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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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The nature of religious experience. For humanistic psychology, as for the Romantics, religious experience is a direct feeling, rather than the discovery of objective truths. The essential feeling is a oneness overcoming all inner and outer divisions. Such experiences come in two sorts: peak experiences, in which the sense of oneness breaks through divisions and dualities; and plateau experiences, where—through training—the sense of oneness creates a healthy sense of self, informing all of one’s activities in everyday life.

However, the dharma as expounded in its earliest records places training in oneness and a healthy sense of self prior to the most dramatic religious experiences. A healthy sense of self is fostered through training in generosity and virtue. A sense of oneness—peak or plateau—is attained in mundane levels of concentration (jhana) that constitute the path, rather than the goal, of practice. The ultimate religious experience, awakening, is something else entirely. It is described in terms not of feeling but of knowledge: skillful mastery of the principles of causality underlying actions and their results, followed by direct knowledge of the dimension beyond causality where all suffering stops.

The basic spiritual illness. Romantic/humanistic psychology states that the root of suffering is a sense of divided self, which creates not only inner boundaries—between reason and emotion, body and mind, ego and shadow—but also outer ones, separating us from other people and from nature and the cosmos as a whole.

The dharma, however, teaches that the essence of suffering is clinging, and that the most basic form of clinging is self-identification, regardless of whether one’s sense of self is finite or infinite, fluid or static, unitary or not.

The successful spiritual cure. Romantic/humanistic psychology maintains that a total, final cure is unattainable. Instead, the cure is an ongoing process of personal integration. The enlightened person is marked by an enlarged, fluid sense of self, unencumbered by moral rigidity. Guided primarily by what feels right in the context of interconnectedness, one negotiates with ease—like a dancer—the roles and rhythms of life. Having learned the creative answer to the question “What is my true identity?” one is freed from the need for certainties about any of life’s other mysteries.

The dharma, however, teaches that full awakening achieves a total cure, opening to the unconditioned beyond time and space, at which point the task is done. The awakened person then follows a path “that can’t be traced,” but is incapable of transgressing the basic principles of morality. Such a person realizes that the question “What is my true identity?” was ill-conceived, and knows from direct experience the total release from time and space that will happen at death.

When these two traditions are compared point by point, it’s obvious that—from the perspective of early Buddhism—Romantic/humanistic psychology gives only a partial and limited view of the potentials of spiritual practice. This means that Buddhist Romanticism, in translating the dharma into Romantic principles, gives only a partial and limited view of what Buddhism has to offer.

For many people, these limitations don’t matter because they come to Buddhist Romanticism for reasons rooted more in the present than in the past. Modern society is now even more schizoid than anything the Romantics ever knew. It has made us more and more dependent on wider and wider circles of other people, yet keeps most of those dependencies hidden. Our food and clothing come from the store, but how they got there, or who is responsible for ensuring a continual supply, we don’t know. When investigative reporters track down the web of connections from field to final product in our hands, the bare facts read like an exposé. Our sweatshirts, for example, come from Uzbekistani cotton woven in Iran, sewn in South Korea, and stored in Kentucky—an unstable web of interdependencies that involve not a little suffering both for the producers and for those pushed out of the production web by cheaper labor.

Whether or not we know these details, we intuitively sense the fragmentation and uncertainty created by the entire system. Thus many of us feel a need for a sense of wholeness. For those who benefit from the hidden dependencies of modern life, a corollary need is a sense of reassurance that interconnectedness is reliable and benign—or, if not yet benign, that feasible reforms can make it that way. They want to hear that they can safely place their trust in the principle of interconnectedness without fear that it will turn on them or let them down. When Buddhist Romanticism speaks to these needs, it opens the gate to areas of dharma that can help many people find the solace they’re looking for. In doing so, it augments the work of psychotherapy, which may explain why so many psychotherapists have embraced dharma practice for their own needs and for their patients, and why some have become dharma teachers themselves.

However, Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. In response, the Romantic argument brands these teachings as dualistic: either inessential to the religious experience or inadequate expressions of it. Thus, it concludes, they can safely be ignored. In this way, the gate closes off radical areas of the dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.

It also closes off two groups of people who would otherwise benefit greatly from dharma practice: those who see that interconnectedness won’t end the problem of suffering and are looking for a more radical cure; and those from disillusioned and disadvantaged sectors of society, who have less invested in the continuation of modern interconnectedness and have abandoned hope for meaningful reform or happiness within the system. For both of these groups, the concepts of Buddhist Romanticism seem Pollyanna-ish and the cure it offers too facile. As a dharma gate, it’s more like a door shut in their faces.

Like so many other products of modern life, the root sources of Buddhist Romanticism have for too long remained hidden. This is why we haven’t recognized it for what it is or realized the price we pay in mistaking the part for the whole. Barring major changes in American society, Buddhist Romanticism is sure to survive. What’s needed is for more windows and doors to throw light onto the radical aspects of the dharma that Buddhist Romanticism has so far left in the dark. ▼


Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery and the translator of numerous Thai meditation guides. His most recent books are Handful of Leaves and The Karma of Questions.

Images: Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and William James: From; Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow: © Psychology Archives, The University of Akron

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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.