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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The Quest for Nirvana

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There is one aspect I really loved about the Romantics of the first generation. They had a vision. They soon understood that the world was undergoing such a change due to the industrial revolution, whose consequences wouldn’t have been only of a social, economical nature, but emotional. Modern world would have moved faster, but speed would have made man inevitably more shallow if not blind. You cannot grasp the essence and the beauty of live if you must move at high-speed. For example, If I live in Rome and I want to go to Milan by airplane I will see just the destination, if I get the train I will be able to see the beautiful landscapes, mountains, rivers ; but if I could do it riding a bike I could smell the air, meet the people, taste their food, interact, live, I could really see, learn, grow – I am sure two fellow bloggers from Canada cannot but agree with me upon this point  😉  – . If you don’t want modernity to devour your uniqueness and sensibility, you need time and maybe a bike.

imagesW2YGFEXYTherefore you have to STOP. This is what Wordsworth said. Stop and breathe, stop and enjoy the wonders of nature, stop and make your “inner eye” live and vibrate with the spiritual forces of the world. If you just stop for a while, you will find  happiness. This is the inner message of one or Wordsworth’s most famous poems: “Daffodils“. He also adds, that this or any other experience of this kind, will be always part of man and helps him in times of trouble. But if a man is insensitive, where can he find his comfort?

images7YML3HLBEven the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge‘s “Rime”  stops with a spell the young, reluctant, Wedding Guest in order to communicate with him. He wants the boy to listen to his tale in order to meditate upon its meaning. Think before acting or you will inevitably pay its consequences, he seems to say, take your time to do the right thing. In the end the Wedding Guest will be transformed into ” A wiser and sadder man”.

nirvanaAt this point a question takes shape in my mind : “couldn’t  Coleridge and Wordsworth be a kind of unaware Buddhists”?  After all, the ancient mariner seems a sort of Buddha to me, that is, the enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help man (the Wedding Guest), end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving.  Even the poem Daffodils, cannot be a great example of Buddhist meditation? Your mind focuses on an object (daffodils), this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings, till your mind is able to gain insight (inward eye) into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“). In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves reaching our Nirvana.

However, Buddhism was well-known at those times. images1GO9TIX4Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion and was convinced that suffering was caused by desire and only the extinction of desire led to liberation. In The World as Will and Representation he finds in aesthetic contemplation a temporary way to escape this pain, because through aesthetic contemplation the world is no longer seen as an object of perception but rather as that place where one merges with that perception. In that timeless moment the individual loses his identity/will and his sorrows as well, thus being able to enjoy the true essence of the world.

Ahhhh, that would be really great, but, excuse me…………….what time is it?