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.
In most areas of life, this tendency is rightly regarded as a form of blindness, something to be overcome. However, in the transmission of the Dhamma to the West, even when people are aware that they are reshaping the Dhamma as they study and teach it, 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.
Granted, there are some points on which Romantic religion and the Dhamma agree. Both see religion as a means for curing a spiritual disease; both regard the mind as having an active, interactive role in the world, shaping the world as it is being shaped by the world; both focus on the phenomenology of experience—consciousness as it is directly sensed, from within, as a primary source of knowledge; and both reject a deterministic or mechanical view of causality in favor of a more interactive one. 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.
Thus the purpose of this chapter is threefold. The first purpose is to demonstrate 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.
The second purpose is to gain some distance from these Romantic assumptions by understanding why they hold attractions—and seeing that their attractions are dangerous, fostering an attitude of heedlessness that the Dhamma cites as the primary reason for making harmful and unskillful choices in life.
The third purpose is to expand on this last point, showing the practical implications of forcing the Dhamma into a Romantic mold. A main tenet of Buddhist Romanticism is one that can be traced back to Hölderlin: that your choice of a religious path is purely a matter of taste, and that whatever makes you feel good, peaceful, or whole at any given moment is perfectly valid. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as all beliefs are equally inadequate expressions of a feeling of Oneness. All that matters is learning how to use those beliefs to achieve their common goal, a temporary but personally very real impression of the Oneness of all Being.
From the perspective of the Dhamma, though, beliefs are not just feelings. They are a form of action. Actions have consequences both within and without, and it’s important to be clear that your choices do make a difference, particularly when you realize that the Dhamma does not aim at a feeling of Oneness, and regards Oneness as only a step to a higher goal: total freedom. To genuinely benefit from your powers of choice and from the possibility of this higher goal, you owe it to yourself to understand the practical implications of holding to different systems of belief.
Because its purpose is threefold, the main body of this chapter is divided into three main sections. The first section documents the existence of Romantic views in the talks and writings of modern teachers. At the same time, it shows how these views derive from the question and answer that provide the basic structure for Romantic spirituality—and thus the structure for Buddhist Romanticism. The second section discusses some of the possible reasons why Buddhist Romanticism holds an appeal for the modern world, and why that appeal is something to regard with distrust. The third section then contrasts the principles of Buddhist Romanticism with the Dhamma, pointing out some of the ways in which the choice of one over the other leads to radically different results.
The body of the chapter is then followed by a closing section that attempts to draw some conclusions from the preceding three.
Voices of Buddhist Romanticism
Buddhist Romanticism is so pervasive in the modern understanding of the Dhamma that it is best approached, not as the work of specific individuals, but as a cultural syndrome: a general pattern of behavior in which modern Dhamma teachers and their audiences both share responsibility for influencing one another—the teachers, by how they try to explain and persuade; the audiences, by what they’re inclined to accept or reject.
Thus, this section quotes passages from modern Dhamma books, articles, interviews, and talks to illustrate the various features of Romantic religion contained in modern Dhamma, but without identifying the authors of the passages by name. I do this as a way of following the example set by the Buddha: When discussing the teachings of his contemporaries to non-monastic audiences, he would quote their teachings but without naming the teachers (DN 1; MN 60; MN 102), the purpose being to focus attention not on the person but on the teaching. In that way he could discuss the reasoning behind the teaching, and the consequences of following the teaching, all the while focused on showing how these points were true regardless of who espoused the teaching.
In the same way, I want to focus attention, not on individuals who may advocate Buddhist Romantic ideas, but on the cultural syndrome they express, along with the practical consequences of following that syndrome. It’s more important to know what Buddhist Romanticism is than to know who has been espousing it or to enter into fruitless debates about how Romantic a particular Buddhist teacher has to be in order to deserve the label, “Buddhist Romantic.” By focusing directly on the syndrome, you can then learn to recognize it wherever it appears in the future.
Some of the teachers quoted here are lay; others, monastic. Some make an effort to shape their Romantic ideas into a coherent worldview; others don’t. Some—and, ironically, these are among the most consistently Romantic in their own thought—misunderstand Romanticism to be nothing but anti-scientific emotionalism or egotism, and so have explicitly denounced it. But the tendency to Romanticize the Dhamma is present, at least to some extent, in them all.
We will follow the twenty points defining Romantic religion listed at the end of Chapter Four. However, because many of the passages quoted here cover several points at once, those points will be discussed together. Some of the points have been rephrased to reflect the fact, noted in the preceding chapter, that Buddhist Romanticism has followed such thinkers as James, Jung, and Maslow in dropping the idea of infinity from its view of the universe. Otherwise, only Point 18 in the original list is not explicitly present in the Theravāda version of Buddhist Romanticism, although it is strongly explicit in the Mahāyāna one. Still—as we will see—it is sometimes implicit in Theravāda Romanticism too.
These are the principles by which Buddhist Romanticism can be recognized:
The first three principles go together, as they describe both the basic question that the Dhamma is said to answer, and the answer it is said to provide.
1) The object of religion is not the end of suffering, but the relationship of humanity with the universe.
2) The universe is a vast organic unity.
3) Each human being is both an individual organism and a part of the vast organic unity of the universe.
“[W]ith the spiritual path, what we are aiming at is to penetrate the question of what we are.”
“According to the world’s great spiritual traditions and perennial philosophy, both East and West, the critical question that each of us must ask ourselves is ‘Who am I?’ Our response is of vital importance to our happiness and well-being. How at ease we feel in our body, mind, and in the world, as well as how we behave toward others and the environment all revolve around how we come to view ourselves in the larger scheme of things.…
“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.”
“The goal [of Dhamma practice] is integration, through love and acceptance, openness and receptivity, leading to a unified wholeness of experience without the artificial boundaries of separate selfhood.”
This vision of our place in the universe is presented not only as a religious ideal but also as a scientific fact.
“Ironically, the dividing intellect—in its incarnation as modern science—is showing us our oneness with all things. The physicists have found evidence that we are subatomically joined at the hip to absolutely everything else in creation… The evolutionary scientists tell us a story of our emergence from a long lineage of beings in what seems like a miraculous process of bubbling, twitching, struggling life, recreating itself as it interactively adjusts to the ever-changing conditions of earth ecology… [I]f we could somehow integrate our knowledge of interconnection and let it infuse our lives—that would mark a revolution in both consciousness and behavior. 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.”
“What happens for us then is what every major religion has sought to offer—a shift in identification, a shift from the isolated ‘I’ to a new, vaster sense of what we are. This is understandable not only as a spiritual experience, but also, in scientific terms, as an evolutionary development. As living forms evolve on this planet, we move not only in the direction of diversification, but toward integration as well. Indeed, these two movements complement and enhance each other.… If we are all bodhisattvas, it is because that thrust to connect, that capacity to integrate with and through each other, is our true nature.”
In giving prime importance to questions of the relationship between self and world, Buddhist Romanticism takes basic Buddhist teachings—even those, such as dependent co-arising, that are meant to cut through questions of self-identity and becoming—and interprets them as if they were an answer to the question, “What is my self? What is my identity in relationship to the world?” And the answer becomes: Our identity is fluid and totally imbedded with the rest of the world; it finds its meaning as part of the evolution of all life.
Life as a whole, in this case, takes on the role of Schelling’s World Soul and Emerson’s Over-Soul. Its evolution is seen as purposeful. Individuals, as expressions of life, can find meaning in helping that purpose be achieved harmoniously.
“The Dharma vision of a co-arising world, alive with consciousness, is a powerful inspiration for the healing of the Earth.… It shows us our profound imbeddedness in the web of life.… I have been deeply inspired by the Buddha’s teaching of dependent co-arising. It fills me with a strong sense of connection and mutual responsibility with all beings.”
“The aim of all great spiritual traditions is to offer us relief from the dramas of self and history, to remind us that we are part of much grander projects than these. In that sense, I suggest that experiencing ourselves as part of biological evolution can be understood as a complete spiritual path. The fantastic story of evolving life and consciousness contains as many miracles as any bible and as much majesty as any pantheon of divinities. The drama of earthlife’s creative expression and the puzzle of where it might be leading can fill us with enough suspense and wonder to last at least a lifetime. And the idea that we are part of its unfolding can offer us meaning and purpose.”
Some teachers echo Emerson’s image of the universal ocean of life as a symbol of the answer to life’s prime spiritual question.
“It is the goal of spiritual life to open to the reality that exists beyond our small sense of self. Through the gate of oneness we awaken to the ocean within us, we come to know in yet another way that the seas we swim in are not separate from all that lives. When our identity expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world. It is all ours, and our heart is full and empty, large enough to embrace it all.”
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The next two principles treat the nature of the basic spiritual illness that Buddhist Romanticism proposes to treat in light of its answer to the spiritual question, and the meditative experience that helps to cure that illness.
4) Human beings suffer when their sense of inner and outer unity is lost—when they feel divided within themselves and separated from the universe.
5) Despite its many expressions, the religious experience is the same for all: an intuition of Oneness that creates a feeling of unity with the universe and a feeling of unity within.
Buddhist Romantics often follow the early Romantics by citing a deep connection between finding inner unity and outer unity: Inner unity can be achieved by reconnecting with the outside world; outer unity, by reconnecting inside.
“Because my sense of self is an impermanent psychosocial construct, with no reality of its own, it is always insecure, haunted by dukkha [suffering] as long as I feel separate from the world I inhabit.”
“We create prisons, projections, self-limitations. Meditation teaches us to let them go and recognize our true nature: completeness, integration, and connectedness. In touch with our wholeness, there is no such thing as a stranger, not in ourselves or in others.”
Given that the universe, in the Romantic view, is already a Oneness, Buddhist Romantics need to explain how we lost that sense of Oneness to begin with. Thus, in their view, the ignorance causing suffering is not—as in the Buddha’s definition—an ignorance of the four noble truths. Instead, it is an ignorance of original Oneness.
“Through the power of ignorance in the mind, we restrict and narrow our sense of who we are as we go from a nondual awareness of the wholeness of the universe through the progressive levels of separation. First we separate the mind/body from the environment and limit ourselves through identifying with the organism. There is then a further narrowing in which we identify with the ego-mind.… Finally the mind itself becomes fragmented into those aspects we identify with because they are acceptable in light of our self-image, and those we repress because they are not.… The path of dharma is to heal these divisions.”
“We feel alienation, separation, lack of wholeness; we feel incomplete because if there is ‘I,’ then there is ‘you’ and we are apart, there is distinction and there is separation. If we see through this and we dissolve the belief in an absolute individual existence, then the sense of separation naturally dissolves because it has no basis. There is a recognition of wholeness.”
Buddhist Romantic writings on the issue of Oneness are often unspecific enough to lend themselves to any of the interpretations of this concept that the West has inherited from Romantic religion—or from other sources. However, the first passage above is an example of a common tendency when these writings get specific: to define Oneness in terms derived from Jung, as unity of body and mind, and unity between the ego and its shadow.
In other cases, inner Oneness is described in terms more reminiscent of Huxley: a non-dual consciousness in which the distinction between subject and object dissolves.
“This insight leads us to a contemplation of apparent subject and object—how the tension between the two generates the world of things and its experiencer, and more importantly how, when that duality is seen through, the heart’s liberation is the result.… This abandonment of subject/object dualities is largely contingent upon the correct apprehension of the perceptual process, and thus the breaking down of the apparent inside/outside dichotomy of the observer and the observed.”
Buddhist Romanticism holds that discovery of a pre-existing Oneness reveals our true identity—sometimes equated with the Mahāyāna concept of Buddha nature—and that this discovery is an experience and understanding at which all religious traditions aim.
