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.
I was impressed by your Winter 2002 articles “Shopping the Dharma” by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron and “Romancing the Buddha” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. As Buddhism becomes established in the U.S., we are blending the rich spectrum of Buddhist teachings from around the world with our own culture. But, both these authors warn, we must be mindful of how we do this.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes what the teachings and goals of Western psychology and Buddhism have in common. Because of these similarities and the widespread practice of psychology in this country, many Americans have found the dharma quite accessible. But, he cautions, we must remember that psychology and Buddhism are not the same. The main goal of psychology is to heal negative mental states and to help integrate the individual self while Buddhism, as a spiritual practice, is concerned with helping us to elevate our level of consciousness. As such, it is more radical than psychology, and thus is more demanding of those of us who wish to practice it.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron writes of another challenge that Buddhism faces in America: the clash of Buddhist values with those of our consumer culture. Consumerism can bias how we practice Buddhism—and we are often unaware of its many subtle pitfalls, since consumer habits are so deeply engrained in us. One danger of our bias is that we might water down the dharma by trying to render it commercial and facile.
Both authors also point to another and less obvious problem that consumerism and psychology may bring to American Buddhism: the marginalization of those outside the consumer mainstream: those with low incomes, those estranged from mainstream culture, and those who seek a radical and rigorous spiritual path.
When religions become institutional, they can become shallow and irrelevant. Many of us have turned to Buddhism because we have been turned off by the religion in which we were brought up; we are looking for something deeper and more direct, and Buddhism has answered that need. Let us not “Americanize” Buddhism to the extent that we water it down or institutionalize it.
—Geoff Huggins, Winchester, Virginia
I am writing in response to both the recent interview with Stephen Batchelor (“At the Crossroads,” Fall 2002) and the subsequent letter from Marina Stockschleder. Both Batchelor and Stockschleder question the concept of reincarnation. Stockschleder emphasizes the need to verify the truths, not simply to accept statements of the Buddha based on faith.
I personally agree with that philosophy and encourage Ms. Stockschleder to research the materials available that document cases of reincarnation. The premier researcher in the field is Ian Stevenson, M.D., who has devoted forty years of his career to compiling an astonishing body of cases of reincarnation. His method is to question children who claim detailed memories of past lives, including names and locations. He then matches their memories to the life of the deceased person, including autopsy records when available. His results are most compelling. Other researchers, notably Brian Weiss, M.D. and Michael Newton, Ph.D., use hypnotic regressions to document past-life memories.
Should anyone truly wish to verify the truths, I suggest reading the large body of material available on the topic. If the questioner does not take these steps, perhaps he or she would consider holding a question in their consciousness during mediation; the question being: Why does he or she resist the concept of reincarnation?
—Lynn McGonagill, Sarasota, Florida
The Beaten Path
Marshall Glickman’s recollection (“Insights & Outtakes,” Winter 2002) of being beaten by a Zen teacher to the point that he “lost track of the whacks,” resulting in “a shiny and purple-and-blue lump the size of a baseball,” is alarming. Although he claims that on principle the beating was wrong, nevertheless he asserts the teacher did him “a favor.” I don’t question that he gave up and went limp—in fact, others might have passed out!
Fortunately, your magazine reflects a range of teaching methods that don’t rely on violence. How any teacher can use such a technique is beyond me, and the unfortunate thing is that some people may get from Glickman’s telling that they too can get an “aha” experience by being abused in this way. I’d be interested in hearing some of his other experiences concerning this “favor,” such as how long it took him to heal from the bruise, how and why he sublimated his anger, and if he discussed the incident with his teacher.
Religion and spiritual training shouldn’t have to be battlegrounds, and the Buddha was very clear on nonviolence. I understand that Glickman has gone on to other, gentler sources of inspiration, but it’s important not to confuse abuse as a catalyst for some kind of special awareness and not to excuse it or condone it.
—Jerome Gagnon, San Francisco, California
Marshall Glickman responds:
Please keep in mind that you read an excerpt. In the original context (the preface of Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation), it’s clear that the story is included both to give my meditation background and as contrast to the method recommended in the book. Naturally, I don’t condone beatings as a catalyst for “special awareness”; it just so happened that I gained something from the experience. In that sense, the roshi did me a favor.
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