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Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: Is the Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature?

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography

The Buddhist Perception of Environmental Responsibility

Emerson said that the term "Transcendentalism" was a synonym for Idealism. As when he differentiates between "reason" as rationality and "Reason" as the synchronicity of heart and mind, he uses the upper case "I" with intent; what he refers to is not goodhearted but somewhat naive optimism; it is a complete and rather complex philosophy which, he said, borrows from the best of the oldest ideas, including Buddhism. So it would not be surprising to find that modern Buddhism appears to reflect the 19th century Transcendentalist environmental point of view; originally, it was the early American Transcendentalism that mirrored Buddhist thought.

It occurs to me that Emerson's idea of the divine spark within each being could stem from the Buddhist concept that each person contains many different "seeds" that represent every possible human emotion or potentiality such as love, anger, sadness, greed or compassion. Which of the seeds comes to fruition depends upon how the individual's life is lived. The selection of what seeds will "sprout" is a conscious choice guided by intuition. There is no doubt that selection is an individual's decision, nor is there any doubt that the decision has impact on the rest of the world. In effect, the individual is the world in microcosm: he or she is also a "seed" in the world population at large. The concept recalls Emerson's theory of balance, outlined in Nature, the essay "Circles," and other works; he, in turn, was likely influenced by Eastern thought, the idea of yin and yang.

Perhaps most importantly, Buddhism is a questioning process. In his Editor's Introduction to Sivaraksa's Seeds of Peace, Tom Ginsburg sums up the philosophy in words that could easily fit Emerson's "Self-Reliance" or Nature: "Question everything, look deeply, and then act from that insight" (xiv).

Sivaraksa indicates strongly that this maxim applies to environmental responsibility. First, the "religion of consumerism" that erodes spiritual strength is also what is most damaging to the environment. Air and water pollution, the depletion of species, destructive forestry and land management practices can all be traced to avid consumerism. Perhaps Sivaraksa goes a step beyond Emerson here: the facts of the natural world at present are not merely symbolic of the spiritual decay; they are a direct result of it.

Buddhism magnifies traditional Asian cultural values, which Sivaraksa says are "always related to social well-being." This includes respect for animal and plant as well as human life; personal achievement may be sought but not at another's expense, and always "exploitation, confrontation, and competition are to be avoided" (5). Ideally, the temple and its grounds are "not only the center of social and spiritual life" but perfect ecological models as well (7).

Presently there is a huge disparity between the ideals of Buddhism and the realities of the Asian cultures from which it developed. Sikvaraksa cites many of the same problems that plague Western culture: food production is no longer driven by the local population--those directly associated with that particular land--but by large market need. Chemically and mechanically-based modern agriculture and fishing techniques pollute and deplete resources at the same time they force small landowners off hereditary property and into the already crowded cities. The small farmer loses his livelihood because he cannot compete with agribusiness; this is a moot point, however, because by now he believes his former life on the land was not sufficient anyway--he must go seek the things that the pervasive consumer culture insists he obtain to make life worth living (30 - 33). Of all the countless "things" a consumer culture creates, its survival mandates dissatisfaction as its primary product. In that regard it has been most successful in diluting the traditional concepts of all the religions discussed in these pages; the effect on Buddhism is perhaps more noticeable because consumerism is at such variance with its precepts.

Sikvaraksa acknowledges that turning back the clock to a largely rural, agrarian setting is neither possible nor especially desirable. Nostalgia has no place in Buddhist "mindfulness." Instead, the Dalai Lama has set forth "a practical ethic of caring for our home" which reflects the Buddhist idea of interdependence in the modern world; compassion is the outstanding characteristic.

The Dalai Lama says that understanding nature requires four avenues of thought. First is the "natural" avenue: the laws of the universe and the fact that things do exist, and that matter differs from consciousness. "Relational" is the interdependence between the entities existing in the world, between cause and condition, and between parts and whole. "Functional" applies to the properties arising as a consequence of interdependence; the fourth avenue, the "logical," is not the process of human reasoning but is the understanding that process and the analysis which is its result (114). In this last is seen the Emersonian distinction between "reason" and "Reason." 

The Dalai Lama addresses the matter of balance in much the manner of Emerson. The state of the environment--the outer world--reflects the state of the inner world; his main concern is "the purification of the inner world" (116). Nature is valuable in itself, yes--for beauty, serenity, even life, generally speaking--but its true importance lies in its symbolism: the outward signs of Nature represent inner harmony and spiritual well-being. (This is where our two most famous 19th century Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson, part company; toward the ends of their respective lives, Emerson becomes even more ethereal in his approach to Nature, preferring the metaphysical over the physical reality; Thoreau seems to be increasingly convinced that Nature's beauty is not only symbolic of, but is our well-being--or not--manifested).

Like the Transcendentalists, the Dalai Lama believes there is an exchange between the human spirit and Nature. He notes specific Buddhist practices that recognize this link and aim to regenerate "the vitality of the earth, [to purify] . . . certain precious minerals are buried . . . consecration rituals are performed' (116). But while ritual ceremony may be complex, the remedy is astonishingly simple: "Taking care of the planet is nothing special . . . .It's just like taking care of our own house" (117). This recalls Thoreau's exhortation to "be at home everywhere" in his essay "Walking."

Practically speaking, and like the other belief systems discussed in these pages, the Dalai Lama looks to science and education to make us aware of safe and unsafe environmental processes; we should make a special effort "to introduce ecology into the school curriculum" (118).  But the primary factor in the resolution is our human compassion, love laced with responsibility and care. The Dalai Lama's reminder that "each of us is an individual, naturally a part of humanity. So human effort must begin with our individual initiatives" sounds very much like Emerson's idea of the connected Oversoul and his statement that "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul."

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