ROMANTIC DHARMA by Mark S. Lussier, Reviewed by J. Jeffrey Franklin

By Mark S. Lussier
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) xx + 231 pp.
Reviewed by J. Jeffrey Franklin on 2012-10-05.

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This book belongs to a recent body of scholarship that links several disciplines and includes Philip C. Almond's history, The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988), Rick Fields' How the Swan Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (1992), Donald S. Lopez Jr.'s important works in religious studies, such as Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism (1995), and my own The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (2008). Romantic Dharma is thoughtful and thought-provoking, well-researched and well-written, pleasurable to read and in places fascinating, at least for those interested either in the history of the European encounter with Buddhism or in subjectivity and epistemology in British Romantic poetry. As a practicing Tibetan Buddhist himself, Lussier combines considerable scholarship in the works of the Romantics with extended study of selected canonical works of Buddhism. Nevertheless, the foundation of his book is flawed.

After the Preface explains the premises and methods of the book, to which I will return, the first chapter shows how the first European encounters with Buddhism coincided with Romanticism, which--following Raymond Williams--Lussier dates from the birth of Blake in 1757 to the death of Wordsworth in 1850. Lussier briefly chronicles the Western contacts with Buddhism leading up to the Romantic period, the early British entanglements with Tibet, and the Indian Orientalism of Sir William Jones. Here and in the book as a whole, Lussier argues two propositions: that the Romantic alternative to Enlightenment rationalism resembled Buddhist doctrines in certain ways, and did so in part because Romanticism emerged at the same time as Europeans first began to study Buddhism in Asia. Lussier defends the second point even though--as he admits--no Romantic author had specific knowledge of Buddhist doctrines, and, beyond a handful or philologists and missionaries, European discourse did not recognize Buddhism as a religion distinct from others until the end of--or after--the Romantic period.

Assuming, however, that the history of European interest in Buddhism may shed some light on Romanticism, Chapter 2 summarizes the exceptional life of Alexander Csoma de Körős (1784-1842), a Hungarian philologist who lived and worked in Tibet and India under the auspices of the East India Company and who published the first Tibetan-English grammar and dictionary in 1834. Lussier singles out Csoma de Körős because he was one of the earliest European scholars of Buddhism who wrote during the Romantic period and because of Lussier's particular interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Shifting to the 1880s and 1890s, Chapter 3 first aligns Frederick Nietzsche's concept of suffering with Buddhism's Four Noble Truths; then, by way of Schopenhauer's 1844 interpretation of Buddhism, it turns back to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793). The Marriage, Lussier contends, is Blake's "Sūtra of Wisdom," sharing a "compatibility of . . . ideas" with the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, canonical texts in Tibetan Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism in general (69, 72). "Non-dualism," Lussier concludes, "for Blake and Buddha alike, established a middle ground [the Buddhist Middle Way] between nihilism and essentialism within which wisdom resided, the 'empty' space of simultaneity . . ." (76). His analysis strives to practice this very non-dualism and simultaneity by folding together historically and culturally distant yet analogous thought systems. In this chapter as in the remaining three, Lussier supports his claims about those analogies by comparative close readings of Romantic works and selected Buddhist doctrines and texts.

Specifically, chapters 4-6 juxtapose works such as Shelley's Prometheus Bound and Blake's Milton with the Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, Nagarjuna's Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (c. 2nd-3rd cent. CE), and Śāntideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva (c. 8th cent. CE). Lussier finds in their poetry corollaries to three Buddhist doctrines and to what they imply about death: Anātman (I follow Lussier in using Sanskrit rather than Pali), which treats the concept of an essential self or soul as a delusion that causes infinite human suffering; Śūnyatā or "emptiness," which denies any fixed, eternal essence or Being and posits only unceasing transformation; and "dependent origination," Pratītya-Samutpāda, which likewise denies any separate existence and posits only interconnectedness. For Lussier, these Buddhist doctrines particularly resonate with the expressions of self-annihilation to be found in Shelley and Blake. Of Prometheis Bound, for instance, Lussier writes: "For Shelley's lyrical approach, enlightenment is the aim; poetry is the vehicle; self-annihilation is the required state of consciousness, and transmission of loving-kindness is the necessary condition leading to cosmic transformation. Shelley's presentation of the staged passage of Prometheus beyond suffering and selfhood into enlightenment is strikingly similar to the path proposed by Buddha in his first teaching, The Four Noble Truths . . ." (91). Of Blake's Milton Lussier likewise concludes: "the specific terms 'selfhood' and 'self-annihilation' define the problem and solution, respectively, in Blake's Milton, a complicated work that . . .deconstructs Western enlightenment epistemology constructed upon the cultural priority accorded reason and rationality that is stabilized by a sovereign self serving as the core principle of political and social relations" (117).

