Getting Out of the Romantic Gate
A conversation with Ajaan Thanissaro
Does our understanding of the Dhamma come from what the Buddha taught, or from what some nineteenth-century Romantic and Transcendentalist philosophers taught? How could such long-ago thinkers, mostly not Buddhists themselves, have had such a profound influence on how we understand Dhamma and how we practice it?
Ajaan Thanissaro–whom many of our readers know well either from his courses at BCBS and/or from his prolific translations, commentaries, and transcribed Dhamma talks–has been studying and writing about how Romantic and Transcendentalist thought have affected Western understanding of Buddhadhamma for some time. He has deep familiarity with the relevant Western philosophical traditions, and this, combined with his first-hand understanding of Dhamma texts and practices, makes him an extremely articulate guide to this tangle of misinterpretation.
As he has pointed out before (please see the links at the end of this article for some references), he feels it important for Western Buddhists to understand how these forces have shaped our understanding. This is of more than academic interest. Even though the Romantic interpretation of Buddhadhamma may have been the Dhamma gate for many of us, it may be blocking us from getting the greatest benefit from the teachings.
What exactly do we mean?
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, German thinkers began to articulate a trend in philosophy that later became known as Romanticism. Because this movement also flowered in poetry (think Shelley, Keats, Schiller), music (Beethoven, Chopin), and other arts, it is often portrayed as a rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but the Romantics saw themselves as dealing in a rationalism of a higher sort. They looked for meaning, not in the external laws of nature, but in the internal laws of the mind. In the field of religion, they looked for universal laws of spirituality that transcended the confines of any particular religious tradition or culture.
In the following decades, American thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau founded the movement called Transcendentalism. We like to think of Transcendentalists as the first genuinely American philosophers, but they drew much of their inspiration from the German Romantics. (In fact, the movement took its name from Kant’s transcendental categories.) The thought of the Transcendentalists, in turn, influenced William James, the Harvard philosopher and psychologist who synthesized ideas from philosophy, psychology, and religion in ways that still influence thinkers in a broad variety of disciplines. In particular, his book The Varieties of Religious Experience profoundly shaped the field of humanistic psychology, which provided the gate through which many of us have developed our ideas about the meaning and purpose of religion-ideas that influence the way we approach and understand the Dhamma.
Although the Romantics–and the generations of thinkers they inspired–believed that their ideas about the psychology of religion were universal, they actually picked them up from movements in Christianity: in particular, the Pietists, who valued religious feeling above doctrinal orthodoxy. But because the Romantics presented their ideas in a scientific vocabulary as psychological laws, it has seemed only natural to interpret the Dhamma in line with them. What this means, though, is that many of our ideas about how the Dhamma should be understood and practiced have been distorted through a Christian lens.
Insight Journal asked Ajaan Thanissaro to discuss these ideas, and especially some new thinking that has emerged for him since his earlier writing on the subject.
Insight Journal: How long have you been interested in philosophy, per se, versus Buddhadhamma? Did philosophy precede Dhamma in your life?
Ajaan Thanissaro: I came to Buddhism first, during my high school years, and to Western philosophy later, during my college years. This meant that I was able to look at Western thought from something of an outside perspective–to see that it is no less strange than any other body of thought. This has been very useful both in my personal practice of the Dhamma and in my efforts to understand what’s going on in American Buddhism.
IJ: The German Romantics, and the American Transcendentalists, had a fundamentally teleological view, that is, the cosmos, the Over-soul, or God had a positive purpose that is unfolding over time: events have a direction, toward something better. The Buddha directs us toward the wholesome, as a means of individual liberation from dukkha. Is there anything like teleology in what the Buddha is telling us? Is the difference that he is working only at the level of the individual? Is there a danger here of subtly craving a benevolent universe, leading to suffering when it turns out not to be so?
AT: To answer your first two questions: Yes, there definitely is a teleology in the Buddha’s teachings. They’re all pointed toward a specific end: the end of suffering. But the Buddha’s view of the universe is not teleological. It’s not going anywhere in particular, because it’s shaped by the individual aims of all the beings in it. And as we all know, we’re all going in a wide range of different directions through our choices. The Buddha points out that each of us has to make the choice to give a direction to our lives. Otherwise, we wander around in line with our whims.
The practical danger here is when we trust the nature of things to be benevolent and trust that everything will all work out, regardless of how unwise we are in our daily choices. This leads to complacency. And, as you point out, there’s always the danger of hoping for a general benevolent trend to the universe and then growing profoundly disillusioned when things don’t work out for the best. It’s wiser to realize that the universe is basically meaningless but that we can give meaning to our lives by aiming our choices toward the end of suffering. We’re responsible for where we’re going. The universe isn’t giving us a free ride.