“Beneath our struggles and beyond any desire to develop self, we can discover our Buddha nature, an inherent fearlessness and connectedness, integrity, and belonging. Like groundwater these essential qualities are our true nature, manifesting whenever we are able to let go of our limited sense of ourselves, our unworthiness, our deficiency, and our longing. The experience of our true self is luminous, sacred, and transforming. The peace and perfection of our true nature is one of the great mystical reflections of consciousness described beautifully in a hundred traditions, by Zen and Taoism, by Native Americans and Western mystics, and by many others.”
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6) This feeling of unity is healing but totally immanent. In other words, (a) it is temporary and (b) it does not give direct experience of any transcendent, unconditioned dimension outside of space and time.
7) Any freedom offered by the religious experience—the highest freedom possible in an organic universe—thus does not transcend the laws of organic causation. It is conditioned and limited by forces within and without the individual.
8) Because the religious experience can give only a temporary feeling of unity, religious life is one of pursuing repeated religious experiences in hopes of gaining an improved feeling for that unity, but never fully achieving it.
“In the maturity of spiritual life, we move from the wisdom of transcendence to the wisdom of immanence.”
“Enlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the Divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace—these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last.”
“The raw material of dharma practice is ourself and our world, which are to be understood and transformed according to the vision and values of the dharma itself. This is not a process of self- or world-transcendence, but one of self- and world-creation.”
“Awakening is called the highest pleasure (paramam sukham), but the word is hardly adequate to express this paramount condition of ultimate well-being. It is not freedom from the conditions in which we find ourselves (no eternal bliss in this tradition) but it is freedom within them. Even though there is physical pain, we are capable of joy; even though there is mental sorrow, we are able to be well; and even though we are part of an impermanent, self-less flow of phenomena, we are nevertheless able to feel whole, complete, and deeply healthy.”
“The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth, and his most significant biological insight, is that… as humans we are able to see into our primal reactivity and in the process learn how to overcome some of it.…
Most of us will never get there, never arrive at a steady state of ‘happiness ever after’ or ‘perfect wisdom.’ Nature’s odds are against it. Humans seem to be novices at self-realization. And while mindfulness meditation may be an evolutionary sport, like evolution itself the game is never finished. One reason is that if we are indeed evolving, then we will always need remedial training in self-awareness.”
In maintaining the immanence of the Buddhist goal, some authors note that the Pāli Canon contains passages—such as §§46–50—clearly indicating that the goal is transcendent, and that these passages contradict what they are saying. One common way of dealing with this problem is to dismiss such passages as “rogue,” “later additions” to the Canon composed by “neurotic monks.” Another is to translate the passages in such a way as to mitigate their transcendent implications.
The immanence of the goal, according to Buddhist Romanticism, is nothing to be regretted. In fact, it is to be celebrated as an expression of the infinite creativity of life. This is one of the reasons that Buddhist Romantic writings, as in one of the examples under Point 3 above, often compare the spiritual life to a dance. Just as the novel provided the early Romantics with an example of a free-form genre, modern dance has provided a similar example for Buddhist Romanticism.
“We can find peace and freedom in the face of the mystery of life. In awakening to this harmony, we discover a treasure hidden in each difficulty. Hidden in the inevitable impermanence and loss of life, its very instability, is the enormous power of creativity. In the process of change, there arises an abundance of new forms, new births, new possibilities, new expressions of art, music, and life-forms by the millions. It is only because everything is changing that such bountiful and boundless creativity exists.”
“Our mission is not to escape from the world… but to fall in love with our world. We are made for that, because we co-arise with her—in a dance where we discover ourselves and lose ourselves over and over.”
The idea that no human being can awaken to a transcendent dimension is sometimes inferred from the fact that the Buddha himself, even after his awakening, kept encountering Māra, the embodiment of temptation. In line with some modern psychological theories, Māra is understood here not as an actual non-human being but as a symbol of the defilements still lurking in the Buddha’s heart.
“Unless we are prepared to regard the devil as a ghostly apparition who sits down and has conversations with Buddha, we cannot but understand him as a metaphoric way of describing Buddha’s own inner life. Although Buddha is said to have ‘conquered the forces of Mara’ on achieving awakening, that did not prevent Mara from harassing him until shortly before his death forty years later. Mara’s tireless efforts to undermine Buddha by accusing him of insincerity, self-deception, idleness, arrogance and aloofness are ways of describing the doubts within Buddha’s own mind.”
“No matter what version [of the Buddha’s awakening] we read, Mara does not go away. There is no state of enlightened retirement, no experience of awakening that places us outside the truth of change.… All spiritual life exists in an alternation of gain and loss, pleasure and pain.”
In other cases, the immanent view of awakening is simply asserted as superior to the transcendent, which—the argument goes—is dualistic and tends to foster indifference to the world at a time when the world is in urgent need of our love and attention.
“Buddhism also dualizes insofar as this world of samsara is distinguished from nirvana.… the contrast between the two worlds inevitably involves some devaluation of the lower one: so we are told that this realm of samsara is a place of suffering, craving, and delusion… the ultimate goal is individual salvation, which involves transcending this lower world by doing what is necessary to qualify for the higher one…
“Buddhists don’t aim at heaven: we want to awaken. But for us, too, salvation is individual: yes, I hope you will become enlightened also, but ultimately my highest well-being—my enlightenment—is distinct from yours. Or so we have been taught.…
“Needless to say, that is not an adequate response [to the eco-crisis].”
“Notions have arisen, and even been ascribed to the Buddha… that suffering is a spiritual mistake… These errors have perpetuated the popular stereotype of Buddhism as a world-denying religion, offering escape from this realm of suffering into some abstract, disembodied heaven.…
“The gate of the Dharma does not close behind us to secure us in a cloistered existence aloof from the turbulence and suffering of samsara, so much as it leads us out into a life of risk for the sake of all beings.”
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9) Although the religious experience is not transcendent, it does carry with it an ability to see the commonplace events of the immanent world as sublime and miraculous. In fact, this ability is a sign of the authenticity of one’s sense of unity with the larger whole.
“To know ourselves as emerging from earthlife doesn’t in any way deny our divinity: it only seems to deny our exclusive divinity. The sacred is alive not just in us, but everywhere.”
“In relinquishing the obsession of being an isolated self, Buddha opens himself fearlessly and calmly to the tumult of the sublime.”
“Fear of being unspiritual puts up walls, isolates our heart from living, divides the world so that part of it is seen as not holy. These interior boundaries must be dissolved. There is an underlying unity to all things. All are part of a sacred whole in which we exist and in the deepest way they are completely trustworthy.”
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10) (a) People have an innate desire and aptitude for the religious experience, and can induce it by cultivating an attitude of open receptivity to the universe.
“Openness leads to intimacy with all things.”
“When the mind is allowed to rest in that sense of complete clarity and choicelessness, we find that it is beyond dualism—no longer making preferences or being biased towards this over that. It is resting at the point of equipoise, where this and that and black and white and where you and I all meet; the space where all dualities arise from and where they dissolve.”
“This unity, this integration, comes from deeply accepting darkness and light, and therefore being able to be in both simultaneously. We must make a shift from one worldview to another, moving from trying to control the uncontrollable and instead learn how to connect, to open, to love no matter what is happening.”
“Just as a waiter attends to the needs of those at the table he serves, so one waits with unknowing astonishment at the quixotic play of life. In subordinating his own wants to those of the customer, a waiter abandons any expectation of what he may be next called to do. Constantly alert and ready to respond, the oddest request does not faze him. He neither ignores those he serves nor appears at the wrong time. He is invisible but always there when needed. Likewise, in asking ‘What is this thing?’ one does not strain ahead of oneself in anticipation of a result. One waits at ease for a response one cannot foresee and that might never come. The most one can ‘do’ is remain optimally receptive and alert.”
“As we open to what is actually happening in any given moment, whatever it is or might be, rather than running away from it, we become increasingly aware of our lives as one small part of a vast fabric made of an evanescent, fleeting, shimmering pattern of turnings. Letting go of the futile battle to control, we can find ourselves rewoven into the pattern of wholeness, into the immensity of life, always happening, always here, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
This attitude of acceptance is said to be developed through mindfulness practice, which—contrary to the Buddha’s definition of mindfulness as a function of active memory—is here defined as bare attention: an open, receptive, pre-verbal awareness of all things as they impinge on the senses.
“Mindfulness is best described as ‘a noninterfering, non-reactive awareness.’ It is pure knowing, without any of the projections of our ego or personality added to the knowing.”
“Mindfulness is presence of mind, attentiveness or awareness. Yet the kind of awareness involved in mindfulness differs profoundly from the kind of awareness at work in our usual mode of consciousness.… The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgements and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped. The task is simply to note whatever comes up just as it is occurring, riding the changes of events in the way a surfer rides the waves on the sea.”
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10) (b) Because religion is a matter of taste, there is no one path for developing this attitude of receptivity. The most that any teacher can offer are his or her own opinions on the matter, in the event that they will resonate with other people. In fact, the refusal to follow any prescribed path is a sign of authenticity in Emerson’s sense of the word.
“No one can define for us exactly what our path should be.”
“To opt for a comforting, even a discomforting, explanation of what brought us here or what awaits us after death severely limits that very rare sense of mystery with which religion is essentially concerned.… [I]f my actions in the world are to stem from an authentic encounter with what is most vital and mysterious in life, then they surely need to be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication.…
“As far as anyone knows, we are alone in an inconceivably vast cosmos that has no interest at all in our fate. Even if other worlds like this exist elsewhere in the cosmos, they would not be mere repetitions of the awesomely complex configuration of biological, cultural and psychological conditions that are generating this world now. The path that has led you here and beckons you into an unknown future has likewise never appeared in exactly this way before and will not do so again. You are free to go straight ahead, turn right or turn left. Nothing is stopping you.”
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11) One of the many ways to cultivate a receptivity to all things is through erotic love.
“The separation of the spiritual from the sensual, of the sacred from the relational and of the enlightened from the erotic no longer seems desirable. Certainly seeing how impossible the division has proven for the countless spiritual teachers of every tradition who have stumbled over their own longings has been instructive. In addition, having a family and a relationship has made it abundantly clear to me that they require the same dedication, passion and vision that a spiritual life demands. Now that spiritual life is in the hands of householders rather than monastics, the demands of desire are front and center, not hidden from view.”
“Buddhist texts are filled with stories about the impurities of the body, just like those you would find in the Catholic Church. And so there is a lot of confusion, because the body isn’t seen as a vehicle for sacredness, but more as something to transcend. In the lay community, we are not taught how to make it a deliberate part of our practice, guided into making sexual activity a wise part of our life. But the body could be, and it’s time for it. Sexuality can open us beyond ourselves, to grace, ecstasy, communion, oneness, and natural samadhi. Let us teach sexuality as a domain of practice and health instead of a realm of pathology or anti-spirituality.”
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12) Another way to cultivate a receptivity to all things is to develop a tolerance of all religious expressions, viewing them aesthetically, as finite expressions of a feeling for the larger whole, without giving authority to any of them. In other words, one should read them as Schlegel recommended reading a novel: empathetically, but at the same time maintaining a sense of distance so as not to be confined by their point of view.
“The experience of wholeness will express itself in many ways. The spiritual journey does not present us with a pat formula for each of us to follow. We cannot be Mother Theresa or Gandhi or the Buddha. We have to be ourselves. We have to discover and connect with our own unique expression of the truth. To do that, we must learn to listen to and trust ourselves, to find our path of heart.”
“Religion and philosophy have their value, but in the end all we can do is open to mystery.”
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13) In fact, the greatest religious texts, if granted too much authority, are actually harmful to genuine spiritual progress.
“The images we have been taught about perfection can be destructive to us. Instead of clinging to an inflated, superhuman view of perfection, we learn to allow ourselves the space of kindness.”
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14) Because the mind is an organic part of the creatively expressive whole, it, too, is creatively expressive, so its natural response to a feeling of the larger whole is to want to express it.
