In January of 1844, the first excerpts of the Lotus Sutra to appear in the United States were published in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s literary journal, The Dial. The editor and translator was the twenty-six-year-old Henry David Thoreau.
Journalist, naturalist, Yankee economist of the spirit, Thoreau is known as the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden as well as the essay “Civil Disobedience.” In both his radical, individualist political philosophy and his sense of the sacredness of the earth, Thoreau was never, in his lifetime, a part of the mainstream. Yet his considerable influence has made him an American prophet. Assertively quirky, Thoreau may be the most distinctive early representative of that school of thinking, inspired by his friend Emerson, which came to be called Transcendentalism. Evolving out of established Unitarianism and romantic idealism, Transcendentalism was in some ways a radical departure. “The definition of [the] spiritual should be that which is its own evidence,” wrote Emerson. And his spiritual pragmatism was something wholly new in the West, and entirely American. One of its qualifying characteristics was a keen and open interest in those philosophies and religions from beyond the confines of the European and Christian traditions. Emerson alerted a number of readers, including Thoreau, to the compelling power and beauty of the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Laws of Manu, the writings of Confucius, and works from Persian and Arabic sources. The young Thoreau was greatly taken by this material (more so even than Emerson, apparently, whose debt to them is certainly clear). In a New England firmly conservative in its Christianity, Thoreau happily proclaimed himself a heathen.
The Dial extract “The Preaching of Buddha” was a compilation of passages from the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, or Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Dharma, which
Thoreau had translated from French. In 1837 a Sanskrit text of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most widely read and venerated of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, had been sent (along with other works in Sanskrit and Tibetan) to the Asiatic Society of Paris by Brian Hodgson, a British resident at the court of Nepal. Once in Paris, it was studied by one of the earliest accomplished Western students of the Sanskrit and Pali languages, Eugene Burnouf, who must have published accounts and translations of the material in articles before issuing his monumental Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme Indien in 1844. Thoreau’s translation—the first known published translation in America from a Buddhist scripture—was from one of these articles.
As one of its central themes, this sutra proclaims the possibility of universal liberation, a teaching wholly consonant with the tolerance of the American religious spirit represented by Emerson and Thoreau. “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha,” wrote Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), “yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing, and I like him too.” The following is an excerpt from Thoreau’s translation as it first appeared more than a century ago.
The tathagata [perfected one] is equal and not unequal towards all beings, when it is the question to convert them: “He is, O Kacyapa, 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…. There are not, O Kacyapa, three vehicles; there are only beings who act differently from each other; it is on account of that we discriminate three vehicles…. It is, O Kacyapa, as when a potter makes different pots of the same clay. Some become vases to contain molasses, others are for clarified butter, others for milk, others for curds, others inferior and impure vases. The variety does not belong to the clay, it is only the difference of the substance that we put in them, whence comes the diversity of the vases. So there is really only one vehicle, which is the vehicle of Buddha; there is no second, no third vehicle.” This said, the respectable Kacyapa spoke thus to Bhagavat: “If beings, arising from this union of three worlds, have different inclinations, is there for them a single annihilation, or two, or three?” Bhagavat said, “Annihilation, O Kacyapa, results from the comprehension of the equality of all laws; there is only one, and not two or three….
“O Kacyapa, 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 the hand, it pours out water on every side. Spreading in a uniform manner an immense mass of water, and resplendent with the lightnings 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 every thing which makes verdure; all the vegetables which are found in 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 water of the cloud, the herbs and the bushes pump up, everyone 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, O Kacyapa, the Buddha comes into the world, like a cloud which covers the universe, and hardly is the chief of the worldborn, than he speaks and teaches the true doctrine to creatures…. Exclusively occupied with this work, I explain the law; whether I rest, or remain standing, whether I lie upon my bed or am seated upon my seat, I never experience fatigue. 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 doctrines and false opinions, as towards those whose doctrines are sound and perfect. Finally, I explain to little as well as to great minds, and to those whose organs have a supernatural power; inaccessible to fatigue, I spread everywhere, in a suitable manner, the rain of the law.”
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