Jordan Bryan

From East to East: concepts of the vipassana tradition in Tolstoy’s art

Leo Tolstoy’s art has invited many labels from critical readers. For some, his art may be described as realist. And rightfully so: in Anna Karenina a reader experiences the inner lives of Stepan Arkadyevich, Konstantin Dmitrievich, and Anna Arkadyevna as they evolve in real time. In Sevastopol Tales and War and Peace a reader walks through first-person and panoramic views of vast fields of battle, as cannon shells whir past on the left and a horse collapses on the right. Others characterize Tolstoy’s art as an example of “defamiliarization” or «остранение». In Tolstoy’s case, this feeling can be ascribed to a deconstruction resulting from realism taken to its logical extreme. In his descriptions, particularly of jarring physical qualia, Tolstoy breaks down the contents of experience into their atomic units, which sometimes destroys the higher-order concept mapped onto these atoms. The resulting descriptions are so literal, so objective as to seem strange, or “unfamiliar.”

The mode of остранение Tolstoy delivers bears a striking resemblance to an insight achieved by experienced practitioners of vipassanā Buddhist meditation. The insight is that, upon close inspection, the true nature of moment-to-moment experience is, in fact, rather strange. At minimum, the constituents of sensory stimulus present themselves very differently when observed clearly as opposed to when these constituents arise only insofar as they break through the endless stream of mental chatter that characterizes the default state of inner life. Tolstoy’s writing often cuts through this stream to distill the essential qualities of critical moments for his characters.

The Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaratana defines vipassanā as “looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing” (Gunaratana, 21). Taken as a description of artistic style, vipassanā resembles the quality possessed by the writers Isaiah Berlin refers to as “foxes.” In his famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Berlin characterizes these writers as those who take in and communicate the disparate elements of sensory stimulus just as they are, without trying to mold them to a unifying, abstract idea. To Berlin, Tolstoy is a fox by nature.

Indeed, the foxlike qualities associated with Tolstoy’s descriptive realism have a character of vipassanā, or mindfulness. This trait is particularly well-suited to convey the interconnected themes of death and suffering—foundational themes in Buddhist and Russian literature—from the perspective of an objective observer. The presence of Buddhist themes in Tolstoy’s later writings can be traced directly to research he undertook during the later stages of his life. Many of his later works, particularly The Death of Ivan Ilyich, show the fruits of his deep engagement with Eastern conceptions of death and suffering at that time. However, the presence of Buddhist conceptions of death and suffering in Tolstoy’s earlier works demonstrates that, by its very nature, Tolstoy’s mind was fertile soil for these ideas. Textual analysis of passages in War and Peace reveals two distinct conceptions of the relinquishment of suffering, or nirodha, as embodied by Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezhukov. While death provides a portal to spiritual peace for Prince Andrei, Pierre finds nirodha in life.

Leo Tolstoy’s interest in Eastern thought can be traced back to an early age. When he was a student in Kazan, he is said to have come into contact with a Buddhist monk. Tolstoy later joined the Faculty of Eastern Languages at Kazan’s university (Shifman 20). However, Tolstoy’s interest in the East did not distinguish itself from his myriad other interests—in music, in literature, in history, etc.—during this early period of his life. It was only towards the end of his life, during the period of his spiritual crisis, that Tolstoy began a deeper engagement with the East. Several factors coincided to produce this renewed interest. As stated, Tolstoy’s ethical and religious foundations underwent a dramatic transformation during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Tolstoy sought answers to his personal moral struggles in ancient religious teachings and philosophy, including texts from India (Shifman 22). Tolstoy’s predisposition to reject wealth, capitalism, and earthly pleasures meant that he found a sympathetic voice in the teachings of the Buddha, whose movement began out of a progressive rejection of the excesses of Brahmanism.

