Sangharakshita and Buddhist Romanticism

This is presented as a focused summary of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book “Buddhist Romanticism”.  The book can be freely downloaded here: Link

This summary of Thanissaro’s book is not intended to be exhaustive of its contents, but seeks to draw out its main themes, which upon examination are seen to closely correspond with what Triratna teaches.  The book reveals that what Sangharakshita taught (and Triratna continues to teach) as "Buddhism" was actually Romanticism, re-cast using the vocabulary of Buddhism.

In his book, Thanissaro reaches several conclusions about what he terms “Buddhist Romanticism” that, in his view, show that what Romanticism teaches is quite different from what the Buddha taught.  His book might best be described as Thanissaro’s attempt at an extensive comparison between what the Buddha of the Pali Canon taught as the Dhamma (Dharma) and the perspective of the German Romanticists.  Page number references in parentheses below are to locations within Thanissaro’s text.

The Romantic themes Thanissaro highlights include many that directly correspond to what is taught in Triratna, they being central aspects of Sangharakshita’s “particular presentation” of Buddhism.  This includes the spiritual life as being lived to discern “the way things really are”, and how the principle of dependent co-arising is the fundamental basis of that view.  Thanissaro examines how this implies that there is no actual endpoint to the path, or necessarily any discernible steps along that path, by which even the Buddha would have continually proceeded from his initial awakening, rather than the Buddha’s recurring statement in canonical literature that “birth is ended, the holy life is fulfilled, the task is done”.  

Such a Romantic perspective also informs the nature of the “self” as an empirical set of processes, existing within a larger web of interconnected selves; as part of this, it would be considered selfish to want to awaken as an individual, and that spiritual progress is instead best accomplished in a communal way.  The Romanticists also placed primary emphasis on inducing the experience of interconnectedness, therefore progress along the path, by means of the arts.  Reality itself being ineffable, the arts are seen as a primary means of becoming receptive to the organic, interconnected unity that is reality.  In this, imagination is a power and a source of truth, eros and beauty are a primary means of spiritual practice, and myth and symbol are the only real means of communicating the ineffable.  And if one is following their (spiritual) intuition, there is no need for accountability.

Those familiar with Sangharakshita’s “particular presentation”, as that is taught within Triratna, will no doubt recognise the close parallels between those teachings and Romanticism.  It may therefore be helpful to read this summary of Thanissaro’s book and, instead of “(Buddhist) Romanticism” or “Romanticists”, substitute “Sangharakshita” to appreciate how close (and at times exact) the parallels are.  

1. The Problem of Buddhist Romanticism

Thanissaro’s concern is that “from the point of view of the Dhamma, the Romantic goal offers only a limited possibility of freedom. If the Romantic goal is regarded as the one and only aim of spiritual life, it stands in the way of the further goal of total freedom… Buddhist Romanticism and the Dhamma are two different things—overlapping in some areas, but nevertheless coming from radically different assumptions and leading to radically different goals… If Buddhist Romanticism is not recognized as something different from the Dhamma, there is no way that it can be tested in a way that allows for a fair comparison as to which body of teachings gives better results.” (8, 10, 11)  Thanissaro thus “reverses a common tendency in modern Buddhism. Instead of questioning the Dhamma from the Romantic point of view, we will question Buddhist Romanticism from the point of view of the Dhamma.” (12)

Thanissaro states that Romantics “agreed that the universe is an infinite organic unity, and that human beings are integral parts of that unity. Because these thinkers also defined religion as an issue of the relationship of human beings to the universe, this seems the most relevant definition of Romantic philosophy when discussing Romantic religion.” (29)  That religion “grew from an experience of Oneness with the infinite organic unity of the universe. For them, this experience lay at the basis of all religion.” (49)  

The Romantics held that “the existence of a single divine force at the heart of the universe is a necessary principle of religious life” and that “a felt relationship between the individual and a divine principle was needed to make religion possible.”  Further, “they allowed themselves to be satisfied with a religious goal that never reached a conclusive attainment.”  Finally, “they offered no test for what counts as a genuine religious experience.” Thanissaro offers that “on this point, they differed sharply from the Buddha. Although he taught that the experience of nibbāna, or unbinding, is also purely internal, he was able to offer a series of tests to his disciples so that they could determine from within whether their experience constituted true awakening or not.”  (53-54).  In contrast, “what we have, growing from the Romantic experience of religion, is a body of religious teachings whose ultimate goal was untested and untestable.” (56)

