Philosopher and Zen teacher David R Loy shares his insights on how Buddhist teachings can help us understand the modern world and pressing global crises and transform our predicament both individually and collectively
What would Lord Buddha do if he lived in this modern world? Ask this question, and it might lead us closer to Buddha’s insights and transformation of modern crises, as Prof David R Loy tries to introduce in his book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (now in Thai translation).
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“We have huge crises, ecological, economic, political and social. I believe Buddhist teachings can help us address these crises _ but if they can’t, let’s find something better,” said Loy in his public lecture and book in Thai translation launch at Suan Mokh in Bangkok.
Many of the modern crises did not exist during the time of Buddha, yet, there are fundamental Buddhist teachings (2,600 years old) that strike a chord with the modern world.
In fact, after listening to Loy’s lecture, one might get the impression of Lord Buddha as a modern man, for what he succinctly taught us to do was to “deconstruct” the sense of self, which is the most fundamental delusion that inflicts suffering on individuals and societies.
“The Lord Buddha said the only thing he had to teach, the only thing he could teach and came to teach was dukkha and how to end it, that’s all,” said the professor of Ethics and Religion and authorised Zen teacher.
Dukkha, a Buddhist term commonly translated as “suffering”, does not refer simply to “stress”, “dissatisfaction”, “anxiety” or “inability to live happily for very long”. “The fundamental dukkha is the feeling of self, that there is a ‘me’ inside that is separate from the rest of the world; the feeling that I am in here, and the rest of the world is out there.”
This sense of being a self that is separate from the world is contained in individuals and perpetuated in collective consciousness and brings us relentless episodes of suffering. For instance, our self-interest and taking advantage of others, including the natural world; our sense of competitiveness in the workplace and the society; our fighting between nation states and among different races, and so forth.
“In Buddhism, there is no such thing as a real self. In fact, nothing is real or substantial,” Loy explained. Modern psychology and social science scholars now agree that the sense of self is socially and culturally constructed, he added.
“In Buddhism, a sense of self is a bunch of processes _ composed of habitual ways of feeling, thinking, remembering, acting, reacting, intending, remembering, and so on. All these mental processes, and the way they work together, create the feeling of self,” he explained.
Unaware, through social interactions and languages, we perpetually forge our separated identity, and thanks to modern media, advertising, state propaganda, even institutionalised religions and economic systems, our sense of self _ personally and collectively _ is fortified.
The more we create the dualistic separation, “I” and “you” or “we” and “others”, the more there is suffering.
Nationalism is one such collective structured sense of self that often leads to suffering. “Nationalism is a kind of god of our age. The world is composed of a bunch of little gods that are not responsible to anything greater than themselves, competing among themselves _ so often it becomes violent.”
The ongoing war on terrorism is a prime example of how the collective sense of separated self justifies the cause for the ”good” to defeat the so-called ”evil”.
”The tragic irony, though, is that attempts to destroy evil creates more evils,” Loy continued, adding that the primary concern in Buddhism is not on dualistic struggle between good and evil but an emphasis on non-violence, harmony and the distinction between wisdom and ignorance (delusion).
The ”Occupy” movement which Loy took part in may well elaborate this non-dualistic Buddhist view. ”The slogan that read ‘we are 99 %’ doesn’t and shouldn’t mean we are against the 1% of people who control the resources of the world. In Buddhist perspective, 100% of people are deluded,” he summed.
”It’s not that the 1% of people is happy. They have their own delusion, their own sufferings. The idea ultimately is not to defeat them but to make them realise that their ‘way’ to become happy is not the way either.”
The deluded sense of separated self can never be completely comfortable, secure or happy, added Loy, and it is always shadowed by a sense of lacking that we normally are not aware of.
”It is the feeling that there is something wrong with me or something inadequate,” he explained further. ”Although you are wealthy and healthy, there is still a basic anxiety or ‘dis-ease’ that keeps gnawing us. We tend to think that our problems are outside ourselves in the world; maybe I don’t have a job or my job is not good enough; I don’t have a partner or my partner is not good enough. I don’t have a car or my car is not good enough.”
The whole society feels and maintains this sense of lacking. Our economic and political systems make individualism stronger. ”It wants us to secure ourselves, grasping money and stuff,” said the professor.
This struggle to be real and to fill up the sense of lacking reflects in our obsession with money, fame, sex and romantic relationships, even war (to justify our meaning of life and virtue as ”good”).
We are driven to work hard and earn more money in order to consume even more. We strive to be a somebody. Women, in particular, are taught that their body is not perfect and, thus, have to constantly buy beauty products and services, again and again, and yet they are still dissatisfied with their body.
