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.
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