The Dharma of Western Literature

In this series on The Dharma of Western Literature, we consider six classic works through the lens of the six paramitas, or sublime virtues: generosityethical conduct, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. Next up is meditation, or dhyana 


Dr. Seuss never had kids. He got antsy just being around them, yet he became the best-selling children’s author of all time. When a literary work exerts such wide and lasting appeal, we suspect that it reflects some kind of fundamental truth of human life, whether it’s Hamlet or Green Eggs and Ham. Since the dharma teachings of the buddhas also address fundamental truth, it should be no great surprise that the Seuss books are rich in dharma—unintentionally, we may assume. 

Dr. Seuss’s most popular book shows how our stubborn concepts can keep us stuck in grumpy, self-narrowing negativity (“I do not like green eggs and ham!”) until, if we’re lucky, some pesky Sam-I-am comes along, urging us to cut through our concepts with the clarity of direct experience (“Try them! Try them!”). As it happens, the root sam in Sanskrit means “together,” “complete,” “whole.” Sam-I-am is someone who has gotten it together, who has awakened to the wholeness of life; no wonder he’s always relaxed and smiling, even when he’s being flung off a mountain railroad or plunged into the sea. When we finally give in to his advice, we discover life’s delicious One Taste, which we can find in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, in a house, with a mouse … we can find it everywhere. 

Another favorite Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who!, dramatizes the way of the bodhisattva, committed to the salvation of all sentient beings. Its hero is Horton, a bighearted elephant who saves all the microscopic Whos in Whoville from destruction because “a person’s a person no matter how small.” But the compassionate pachyderm actually makes his debut in an earlier work, Horton Hatches the Egg. This one starts with a bird named Mayzie who’s too lazy to hatch her own chick. She bamboozles Horton into taking over for a little while, but then flies off to Palm Beach and decides never to come back. 

As big Horton settles atop Mayzie’s comically tiny tree, he’s a paragon of beginner’s mind, with sweet smile and wide, innocent eyes. (His radiant, omnidirectional openness is subtly emphasized by his delicately drawn 360-degree eyelashes.) He has no idea what’s about to hit him: months of tribulation, in which he endures thunder, lightning, ice storms, and the taunting of friends: 

They yelled, “How absurd!
Old Horton the Elephant
Thinks he’s a bird!” 

(Some of us may have been teased by our own wise-guy friends: “How absurd! Joe Schmo thinks he’s a buddha.”)

Nevertheless, Horton persists. Having promised to protect the egg until it hatches, “He sat and he sat and he sat and he sat.” And that should make us dharma dogs prick up our ears: this is a book about commitment to sitting, and persevering until our sitting brings forth some kind of fresh, new life. As Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, took his position beneath the Bodhi tree for his final seven-week marathon meditation, he vowed, “My flesh and blood may dry in my body, but I will not leave this seat without attaining complete enlightenment.“ Horton shows the same determination, repeating his own vow, mantra-like

I meant what I said and I said what I meant:
An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.

Every spiritual tradition has its menu of commandments, or at least suggestions, for living an elevated life. Buddhadharma is unusual in including meditation, dhyana, as the fifth of the six paramitas, sublime virtues. But our own experience tells us that meditation, if we faithfully keep at it, supports the more garden-variety virtues of generosity, ethical conduct, patience, and diligence that precede it on the list, as well as the culminating virtue that follows it: wisdom, enlightenment. 

The parallels between Horton’s sitting and our own—and the Buddha’s—are striking. I’ve been to Bodhgaya to visit the Buddha’s tree (technically, the granddaughter of the original, but that’s a long story). It’s leafy and voluminous; you can imagine sitting under it for a long while, nicely sheltered from the worst of the sun and rain. But Horton’s stuck with a tender sapling that, ass-backwardly, he must sit on, rather than under. Like us, he must practice with the circumstances that are given, which sometimes seem impossible. And like us, he must confront his self-doubt. Is he—are we—qualified for the job? He expresses that doubt to Mayzie at the outset:

The elephant laughed.
Why, of all silly things!
I haven’t feathers and I haven’t wings.
ME on your egg? Why, that doesn’t make sense. …
Your egg is so small, ma’am, and I’m so immense.”

Many of us fear that we’re too immense, as it were, too lumpish and earthbound for this practice. We lack the rarefied, ethereal qualities (feathers, wings) that we imagine others have and that allow them to ascend into the spiritual realm. In Horton’s case, Mayzie reassures him with the book’s single most profound line: “Just sit on it softly.” 

Sit softly: that’s about as incisive a meditation instruction as you’ll ever hear. Sitting hard, trying hard, straining to control and manipulate our experience is self-defeating. Any effort to create a nonagitated state of mind is itself a form of agitation. Whatever your specific technique—whether you’re following your breath or contemplating your koan, focusing on a mantra or simply abiding in awareness itself—take it easy. As the old song goes, “It ain’t whatcha do, it’s the way thatcha do it.” This easeful way of doing is more important than what is done. It hastens the day when technique finally falls away and we’re left doing nothing at all. Then we’re just sitting, just being.

