Letters to the Editor Spring 2003

Point Counterpoint
Thank you for Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s interesting article, “Romancing the Buddha” (Winter 2002). The piece makes the important point that the roots of Western interest in Asian religions go back to the Romantics. However, when he outlines the differences between Romanticism and Buddhism—and the dangers of equating them—he overgeneralizes the matter to such a degree that he reaches conclusions far too specific to be accurate.

The problem begins when he uses a monolithic Romanticism to pose as a “straw man” against a monolithic Buddhism. The latter is a questionable entity, and the former is, frankly, impossible. Romanticism, because it was not only or primarily a formal philosophical movement, is too complex and varied to define as Thanissaro Bhikkhu does. To illustrate this point, in 1948, F. L. Lucas, a literary historian, tried to pin down Romanticism and found 11,396 separate definitions for the term.

Thanissaro Bhikhhu’s conclusions are flawed because his initial premises are flawed. Constructing a reductionist definition of Romanticism allows him to throw out many specific exceptions to his rule that show that there are schools of Romanticism in resonance with Buddhism (especially if we define Buddhism as broadly as he does). For instance, he argues that the “successful spiritual cure” for human suffering is different for Romantics than it is for Buddhists because Romantics (and the humanistic psychologists inspired by them) believe a “total, final cure is unattainable.” But the fact is that many Romantics believed in a breakthrough state of consciousness, an enlightened state.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu does not mention the most influential of the German Romantic philosophers, Friedrich Schelling (who met and influenced Coleridge, who, in turn, met and influenced Emerson), whose book The System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) postulates a final, awakened state of consciousness. Furthermore, though William James discusses enlightenment only as a theory, he certainly doesn’t dismiss it. In fact, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he suggests that Maurice Bucke’s postulate of “cosmic consciousness” may be an accurate description of our ultimate aim. Other examples abound of Romantics, and humanist psychologists, who believed in an enlightened state.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is correct in saying that contemporary neo-Buddhists must be careful not to equate Buddhism with Romanticism in all its tendencies, but by over generalizing Romanticism, he can certainly be accused of throwing out the baby with the bath water, urging us to overlook definite points of resonance with particular Romantic traditions.

—Dana Sawyer, Associate Professor of Asian Religions, Maine College of Art, Portland, Maine

The article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (“Romancing the Buddha”) and the interview with Gil Fronsdal (“Living Two Traditions”) in the Winter 2002 issue, taken together, make for an interesting conversation about American Buddhism. (I should say that I have talked about these issues with each of them, and with Gil in particular.)

Thanissaro Bhikkhu criticizes what he calls “Buddhist Romanticism” for “closing off radical areas of the dharma.” He argues that the “concepts of Buddhist Romanticism seem Pollyanna-ish and the cure it offers too facile.”

American dharma is large and diverse. Because Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t name names (out of diplomacy, lack of space, or Tricycle’s squeamishness), it’s unclear whom he is accusing and how prevalent he thinks “Buddhist Romanticism” is. Having practiced and studied Theravada and Zen Buddhism and American Vipassana, I agree with him that many American Buddhists know little about traditional teachings. But from my knowledge of multiple Asian traditions I’m less certain than he is that we know what the essence of Buddhism is that needs to be retained as a Western dharma emerges.

Gil Fronsdal’s piece is in sharp contrast. He, too, talks about an emphasis on interconnectedness as uniquely Western. If people see interconnectedness as the goal of practice, he says, “they’re shortchanging themselves, because liberation is beyond conditioned experience.” But unlike Thanisarro Bhikkhu, Fronsdal speaks of “meeting people where they are,” welcoming them to his center for whatever reasons they may come. Perhaps due to his Zen training, he believes deeply that “inherent in each person is a momentum toward liberation and greater compassion.” He implies that mindfulness practice will eventually bring a practitioner to question any notion of self, including the interdependent self.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach to American Buddhism seems to be to root out its defilements, Fronsdal’s to trust that practice is, as he often says, “self-correcting.” I distrust Thanissaro Bhikhhu’s purist approach, but I am also less sanguine than Fronsdal.

My experience is that many practitioners—and teachers—do not know the traditional teachings. They are unaware that their and their teachers’ ideas of Buddhism are particular to their own time and experience. They do not know when they are diverging from tradition, mixing Buddhism with other spiritual traditions, or mixing Buddhist traditions that differ profoundly in their understanding of dharma. The issue isn’t preserving the purity of the Asian teachings but, as Fronsdal. says, knowing when we are innovating and why, and not “fooling ourselves into thinking that what we’re teaching is how Buddhism has always been taught.”

—Nancy Van House, Berkeley, California

Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:
Response to Dana Sawyer: The basic point of the article did not depend on a monolithic view either of Romanticism or of Buddhism. I was simply saying that our Western approach to the dharma has been conditioned by a set of assumptions that can be traced back to some prominent thinkers from the Romantic period. I then compared these assumptions with the original sources of the dharma—not with Buddhism as a whole, mind you, for dharma and Buddhism aren’t necessarily the same—showing that our Western assumptions close our minds to many of the dharma’s most radical principles. If we want to benefit from those principles, we have to learn how to recognize and question our assumptions.

I suppose I could have called those assumptions “Schillerism,” but then what would the editors have called the piece?

As for Friedrich Schelling: his final, awakened state of consciousness was a return to the undifferentiated, preverbal state we all left on coming out of the womb.

This view was not adopted by Emerson or the psychological community, nor is it a point of resonance with the dharma. Also, simply to believe in the possibility of an enlightened state is not necessarily the same as affirming its authority or equating it with a total spiritual cure. William James, in particular, was very clear on this point. And our Western ideas of enlightenment are not necessarily the same as the Buddha’s. It’s important to be careful about these seeming points of resonance. Sometimes, instead of opening the door to the limitlessness of the dharma, they squeeze the dharma into the confines of our culturally conditioned imagination.

Response to Nancy van House: I didn’t name names because I feel that Buddhist Romanticism is a widespread syndrome. Instead of personalizing the issue, I wanted to name the syndrome and list the symptoms so that people will recognize them whenever they encounter them. That way they won’t mistake them for the dharma. If they then still want a Romantic Buddhism, at least it’ll be a conscious choice. When it lets them down, they might be willing to give the dharma a second chance.

A teacher’s duty is not simply to meet people where they are, but also to have a clear idea of where the dharma is, and what doorways will help get them there. Without that clarity, the practice keeps running into walls and false passageways. Purity isn’t the issue. The point is simply that (1) Buddhist Romanticism is a poor doorway to dharma, and (2) it doesn’t meet a lot of discerning and/or disenfranchised people where they live.

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