2. Interconnectedness and dependent co-arising

Rather than the Romantic perspective that the principle of dependent co-arising describes the interconnectedness of all reality, Thanissaro states that it has to do with “the actions and intentions through which concepts of “self” and “world” are formed in the mind, to see that these actions necessarily involve clinging and becoming—and thus suffering. (The Buddha’s) most complex expression of the causal principle underlying these actions and intentions—dependent co-arising (paṭicca samuppāda)—explains how “self” and “world” are formed through processes that don’t have to be framed in terms of “self” and “world.”  In this way, he showed how these terms are not basic to experience, and that experience can be usefully understood without having to fall back on them.” (67) The Buddha thus attained “the ending of the mental states that led to renewed becoming. This was the knowledge that led to his attaining the deathless.” (24)   

In contrast, the Romantics “celebrated (a) particular type of becoming and denied the possibility of anything beyond it”. (111)  Thanissaro highlights what he calls the focus on an organic unity by the Romantics, driven by organic causality.  Such causality is teleological, striving toward a particular purpose, whereby organisms achieve their purpose by evolving through the principle of reciprocity.  “This is how the principle of reciprocity led the Romantics to the idea of the interconnectedness of all life. Because no one organism can exist on its own, each is comprehensible only as part of a larger whole. Its very being is interconnected to all Being… of the three principles of organic growth, the third—the reciprocity and interconnectedness between the organism and its environment—was most central to the Romantic program for Bildung (system of training). To begin with, they saw it as the most immediately intuited of the three.”  (115-117)  

This organic law of interconnectedness was therefore to be intuited through imagination, rather than known or understood.  “For the Romantics… the organic unity of the cosmos encompassed everything—the infinitude of all Being—with no room for anything, even God, outside… finite beings cannot fully understand infinity, but because of the organic laws that finite beings have in common with infinite Being, human beings in particular can gain intimations of the universal purpose of infinite Being by looking inside themselves… introspection is the best way to intuit the purpose of the cosmos (because) each human being is a microcosm: a small replica of the cosmos, operating by the same organic laws, and exhibiting the same behavior.” (121-124)  

As a result, Romantics believe that we are to be “true to the fact that we are evolving creatures at our own particular place and time, while at the same time rising above those limitations, through our powers of imagination, to taste the infinite… An authentic person was one who lived outside the commonplace, who was able to transform the experience of the commonplace into something continually magical and new… Romanticizing is nothing other than a qualitative raising to a higher power. The lower self is identified with the better self in this operation… Thus the powers of the imagination, rather than being empty fabrications and lies, were actually a source of truth.” (125-6)

3. An Untested and Untestable Path

This approach made it impossible, however, to have any sort of criteria by which spiritual awakening might be judged. “The mere act of romanticizing, even if natural and true, was powerless to convey the truth of one’s personal revelations to others. Because authenticity was to be experienced only from within, the truth of any moment’s revelation was totally subjective and could not be tested from without, inasmuch as no one else can occupy the same position in time and place as any other person, and no one person’s position in time and place is more authoritative than anyone else’s. The best a person can do to convince others of the truths of his or her own revelations, Novalis concluded, is to persuade them indirectly, through poetry and novels that portrayed the world as magical… the Romantics insisted that the idea of the infinite organic unity of the cosmos had a special status. Unlike ordinary human ideas, it was not subject to the limitations of the senses. Instead, it was directly intuited by the sensitive mind.” (126, 129)

This allowed for an empirical self, as well as a self-nature as “one’s innate nature (as) the sum total of all the forces—physical and mental, feelings and thoughts—acting through and within one.”  Though such self-nature apparently allows for change and freedom, as Thanissaro observes, “this, of course, was Spinoza’s definition of freedom, which amounted to no freedom at all… freedom consisted of one’s ability to romanticize one’s life. Only to the extent that you could use your powers of imagination to see the sublime in the commonplace could you know that you were playing a role in shaping the cosmos, and that you shared in the creative freedom of the infinite.” (131)

Thanissaro concludes that “these doctrines on the meaning of freedom, whatever their validity as guidelines for aspiring artists, were totally inadequate as guidelines for implementing a social program. That’s because, despite their differing emphases, they shared one point in common: They teach freedom without accountability…  the Romantics... insisted that if all people were to exercise their freedom from a direct intuition of the infinite organic unity of the cosmos, there would be no abuse of freedom and no conflicts. A sense of fellow-feeling would inspire everyone to treat one another with tenderness and compassion. But the disturbing feature of their views on freedom is not simply that issues of responsibility are not mentioned. The whole idea of responsibility and accountability becomes impossible.” (132-3)  

