On Sunday I was joined by David Loy for “The Politics of Buddhism: Awakening from Institutionalized Greed, Ill-Will, and Delusion.”
David Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is a prolific author, whose essays and books (including Money, Sex, War, Karma, The Great Awakening, and Lack and Trancendence) have been translated into many languages. His articles appear regularly in the pages of major journals such as Tikkun and Buddhist magazines including Tricycle, Turning Wheel, Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. His work focuses on the encounter between Buddhism and modernity: what each can learn from the other, with special concern around social and ecological issues.
We began our conversation by exploring how a sense of “lack” pervades human life and culture — and not just at the level of the individual. Institutions mirror these “lack” motivations too. It’s what we sometimes call “the system,” and according to David, Buddhism calls for a revolutionary transformation of human systems.
Our ecological, financial, cultural and institutional crises are really one large “meta-crisis” — which I often call the universal “genjokoan” of our time, a disorienting, impossible question presented by life that cannot be avoided, one that both changes consciousness and demands a change in consciousness.
David and I have both been engaged in spiritual activism for years (in fact we met when I moderated a panel in which he appeared on Nonduality and Social Action). So often, we see progressive activists imposing their anxiety on others and merely adding to the general delusion and anxiety, clarifying very little. I asked David to share his thoughts on how to bring a consciousness not conditioned by “lack” to social action, instead of anxiety-driven effort.
David put forth the idea of a New Bodhisattva. He says the traditional Bodhisattva path has fallen short when it comes to looking at the bigger picture, including systems and institutions. When it comes to examining challenging structural issues, Buddhists have tended to back away and say “that’s not Buddhism, that’s not spirituality.” The new bodhisattva looks at global issues with an appreciation for systemic causes of suffering, such as the effects of climate change on poverty and human suffering. He or she does so with non-attachment to the individual project, and yet with clear eyes and fierce commitment to alleviating suffering on as large a scale as possible.
I appreciated this idea, and I suggested we probe further. I pointed out that spiritual activism is a tiny movement with a negligible impact on the broader, systemic decisions being made that govern human affairs. This gap between aspirations and reality is an important contemplation for everyone. I consider this both in terms of the way that I’m being as a practitioner doing the inner work, and as an activist doing the outer work. My intuition is that the most fruitful ways of engaging the gap still lie ahead of us, making it crucial that we seriously intend to bring our contemplation forward into new territory — perhaps expressing it in forms that have yet to emerge or be imagined.
The emergence of genuine innovation occurs when we lean into the emergency of our time, not just as individuals but together. Our consciousness can become a “lightening rod” for new intelligence and potential to find unprecedented expression.
I suggested to David that our conversation in that very moment was an opportunity to invite that emergent “charge,” and I challenged us both to edge out into new territory, to transcend the terms of our dialogue.
David’s expanded on his vision for a new, more resilient bodhisattva — we do the best that we can, without knowing whether anything we do will make any difference.
I resonated deeply with this, and spoke about my own dark night of the soul after a period of time when I felt crushed by a sense of futility in relation to our seemingly insurmountable challenges and global crises. I didn’t want to invest my heart and soul if we were doomed to failure, if everything was only leading toward dystopia. Eventually, I found my way to the liberating insight that even if we had already passed some terrible “point of no return” I would still want to embody the presence of healthy love, and conscious courage that perhaps could have turned things around. Either way, I would want to do the same thing! So I didn’t need to worry over our “prospects”; I could just give myself to incarnating my highest creative expression.
This led us into a discussion of the paradox that “life is totally perfect as it is” and “life is a total mess that urgently needs our attention.” How can we be inspired practitioners and activists from a foundation of joy and wellbeing, without bypassing or glossing over the urgent problems and suffering around us?
I admitted to David that I’m sympathetic to critiques of American Buddhist culture tending toward mediocre equanimity. It sometimes seems to take on a muted neutrality. Whereas, it seems that awakened consciousness in our time is characterized by the rich tantric passion that comes from simultaneously feeling both un-buffered raw extremes of feeling — devastating pain and heartbreak, and at the same time ecstatic love, joy and freedom. Both are appropriate. And neither need be muted. And we have to break taboos to be as happy as is appropriate, and as passionately aroused.
David described a recent retreat of Buddhist teachers who were embracing big picture, globally-engaged, sacred activism. In line with Buddhism’s own stance on impermanence and insubstantiality, he thinks Buddhism is shedding its old form and transforming to meet Western culture.
We also discussed the mainstreaming of mindfulness, both the ways it waters down spirituality and the ways it will function as a transformational Trojan Horse, likely to lead to the transformation of contemporary culture.
I invite you to the listen in to the full recording here.