Quaker Universalist Conversations

21st century Buddhism: Facing institutionalized suffering

An interview with David R. Loy

You are a valued critic when it comes to the integration of traditional Buddhist teachings and values into our western societies. What are you currently missing in our Western discussion of Buddhist ethics?

One big issue we need to rethink is how we understand Karma. In many ways Buddhism seems to be a modern religion—if you want to call it religion. A lot of its teachings are quite compatible with modernity (e.g., the concept of no-self). However, it’s interesting and important that the key aspects of Buddhism which are real stumbling blocks for people are Karma and rebirth. The question is how do we understand them today?

David Loy There are some people who are concerned about modernizing or secularizing Buddhism, which I think is not so simple. However, we do need to rethink [Karma and rebirth] in a modern context. Rather than simply accepting them, because this is what the Buddha seemed to have believed and talked about in this lifetime, or rejecting them, because they do not seem to fit into how we understand things now. I think there is something to think about there.

I wonder if we may have misunderstood how the Buddha understood Karma. When you look at the Pali canon,1 there is a lot of discussion about Karma, and it’s not always clear that it is consistent. There is a variety of things going on when we remember the Buddha’s emphasis on motivation or intentionality. I was wondering if that will give us a different approach, rather than the usual objective idea.

In the time of the Buddha most people already believed in Karma, but it tended to be more understood in a mechanical way. (If you would perform a ritual or sacrifices in the right way, you would get what the ritual was for). A part of the Buddha’s spiritual revolution was the emphasis on motivation. Karma IS created by our motivations. If I’m motivated by greed or the other two poisons, it is not only that I’m going to act differently than if I’m motivated by generosity, loving kindness and wisdom, but it is also that I am going to experience you and indeed the whole world in a different way, and other people will experience me differently and respond to me differently.

If I am motivated by greed, I will relate to people in terms of what can I get out of them or taking advantage. I also could get angry, which forces a sense of separation–which is the third poison, the delusion. If I can really transform those to positive attributes, I will become a different kind of person, and that why I am going to experience the world in a different way. I can be transparent, I can be open, and I don’t have to pretend to be anybody different, to manipulate situations to get what I want to get out of them.

"Karma," by Alan Eng
This understanding of Karma doesn’t necessarily presuppose that it’s cosmological or [about] rebirth. What it says is, if you want to transform how we experience the world, how we experience other people, how other people experience us, how they respond to us, the golden key is to transform our motivations. Our sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting. It is not a hardcore of a consciousness inside, separate from the rest of the world outside. [What is] most important in this process, in how we relate to the world, it really comes down to our motivations. That is such an essential thing. Just by changing our motivations we change the world.

What should a Western Buddhist student definitely know about Karma?

The most important thing to remember is the emphasis on our motivation, our intentions. The Karma teaching is how we reconstruct ourselves by changing our motivations. Changing our responses to situations until they really become habitual and those habits become our character. This understanding of Karma doesn’t necessarily imply rebirth, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is to live in such a way that makes no difference. I do not know if I will be reborn or not. In a way I’m not very concerned about that. My agenda is to do the best that I can right now and, if I do that, rebirth will take care of itself.

What can Buddhists learn from the traditional Western viewpoint of ethics?

In the Judeo-Christian culture it was all about good vs evil, which helps us to understand a lot what happened in history. The Buddhist perspective is more delusion vs. wisdom, or ignorance vs. awakening. The good side of the good vs. evil perspective is that it is concerned about justice including social justice, which we traditionally don’t emphasize in Buddhism. Within the Asian Buddhist cultures that hasn’t been a concern. The focus is much on my own individual Karma, my own individual suffering, own individual following of the path, own awakening.

I’m not so sure that that was the teaching of the Buddha, but that is how Buddhists societies developed. Buddhists didn’t have much to say about the nasty things ancient Kings were doing, which we might call social dukkha2 or even institutionalized dukkha. The Karma teaching was often used to rationalize the power of a king. If somebody was born a prince, he must have good karma from his past lifetime. If somebody was born poor, powerless, or a woman, well they must have really bad karma.

