Emerson and Zen Buddhism

Summer days in the southern French Alps, where I live, can be very hot, but mornings are often glorious. The sun, as it peeks over the mountains to the east, brings balmy warmth that slowly chases away the chill of the night. The grass, trees and flowers stretch out to catch the distant rays, and the air is clear and fresh.

This morning, I was sitting on the terrace of my house, reading the fifth volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, drinking tea, listening to music, and generally regaling in the beauty of such summer moments. I would read a bit, drink some tea, look out at the trees and grass, gaze at the clouds above the mountains to the south, and continue reading.

At one point, a confluence of sensory experiences suddenly gave me a thrill and profound understanding of exactly what Emerson saw in nature. I was listening to Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 21, the Waldstein Sonata, written the summer of 1804, a year after Emerson’s birth. The combination of the coolness of the morning air and the sun’s rays made me feel that it was neither too warm, nor too cold, but just right. There was a smell of wildflowers wafting through the air, and when I took a sip of tea, I had a Proustian experience of oneness with all of my surroundings. I had just read the following in Emerson’s journal, and was reflecting on it:

“I at least fully believe that God is in every place, & that, if the mind is excited, it may see him, & in him an infinite wisdom in every object that passes before us.” (JMN 5:150)

This was 1836, after Emerson had left the pulpit, and the year that he was writing Nature, which would be his paean to pantheism. Emerson had a number of mystical experiences in nature, which prompted him, in part, to write this book, the most famous of which is the following:

“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

I’m not a religious person, at least not in the sense that Emerson was at the time; I don’t cotton to all the “God” references in Emerson’s writings. Nevertheless, looking closely at them, in particular in the journals, where Emerson wrote in his freest form, one can see that this “God” can be other things.

I am interested in Zen Buddhism, and have been struck by the many parallels between Emerson’s mystic thoughts and the teachings of the Zen tradition. If I were to take the sentence from the journal that I cited above, and change some of the words, one ends up with a quintessential Zen teaching:

“I at least fully believe that Buddha nature is in every place, & that, if the mind is excited, it may see this Buddha nature, & in it an infinite wisdom in every object that passes before us.”

Emerson’s journals are full of such thoughts. For him, “God” was a deist god, one that is present to those who can see his manifestations, but that does not intervene in the world of men. In many cases, Emerson’s “God,” at least that of the decade when he wrote Nature, is an amorphous concept, not an omnipotent being.

As I read through the Journals, I find countless examples of such thought. Emerson had rejected the organized church, giving up the pulpit in 1832, a little more than a year after the death of his first wife, Ellen. In 1836, he was distilling his experiences in nature into his first “manifesto” of a new way of thinking about the world. He would write, in Nature:

“Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages.”

This is the writing of a mystic who is attempting to describe a oneness with the universe, but also one with himself:

“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.”

Emerson wrote, in his journal:

“Man is the creator of his world.” (JMN 5:172)

He understood that the world is not simply that which is outside of man, but also that the world is something that we create from our own experiences and feelings, a concept which the great Zen teachers have espoused for centuries.

Or there’s this, which is vintage Zen as well:

“What is there of the divine in a load of bricks? What is there of the divine in a barber’s shop or a privy? Much. All.” (JMN 4:307)

I could go on with dozens of examples…

Emerson knew nothing about Buddhism – he did, later, learn a bit about Hinduism from translations of sacred texts that became available – but I cannot help but think that he would have found in Zen and other Buddhist teachings a strong reflection of the mystical elements of his early thinking.

(Note: after I posted this article, I did a Google search for Emerson and Zen to see what came up, and was encouraged by the fact that literature professor John G. Rudy has published a book called Emerson and Zen Buddism, which discusses exactly what my brief essay set out to present. I hope to be able to read this book to see what links Professor Rudy has found.)

Posted in: Thoughts on July 10, 2011 | 1 Comment »
Share on Twitter | Facebook

One Comment
  1. On July 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm Bill Merklee Said:

    Yes. We’re apparently on the same wavelength. My copy of the Rudy book just arrived. Looking forward to reading it after I finish Richardson’s “Emerson: The Mind on Fire.”

Leave a Comment