15) However, because the mind is finite, any attempt to describe the experience of the larger whole is limited by one’s finite mode of thought, and also by one’s temperament and culture. Thus, religious statements and texts are not descriptive of reality, but simply an expression of the effect of that reality on a particular person’s individual nature. As expressions of feelings, religious statements do not need to be clear or consistent. They should be read as poetry and myths pointing to the inexpressible whole and speaking primarily to the feelings.
16) Because religious teachings are expressive only of one individual’s feelings, they have no authority over any other person’s expression of his or her feelings.
“[A]ll the teachings of books, maps, and beliefs have little to do with wisdom or compassion. At best they are a signpost, a finger pointing at the moon, or the leftover dialogue from a time when someone received some true spiritual nourishment.… We must discover within ourselves our own way to become conscious, to live a life of the spirit.”
“Even the most creative, world-transforming individuals cannot stand on their own shoulders. They too remain dependent upon their cultural context, whether intellectual or spiritual—which is precisely what Buddhism’s emphasis on impermanence and causal interdependence implies. The Buddha also expressed his new, liberating insight in the only way he could, using the religious categories that his culture could understand. Inevitably, then, his way of expressing the dharma was a blend of the truly new… and the conventional religious thought of his time. Although the new transcends the conventional… the new cannot immediately and completely escape the conventional wisdom it surpasses.”
“It’s never a matter of trying to figure it all out, rather we pick up these phrases and chew them over, taste them, digest them and let them energize us by virtue of their own nature.”
“Even these ostensibly literal maps may be better read as if they were a kind of poem, rich in possible meanings.”
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17) Although a religious feeling may inspire a desire to formulate rules of behavior, those rules carry no authority, and are actually unnecessary. When one sees all of humanity as holy and one—and oneself as an organic part of that holy Oneness—there is no need for rules to govern one’s interactions with the rest of society. One’s behavior toward all naturally becomes loving and compassionate.
Buddhist Romantic explanations of morality can follow either of the patterns set by the Romantics: that morality derives from one’s sense of being part of a larger whole, or from the inspirations welling up from within one’s own awareness.
“Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within. With this understanding, the interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself. Out of this sense of connection, love and compassion arise.”
“Note that virtue is not required for the greening of the self or the emergence of the ecological self. The shift in identification at this point in our history is required precisely because moral exhortation doesn’t work, and because sermons seldom hinder us from following our self-interest as we conceive it.
“The obvious choice, then, is to extend our notions of self-interest. For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, ‘Oh, don’t saw off your leg. That would be an act of violence.’ It wouldn’t occur to me because your leg is part of your body. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin. They are our external lungs. And we are beginning to realize that the world is our body.”
“The Buddha said that if we are deeply established in awareness, the precepts are not necessary.”
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18) When one has a genuine appreciation for the organic unity of the universe, one sees how that unity transcends all ideas of right and wrong.
As noted above, this is the one principle of Romantic religion that is never explicitly professed in the Theravāda version of Buddhist Romanticism, although it is explicit in the Mahāyāna version. Still, it occasionally appears implicitly in Theravāda Romanticism, in assertions of the need to embrace all aspects of life. This is a point to which we will return in the last section of this chapter.
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19) Although all religious expressions are valid, some are more evolved than others. They must be viewed under the framework of historicism, to understand where a particular religious teaching falls in the organic development of humanity and the universe as a whole.
20) Religious change is thus not only a fact. It is also a duty.
When these last two points are taken together with Point 16, we can see that Buddhist Romanticism carries within it the fundamental paradox at the heart of Romantic religion: No one can judge another person’s expression of the Dhamma, but some expressions are better than others. The best expressions are those that agree with the Romantic understanding of what religion is, how it comes about, and how it functions in the universe.
Sometimes modern changes in Buddhism are justified by the fact that people have already been changing Buddhism over the generations. Both sorts of changes, ancient and modern, are justified in vitalistic terms: sometimes explicitly—one teacher has described the Dhamma as an “inexpressible living force”—and other times implicitly, when Buddhism is described as the agent adapting itself, like an amoeba, to new environments.
“The great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture. What is happening today in the West is no different.”
Given this organic view of the Buddhist tradition, it’s not surprising that the need to fashion a new Buddhism—or for Buddhism to refashion itself—is sometimes expressed as a Darwinian necessity.
“Looking at Buddhism as part of the spiritual heritage of humanity, I see it as subject to similar evolutionary pressures as other types of contemplative spirituality have felt.… As I now look at our situation, I distinguish three major domains in which human life participates. One I call the transcendent domain, which is the sphere of aspiration for classical contemplative spirituality. The second is the social domain, which includes our interpersonal relations as well as our political, social, and economic institutions. And the third is the natural domain, which includes our physical bodies, other sentient beings, and the natural environment. From my present perspective, a spirituality that privileges the transcendent and devalues the social and natural domains, or sees them at best as stepping stones to realization, is inadequate to our current needs. Such an orientation has led to a sharp division of duties that puts our future at risk.… This division also opens the doors of influence over our communal institutions to religious dogmatists and fundamentalists.
“As I see it, our collective future requires that we fashion an integral type of spirituality that can bridge the three domains of human life.”
In other cases, the Darwinian need for Buddhism to change is bolstered by an appeal to the Buddha’s own teachings on change:
“Since all schools of Buddhism also arise from conditions, they share the very nature of the conditioned things they tirelessly describe as transient, imperfect, and empty. This is true even of the original Indian form of the dharma at the time of Gautama himself. To say that Buddhism is empty is to recognize how it is nothing but an emergent property of unique and unrepeatable situations. Such an insight into the nature of things is entirely in keeping with the central Buddhist understanding of the inescapable contingency of existence (pratitya-samutpada [paṭicca samuppāda]).… This core insight into contingency emphasized how everything emerges from a shimmering matrix of changing conditions and is destined to change into something else.… In this way the non-essential vision of the dharma converges seamlessly with a historical and Darwinian evolutionary understanding of life.”
“This strongly held view [that Buddhism should not change] seems a bit odd in a religion that also teaches that resistance to all-pervasive change is a root cause of misery.”
Some of the strongest statements of the need to change Buddhism come from teachers who, following the example of the more politically involved Transcendentalists, give high priority to social action in their understanding of the spiritual life.
“In each historical period, the Dharma finds new means to unfold its potential in ways precisely linked to that era’s distinctive conditions. Our own era provides the appropriate stage for the transcendent truth of the Dharma to bend back upon the world and engage human suffering at multiple levels, not in mere contemplation but in effective, relief-granting action.”
“We must be open to a variety of responses toward social change that come from no particular ‘authority’ but are grounded in the radical creativity that comes when concepts fall away.”
Romantic changes to the Dhamma can take many forms. In some cases, they involve borrowing from other Buddhist religions, on the grounds that later forms of Buddhism were more developed than the earlier forms: hence the Mahāyāna teachings on Buddha nature and the bodhisattva path presented in otherwise Theravāda contexts. In other cases, these changes involve drawing on non-Buddhist religious traditions, as when Rumi’s ruminations on God are cited for their insight into the Dhamma. And in still other cases, the changes are drawn from non-religious traditions of all sorts.
Whatever the changes being proposed for Buddhism in the modern world, Buddhist Romantics present them as nothing to fear because they are rooted in forces in the human heart that they describe, echoing Emerson, as trustworthy to the end.
“There is an underlying unity to all things, and a wise heart knows this as it knows the in-and-out of the breath. They are all part of a sacred whole in which we exist, and in the deepest way they are completely trustworthy. We need not fear the energies of this world or any other.”
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The passages quoted here have been drawn from the talks and writings of thirteen modern Dhamma teachers, but they could be multiplied many times over from the writings both of these teachers and of many others. As anyone who has read modern Dhamma books or listened to modern Dhamma talks could attest, the principles expressed in these passages are by no means atypical. They are the common coin of modern Buddhist discourse—so common that most Westerners accept them as Dhamma as a matter of faith, and are surprised to hear that they differ from the Buddha’s Dhamma in almost every respect.
In fact, some people are even offended to hear this—not because they feel betrayed by those who teach Buddhist Romanticism, but because they would rather continue to hold to Buddhist Romantic ideals. To get past that sense of being offended, it’s important to understand the false attractions that those ideals continue to hold.
The Appeal of Buddhist Romanticism
As many Western converts to the Dhamma will readily admit, it’s because of ideals such as wholeness within, Oneness without, and the universality of the religious experience that they left their earlier religious upbringing and started practicing Buddhism to begin with. And it’s easy to see why those ideals made such a conversion possible: To believe that all religions come from the same experience, and that differences in the expression of that experience are immaterial, makes it possible to ignore the exclusionary faith demands made by the monotheistic religions that dominate the West. Only when you feel safe to ignore those demands will you feel free to look elsewhere for alternative religious teachings that provide more nourishment for—and feel less oppressive to—the heart.
However, it’s one thing to hold to views to free yourself from an oppressive system of beliefs. It’s another to continue holding to them after having broken free. The common desire to continue holding to Buddhist Romantic ideas even after learning that they are not Buddhist suggests that there are other reasons why such ideas have an appeal in the modern world.
As we have seen, one of the prime reasons is that a strong current in Western thought over the past two centuries has come to view all religious activity in these terms. When Westerners come to Buddhism, they usually approach it through the doors of psychology, history of religions, or perennial philosophy, all of which are dominated by Romantic ways of thinking.
However, ideas do not survive simply because they have a long past. There also have to be factors in contemporary culture and society to help keep them alive.
A wide range of factors—philosophical, emotional, economic, and political—may be relevant here, but four aspects of modern culture in particular seem to have contributed to the creation and continued survival of Buddhist Romanticism.
The first is that modern society is more destructive of a sense of inner wholeness and outer connectedness than anything even the Romantics knew. Economically and politically, we are more and more dependent on wider and wider circles of other people, yet most of those dependencies are kept hidden from view. 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. Fashionable 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 exploited producers and for those pushed out of the production web by cheaper labor. Our monetary supply, which keeps these interdependencies flowing, has been converted into electronic signals manipulated by international financiers of unknown allegiances and constantly open to cyber attack.
Whether or not we know these details, we intuitively sense the fragmentation and uncertainty inherent in such an unstable system. The result is that 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. Such people 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 affirms the Oneness of the universe and the benevolence of interconnectedness, it tells these people what they want to hear.
A second aspect of modern culture conducive to the popularity of Buddhist Romanticism is the overload of information poured into our eyes and ears every day. Never before have people been subjected to such a relentless barrage of data from strangers. The sheer amount of data challenges the mind’s ability to absorb it; the fact that it is coming from strangers leaves, at least on a sub-conscious level, a lingering doubt as to where to place our trust. Especially when we learn that much of the news twenty or thirty years ago was little more than propaganda, we instinctively suspect that the news of today will ultimately be revealed to be a fabric of lies as well.
Given that our ideas are shaped by the data we absorb, we begin to distrust even the thoughts going through our own minds. So we find it reassuring to be told that at least we can trust our feelings, that we can safely leave logical inconsistencies as mysteries, and that whatever religious beliefs speak to our feelings must be safe and true.
A third aspect of modern culture conducive to the survival of Buddhist Romanticism is that we are subject not only to a flood of data, but also to a flood of competing value systems: some promoted by religious and cultural traditions, some by academia, some by the commercial media. Exposed to all these conflicting values simultaneously, we find it impossible not to see ourselves judged as lacking in terms of one system of values or another. No matter where we look at ourselves, we see something that someone can condemn as substandard or wrong. So we feel comforted when told that the highest value system is embodied in a non-judging mind, open and receptive to all things, and that the judgments of others show only how narrow-minded they are.
