Is a new Buddhist story beginning to develop out of the interaction between Buddhism and the modern world? Both need such a new story. It’s not only a matter of seeing the problems with modernity: we need to become aware of the difficulties with traditional Buddhist worldviews as well.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that we are living in a time of crisis—most obviously, severe ecological and economic challenges. They are interconnected: an economy based on consumerism and perpetual growth is incompatible with the well-being of our biosphere. What is less obvious is that there are also fundamental problems with the story that underlies these crises. By “story” I mean our basic way of understanding who we are, what the world is, and our role in it.
A Devalued World
The modern world emerged out of the fragmentation of Christianity. As a result of the Reformation, God disappeared up into the heavens, and we ended up with a secular world—but a devalued one because God was our traditional source of goodness, value, and meaning. When God faded away, we were left with a desacralized materialist understanding, a world without meaning. Much of our worldview today comes from science. Because of its concern to be objective and neutral, however, science is unable to provide the kinds of meaning and values that we need.
Yet our need for goodness, value, and meaning is inescapable. We can’t live without them. What then fills the vacuum? Since the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s findings about the biology of the evolutionary process have been misappropriated to define the new industrial society. It was the Victorian Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Human society came to be seen as another jungle environment where you must crawl over the next guy on your way to the top, because if you don’t he will crawl over you.
The value and meaning of life was reduced to survival and success. And what we’ve seen over the last century and a half is robber barons and capitalist magnates like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, both of whom embraced Spencer’s worldview.
From a Buddhist perspective, Social Darwinism (including its contemporary versions by Ayn Rand, and populist versions of “selfish gene” theory) rationalizes some pretty unsavoury motivations, especially the greedy aggression of the separate self. Basic to this worldview is that I can pursue my own benefit even at the cost of your (or everyone’s) well-being. If we look for what really motivates corporate CEOs or nation-states, we usually recognize a larger-scale version of the same worldview that prioritizes success, growth, and the exploitation of others. And that is what has gotten us into such an unsustainable economic and ecological state.
Interrogating traditional Buddhism
The solution is not simply to import some Buddhist philosophy, however, because contemporary Buddhism also has its problems. It originated as an Iron Age mythology and still contains many mythological elements that shouldn’t be accepted merely because they are traditional.
The most obvious challenge, of course, is how to understand karma and rebirth. But there is another (and even bigger) problem with the Buddhist worldview, one that it shares with Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions.
David Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy and a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. His books include The World Is Made of Stories and Money, Sex, War, Karma, both published by Wisdom.