Thus encouraged, Horton takes his seat. But first, to accommodate his weight, he props up the little tree with a couple of forked sticks. By all means, we should use whatever props are necessary to optimize our seat for long-term occupancy. (It’s built for comfort, not for speed.) Texts as ancient and revered as the Bhagavad Gita are very specific on the point: “Establish a firm seat in a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin, and kusha-grass, one upon the other.” 

Sit softly: that’s about as incisive a meditation instruction as you’ll ever hear.

But obsessing over the issue defeats the purpose. I can recall a few long meditation retreats where I managed to happily distract myself from the business at hand by fiddling and futzing with choosing my spot, tweaking my posture, getting just the right amount of cushionage under my butt, and on and on. One winter in Mallorca, in an off-season beach hotel, I spent several man-hours over the course of a week trying to find a place in my room where I wouldn’t hear the rattle and hiss of the radiator. When I finally gave up, I discovered that noise—as my teachers had repeatedly said—is fine.

The most dramatic challenge to Horton’s commitment comes when three hunters appear, their rifles aimed at his heart. (They look thoroughly Euro-colonial, by the way, complete with pith helmets, bow ties, and brush mustaches.) This bit is straight out of the sutras. Seeing that Gautama, in his long meditation under the Bodhi tree, is on the verge of liberation, the demon Mara appears, the personification of ego-illusion, leading an army of warriors who hurl fearsome weapons at him. The Buddha keeps his seat and his vow, as does Horton. 

But the resourceful hunters respond with a move worthy of Mara: they put Horton in show biz: “Let’s take him alive. Why, he’s terribly funny! / We’ll sell him back home to a circus, for money!” If we manage to meet the other challenges to serious sitting practice, perhaps the ultimate challenge is finding ourselves made a spectacle, whether as a caricature to be ridiculed or—even more dangerous—as a guru to be celebrated and monetized. 

Even in a circus tent, however, Horton stays on the egg, repeating his mantra of one hundred percent faithfulness, despite the gawking yokels and the grueling tour schedule. (“They took him to Boston, to Kalamazoo, / Chicago, Weehawken and Washington, too.”) But then the circus comes to the land where weird stuff happens: Florida. There, the long-absent Mayzie shows up and, just as the egg starts to hatch, has a change of heart: “‘It’s MY egg!’ she sputtered. ‘You stole it from me! / Get off of my nest and get out of my tree!’” 

At this moment of high drama, let’s pause to consider a hitherto neglected point of interpretation. Who, in this allegory of dhyana-paramita, is the lazy, flimflamming Mayzie? There are a few clues. She’s a winged being, one who courses through the wide-open heavens at will, unlike our lumbering, hardworking protagonist. And she’s the one who introduces him to the practice of sitting. Through a bit of bait and switch, she sweet-talks him into a serious commitment, disguising what it will actually require of him. She is, in fact, the teacher, the lama, the roshi. If that seems too scandalous a reading for this flaky character, let’s qualify it: she’s the teacher as seen by the meditator when things get rough

Sure, our attitude to the teacher, first and last, is one of deep, heartfelt gratitude. But in between the first and the last—when we’re out here in the middle, trudging along, working the program, and it seems like there’s no end in sight—who has not felt moments of grousing resentment toward whoever got us into this mess and then, it seems, flew off and left us to do all the heavy lifting ourselves? And then, when all our patient sitting finally pays off, we can’t even claim it for our own but owe it to another!

That brings us back to our story. At this moment of high drama, the egg bursts open, and what comes out is an epigenetic miracle: “Horton the Elephant saw something whizz! IT HAD EARS AND A TAIL AND A TRUNK JUST LIKE HIS!” It is, in fact, an adorable little elephant bird, hailed by the cheering circus crowd as “something brand new,” gazing with loving devotion at the one who has hatched it, clearly his. 

This is what our sitting finally produces: something brand-new. It’s the transfiguration of our own elephantine self and our own earthbound life, but reborn, remade in a new, liberated, free-flying version, like the teacher who inspired us. Every generation that practices and every individual that practices owes an unrepayable debt to the long line of teachers—some of them exasperating characters, to be sure—who brought us this egg of dharma in its eternal, formless essence. But every generation and every individual also, by putting in the time, buttocks on cushion, rebirths that formless essence in a fresh, unprecedented form. You just have to know when to be faithful to the old instructions one hundred percent and when to move on—when to leave the nest.

Editor’s note: Though Dr. Seuss wrote many children’s books promoting values of tolerance, he also wrote and published works that contained racist and insensitive imagery, and in 2021 Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceased publication of six titles that contained offensive images. None of the books discussed here are among them.

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