When it comes to sex and romantic relationships, although Loy argued that Buddhism is not against sex, there is a tendency for modern people to see sex and romantic relationships as a solution to fill their sense of lacking inside. ”If we think that when we find the perfect partner, he or she will fulfil us in many ways, that is bad, because you will resent it and face constant frustration,” cautioned the professor.
In a nutshell, a sense of lacking is like a never-ending black hole that can never be filled by any means. But it is to be understood, which is why meditation is helpful.
”When we are meditating, we have these thoughts, memories, feelings, desires _ they come into our mind. In meditating, we don’t hold on to them, we don’t act according to them. Instead, we let them go. By letting them go, the sense of self is deconstructed.” Loy quoted a great Zen master, Dogen, of saying ”when we let go of self, it is to realise your intimacy, your oneness and non-duality with all things in the world”.
This is where something greater than our ego self appears. ”When we see the world in a non-dualistic way, ‘I’ is not separated from the rest of the world, then what is best for me, is best for the world, too. There is no self-interest motivation. That’s where profound change comes about,” he said.
Nowadays, the hype of meditation among the middle class might in a way stray from this essence.
”Buddhism can be a kind of self-help guide to help one cope with difficult life. Middle-class people who have a busy life, they meditate to de-stress and find peace of mind. That’s not bad in itself, however, they miss the deeper point of Buddhism.”
THREE POISONS OF THE MIND
The sense of lacking is linked to the three poisons of the mind. This brings Loy to mention about the Buddhist perspective on karma in his book.
The Lord Buddha’s take on karma, even during his time, is revolutionary. He did not see it as preconditionings or an emphasis on several rebirths. Instead, for the professor, Buddha’s perspective on karma has much to do with our motivation or intention (cetana) in our actions.
”If you want to change the quality of your life, the way you experience the world and the world experiences you, there is a very simple way to do that. Not necessarily easy, but very simple: Transform your intentions that motivate the way you relate to other people.
”If you are motivated by greed, ill will, delusion, you are going to create problems for yourself and others. But if you can change that, instead of greed, generosity; instead of ill will, loving kindness; instead of delusion, wisdom, especially wisdom that realises our interdependence that we are all part of each other.
”If you can transform your motivation in this way, the quality of your life, how you experience the world, how the world responds to you, will change dramatically.”
This is the great revolution of understanding karma. How can this notion revolutionalise us and help us transform modern crises?
”We have to see that all three poisons are not only in individual minds, but they are institutionalised in the society as well.” Greed, the feeling that ”we never have enough” can describe our economic system, he pointed out.
”Today, consumers never consume enough, corporations are never profitable enough, they want more share value, more market shares. Gross domestic product is never big enough. And we have this obsession with economic growth.”
The economic need or greed, to continue growing, conflicts with the limitation of the biosphere and the world cannot tolerate that.
Aggression or ill will can be seen in the huge funding and investment in military as well as our supportive nods to wars.
The third poison, delusion, can be seen best in the media. In the US, and possibly many parts of the world, the media belongs to large corporations, whose main goal is to make profit, not to inform or educate people on important life issues like climate change.
”They want to keep us deluded. They want to keep us as consumers, to continue buying, working hard to earn money so that we can buy such and such. They want us to believe that the meaning of life is to make money and consume.”
Buddhism places emphasis on personal transformation. But that is not to say we have to transform ourselves first before contributing to the world. In fact, according to Loy, this happens at the same time.
”Before we try to change other people, we better make sure that we transform ourselves, to change the kind of person we are, and bring that kind of person into the institution and the society.
”If we are motivated by generosity, loving kindness and wisdom, this will have some impact on others. When we work on self-transformation, we will experience people differently and they will relate to us differently, too.”
Gradually and slowly, our collective existence will change. Loy also suggested that we rethink the Bodhisatva path. ”The Bodhisatva is not a he or she who is reborn again and again to help people attain enlightenment. They are ones who see that the world is full of suffering and then ask themselves what they can do to help. ‘How I can serve and then bring forth my skills and possibilities into the world?’ That is the Bodhisatva path in the modern world.”
Already, we have seen many people across the world, in groups and networks, who try to create jobs that are meaningful to them and the society. Also, the professor observed that there is a strong Buddhist presence in the major Occupy centres.
Modern times, though inflicted by crises, also show new hopes and possibilities. It is an interesting transitional time for a change in consciousness, said Loy.
Economic and political systems, motivated by greed and controlled by the old consciousness are challenged by the new consciousness, which Buddhism is a part of.
”There’s kind of a race between education [waking up and understanding] and catastrophe. Both of them are racing and accelerating faster/more than they used to. But who is going to win? I don’t know,” he smiled.