A fourth aspect of modern culture conducive to the survival of Buddhist Romanticism is that people’s work lives, social lives, and search for entertainment, especially when conducted over the Internet, have come to consume so much of their mental energy and their time. Spiritual needs get squeezed into the few cracks of the day left vacant by other demands. Within those cracks, few people have the time to test differing religious teachings for their truth and effectiveness. Thus it’s reassuring to be told that the differences among religions don’t matter, that all paths lead to the same destination. This means that people can choose whichever path or mixture of paths they like—in the language of the Romantics, this would be termed an aesthetic choice—with no need to fear that their choices could possibly be a mistake or lead to harm.
Buddhist Romanticism, in speaking to these aspects of modern culture, provides solace to people suffering from the demands and uncertainties of modern life. But its solution in all four areas is to teach an attitude of heedlessness, regardless of whether it speaks in soothing terms of acceptance or in more rousing ways of the challenges of authenticity and the need for social engagement.
• To begin with, on the deepest level, Buddhist Romanticism teaches people to define their spiritual needs in ways that actually block the path to a transcendent happiness. By fostering an immanent rather than transcendent solution to suffering, 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.
On a more immediate level, Buddhist Romanticism, by celebrating our interconnected world, suggests that the Dhamma as a whole is blind to the suffering and instabilities inherent in that world. In doing so, it alienates those for whom the current system is obviously not benign, convincing them that the Dhamma is out of touch with reality. As a result, Buddhist Romanticism turns them away from the Dhamma, denying them the benefits that the Dhamma could otherwise offer.
• 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.
• As for a non-judging mind, the Buddha taught that the path to true happiness begins with the ability to judge one’s own actions fairly (MN 61), which also means learning how to judge the actions of others as to whether they are wise examples to follow (MN 95). The solution to the problem of conflicting value systems lies, not in abandoning one’s powers of judgment, but in learning how to use them adeptly through self-examination. When there are no standards for what should and shouldn’t be done, people are left unprotected (§8)—from their own unskillful mind states, and from the unskillful influences of others.
• Finally, by portraying the choice of a religious path as nothing more than a personal preference, Buddhist Romanticism blinds people to the fact that if they choose it over the Dhamma, their choice will carry consequences.
So as a service to those of us sleeping in the road, we need to look more carefully at what the consequences of that choice can be.
Buddhist Romanticism vs. the Dhamma
The consequences of choosing Buddhist Romanticism over the Dhamma can best be appreciated by examining the practical implications of each of the principles of Buddhist Romanticism, point by point, and comparing them with the practical consequences of adopting the Dhamma instead. Because all the defining points of Buddhist Romanticism grow from Points 1 through 3, we will see that the practical implications of these first three points will keep echoing throughout the remaining ones.
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• First, Points 1 through 3: the basic religious issue.
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 (§20). This is especially true if you define people as organic parts of a larger, organic whole. As organisms subject to organic laws, they would not be able to know anything totally separate from those laws. As integral parts of a larger whole, they would have to subsume their felt needs to the larger purposes of the whole, and could not escape the whole without being annihilated.
All three of these points would force them to view as unrealistic, and even evil, their desire to find an end to suffering. They would be blocked from reaching unbinding, which is a dimension outside of the range of organic laws. Instead, they would have to accept their sufferings as necessary parts of the larger purpose of the organic whole, for otherwise they would risk going out of existence.
So 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. This is ironic for two reasons.
The first is that 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. Its perspective is phenomenological, meaning that it describes processes as they are immediately experienced. From that perspective, 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.
The second reason why it’s ironic for Buddhist Romanticism to present dependent co-arising as a description of the Oneness of all things is that the Buddha explicitly cited dependent co-arising as a teaching that avoided the question of whether things are One or not (§25). In other words, his rejection of the teaching of the Oneness of the universe was so radical that he refused to get involved in the issue at all.
There are two possible reasons why the Buddha did not want to describe the universe as One. The first is that although he affirmed that concentration practice can lead to states of non-dual consciousness in which all experience is viewed as One, he noted that such states are fabricated (§24) and thus fall short of the goal. Only when a meditator learns to view all objects of awareness as something separate (§23) can he or she regard them with the detachment needed to overcome any clinging to them—an issue that we will discuss in more detail below, under Point 5. To regard the universe as One closes the door to this sense of separateness needed to reach to freedom.
The second possible reason for not wanting to describe the universe as One can easily be surmised from what we have repeatedly seen of the Romantic problems concerning the issue of freedom. There is no convincing way to explain how a part of a larger Oneness can exercise freedom of choice. At most, such a part can be allowed by other parts to follow its inner drives, but it cannot choose what those drives are. Otherwise, it would be like a stomach suddenly deciding that it wanted to switch jobs with the liver or to strike out on its own: The organism would die.
At the same time, given that all parts of an organic system act in constant reciprocity, there’s no way that any part of a larger whole can lay independent claim to its drives as truly its own. When a stomach starts secreting digestive juices, the signal comes from somewhere else. So if freedom means only the ability to follow one’s inner nature or drives, the fact that one’s drives are not really one’s own denies any independent freedom of choice.
For the purpose of Dhamma practice, this difficulty is fatal. To be able to choose skillful over unskillful actions, you first have to be free to choose your actions. Otherwise, the whole notion of a path of practice is meaningless.
So the basic question posed by Buddhist Romanticism and the answer it provides to that question impose, all in all, at least four severe limitations on the possibility of a path to the end of suffering.
The first limitation is that, by identifying a conditioned experience of Oneness as the goal of spiritual practice, Buddhist Romanticism encourages people to satisfy themselves with experiences falling far short of an unconditioned end to suffering and stress.
The second limitation is that, 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. People are here to further the goal of the earthlife, and should bear their sufferings with equanimity and joy, happy in the knowledge that they are advancing the goal of earthlife, whatever it is. Thus the Buddhist Romantic answer to the value question implicit in the four noble truths—Is the end of suffering a worthwhile goal?—is clearly a No.
The third limitation is that 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. Thus the Buddhist Romantic answer to the question that set the Buddha-to-be on his quest—Is it possible to find a happiness free from aging, illness, and death?—is another clear No.
The fourth limitation is an even more basic restriction on the possibility of freedom, one that applies even if you don’t aim at ultimate release in this lifetime. In a world where you are an integral part of a larger whole, freedom of choice even in simple matters is impossible. Not only is the idea of a path of practice meaningless; so is the act of teaching any path—or anything—at all. If people have no choice in what they do, why bother to teach them? And why should they bother to listen to what other people say? Thus the Buddhist Romantic answer to one of the Buddha’s even more basic questions—Does the idea of a path of practice make sense?—contradicts itself. On the one hand, Buddhist Romantics teach meditation as a path of practice; on the other, their underlying assumption that the universe is One denies the freedom of choice needed for there to be the possibility of following a path.
The early Romantics, even though they couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how freedom can be reconciled with a universal, interdependent Oneness, did at least grapple with the issue. Buddhist Romantics, however, never give it serious attention. At most, some of them assert the possibility of freedom and describe how malleable the causal connections in dependent co-arising can be—portraying them, for instance, as a jeweled net or shimmering matrix—but rarely pursue the issue further than that. If these images are examined carefully, though, they prove wanting in two ways.
The first is simply a matter of consistency: If all factors in the web are easily manipulated, then you yourself are easily manipulated. If you are nothing but a cipher in a shimmering matrix, what means do you have to exert a freely chosen force on any other part of the shimmer?
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• The second way in which these images are wanting is less a matter of internal consistency and more a matter of truth, directly related to Point 4, the basic cause of suffering and its solution.
The Romantic idea that we suffer because we feel separate from the world, and that suffering stops during moments when we have overcome that sense of separation is, from the point of view of the Dhamma, only a partial—and very poor—understanding of suffering and its end. Even if we could constantly maintain a sense of Oneness with the causal connections that constitute the world, would that really end suffering? Is the world really a shimmering net of jewels, content simply to reflect one another and needing nothing else for their sustenance?
As the Buddha pointed out, we live in a world where the basic interaction is one of feeding off one another, emotionally and physically. Inter-being is inter-eating. If we’re jewels, we’re jewels with teeth—and those teeth are diamond-tipped, strong enough to shred other jewels to pieces. This is what it means to be a being, someone who has taken on becoming in a world where other beings have also become and have their sights on the same sources of food.
The Buddhist Romantic equation of suffering with a sense of a discrete, separate self is sometimes justified by the idea that such a sense of separateness is by its nature unstable. This, however, assumes that a connected sense of self—or a sense of oneself as a process-being, rather than a discrete being—would be any more stable. As the Dhamma repeatedly states, every sense of self is a fabrication, and all fabrications are unstable (§19, §22). They always need to feed. Even process-beings need to feed to keep the process going. And there is no single mouth in the interconnected universe that, when fed, would send the nourishment to all parts of the universal organism. Each process feels its own hunger and needs to feed itself from a limited range of food. So the switch from a discrete, separate sense of self to an all-embracing process-self would not solve the problem of suffering.
The image of the world that drove the Buddha to practice was one of fish competing for the water in a diminishing pool (§27). And as he famously said, even if it rained gold coins, that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy our sensual desires (§29). Only if we train the mind to a dimension where there is no felt hunger and no need to feed will we ever reach a genuine happiness. The need to feed cannot be ended simply by seeing ourselves as jewels reflecting a shimmering light. We have to uproot the source of our hunger by overcoming the need to be a being. If we choose to stay immersed in a web of conditions driven by hunger, we close ourselves to any possibility that suffering can be brought to an end.
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• Point 5, the nature of the religious experience: As noted in Chapter Five, Schleiermacher’s belief that there was a single religious experience, identical for all human beings, grew from his own monotheistic, Pietist background, in which only one religious experience—a feeling of God’s presence—was possible. When translated into Romantic terms, in which the ultimate truth about reality was the infinite unity of the cosmos, this meant that the only possible religious experience was a feeling of that unity. And as we saw in Chapter Six, even as the West gained more knowledge about non-monotheistic religious traditions, the transmitters of Romantic religion never seriously challenged this part of Schleiermacher’s thesis. In some cases they questioned whether such an experience proved one’s unity with the cosmos, but in no case did they question whether this feeling of unity was the only possible experience that qualified as religious. And Buddhist Romanticism tends not to question this, either.
The Buddha’s map of spiritual experiences, however, differs from Schleiermacher’s in two important respects: one, in mapping out a wide variety of experiences that could be mistaken for the ultimate spiritual goal; and two, in asserting that the ultimate goal is not a feeling—not even a feeling of Oneness—but a direct experience of a dimension beyond feelings and beyond the senses (§§46–47; §54). At the same time, the Buddha offers many practical tests to ascertain whether an experience in meditation qualifies as the ultimate goal or not.
The Buddha does acknowledge that the Oneness of awareness achieved in right concentration is a central part of the path to the deathless, but it is not the goal (§23; §58). Because it is fabricated, it—like all the other factors of the path—has to be dropped when it has done its work. Otherwise, the opening to the deathless will never appear.
At the same time, the Buddha never encourages us to believe that the feeling or perception of Oneness felt in concentration should be taken as a sign that experience is really One. Quite the contrary: A meditator who wants to end ignorance and give rise to clear knowing has to view all objects of the mind as something separate (§24). This point applies to all the objects that Buddhist Romanticism advocates seeing as parts of a pre-existing unity: self and cosmos, mind and body, feelings and thoughts. To view these things as parts of a Oneness of which you are also a part makes it impossible to gain any distance from them. Without that sense of distance, you can’t clearly see and overcome your attachment for them.
For instance, to see the body as One with the mind makes it impossible to see how attachment to the body is a major source of suffering. To see your feelings as One with your reason makes it impossible to see their drawbacks or to catch the mind in the act of clinging to them. To see the self as One with the world—an interpretation that can easily be applied to the experience of concentration on very refined, infinite levels—is, in the Buddha’s estimation, one of the most foolish self-doctrines of all.