IJ: What role did the idea of “the interconnectedness of all things” play in Romantic thought? How did that come to be confused with dependent co-arising? How is it different?
AT: For the Romantics, one of the primary spiritual dilemmas is a sense of separateness: from your innermost self, from your fellow human beings, from the natural world. One of their spiritual laws is that religious life aims at ending these ways of feeling separate by establishing (or reestablishing) a feeling either of connectedness or oneness: the two ideas tend to get conflated. They’re both a Good Thing. Dependent co-arising, however, has nothing to do with connectedness or separateness. It’s an analysis of how suffering happens. If it’s allowed to continue, it’s anything but a Good Thing, for it’s unstable and always entails suffering. The only good thing about dependent co-arising is that it shows you which factors in experience have to be trained, which have to be abandoned, so that suffering inherent in allowing dependent co-arising to continue can be put to an end.
IJ: You cite Western Dharma authors talking about “expanding the self” to include the cosmos; how does that differ from seeing the lack of an essential self anywhere? Why isn’t “no self anywhere” and “great big self everywhere” essentially the same thing? How could this confusion manifest in Dharma practice, for example?
AT: The Buddha never really said that there is no self. Nor did he say that there is a self. For him, the question of whether the self does or doesn’t exist should be put aside (SN 44:10). Instead, he showed how each of our many ways of defining our sense of self is an action–that there are times when it can be skillfully used on the path, and times when any sense of self should be put aside. It’s true, though, that he subjected the idea of the identity of the self with the cosmos to particular ridicule (MN 22). If your self is identical with the cosmos, then the whole cosmos should belong to you, which it obviously doesn’t. Such a belief tends to hide the actual workings of the mind in creating a sense of self, which may be why the Buddha was particularly clear in rejecting it.
One of the strangest pieces of misinformation in modern Buddhism is that the Buddha was an anti-essentialist. His analogies for the aggregates–as a lump of foam, as a mirage–indicate that he saw no essence in the aggregates, but that doesn’t mean, as some people have argued, that the Dhamma itself has no essence. The Buddha said again and again, as in AN 10:58, that the Dhamma does have an essence (sara), which is release.
IJ: What is the role of “open, receptive awareness” in Romantic thought, and how did that come to be confused with sati, usually translated as “mindfulness”? What is the practical danger to our practice of this confusion?
AT: Some Romantic theologians–Schleiermacher in particular–defined the state of open receptivity as the ideal mind state for receiving the beneficent influences of God and the cosmos. The less you engage in mental activity, the closer you are to the infinite. Emerson popularized this notion here in America with his famous passage on being a transparent eyeball, sensitive to all he was taking in, free from adding any thoughts of his own. Even in non-religious contexts, the Romantic ideal of the purely receptive mind survived in philosophy–a lot of continental philosophy was devoted to contemplating the possibility of an absolutely pure, receptive cognition, free from cultural conditioning. It would require a book-length study to trace how this idea became attached to mindfulness. Part of that study would have to look at how mindfulness became identified with bare awareness, and how the idea of bare awareness developed the Romantic overtones it now has in many Dhamma circles.
The practical danger in this interpretation is that it limits the tools you have access to as a meditator. If you think that a non-reactive state of mind is in touch with the true nature of things as they are–which is how mindfulness is often portrayed–you’re basically making equanimity your ultimate meditative tool. But as the Buddha said (MN 101), equanimity can handle only some of the causes of suffering. There are many other causes that require the effort of analysis and thought–what he termed “the exertion of fabrication.” If you limit yourself to equanimity, there will be many causes of suffering that will simply hide out, without getting uprooted. And, in fact, equanimity can be an object of clinging. If you don’t see that, you shut the door to total release.
IJ: Romantics say to trust your intuition about what the Bible says that is useful for your particular situation, rather than what some authority says the Bible means, the “soul that may be trusted to the end,” to paraphrase Emerson. How might this approach mislead us if we apply it to Dhamma?
AT: On the one hand, the Buddha does tell you to question the texts–and this includes traditional interpretations of the texts–but on the other, he says that you have to question your preferences and ideas of what seems reasonable and consistent with what you believe. The way out of this impasse is twofold: to put things to the test in your actions, and to take into consideration the opinions of the wise. This means that you’re responsible (1) for training yourself to be reliable in your assessment of which of your actions are working and which are not, and (2) for searching out people who can teach you wisdom in their habits as well as their words. This is much more demanding than simply believing in your inner intuition.
