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Romancing the Buddha

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

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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Schiller’s contemporary Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768—1834) applied these ideas to religion, concluding that it, like any other art form, was a human creation, and that its greatest function lay in healing the splits both within the human personality and in human society at large. He defined the essence of religion as “the sensibility and taste for the infinite,” which begins in the receptive mind state where awareness opens to the infinite. This feeling for the infinite is followed by an act of the creative imagination, which articulates that feeling to oneself and others. Because these creative acts—and thus all religious doctrines—are a step removed from the reality of the experience, they are constantly open to improvement and change.

A few quotations from his work On Religion will give a sense of Schleiermacher’s thought:

The individual is not just part of a whole, but an exhibition of it. The mind, like the universe, is creative, not just receptive. Whoever has learned to be more than himself knows that he loses little when he loses himself. Rather than align themselves with a belief of personal immortality after death, the truly religious would prefer to strive to annihilate their personality and live in the one and in the all.

Where is religion chiefly to be sought? Where the living contact of a human being with the world fashions itself as feeling. Truly religious people are tolerant of different translations of this feeling, even the hesitation of atheism. Not to have the divine immediately present in one’s feelings has always seemed to them more irreligious than such a hesitation. To insist on one particular conception of the divine to be true is far from religion.

Schiller and Schleiermacher both had a strong influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882), which can easily be seen in the latter’s writings. We’re sometimes told that Emerson was influenced by Eastern religions, but actually his readings in Buddhism and Hinduism simply provided chapter and verse for the lessons he had already learned from the European Romantics.

Bring the past into the 1,000-eyed present and live ever in a new day. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. The essence of genius, of virtue, and of life is what is called Spontaneity or Instinct. Every man knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.

The reason why the world lacks unity is because man is disunited with himself. . . . We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile, within man is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.

At present, the Romantics and Transcendentalists are rarely read outside of literature or theology classes. Their ideas have lived on in the general culture largely because they were adopted by the discipline of psychology and translated into a vocabulary that was both more scientific and more accessible to the public at large. One of the most crucial translators was William James (1842—1910), who gave the psychological study of religion its modern form a century ago, in 1902, with the publication of The Varieties of Religious Experience. James’s broad sympathies extended beyond Western culture to include Buddhism and Hinduism, and beyond the “acceptable” religions of his time to include the Mental Culture movement, the nineteenth century’s version of the New Age. His interest in diversity makes him seem amazingly postmodern.

Still, James was influenced by the intellectual currents alive in his time, which shaped the way he converted his large mass of data into a psychology of religion. Although he spoke as a scientist, the current with the deepest influence on his thought was Romanticism. He followed the Romantics in saying that the function of religious experience was to heal the sense of “divided self,” thus creating a more integrated self-identity better able to function in society. However, to be scientific, the psychology of religion must not side for or against any truth claims concerning the content of religious experiences. For instance, many religious experiences produce a strong conviction in the oneness of the cosmos as a whole. Although scientific observers should accept the feeling of oneness as a fact, they shouldn’t take it as proof that the cosmos is indeed one. Instead, they should judge each experience by its effects on the personality. James was not disturbed by the many mutually contradictory truth-claims that religious experiences have produced over the centuries. In his eyes, different temperaments need different truths as medicine to heal their psychological wounds.

Drawing on Methodism to provide two categories for classifying all religious experiences—conversion and sanctification—James gave a Romantic interpretation to both. For the Methodists, these categories applied specifically to the soul’s relationship to God. Conversion was the turning of the soul to God’s will; sanctification, the attunement of the soul to God’s will in all its actions. To apply these categories to other religions, James removed the references to God, leaving a more Romantic definition: Conversion unifies the personality; sanctification represents the ongoing integration of that unification into daily life.

Also, James followed the Romantics in judging the effects of both types of experiences in this-worldly terms. Conversion experiences are healthy when they foster healthy sanctification: the ability to maintain one’s integrity in the rough-and-tumble of daily life, acting as a moral and responsible member of human society. In psychological terms, James saw conversion as simply an extreme example of the breakthroughs ordinarily encountered in adolescence. And he agreed with the Romantics that personal integration was a process to be pursued throughout life, rather than a goal to be achieved.

Other writers who took up the psychology of religion after James, devised a more scientific vocabulary to analyze their data. Still, they maintained many of the Romantic notions that James had introduced into the field.

For example, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), Carl Jung (1875—1961) agreed that religion’s proper role lay in healing of divisions within the personality, although he saw the same basic split in everyone: the narrow, fearful ego vs. the wiser, more spacious unconscious. Thus he regarded religion as a primitive form of psychotherapy. In fact, he actually lay closer than James to the Romantics in his definition of psychic health. Quoting Schiller’s assertion that human beings are most human when they are at play, Jung saw the cultivation of spontaneity and fluidity both as a means for integrating the divided personality and as an expression of the healthy personality engaged in the unending process of integration, internal and external, throughout life.

Unlike James, Jung saw the integrated personality as lying above the rigid confines of morality. And, although he didn’t use the term, he extolled what John Keats called “negative capability”: the ability to deal comfortably with uncertainties and mysteries without trying to impose confining certainties on them. Thus Jung recommended borrowing from religions any teachings that assist the process of integration, while rejecting any teachings that would inhibit the spontaneity of the integrated self.

In Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (1970), Abraham Maslow (1908—1970), the American “father of transpersonal psychology,” divided religious experiences into the same two categories used by James. But in an attempt to divorce these categories from any particular tradition, he named them after the shape they would assume if graphed over time: peak experiences and plateau experiences. These terms have now entered the common vernacular. Peak experiences are short-lived feelings of oneness and integration that can come not only in the area of religion but also in sport, sex, and art. Plateau experiences exhibit a more stable sense of integration and last much longer.

Maslow had little use for traditional interpretations of peak experiences, regarding them as cultural overlays that obscured the true nature of the experience. Assuming all peak experiences, regardless of cause or context, to be basically the same, he reduced them to their common psychological features, such as feelings of wholeness, dichotomy-transcendence, playfulness, and effortlessness. Thus reduced, he found, they weren’t of lasting value unless they could be transformed into plateau experiences. To this end he saw psychotherapy as necessary for their perfection: integrating peak experiences into a regime of counseling and education that would actualize the full potential of the human being—intellectual, physical, social, sexual—in a society where all areas of life are sacred and plateau experiences commonplace for all.

These three writers on the psychology of religion, despite their differences, kept Romantic ideas about religion alive in the West by giving them the scientific stamp of approval. Through their influence, these ideas have shaped humanistic psychology and—through humanistic psychology—the expectations many Americans bring to the dharma.

However, when we compare these expectations with the original principles of the dharma, we find radical differences. The contrast between them is especially strong around the three most central issues of spiritual life: What is the essence of religious experience? What is the basic illness that religious experience can cure? And what does it mean to be cured?

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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.