The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism
Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny
familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness,
ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar
because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha's
teachings but from the dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha's
words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the dharma than
from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.
German Romantics may be dead and almost forgotten, but their ideas are still very
much alive. Their thought has survived because they were the first to tackle the
problem of how it feels to grow up in a modern society. Their analysis of the
problem, together with their proposed solution, still rings true.
they saw, is dehumanizing in that it denies human beings their wholeness. The
specialization of labor leads to feelings of fragmentation and isolation; the
bureaucratic state, to feelings of regimentation and constriction. The only cure
for these feelings, the Romantics proposed, is the creative artistic act. This
act integrates the divided self and dissolves its boundaries in an enlarged sense
of identity and interconnectedness with other human beings and nature at large.
Human beings are most fully human when free to create spontaneously from the heart.
The heart's creations are what allow people to connect. Although many Romantics
regarded religious institutions and doctrines as dehumanizing, some of them turned
to religious experience-a direct feeling of oneness with the whole of nature-as
a primary source for re-humanization.
When psychology and psychotherapy developed
as disciplines in the West, they absorbed many of the Romantics' ideas and broadcast
them into the culture at large. As a result, concepts such as integration of the
personality, self-fulfillment, and interconnectedness, together with the healing
powers of wholeness, spontaneity, playfulness, and fluidity have long been part
of the air we breathe. So has the idea that religion is a primarily a quest for
a feeling-experience, and religious doctrines are a creative response to that
In addition to influencing psychology, these conceptions inspired
liberal Christianity and reform Judaism, which proposed that traditional doctrines
had to be creatively recast to speak to each new generation in order to keep religious
experience vital and alive. So it was only natural that when the dharma came west,
people interpreted it in line with these conceptions as well. Asian teachers-many
of whom had absorbed Romantic ideas through Westernized education before coming
here-found they could connect with Western audiences by stressing themes of spontaneity
and fluidity in opposition to the "bureaucracy of the ego." Western
students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising
when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace
the doctrine of not-self as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger,
more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos.
In fact, the Romantic view
of religious life has shaped more than just isolated dharma teachings. It colors
the Western view of the purpose of dharma practice as a whole. Western teachers
from all traditions maintain that the aim of Buddhist practice is to gain the
creative fluidity that overcomes dualities. As one author has put it, the Buddha
taught that "dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and
the world is the best use of our human lives
.[Egolessness] manifests as
inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness
to relax with not knowing." Or as another has said, "When our identity
expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world."
Adds a third: "Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity
and to express it."
Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their dharma gate-the
home-grown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the dharma-we
in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with dharma gates,
though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries
of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism
were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started
using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism,
instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something
genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we
will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question
our dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and
the actual dharma go. If we don't, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for
the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side.
Romanticism and the dharma view spiritual life in a similar light. Both regard
religion as a product of human activity, rather than divine intervention. Both
regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic; and its role as
therapeutic, aimed at curing the diseases of the human mind. But if you examine
the historical roots of both traditions, you find that they disagree sharply not
only on the nature of religious experience, but also on the nature of the mental
diseases it can treat and on the nature of what it means to be cured.
differences aren't just historical curiosities. They shape the presuppositions
that meditators bring to the practice. Even when fully present, the mind carries
along its past presuppositions, using them to judge which experiences-if any-should
be valued. This is one of the implications of the Buddhist doctrine on karma.
As long as these presuppositions remain unexamined, they hold an unknown power.
So to break that power, we need to examine the roots of the Buddhist Romanticism-the
dharma as seen through the Romantic gate. And for the examination to jibe with
Buddhist ideas of causality, we have to look for those roots in two directions:
into the past for the origin of Romantic ideas, and into the present for the conditions
that keep Romantic ideas attractive in the here and now.
The Romantics took
their original inspiration from an unexpected source: Kant, the wizened old professor
whose daily walks were so punctual that his neighbors could set their clocks by
him. In his Critique of Judgment he taught that aesthetic creation and feeling
were the highest activities of the human mind, in that they alone could heal the
dichotomies of human experience. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), perhaps the most
influential Romantic philosopher, elaborated on this thesis with his notion of
the aesthetic "play drive" as the ultimate expression of human freedom,
beyond both the compulsions of animal existence and the laws of reason, bringing
both into integration. Man, he said, "is fully a human being only when he
In Schiller's eyes, this play drive not only integrated the self,
but also helped dissolve one's separation from other human beings and the natural
environment as a whole. A person with the internal freedom needed for self-integration
would instinctively want others to experience the same freedom as well. This connection
explains the Romantic political program of offering help and sympathy for the
oppressed of all nations in overthrowing their oppressors. The value of internal
unity, in their eyes, was proven by its ability to create bonds of unity in the
world of social and political action.
Schiller saw the process of integration
as unending: perfect unity could never be achieved. A meaningful life was one
continually engaged in the process of integration. The path was the goal.
was also totally unpatterned and unconstrained. Given the free nature of the play
drive, each person's path to integration was individual and unique.
colleague, 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 essays, 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."
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, 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.
the past into the 1000-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, 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' 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 19th century's version of the New Age. His interest
in diversity makes him seem amazingly post-modern.
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.
followed the Romantics in saying that the function of religious experience was
to heal the sense of "divided self," 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
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
on-going 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.
in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), Carl Jung 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 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, 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 them 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.
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?
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. These 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 as 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, not in terms 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.
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.
Now, 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.
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.
who see that interconnectedness won't end the problem of suffering and are looking
for a more radical cure.
2) 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 Pollyannaish;
the cure it offers, too facile. As a dharma gate, it's more like a door shut in
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.