We are in a world where is enormous amount of suffering and it comes not just from our individual karma but the way society is structured.
Luckwaldt: What should a Western Buddhist student definitely know about Karma?
David Loy: The most important thing to remember is the emphasis on our motivation, our intentions. The Karma teaching is how we reconstruct ourselves by changing our motivations. Changing our responses to situations until they really become habitual and those habits become our character. This understanding of Karma doesn’t necessarily imply rebirth, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is to live in such a way that makes no difference. I do not know if I will be reborn or not. In a way I’m not very concerned about that. My agenda is to do the best that I can right now and, if I do that, rebirth will take care of itself.
Luckwaldt:What can Buddhists learn from the traditional Western viewpoint of ethics?
David Loy: In the Judeo-Christian culture it was all about good vs evil, which helps us to understand a lot what happened in history. The Buddhist perspective is more delusion vs. wisdom, or ignorance vs. awakening. The good side of the good vs. evil perspective is that it is concerned about justice including social justice, which we traditionally don’t emphasize in Buddhism. Within the Asian Buddhist cultures that hasn’t been a concern. The focus is much on my own individual Karma, my own individual suffering, own individual following of the path, own awakening.
I’m not so sure that that was the teaching of the Buddha, but that is how Buddhists societies developed. Buddhists didn’t have much to say about the nasty things ancient Kings were doing, which we might call social dukkha or even institutionalized dukkha. The Karma teaching was often used to rationalize the power of a king. If somebody was born a prince, he must have good karma from his past lifetime. If somebody was born poor, powerless, or a woman, well they must have really bad karma.
Now that Buddhism has come to the modern world it has not to stay that way. If Buddhism goes to a new culture it interacts. That is a situation we are now. Now since Buddhism is coming to a new world, a world in crisis it should extend to look at the basic teachings of Buddhism to look at our situation now. We are in a world where is enormous amount of suffering and it comes not just from our individual karma but the way society is structured.
Luckwaldt: Do you see this happening already in Western Buddhism?
David Loy It is starting to happen. I think the tradition that is most resistant and stuck is Tibetan Buddhism because of the emphasis of the reborn Tulkus and all that. In the long run it has the biggest job to do. It easier for Vipassana and Zen traditions.
I once heard a Buddhist teacher speculating, “What terrible Karma all those Jews in Nazi Germany must have had to be born in at that time in this place.” I find that unacceptable. I find that way of thinking nowadays intolerable. It’s time for Buddhism to grow up and to be more aware of institutionalized suffering, institutionalized dukkha, institutionalized delusion.
Many people who come to Buddhism just want solace, dwell in emptiness and equanimity. They don’t want to face social problems. I think that is not what is needed now.
Stay tuned… more from Luckwaldt’s conversation with David Loy is coming soon!
David R. Loy is a Sanbo Zen teacher and the bestselling author of a Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolutionand A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World.
Matthias Luckwaldt is a freelance journalist and student of Religions and English and American Literature at the University of Hamburg. The Buddha Dharma helped Matthias to rediscover his Christian roots.
The content from this post was originally published in Quaker Universalist Voice, April 2017 as 21st century Buddhism: Facing institutionalized suffering, An interview with David R. Loy