Henry David Thoreau (or, as Tricycle contributing editor Andrew Schelling calls him, “Old Buddha ancestor of North America”) was born on this day, July 12, in 1817. Thoreau was many things—author, naturalist, philosopher, abolitionist, transcendentalist—and though he would not have called himself a Buddhist, Schelling is spot on in naming him a Buddha ancestor. It might be useful to think of Thoreau as a bodhisattva of sorts [which, incidentally, is exactly what Zen teacher Taigen Daniel Leighton does in his insightful book Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhissatva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression], benefiting sentient beings through his writings and reflections on right livelihood. Thoreau is one of America’s great truth-hunters, a pilgrim. If you haven’t before, today would be a great day to read his beautiful essay “Walking.” To walk is to be on a path, Thoreau suggests, and where that path leads depends primarily on the resolve of the walker. From “Walking”:
It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering never ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.
While you walk about your places today, go purposefully, and celebrate the life of an Old Buddha American ancestor, Henry David Thoreau.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.