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.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.