A more sober life, from Thoreau to Buddhism

- through Sophie Solere

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More sobriety in our lifestyles: we are all called upon to do so to preserve the planet. And if it took one of its sources in Buddhism? In the footsteps of the precursors of a happy connection.

Taking advantage of the health crisis we have just gone through to really change, by reducing our carbon footprint, our consumption, our travel, is the challenge launched by all pro-environment associations at the end of confinement, as well as by ordinary citizens, aware the next day. Sobriety could be the key. “Happy sobriety” – to quote Pierre Rabhi (1) – because chosen and rich in ties, before it is too late and it is imposed on us by other epidemics, other natural disasters. How to slow down, to get rid of our desires and attachments which push us always more on the side of Having and move us away from Being? Meditation and contemplation of nature, as well as reflection forcing awareness and our responsibility, are precious resources that Buddhism, in particular, can make available to us. It is not surprising that the reference thinkers of a current “eco-dharma”, associating ecology and the teaching of the Buddha, have both advocated sobriety and declared their interest in Eastern spiritualities as early as the XNUMXth century. A look back at a meaningful cross-influence.

Meditate with Thoreau in the woods

Starting point across the Atlantic, with the development of an industry that gradually forged a new America in the XNUMXth century. While everything is accelerating, a man raises his voice, condemns the slave society of his time as well as the Mexican war, to make himself a spokesperson for a wild nature and voluntary simplicity. This is Henri David Thoreau, philosopher and poet close to transcendentalism, an American literary, philosophical and spiritual movement exalting the inherent goodness of man and nature, both linked together to a transcendent dimension. He is an original who struggles to find his place as a teacher and ends up becoming a naturalist. He explores the summits, travels through the forests and chooses to live in a secluded time, as he reports in Walden (2), the story of two years spent in the woods between 1845 and 1847, without breaking with the world.

From there, he proclaims, reporting his experience a posteriori: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Yes, let your affairs be like two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count by half a dozen, and keep your accounts on the thumbnail (…) simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if necessary, take only one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce the rest in proportion. (3) Not to preserve a nature that one could still think was inexhaustible at the time, but out of wisdom, by favoring the spiritual over the material, as he explains: "Luxury, in general, and a lot of the so-called well-being, not only are not indispensable, but are a positive obstacle to the ascent of the human species. In terms of luxury and well-being, the wise have always led a simpler and more frugal life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindus, Persians and Greeks, represent a class which not one equaled in poverty as regards external wealth, nor in wealth as regards internal wealth. (4) That is to say if he is well aware that the invitation to sobriety is not new, but inscribed in most of the great philosophical and religious traditions. If this does not make him an ecologist before his time, the objective is therefore already to elevate “the human species” by freeing it from a manufactured material contingency.

From sobriety to experiencing reality

It is a quest for knowledge of oneself and of reality as it is, which we can access in contact with nature by meditating on it without being distracted, as Thoreau invites us to do: "Let's spend a single day with as much mature reflection as Nature, and without letting ourselves be thrown off the track by the nutshell and the mosquito's wing which fall on the rails. (…) If the locomotive whistles, let it whistle until it loses its voice for its trouble. If the bell rings, why run? We'll think about what kind of music they sound like. Stop! and down there let's kick our feet and weave our way through the mire and mess of opinion, prejudice, tradition, delusion, appearance, that alluvium that covers the globe, to through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, until we hit a solid bottom, rocks in place, that we can call reality, and say: this is who is, and who is good”. (5) And after this time of observation, of discernment, Thoreau continues by proposing the image of the “Realometer”, as a standard of reality which would make it possible to measure the true nature of things. The experience is not unlike that described by Descartes in The Metaphysical Meditations, as are some forms of Buddhist meditation (or "insight"). And it turns out that the American philosopher knows the foundations of this tradition, having been initiated into it by the transcendentalists, such as Emerson. He read and translated passages from the Bhagavad-Gita and the Sutra of the Lotus, published under the title The Preaching of the Buddha. It is about the same invitation to sit in a forest to contemplate reality and the teaching of the Buddha like a beneficent rain falling on the disciples like growing plants.

Eco-Buddhism between East and West

From there to making him a Buddhist in the strict sense… No more than an ecologist in the modern and committed sense of the term. While it invites meditative introspection, it does not renounce a solid self: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this, the I will be retained; it is, with regard to egotism, all that makes the difference”, he warns from the introduction of Walden. The influence of romanticism remains strong. This does not prevent current eco-dharma supporters from seeing Thoreau as one of their reference thinkers. In the book Le Is Buddha green? (6), Michel Maxime Egger and Jean-Marc Falcombello all the same come back to a misunderstanding that eco-Buddhists could precisely maintain on a possible inherent link between Buddhism and ecology. No, this religious tradition would not in itself be “green” as we understand it, the very notion of nature being modern, and a fortiori the fight to defend it. No, pioneers of ecology like Thoreau were not Buddhists in the orthodox sense of the term. The Dharma invites us above all to reach enlightenment and to get out of the cycle of existences, to decondition ourselves individually from ego and ignorance, more than to want to transform the world.

“Let us pass a single day with as much mature reflection as Nature, and without being thrown out of the way by the nutshell and the mosquito wing which fall on the rails. »Henry David Thoreau

Even if one can lead to the other… and the connection is not fortuitous in spite of everything. Because of course, spiritual teachings – starting with those of the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh – like meditation experiences, promote understanding of the notion of interdependence between man, society, nature, to induce responsible behavior, encouraging voluntary simplicity that is life-saving in every sense of the word. An approach at the heart of the thinking of Joanna Macy, founder of ecopsychology and specialist in Buddhism, evoking a necessary “identity feeling which extends to the ends of life and becomes a motivation for action” (cited thus by MM Egger).

A connection to the sources of commitment

From Thoreau to the committed eco-Buddhists of today, the notion of sobriety has traveled and influenced men of capital influence throughout the XNUMXth century, such as Gandhi, also a reader of the English essayist John Ruskin who corresponded with the hermit of Walden. Ruskin is the author of a critique of the economy of England in the midst of an industrial boom, Unto the Last, where the damage of overproduction and consumption on nature is already described. Reading this text had the effect of an electric shock on Gandhi, defender of Indian rights in South Africa at that time. He then radically changed his way of life to move towards ever more frugality, starting by reorganizing his ashrams. Already essentially vegetarian, in compliance with the Vishnuist rule, he will deprive himself of all spices, reduce food portions, like all his material needs (and impose it on his relatives!), in a perspective of self-transformation to change the world without violence, but with determination. This is one of the triggers leading to Satyagraha ("embrace of truth"), the name he will henceforth give to his mode of non-violent political resistance. Didn't he come under the decisive influence of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau's other great book. Admittedly, with Gandhi, the objective is not directly the preservation of nature either, but there is a vision of the world that implies a global and responsible ecology, carried by a mode of peaceful militancy, particularly relevant today. today.

Clearly, ideas and values ​​circulate between East and West, and vice versa, in a movement of fruitful interdependence! Thoreau, Gandhi and Joanna Macy thus inspired the founders of radical but non-violent environmental movements, such as Extinction Rebellion who does not hesitate to refer to it. Is it a coincidence that Thoreau "super star" is published and read more than ever, even in Parisian cafes publicly? The urgency of the current crisis, environmental, existential and in fact global, underlines an essential connection between nature and spirituality, ecology and Dharma for those who follow the way of the Buddha. To meditate in the woods, gardens, beaches and parks found this summer.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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