Henry David Thoreau’s “Royal Gift”

Readers will surely want to know about the title of this book, The Driftwood Shrine.  It’s actually is a reference to a story chronicled by Franklin Sanborn, Henry David Thoreau’s biographer.  I’d been interested for a very long time in historical East-West connections and had taken every reasonable opportunity to acquaint my literature students with a few basic tenets of both Hinduism and Buddhism—ideas that I hoped would help them understand the unique and passionate interest that so many American poets have had in Eastern thought.  One year, while I was on sabbatical, I used my time to read to deepen my understanding of the influence of Eastern thought on American writers.  It was then that I came across an anecdote that not only captured the nature of my long-standing interest in East-West connections, but illustrated the rapt kind of enthusiasm with which the American Transcendentalists had sought out books on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in the early decades of the 19th century.  I explains, as follows, in my book:

English: crayon portrait of Henry David Thorea...
English: crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau as a young man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the story, Henry David Thoreau received a “royal gift” of forty-four books on Eastern religions from his English friend Thomas Chomondeley. They were exceptionally rare books which Thoreau cherished for the rest of his life. Thoreau shared the news of their arrival as one might, he said, “share news of the birth of a child,” then proceeded to shelve these treasures in a bookcase that he had made out of driftwood from the Concord River, an act by which, as the biographer Franklin Sanborn put it, Thoreau had given “Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine.”1


One might think that Thoreau’s “driftwood shrine” was an unfitting container for the sophisticated wisdom of a tradition like Buddhism.  To me, however, that wisdom was all the more at home in its simple, worn, and worldly wooden case.  Zen is always about what is readily at hand—a broom, a coffee cup, a window box full of weeds.  “Grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles,” wrote the great master Eihei Dogen, “carry out buddha work.”  The naked immediacy, the humble acceptance of things as they are, the acknowledgement that all things and beings are a reflection of ultimate reality—all these are common to the nature of driftwood and Dharma alike.  They are qualities that can be discovered now in the poetry of Americans—many, many of whom have been influenced by the light of the Buddha-dharma.

English: Broom
English: Broom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




1Christy, Arthur. The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. New York: Octagon Books, 1963. Print. 40.

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