Nice article (he's written something like that before, hasn't he?). Bhikkhu Thanissaro raises some good points about how it is important to be historically reflexive in our approach to the Dhamma. As he suggests, it is important to be aware of the broader cultural and intellectual assumptions that have influenced the development of Buddhism and how these assumptions continue to underly contemporary understandings of the Dhamma.
To this extent, he is certainly spot on in identifying the influence of Romanticism, and he has certainly identified some of the key problems of conflating the assumptions of Romanticism with the Dhamma.
While I largely agree with what he is trying to do, I think the kind of critically reflexivity he is calling for should not only be applied to Romanticism but also to the other cultural and intellectual paradigms that have influenced and still continue to influence our understanding of Buddhism. I have mentioned this book several times before: The Making of Buddhist Modernism
, by David McMahan. The book presents a good overview of how contemporary Buddhism has been shaped by three overarching cultural and intellectual paradigms of modernity: western monotheism, scientific rationalism, and romantic expressivism.
To put it very simply, it looks at the history of Buddhism from the nineteenth century to illustrate how Buddhism has been reconfigured in relation to these three overarching discursive paradigms. Examining a range of Buddhist figures and movements, the book demonstrates how Buddhism is sometimes aligned with these discursive paradigms and how it is sometimes placed in opposition to them. In short, the Buddhism that we have today has developed out of a continuous interplay with these three paradigms.
Given this to be the case, Bhikkhu Thanissaro is certainly right to draw attention to the influence of Romanticism. But I don't think Buddhism can totally disassociate itself from Romanticism as such--how can it do so when Romanticism forms part of the conceptual scaffolding upon which Dhammic ideas are made relevant and intelligible to a contemporary audience?
To be fair, I don't think Bhikkhu Thanissaro is suggesting that Buddhism cuts or seals itself off from Romanticism. It seems to me that he is arguing for greater reflexivity, that we carefully sift through those assumptions that are unhelpful, assumptions which might misrepresent some of the fundamental principles of the Dhamma.
But by the same token, the same could be said about the other two discursive paradigms that equally influence Buddhism. How might we become more critically reflexive about the influence of western monotheism and scientific rationalism? Of particular interest for most of us here, I think, would be Buddhism's relationship with scientific rationalism. To take Bhikkhu Thanissaro critical attitude seriously then, we ought to equally ask:
- How have (western) notions of rationalism and scientificity influenced the way we understand Buddhism?
- What assumptions of scientific rationalism have been projected onto Buddhism?
- Have any assumptions about rationality and scientificity become (to borrow Bhikkhu Thanissaro's words) 'gates' that shut us off from some of the more challenging and radical possibilities of the Dhamma, possibilities which may very well elude or exceed rationality and scientificity?
- How might we begin to sift through these assumptions?
Thanks for sharing the article. Bhikkhu Thanissaro's critical attitude is admirable and is certainly worth emulating. My preference, however, is to take onboard his critical attitude and extend it to other cultural and intellectual paradigms influencing contemporary Buddhism and not just 'Romanticism.' So for instance: Bearing in mind that scientific rationalism is largely a product of the European Enlightenment (a very recent historical development in comparison to the history of the Dhamma), just as Bhikkhu Thanissaro wishes to respect the Dhamma for what it is by interrogating 'Buddhist Romanticism', how might we--to respect the Dhamma for what it is--also interrogate, say, 'Buddhist Rationalism' or 'Scientific Buddhism'?
I do not claim to have the answers, but I do feel that keeping these questions open are vital to my continuing growth in the Dhamma.
(edited for typos)