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Interview by Sweeping Zen with David Loy, Part 6

May 6, 2016

It’s not enough to sit on our cushions and pursue our own individual development. That’s living out another version of the delusion of a separate self.

4607725_1fcbe19b85_zSweeping Zen: The next few questions are from some fans of Sweeping Zen on Facebook. One person asks, “How do we make Buddhism work in our contemporary lives without diluting its history and customary forms of practice?”

David Loy: We’ve already touched on this. One issue today, which we did not discuss, is the “psychologization” of Buddhism. One can approach Buddhist teachings as self-help practices that help you deal with your personal problems, as ways to cope with stress that show us how to act when things seem to be falling apart. Yes, that’s an important function of the teachings but then there’s the danger that Buddhism will lose its critical edge, the emphasis on awakening.

The questioner asks about customary forms of practice and there is a balance to be maintained. That’s the challenge. Today we cannot simply accept that Asian Buddhism has worked it all out and that the task for us is simply to follow traditional practices. Asian Buddhism is the result of the ways various pre-modern, pre-scientific cultures developed spiritually. That should not determine its potentiality for us.

I have three main concerns. It’s essential to ask ourselves what within the Buddhist traditions is still alive today, what deserves to be adopted and developed, and what is cultural that we can let go – perhaps must be let go. If Buddhism is going to play the liberative role that we so much need now, with modernity in such a crisis, then we have to be able to distinguish what is fundamental about this tradition from all its previous cultural trappings. That’s one big concern.

Another major focus for me is socially engaged Buddhism. I spend a lot of time talking to Buddhists and Buddhist communities about the connection between personal practice and its social implications.

It’s not enough to sit on our cushions and pursue our own individual development. That’s living out another version of the delusion of a separate self.

We are all in this world together and the world needs Buddhists to participate as fully as possible in addressing the crises and the traumas that are happening. Money Sex War Karma works well as a workshop because it starts by discussing what I call the “sense of lack” that haunts the sense of a separate self. It looks at how Buddhist practice addresses that sense of lack and goes on to point out the connections between our sense of lack and our preoccupation with things like money, fame, romantic love, and power – not only personal connections but the way those obsessions work collectively, because these are places where our society as a whole is stuck. We need to see how the three poisons have been institutionalized and how those institutions are incompatible with Buddhist teachings.

My third concern is how to bring Buddhist perspectives into the mainstream. What does a contemporary Buddhist worldview have to offer? Public debate about the role of religion in society usually assumes a Judeo-Christian framework. Then we end up with fundamentalists on one side, and on the other side militant atheists who reject all religion because an Abrahamic God is no longer believable. We need Buddhist public intellectuals to introduce alternative perspectives into such discussions.

SZ: From a reader: “Your thesis of Lack is premised on the notion that most people repress the feeling that deep down they fear groundlessness—or that the self might not feel real. But if you look at most Westerners, it appears that they don’t worry about whether they feel real or not. How can he make this generalization? Is it theory or an empirically based statement?”

DL: When I say that people feel unreal and are trying to make themselves more real, I don’t mean that’s what they are consciously doing. The basic point about lack is that it’s a way of understanding the dukkha that is so intrinsic to the sense of self, because the self is a psycho-social construct. That means the self isn’t real, in the sense that it has no being – no self-existence of its own. Such a construct is inevitably insecure and uncomfortable – that is, infected by dukkha. I think that’s the distinctive claim of Buddhism, the fundamental connection it emphasizes between the delusive sense of a separate self and dukkha.

Of course, this way of expressing it is not how we usually understand why we are so obsessed with things like money. But on an unconscious level I think that’s what’s going on. If it’s true that we have a sense of lack then in the process of growing up in the United States we are taught what our lack is and how to solve it: we need more money. That’s one example. Another is our preoccupation with fame. In this digital age, when we spend so much of our time communicating with each indirectly, either actively with Facebook or more passively absorbing media like television, there’s the sense that celebrities have some special status, that their fame makes them more real than the rest of us are. That’s why we’re so fascinated with them – wanting to be like them, or to bask in their aura.

If a sense of lack is the “other side” of self-consciousness, we can see that different cultures have historically dealt with this challenge in different ways. Isn’t coping with our sense of lack the main function of religion? If we were living in medieval Europe our sense of lack would be explained as sin, including original sin. What’s special about the contemporary West is that such religious explanations don’t work so well anymore, which means we seek more secular, individualistic solutions. But since we don’t really understand what’s going on, what’s actually motivating us, we tend to become addictive and obsessed, because money and fame (for example) never actually provide the sense of reality, of wholeness, that we seek from them.

SZ: The next question also comes from a reader. They ask, “How do we balance lack in our culture, which ironically drives sustenance in others? How can we minimize the effects of our craving on the world globally while still supporting ourselves adequately?”

DL: I think it’s important not to try to be completely pure in an impure world. We have to accept that we are implicated in a world of craving, delusion and exploitation and that we cannot completely escape our role in that. Right now as I sit here I’m benefiting from the labor of people who were probably paid a pittance for sewing my clothes. I’m certainly benefiting from the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants in Kentucky. Who grew the food I eat, who harvests it? Who profits from it? When I fly around to give lectures and workshops there are ecological consequences. The list goes on and on.

There are many individual things we can do. We can live more simply and reduce our carbon footprint. We can eat in ways that do not exploit animals and the earth so much. But, in addition to that, it’s important to understand and address the larger economic and social issues at play here, rather than focusing on our own purity or our own enlightenment. That just allows the rest of the world to go to hell more quickly. The fact is that we cannot ever separate ourselves from the larger pattern that we’re part of. The point is not to escape that pattern but to find ways to take responsibility for it – to respond to it.

SZ: David, this has been a fascinating interview. Thank you for this opportunity. In closing, are there any books you might recommend to readers who are interested in learning more about Zen or any of the issues we raised today in this interview?

DL: Well, for people who are interested in Zen practice but haven’t tried it yet, I suggest Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen. I also highly recommend Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, although it emphasizes too much the drama of kensho.

For karma I recommend Exploring Karma and Rebirth by Nagapriya, and Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice, a new collection edited by Jonathan Watts.

Another book that is extremely valuable for younger people who are just coming to Buddhism is Ethan Nichtern’s One City. I used it as a text the last time I taught Buddhism as a university course and the students loved it. Ethan writes in a way that really speaks to younger people.

And of course there are my own books and online essays!  See:

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: Zen, by Aneequs, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, from

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