In my judgment, Lussier convincingly interprets the Romantic works he examines and explains how they resemble certain aspects of Buddhism. I feel compelled to ask, however, if Romantic Dharma advances our understanding and appreciation of Shelley, Blake, and the Romantic sensibility. It certainly sets them within a context woven far from England, but does it fundamentally change what we know of their meanings or sources? While well aware that Blake's version of self-annihilation largely derives from the Old Testament and the Gnostic Gospels, Lussier challenges the notion that Blake's response to the substantially Western history of Christianity is itself uniquely Western and that it radically tests the limits of Protestantism. Lussier succeeds in showing a "mutual illumination" between Romanticism and Buddhism (57), but he does not convincingly prove that Buddhism is necessary for understanding Romanticism, or the converse.

Herein lies the flaw in Lussier's argument. Though Romantic poetry often suggests the influence of a generalized discourse of Orientalism, there is precious little evidence for direct influence of Buddhism on Romantic poetry. While sometimes obscuring the distinction between these two influences, Lussier frankly recognizes the paucity of his evidence. "The case argued here,..." he writes, "is not one of direct influence or parallel development, since most Romantic writers manifesting this coincidence of philosophical thought could not have known with any specificity 'anything about Buddhism . . . because no information on the subject was available in Europe' " (5-6). Even so, the historical coincidence sometimes leads Lussier to forget this point. When he claims, for instance, that "contact between Buddhism and the West exploded during the period termed Romanticism and thereby occurred earlier than some past scholarship suggested" (xvii, emphasis mine), he overstates his argument. Contact between Buddhism and the West did not "explode" until after the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps this is a niggling distinction, but Lussier himself evidently does not think so. The attractiveness of historical groundedness combined with an awareness of the precariousness of his position produces a recurring anxiety in his text that surfaces as moments of awkwardness every time the question of causality or influence requires clarification. He writes, for instance, that "at the very moment Blake articulated his version of this annihilative process . . . an analogous mode for overcoming alienation and fragmentation began to emerge through Orientalist research that led to the crystallization of what is now termed 'Buddhism' into European consciousness" (137). While "began to emerge" is certainly more accurate than "exploded" and "what is now termed" strains to acknowledge the historical sequence, "at the very moment" strives to suggest a "Eureka!" of causality. But it simply reminds us that the argument of the book as a whole is based on the weak foundations of historical coincidence and analogy.

To be fair to Lussier, I must recognize that his stated method is not only synchronic but also personal. In the Preface he writes that the "synchronistic lineage" he examines "connects my practice of Tibetan Buddhism and my exploration of its full emergence into Europe during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My attempt to span personal and professional commitments might seem an uncritical procedure, but notable theoreticians have pursued precisely such paths of inquiry and with similar intent" (xiii), going on to cite examples. Likewise, the Afterward explains how he carries his scholarly engagement into his engaged Buddhism, into his own work in the community and the classroom. Though others may be put off by this bridging of professional and personal, I am not. I still cannot approve the ahistorical basis of the book, but by the time I finished the Afterward, the synchronic method had come to seem justified--necessitated--by the intensity of Lussier's attention and the depth and of his commitments to both Romanticism and Buddhism. While Romantic Dharma is in my judgment flawed, it is ambitious and perhaps even daring, true to its intentions, and well enough done that it ultimately earns the attention it deserves.

J. Jeffrey Franklin is Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver.

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