"DUKKHA," by M. Rasoulov
Now that Buddhism has come to the modern world it has not to stay that way. If Buddhism goes to a new culture it interacts. That is a situation we are now. Now since Buddhism is coming to a new world, a world in crisis it should extend to look at the basic teachings of Buddhism to look at our situation now. We are in a world where is enormous amount of suffering and it comes just from our individual karma but the way society is structured.

Do you see this happening already in Western Buddhism?

It is starting to happen. I think the tradition that is most resistant and stuck is Tibetan Buddhism because of the emphasis of the reborn Tulkus3 and all that. In the long run it has the biggest job to do. It easier for Vipassana4 and Zen traditions.

I once heard a Buddhist teacher speculating, “What terrible Karma all those Jews in Nazi Germany must have had to be born in at that time in this place.” I find that unacceptable. I find that way of thinking nowadays intolerable. It’s time for Buddhism to grow up and to be more aware of institutionalized suffering, institutionalized dukkha, institutionalized delusion.

Many people who come to Buddhism just want solace, dwell in emptiness and equanimity. They don’t want to face social problems. I think that is not what is needed now.

When we talk about Buddhist ethics we usually look at the Three Poisons, the Five Precepts, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Do you feel that those concepts need a review?

Dharma Wheel All of those aspects need to incorporate a larger social dimension. I thought a lot about the Five Precepts and the Three Poisons because we have a problem that the Buddha didn’t face, and this is institutionalized dukkha. Our economic system is institutionalized greed. We can never consume enough, corporations are never profitable enough, their market share is never big enough. And I think this is a definition of greed.

At least in the United States, we institutionalized ill will with our militarism. The attitude towards refugees in the US and Europe is institutionalized ill will, and we have also institutionalized delusion through the media. [The media] are mostly corporations that are not interested in educating or informing us, but [want] to grab our attention. If we see how institutionalized the poisons are we can see what kind of social-economical problems we have today.

What I find exciting about that approach is that it’s a distinctive Buddhist angle on social theory, and not just accepting the Western way of thinking. It’s also a huge challenge, because it is hard enough to look at my own greed, ill will and delusion [without] figuring ways to come together with other like-minded people and address these huge institutional forms. We have to think about that and do something about that.

An important division of the Noble Eightfold Path is “right livelihood.” Since you talked a lot of economics, how do you understand “right livelihood” in 2017?

Both then and now we should not make our living based upon activities that cause suffering. Today it would apply to certain types of corporate activities, e.g., advertising. Most types of corporate advertising are inappropriate, because they encouraging a kind of consumerism which seems to be the new religion. A false religion that offers us alternative ways to become happy through buying stuff—except it never really does. And ways of jobs or employment that involve promoting consumerism and destroying the environment. Those are two good examples that stand out. As a consumer, on the other hand, we have the obligation to simplify our lives and withstand those temptations.

Recently you returned your honorary degree to Carleton College, because of the investment in fossil fuel companies.

As a Buddhist I am committed to engage Buddhist principles with the social and ecological challenges. Today no issue is more pressing than climate change, which is the most urgent aspect of an ecological crisis that threatens the survival of a large percentage of the earth’s species—perhaps including our own.

In your book A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World you dedicate an entire chapter to “The new Bodhisattva.”

A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World, by David Loy ( Maybe we should put the “new” in quotation marks because it’s not so different. Originally a bodhisattva continues to work on herself, [her] own meditation that sustains [her] and helps [her] to get in touch with [her] true nature, Buddha nature. This becomes really important, because the other side of the bodhisattva path is to become engaged in the world. Traditionally in Asia it was to help other people to wake up individually.

What’s special nowadays is that we have socialized dukkha and a political and economical system that is destroying the world’s ecology. To be a bodhisattva today means not just helping other people to wake up individually, but also working with others to address the socialized dukkha. Work hard to help to heal the earth.

How can we as Western Buddhists support and strengthen our own faith communities when it comes to ethics?