There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, because “self” carries the implication of “things belonging to self,” it claims identity with things that could not possibly belong to the self. If you think you are One with your neighbor’s tree, try cutting it down and see if it’s really yours (§21). On the other hand, if the concept of self is stretched to include the cosmos, you won’t look for the way “self” as a mental action forms around desires on a moment-to-moment basis. If you don’t examine your sense of self on this level, you won’t be able to work free of it (§22).
So there are important practical consequences for adopting the Buddhist Romantic position on these points over the Buddha’s. If you believe that there is only one religious experience, then when you have an impressive unifying experience, you will not apply the Buddha’s tests to it. If you are satisfied with a feeling of Oneness, you will not look further to see whether that feeling—like all other feelings—is fabricated or not. In this way, you risk settling for much less than second best.
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• Points 6 and 7, the immanence of the religious goal and the limited freedom it can bring: The idea that the religious experience leads only to an immanent dimension, and not to a transcendent one, is drawn from the Romantic definition, under Points 2 and 3, of what a human being is: an integral, organic part of a cosmos with no transcendent dimension. As part of such a cosmos, there is no way that you could experience anything transcending the cosmos. Even in a mechanistic model of the cosmos, the same limitations prevail. When Buddhist Romanticism accepts either of these worldviews, it is forced to accept those limitations as well.
This approach is the reverse of the Buddha’s. Instead of starting with a definition of what a human being is, and then deducing from that what a human being can know, he worked the other way around: exploring first what a human being can know through experience, and then—in light of how the best possible experience was attained—drawing conclusions about how to answer the question of what a human being is. His conclusion was that holding to any definition of what a human being is would ultimately stand in the way of that experience, which is why he developed his teachings on not-self, while at the same time refusing to answer whether or not the self exists (§§15–16).
In this sense, the Buddha’s approach is somewhat like the approach that James and Jung followed at a time when the mechanistic model of the universe was ascendant: Instead of starting with the laws of the cosmos “out there” as a primary reality and trying to fit oneself, as a secondary reality, into the context of those laws, they proposed starting with consciousness as it is experienced from within as primary reality, and regarding the cosmos out there as secondary. Only then, they stated, could the problems and illnesses of consciousness be healed.
The difference in the Buddha’s case is that he went considerably further than either James or Jung in discovering what true health for the psyche could be: a dimension totally free from the constraints of space and time. From that discovery, he was able to evaluate theories of causality and the universe, and to reject any that would not allow for the experience he had attained.
This, as we have noted, is called the phenomenological approach. And the Buddha aimed his attention directly at the most pressing phenomenological problem: the problem of suffering and how to end it. My suffering is something that only I can feel. Yours is something that only you can feel. I cause my suffering through my own unskillfulness, and can put an end to it by developing skillfulness in all my actions. The same principle applies to you. In other words, the problem is felt from within, caused from within, and can be cured only from within. And as long as we claim our identity as part of an unstable web of connections, we will never be able to effect a cure.
This means that 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.
As for the Buddhist Romantic arguments that an immanent view of awakening is superior to a transcendent view, these boil down to two assertions. The first is that an immanent goal is nondualistic, whereas a transcendent goal is dualistic. This argument carries force only if “dual” is inherently inferior to “nondual.” But the problem of suffering is inherently dual, both in the distinction between suffering and its end, and in the teaching that there are causes and effects. Either you suffer or you don’t. You create the causes that lead to suffering, or you follow a path of action that leads to suffering’s end. If you decide that suffering is not a problem, you are free to continue creating the causes of suffering as you like. But if you want to stop suffering, then you are committed to taking on these two dualities and seeing that here, at least, dualism opens up opportunities that nondualism closes off.
The second assertion is that a transcendent goal automatically entails indifference to the world being transcended, and that this contributes to the ecological crisis facing the Earth. The idea that there is a transcendent dimension, we are told, makes people treat this worldly dimension as worthless. Therefore we need a vision of awakening in which we all awaken together with the purpose of staying here.
This argument gains some of its force from the reduced version of the path that has come to stand for Buddhist practice in the West: going to retreat centers and closing yourself off from the outside world. But when we look at the entire path of practice as outlined by the Buddha, it’s hard to see where the path to unbinding encourages indifference to the Earth or contributes to the pollution and abuse of the environment. No one ever gained awakening by being stingy and materialistic. No one ever fracked for oil or raped the environment from a desire for unbinding. As the Buddha said, as long as one has not achieved full awakening, one incurs a debt with every meal one takes—a teaching that hardly encourages carelessness.
Most Buddhists know that they will not gain full awakening in this lifetime, which means that they face the prospect of returning to the Earth that they have shaped during this lifetime through their actions. This belief in karma and rebirth, in fact, is one of Buddhism’s most potent arguments for the stewardship of the planet. And yet Buddhist Romanticism—like Herder and the early Romantics before them—have rejected belief in karma and rebirth, and have offered only a vague generality on interconnectedness and evolution in its place. But these vague notions of responsibility toward others whom we will never see don’t have half the emotional impact of a worldview in which we will be forced to return to clean up any messes we ourselves have made.
And the path actually fosters habits designed not to leave messes. To begin with, it teaches contentment with few material things, a quality that helps to slow the exploitation of the Earth’s resources. When people are content with only what they really need, they leave a small footprint behind.
Similarly, the path entails celibacy, which is certainly not responsible for the over-population of the earth. And, unlike bodhisattvas, who are committed to returning to the feeding chain of the Earth again and again, arahants remove themselves from the chain entirely, at the same time inspiring others to do likewise, so that that many mouths and that many fish will be removed from the dwindling pool.
So it’s hard to see that holding to unbinding as a transcendent goal encourages trashing the Earth. It’s actually an act of kindness—toward oneself, toward those who follow one’s example, and all forms of life who choose to remain behind. To choose an immanent goal over unbinding—and to urge others to keep returning to the pool—is actually an irresponsible and heartless act.
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• Point 8, that the goal is never reached once and for all: As the Buddha made clear, it is not the case that once awakening happens all problems in life will end. The fully awakened person still experiences pleasure and pain, and must still deal with the difficulties presented by other people. The Buddha himself had to deal for 45 years with the misbehavior of the monks and nuns in the Saṅghas he established.
Nevertheless, he also repeatedly emphasized that none of these difficulties could make inroads on his mind, and that the same held true for all those who are fully awakened (MN 137). And, unlike people who have yet to abandon becoming, once the fully awakened person passes away, there will be no more experience of the pleasures and pains of the six senses. In the meantime, their experience of unbinding consists of the total eradication of passion, aversion, and delusion (§52).
Some Buddhist Romantics, however, challenge the Buddha on this point, noting that even after his awakening, he kept encountering Māra. Because the modern mechanistic worldview has room neither for non-human spirits nor for the thoughts in one person’s mind to appear in the mind of another, the argument interprets Māra, not as an actual non-human being, but as a symbol of the defilements still in the Buddha’s subconscious that he did not recognize as such. The repeated encounters, in this view, were simply signs that the Buddha still had work to do in dealing with his own delusions all life long.
But there are two inconsistencies here. The first is that in making this assertion these Buddhist Romantics are repudiating their own Romantic interpretation of Buddhist causality. Elsewhere, they themselves have described the world as a mystery, a shimmering matrix in which there exist no discrete boundaries between individuals. In such a world, there could easily be a being like Māra whose thoughts might permeate into the Buddha’s consciousness. Why these teachers have chosen to defend the limited Romantic view of the religious goal by repudiating the Romantic worldview of a mysterious interconnected Oneness is hard to say, but the inconsistency undermines their case.
The second inconsistency comes from the mechanistic worldview such teachers adopt to make their case. In such a worldview, there is no room for consciousness as anything but a by-product of physical processes, which means that suffering, too, would be simply the result of physical processes. If it could possibly be ended in such a world, it would have to be by means of physical processes. Meditation, as a phenomenological, non-physical process, couldn’t possibly have an effect. So it would be inconsistent for a person holding such a worldview to engage in meditation practice, and even more inconsistent to teach Dhamma or meditation lessons to others.
So again, the inconsistencies involved in making this argument undermine the position of the person making it.
However this argument is made, the practical consequences of insisting that the goal can never be fully reached are similar to those under Point 5: If you accept that awakening still leaves greed, aversion, and delusion in the mind, you will tend to overestimate a meditative experience that seems impressive but still leaves seeds of these defilements in its wake. This will stand in the way of making any further progress on the path.
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• Point 9, on seeing the sacred in the mundane: The ability to see all things as luminous is recognized in the Canon as a state of mental mastery—but it is still fabricated (§23). This means that it’s not a sign of a transcendent attainment.
As for the sense that all things are sacred—what we have termed the microcosmic sublime—this can lead easily to attachment. The Buddha himself pointed out that seeing all things as good can create suffering similar to the sort that comes from seeing all things as bad (MN 74). And if skillful and unskillful intentions are regarded as equally sacred, what motivation is there to abandon the unskillful ones? So the sense that all things are sacred leaves people defenseless against their own unskillful intentions and is actually an obstacle on the path.
As for the macrocosmic sublime: One of the passages quoted under Point 10 above makes the assertion that religion is mainly concerned with mystery, and expresses the preference that life and its purpose be left mysterious, and that life’s great questions remain unanswered.
This differs sharply from the Buddha’s sense of overwhelming dismay prior to his awakening. The word with which he described it, saṁvega, actually means “terror,” and fits well with Kant’s use of the word sublime. For the Buddha, this terror came from a specific view of the world—the fish in the pool—and demanded an answer: the end of suffering. To leave that answer as a mystery is to close the path to an escape.
So here again, the practical consequences of choosing one view of the sublime over another are sharp in their difference. Buddhist Romanticism wants the large questions to remain unanswered; the Dhamma, that they be resolved.
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• Point 10 (a), on attaining the spiritual goal through an attitude of mindfulness, defined as an open receptivity and acceptance: The Buddha notes that the causes of suffering come in two forms: those that end when you simply watch them with equanimity, and those that end only when you exert yourself actively to get rid of them (§38). To adopt an attitude of acceptance for everything you experience allows you to end only causes of the first sort. Causes of the second sort will continue to fester, preventing true freedom.
At the same time, if all experience is simply to be accepted, and all experience is One, what does that say about the problem of evil? As we noted in our discussions of Emerson, Maslow, and Huxley, if evil is supposed to be accepted as a necessary part of the Oneness of all things, and the universe as a whole is indifferent to good and evil, there is no incentive to make the effort to avoid evil and do good. To teach such an attitude would, in the Buddha’s eyes, leave people bewildered and unprotected from their own unskillful urges (§8). There would be no basis for what he identified as a categorical truth: that unskillful behavior is to be avoided, and skillful behavior developed (AN 2:18). This means that an attitude of total acceptance is diametrically opposed to Dhamma practice.
As for mindfulness, the Buddha never defines it as an open, receptive, pre-verbal state. In fact, his standard definition for the faculty of mindfulness is the ability to remember and keep things in mind for a long time (§35). Thus, in the practice of right mindfulness, one is keeping one of four frames of reference in mind—body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities—remembering to stay with these things in and of themselves, alert to the present moment in terms of these frames of reference, at the same time remembering the instructions connected with each frame in how to be ardent in abandoning unskillful factors that arise and to develop skillful factors in their place.
Some of the Canon’s more vivid analogies for the practice of mindfulness emphasize this element of ardency, suggesting anything but an open, receptive, non-judging state: a person with his head on fire; a man walking between a beauty queen and a crowd, carrying on his head a bowl filled to the brim with oil, and a man following behind him with a raised sword, ready to cut off his head if even a drop of oil gets spilled (§§36–37).
