I have recently finished David R. Loy’s latest book A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution and Ethics in the Modern World (2015, Boston: Wisdom Publications). While reading it I found myself frequently saying, “Yes! yes!” and furiously underlining passages to read again later (though, knowing me, I probably won’t).
I’ll try to briefly summarize his main ideas and explain my reaction. Of course, what I say has inevitably been filtered through and reconstructed by my mind, and in such a summary a lot of the nuances in his arguments will of course be lost. If you want an accurate and full account of what he says, then please read the book.
Loy argues that given the ecological, economic and social crises we now face, we need both the ideal of social transformation that comes from the Western tradition and the Buddhist goal of individual transformation. However, this isn’t simply a case of the two complementing each other. Both need to be—and undoubtedly will be—changed though contact with the other.
He identifies two versions of Buddhism. One version sees the only solution to the suffering of Samsara as escaping it by attaining Nirvana. He calls this the transcendent version. The other version sees Buddhism as a path of psychological development that aims to allow us to live more happily in the world. He calls this the immanent version. Both of these versions are problematic given our current predicament, as they can lead us to ignore the ecological and social problems that confront us, either because we are aiming at escaping to a “better place,” or because we are preoccupied with dealing with our own neuroses and making the best of the world as it is.
His suggested way forward involves rethinking the traditional concepts of selflessness (anatta/anatman), of suffering (dukkha/duhka), of the three poisons (tivisa/trivisa) and of the Bodhisattva to give them a more social dimension.
The root of our suffering lies in our sense of being a separate self, which is both a psychological and social construct that can be “deconstructed and reconstructed.” If we wake up to this and live in the world in a more nondual way, dissolving the perceived barrier between me “in here” and the world “out there,” then alleviating the suffering of others becomes really no different from alleviating our own suffering, and we naturally begin to take responsibility for the world.
In addition, we need to recognize that the three poisons, of greed, ill will and delusion are not only individual but also social, institutionalized in our economic system, our militarism and our corporate media.
The bodhisattva ideal then becomes that of an “activist,” who sees no difference between doing all he or she can to help “others” on the one hand and their own personal development on the other, and who has sufficient equanimity not to fall into anger or burnout in the face of setbacks or seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
Why did I find myself reacting so positively to the book? One reason, I have to admit, may be that many of the points in it seemed quite familiar to me, being similar to ideas I had already heard or read from some of my favorite teachers. However, David Loy lays out the issues so clearly and eloquently, and so beautifully weaves the ideas into a coherent argument (probably obscured in my breathless summary), that I am inclined to forgive the slight exaggeration in the title of the book (admittedly “a Newish Buddhist Path” would not have been a catchy title).
Also, although Loy’s background as a Mahayana Chan/Zen teacher is very evident, particularly when he is talking about the empty nature of the sense of self, about non-duality and about the Bodhisattva ideal, I never felt that sectarian points were being made. In fact, the issues he addresses, his analyses and the ways forward he suggests seem to me relevant to any Dharma practitioner who doesn’t want to turn his or her back on the modern world and is dissatisfied with any Buddhist path that doesn’t have something to say—and do—about the catastrophes looming ahead of us.
His ideas are still challenging (especially for someone as little inclined to activism as I am), but he greatly clarifies matters I have been thinking about in a muddled way for quite a long time. Of course, Buddhists who are perfectly happy treading one of the traditional Buddhist paths and believe that modernity has nothing to offer are going to find this book even more challenging. But that is how it should be. They should still read it.