Buddhism for a Post-Axial Age, Review of David Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, Part 1

Ruben Habito reviews A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World by David Loy, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2015. His in-depth review of Loy’s work will be published on our website in four installments.  Enjoy!

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This new book by David Loy could have also been given the title “Buddhism for a Post-Axial Age,” with a subtitle like “Enlightenment and Earthly Engagement.” Loy, Buddhist philosopher and Zen Master, whose previous works include titles like The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Wisdom, 1997), Buddhist History of the West: A Study in Lack (SUNY Press, 2002), Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom, 2008), suggests that the Buddhist encounter with the West, and vice versa, the encounter of the West with Buddhism, has opened up new horizons and possibilities that are profoundly transformative for both sides. A New Buddhist Path charts out some of these directions, outlining key features of a contemporary Buddhism that is both “faithful to its most important traditional teachings and also compatible with modernity.” (p. 2)

A fairly widespread interpretation of the Buddhist message as received by followers and reflected in scriptural accounts from the early centuries aligns it with features found also in the other major religions that emerged during the Axial Age. This is a term popularized by German philosopher Karl Jaspers to denote a certain period of human history (ca. 800-200 BCE) wherein, in different geographical regions (India, China, Persia, Judea, Greece) with no apparent historical connection with one another, there arose certain modes of thinking about ultimate reality and how humans relate to this reality that marked a significant step from previous stages of human consciousness.

This kind of thinking posits a transcendent world over and above this earthly, temporal one, bringing forth a cosmological dualism that ushered in a new vision of a cosmic and moral order,

—whereby our human affairs came to be measured and valued (or devalued) in the light of an eternal, transcendent realm.

One positive feature of this mode of thinking was the opening of the way for the individual to have a direct personal connection with this transcendent realm, whether conceived in personal or impersonal terms. Introducing such a realm accessible to individuals independently of social status or ranking and not directly reliant on traditional intermediaries of the sacred (such as priest, king or ruler, etc., in pre-Axial societies), on the one hand, was a liberative factor that allowed for new developments in the human spiritual quest. On the other hand, this also came with a dualistic mindset that privileged the transcendent, with the concomitant attitude that was tantamount to the denigration or devaluation of the matters of this world, and the consequent tendency to neglect of the mundane tasks of building a better, more equitable, and more just human society.

For example, Buddhism, as portrayed in its earlier Scriptural accounts as well as in the forms that developed over two and a half millennia that remain in continuity with the earlier traditions, in setting up nirvana as the human ideal of perfection, is viewed as a world-denying religion that offers its followers a path for overcoming this world caught in the cycle of death and rebirth, and presenting an ideal of human liberation based on an individual-centered form of spiritual cultivation. The early Buddhist notion of the arhat, a “worthy one” who has taken on a path of purification in eschewing all forms of this- worldly attachment, embodies this transcendent ideal of human perfection.

Similarly, those religions that arose during or developed in the wake of the Axial age envisioned human ultimate destiny as involving a passage to a realm beyond this one, in a Heaven, Paradise, Pure Land, or some ideally conceived realm of the afterlife, and thus exhibit world-denying characteristics, tending to de-emphasize the value of efforts to make this world a better one, unless this was tied up with attaining a reward in the afterlife. (Christianity and Islam, though having been formed historically after the Axial age according to Jaspers’ reckoning, exhibit similar characteristics, and thus broadly speaking can be included among the “Axial age religions.”)

The cosmological dualism that posits a transcendent realm as a “higher order” over and above this worldly realm comes with other problematic features found in these religions of the Axial age. The privileging of the transcendent over the this-worldly realm mirrors the patriarchal attitudes and social structures based on a view of the superiority of the male over the female of the human species. The privileging of the human above the rest of the non-human realm of sentient beings and above the natural world is another concomitant feature of this dualistic view. Issues of gender equity, and of eco-social justice, are among the challenges posed by modernity and postmodernity vis-à-vis the Axial religions. In this light, their adherents are called to critically examine their own attitudes and institutional structures as these are manifested in their own individual and collective mode of being, and address them accordingly. Assessing the impact of the Axial religions on human civilization as a whole, Loy suggests that “although Axial-type transcendence has been historically invaluable, it is no longer adequate for what we know today…we need to be liberated from their dualisms, which have outlived their role.” (p. 25)

Partly as a backlash to the one-sidedly transcendent emphasis associated with the Buddhist message, there are those especially in the West who espouse a view of the Buddhist path that conveniently fits within or adapts itself to a modern worldview that rejects cosmological dualism. There are those who take Buddhism to be a psychotherapeutic program that allows individuals to cope with life in a competitive, consumeristic society with its concomitant problems that come to bear upon an individual’s personal and psychological health and well-being (such as “stress,” “monkey-mind,” and the like). Loy notes how philosopher Slavoj Zizek unmasks this truncated and totally inadequate understanding of the Buddhist message, in the latter’s critique of “Western Buddhism” (conceived in those terms as a psychotherapeutic program that helps individuals deal with “stress,” and thus be more successful in their endeavors in business and in other worldly pursuits) that has come to be “the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism,” in that “its meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.” (p. 37). There are other writers who have exposed, critiqued, and lamented, this truncated view as a kind of pseudo-Buddhism, a form of “I-dolatry” that puts the self-serving ego and its demands back at the center of one’s world instead, of dislodging it and being liberated from its wiles. (See Maria Reis Habito, “Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self-Indulgence?” 

Click here to read Part 2 of Buddhism for a Post-Axial Age

Ruben L.F. Habito teaches world religions and spirituality at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and also serves as Guiding Teacher at Maria Kannon Zen Center, Dallas, Texas. Author of Experiencing Buddhism: Ways of Wisdom and Compassion (Orbis Books, 2005), Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World (Wisdom, 2006) and many other volumes in English and Japanese.

Originally Published as Buddhist Wisdom from Healing the Earth in Tikkun Magazine, January 26, 2016

Featured Image: Elements-Imagination, by Hartwig HKD, CC by- ND 2.o, from Flickr.com
Image: Barcelona Sagrada, by Doc Searls, CC by 2.0, from Flickr.com

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