Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

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18 thoughts on “Romantic Buddhism

  1. How wonderful to be reading about Wordsworth and Daffodils again. As you may remember, they were my chosen topic for the final exam at high school.
    I think there might be quite a difference between Buddhism’s meditation and the “recollection in tranquillity”. The former, in fact, is about emptying one’s mind in order to achieve a sort of inner silence and, thus, “peace”. On the other hand, Wordsworth himself describes the daffodils gently coming his mind during a moment of tranquillity. In his case, he is at peace not because he emptied his mind from any foreign thought, quite the opposite! His mind and heart are so full with those wonderful images and emotions, as to dance with and through them.

    Would I (still) pass the exam? 🙂

  2. Interesting parallels which I’d never considered before. But then I haven’t studied the Romantics as much as I could’ve since I was at school!

    I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in translation many years ago when Hesse was all the rage, but I’m not familiar with Mann’s. I confess I’ve only read Mann’s The Holy Sinner so can’t claim any great knowledge of his work. In fact, I realise I’m only revealing the vast depths of my literary ignorance! I’ll go off and finish my reading now… 😁

  3. I love your comparison between Buddhism and Romanticism. We really do need to slow down just a bit and savor the moment. I laughed out loud at your ending about the time and having to go.

  4. It is always nice seeing things from different points of view! Last year I was fascinated with the emotions that Wordsworth could express observing nature! Eliminating every emotion and dream to arrive to Nirvana after death, is one of the possible interpretations (Hinayana school). In my opinion dreams are what lights us up and give meaning to our life, this is the reason why Eliot’s land after the first world war was “waste”, because he could not DREAM anymore! So Nirvana is here and now, with all life’s sufferings that were very important to build our happiness(Mahayana school- Lotus Sutra). The same great happiness that in Wordsworth’s poem, the poet could feel looking at the golden daffodils. Can daffodils flourish in this world that a lot of people see “waste”? It depends only on us.

  5. What a great post! I read a lot about Buddhism and discussed it with locals while traveling in Indonesia but this was a different point of view, very interesting and a great read! Thank you 🙂
    Rebecka XX

  6. This is why the Buddha set up the system of the monastics. He understood that if you lived an ordinary life (he called the life of a house holder) that it would be very difficult to get very far (in our Buddhist practice) because our lives are so fast and filled with worry and obligation. It is a symbiotic relationship between the monks and the laity that enables the monks to concentrate full time on their spiritual development. Thanks for posting! 🙂

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