Emerson’s essay “Circles” is a wonderful piece of dharmic writing.  The essay, a short twelve pages of meandering and profound prose, is a meditation on religion and time and the natural world.  In short, Emerson discusses a view of reality similar not only to the dharma but also and even more closely to what Ken Wilber writes about, namely, the integral vision.  I thought I’d revisit this essay today in this ongoing series that focuses on how the dharma shows up in the poetry, literature and philosophy of the Western world.

Emerson rather tidily visits five of the main tenants of Buddhism in this short essay, namely,

1.  Impermanence
Dependent Origination
3.  The Non-Existence of the Self 
Basic Goodness
5.  Enlightened Society 


“Everything looks permanent until its secret is known.”  What a delightful and pithy expression of the truth of impermanence.  That secret is shunyata, is emptiness, is the non-existence of everything, from the moon to the self down to the quarks of physics.

Dependent Origination 

Emerson goes on to say, “Nature looks provokingly stable and secular,
but it has a cause like all the rest.”  This is a fine expression of
dependent origination, the cardinal doctrine of Buddhist philosophy.  I
could almost hear Emerson say, in slightly more Buddhist-speak,
Phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and
effect.  Or at least I imagine him nodding in approval over a beer as we discuss Buddhist philosophy in my dreams.   

The Non-Existence of the Self

Emerson writes eloquently about the fluid nature of the self, particularly of the writing self.  “Our moods do not believe in each other.  To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please.  I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow.  What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages.”  If that isn’t both a lucid expression of no-self and a dynamite portrait of what it feels like to be a writer, then I don’t know diddly.  Moreover, Emerson says with perfect Zen diction, “Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.”      

Basic Goodness

Basic goodness, or Buddha nature, is, as I see it, one of the more confusing and difficult tenants of Buddhism for Westerners to grasp.  Yes, because of the prevalence in our culture of the idea of original sin, but mostly because the language is imperfect.  Much is, as is said, lost in translation.  Goodness here doesn’t mean goodness in the moral sense.  It means something more like luminous and radiant.  This basic nature of ours is also incorruptible, uncreated and indestructible.  One doesn’t hear much of this crucial teaching about human nature in Western culture.  Instead, one is more likely to think of the Hobbesian savage beast or the Biblical Adam and Eve eating of the tree of knowledge.  But if one thought of the Adam and Eve from before their encounter with the serpent, one would see Buddha nature dead-on.  Emerson, who of course studied to be a minister at the Harvard Divinity School, writes, “All nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself.”  There’s the stuff!  There’s faith in our basic goodness.  Note the sense of eternity, of timelessness and changelessness, as well as the utter lack of duality, of good versus bad, or sacred versus non-sacred, in Emerson’s vision of basic goodness: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.”

Enlightened Society

Lastly, Emerson seems to me in this essay to be evoking the kind of hope and faith and vision in the possibility in enlightened society that I often find in my Buddhist practice.  Particularly in my involvement with the Shambhala community.  (Shambhala the word itself means “enlightened society.”)  The trick to bringing about such a vision is mindfulness.  Through mindfulness, anything is possible.  I am a warrior of the mind, because the mind is the front where the most important battles are fought and where the most enduring victories are won.  And Emerson knew this: “The things which are dear to men at this hour are so on account of the ideas which have emerged on their mental horizons, and which cause the present order of things, as a tree bears its apples.  A new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize the entire system of human pursuits.”

Right on, Emerson! 

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