issue 21 autumn 03
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The Great Awakening - A Buddhist Social Theory

David Loy

Academic and Zen teacher David Loy explains to Akuppa how Buddhist practice can address pressing social issues.

Once upon a time the world was a simpler place. Kings were on their thrones, the people farmed the land, merchants grew rich, and from time to time there would be wars between neighbouring kingdoms. It may not have been a golden age, but at least it was relatively easy to understand.

The world works differently nowadays. Government is multi-layered, trade is conducted through cryptic financial institutions, technology is the province of experts, and we are subject to social forces and ideologies that are difficult to understand. Add to that the rapidity of change, and the spread of mass disinformation, and you have a bewildering complexity.

All of which can be disheartening for someone who sees suffering in the world and just wants to respond. It's not that we need to see things simply, but we do need some way of seeing the world more clearly.

David Loy, the American writer and Zen Buddhist, is one of those trying to help. In 2002 he published A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack, which offers a Buddhist perspective on our preoccupation with freedom, progress, fame, romance and money, as well as the origins of institutions such as corporations and the nation state. This has now been followed by The Great Awakening: a Buddhist Social Theory, which turns the spotlight onto a range of social issues, including economic development, globalisation, war, prison reform, biotechnology and the environment.

Loy seems to be one of those people born with a desire to change the world. His personal commitment to activism goes back to his youth.

'Many of us back in the Sixties were loosely involved in what was called the new Left, but the relationship with Marxism was never very clear. I never considered myself a Marxist. But what was the alternative? Where else were we coming from? What was the foundation of our activism?'

He was a draft resister during the Vietnam War and spent some time in jail for non-violent anti-war protests. He then 'dropped out' and ended up in Hawaii, where he was introduced to Zen by Robert Aitken. There followed a more introspective period.

'The social concern was always there, but it was on the back burner as I focused on myself. I got into Zen - I saw the anger I was expressing and had to look at where that was coming from inside myself. I think what often brings us to Buddhist practice is our own suffering, in one form or another. Then, insofar as we're able to be transformed, we wake up into the world, and what do we find? We may have reduced our own suffering, but we wake up into a world full of suffering, delusion, pain, violence and greed, and we have to respond to those needs.'

Loy wanted to make the link between understanding the world and his personal commitment to changing it. His Buddhist practice led him to reject the ideologies of the day and to think in terms of what he calls a 'theory of lack'. 'The problem with Marxism for me is its materialistic reductionism. I'm fascinated by the opposite. In many cases what motivates us is not something material, but a spiritual thirst that we're therefore trying to gratify in a distorted way. It was intriguing to discover that Buddhist resources can provide a different perspective on social problems.'

Loy's theory of lack is based on the Buddhist insight into the emptiness of the self. In our delusion, we experience the ungroundedness of our being as a sense of lack and, in various ways, we try to ground ourselves, to make ourselves feel more real. In A Buddhist History of the West, Loy traces how Western civilisation lurched from one collective attempt to escape the burden of lack to the next. This has culminated in our current fascination with wealth, which is one of the topics explored in The Great Awakening.

But if it all comes down to such basic Buddhist teachings, why do we need to concern ourselves with social issues at all? Would it not be more effective just to deepen our own practice?

'The world has changed considerably since the time of the Buddha. We're now faced with powerful, large-scale social institutions that are enormous sources of social suffering. As Buddhists concerned with ending suffering, we must take account of them and understand how they operate. We need to look out for institutionalised greed, ill will and ignorance. This seems to me a special historical time, given our technological powers and the environmental disasters now unfolding. The collective decisions made in the next generation or two will have enormous consequences for the future of human society and the biosphere. The days when you could ignore all that are over. If you do so, sadly, your indifference becomes part of the problem.'

These are challenging words, but Loy is far from advocating that we throw ourselves unthinkingly into activism. He has useful advice for those trying to strike a creative balance.

'There are times when we need to focus on our personal practice and times when we need to bring back what we have learnt into transforming the world. In my own life there has sometimes been more emphasis on the meditative side and sometimes more on the social implications of the Buddhist path. That's why Buddhism can contribute something valuable to the kind of activism that's needed - through bringing in the importance of mindfulness and meditation practice.

'Transforming ourselves and transforming the world - that's really a false duality. Insofar as we're able to let go of ourselves and let something else flow through us, I think we inevitably become more engaged with the world. To be less self-preoccupied is to realise our non-duality with the world - we're not in the world, we're one manifestation of the world. We are what the world is doing right here and now.

'The other thing Buddhism has to offer here is the emphasis on emptiness - particularly the implication of goallessness. If we're working towards social transformation, inevitably we're working towards particular goals. But realising the emptiness of our activities leads to a focus on process rather than conclusion. You don't sacrifice the present for some kind of idealised future. The Bodhisattva, for example, takes a vow to liberate all sentient beings. But he or she doesn't then feel depressed because all beings are not liberated. The goal provides direction and we work towards it by focusing on one step at a time.'

Loy currently lives in Japan with his wife and son. He is a qualified Sensei (Zen teacher) but is mainly active as an academic. He is sharply critical of US foreign policy and has recently been giving lectures against the occupation of Iraq, and America's new 'Holy War'. His stance is both unequivocal and also much influenced by his Buddhist practice.

