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Thread: Emerson was a buddhist

  1. #1

    Emerson was a buddhist

    From Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal, 1836:

    The brilliant & warm day let me out this morn. into the wood & to Goose Pond. Amid the many colored trees I thought what principles I might lay down as the foundations of this Course of Lectures I shall read to my fellow citizens.

    1. There is a relation between man & nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.

    2. It is a necessity of the human nature that it should express itself outwardly & embody its thought.

    As all creatures are allured to reproduce themselves, so must the thought be imparted in Speech. The more profound the thought, the more burdensome. What is in will out. Action is as great a pleasure & cannot be forborne.

    3. It is the constant endeavor of the mind to idealize the actual, to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind. Hence architecture & all art.

    4. It is the constant tendency of the mind to Unify all it beholds, or to reduce the remotest facts to a single law. Hence all endeavors at classification.

    5. There is a parallel tendency / corresponding Unity in nature which makes this just, as in the composition of the compound shell, or leaf, or animal from few elements.

    6. There is a tendency in the mind to separate particulars & in magnifying them to lose sight of the connexion of the object with the Whole. Hence all false views, Sects;

    7. Underneath all Appearances & causing all appearances are certain eternal laws which we call the Nature of Things.

    8. There is one Mind common to all individual men.

  2. #2

    Re: Emerson was a buddhist

    Thanks for this, kirkmc. After reading it I had a look at the Emerson article in Wikipedia and the one on his book, "Nature".

    I wonder if Emerson is really only well known in the US. I don't remember him ever being mentioned in any of the innumerable reading lists I've had to look at in the past 50 years, though other American authors have been.

    I was interested in his final principle: There is one Mind common to all individual men. I've been thinking along these lines recently. Below is something I said on another forum. I apologize for bringing it in here, but someone might be interested enough to shed some light on the question of Mind vis-a-vis mind. The other forum is very small and didn't provide many responses.

    Well, we all talk about the mind, but I don't know if we know what it is, let alone if it's separate from the body or embedded in it.

    I'm not sure what the Buddha thought the mind was. He spoke about "thought" or "the mind", as reported in the Dhammapada, and regarded it as prior to action, but I don't know if he argued one way or the other as to whether it was separate from or included in the "aggregates" (skandhas).

    Everyone just assumes that each of us has a mind and that it’s different for each of us, but it seems to me we just have different memories.

    If I have a mind, I’d like to know where it is, perhaps so I could give it a tune-up or something. Naturalists, like Owen Flanagan (“The Bodhisattva’s Brain”, 2011) don’t seem to believe in minds – just brains and all the neuronal things brains do.

    Gilbert Ryle (“The Concept of Mind”, 1948) regarded “mind” as a category mistake. We look at all the things we think are products of the mind or mental events and we project from this that there is an entity behind them, but we can’t in fact locate it. It’s as if, having seen six companies of soldiers march past, we turn to our neighbour and ask “But where’s the battalion?”.

    We know we have consciousness, and we know we have memory and imagination and reasoning ability. Moreover, we know that others have these things, too. Are these the things that constitute mind or are they derived from some kind of universal mind, something beyond our individual consciousness and on which we draw to initiate thought and action, both of which are products of the brain and the central nervous system?

    In drawing on a ‘cosmic’ mind, perhaps we adapt it to our level of awareness and taint it with the karmic effects of greed, anger and delusion, thus appropriating it to ourselves in a sullied form. If this is so, the “Mind” on which we draw is untainted and, if coupled with a life lived according to the Dhamma, retains its purity. Translated into intention and action, the pure Mind exercises a therapeutic role in our lives. In Buddhist teaching, this will ensure a serene life and a good rebirth.

    I’m not sure, though, how this differs from the Hindu belief that we are each individually one with the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, as expressed in the wonderful Sanskrit aphorism Tat Tvam Asi, “Thou art That” or “That thou Art”. However, one thing we can be sure of is that we can’t point to any one phenomenon and say “Thou art Mind”.

  3. #3

    Re: Emerson was a buddhist

    Emerson is an interesting case in American literature. He is probably the most influential American author, yet he isn't read a lot. His work is amorphous: people may have heard of his essay Self-Reliance, but since he never had any doctrine, and he wrote about many things, he's hard to pin down.

    In his early years, when he wrote Nature, Emerson was a mystic. Over time, he became much more of a pragmatist, and had a huge influence on William James (who, it turns out, was his godson). He was a strong influence on Walt Whitman as well, and Whitman famously published, in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, the text of a letter that Emerson wrote him.

    In the early 20th century, he fell out of favor, but has, in recent years, become more appreciated.

    In my case, he's somewhat of an obsession. (See my Emerson web site: I got into Emerson after reading Thoreau, and since discovered that the two of them, even though they only had cursory understandings of Eastern philosophy, presented many of the same concepts. (Walden is a very "zen" book.)

    The whole mind-brain question is interesting. Emerson was an idealist, and a bit of a mystic, but it's important to understand that he came to these positions by way of the church. He was a preacher, and, after the death of his first wife, resigned to become a "freelance thinker and lecturer." For Emerson, nature was a key that opened a door to the "Oversoul." (Remember than Emerson was a Romantic, and the Romantic period deified nature.)

    As for Flanagan, I've only read about half of The Boddisatttva's Brain, and I don't get the feeling that he's saying that mind doesn't exist; but I have to finish the book to truly understand what he's saying, and it's not an easy read.

    If you're curious to read more about Emerson, see my web site linked above; I have an extensive chronology of his life, and a comprehensive bibliography.

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