Filed in History

Romancing the Buddha

Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu traces the roots of Western Buddhism to nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

© Psychology Archives, The University of Akron

Was the Buddha really saying what we think he was? Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains how nineteenth-century Romanticism and modern psychology have shaped—and perhaps distorted—our understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.


Many Americans, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from the dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture—the thought of the German Romantics.

The German Romantics may be dead and almost forgotten, but their ideas are still very much alive. Their thought has survived because the Romantics were the first to tackle the problem of how it feels to grow up in a modern society. Their analysis of the problem, together with their proposed solution, still rings true.

Modern society, they saw, is dehumanizing in that it denies human beings their wholeness. The specialization of labor leads to feelings of fragmentation and isolation; the bureaucratic state, to feelings of regimentation and constriction. The only cure for these feelings, the Romantics proposed, is the creative artistic act. This act integrates the divided self and dissolves its boundaries in an enlarged sense of identity and interconnectedness with other human beings and nature at large. Human beings are most fully human when free to create spontaneously from the heart. The heart’s creations are what allow people to connect. Although many Romantics regarded religious institutions and doctrines as dehumanizing, some of them turned to religious experience—a direct feeling of oneness with the whole of nature—as a primary source for rehumanization.

When psychology and psychotherapy developed as disciplines in the West, they absorbed many of the Romantics’ ideas and broadcast them to the culture at large. This is why concepts such as integration of the personality, self-fulfillment, and interconnectedness, together with the healing powers of wholeness, spontaneity, playfulness, and fluidity, have long been part of the air we breathe. So has the idea that religion is primarily a quest for a feeling experience, and that religious doctrines are a creative response to that experience.

In addition to influencing psychology, these conceptions inspired liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism, which proposed that traditional doctrines had to be creatively recast to speak to each new generation in order to keep religious experience vital and alive. So it was only natural that when the dharma came West, people interpreted it in line with these conceptions as well. Asian teachers—many of whom had absorbed Romantic ideas through Westernized education before coming here—found they could connect with Western audiences by stressing themes of spontaneity and fluidity in opposition to the “bureaucracy of the ego.” Western students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace the doctrine of not-self as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger, more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos. In fact, the Romantic view of religious life has shaped more than just isolated dharma teachings. It colors the Western view of the purpose of dharma practice as a whole. Western teachers from all traditions maintain that the aim of Buddhist practice is to gain the creative fluidity that overcomes dualities. As one author has put it, the Buddha taught that “dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and the world is the best use of our human lives. . . . [Egolessness] manifests as inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness . . . our capacity to relax with not-knowing.” Or as another author has said, “When our identity expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world.” Adds a third: “Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity and to express it.”

Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their dharma gate—the homegrown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the dharma—we in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with dharma gates, though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism, instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question our own dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual dharma go. If we don’t, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side.

Taken broadly, Romanticism and the dharma view spiritual life in a similar light. Both regard religion as a product of human activity rather than divine intervention. Both regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic and its role as therapeutic, aimed at curing the diseases of the human mind. But if you examine the historical roots of both traditions, you find that they disagree sharply not only on the nature of religious experience but also on the nature of the mental diseases it can treat and on the nature of what it means to be cured.

These differences aren’t just historical curiosities. They shape the presuppositions that meditators bring to the practice. Even when fully present, the mind carries along its past presuppositions, using them to judge which experiences—if any—should be valued. This is one of the implications of the Buddhist doctrine on karma. As long as these presuppositions remain unexamined, they hold an unknown power. So to break that power, we need to examine the roots of Buddhist Romanticism—the dharma as seen through the Romantic gate. And for the examination to jibe with Buddhist ideas of causality, we have to look for those roots in two directions: into the past for the origin of Romantic ideas, and into the present for the conditions that keep Romantic ideas attractive in the here and now.

The Romantics took their original inspiration from an unexpected source: Immanuel Kant (1724—1804), the wizened old professor whose daily walks were so punctual that his neighbors could set their clocks by him. In his Critique of Judgment, he taught that aesthetic creation and feeling were the highest activities of the human mind, in that they alone could heal the dichotomies of human experience. Friedrich Schiller (1759—1805), perhaps the most influential Romantic thinker, elaborated on this thesis with his notion of the aesthetic “play drive” as the ultimate expression of human freedom, beyond both the compulsions of animal existence and the laws of reason, bringing both into integration. Man, he said, “is fully a human being only when he plays.”

In Schiller’s eyes, this play drive not only integrated the self, but also helped dissolve one’s separation from other human beings and the natural environment as a whole. A person with the internal freedom needed for self-integration would instinctively want others to experience the same freedom as well. This connection explains the Romantic political program of offering help and sympathy for the oppressed of all nations in overthrowing their oppressors. The value of internal unity, in their eyes, was proven by its ability to create bonds of unity in the world of social and political action.

Schiller saw the process of integration as unending: Perfect unity could never be achieved. A meaningful life was one continually engaged in the process of integration. The path was the goal. It was also totally unpatterned and unconstrained. Given the free nature of the play drive, each person’s path to integration was individual and unique.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
mmcc's picture

I also just noticed this quote from the article "What is a Bodhisattva?" on this site:

"The life that flows through each of us and through everything around us is actually all connected. To say that, of course, means that who I really am cannot be separated from all the things that surround me. Or, to put it another way, all sentient beings have their existence and live within my life. So needless to say, that includes even the fate of all mankind--that, too, lies within me. Therefore, just how mankind might truly live out its life becomes what I aim at as my direction. This aiming or living while moving in a certain direction is what is meant by vow. In other words, it is the motivation for living that is different for a bodhisattva. Ordinary people live thinking only about their own personal, narrow circumstances connected with their desires. In contrast to that, a bodhisattva, though undeniably still an ordinary human being like everyone else, lives by vow. Because of that, the significance of his or her life is not the same. For us as bodhisattvas, all aspects of life, including the fate of humanity itself, live within us. It is with this in mind that we work to discover and manifest the most vital and alive posture that we can take in living out our life. . . ."

mmcc's picture

Excellent article. It's worth noting that a universal sense of connectedness was one of the central concepts of Vedic/Hindi religion, and was called brahman. This was almost identical to the connected universality that Romantics discussed. Buddhism was in many ways a rebellion against Vedic religion, and (similar to the word "dharma") they redefined it with an approximately opposite meaning. So, "brahman" means "the [ineffable] unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world" in Hindi theology while it means "a being who understands impermanence and selflessness" in Buddhism.