David Loy’s “A New Buddhist Path”

By Daniel Liechty

David Loy's "A New Buddhist PathOf Recent Interest is the new book by David R. Loy, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World (Wisdom Publications, 2015).

David Loy, a frequent guest speaker at EBF events, is widely recognized as a leading philosopher of a new trend within Buddhism: to construct and advocate for consistent social engagement on the part of Buddhist practitioners. This book continues his overarching project of bringing Eastern and Western perspectives into creative dialogue with each other. Written in an easily accessible style, A New Buddhist Path summarizes much of what Loy has taught for the past 30 years, and invites the reader to consider the ways in which the perspective of “non-dualism” casts the problems of the modern(izing) world. Although Loy mainly writes as a Buddhist teacher and philosopher, he is completely ecumenical in the texts and examples on which he draws. Much of what Loy writes could easily be adapted to any particular denominational religious discourse.

The book is divided into three parts: Path, Story, and Challenge.

In Path, Loy suggests that in its encounter with the modern world, Buddhistic philosophy and practice has gone in two divergent directions. One way doubles down on the “traditional” view that presents Buddhist teachings within the context of the pre-modern world. This view includes miraculous and supernatural events as a matter of course. In this perspective, “nirvana,” the goal of Buddhist faith and practice, is envisioned as a state or place outside of the inevitable hustle and suffering of this world. By contrast, much of the “modern” approach (Loy uses the currently popular Mindfulness movement as his example) is highly psychologized, secularized and individualized. While many would see these as opposites, Loy skillfully teases out from each the conclusion on which they both agree: they essentially have no platform for criticizing the social conditions of the world as it is. Both, in their own ways, would have people seeking to extinguish dharma (suffering) in their lives while leaving the social structures of existing society largely untouched. At most, they envision a better adaptation to the current structures- through elaborate religious ritual on one hand and “stress relief” on the other. Loy suggests that both of these approaches are inadequate solutions to the real needs of a world in crisis, and that what we need is a new story or backdrop for living out the teachings of Buddhism.

Thus, the second part of this book: Story. When we look for the largest narrative setting within which to place ourselves, it is bound to be that of evolution. Loy agrees with this, but encourages us to resist the easy applications of evolutionary theory to social narratives, as found today in neoliberal spinoffs such as Social Darwinism (survival of the fittest = richest), libertarian individualism, “free market” fetishism and the various social philosophies that flow from Ayn Rand’s readers and disciples. Loy demonstrates that what evolutionary science actually puts in front of us is the fact that we are all part of one ongoing process. Western individualism is rooted in the assumption that the Self stands over and against that which is outside the Self. The evolutionary story demonstrates that this is clearly wrong; it is our chief delusion, in fact. Seen in this light, Loy suggests (drawing on a number of current philosophers of science in various fields) that while we have habitually read biology through the eyes of physics (thus seeing living organisms as complicated machines) it makes much more sense in light of evolutionary models to read physics through the eyes of biology. This leads us to understand that creative growth and change is a fundamental and constant principle of the universe.

Once we see all areas of our universe as activated by constant creative growth and change the world in which we live begins to look more like a living organism than the coldly impersonal and meaningless shell so many “realists” have come to assume it to be. Furthermore, as we understand ourselves to be an integral part of this universe, we also begin to see ourselves as the “sensory organs” (not Loy’s words, but I think it consistent with his intentions) through which the universe begins to study -and know itself. A scientist under the delusion of separateness famously stated, “The more we know about the universe, the more meaningless it becomes”. According to the deep evolutionary narrative we might instead say, “The more we know about the universe, the more conscious of itself and its processes the universe becomes!” In that light then, the problem of “meaning” in human existence is not that there is no meaning, but rather that the habits of mind we have nurtured laboring under the delusion of separateness obscure and hide from us the meaning inherent in our existence. We only need to “wake up” (become enlightened) to our true self (a self of deep connection by its very nature) in order to dissolve the delusion that is the source of so much discord and suffering.

Much of the book’s second section consists of demonstrating that this new story, this grand narrative of cosmic evolution, is consistent with the Western scientific perspective, and in fact has been hinted at in many ways by the geniuses and visionaries throughout Western history.

The final section, Challenge, again lays before the reader the crises of the current world situation in which we find ourselves, and suggests that there is transformative power to be found in a Buddhist reading of the Western traditions (also equally important, in the Western encounter with Buddhism). Loy does not point toward a sort of ‘pick and choose’ synthesis here: a little of this, a little of that. He suggests, rather, that starting from the Axial age, both traditions have struggled to alleviate the suffering of humanity. The early Greek and Abrahamic traditions recognized that a great cause of human suffering was unjust social arrangements. While pre-Axial people were prone to see their social arrangements as simply natural and inevitable, much as sunshine and rainfall, the Greek and Abrahamic traditions were infused with the insight that social arrangements were human constructions. This sparked a critical philosophical and prophetic voice challenging the injustices of existing social conditions and demands that the society do better. The perennial problem in the West has been that even when social structures undergo revolutionary change, the inversions of injustice do not last, “…for victory brings power and prestige, and the children of the children of the fighters take all for granted, and in turn oppress”. Reading this through the eyes of Buddhism, what we see is that human action labors under the Three Poisons of greed, aggression and delusion. Unless these poisons are acknowledged and actively countered in an ongoing process of self examination and detachment (as ideally happens in the meditative process) even actions taken with the best of motives tend to produce fruits that are counter to best intentions.

In contrast, Buddhism (as an example of an Eastern Axial tradition) fosters deep recognition of internal motives such as the Three Poisons, as well as practices designed to encourage living in growing detachment from these poisons. But in situating the source of dukkha (suffering) so much within the internal sphere of the human being, there has been a tendency in the Eastern traditions to overlook the impact of social arrangements. Rather, the enlightened person seeks to live in detachment from such political concerns. Here, a reading of Buddhism through the eyes of the Western tradition may awaken the person to reality that while suffering is undoubtedly caused by our attitudes of greed (desire), aggression (violence and power-seeking) and delusion (of many kinds, for example, the delusion of separateness between myself and others), unjust social arrangements that foster deep poverty, inequality, material accumulation far out of proportion to realistic needs, and the exploitation of lives and resources this entails, is also an integral source of human suffering in this world.

Loy demonstrates that a growing awareness of these sources of human suffering, and even more so the need to address them in tandem with each other, emerges from many sectors in our world. He challenges Buddhist activists to embrace this emerging awareness and recognize that Buddhist practice has prepared them for a time such as this.