Tolstoy’s internal stirrings were complemented by the geopolitical situation of the external world at the end of the 19th century when Western nations expanded their reach in the East. The ensuing struggles between the native peoples and their Western colonizers roiled Tolstoy’s anti-imperialist instincts. Taken together, these forces moved Tolstoy even further into his natural position of hostility to Western culture’s influence on Russia writ large. His turn to the East was in part motivated by a desire to find a path to Russia’s spiritual and cultural salvation, not through the modernity of the West, but through the pastoral idyll of the East. In this later period, Tolstoy deliberately turned his art towards simplicity and parable, modeling it after Zen proverbs and other Eastern teachings to make it accessible to a wider audience, particularly the under-educated peasantry. From Tolstoy’s What is Art?:

The Vedic hymns convey very profound feelings and yet can be understood by any of us whether educated or not in the same way as they were understood in their own time by people whose education was not of the same order as that of our working people (Shifman, 40).

In addition to advancing the wide dissemination of Tolstoy’s moral philosophy, the spare nature of the proverb became a vehicle for Tolstoy to sharpen his focus on the themes of death and suffering, which were near to his heart at the end of his life. Informed by this aesthetic of simplicity, The Death of Ivan Ilyich can thus be regarded as a meditation on death and suffering, though of a particular kind. Throughout The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ivan experiences a subconscious unsatisfaction with the transient nature of the material and social comforts he acquires. Through his injury, the unsatisfaction manifests in a slow-encroaching, bitter taste. Ivan Ilyich experiences physical pain through his ailment, but he suffers through a lacking, a wanting, and a general feeling of unhappiness with his present circumstances. Tolstoy describes this lacking very plainly:

It occurred to him that what had formerly appeared completely impossible to him, that he had not lived his life as he should have, might be true […] His work, and his living conditions, and his family, and these social and professional interests—all might have been not right […] their every movement, their every word confirmed the terrible truth revealed to him that night. In them he saw himself, all that he had lived by, and saw clearly that it was all not right, that it was all a terrible, vast deception concealing both life and death. This consciousness increased his physical sufferings tenfold (Tolstoy The Death of Ivan Ilyich 88).

For Ivan, the primary source of suffering is not physical pain, it is psychological pain. In this passage he sees the features of his false life clearly for the first time, but he still struggles with the illusion of rightness under which he once lived. Here and until the later stages of his illness, Ivan continues to grasp at hope, not only that he might live, but also that he might have lived rightly.

The form of suffering Ivan experiences is akin to the Buddhist conception of duḥkha (Davids and Stede, 324), which results from the dual sources of taṇhā and upādāna. Taṇhā is craving, thirst, or desire (Davids and Stede, 294). Upādāna is clinging, grasping, or attachment (Davids and Stede, 149). Ivan’s life up until his sickness consisted of a cycle of satiating various forms of taṇhā—through perfunctory marriage, professional maneuvers, and acquisition of material comforts—only to delude himself through upādāna into believing that the satisfaction that these things bring is permanent. At the end of the parable Ivan does finally release his grasp on his illusions:

And suddenly it became clear to him that what was tormenting him and would not be resolved was suddenly all resolved at once, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides. He was sorry for them, he had to act so that it was not painful for them. To deliver them and deliver himself from these sufferings. ‘How good and how simple,’ he thought. ‘And the pain?’ he asked himself. ‘What’s become of it? Where are you, pain?’ He became attentive. ‘Yes, there it is. Well, then, let there be pain. And death? Where is it?’ He sought his old habitual fear of death and could not find it. Where was it? What death? There was no more fear because there was no more death (Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich 91).

Ivan’s passage to death is marked by his relinquishment of suffering, or the Buddhist nirodha (Buswell and Lopez, 588). Crucially, his physical pain persists, yet his suffering relents because he no longer clings to falsehoods or transient forms of relief. In the original text, the sentence “he became attentive” sits on its own stanza, and in that form conjures an image almost comical in its resemblance to a textbook definition of vipassanā meditation in the presence of injury. Ivan pauses. He locates the pain, sees it clearly, without resistance or additional commentary. And then there is only death, or rather, there is only a cessation to suffering. The thing that Ivan once called death—a multi-layered, psychological tangle of torment—has gone.

