In 1819, 194 years ago today, a human being was born in West Hills, New York to somewhat poor Quaker parents, the second of nine children. He became one of America’s greatest poets. His name, Walt Whitman.
Much has been written about the influence of Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, in Whitman’s writings. I think there is little question that he was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, I’m not convinced that influence was as significant as some folks maintain. I’ve seen him called a “Buddhist sage,” or “American Buddha.” I’ve even seen descriptions of Whitman’s “meditation practice.” However, I think through his appreciation of living in harmony with the natural rhythm and flow of life, he had more in common with the wandering Taoist sages of China, which he probably knew little about, and I suspect that his mind was too undisciplined to engage in what we would consider meditation practice.
In Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shoei Ando writes, “[The] tendency toward inward reflection and self-conquest did not belong to Whitman, who was indolent, dreamy, fond of calm aesthetic contemplation, and destitute of practical intention for self-purification through discipline.”
Walt Whitman was a natural-born, free-wheeling, mystic poet, who soaked up many influences and wrung them out in his own singular way. His spirituality was born out of an artistic bent, not a religious one. Nonetheless, we can certainly appreciate his nearness to Buddhist thought.
For instance, Ando notes that “Whitman, believing that ‘if anything is sacred the human body is sacred,’ never subordinated the body to the spirit, but strongly insisted upon the equality of both.” In this way, Whitman differed from many of the transcendentalists with whom he is often associated, men like Emerson and Thoreau who were influential in preparing the collective consciousness of America for Eastern thought, but still clung to a rather Christian view of the body as “nothing but a part of those impurities which cloud and obscure the divinity within man.”
Whitman’s view could be compared to the Japanese Buddhist concept of shiki shin funi or “body and spirit are two but not two.” Shin is the Japanese translation of the Chinese character, xin, meaning “heart, mind, spirit, essence.”
Look at these verses from Whitman and then the words of Zen master Dogen:
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and
pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the
moment of death.
“Starting from Paumanok”
“Our Body comes from our learning the Way, and what has come from our learning the Way is our body along with our Body. The whole universe in all ten quarters is synonymous with our one real physical body, and the coming and going of birth and death is also synonymous with our real physical body.”
“On Learning the Way Through Body and Mind” (Shinjin Gakudo)
Both, to me, are asking us to transcend our coarse conceptions about body and mind, and birth and death, to cast off the limitations of our thoughts. And both equate the body, not with impurity, but with spiritual grace and a certain sublime beauty for it, as with the mind, is a microcosm of the vast, unfathomable universe.
Whitman also recognized the oneness of self and nature (esho funi, “life and environment are two but not two”). In “I Sing The Body Electric”, he wrote,
“As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness,
sanity, beauty . . .”
Sadakichi Hartmann, the German-Japanese critic and playwright who introduced haiku to America, had a number of encounters with Whitman that he recorded in Conversations with Walt Whitman, published in 1895. On one occasion, Hartmann asked him “Do you believe that mankind can be improved by books?”
Whitman replied, “I can hardly say that I had the idea to better mankind. I grew up like a tree — the poems are the fruit. Good literature ought to be the Roman cement; the older it grows — the better it serves its purpose.”
Over a century has passed since Whitman’s last poem was published posthumously in July 1892. His thoughts, his works, his life itself, is like the Roman cement, older, better, and quite unintentionally, if we are to take his humility at face value, still serving a great purpose.
Now, here is something I didn’t know existed. The University of Iowa describes this as the rediscovery of the “tape-recording of what may be an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines of his late poem ‘America’.” The background story of this recording is rather interesting. You can read about it here, in an article by Ed Folsom for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.
Click on the arrow below to listen.
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love . . .