As I write this in early October, a month before the US election, the news of social, political, and environmental unraveling is relentless. The national death toll from COVID-19 passed 200,000; smoke from wildfires engulfed the West Coast; the first presidential debate was a shocking display. Then, as if to punctuate it all, we learned that the president himself tested positive for the virus. As the high degree of uncertainty and distress continues, I’ve taken counsel in Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”
These words from the 1863 essay “Life without Principle,” I imagine, reflected Thoreau’s interest in the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, an exploration that contributed to the impact, a century later, of Buddhist thought and practice in North America. But lest we make the mistake of thinking that Thoreau was preaching an ethic of withdrawal from society, we should look more fully.
Thoreau read the eternities and the times (if not the Times) side by side. He was a stern and vocal abolitionist. His essay “Civil Disobedience” informed and inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and, through them, untold millions more in the work of affirming human rights and dignity. As a harsh critic of the Mexican-American War, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes, for which he was briefly jailed.
So why, despite his civic zeal, did he tell us to turn our attention to the “eternities” and not the times?
In “Living in a World That No Longer Exists,” the social critic Curtis White offers a few clues. What begins as an elegy for a bygone age, in which White seems to dust off and reflect upon cultural artifacts that shaped his life, ends with the discovery of “a secret stream of art and ideas that moves through the popular.” What has been lost is found again:
So I must have been wrong to think that I’d lived long enough to see my world die. Only the ephemera have arisen and passed . . . while my world, canonical, has endured—in a word, in a note, in a brush stroke.
White, like Thoreau, is reminding us to focus on what endures in the most trying of times—when we most easily lose sight of the knowledge that illuminates the deepest matters of human meaning. Buddhism is one of the world’s rich repositories of durable and enduring wisdom, and while we at Tricycle try to keep up with the times, we do so drawing from the storehouse of our traditions. In an earlier issue of Tricycle, the scholar of religion Karen Armstrong wrote:
The myths, rituals, sacred texts, and ethical practices of religion develop a plan of action whereby people reach beyond themselves to connect with the true and ultimate reality that will save them from the destructive forces of everyday existence. Living with what is ultimately real and true, people have found that they are not only better able to bear these destructive tensions but that life itself acquires new depth and purpose. (Summer 2020)
The destructive forces are a fact of life, but they accelerate when chaos knocks at the gates. And because chaos and vulgarity seem to go hand in hand, it is at times like ours that the cultural traditions through which consciousness is deepened are most tenuous. Staying attuned to what endures can not only mitigate the chaos we feel internally but keep us connected to what really matters. Valuing culture, the life of the spirit, the rich heritage embodied in our most caring and best institutions and traditions—these are our wall.
When Ed Levine, our art director, suggested a “seasonal cover,” I hesitated. I wondered whether Whooli Chen’s delightful illustration of a monk skating serenely over the surface of life would do in these times. But I realized it was exactly right: we need to be reminded that there is another way—a way in and a way through. I hope you find it as much of a reminder as I do.
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