IJ: You note (p27 of TBvtB*) that the Buddha’s teachings are culturally conditioned, but that this doesn’t limit any of his essential teachings. You pick out the teachings on kamma as ones that are misunderstood as culturally limited. Can you expand on that? How would you compare the Romantic teleological view with kamma?
AT: Even though the Buddha used the word kamma/karma like the rest of India, his views on kamma were very different from those of his contemporaries. In fact, questions around the nature of kamma–whether kamma was primarily mental or physical, whether people had freedom of choice, whether their actions actually had an impact on the world–were hot topics in the Buddha’s time. They are still important issues today. The solution the Buddha arrived at was a direct result of his awakening experience, so if we want to get the most out of his solution, we should look at it carefully and not simply dismiss it out of ignorance.
IJ: There is a difference between reading texts as a scholar, for original meaning, and reading them as a poet, for inspiration for new creative acts as the Romantics do. Is there a third way to read, for example, to understand the pragmatic advice that the Buddha was trying to give us for how to practice, or is this the same as the scholarly way?
AT: It’s different. On the one hand, you do want to read the texts carefully, so that you can make sure that you really understand the advice they give. But on the other, you have to practice them to fully understand that advice. It’s like reading a book about swimming. You want to read it carefully so that you have a good conceptual grasp of the problems, but you won’t really know the problems, or their solutions, until you’ve actually tried to swim. Imagination does play a role in the path, but it’s not purely creative or self-expressive. It’s more a matter of harnessing your imagination to solve the problem of suffering.
IJ: It’s one thing to know something from the text, and another thing to apply it in specific situations; we always need intuition in some sense, don’t we? There won’t always be a teacher there to ask, “What should I do now?” Don’t we need something like Augustine’s “Christ as inner teacher” to guide our understanding of the texts, and how to apply them to our situation, in the absence of a teacher?
AT: The Buddha’s approach was to take our ordinary desire to end suffering and use it as the primary motivation to practice. The training is largely a process of making that desire more reliable. There’s a role for ingenuity on the path when you come up against a new problem, but the only way to know if the ideas you come up with are reliable is to put them to the test. In other words, do they actually put an end to suffering? For this approach to be really effective, you have to keep sensitizing yourself to levels of stress and suffering you previously overlooked.
IJ: The Romantics’ reading the Bible metaphorically rather than literally seems to have some applications; it’s important to see how kamma affects us in this life, in this moment, rather than getting hung up intellectually on whether/how it might apply literally to multiple lifetimes, isn’t it? At least that allows us to suspend disbelief until we can develop the ability to see the answer through direct experience ourselves?
AT: Seeing the effects of kamma in this life is not a matter of seeing kamma metaphorically. It’s just seeing a particular dimension of kamma at work. As for rebirth, when the Buddha was teaching skeptics, such as the Kalamas, he told them to act in such a way that if the effects of kamma last into another life, they can be assured that they won’t suffer from the results of their actions. In other words, he told them that even if they couldn’t come to a conclusion as to whether there is or isn’t rebirth, they shouldn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. They had to see it as a serious possibility that they had to prepare for. It’s like being an investor. Even if you don’t believe that world politicians would take us to war, your investment strategy has to take that possibility into account.
As we all know, science has never proven nor disproven rebirth. It’s one of those questions that science can’t answer. Too many people in the modern world think that the questions science can’t answer aren’t worth answering. Maybe we should extend a little more disbelief to our own cultural presuppositions.
IJ: The Romantics seem to find the need for inspiration, through feeling, to be the most important function of a text or idea. Buddhist texts, on the other hand, are designed to instruct us how to practice Dhamma. But is there a role for inspiration in Dhamma, and if so, where does it come from?
AT: As the Buddha said, the primary motivation for conviction/faith in the Dhamma is seeing suffering and wanting to find a way out. Another motivation comes from seeing people who are practicing and being inspired by the example they set.
IJ: The central problem with philosophy as a whole–as Wittgenstein, Rorty & others have pointed out–is that ultimately it offers only words and concepts, however refined. Since it doesn’t resolve dukkha, though, it becomes just something else that you have to let go of, ultimately. The Buddha makes this point in the Tevijja Sutta, doesn’t he? In other words, all of philosophy attempts to be soteriological, to solve our fundamental human problem of existence, dukkha, but ultimately all philosophies cannot get beyond what consolation comes from conceptual thinking, and thus they all ultimately fail. Does that explain the limits of Romanticism/Transcendentalism?
AT: Not really. It’s not just an issue of being able to go beyond concepts or not. It’s more an issue of finding the right concepts to help you act in such a way that you can put an end to suffering. Some concepts are helpful in this way; some are harmful. If we sincerely want to put an end to suffering, we have to figure out, through experience, which is which.