There’s a tendency, even among serious scholars, to mine the Canon for passages presenting a more spacious, receptive picture of mindfulness. But this tendency, in addition to ignoring the basic definition of mindfulness, denies the essential unity among the factors of the path. In some cases, this denial is explicit: To make their case, some scholars actually define right mindfulness on the one hand, and right effort and right concentration on the other, as two mutually exclusive forms of practice. This suggests that the tendency to define mindfulness as an open, receptive, non-judging state comes from a source other than the Canon. It’s possible to find Asian roots for this tendency, in the schools of meditation that define mindfulness as bare awareness or mere noting. But the way the West has morphed these definitions in the direction of acceptance and affirmation has less to do with Asian traditions, and more to do with the Romantic tendency to exalt an open receptivity as the source for spiritual inspiration.
And the practical consequences are clear: To limit oneself to a practice of open acceptance leaves one defenseless against the causes of suffering that will go away only through concerted effort.
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• Point 10 (b), on their being many different paths to the goal: This idea, as we noted above, came from the Pietist assumption, later adopted by the Romantics, that there is only one possible goal. Based on this assumption, both the Pietists and the Romantics believed that the only kindly way to regard paths other than one’s own was to endorse them as equally valid alternative routes to one and the same place.
However, if—as the Dhamma maintains—there are many possible goals, then the differences among the paths actually can make a difference in what is attained. So the kindly approach is not simply to endorse all paths. It’s to figure out which path leads to which goal.
The Buddha states clearly that there is only one path to unbinding (§60). Trying to find awakening in ways apart from the noble eightfold path is like trying to squeeze oil from gravel, or to get milk from a cow by twisting its horn (§59). The Canon compares the Buddha’s knowledge of the way to awakening to that of an expert gatekeeper who knows, after encircling the walls of a city, that there’s only one way into the city: the gate he guards (§57).
Even for a person on the one path to unbinding, the Buddha cites many possible experiences, such as the levels of concentration, that might be—and have been—mistaken for unbinding (DN 1). Thus he provides a series of tests for judging whether a meditative experience counts as the endpoint, as a station along the way, or as a side path leading in the wrong direction.
One of the tests for determining whether one has reached the first level of awakening is if, on reflection, one realizes that no one outside the Buddha’s teaching teaches the true, accurate, way to the goal (§56). Although individual people may have to focus on issues particular to their temperament (SN 35:204), the basic outline of the path is the same for all.
From this point of view, the Buddhist Romantic position that each person can choose his or her own path—secure in the knowledge that whatever their choice, they will get to the same goal—deprives people of the incentive to stick with the true path when it inevitably gets difficult. This, for the purposes of freedom, is a severe obstacle.
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• This obstacle is especially blatant with regard to Point 11, the assertion that erotic love can form a path to awakening. The Buddha began his teaching career with the observation that the path he taught avoided two extremes: indulgence in sensual pleasures under the sway of sensuality—in other words, the passion for one’s sensual resolves—and indulgence in self-torment. Both extremes, he said, are ignoble. Both create a great deal of suffering—if you don’t believe that sex can cause suffering, spend some time in divorce court—and neither leads to the goal.
And he didn’t deprecate sensuality out of an arbitrary personal dislike for it. He recognized that the mind could attain strong concentration when focused on sensual desire, but he realized that, for the purpose of the path, that would be wrong concentration. Right concentration would require that he drop that desire (§58; §14). After all, awakening requires comprehending becoming, and a person can comprehend sensual becoming only when he or she has been able to step out of the desire around which it forms (MN 14). As the Buddha later admitted, when he first realized that right concentration required pulling away from sensuality, his mind didn’t leap up at the prospect. But he was honest enough with himself to admit that it was true. So, by focusing on the drawbacks of sensuality, he was able to get the mind into right concentration and from there attain awakening (AN 9:41).
An unwillingness to see the drawbacks of sensuality 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 (MN 125). This lack of imagination places severe limitations on one’s sensitivity to stress, and one’s ability to gain a happiness totally free from stress.
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• Point 12: on tolerating all religious traditions as equally valid expressions of a sense of universal Oneness. The Romantic attitude toward tolerance is directly related to the basic paradox that we have frequently noted in Romantic religion: the position that, on the one hand, no one can pass judgment on another person’s expression of Oneness; but, on the other hand, that those expressions are valid only when recognizing the Romantic view that they are imperfect expressions of Oneness, along with the corollary view that some expressions express this principle better than others. Translated into the issue of tolerance, this means that your beliefs will all be tolerated only as long as they recognize the Romantic principles of what religion is and the world in which it functions.
This straitjacket is somewhat looser than the narrow range of tolerance offered by many other religious traditions, but it’s a straitjacket nonetheless. This is especially clear from the point of view of the Dhamma, for two reasons. One, the Dhamma is not an attempt to express universal Oneness and doesn’t see a return to that Oneness as its goal. It aims instead at something beyond the universe: total unbinding. Two, it recognizes that there are right and wrong paths to unbinding. To claim that a wrong path can actually get the same result is a disservice to others—and to oneself—just as it’s perverse to teach other people to get milk from a cow by twisting its horn (§59).
These two reasons are directly related to the third and fourth noble truths: that there is an unfabricated dimension constituting the end of suffering, and that there are right and wrong paths for getting to that dimension. To force the Dhamma to abandon these two truths in order to earn Romantic tolerance is extracting too high a price. It impoverishes all those who, if the Dhamma did bow to these conditions, would be deprived of the benefits of learning these truths.
Some people fear that notions of right and wrong practices lead inevitably to strife—look at all the futile wars fought over religious beliefs—so it’s kinder to let people take whatever path they want. This is the attitude that led to Pietism in the first place, and as we have seen, this Pietist attitude has survived in Romantic religion. But some differences of opinion on religious matters are more likely to lead to strife than others. If, for instance, you believe that there is only one god, and view all other gods as evil and false, you are likely to feel threatened by the existence of other people who believe in gods other than your own. This attitude can easily lead—as it has led—to recurrent violence.
If, however, you believe in a path of action that leads to true happiness—that, say, you can get milk from a cow by pulling on its udder—you will pity other people who try to milk the cow by twisting its horn. You may feel inspired to point out their error, but if they insist on twisting the horn, you leave them alone. Nevertheless, you can still do your best to convince others aside from them that a cow is more effectively milked by pulling on its udder. And you’re right to do so. Where there’s no clear sense of right and wrong, a lot of people will needlessly go without milk.
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• Points 13 through 16: These principles in the Buddhist Romantic program boil down to two: (a) that all religious texts are expressive of the author’s feeling for universal Oneness and (b) that no text carries special authority because no finite being—trapped in his or her point in time and culture—can fully comprehend or express that Oneness. Thus, all texts should be read aesthetically, for poetic inspiration, but without granting them any authority. In fact, because of the limitations of language in expressing universal Oneness, one harms one’s own experience of it by giving authority to anyone else’s expression of it.
However, from the perspective of the Dhamma, the premise on which these ideas are based is false. The Buddha’s teachings are not expressions of his feelings for universal Oneness. They are precise instructions on what to do to attain ultimate happiness. This is why his basic image for his teaching was a path: something to be followed to reach a goal.
a) Granted, the Canon contains a few passages where the Buddha and his awakened disciples speak poetically and expressively of their attainments, but those passages are rare. Far more common are the descriptive and proscriptive passages: maps to the path, in which the Buddha tells explicitly how to get to awakening; and encouragement to follow the maps, in which he tries to get people to see why awakening is worth pursuing. As he said in a famous simile, the knowledge gained in his awakening was like the leaves in the forest; the knowledge he taught, like the leaves in his hand (SN 56:31). And he chose those particular leaves because they served a purpose, helping others develop the skills needed for release.
This point is supported by the imagery and analogies employed throughout the Canon. Although some of the more poetic passages draw images from nature, they are greatly outnumbered by analogies drawn from manual skills—cooking, farming, archery, carpentry—making the point that Dhamma practice is a skill that can be understood and mastered in ways similar to more ordinary skills.
The poetic approach to the Canon overlooks the care with which the Buddha tried to make his instructions specific and clear. As he once commented (§66), there are two types of assemblies: those trained in bombast, and those trained in cross-questioning. In the former, the students are taught “literary works—the works of poets, artful in sound, artful in expression, the work of outsiders” and are not encouraged to pin down what the meaning of those beautiful words might be. In the latter—and here the Buddha was describing his own method of teaching—the students are taught the Dhamma and “when they have mastered that Dhamma, they cross-question one another about it and dissect it: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points.”
He taught people in this way so that they could clearly understand what they were supposed to do. To treat such teachings as poetry encourages a hazier notion of the Dhamma, and deprives the “supposed to do” of much of its force. Passages that challenge the reader’s habits and views can more easily be dismissed—and important lessons are lost.
At the same time, treating the Buddha’s words as poetry encourages a certain looseness in quoting and translating them. Many Buddhist Romantic writers exhibit this looseness—as in the above quote citing the Buddha to the effect that precepts are not necessary for a person established in awareness, something he never said. In treating the Buddha’s words loosely, these writers harm both the Buddha, by slandering him, and the reader, by denying him or her the chance to benefit from the Buddha’s precise experience in the path and skill in pointing out how to practice it.
b) Because the Buddha was teaching a particular path of action, the Romantic reasons for refusing to grant him authority do not apply. It’s true that no one person can have the last word on universal Oneness, but it is possible for one person to have developed full expertise in a skill—and in some cases, to develop an expertise on which no one else can improve.
Seeing the Buddha’s teachings in this light enables us to understand the nature of his authority as presented in the Pāli suttas. He speaks, not with the authority of a creator, but with the authority of an expert. Only in the disciplinary rules in the Vinaya does he assume the added authority of a lawgiver. In the suttas, he calls himself a doctor; a trainer; an admirable, experienced friend who has mastered a specific skill: putting an end to suffering. He provides explicit recommendations on how to act, speak, and think to bring about that result; instructions on how to develop qualities of mind that allow you to assess your actions accurately; and questions to ask yourself in measuring your progress along the way.
As for the possible harm that might come from giving the Buddha authority in these areas, Buddhist Romantics who describe the dangers of following a particular Buddhist teaching usually deal in caricatures. For instance, one teacher warns of the dangers of wanting to follow a path that leads to a transcendent, once-and-for-all goal as follows:
“The linear path holds up an idealistic vision of the perfected human, a Buddha or saint or sage. In this vision, all greed, anger, fear, judgment, delusion, personal ego, and desire are uprooted forever, completely eliminated. What is left is an absolutely unwavering, radiant, pure human being who never experiences any difficulties, an illuminated sage who follows only the Tao or God’s will and never his or her own.”
Although this may be a possible vision of the linear path, it’s not the path taught in the Canon. The Buddha certainly passed judgment on people and taught clear criteria for what are and are not valid grounds for judgment (AN 7:64; AN 4:192; MN 110). He experienced difficulties in setting up the monastic Saṅgha. But that does not invalidate the fact that his greed, aversion, and delusion were gone.
As MN 22 states, there are dangers in grasping the Dhamma wrongly. In the context of that sutta, the Buddha is referring to people who grasp the Dhamma for the sake of argument; at present we might point out the dangers in grasping the teachings neurotically. But there are even greater dangers in misrepresenting the teachings, dragging them down to our own level rather than using them to lift ourselves up. As the Buddha said, people who claim that he said what he didn’t say, or didn’t say what he did, are slandering him (§68). In doing so, they blind themselves—and others—to the Dhamma.
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• Point 17, on the sources of moral behavior. The Romantic rejection of moral precepts, like its rejection of religious authority in general, is based on a false premise: that ideas of right and wrong express only the feelings of the person who sets them forth.
The Buddha established a moral code of five precepts because he had discovered, from experience, that it gave necessary guidance in leading a harmless life: harmless both to oneself and to others (AN 4:99). And the range of this guidance doesn’t end with awakening. Even though awakened people no longer define themselves in terms of the precepts, their behavior still falls in line with them (MN 79). And, conversely, if a person claims to be awakened but his or her behavior doesn’t fall in line with the precepts, the claim can be rejected as false (AN 3:87).
