Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Faflak, Joel R.


This dissertation addresses the philosophical similarity between English Romanticism and Buddhism from a Zen Buddhist perspective. In contrast to scholars such as Mark Lussier and John G. Rudy, who have focused on the similarity between Romantic and Buddhist philosophy, I explore their differences. I argue that Romanticism represents a “Buddhism in progress”: both philosophies seek to overcome “the self,” but do so through different means. Lacking direct access to Buddhist teachings, the authors considered in this study (Beckford, Coleridge, De Quincey, Shelley, and Keats) developed their own practice of self-transcendence through writing, often prompted by experiences of ecstatic intoxication that call into question the existence of “the self.” For these authors, “self” is an illusory concept that is narrated into existence to account for one’s “being” over time and is recognized as a source of suffering. Ecstatic intoxication offers self-palliation, but exposes an ontological groundlessness with which these authors struggle to come to terms.

In Chapter 1, I give a historical overview of Romanticism’s relationship to Buddhism, suggesting that Romanticism’s self-difficulty is symptomatic of “Zen sickness” (i.e., attachment to self-lessness). Chapter 2 explores William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) as an ur-text of Romantic religion that appeals to the Orient in order to escape time and selfhood. My third chapter argues that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s and Thomas De Quincey’s opium addictions model a kind of Zen sickness that is apparent in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816) and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). In Chapter 4, I argue that Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) vacillates between Christian and Buddhist philosophy, showing commitments to ontologies of both self and self-lessness. My fifth chapter addresses John Keats’s Hyperion poems (1818; 1819). I posit that due to his relationship to suffering, Keats, more intensely than any other author in this study, grapples with Buddhist themes, but is ultimately unable to cope with his self-lessness. Finally, I conclude by considering the status of the self in post-Romantic Western philosophy, which also understands the self as illusory, but unlike Buddhism, does not find liberation in this fact.