'At this point in history, one of the major issues is the consciousness of the American people. As a US citizen I feel some responsibility for doing what I can to address that. It's tempting to ridicule President Bush because he's such an easy target. The advantage of focusing on the three poisons, however, is that we can't just project them onto someone else in order to feel good about ourselves. Greed, ill will and delusion are operating in the world, and I know very well that greed, ill will and delusion are operating in me. So to feel virtuous myself would be another form of deluded dualism - which is not to say that there's no difference. Bush and his group are a ruthless bunch of people and we shouldn't be naïve about what they're trying to accomplish.'

But even if we're able to deal with our own anger, aren't there dangers in Buddhists taking sides, as, say, anti-capitalists? Isn't this reducing Buddhism to the level of political ideology? 'This is where Buddhism is so insightful. It's a mistake to think that if you remove capitalism, you're going to solve the basic problem. Capitalism is one form of institutionalised greed. We'd still have to deal individually and collectively with the other forms that our greed will take.

'The collapse of communism allowed capitalism to take off its velvet gloves. It's become more obvious that capitalism is a destructive economic system, as it tends to commodify everything. It reverses the traditional relationship between society and economics. In premodern societies, the drive for profit is seen as something subversive, to be controlled. There are markets, but they're contained. In the last couple of hundred years, capitalism has liberated itself, trying to commodify anything anywhere and society has to adapt to what the economic system demands. Economic globalisation today is about completing that process.

'The Buddha's teaching is an ideology of no ideology, and inevitably there's a tension there. I don't think Buddhism offers a self-contained critique of society in the same way as, say, Marxism. But it can contribute an important dimension to the worldwide process of social resistance and transformation. Rather than saying we have all the answers, as Buddhists we can offer what we've learnt from our tradition and our practice of it. Let's heed these special factors in trying to construct an alternative society. The ones I focus on are the three poisons, the connection between suffering and our deluded sense of self, and the notions of emptiness and karma. The idea of lack implies that our addictions are distorted versions of a basic spiritual drive.'

This raises the question of whether Buddhism as practised in the West is distinctive enough from the prevailing ideology actually to bring about any change. In one chapter of The Great Awakening, Loy describes the co-option of Zen by Samurai militarism and Japanese nationalism to the point where it lost its ethical awareness. Could we in the West be falling into a similar trap by being too materialistic?

'The problem isn't that we're too materialistic, or that material things are bad. The problem is that we aren't materialistic enough. I don't think we're in touch enough with the sensuous texture of things. We're pre-occupied with symbols, addicted to symbols.

'Money is the pure symbol. It isn't something you can touch, or eat. You can't sleep under a dollar bill. We're so caught up in the economic system right now because money represents Being to us. We experience our emptiness as a sense of lack and become addicted to symbols like money because these are the socially encouraged ways by which we try to fill up our sense of lack. So, in some ways, it would be better if we became more materialistic and more in touch with our senses rather than caught up in these kinds of abstractions.

'This leads, for instance, to a self-defeating dualism between work and leisure. We do work we don't enjoy to get the money and then, in leisure, spend that money trying to recover from our psychological and physical exhaustion so that we can go back and work some more. It's strange to spend so much of one's life doing something that doesn't have any special meaning except as a way to get pieces of paper. So a real Buddhist economics would emphasise that the kind of work we're doing has to be meaningful, not just a means to an end.

'There is also a danger in commodifying Buddhism, where it becomes another aspect of a middle-class consumer lifestyle and geared to people who, because they are middle class, can afford expensive retreats and paraphernalia. I recently met a young woman who was eager to practise but found the sesshins too expensive. That's sad - not only for her but for what it says about western Buddhism today. Quite a contrast from my days with Robert Aitken in the early seventies. He did everything he could to make it possible for us to practise.'

So can Buddhism in the West be a real catalyst for change in society, or was that just a dream of an earlier, pioneer generation? Given the scale of environmental problems unfolding around us, how does Loy see the prospects for change?

'What's scary now, 11 years on from the Rio Earth Summit, is how environmental issues have disappeared from consciousness. There was a time when, in any economic discussion, you'd have to make at least a gesture towards the environmental implications. Then the corporate world realised this was a real threat to what they were doing and mounted a massive counter-attack, especially in the US, to de-emphasise the whole problem. Secondly, the public grew scared that this was going to require a change of lifestyle, so they've repressed the whole thing. This has added a more manic quality to our addictions.

'The challenge is to help people realise that this implies a significant change of lifestyle but also an improvement in the quality of life. Because of addictions they're caught up in, people don't yet see it that way. It might be a slow process.'

Loy does, however, sound a more optimistic note in relation to the effects of the Iraq War. 'The latest war is just a more blatant continuation of ongoing US foreign policy in Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran and so on. In that sense there's a silver lining to this cloud. What's going on has become more obvious to the whole world - that it's a move toward empire. But all empires die of indigestion. I don't think the US can rule the rest of the world if the world doesn't want it to. The long-term prognosis is that people will respond and force some kind of accommodation. World reaction showed the need for a stronger United Nations and I think that will emerge as the natural alternative. Or at least I hope it will.

'Add up all the ecological, social, economic and political problems, and it's easy to become discouraged. For me, though, being a Buddhist means commitment to a transformative power that works in and through us when we open up to it. We can't grasp it or understand it, because it's our own true nature, and that process has important implications for social transformation. We live in challenging times - but who expected what happened in eastern Europe in 1989? Who really knows what is possible?