Viewed from the perspective of the Buddha’s standards, the Buddhist Romantic assertion that feelings of love and compassion on the one hand, and Oneness on the other, can give a person adequate guidance to skillful behavior doesn’t hold up to experience.
An attitude of love and compassion—on its own, and uninformed about how actions work out over time—is not enough to prevent actions with harmful consequences. Good intentions are not always skillful intentions. So the precepts act as reminders of what skillful kamma actually is, and they express their message in a concise form, easy to remember when most needed, i.e., when events are urgent and confusing, and give rise to conflicting emotions or conflicting ideas about what a skillful action might be.
Similarly, an attitude of Oneness—that other people are One with you—is hard to maintain when those other people are trying to kill you and your loved ones, or steal what you need to survive. And yet it’s precisely in situations like those that you need something clear to hold onto so that you know what, in the long run, is skillful to do, and you have the strength of character to do it.
But the precepts do more than simply counsel against unskillful behavior. They are also aids in developing concentration and discernment. If you follow them carefully, you avoid actions that will lead to regret—or, from regret, to denial. A mind wounded by regret will have a hard time settling into concentration. If it has covered that regret with the scar tissue of denial, it will have a hard time looking carefully at its inner actions. Discernment won’t have a chance to arise.
Moreover, if you hold carefully to the precepts, you will find that they conflict with many of your cherished habits and notions. This gives you the opportunity to come face to face with attachments lying behind those habits and notions, which you might otherwise hide from yourself. If you tend to dismiss the precepts as simply the feelings of one person at one particular point in time—the Buddha in ancient India—which need to be modified for today, you will easily make exceptions for your notions and habits. That will deprive you of the “mirror of Dhamma” that the precepts can ideally provide.
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• This principle holds true, not only for your personal notions and habits, but also for those you have picked up from your culture. If you can’t see the Dhamma as transcending culture, you won’t be willing to listen to the Dhamma when it challenges the horizons within which your culture has taught you to think and feel. Given that these horizons can be invisible to the people they surround, and yet can effectively block out any premises that don’t fall in line with them, you may not even hear the challenges the Dhamma presents.
This is the practical drawback of Point 19, on seeing the Buddha’s Dhamma simply as a product of his historical circumstances.
The whole purpose of the Dhamma is a direct challenge to this principle. The release provided by unbinding—what the Buddha called the essence or heartwood (sāra) of the Dhamma (§39)—stands outside of space and time (§§45–49). The Buddha’s discovery of this timeless perspective was what enabled him to judge which aspects of his culture were conducive to the path leading to the essence, and which ones were not. The simple fact that he claimed an experience of the transcendent doesn’t prove that it’s true, but the Romantic counterclaim—that there is no transcendent dimension—has never been proven, either. But as we have previously noted, the Buddha’s claim offers the possibility of freedom—both freedom of choice on a moment-to-moment level, and the ultimate freedom of unbinding—whereas the Romantic claim offers no possibility of genuine freedom, period. So to choose the Romantic claim over the Dhamma’s closes off the possibility of any path of practice at all.
It’s obvious that the Buddha’s language and metaphors were culturally conditioned, but it’s hard to identify any of his basic teachings as limited in that way. To say nothing of his teaching on unbinding; even his explanations of suffering and the path to its end deal in universal terms. As for the range of his knowledge, he claimed an awareness of the past that far outstrips ours (DN 29; DN 1), and he’d often cite direct knowledge of a vast expanse of past, present, and future when describing, for instance, how physical, verbal, and mental actions are to be purified (MN 61) and how the highest emptiness can be attained (MN 121). This is why even the Dhamma of the path is said to be timeless, and why the first level of awakening verifies that this is so.
At the same time, when people speak of essential Buddhist teachings that are limited by the cultural conventions of the Buddha’s time, they’re usually misinformed as to what those conventions were.
For instance, with the doctrine of kamma: Even though the Buddha used the word kamma like his contemporaries, his conception of what kamma was and how it worked differed radically from theirs (§8; MN 60; MN 101).
The same holds with the teaching on rebirth: Questions of whether rebirth actually happened, and the extent to which it was related to kamma, were hotly debated in his time (DN 2; DN 23). So it’s hard to say that, in teaching the effect of kamma on rebirth, he was simply following unthinkingly the narrow beliefs of his culture. In fact, his teachings on this issue tackled the issue of rebirth in a novel and practical way: focusing not on what is or isn’t reborn, but on how rebirth happens based on habits of the mind, and how those habits can be retrained to give freedom from continued suffering.
His teachings on kamma and rebirth give universal answers to a universal question: “What factors should I take into account to decide if a particular action is worth the effort?” We can’t be agnostic on this issue, treating it as a question not worth answering, because we answer it willy-nilly with every action we take, as we decide which potential results of the action should enter into the calculation of whether it’s worth doing, and which potential results to ignore.
What’s striking about the Western attitude toward kamma and rebirth is that so many Westerners have resisted these teachings from the start. Herder found them repellent, as did Hegel, although neither of them understood the wide range of Indian positions on these topics, or the fact that the Buddha’s position differed radically from anything else in the Indian tradition. Yet even though much new evidence on these topics has surfaced over the years, showing how the Buddha’s position was uniquely suited to the purpose of putting an end to suffering, Buddhist Romanticism remains stuck in the old Western attitude: It treats his teachings on kamma and rebirth simply as cultural holdovers that would be better dropped from the tradition because the idea of individual kamma clashes with the principle of the Oneness of all being, and the teaching on rebirth with the principle of total receptivity to the present moment. As a result, the Buddha’s actual teachings on these topics are not allowed to hold up a mirror to Western/Romantic suppositions. Nor are they given a chance to show the way around the obstacles that those suppositions place on the path.
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• Instead, Buddhist Romanticism teaches that modern Buddhists are actually doing the Dhamma a favor by changing it to suit the needs and suppositions of modern culture, in line with Point 20: the duty to alter one’s religious tradition in line with the times.
Here it’s important to remember the Romantic assumption underlying this principle: that the universe is an organism with a purpose, and that its purpose is becoming more fully realized with the passage of time. Thus evolutions in society are good, and religions should evolve in order to keep up with them. This assumption receives strong reinforcement in a culture such as ours where technological progress leads people to believe that the culture as a whole is evolving far beyond anything the world has ever known.
But there is very little to support this assumption. In fact, the Pāli suttas present the opposite picture: that human life is getting worse as a sphere for Dhamma practice, and will continue to deteriorate until the Dhamma disappears entirely. And it’s easy to cite features of modern life that confirm this picture. To begin with, Dhamma practice is a skill, requiring the attitudes and mental abilities developed by manual skills—such as patience, respect, humility, and resilience—and yet we are a society whose manual skills are fast eroding away. Thus the mental virtues nurtured by manual skills have atrophied. At the same time, the social hierarchy required by skills—in which students apprentice themselves to a master—has mostly disappeared, so we’ve unlearned the attitudes needed to live in hierarchy in a healthy and productive manner.
We like to think that we’re shaping the Dhamma with our highest cultural ideals, but some of our lower ways are actually dominating the shape of Western Dhamma: The sense of neurotic entitlement produced by the culture of consumerism is a case in point, as are the hype of the mass media and the demands of the mass-market for a Dhamma that sells.
So just because Buddhism has been changed in the past doesn’t mean that those changes were good, or that they should be taken as an example or justification for new changes now. Here, again, the organic notion of change has created confusion. All too often Buddhism is presented as an organism that wisely adapts itself to its new environments. But Buddhism is not a plant or an animal. It doesn’t have a will, and it doesn’t adapt; people adapt Buddhism to their various ends. In some cases, those ends are admirable. Some novel elements—in terms of language and imagery—have helped bring people in new times and places into contact with the essence of the Dhamma. And in many cases, often overlooked in histories that focus on innovation, many attempts at adaptation have aimed, not at creating something new, but at recovering something that had been lost.
Yet because the adapters of the past were not always wise, there’s no guarantee that all adaptations are skillful. Just because other people have made changes in the Dhamma doesn’t automatically justify the changes we want to make. Think, for instance, of how some Mahāyāna traditions dropped the Vinaya’s procedures for dealing with teacher-student sexual abuse: Was this the Dhamma wisely adapting itself to their needs?
The Buddha foresaw that people would introduce what he called “a counterfeit of the true Dhamma”—and when that happened, he said, the true Dhamma would disappear (§69). In a separate passage, he compared the process to what happens when a wooden drum develops a crack, into which a peg is inserted, and then another crack, into which another peg is inserted, and so on until nothing is left of the original drum-body. All that remains is a mass of pegs, which cannot come near to producing the sound of the original drum (§71).
As noted above, some scholars have found the Pāli Canon’s warnings about the decay of the Dhamma ironic, citing what they claim to be a Buddhist principle: that resistance to change is a root cause of suffering. But the Buddha didn’t embrace change, didn’t encourage change for the sake of change, and certainly didn’t define resistance to change as the cause of suffering. Suffering is caused by identifying with change or with things that change. Many are the suttas describing the perils of “going along with the flow” in terms of a river that can carry an unsuspecting person to whirlpools, monsters, and demons (Iti 109). And a pervasive theme in the Canon is that true happiness is found only when one crosses over the river to the changelessness of the other side (Sn 5).
As for trusting the impulses of the mind to produce wise changes, this too is a notion based on the organic Romantic view of the universe: that our inner drives are all expressions of a reliably good source leading to a good end. But try a thought experiment and take the above passage—that “we must be open to a variety of responses toward social change that come from no particular ‘authority’ but are grounded in the radical creativity that comes when concepts fall away”—and imagine how it would sound in different contexts. Coming from a socially concerned Buddhist activist, it might not seem disconcerting. But from a rebel leader teaching child-soldiers in a civil-war torn country, or a greedy financier contemplating new financial instruments, it would be a cause for alarm.
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—whether from within the mind or from the universe outside—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 (§25; SN 12:2). This ignorance has no overall purpose, and in particular does not work instinctively for the good of all. As we noted in Chapter Four, the simple fact that the mind is in an interactive relationship with its environment is no proof that both are parts of a larger, benevolent, teleological whole.
In fact, from the point of view of the Dhamma, the interactive, reciprocal nature of fabrication is the reason why causal relations are unstable, and why any happiness built on fabrication is unreliable and entails inherent suffering. The only way to end suffering is not to celebrate fabrication, but to master it strategically so as to end it; and this requires an attitude, not of trust, but of heedful vigilance (DN 16). Heedfulness must extend both to one’s attitude toward one’s intuitions and to the ways with which one interprets the Dhamma.
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. And as we have noted, the fact that, in a Romantic universe, you have no control over your preferences, it can’t even offer freedom in the more everyday sense of freedom of choice. Although the Romantic worldview promotes the idea that expressions of preferences ultimately have no consequences, the Dhamma starts with the principle that actions have consequences now and into the future (MN 61). The difference in perspective couldn’t be more stark.
If we are serious about our engagement with the Dhamma, we have to think not only of the benefits we can gain from the Dhamma, but also of what sort of Dhamma we leave for future generations. The Buddha never demanded that people believe his teachings, but he did ask that people represent them fairly and give them a fair test. But if we insist on making changes to the Dhamma, the people who come after us won’t know what to test, or what a fair test might be. To whatever extent the true Dhamma has come down to us, has all been through the efforts of the men and women of many generations who practiced in line with it, benefited from it, and went out of their way to preserve it.
Those people were motivated to preserve the Dhamma because they had followed, not the duty to change it, but the duties with regard to the four noble truths. They comprehended suffering, abandoned its cause, realized its cessation, all by developing the path. In other words, instead of imposing duties on the Dhamma, they accepted the duties the Dhamma taught them. Having tasted the release that comes from following these duties, they fully appreciated the value of the Dhamma and wanted to keep it alive and intact for those who would come after. To disrupt their efforts in that direction, out of a desire to be creative or expressive, is an act of ingratitude toward those who went before us, and of callousness toward those who will come after.