This can lead to “an unwillingness to see the drawbacks of sensuality, (which) is a form of dishonesty that prevents one from examining some of the crudest forms of becoming that the mind creates. At the same time, it prevents one from imagining the desirability—or even the possibility—of a mind free from the suffering that these forms of becoming entail. This lack of imagination places severe limitations on one’s sensitivity to (dukkha), and one’s ability to gain a happiness totally free from (dukkha).” (278)

4. The Practices of Romanticism 

In translating the Romanticist perspective into practice, “the Romantics saw their duty as making their audience aware of the pre-existing unity and harmony within themselves, within society, and within the universe at large. Having made their audience aware of the idea of this pre-existing unity and harmony, the next step would be to induce them to have a direct experience of the infinite organic unity manifesting itself within them.” (135-6)

This allowed for, among other things, an approach which saw eros and beauty as valid means on the spiritual path.  “The experience of the infinite organic unity was best induced in one of two ways: through love and through the apprehension of beauty. Here, of course, Hölderlin was inspired by Plato, but the Romantic view of the organic unity of reality caused him to depart from Plato in his understanding of the ways in which love and beauty work on the individual soul… the most direct experience of the infinite organic unity of the cosmos was, for the Romantics, the principle of reciprocity in the organic part: the give-and-take of the organism with its environment, passively accepting outside influences from its surroundings and then actively shaping its surroundings in response to those influences. 

“The recognition of the interconnected nature of this give-and-take is what, in their eyes, then leads to a sense of unity… As for the second means for inducing a sense of the infinite organic unity of the cosmos—the appreciation of beauty—Hölderlin held that literary artists were the mediators who sensitized others to the physical beauties of nature and the beauty of the mind through their works of art…  (similarly) the aim of literature in the Romantic Bildung was to help the reader develop psychologically toward an intuition of the interconnectedness of the universe.” (138-140)

The desired end result was the ability of an individual to discern “the way things really are”.  “From this feeling come all forms of religious expression—attempts to communicate truths derived from that feeling concerning the relationship of humanity to the universe—defining what a human being is and can know, describing what the universe is, and what the proper relationship is between the two.” (146)  Built into this was the premise that reality is ineffable: “Because human beings are finite, any statement or system of rules formulated by finite human beings has to be finite as well. But the universe is infinite, so no finite ideas can encompass it.” (147)  

From a practical perspective, “individuals can cultivate their taste and sensibility for the infinite and so reawaken their innate potential to be receptive to the sense of healing Oneness that an intuition of the infinite can provide… there is no single path to the infinite, and each person has to take the path he or she finds most attractive… It has its descriptive side—talking about the religious experience in an inspiring way—and its performative side: recommending specific activities to induce a receptive mind-state that will allow an intuition of the infinite to occur… The highest way to intuit the infinite is to see it as a multiplicity encompassed in an overall unity—e.g., like the organic unity of the Romantic universe. This way of intuiting the infinite comes from finding the overarching system of laws that governs all behavior in the universe… the performative side of Schleiermacher’s religious Bildung was based on cultivating erotic love on the one hand, and an appreciation of the beauty of the infinite on the other.” (148-9)

As to how to approach canonical literature, “religious texts should be read primarily for their expressiveness. Because the feeling for the infinite was immediate and direct, and because finite words get in the way of that directness, they argued, there is no way that language can adequately express that feeling. And yet there is the felt need to express it. The solution to this dilemma was to realize that the only appropriate language for religion was that of myth and allegory, because these modes of language told stories pointing explicitly to meanings beyond them. Myth and allegory united the historical—concrete deeds and descriptions—with the intellectual—the meaning behind those descriptions. Because it was blatantly suggestive, their language was the best way for words to point beyond themselves.  This meant, in Hölderlin’s words, that “All religion is in its essence poetic.” (154)

5. Buddhist Romanticism

Thanissaro concludes that “Buddhist Romanticism is a result of a very natural human tendency: When presented with something foreign and new, people tend to see it in terms with which they already are familiar. Often they are totally unaware that they are doing this. If emotionally attached to their familiar way of viewing things, they will persist in holding to it even when shown that they are seeing only their own myths and projections, rather than what is actually there… the Romantic principle that religion is an art form—creating myths in an ever-changing dialogue with ever-changing human needs—inclines them to regard this tendency as not only natural but also good. In extreme cases, they believe that there really is nothing “actually there”. In their eyes, the Dhamma itself is a body of myths, and they are doing it a favor by providing it with new myths in step with the times. There is very little recognition that something crucial and true is being lost.  (243)

