The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

For students who want to dig deeper into the dharma and its relationship to culture, societal beliefs, and philosophic ideas, I offer this thought-provoking essay by Thanissaro Bhhikku entitled The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism.

Buddhist Romanticism?  Is there any such thing?  Well, decide for yourself after reading this article!

Because the article is somewhat long, I’ll only include some excerpts here, and then give a link to the whole document, which you can download for your own study.

But please don’t think this article is theoretical or merely about intellectual or philosophical ideas in some abstract way! What Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out is that our societal beliefs and ingrained world-views can make a huge difference on not only what we are looking for in Buddhism, but in how we practice it. Buddhist Romanticism is not the same as the Buddhism of the early teachings. As he says:

“When these two traditions are compared point‐by‐point, it’s obvious that—from the perspective of early Buddhism—Romantic/humanistic psychology gives only a partial and limited view of the potentials of spiritual practice. This means that Buddhist Romanticism, in translating the Dharma into Romantic principles, gives only a partial and limited view of what Buddhism has to offer.”

If the thought that one’s unexamined cultural assumptions might keeping one from seeing all that Buddhism has to offer intrigues you, then you might want to read the whole article. To pique your curiosity further, here are some more excerpts:

Immanuel Kant

“Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego‐transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar.

To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from the Dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.

The German Romantics may be dead and almost forgotten, but their ideas are still very much alive. Their thought has survived because they were the first to tackle the problem of how it feels to grow up in a modern society. Their analysis of the problem, together with their proposed solution, still rings true.”


Carl Jung

“When psychology and psychotherapy developed as disciplines in the West, they absorbed many of the Romantics’ ideas and broadcast them into the culture at large. As a result, concepts such as integration of the personality, self-fulfillment, and interconnectedness, together with the healing powers of wholeness, spontaneity, playfulness, and fluidity have long been part of the air we breathe. So has the idea that religion is primarily a quest for a feeling‐ experience, and religious doctrines are a creative response to that experience.”

Taken broadly, Romanticism and the Dharma view spiritual life in a similar light. Both regard religion as a product of human activity, rather than divine intervention. Both regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic; and its role as therapeutic, aimed at curing the diseases of the human mind. But if you examine the historical roots of both traditions, you find that they disagree sharply not only on the nature of religious experience, but also on the nature of the mental diseases it can treat and on the nature of what it means to be cured.


“These differences aren’t just historical curiosities. They shape the presuppositions that meditators bring to the practice. Even when fully present, the mind carries along its past presuppositions, using them to judge which experiences—if any—should be valued. This is one of the implications of the Buddhist doctrine on karma. As long as these presuppositions remain unexamined, they hold an unknown power. So to break that power, we need to examine the roots of the Buddhist Romanticism—the Dharma as seen through the Romantic gate.”


An End to Suffering

“Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. In response, the Romantic argument brands these teachings as dualistic: either inessential to the religious experience or inadequate expressions of it. Thus, it concludes, they can safely be ignored. In this way, the gate closes off radical areas of the Dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.”


Click this link below to download the full article in MS Word .doc format:

The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

4 Responses to “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism”

  1. This seems to be a rehash of the book The Making of Buddhist Modernism which covers not just Romanticism, but also scientific rationalism and protestant as influences on modern Buddhism. I’d recommend going to the source.

  2. Dhivan Thomas Jones Reply 2010/06/09 at 9:17 AM

    Dear Steve,
    Thanks for your blog. I wonder if you could help me. I am writing a book on the Buddha’s teaching of dependent arising and I would like to include a reference to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s essay, ‘The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism’. Is there a source you know of for the essay to which you have provided a link?
    Many thanks,

    • Hello my friend! Happy to help.

      You can find “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism” at:

      Look for a collection of his essays on the page called “Purity of Heart.” The article you’re looking for is in there in a PDF (there’s also an MP3 of that name, but you want the one under “Essay Books.”)

      Purity of Heart

      Click to access PurityOfHeart.pdf

      Hope this helps. Of course, one of the best studies ever on dependent co-arising is in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s:

      The Shape of Suffering: A Study of Dependent Co-arising

      Click to access DependentCo-arising.pdf

      Be sure to check that out too. I will be an absolute treasure trove of scholarly research and insight.

      All the best on your book!



  1. The Mind of Absolute Trust-Seng-Ts’an « Metta Refuge - 2010/03/23

    […] an earlier post here, “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes in a similar vein: “Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their […]

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