As discussed, Tolstoy’s later works are obvious places to look for Buddhist themes. Tolstoy’s sweeping epic, War and Peace, is, on its face, a decidedly less obvious place to look. However, Buddhist themes do arise, even in this novel, which Tolstoy would later renounce as frivolous and vile. Of the endless number of stories told in War and Peace, one is the story of the parallel struggles of Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezhukov with taṇhā and upādāna in their early lives and of the arcs by which these two men arrive at distinct versions of nirodha. At the beginning of War and Peace, Prince Andrei craves military glory and, along with it, the approval of his father. Domestic life and the social life of high circles in St. Petersburg and Moscow hold no interest for him, so he is unhappy with and burdened by his marriage, which threatens to keep him forever in dull circumstances. When he suffers a wound on the battlefield at Austerlitz, he experiences his first, temporary release from his desires:

Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn, not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrei ‘—not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…’ (Tolstoy, War and Peace 299).

Here and throughout the novel, death, or its clear contemplation, acts as a portal to insight for Andrei. His interaction with the sky above the field at Austerlitz recalls a core tenet of vipassanā and the practice of meditation associated with it: seeing what is already there. Mindfulness is not an additive process. It is a process of removing that which obstructs clear seeing. Striving—both Andrei’s private desires and those of the armies and the nations for which they fight—blocks clear sight of the splendor of the natural world. As the armies strive to fulfil their worldly aims, Andrei observes how the clouds calmly process across the serene sky, not resisting their natural course of action as determined by the web of interconnected natural forces.

Notwithstanding these insights, Andrei’s ambition returns when he heals from his wounds. He follows his taṇhā to the highest military ranks, where he courts Speransky and, through him, the Emperor Alexander’s favor. Yet his suffering does not wane, not because his ambition is frustrated, but rather because the attainment of his desires does not bring lasting peace. His unsatisfaction reaches its peak before the battle of Borodino and only abates on his death bed:

As he fell asleep he had still been thinking of the subject that now always occupied his mind—about life and death, and chiefly about death. He felt himself nearer to it. ‘Love? What is love?’ he thought. ‘Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source’ (Tolstoy, War and Peace 1058).

At the end of Andrei’s story, death becomes more than a tool for insight. As for Ivan Ilyich, death for Andrei becomes the means to nirodha and the release from clinging. Here, however, the literal translation of upādāna as the “fuel, material cause, substrate that is the source and means for keeping an active process energized” (Davids and Stede, 149) carries special meaning in relation to Andrei’s love for Natasha. When he first meets Natasha, Andrei resolves his unsatisfaction and sees a path to life free from duḥkha. But the dissipation of his suffering is only temporary, and he soon leaves Natasha, the novel’s source of life. Andrei’s initial departure from Natasha, and his second departure through death, signify that Andrei cannot both love and cease suffering. As love is synonymous with the substrate of life for Andrei, cessation of attachment is synonymous with death.

By contrast, Pierre Bezhukov’s journey to nirodha culminates in life. Pierre enters War and Peace as a good-natured, but very impressionable young man. Though he lives less falsely (and less intentionally) than Ivan Ilyich, Pierre acquires many of the habits characteristic of a man driven by repeated fulfilment of sensual desires. Like Ivan, he even acquires a perfunctory wife who torments him. Through much of the novel, Pierre searches for spiritual relief unsuccessfully and unhappily, until he meets the guru-like figure Platon Karataev in captivity:

But Pierre felt that in spite of Karataev’s affectionate tenderness for him (by which he unconsciously gave Pierre’s spiritual life its due) he would not have grieved for a moment at parting from him. And Pierre began to feel the same way towards Karataev. To all the other prisoners Platon Karataev seemed a most ordinary soldier. They called him ‘little falcon’ or ‘Platosha,’ teased him good-naturedly, and made him run their errands. But to Pierre he always remained what he had seemed that first night: an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth (Tolstoy, War and Peace 1047).

Pierre spends most of War and Peace suffering psychologically, yet he gains clarity through the physical deprivation he experiences as a prisoner to the French and through the teachings of Platon Karataev. Much of this insight results from his recognition and acceptance of the transient nature of things, or anicca (Davids and Stede, 355). Pierre speculates that he would feel no grief upon parting from Karataev not because he lacks affection for the old man, but rather because he has begun the process of renouncing his claim to the illusion of permanence. Platon Karataev’s epithetic “roundness” has many interpretations; the one most appropriate to this discussion is the literal one, that of a sphere. Karataev suggestively takes the material shape that is the unattainable limit of Platonic solids as the number of faces tends to infinity. He embodies infinity and passes this boundless feeling to Pierre:

‘Ha-ha-ha!’ laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: ‘The soldier did not let me pass. They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!…’ and he laughed till tears started to his eyes […] And farther still, beyond those forests and fields, the bright, oscillating, limitless distance in its far-away depths. ‘And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!’ thought Pierre. ‘And they caught all that and put it into a shed boarded up with planks!’ (Tolstoy, War and Peace 1098).