“Granted, there are some points on which Romantic religion and the Dhamma agree.  But these points of similarity disguise deeper differences that can be recognized only when the larger structural differences separating the Dhamma from Romantic religion are made clear.  Those differences, in turn, will be acknowledged only when people can see that the Romantic viewpoint is actually getting in the way of their well-being, preventing them from gaining the most from their encounter with the Dhamma.” (243)

Thanissaro further concludes that “what is often taught and accepted as Buddhism in the West is actually Romantic religion dressed up in Buddhist garb. In other words, the basic structure of modern Buddhism is actually Romantic, with Buddhist elements reshaped so as to fit into the confines of that structure. This is why, as we noted in the Introduction, this tendency is best referred to as Buddhist Romanticism, rather than Romantic Buddhism” (243-4)

6. A Different Goal

Where could this lead the Romanticist?  “Instead of asking ‘Who am I?’ the question could become ‘Who are we?’ Our inquiry then becomes a community koan, a joint millennial project, and we all immediately become great saints—called Bodhisattvas in Buddhism—helping each other evolve… If we could experience our existence as part of the wondrous processes of biological and cosmic evolution, our lives would gain new meaning and joy… this is not a process of self- or world-transcendence, but one of self- and world-creation” (246-7, 251).

An important aspect of this is that “Buddhist Romanticism encourages people to stay within the web of interdependencies that are causing them to suffer: to accept the vagaries of an interdependent, interconnected world and to define their desire for well-being totally within those vagaries. It’s as if Buddhist Romanticism finds people feeling anxious and unsafe because they are trying to sleep in the middle of the road, and so sells them pillows and blankets, at the same time deriding any desire to get out of the road as selfish, deluded, or sick… At the same time, by encouraging trust in one’s feelings, Buddhist Romanticism leaves people open to subliminal influences from those who would like to manipulate those feelings. As the Buddha pointed out, feelings are just as fabricated as thoughts, and any knowledge of the tactics of advertising should be enough to confirm his observation that our feelings are not really ours. They can often act against our better interests.” (264-5)  

“To define the basic issue of the spiritual life in terms of a relationship requires that you first define who the members of the relationship are. Once you define a person in relationship to a world—in Buddhist terms, this is a state of becoming—you are placing limitations on what that person can know or do… to advance the notion that all beings are parts of a universal organic unity runs totally counter to the aims of the Dhamma.  One of the largest ironies of Buddhist Romanticism is that the teaching of dependent co-arising is often cited as proof that the Buddha shared the Romantic view that all things are part of the single interconnected whole that is the universe… dependent co-arising does not describe the status of the self within the universe; instead, it stands outside both “self” and “universe”—and thus outside of becoming—explaining becoming in terms of a framework that doesn’t derive from becoming at all… it shows how ignorance gives rise to concepts of “self” and “universe,” how those concepts lead to suffering, and how suffering ends when ignorance of those processes is brought to an end. To reframe this teaching, limiting it to a description of what occurs in the universe or in the self, prevents it from leading beyond the universe and beyond the self.” (266)

“By defining individuals as organic parts of an organic whole, Buddhist Romanticism—implicitly or explicitly—defines their purpose in life: They are here to serve the purposes of the whole. When this is the case, that larger purpose overrides every person’s desire to put an end to his or her own suffering… by defining the primary spiritual issue in terms of becoming—a self in relationship to a world—Buddhist Romanticism closes the door to any notion of a dimension beyond becoming. And because every state of becoming involves suffering, this closes off the possibility that suffering can be totally brought to an end.” (267-8)  In other words, “if we insist on choosing to hold to a worldview in which there is no escape from a web of interconnections, we leave ourselves subject to continued suffering without end.” (272)

“The Buddha’s teachings on the mind’s active interaction with the world are in agreement with the Romantic principle that the mind has an interactive, reciprocal relationship with the universe. But he would have differed with the Romantic estimation that this activity… is divinely rooted and inspired. To trust this activity unquestioningly would be, in his eyes, an act of heedlessness. In his analysis of dependent co-arising, mental fabrication—the mind’s active approach to experience—comes from ignorance… The only way to end suffering is not to celebrate fabrication, but to master it strategically so as to end it.”  (287-8)

“The choice between the Dhamma and Buddhist Romanticism ultimately comes down to which kind of freedom you want. The Dhamma offers freedom from suffering through freedom from becoming; Buddhist Romanticism—in line with the Romantic view of religion as an artwork—offers you the freedom to redesign the Dhamma in line with your preferences to produce more inclusive states of becoming. Given that the Romantic universe allows for nothing beyond becoming, it closes the door to freedom in the ultimate sense.” (288)

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