First of all I would emphasize the importance of community, because, at least in the US, that is something that is not developed fully. We have a lot a Buddha, Dharma, teachers and teachings, but in the Zen and vipassana world the focus has been on our own individual suffering and awakening. I am not sure that was the traditional intention of the Buddha, but [it is] the way it has developed historically.

Buddhism also emphasized monasticism, the sangha, but today we need to understand community as all practitioners. In that regard we should not make big distinctions between monastics and lay people. We really need to focus on helping and sustaining each other, because we will enter some hard times socially and ecologically. As those unfold, the most important thing is not what food we have stored in our basement, but are we part of a loving community where people actually cherish each other and are concerned to take care of each other?

All of this starts with individual transformation and, if that happens, naturally we will have some influence on the people around us. That is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to become socially engaged, to address the institutionalized causes of dukkha today. Furthermore, if we have a genuine Buddhist community that is engaged in work for the larger social and ecological good, it will be a good example for the rest of the world.

Notes & Image Sources

Image: “David Loy,” from Wisdom Publications.

1Pali canon,” from Accesstoinsight.org:

The Tipitaka (Pali ti, “three,” + pitaka, “baskets”), or Pali canon, is the collection of primary Pali language texts which form the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism. The Tipitaka and the paracanonical Pali texts (commentaries, chronicles, etc.) together constitute the complete body of classical Theravada texts. The Pali canon is a vast body of literature: in English translation the texts add up to thousands of printed pages.

Image: “Karma,” by Alan Eng on flickr [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic ].

2Dukkha,” from Accesstoinsight.org:

No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used (“stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” “suffering,” etc.). Each has its own merits in a given context. There is value in not letting oneself get too comfortable with any one particular translation of the word, since the entire thrust of Buddhist practice is the broadening and deepening of one’s understanding of dukkha until its roots are finally exposed and eradicated once and for all. One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.

Image: “DUKKHA,” by M. Rasoulov on flickr [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ].

3The Three Types of Tulkus,” a book excerpt from Incarnation, by Tulku Thondup, © 2011 by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche:

First, there are the buddha manifestations, or the tulkus who appear to ordinary beings and serve them in infinite forms simultaneously through their fully enlightened power. Second, there are the tulkus or the manifestations of highly accomplished adepts, who appear in many forms through the power of their highly realized wisdom. Third, there are the rebirths, or tulkus, of virtuous or meritorious teachers, who are fulfilling their own spiritual goals and serving others through the beneficial effects of their virtuous deeds.

4Vipassana,” from Accesstoinsight.org:

Vipassana —literally “clear-seeing,” but more often translated as insight meditation—is said to be a method using a modicum of tranquility to foster moment-to-moment mindfulness of the inconstancy of events as they are directly experienced in the present. This mindfulness creates a sense of dispassion toward all events, thus leading the mind to release from suffering.

Image: “Dharma Wheel” from the library of Triratna_Photos on flickr [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ].


David Loy says: “Many people who come to Buddhism just want solace, dwell in emptiness and equanimity. They don’t want to face social problems. I think that is not what is needed now.” This resonates with me. In the 1970s, though I was politically active, I took “enlightenment” to be about “getting away from” suffering. 40 years later, as I reread Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, I recognize that “getting away” is not really getting away. It is only building a defensive wall against the real suffering in our shared reality.
David Loy is making an important point for Buddhism in a distinctly American way. But, in focusing Buddhist attention strongly, he is distracting outside observers into unhelpful dualistic thinking regarding Buddhism. David Loy is confidently prepared to be quite critical of Buddhism. However, there are other ways to raise challenging questions about the relationship of faith and practice within Buddhism. This challenge could be offered in a spirit of dialogue in which Western thought is also challenged by Buddhists. Outside observers would not productively tell Buddhists that they need to “grow up.” It could be seen as a disrespectful and American thing to say in such an absolutistic way to a great and ancient religious tradition that we Americans still do not understand very well. Among other things, we have a lot to learn from Buddhism about not always engaging in dualistic thinking—I’m right and you’re wrong—and ignoring the ambiguity of human experience.
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