Pierre’s fit of laughter comes from another insight characteristic of the vipassanā tradition: consciousness is not in the world; the world is in consciousness. The soldiers, the prison quarters, even the forests and fields and the night sky—all of these are contained within Pierre’s consciousness and therefore within Pierre himself. The juxtaposition of his infinity with the earthly confines of a shed are paradoxical, absurd, and, as Pierre realizes, laughable. How indeed can one contain an object from inside it? The preeminence of consciousness discovered by Pierre resonates with following Vedic hymn later admired by Tolstoy:

Everything was created by intelligence. The world is the eye of intelligence, and intelligence is its foundation. Only intelligence exists. The man who has submitted himself to this and has dedicated himself to serve it moves from this world of phenomena into a beatific and free world and becomes immortal (Shifman, 40).

In the original Russian text from which this hymn was taken, the word “intelligence” is «разум», which in this context might better be translated as “mind” or “consciousness.” Of course, Pierre does not achieve actual immortality by submitting to the primacy of consciousness, but he does gain a newfound freedom in life:

The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find—the aim of life—no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily; he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time (Tolstoy, War and Peace 1188).

Unlike Andrei, Pierre seems to realize a form of nirodha that comes with extinguishing duḥkha such that it cannot return. Importantly, he realizes this cessation of suffering in his earthly existence, rather than through passing to death. Though he does not voice his insight explicitly, he subconsciously concludes that the philosophical problems that gnawed at him were in fact psychological problems. The desire to find the meaning of life was just another craving, like the desire to drink or the desire to better the lives of the peasants living on his estates. When living in each moment, for each moment, the search for life’s meaning loses its meaning for Pierre. The very concept of meaning reveals itself as a secondary construction upon a more primary reality. After his release from imprisonment—both literally and spiritually—the most basic constituents of experience delight Pierre, such that there is no more meaning to living, there is simply living itself.

The contrast between Andrei and Pierre’s forms of nirodha seems to beg the question: whose path is the right path? From the perspective of War and Peace, it is uncontroversial to state that Tolstoy puts his moral thumb on the scale in favor of life, in earthliness. Through Pierre’s evolution, he means to demonstrate that suffering can cease without abandoning the earth. Through Andrei’s estrangement from Natasha, he means to convey that there is something unnatural about rejecting love and life entirely. But as with many aspects of Tolstoy’s writing, there is some degree of contradiction in this simplistic interpretation, which results from the author’s own ambiguity on the subject. Ultimately, Tolstoy has an admiration for the true renunciation of earthly life, as evidenced by his flight from Yasnaya Polyana just before his death.

The benefit of interpreting Tolstoy’s art through the framework of vipassanā is that resolution of questions of right and wrong take on a secondary importance to the clear communication of things as they are. In the absence of this framework, moral questions play a central role in discussions of Tolstoy’s texts. The author himself was always concerned with moral questions and wrote extensively on them in his non-fiction texts. Perhaps more than other Russian authors, Tolstoy also injected his personal moral attitudes into his fiction, sometimes through close personifications of himself, for example in Pierre in War and Peace or in Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina.

By contrast, the vipassanā tradition of Buddhism does not have a clear concept of morality. At its foundation, vipassanā is a guide to an empirical understanding of first-person experience. Right and wrong can—and have been by some—defined in Buddhism as the directions pointing towards or away from this understanding, but these moral concepts are secondary to the primary concepts of reality and falsehood. As such, moments of vipassanā in Tolstoy’s works are some of his strongest as a writer. In these moments, a reader does not feel the heavy hand of the author resisting what ought not to be, nor pulling towards a forced conclusion. A reader can simply admire the features of Tolstoy’s depicted worlds, like an observer attending to clouds passing slowly in the sky.


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