Interconnectedness: A Buddhist or Romantic Concept?
Anonymous asked you:
Hi, I was hoping you could help me. I read “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and was a little confused. Is he saying that the idea of interconnectedness was not a part of the Buddha’s teachings originally? Thank you.
Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I was in the midst of finals when your question came through and I didn’t check out the essay until after I was done. Now I’m disappointed I didn’t sooner because it would have been fodder for one of my papers!
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), for those who don’t know, is an American-born (1949) monk in the Thai forest tradition. He was ordained in 1976 in Thailand and is currently the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, CA.
To answer your question most simply I believe that he is saying that our understanding of the Dharma is filtered through and deeply influenced by our particular lens, in this case, the European philosophical tradition of Romanticism. Specifically, Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that the ideas of the Romantics have lived on in American culture through psychology and psychotherapy (a key bridge being the work of William James, then Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow), which have been shaped by the Romantic tradition.
A key point in the essay comes when he says:
Asian teachers — many of whom had absorbed Romantic ideas through Westernized education before coming here — found they could connect with Western audiences by stressing themes of spontaneity and fluidity in opposition to the “bureaucracy of the ego.” Western students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising (Pali: paticcasamuppada) when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace the doctrine of not-self (Pali: anatta) as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger, more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos.
He furthers his argument saying: “In fact, the Romantic view of religious life has shaped more than just isolated Dharma teachings. It colors the Western view of the purpose of Dharma practice as a whole.” While he concedes that there are similarities between Romanticism and Buddhadharma, he stresses 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.” Because of this, he says, it is crucial that we understand and critically examine how Romanticism shapes our understanding of Buddhist practice. He goes on to detail the differences in religious experience, spiritual illness, and spiritual cure in the two traditions.
Fundamentally, Thanissaro Bhikkhu contends that the Romantic lens limits our understanding of Buddhism. Arguing from a more traditional Theravadan perspective, he says that “true happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned (Pali: nibbana)…[and the] radical areas of the Dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.”
Back to your question: Is he arguing that the concept of interconnectedness was not a part of the original Buddhist teachings? Maybe. Certainly, interdependence and interconnectedness are more often found in Mahayana teachings, and I am not enough of a Buddhist scholar to be able to demonstrate how these more Mahayana concepts pre-dated Romanticism. However, I have to presume they did. Further, a more nondual understanding of the Dharma which you find in the northern Buddhist countries could just naturally be more consistent with a Romantic interpretation than a Theravadan one.
Is there some truth to the fact that we are culturally conditioned to such an extent that we cannot interpret Buddhism entirely independent of that conditioning? Yes. But I don’t think that Thanissaro Bhikkhu is arguing that; rather he wants us to critically reflect on how we are conditioned by our philosophical ancestors (again, in this case, Romanticism—arguably, not everyone’s ancestors!) and how that might limit our understanding of the Buddhadharma. Whatever the case may be, I think we should be critical ourselves in reading this essay, recognizing Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s particular conditioning as an American, educated at a liberal arts college (Oberlin), and someone of European heritage.
Reference: Thanissaro Bhikkhu. ”The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism.” Access to Insight, 13 July 2012.