Sunday Dharma: Thoreau’s Lotus Sutra

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

American transcendentalism as advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and others became the first real port of entry for Eastern philosophy on these shores.

The New England Transcendentalists were exposed to Eastern in a number of ways: from the commercial ships returning from Asia and bringing with them snatches of Eastern wisdom, from their university studies, and from the writings of such individuals as Rammohan Roy, a Bengali social reformer.

Emerson was editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalist publication they called a “Journal in a new spirit”, and worked with Thoreau on the “Ethical Scriptures” column that featured excerpts from various Eastern texts. Both men were greatly influenced by Hinduism, and in particular, the Bhagavad Gita.

At this time there was some confusion in the minds of Americans between Hinduism and Buddhism, a situation that was not completely resolved until Edwin Arnold’s story of the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, was published in 1878.  Nonetheless, Emerson and Thoreau, apparently well-versed in the classics of India, China, which in addition to Hindu scriptures included classical Chinese texts, such as the writings of Confucius and Mencius, had each expressed a deep interest in Buddhism.

Unfortunately for them, the translation into European languages of Buddhist texts had not moved at the same pace as those of other Indian and Chinese philosophies. As a result, most Buddhist texts were unavailable to Western readers. However, Henry David Thoreau had a copy of Burnouf’s French translation of the Lotus Sutra, possibly a very early edition, which was translated into English (probably by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody) and subsequently published in the “Ethical Scriptures” column in 1844.

Here, then, is an excerpt on medicinal plants from “Thoreau’s Lotus Sutra” – quite possibly the first appearance of one of the most important pieces of Buddhist literature in English, predating Kern’s translation by some forty years:

Lotus FlowerThe Tathágata [ Thus-Come-One] is equal and not unequal towards all beings, when it is the question to convert them: “He is, Oh Kassapa, as the rays of the sun and moon, which shine alike upon the virtuous and the wicked, the high and the low; on those who have a good odor, and those who have a bad; on all these the rays fall equally and not unequally at one and the same time. So, Oh Kassapa, the rays of intelligence, endowed with the knowledge of omnipotence, make the Tathágatas venerable.

I who am the king of the law, I who am born in the world, and who governs existence, I explain the law to creatures, after having recognized their inclinations. Great heroes, whose intelligence is firm, preserve for a long time my word; they guard also my secret, and do not reveal it to creatures. Indeed, from the moment that the ignorant hear this science so difficult to comprehend, immediately conceiving doubts in their madness, they will fall from it, and fall into error. I proportion my language to the subject and strength of each; and I correct a doctrine by contrary explication (clarification). It is, Oh Kassapa, as if a cloud, raising itself above the universe, covered it entirely, hiding all the earth. Full of water, surrounded with a garland of lightning, this great cloud, which resounds with the noise of thunder, spreads joy over all creatures. Arresting the rays of the sun, refreshing the sphere of the world, descending so near the earth as to be touched with a hand. It pours our water on every side. Spreading in a uniform manner an immense mass of water, and resplendent with the lightning which escape from its sides, it makes the earth rejoice.

And the medicinal plants which have burst from the surface of this earth, the herbs, the bushes, the kings of the forest, little and great trees; the different seeds, and everything which makes verdure (greenness); all the vegetables which are found it the mountains, in the caverns, and in the groves; the herbs, the bushes, the trees, this cloud fills them with joy, it spreads joy upon the dry earth, and it moistens the medicinal plants; and this homogeneous (uniform) water of the cloud, the herbs and the bushes plump up, every one according to its force and its object. And the different kinds of trees, the great as well as the small, and the middle sized trees, all drink this water, each one according to its age and its strength; they drink it and grow, each one according to its need. Absorbing the water of the cloud by their trunks, their twigs, their bark, their branches, their boughs, their leaves, the great medicinal plants put forth flowers and fruits. Each one according to its strength, according to its destination, and conformably to the nature of the germ whence it springs, produces a distinct fruit, and nevertheless there is one homogeneous water like that which fell from the cloud. So, Oh Kassapa, the Buddha comes into the world, like a cloud that covers the universe, and hardly is the chief of the world born, then he speaks and teaches the true doctrine to creatures.

And thus, says the great sage, honored in the world, in union with gods. I am Tathágata, the conqueror, the best of men; I have appeared in the world like a cloud . . .  I fill the whole universe with joy, like a cloud which pours everywhere a homogeneous water, always equally well disposed towards respectable men, as towards the lowest, towards virtuous men as towards the wicked; towards abandoned men as towards those who have conducted most regularly; towards those who follow heterodox (contrary to accepted belief) doctrines and false opinions as towards those whose doctrines are sound and perfect . . .

This teaching of the law, Oh Kassapa, is like the water which the cloud pours out over all, and by whose action the great plants produce in abundance mortal flowers. I explain the law, which is the cause of itself; I tried, in its time, the state of Buddha, which belongs to the great sage; behold my skillfulness in the use of means; it is that of all the guides of the world.

What I have said is the supreme truth; may my auditors arrive at complete annihilation; may they follow the excellent way, which conducts to the state of Buddha; may all the auditors, who hear me, become Buddhas.

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2 thoughts on “Sunday Dharma: Thoreau’s Lotus Sutra

  1. This is so beautiful…..I find it inspiring the (probably) a woman was the first person to translate a Buddhist text into English. And so breathtakingly well given how little context she had for the sutra! Thanks for sharing it.

    Zenshin Florence

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