Buddhism for a Post-Axial Age, Review of David Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, Part 2

2775030018_ce0eb628aa_bLoy forges a middle way between…a “transcendentalist” view that looks to Buddhism for an escape from the toils and troubles of this world… and an “immanentist” view that regards Buddhism as a source of empowerment for equipping us frail… beings with the props …for navigating through…a brutal and competitive world…

 

 

Ruben Habito reviews A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World by David Loy, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2015.  Click to read Part 1 of this review.

Grounded in his own Zen Buddhist meditative practice as well as in years of reading and reflection and writing on the implications of the Buddhist message for our time, David Loy describes for us, as the title suggests, “a new Buddhist path” that overcomes the cosmological dualism of the Axial religions, and at the same time does not fall into a this-worldly centered view that gives in to the value systems of the current global market- centered capitalistic consumerism. He lays out a nondual path based on the fundamental Buddhist insight into “things as they really are,” a wisdom that sees everything as intimately interconnected with each and everything else, and that flows naturally into the dynamic activity of compassion. It is the wisdom that sees into the truth that I am nothing, which at the same time realizes the truth that I am everything, bringing forth the heart of compassion whereby I identify with the pains and travails as well as the joys and hopes of all sentient beings.

Examining the history of Buddhism, one may point that this is not really a “new Buddhist path” as such, as it resonates very much with the basic themes of the Mahāyāna movement that occurred in India around the early centuries of the common era. Second century Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna’s affirmation that “nirvāna is no other than samsāra, samsāra no other than nirvāna” is a formulation of this nondual understanding of ultimate reality that cuts through the polarity of transcendence and immanence. Also, as Sallie King (Socially Engaged Buddhism: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality, University of Hawaii Press, 2009) and Christopher Queen (Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, SUNY Press, 1996) and other scholars have demonstrated with ample documentation and historical case studies in their respective works, Buddhists in different socio-political contexts and in various epochs of history have been engaged in tasks of social transformation empowered by their religious experience and vision.

Given such historical antecedents, the Buddhist path that David Loy lays out in this book out may not be “new” as such, but in any case, what is offered to us is a profoundly insightful and newly convincing presentation of the key features of a Buddhist way of seeing and way of being so much needed for our contemporary times.

Loy forges a middle way between the two opposing pitfalls of a “transcendentalist” view that looks to Buddhism for an escape from the toils and troubles of this world by withdrawing from it or by seeking to go beyond it on the one hand, and an “immanentist” view that regards Buddhism as a source of empowerment for equipping us frail, vulnerable, and psychologically challenged beings with the props we would need for navigating through the harsh realities of a brutal and competitive world on the other.

This middle way is no other than the path of awakening embodied by the Buddha himself, a path of real-ization, that is, of the fact that “I” am not separate from “the world,” that everything that constitutes this “I” is no other than everything that constitutes this world as such, and that thereby “my” fate, “my” well-being, is inseparably linked to the fate and the well-being of the entire world itself. This nondual understanding of reality, of my (true) self and the world (seen for what it is “just as it is”) as not separate, is what grounds the intimate link between personal transformation and socio-ecological transformation, another key theme of the book that Loy spells out more in detail in the third section.

Having laid out this nondual vision of the Buddhist path in the first part of his book, in the second part the author presents the features of a new story enlightened by this vision that may allow for a sustainable and wholesome ecological future for all of us on this planet. The backdrop for this chapter can also be found in Loy’s previously published work, The World is Made of Stories (Wisdom 2010), wherein he illustrates how the stories we tell ourselves, about who we are, where we come from, where we are going, how we relate to one another, are constitutive of our experience and thus of reality itself. Given this, the fact that our contemporary global community is in a dysfunctional state, facing deep crisis that threatens our very survival on this planet, is indicative of “the defective story we have been telling ourselves about who we are, what the world is, and our role in it.” (p. 66) It is the old story about a devalued and desacralized world where we humans as “rational animals” lord it over the rest of the natural realm and exploit it in search of our own version of a materialistic and consumeristic kind of “happiness.”

We now see the urgent need to dislodge such a faulty story that has held us in sway since the advent of “the age of reason” and “the age of science,” and find in its place a new one that can empower us in the recovery of the sacred in our midst and in nature. Elements of such a story are being woven by creative spirits among us like Brian Schwimme (The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era– – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, HarperONe 1994) and Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 1988). David Loy contributes to the storytelling with “a new Buddhist story” that weaves in the key Buddhist insight of the “self that is no-self” which is also the “no-self that is the self of the universe,” into the story of the universe on the way to becoming self-aware in my (no) self. The statement Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have uttered at the moment of his enlightenment makes sense in this regard: “I am awakened together with the whole of the great earth and all its beings.” (p. 86)

Empowered by this “new Buddhist story,” each one of us can thus give ourselves fully so that this awakening will be actualized in each of our lives, in a way that also makes a difference not just in our individual spheres of influence, but upon the fate of the entire earth as well. Taking on the “new Buddhist path” is nothing other than living the life of the new bodhisattva (“bodhi”= awakening; “sattva” = being), that is, a person treading a path of awakening motivated by compassion for all living beings. For such a person, one’s own personal awakening and the awakening of the entire society (toward its becoming more equitable, more just, more ecologically sustainable) are one and the same thing.

The path of awakening taken by the “new” Bodhisattva is on the one hand a path of total personal transformation, which entails “deconstructing and reconstructing the sense of self, not to qualify for a blissful afterlife but rather seeks to live in a different way here and now” (p. 128), and on the other hand and at the very same time is a path of engagement in socio-ecological transformation. Personal transformation and socio- ecological transformation go hand and glove, and are understood as mutually reinforcing and complementing one another every step along the way.

Click here to read Part 3.

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: Bodhisattva and Compassion, by Tony Fishcer, CC by 2.0, from Flickr.com

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