Posted inOther Teachings

Toward a New Buddhist Story: Part 2 of 3

April 25, 2015

What is called for now is not people seeking to transcend this world but people who take responsibility for its well-being.


Click to Read A New Buddhist Story: Part 1

The Axial Age & Cosmological Dualism

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers popularized the idea of an Axial Age (800-200 BCE). He believed that during that period the spiritual foundations of humanity (upon which we still subsist today) were laid independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. This period gave rise to the Vedanta, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Abrahamic religions, Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and Platonism.

Like other Axial developments, Buddhism basically rests on cosmological dualism. Instead of God and the created world, it’s samsara versus nirvana. The Buddha himself didn’t offer many details about nirvana, as if he intentionally didn’t want to provide food for speculation. On the popular level of understanding, however, Buddhism devalues this world as a place of suffering, craving, and delusion, and the goal of Buddhist practice is to transcend it. But what does “transcend it” mean? Escaping to some other reality, or realizing the true nature of this world?

Another implication of cosmological dualism is that my individual salvation or liberation is independent of yours. But trying to attain nirvana by escaping from this world of samsara is incompatible with the situation we face today.

What is called for now is not people seeking to transcend this world but people who take responsibility for its well-being.

If the fundamental problem is our usual sense of being a self that is separate from the rest of the world—if “I’m in here, and everything else is out there”—then enlightenment shouldn’t be understood as that self attaining some other reality separate from this world. Instead, genuine awakening involves letting-go of oneself—of one’s habitual sense of self—and realizing one’s non-duality with the world, which naturally involves accepting responsibility for it, because its well-being can no longer be distinguished from one’s own well-being.

The Axial worldview was quite distinct from that of the older empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, which understood that a higher reality related to humanity mainly through a king, emperor, or pharaoh at the top of the social pyramid. The power of such rulers was as much sacred as secular, because they were the only ones directly in touch with the transcendent. The Axial revolution brought about a new relationship between the sacred and every individual. In fact, this is what created the individual. Everyone has their own personal relationship with God, Brahman, or the Tao. A circle of empathy now includes everyone else who also has a relationship with the sacred.

One essential aspect of this relationship is a transcendental demand that we transform ourselves. In the Abrahamic traditions this is primarily an ethical demand that we live in a certain way. The problematical aspect is that the impetus to transform comes from something outside this world—which inevitably involves some devaluation of this world. If God is the source of goodness, meaning, and value, the corollary is that this world by itself lacks them.

In contrast to the ethical focus (good vs. evil) of the Abrahamic traditions, the emphasis in India was on awakening (delusion vs. enlightenment). The Samkhya-Yoga traditions focus on realizing that pure consciousness is separate from this material world. Brahman, the ground of reality according to the Vedanta traditions, is very different from the particular manifestations or forms we experience in this world. Such metaphysical worldviews also devalue this world. In India generally, the idea has been not to transform the world, but to realize something that enables us to become indifferent to it. This world is maya, usually translated as illusion. Wise people don’t waste their time trying to fix an unreal reality. To awaken is to realize the really Real, which is something other than its forms.

Click to read Toward a New Buddhist Story Part 3.


Written by David Loy and originally published as Toward a New Buddhist Story in Tikkun, May 30, 2013

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.

Image Credit: Heart of Gold, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Vision of Transformation, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0

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