Tikkun Magazine

Although Western Buddhism has typically focused on the individual, socially engaged Buddhism has been growing in popularity. One of its leading exponents, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, here leads a walking meditation in Paris, October 2006.  Photo FLICKRCC/PIXIDUC
Although Western Buddhism has typically focused on the individual, socially engaged Buddhism has been growing in popularity. One of its leading exponents, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, here leads a walking meditation in Paris, October 2006.  Photo FLICKRCC/PIXIDUC

Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010

Self Transformation, Social Transformation

by David R. Loy

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.

      —Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold

Left progressives are often suspicious of religion, and for good reason. Religious institutions have played a major role in rationalizing exploitative hierarchies and other social inequalities, such as legitimating "the divine right of kings," a dogma once widespread in Asian as well as European polities. To misquote Marx, religion can certainly be an opiate. Too often, religions have diverted our attention to transcendent heavenly realms to be enjoyed after death, provided that we do what we are told here and now.

Religious people are often suspicious of the Left, and for good reason. In the last century the pursuit of socialist and communist utopias resulted in horrible legacies of mass oppression and murder: Stalin's purges, China's cultural revolution, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to mention only a few. Although these examples were certainly gross distortions of progressive ideals, they nonetheless reflect a certain naïveté (to say the least) among the revolutionaries about social reconstruction and the way to create a just and equitable society. Too often, leftist movements have ended up playing the role of a this-worldly religion, with their own revolutionary leaders acting as secular messiahs.

Religion and the Left have more in common than their mutual suspicion: neither has been very successful, measured against its true potential. In most modern societies, the influence of organized religion is fading, especially among educated people. In some places such as the United States, religion still thrives but often in dogmatic, narrow-minded forms that deserve the leftist critique. On the other side, and despite the enormous ecological and economic problems that face us today, the worldwide collapse of communism that began in 1989 has largely (if unfairly) discredited the Left. Although the corporate media have become very sophisticated at ridiculing and demonizing progressives, the Left has also been very skillful at demonizing itself, in sectarian quarrels and schisms. Progressives offer persuasive critiques of our present situation, but have found it much more difficult to agree on alternatives or an agenda that might resolve those problems.

There is a further similarity between religion and the Left: both are failing to realize their potential because each is incomplete without the other. Religion is about personal transformation, and the progressive movement is about social transformation. Each transformation needs the other if it is to avoid being aborted at an early stage of development. We need to appreciate their nonduality, which means emphasizing and pursuing both. To demonstrate this nonduality, I begin by outlining the individual spiritual predicament that religion ideally addresses. A clear understanding of our personal situation enables us to see the connection with our social predicament, which is nothing other than a collective version of the same basic problem.

Our Individual Predicament

To talk about religion in meaningful terms, it is necessary to be more specific. I will do this by discussing Buddhism, but my argument could also be expressed in the categories used by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and so forth, although in each case it would be necessary to distinguish what I will presumptuously identify as the promise of religion—its genuine possibilities—from many of its more commonly practiced versions. As a longtime scholar of Buddhist philosophy who has practiced Zen meditation for almost forty years, I am brave and/or foolish enough to distinguish what I believe to be the potentiality of the Buddhist tradition from popular and institutional deformations that (as with other religions) have arrested the more transformative implications of its message. I will argue that Buddhism at its best is not about monastics withdrawing from "the world" in order to attain some quiescent nirvana detached from the suffering of others, nor is the main responsibility of Buddhist laity to "make merit" by supporting those monastics. Moreover, little of what follows is unique to Buddhism; anyone familiar with comparative religion will be able to identify profound parallels to beliefs and practices in all the other major religious traditions, although these are not often emphasized to the same degree.

The most important Buddhist term is dukkha ("suffering" in the broadest sense). Shakyamuni (the original historical Buddha) emphasized that his only concern was understanding dukkha and ending it. To put an end to one's dukkha, however, one needs to "wake up" ("the Buddha" literally means "the Awakened") and realize anatta "not-self"—one's lack of any substantial self. For Buddhism, the self is the ultimate source of dukkha.

The various Buddhist traditions explain anatta in different ways, yet fundamentally Buddhism denies our illusory sense of separation from other people and the rest of the world. Each of us has a sense of self, but in contemporary terms, that is a psychological and social construction, without any "self-existence" (svabhava) or reality of its own. The basic problem with this sense-of-self is its delusive sense of duality. The construction of a separate self inside is also the construction of an external "other" outside. Buddhism emphasizes the dukkha built into this situation: basically, such a self is dukkha.

One way to describe this problem is that, since the sense-of-self is a psychosocial construct, it is ungrounded and ungroundable—hence always insecure. The self is inherently anxious because it is not a "thing" that could ever be secure. As a result, the self-construct is haunted by a lack, the sense that something is wrong with me, understood variously according to one's character and situation. We identify with things that (we think) might provide the grounding or reality we crave: money, material possessions, reputation, power, physical attractiveness, etc. We push away whoever or whatever seems to threaten our "reality project." In both cases we try to bolster an illusory construct by focusing on something outside ourselves, which cannot provide the grounding we seek from it. This means that if, for example, a preoccupation with making money is my way to become more real, then no matter how much money I may accumulate, it will never be enough. The same is true for fame, power, beauty, and so forth.

The Buddhist solution to this predicament is not to get rid of the self (which does not exist) but to "wake up" and see through the illusion of a self that is separate from others. Buddhist practice involves deconstructing and reconstructing the sense of self. When mind and body "fall away" (which is how the Japanese Zen master Dogen described his experience), there is no longer the sense of being "inside," peering out at an external world "outside." Rather, "I" am what the whole world is doing, right here and now, one manifestation of a web of conditionality and interdependence that incorporates everyone and everything else. This is much more than an intellectual understanding. "I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars," Dogen says. Thus Buddhist enlightenment is not about being saved by a God or gods, nor does it involve gaining access to some heavenly realm, but it transforms the way a person experiences oneself and the world. Note a profound implication of this realization about their nonduality: caring for "other" people becomes as natural as taking care of my own leg. If I am not separate from other people and the natural world, what is good for "me" cannot be separated from what is good for them.

Of course, the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—offer a different approach that emphasizes our ethical relationship with an all-powerful creator God, but at their best they nevertheless end up in much the same place: a sense of community in which we realize our inherent relationship with each other and responsibility for each other and live accordingly here and now. Whereas the Abrahamic traditions emphasize that God will reward or punish us accordingly, Buddhism understands the law of karma to operate more impersonally. For popular Buddhism as well as for the Abrahamic faiths, this usually involves an afterlife, and a vital question for us today, of course, is whether such a future "pie in the sky" is necessary to motivate our behavior in the present. From the Buddhist perspective I have just presented above, however, morality does not derive from divine command; rather, an ethical life follows naturally from realizing one's nonduality with others. This applies whether or not anything survives death, and accords better with modern skepticism regarding postmortem survival.

To sum up, I am claiming that the most important point about religion—which is as relevant today as ever—is not its prescriptions about how to qualify for some blissful afterlife, but its emphasis on personal transformation, which works to minimize the dukkha in our lives right now, by deconstructing and reconstructing the delusive sense of self—the ultimate source of our dukkha, right here and now. This is not to assert or deny that death is the end of everything, but that we should live in such a way that it makes no difference whether or not death is the end of everything.

In accordance with its cognitive rather than ethical focus, Buddhist teachings say little about evil per se but a great deal about the three unwholesome motivations, also known as the "three poisons" or the "three roots of evil": greed, ill will, and delusion. In popular Buddhism, karma is usually understood as a way to get a handle on how the world will treat us in the future, which also implies, more immediately, that we must accept our own responsibility for whatever is happening to us now, as a consequence of something we must have done earlier. Such a doctrine can easily be used to rationalize racism, caste and class, economic oppression, ableism, and other forms of discrimination—including the authority of political elites, who therefore deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. If there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one's actions and one's fate, a kind of justice is already built into the moral fabric of the universe. As a result, Asian Buddhism has never emphasized social justice in the Western sense. Eventually people get what they deserve.

Nevertheless, this common (mis)understanding of karma distorts the original Buddha's emphasis on present motivation, according to which karma is better understood as the key to personal reconstruction: one's life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of one's actions right now. When we remember the Buddhist emphasis on not-self—in modern terms, the idea that one's sense of self is a psychosocial construct—it makes more sense to view karma not as something the self has, but as what the sense of self is. And what that sense of self is changes according to one's intentions and choices. "I" (re)construct myself by what "I" intentionally do, because "my" sense of self is a precipitate of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and reacting. Just as my physical body is composed of the food eaten and digested, so my personal character is a sedimentation of consistent, repeated mental attitudes. In other words, people are "punished" or "rewarded" not for what they have done but for what they have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are.

Such an understanding of karma does not necessarily involve another life after physical death. As Spinoza expressed it in the last proposition of his Ethics, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes; when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us. Insofar as we are nondual with the world, our ways of acting in it involve feedback systems that tend to incorporate other people; my character becomes revealed as the intentions behind my actions sooner or later become apparent. The more I am motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, the more I must manipulate the world to get what I want, and consequently the more alienated I feel, and the more alienated others feel when they see they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more. On the other side, when what I do is motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and the wisdom of interdependence, then I can relax and open up to the world. The more I feel part of the world and genuinely connected with others, the less I will be inclined to take advantage of others, and consequently the more inclined they will be to trust and open up to me.

This helps us to understand why even "successful" political revolutions have so often failed, reproducing the very authoritarianism they overthrew. Without such individual transformation, social transformations do not work very well. Why have so many reform movements ended up replacing one gang of thugs with another? If we do not transform our own greed, ill-will, and delusion, our efforts to challenge their political expression are likely to be self-defeating. If I have not addressed my own greed, I will be inclined to take personal advantage of any power I may gain. If I do not acknowledge my ill will as my own problem, I will project my negativity onto those who obstruct my purposes. If unaware that my sense of being a separate self is a delusion, I will understand the problem of social change as the need for me to dominate others. History is littered with examples: Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Pol Pot, for a start ... and many others closer to home.

Our Collective Predicament

But what does Buddhism have to do with political revolution or social transformation? Traditional Buddhism is a spiritual path for individuals, not a platform for social change—yet is it always clear where one ends and the other begins? Although Buddhism is about ending dukkha by transforming the three poisons, those poisons are all the more poisonous when they infect a ruler, who easily can and often does create widespread dukkha.

Where do we get the stereotype that religion is incompatible with leftist ideas and progressive ideals? Part of the problem may be our conception of religion, which has recently become problematic (perhaps I should say "even more problematic", since there has never been a definition of religion that has found general acceptance among religious studies scholars). It may be that the very concept is a Western construct based upon the example of modern European Christianity, which sharply delineated the religious sphere from the political and economic, and then projected that conception onto various non-Western societies where it is not so easy to distinguish "religion" from other aspects of culture. There are good imperialistic reasons to cherish such a Western construct: if the religious sphere is distinct from the economic sphere, in particular, one can exploit and despoil the natural resources of an "undeveloped" country while nonetheless "respecting" the indigenous beliefs and rituals of its population.

In The Buddha: Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon, the British scholar Trevor Ling argued that religions as we know them today are "reduced civilizations"—the remnants of movements originally much more ambitious:

To say that Gotama the Buddha founded a religion is to prejudice our understanding of his far-reaching influence. For in modern usage the word religion denotes merely one department of human activity, now regarded of less and less public importance, and belonging almost entirely to the realm of men's private affairs. But whatever else Buddhism is or is not, in Asia it is a great social and cultural tradition.

Did Shakyamuni Buddha envision a much broader spiritual revolution, which would transform society politically and economically as well as religiously? It is an intriguing idea, although perhaps impossible to confirm, since we know so little about the historical Buddha and his original teachings. The earliest texts we have, in the Pali Canon, were transmitted orally for over three hundred years before being committed to script, and perhaps preserve a later and more narrow understanding of his mission. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha advised kings on a variety of issues, including war (to be avoided) and economics (alleviating poverty). This relationship became even more important to the monastic sangha (community), which came to rely upon royal patronage soon after he passed away. There was a predictable price for that economic relationship, however: if you want support from the powers that be, you must support the powers that be. Is this how Buddhism became "reduced" to a religion?

Today we take for granted the principle of separation between church and state, but this distinction is another modern Western concept. Asian Buddhist rulers were not only patrons and defenders of the sangha; they also served as cultural idealizations and living symbols of the social order, necessary to maintain harmony between the state and the cosmos. In other words, their role was religious as well as political. This made it very difficult to challenge an unjust social structure, for that was also to revolt against the order of the cosmos itself.

Today we see this as an example of collective mystification, but it has been the norm in Buddhist cultures as in other premodern societies, including medieval Europe (remember the "divine right of kings"). Chinese emperors claimed to be bodhisattvas and even Buddhas. Perhaps we see vestiges today in the attitude of many Thai people toward their king, and in the reverence of many Tibetans for the Dalai Lama. The emperor Ashoka, who reigned 273-232 bce and was the third ruler of the Mauryan empire that first united India, is still revered by many Buddhists as a chakravartin (ideal universal ruler).

The coming of Buddhism to the West challenges such mystifications, even as Western modernity long ago overthrew the absolute monarchs of Europe. Secularism and democracy are freeing Buddhism from any need to cozy up to autocratic rulers, creating new possibilities that socially engaged Buddhists are just beginning to develop. As Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and insubstantiality implies, history need not be destiny.

Another way to make the above point about mystification is by emphasizing both our personal and our collective constructedness, and the importance of reconstructing both. Shakyamuni Buddha realized that the sense of self is a construct to be deconstructed and reconstructed, which is what the Buddhist path is about. What the Buddhist tradition did not sufficiently realize (although there are intriguing hints—for example, the Agganna Sutta in the Pali Canon questions the caste system) is that the social structure is a human construct that also could and should be reconstructed, to make it more equitable and just. That discovery opened up the possibility of social revolution, "the mercy of the West."

We trace the origins of the West back to classical Greece, especially Athens, because the Athenians reconstructed themselves into a democracy (of sorts). Emphasis on social justice for the downtrodden and exploited derives more from the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition, so it is significant that Western civilization was born from the union of "Athens and Jerusalem" in the late Roman Empire. But it was not a marriage made in heaven, for the two partners had rather different worldviews. In fact, one could argue that the basic issue addressed in this article—the tension between religious commitment and secular social reform—originates here.

The notion that human society is a construct that can be reconstructed is a truism today, yet it derives from a new distinction the Greeks made between nomos (the "norms" or conventions of human society, including culture, technology, etc.) and phusis (the natural world). The Greeks of the classical era realized that whatever is social convention can be altered: we can reorganize our own societies and in that way (attempt to) determine our own destiny. Without our sense of historical development, and therefore generally unaware of alternative possibilities, most preliterate peoples accepted their own social structures as inevitable, just as "natural" as their local ecosystems. When rulers were overthrown, new ones took their place at the top of the social pyramid, which was also a religious pyramid: kings were gods or godlike because (as with many Buddhist rulers) they had a special role to play in maintaining harmony with the transcendent powers that kept the cosmos going. The Aztecs, to cite one famous example, required mass human sacrifice because blood was needed to keep the sun-god on his proper course through the heavens.

We call the Greeks humanists because their discovery—one of the great insights of human history—challenged the archaic religious worldview that imbedded the traditional social order within the natural order: humans could decide for themselves how to live. An unusual set of cultural conditions encouraged this development. Homer's detached, ironical attitude toward the gods meant that they authorized no sacred book, proclaimed no dogma, and set up no powerful priesthood. Greek merchant fleets sparked a great colonizing movement that exposed the Greeks to very different cultures, which encouraged skepticism toward their own myths. Thales founded natural philosophy when he did not use gods to explain the world. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Solon did not get his tables from them when he gave Athens new laws. Socrates' philosophical quest for wisdom did not depend upon them, and Greek drama reduced the gods' role by emphasizing human motivation and responsibility.

With the help of some remarkable leaders, Athens was able to reorganize itself more or less peacefully. Solon broke the power of the aristocratic assembly by admitting the lower classes into it. Cleisthenes replaced the four traditional, family-based tribes of Athens with ten districts, determined according to one's area of residence. Pericles extended the access of humble citizens to public office. The result was a very limited (women and slaves did not participate) experiment in direct democracy.

Not everyone liked democracy. Plato, for example, offered more elitist plans to restructure the Greek city-state in two of his dialogues, the Republic and the Laws. Such alternative visions nevertheless presupposed the same distinction between phusis and nomos. The various revolutions that for better and worse have recreated our modern world—English, American, French, Russian, Chinese, etc.—all took for granted such an understanding: if a political regime is unjust and oppressive, it should be challenged and changed, because such systems are human constructs that can be reconstructed.

Our Double-Sided Predicament

The Greek experiment with democracy failed for the same reasons that our modern experiment with democracy is in danger of failing. We have already noticed the problem: unless social reconstruction is accompanied by personal transformation, democracy merely liberates the ego-self. Insofar as I am still motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, my freedom is likely to make things worse. So long as the illusion of a discrete self, separate from others, remains strong, democracy simply provides different types of opportunities to take advantage of other individuals—as contemporary capitalism encourages us to do, resulting in a predatory ethic rationalized less by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" than by a crude social Darwinism.

Athenians became aware of this problem quite early. According to Orlando Patterson's Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Greek individualism "was rooted in the Homeric tradition of personal fame and glory and was nourished by habitual competition, as much in art and athletics as in business, but everywhere off the battlefield with little team play." This individualism "was tempered by little sense of strictly moral responsibility, or in particular of altruism." It soon became obvious that "private appetites" were motivating people to corrupt the democratic process. Demosthenes lamented that politics had become the path to riches, for individuals no longer placed the state before themselves but viewed it as another way to promote their own personal advantage. Plato's Republic argues that the democratic personality fails because it lacks a coherent organizing principle and yields to the strongest pressures of the moment—a recipe for interpersonal as well as intrapersonal strife.

Sound familiar? Perhaps there is no need to elaborate the similarities. From a Buddhist perspective, the main difference between then and now is that modern industrialized, bureaucratized societies provide different outlets for our perpetual predicament: the dukkha that results when actions are motivated by the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion. Today our economic system has institutionalized greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion. They are systemic versions of the same problems. The problem is not only that these three poisons are operating collectively but that they have taken on a life of their own. This parallel is especially disturbing because from a Buddhist perspective, these institutions cannot provide the grounding we collectively seek from them, which is why we always want more, and why they tend to grow uncontrollably.

Consumer capitalism institutionalizes greed in at least two ways: corporations are never profitable enough, and people never consume enough. To increase profits, we must be conditioned into finding the meaning of our lives in buying and consuming—but we can never earn or consume enough. Globalization means that this emphasis on profitability and growth are becoming increasingly important as the motivating engine of the world's economic activity. Everything else, including the health of the biosphere and the quality of everyday life, tends to become subordinated to this anonymous demand for ever-more profit and growth, a goal that can never be satisfied since this preoccupation with "ever more" is not directed at any particular endpoint. The earth is converted into resources, and people into human resources.

Many examples of institutionalized ill will, the second poison, could be cited, such as racism, our punitive judicial system, and the treatment of undocumented immigrants, but the "best" example, by far, is the plague of militarism. Whether we are "the good guys" or "the bad guys," war promotes and rationalizes the very worst part of ourselves: we are encouraged to kill and brutalize other human beings. In doing these things to others, though, we also do them to ourselves. This karma is very simple. To brutalize another is to brutalize myself—that is, to become the kind of person who brutalizes. "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers" (Jose Narosky). But no matter how many weapons we have, it seems like we can never feel secure enough. The parallel with one's individual, never-satisfied sense of lack is hard to miss.

And what about the third poison, institutionalized delusion? Genuine democracy requires an independent and activist press, to expose abuse and discuss vital issues. As profit-making mega-corporations whose bottom line is advertising revenue, however, the main concern of the media is to do whatever maximizes those profits. An important part of genuine education is realizing that many of the things we think are natural and inevitable (and therefore should accept) are in fact conditioned (and therefore can be changed)—in other words, applying the Greek distinction between phusis and nomos to our own society. The world does not need to be the way it is; there are other possibilities. The present role of the media is to foreclose most of those possibilities by confining public awareness and discussion within narrow limits. Since we already have the best possible political and economic systems, all that's needed is a few minor adjustments. The media normalize this situation, so that we accept it and continue to perform our required roles, especially the frenzied production and consumption necessary to keep the economy growing. (For more on these systemic versions of the three poisons, see "The Three Poisons, Institutionalized" from Tikkun's May/June 2007 issue.)

The profound parallels between our individual "three roots of evil" and these institutionalized versions demonstrate how much personal transformation is intertwined with social transformation. If this relationship between individual dukkha and collective dukkha is valid, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the great social, economic, and ecological crises of our day are also spiritual challenges, which therefore call for a response that must have a religious and personal component.

To sum up, we cannot expect social transformation to work without personal transformation as well, but the history of Buddhism shows that the opposite is also true: religious teachings that promote individual awakening cannot avoid being affected by oppressive social forces that work to keep us asleep and docile. Our own awareness cannot thrive indifferent to what is happening to the awareness of others. As the sociological paradox puts it, people create society, yet society also creates people. Our economic and political systems are not spiritually neutral; they inculcate certain values (competitive individualism, moneytheism, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism) and they discourage others (community, generosity, empathy, and compassion).

Western attempts at collective social reconstruction have had limited success because they have been compromised by ego-driven individual motivations, such as the three poisons identified by Buddhism. "Religions" such as Buddhism have also had limited success, if the measure of their success is eliminating dukkha and delusion, because up until now they have not been able to challenge successfully the dukkha and delusion built into oppressive social hierarchies that mystify themselves as necessary and beneficial. Each has been constrained because it has lacked the other, but their convergence in our times opens up fresh possibilities. May each find in the other the supplementary perspective it needs to realize its own deepest promise.

David R. Loy is the Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is a Zen teacher and the author of The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.

Loy, David R. 2010. Self Transformation, Social Transformation. Tikkun 25(3): 54

tags: Buddhism, Rethinking Religion