalist’s escape from the world. Because a transcendentalist is not a reform worker or religious fanatic, he is not a karmic or bhakti yogi. The preliminary requirements for raja yoga are “one’s personal life needs to be in order by practicing the five abstentions that restrain one from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality, and greed.” (Huston Smith, 34.) This mirrors Thoreau’s previous life before escaping to Walden Pond; studying at Harvard University. There is a certain amount of preparation that both the yogi and transcendentalist undergo in order to fully experience moksha and nature.
               While these two types of believers follow strict rules, they in essence achieve what they are striving for in their work. “The object of…raja yoga is to unplug one’s sense receptors…or put them on hold so the clatter of the world’s boiler factory won’t disturb the yogi’s concentration.” (Smith, 37.) The escape a transcendentalist makes from society is this unplugging of one’s sense receptors. Both Thoreau and raja yoga point that too often are one’s surroundings and they are distracting and perverse. This establishes a need to perform rituals, such as raja yoga, to reach an ultimate truth above quiet desperation. This truth, found in nature and moksha, ultimately bring one to what is ultimately real. Realizing that there is in fact more to life than just quiet desperation is moksha, and to achieve it, one most consume and perform the necessary prescriptions that their medication calls for in healing.
               Buddhism prescribes explicitly what medication to take and in what dosage. Buddhism takes the Hindu term samsara a step further in explaining what it embodies. Known as the first of the Four Noble Truths, dukkha, meaning suffering, is what Thoreau coins as quiet desperation. The second of the Four Noble Truths is the cause of dukkha known as tanha, or thirst or craving. (Smith, 70-71.)This thirsting is fueled by kleshas, which are afflictive emotions and mental defilements. (Robert Clark.) Kleshas are divided into the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Thoreau viewed these as the causes for a man to consequently live a life of quiet desperation. Quiet desperation, or kleshas, creates negative karma. In the Buddhist context, negative karma builds the amount of dukkha one undertakes.
The Four Noble Truths, however, don’t only echo the reality of dukkha; they also prescribe a cessation to its harm. Known as the Eight Fold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth is a course of training to end quiet desperation. The Three Components establish context for the marga, or path: sila meaning ethics, dhyana depicting concentration, and prajna, an accurate understanding of reality which translates into English as wisdom. (Clark.) Viewed as a pyramid, the Three Components are founded on sila. Ethics are ruled by the Five Precepts that hinder killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and the consumption of intoxicants. (Smith, 74.) By observing these laws, one is able to step to the next level of the pyramid known as dhyana. Concentration in this context refers to meditation, and through the practice of it, one can attain prajna, an accurate understanding of reality. Prajna is known as wisdom because wisdom allows for one to fully embody the Three Marks of Existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatman.
The Three Marks of Existence are the ultimate goal which Thoreau desires to reach, that is wisdom. Dukkha, or realizing that one does suffer, is the first step that leads one back to the beginning of the Four Noble Truths. Anicca means impermanence which encompasses the idea of an accurate understanding of reality. Anatman literally means “no-self.” Deriving from Hinduism’s term atman,
anatman rejects the egocentrism that a life of quiet desperation carries; self-centeredness, known as tanha, restricts one to fully partake in dhyana and prajna. (Smith, 71.) Hindu and Buddhist artwork depict the bloody rejection of egos, which inevitably derives from our ignorance. In certain portrayals of the Hindu goddess Kali, her necklace of severed skulls is the egos of her devotees. To fully undertake the Eight Fold Path to end dukkha, or lives of quiet desperation, one must cut off their ignorance.
This is where minute differences begin to appear between Thoreau’s ideal Walden Pond and Buddha’s strict teachings that derived from Hinduism’s seemingly sanguine doctrine. To an extent, it can be viewed that in the East, this shedding of hedonistic pleasures in a gory fashion are not warmly welcome in the West. If any change is to take place, even the “most dramatic” like Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond, it is not painful. I think that there is too much gluttony and accessibility to comfort and the apparently profound idea of chopping this tanha, this “ego-oozing” desire as Smith puts it, from ourselves is too difficult and overly demanding. This can also be weighted with the West’s growing xenophobia, but I think there is more than just a fear for what is distant to us; there is a fear of dramatic change, even in this case when it is for the obvious better. It can be based on my opinion, but there is much to be gained from these outlying philosophies that reject the fulfillment of our egos. I think that much of what is coined with transcendentalism today is sustainable living, and thus it remains on the fringes of society. But in the East, both Hinduism and Buddhism thrive on the surface of Asian culture. I think that the “dramatic and bloody” baptism into a life of anatman is inevitably lacking within Western, fringe philosophy. Because we feel comfortable half-associating ourselves with certain ideals, we are able to pick and choose qualities of certain philosophies. And so when something profound like transcendentalism appears to mainstream America in the late 19th century, only that which can coincide with our comfort is learned and accepted from that philosophy.  

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