Buddhist Wisdom for Healing the Earth
A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World
by David R. Loy
Wisdom Publications, 2015
Review by Ruben Habito
This new book by David Loy could have also been given the title Buddhism for a Post-Axial Age, with a subtitle like Enlightenment and Earthly Engagement. Loy, Buddhist philosopher and Zen master, suggests that recent Buddhist encounters with the West—and vice versa—have opened up new horizons and possibilities that are profoundly transformative for both cultures. A New Buddhist Path charts out some of these directions, outlining key features of a contemporary Buddhism that is both “faithful to its most important traditional teachings and also compatible with modernity.”
Like other religions that arose during the Axial Age, Buddhism envisioned ultimate human destiny as involving a passage to a realm beyond this one, in a heaven, paradise, pure land, or some ideally conceived realm of the afterlife. These religions thus exhibit world-denying characteristics and tend to deemphasize the value of efforts to make this world a better one, unless this endeavor is tied up with attaining a reward in the afterlife. (Christianity and Islam, though formed historically after the Axial Age according to Karl Jaspers’s reckoning, exhibit similar characteristics and thus, broadly speaking, can be included among the “Axial Age religions.”)
The cosmological dualism that posits a transcendent realm as a “higher order” over and above this worldly realm comes with other problematic features found in Axial Age religions. The dualism inherent in privileging the transcendent over the worldly realm is reflected in patriarchal attitudes and social structures based on a view of the superiority of the male over the female of the human species. The elevation of the human above the rest of the nonhuman realm of sentient beings and above the natural world is another concomitant feature of this dualistic view. Issues of gender equity and of eco-social justice are among the challenges posed by modernity and postmodernity to the traditions established by Axial religions. Assessing the impact of the Axial religions on human civilization as a whole, Loy himself suggests that “although Axial-type transcendence has been historically invaluable, it is no longer adequate for what we know today . . . we need to be liberated from their dualisms, which have outlived their role.”
Varieties of Buddhist Experience
Partly as a backlash to the one-sidedly transcendent emphasis associated with the Buddhist message, there are those, especially in the West, who espouse a view of the Buddhist path that conveniently fits within or adapts itself to a postmodern worldview that rejects cosmological dualism.
There are also those who take Buddhism to be a psychotherapeutic program that allows individuals to cope with life in a competitive, consumeristic society. Loy notes that philosopher Slavoj Žižek unmasks this truncated and totally inadequate understanding of the Buddhist message in the latter’s critique of a therapeutic “Western Buddhism” focused on emotional and stress management, a Buddhism adapted to “the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism” in that “its meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.”
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Habito, Ruben. 2016. Buddhist Wisdom for Healing the Earth. Tikkun 31(1): 52.