IJ: The practice of Buddhadhamma seems to offer direct experience that uncovers what Kant referred to, that is, seeing the mind actively trying to make sense of experience. The Buddha seems to be saying, even these transcendent categories of experience, as Kant called them, can be seen in direct experience as part of the structure of the senses, and that they do not, in themselves, offer us a way out. The senses (including the mind or awareness “sensing” conceptual thought) are not really transcendent in the way Kant and the Romantics/Transcendentalists thought; they’re not reliable guides to some higher understanding of reality; they’re just another level of delusion?
AT: You’ve got several questions here, but I’ll focus on the most important: Concepts of causality–which according to Kant are transcendental–can be used as an aid in getting out of delusion. Now, for Kant, causality was much more deterministic than it was for the Buddha. That’s why he had so much trouble relating causality to the moral imperative of freedom of choice. The Buddha’s concept of causality provided much more room for choices in the present moment to shape not only the future, but also the present itself.
Some of Kant’s other transcendental categories, however–such as the need for a First Mover–are more culturally conditioned, and really do lead to more delusion.
IJ: Why do the Romantics’ ideas remain attractive to us?
AT: Because they were the first to inhabit the intellectual world in which we now live. They were the first to grow up in a world of geological deep time and astronomical deep space, where whole galaxies were being born and dying at all times; where there were many great religions, and not just one; where the economics of mass production were beginning to separate craftsmen from their work. They felt the psychological effects of these challenges, and proposed psychological solutions. To the extent that we try to find psychological solutions to these problems, we’re simply continuing the conversation they started.
IJ: Buddhist practice is sometimes seen as life-denying, overly ascetic, even nihilistic; is there something in the Romantic view of it that counters this? Beyond the mistakes that the Romantic view can cause in interpreting Dhamma, is there something corrective to the mistaken view that Buddhism leans toward nihilism?
AT: There certainly is the perception that Buddhism is life-denying, but actually the Buddha wasn’t interested in either denying or affirming life. He was more interested in affirming the heart’s desire for true happiness. Buddhism doesn’t need a corrective from Romanticism in this area.
IJ: Without wanting to belittle or denigrate those who work for social reform, isn’t the link between Buddhism and social reform movements also something we get from the Romantics and Transcendentalists?
AT: Both the Romantics and the Transcendentalists were divided over the issue of which had to come first: straightening out the mind or straightening out society. We see this disagreement in Western Buddhism today. I think a more fruitful approach would be to view the issue of social reform from a Buddhist perspective as a type of generosity. As with all forms of generosity, it’s a matter of where you feel inspired to give of your time and energy. This is a matter of individual choice. But if we reduce Buddhism to a vehicle for social reform, we’re doing a disservice to the world. After all, generosity is only a first step on the path. The Dhamma’s greatest gift lies in its instructions as to how each person can put an end to the suffering he/she is causing. It would be a shame to lose that in an attempt to make Buddhism more like the religions we grew up with.
IJ: How does the result of meditation practice differ from the result of the Romantics’ creative acts / direct approaches to nature, etc.?
AT: It goes beyond the feeling of oneness to something totally free–which, as the Buddha affirmed, is not a feeling, but it is the ultimate happiness (MN 14).
IJ: Which of the misunderstandings of Dhamma by the Romantics is the most critical in your mind, with the greatest potential for mischief?
AT: The biggest problem is the tendency to place a straitjacket on the Dhamma, trying to make it fit in with what we think are the laws of spiritual life: what it’s for, what it can do. We think that we’re actually making an improvement in the Dhamma by squeezing it into these spiritual laws. For instance, we firmly believe that religions grow by adjusting to the demands of the times, which is one of the Romantic “laws” of spiritual life. But what if the demands of the times are blinding us to bigger and better things? We lose sight of the fact that these “laws” are very much a product of our culture. Maybe the Buddha had a broader view than ours of the best aim for a spiritual life, and timeless tools for getting there. We won’t see this, though, as long as we try to subject him to our laws. Instead of accusing him of laboring under cultural presuppositions, it would be more fruitful to learn to question our own. Otherwise, we’ll never see the timeless value of what the Buddha had to teach and the ways in which it transcends our own cultural imagination.
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* Here is the link to the complete version of The Buddha via the Bible, on the site collecting Ajaan Thanissaro’s printed works. (A shorter version appeared in The Sati Journal, Volume One, 2011.)
Ajaan Thanissaro wrote the article Perennial Issues about a related topic, the Perennial Philosophy, in Insight Journal, Summer 2010.
The texts Ajaan refers to may be read on accesstoinsight.org. Here are links to his citations: