…every time Buddhism has spread to a different culture it hasn’t just imposed itself but has also been changed, sometimes radically.
Sweeping Zen: Your works have been described by many of your colleagues as helping to reshape our Western understanding of Buddhist teachings, sometimes marking a departure from the so-called Asian party line. Is this something that you’ve intentionally set out to do?
David Loy: Yes, very much so. Arnold Toynbee is reputed to have said (though I haven’t been able to trace the source) that, when historians look back at the 20th century, what will stand out for them is that Buddhism came to the West. This encounter between Buddhism and modernity will change Buddhism as much as it will change the West — if it goes well, of course! In fact, such transformations are traditional to Buddhism.
True to its own emphasis on impermanence and interdependence, every time Buddhism has spread to a different culture it hasn’t just imposed itself but has also been changed, sometimes radically. There is a mutual causality, which is why new forms such as Ch’an developed in China, and Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet.
Today Buddhism has begun its most radical and challenging transformation of all in its encounter with the modern West. Again, we should expect transformation on both sides, which I see as necessary because each needs the other. I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia, and it’s obvious that Asian Buddhism is stuck in various ways. The ways Buddhism has been institutionalized, and especially the way in which karma has degenerated into merit-making, is very problematical.
On the other side, the West is encountering Buddhism not a moment too soon. We are in a time of great crisis if not collapse. The globalization of the West has created enormous problems and much of it has to do with a basic worldview that is deluded and unsustainable. So Buddhism has something very important to offer the West. At the same time, Asian Buddhism brings with it a lot of cultural baggage that doesn’t work well in the West, where it tends to get in the way of Buddhism’s liberative potential. Buddhism needs to benefit from the best that the West has to offer, and not only scientifically. There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of. So it’s an exciting encounter on both sides. We are still in the early days but it’s started.
SZ: That’s why your teacher, Yamada Koun-roshi, was so important, because he transmitted to many teachers coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In my opinion, one of the more important things that must happen for Buddhism to be relevant in the West is not only dialogue with Western religions but also for those religions to interpret our tradition through their own lens.
DL: I am not sure that the most important dialogue is going to be with Christianity, Judaism or Islam — the Abrahamic religions. That conversation is one of the more fruitful examples of interreligious dialogue, but the dialogue is happening in other ways too, which leads us back to the interaction between Buddhism and Western psychology. That has probably been more important so far – for example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program. But that’s only one example. Now there are so many therapists who are also Buddhist practitioners, some of whom have also become Buddhist teachers, like my friends Joseph Bobrow and David Weinstein in the Bay Area.
An important thing Buddhism can learn from the Abrahamic traditions is the emphasis on social justice, the prophetic dimension. Up until recently Buddhism hasn’t had a comparable emphasis on justice. Historically, the West has developed the possibility of more democratic, more just social arrangements – which should also become Buddhism’s concern, if our Bodhisattva vow implies alleviating institutionalized as well as individual dukkha “suffering.”
David R. Loy (born July 27, 1947; Dharma name David Tetsu’un Loy) is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Interview transcript originally published on the Sweeping Zen Website on April 5, 2011.
Image: Golgulsa Temple (골굴사), South Korea, by Jirka Matousek, CC by 2.0 from Flickr.com