When the Buddha described how counterfeit Dhamma would make the true Dhamma disappear, he compared the process to what happens to genuine money when counterfeit money gets circulated: As long as there is only genuine money, people don’t doubt its authenticity. They can simply put it to use. But when there is both genuine and counterfeit money, doubts will arise as to what is genuine, and so all money becomes dubious. People have to be wary of what they’re using, and have to devise more and more sophisticated tests to determine what’s genuine.
We already live in an era where counterfeit Dhamma has become common. As a result, it’s very easy to doubt that there is, or ever was, such a thing as genuine Dhamma. This means that the Buddha’s forecast has already come true. True Dhamma—as something undeniably True or Dhamma—has already disappeared. This places a burden of responsibility on everyone who wants to find an end to suffering: We have to be very careful about our reasons for choosing one version of Dhamma over another, and to test our own honesty again and again. Otherwise, if we simply trust the impulses of our hearts and of those who offer us an appealing Dhamma, we become suckers for counterfeit. And if we become counterfeiters ourselves, we’re making things that much harder for succeeding generations.
The Ironies of Buddhist Romanticism
The radical differences between Buddhist Romanticism and the Dhamma can best be summarized by restating Buddhist Romantic principles in the framework of the four noble truths: what might be called the four Romantic truths.
1) Suffering is a feeling of separation: within oneself, between oneself and other people, and between oneself and the universe at large.
2) This feeling of separation is caused by the mistaken notion that one is a separate entity with a separate identity.
3) Suffering never totally ends, but relief from suffering can be occasionally glimpsed in a feeling of Oneness that temporarily overcomes that sense of separate identity.
4) There is no one right path for glimpsing a sense of Oneness, but all effective paths consist of cultivating an attitude of enlarging one’s perspective to embrace all of life, to transcend ideas of right and wrong, and to maintain an attitude of open receptivity to all experience.
Compare these four Romantic truths with the four noble truths:
1) Suffering is clinging to—feeding on—the aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness.
2) This clinging is caused by the craving that leads to becoming: craving for sensual passions, craving for becoming, and craving for the destruction of becoming.
3) This craving can be ended once and for all through dispassion for it.
4) This dispassion can be induced only by following the path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The four noble truths entail four duties—comprehending stress, abandoning its cause, realizing its cessation, and developing the path—whereas the four Romantic truths entail only one: fostering an open receptivity to universal Oneness, accepting joys and sorrows as all part of the sacredness of life.
As we saw with Schlegel and Emerson, this universal point of view carries with it an attitude of irony. In fact, a viewpoint that embraces opposites demands an attitude of irony, because every time it expresses a truth it has to acknowledge the limitations of those expressions. This attitude thus embodies a stance on the part of the author—above the truths he or she is expressing—and also a style, indicating that the truth, while heartfelt, should not be taken as fully serious. Thus a genuine Romantic would prefer to put quotation marks around the word truth in the Romantic truths—or to call them myths—to suggest the universal point of view that could embrace their opposites as well.
We often associate Romanticism with a flowery, emotional style—and traces of that style certainly can be found among Romantic writers, whether early or Buddhist—but among the various styles adopted by Romantics, irony is most faithful to the content of the Romantic worldview. In fact, irony is where Romantic content and style merge. This is particularly true for an artist who aspires to embody freedom in the process of creating a work of art, because an attitude of irony liberates the artist from two kinds of tyranny: the tyranny of traditional rules about what a work of art should be, and the tyranny of being defined by one’s own previous artistic creations.
In addition to expressing a universal perspective, the ironic style and stance also expresses the Romantic sense of the universe as organism, constantly evolving. It allows the artist to be faithful to his or her feeling of the organic forces at play within and without at a particular point in time, but without being committed to consistency over time. This is one of the reasons that, although Oneness and freedom were the two main principles that the Romantics embraced, they never managed to resolve the inconsistency between them—or to acknowledge that they had failed in trying.
Like the early Romantics, Buddhist Romantics express their appreciation of irony both in the style and content of their teachings. Irony in style is hard to demonstrate in short quotations; but irony as a conscious stance is often explicitly extolled:
“As one matures in spiritual life, one becomes more comfortable with paradox, more appreciative of life’s ambiguities, its many levels and inherent conflicts. One develops a sense of life’s irony, metaphor, and humor and a capacity to embrace the whole, with its beauty and outrageousness, in the graciousness of the heart.… When we embrace life’s opposites, we hold our own birth and death, our own joy and suffering, as inseparable. We honor the sacred in both emptiness and form.”
Applied to the Buddhist tradition, irony would mean maintaining that there are many paths to the goal, and that freedom is to be found, not by following any particular Buddhist path, but by standing above the confines of any path and exercising one’s freedom in being able to move lightly and easily among many.
In some cases, this attitude of irony is justified from within the Buddhist tradition itself by pointing to instances where the Buddha warned about attachment to views.
“[F]lexibility understands that there is not just one way of practice or one fine spiritual tradition, but there are many ways. It understands that spiritual life is not about adopting any one particular philosophy or set of beliefs or teachings, that it is not a cause for taking a stand in opposition to someone else or something else. It is an easiness of heart that understands that all of the spiritual vehicles are rafts to cross the stream to freedom. In his earliest dialogue, the Buddha cautioned against confusing the raft with the shore and against adopting any rigid opinion or view. He went on, ‘How could anything in this world bring conflict to a wise person who has not adopted any view?’… The flexibility of heart brings a humor to spiritual practice. It allows us to see that there are a hundred thousand skillful means of awakening, that there are times for formal and systematic ways and times for spur-of-the-moment and unusual and outrageous ones.”
However, in making this argument, this passage—like many others with a similar point—misrepresents what the Buddha actually said. He drew a clear line between the role of views when one is still on the path and their role after one has reached the goal. As he stated in an early poem, the goal cannot be defined in terms of views—or of learning or precepts—but it cannot be attained except through views, learning, and precepts (Sn 4:9). There may be some leeway in how a person practices in line with this fact—the Wings to Awakening, for instance, contain seven different descriptions of how the factors of the path interact—but paths of practice are clearly divided into right and wrong, because wrong paths, like an attempt to get edible oil by grinding gravel, simply don’t work.
While you’re on the path, you have to hold to it. This is part of the message of the simile of the raft. It’s not about confusing the path with the goal. The simile’s main message is about not needing to hold to the path after you have achieved the goal. But it also implies that as long as you are still at the stage of crossing the river, you need to hold firmly to the raft. Otherwise, the river will sweep you away (MN 22).
This point is underlined by the simile that accompanies the simile of the raft in MN 22: the simile of the snake. Suppose that you want something from a snake, such as venom to make an antidote. If you grasp the snake wrongly, by catching its tail, it’ll bite you. If you grasp it rightly, by pinning its neck down with a forked stick, the snake won’t be able to bite you no matter how much it writhes and coils around your arm. You’ll be able to get the venom needed for the antidote. However, if you try to play it safe by not grasping the snake at all, you won’t get the antidote you need.
Similarly, if you hold to the Dhamma simply to argue with others, you’ll harm yourself. If you hold onto it to practice it sincerely, you’ll gain the results you want. If you don’t hold onto it at all, the results simply won’t come.
As we noted above in our discussion of Point 18, it’s rare for Theravāda Buddhist Romantics explicitly to promote the idea that the universe is beyond dualities of right and wrong in moral matters. However, when they adopt an ironic attitude toward views, they ignore the fact that to assert no right or wrong in terms of views is to assert implicitly no right or wrong in terms of actions and morality. After all, views are a type of action, they lead to further actions, and those actions have consequences. As long as suffering is a problem resulting from unskillful actions, and the end of suffering is a possible goal resulting from skillful actions, there have to be right and wrong ways of viewing the problem and understanding which actions are skillful and which ones are not.
The Buddha was not an argumentative person, but even he would go out of his way to confront those who taught views that were absolutely detrimental to Dhamma practice—in particular, those who taught that action bore no results. He would also seek out and argue with those who held to opinions that inadvertently denied the power of action in the present, such as philosophers who attributed everything to a creator God, who taught that all things were without cause, or who taught that all experience was predetermined by what was done in the past (§8; MN 101). Because these views undercut any notion of an effective path of practice, the Buddha had to show clearly that they were wrong.
So the Dhamma does not embrace opposites. If it embraces anything, it embraces the observation that some practices are right for the sake of leading to the end of suffering, and other practices are wrong. As long as you’re on the path, you embrace the path. When the goal is reached, you let go of everything. But if you’re still alive and teaching others, you show them compassion by making sure that they understand what is right and wrong so that they can attain the freedom of the transcendent as well.
This point highlights a greater irony in the difference between Buddhist Romanticism and the Dhamma. By adopting a universal point of view—that of an expressive artist, trying to transcend finite dualities—Buddhist Romantics seem to be coming from a higher perspective from which they can use the historical method to criticize the Dhamma for being narrow: time-bound, culture-bound, and out-of-date. And yet, in the final analysis, they can promise only a very compromised notion of freedom: glimpses of Oneness that can never go beyond the confines of becoming.
As for the Dhamma, even though it seems to be taking a narrower point of view—that of a craftsman trying to master what is right and wrong in a craft, and passing that craft along to others—it ultimately leads to a higher goal: transcendent freedom beyond the dimensions of space and time.
The contrast between these two approaches can be appreciated most graphically by considering the story with which the author of the above passage on flexibility illustrates his message. He tells of a high school basketball coach hired to coach a group of specially handicapped children. Realizing after his first session that the children would never be able to play basketball with any recognizable rules—they had trouble even lining up and facing in the same direction—he went with the flow and threw out his coaching plans in favor of a more free-form approach. Instead of focusing on winning, he fostered an atmosphere that allowed the children to express their creativity and have a good time. The scorekeeper pushed the score button whenever he felt like it—in one game, they racked up more than a million points—the game could be interrupted by music and dance at any point, and at the end of each game everyone was rewarded with hotdogs.
The story is humorous in a gentle, heartwarming way, but the humor distracts attention from the question of whether this was the most helpful approach the coach could have taken in training the children. And the warmth distracts attention from the chilling message the story is being forced to convey: that spiritual life is not about playing well or mastering a skill, and that in the final account, winning or losing at the path doesn’t matter. All that matters is expressing yourself and enjoying yourself in the process.
If suffering weren’t a real problem, this attitude would be perfectly helpful, as it places no unnecessary demands on anyone. But suffering itself places demands on the heart, and the demands have a squeeze. If you’re sensitive to that squeeze, you want, not an artist who teaches you how to express yourself while embracing the squeeze, but a craftsman who can train you in the skills needed to put an end to that squeeze once and for all. In this context, compassion doesn’t mean throwing out the rules and awarding prizes to everyone. It means giving clear instructions as to what works and what doesn’t—treating people, not as children wanting entertainment, but as adults.
The Buddha didn’t speak as a creative artist expressing himself by inventing the Dhamma. He spoke as an expert craftsman who had discovered a path to a freedom totally uncreated and who passed that path on to many others who, in turn, have continued passing it on for millennia. The craft of the path is based on the assumption that we are free to make choices, and that our choices can make a difference. As the Buddha saw when he first contemplated his life, there is no proof that these assumptions are true—or that our actions can lead to the deathless—until you’ve put them to the test. There are no guarantees prior to at least some level of commitment. But as he also saw, the possibility that actions might make a difference meant that the only honorable way to live was to take the risk of taking on the commitment, and to devote his life to finding out how far human action can go.
There is no honor in assuming that actions don’t count and that a transcendent happiness is impossible. As long as we’re choosing a path to follow, why not make the honorable choice?