For a Western European writer steeped within the Renaissance era, Montaigne’s approach and content seems uncannily Eastern, or, more specifically, the content of his writing seems to be uniquely Buddhist. One can only speculate as to whether or not Montaigne was familiar with Buddhist philosophy. It seems to be an unavoidable truth that there is little to no evidential support as to whether or not he had ever even encountered Buddhist thought. It would, then, be academically and intellectually irresponsible to suggest that Montaigne, a committed catholic (though not in the most orthodox of senses), was, somehow or in some way, a secret student of the Dharma. Thus, it is not the aim of this paper to make such a claim. However, what this paper does intend to highlight is that, whether Montaigne intended as much or not, there are deep resonances and immense parallels found between his thought and Buddhist philosophy, especially in regards to the ideas of mindfulness/meditation, impermanence, and the self.
‘Mediation’ or ‘Meditations’ within the Western philosophical tradition are not foreign concepts. For example, two pivotally important philosophical texts donning the moniker of ‘meditation’ are the Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the Meditations on First Philosophy by renowned French philosopher Rene Descartes (Descartes, himself, being a kind of purveyor of modern thought). In these two examples ‘meditation’ is used “in the common sense of ‘thinking things over’ or ‘musing’” (Watts 54). Here, it would be easy enough to class Montaigne’s Essays as an example of this sort of meditative ‘musing’ or ‘thinking things over’ yet, such a classification would seem to be a diminution of what one witnesses in the writings of Montaigne. In this regard, there seems to be a dichotomy between ‘mediation(s)’ in the Western sense of the term as a kind of pondering rumination, and in the more Eastern/Buddhist sense of the term (more on this to come). Montaigne’s mediations seem to be much more than a mere intellectual pursuit or activity. The suggestion that Montaigne’s Essays is indicative of something more than musings of the intellect is not intended to be interpreted as a refutation of Montaigne’s intellectuality. Even a scant or peripheral perusal of the Essays will clearly reveal a thinker of incredible intelligence and robust reasoning. However, what is being proposed is that what Montaigne demonstrates in his meditative writing seems to be much more in line with the Buddhist concept of Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhana (Pali). Dhyana/Jhana are the words translated as ‘mediation’ yet, the word ‘meditation’, as seen in the usage of Aurelius and Descartes, is “a most misleading translation” (Watts 54). Dhyana/Jhana is not an example of a musing rumination but, instead “can be described as the state of unified or one-pointed awareness” intensely “focused on the present” (Watts 55). ‘Meditation’, or Dhyana/Jhana is a focused and concentrated awareness fully present to the present moment and all of its contents, including all the contents present within consciousness, that is, both mental and material. Indeed, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains, the only goal of the kind of mindful meditation exhibited in Dhyana/Jhana, if there can even be said to be a goal, is the deepening of “attention and awareness”, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s own mind, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s consciousness, and, ultimately deepening the attention and awareness of the present moment, accepting all the realities of the present just as they are (Zinn xvii). In this regard, as Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, and as Montaigne will show, “It’s better to be than to think” (85).
Dhyana/Jhana goes hand in hand with Vipassana (Pali) or Vipasyana (Sanskrit). Vipassana/Vipasyana is derived from two root words; Passana meaning “seeing and perceiving”, and Vi meaning “in a special way” (Gunaratana 27). Vipassana/Vipasyana, then, is a special way of seeing and perceiving, which provides ‘insight’ into the fundamental or basic nature of reality (Gunaratana 27). It is the cultivation of ‘insight’ that sees and perceives “into and through” the reality of what is observed with the “clarity and precision” provided by the focus and attention of a one-pointed awareness (Gunaratana 27). This seems to be precisely what Montaigne presents in his Essays, a special way of seeing, a mindful, meditative awareness fully concentrated upon the present, seeing though to the very core of what is.
Montaigne writes the following:
When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep. Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself (Montaigne).
Clearly, Montaigne attempted to live his life with, what Sarah Bakewell calls, “an almost Zen-like discipline”, demonstrating “an ability to just be” (27). Yet, Montaigne’s ability to just be with the present moment, mindfully focused and attentively aware of the present, is an ability he not only speaks of in his writings but, is a mindfulness concentration taken up by and acted out by his writings. Everything which occurs within the present moment of everyday life is of noteworthy importance to Montaigne. Nothing is too trivial, too mundane, or too ordinary to be documented. Montaigne states that “whatsoever presents itself before us is book sufficient; a roguish trick of the page, a sottish mistake of a servant, a jest at the table, are so many new subjects” (Montaigne). Montaigne proposes “a life ordinary and without lustre” as being of “richer composition” (Montaigne). Regardless of each essay’s proposed topic, each essay contains constant diversions and sidetracks. Montaigne writes that one of his aims is “to record all the little thoughts that present themselves,” saying that “I give ear to my whimsies, because I am to record them” (Montaigne). These ‘diversions’ are not instances of distraction but, rather an example of Montaigne’s mindful observation of his own mind, a transcription of all that arises within consciousness, a transcription of arising consciousness, which he accepts and embraces non-judgmentally, just as they are. Sarah Bakewell notes that “Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dreamlike, his writing follows them” (6). In this regard, Montaigne’s Essays is not only a transcription of his meditation practice, but rather the writing of the Essays, itself, is his practice of Dhyana/Jhana and Vipassana/Vipasyana, his mindful meditation, his insight.