While visiting relatives in Massachusetts over the weekend, I paid a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. Not far inside the main gate is Author’s Ridge, where the local literary luminaries are buried, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
I’ve been to Walden Pond and Emerson’s house, and have always wanted to pay my respects to Emerson and Thoreau’s grave sites. While not Buddhists per se, the two of them were clearly in the Buddha’s wheelhouse, and are a major influence on my ideas about an American Zen.
Emerson’s grave, in the family plot, is marked by a large boulder with an inscribed plaque attached to it. It is covered by stones placed by visitors, and I added mine to the tribute.
Thoreau is also in a family plot. The area is shaded by tall pine trees, and two of them have roots running right through Henry’s grave. Looking up at them, I commented to my friend Chuck that Henry was in those trees. It seemed more than fitting. It also illustrates the way I see the Buddhist concept of rebirth.
I don’t really believe in reincarnation. It seems at odds with the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. If we reincarnate and can be aware of past lives, doesn’t that imply a kind of permanent self? What is it that reincarnates and recognizes itself as such?
But basic physics has taught me that the things of which I am made cannot be destroyed. They simply break down and then regroup as something else. That kind of “rebirth” makes sense to me. And I saw Henry David Thoreau in those pines.