The Influence of Romanticism

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

The Influence of Romanticism

Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seems to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, spontaneity, ego-transcendence, non-judgmentalism, and integration of the personality.

They tend not to realize that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from their hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the early German Romantics.

If the influence of early Romanticism on modern Buddhism went no further than a few isolated concepts, it would not be much of a problem—simply a matter of mapping familiar Western terms onto unfamiliar Buddhist terms so that Buddhist concepts would make intuitive sense to people with a Western background.

The only issue would be determining whether the terms were properly applied, and tweaking any that were off the mark. And it might be argued that fitting Romantic concepts into a Buddhist framework automatically changes those concepts in a Buddhist direction.

But the situation is the other way around. The influence of Romanticism on modern Buddhism has penetrated through the surface and into the bone, shaping not only isolated concepts but also the underlying structures of thought from which those concepts take their meaning.

In other words, Romanticism has provided the framework into which Buddhist concepts have been placed, reshaping those concepts toward Romantic ends.

When we compare the Dhamma—the teachings of the Buddha—to the religious thought of the early Romantics, we see that they differ radically on a structural level in how they define all the important questions concerning the purpose of religion, the nature of the basic spiritual problem, the cure to that problem, how the cure can be effected, and the effect of that cure on the person cured.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Treatises book, Buddhist Romanticism, “Questioning Buddhist Romanticism.”