David Loy
Zen Philosopher and Social Critic (transcript online below)

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David Loy, Zen Philosopher and Social Critic

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A fascinating visit with David Loy in which he describes his own Zen journey that went from meditating in the beautiful and secluded valleys of Molokai in Hawaii to finishing Zen koan training with Koun Yamada Roshi in Kamakura, Japan.

Intertwined with the story of David's growth as a philosopher conversant with both Buddhist and contemporary Western philosophy, and his incisive social criticisms in which he applies Buddhist insights to the ills of our modern world.


David has a new book called The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory that has just come out from Wisdom Publications. Do you want to know what Buddhist social theory has to say about poverty and war and other social ills? This is the book. Read his chapters like "Can Corporations Become Enlightened?" or "Zen and the Art of War," or "Loving the World as our Own Body: the Nondualist Ethics of Taoism, Buddhism and Deep Ecology." For more information, go to Wisdom Publications

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Online Transcript:

Hello. My name is David Loy. I am a professor of comparative philosophy in religion in Japan at Bunkyo University which is near Tokyo. I was born in the Panama Canal Zone because my father was in the Navy. This was in 1947, and because he was in the Navy we traveled around a lot. I grew up in many different places, having gone to many different schools. I was raised a Catholic. My mother was a Polish Catholic, and my father was a nominal convert, but because of the traveling and the kind of exposure I had, I can’t say it was a very deep kind of Catholicism, and therefore not so difficult to reject because I didn’t really understand what Catholicism was about.

My background in general. My interests, always very intellectual, and even before I went to university I knew that I wanted to study philosophy there. I went to Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a very fine small arts college where I learned a lot of things. Part of that time at Carlton, we are talking about the late ‘60s now, was the year off when I went to the University of London’s King College to study analytic philosophy. I main thing I learned about analytic philosophy is that I didn’t want to be an analytic philosopher. As much as I appreciated Wittgenstein, I didn’t care for that way of thinking otherwise. And so my last year at Carlton I specialized more in existentialism, Heidegger, Nietzsche and so forth. But that was also 1968-1969. A lot of things were happening in the anti-Vietnam war and a general cultural revolution. In my last winter term two friends and I became draft resisters against the war. We turned in our draft cards and said that we were going to refuse to go to Vietnam. And so after graduation, instead of getting a job, I went out to the Bay area, San Francisco area, and became a draft resister, working helping to organize against the war. By that time, however, things had taken a more violent turn. This was the era of the weathermen and the black panthers, and draft resistance was definitely passť, which we didn’t know for a long time, and in any case we were quite committed to our non-violent principles.

But after a couple of years of doing various things, including a couple of visits to the San Francisco Zen Center which never really took, I never really became involved there, the war wound down, and though I had received a physical exam, I had never actually been drafted. In fact, neither of my two friends nor I had been drafted because the lottery system came in and ironically all three of us had high numbers. But as the war wound down I started to think that the kind of protests that I had been making were important, but still incomplete, or somewhat misdirected, that I need to look more at myself and to understand where I was coming from. So right around that time I dropped out and went to Hawaii, which was going to be the first part of an around-the-world trip, but unfortunately I had no money, so I never got any further for five years. Instead, I ended up doing a variety of things there, like one time picking pineapples in the pineapple fields of Molokai for two weeks, at other times living in the valleys of Molokai, which is quite an experience, swimming in the waterfall-fed pool and bathing in the river, and eating fruit from the trees, and so forth, and also got involved, though, in Zen. That was my first encounter, which was quite a strong one. A friend and I were living in Honolulu at the time, and he had heard that there was a Zen center near the university, so we paid a visit to sit. At the time of the visit we were told that a Zen master was going to be coming from Japan to lead a sesshin, a 7-day sesshin, and we said, "That sounds interesting. Can we come?" And they said, "Well, actually, we do have a few places free, so if you want to come, we do think we can fit you in." We said, "Great." We were all excited about it. It was the next week or so. However, no one had ever thought to explain to us what a sesshin really was. We thought we were going to be sitting there having tea with a Roshi, sit for a couple of hours, and chat about Zen, and this and that. So it was quite a shock when we got there and we realized it was going to be seven days of complete silence, not talking or even looking at anybody except for the Roshi. It was perhaps the seven hardest days of my life. Very painful, not only physically since I had only sat for about probably a maximum of four hours previously in my whole life before going into the seven-day sesshin, but also more mentally because after sitting there facing the wall for so many hours, for so many days, I couldn’t help but notice the strange thoughts, the recurring thoughts and feelings bouncing off the wall, but because I hadn’t sat very much before then, I didn’t have a perspective of what was going on, and therefore I really started to wonder if I was going mad. In fact, it got to the point that, on the last day, I decided that I had done something so terribly wrong, and if I didn’t feel better after the sesshin was over, I was just too crazy, and I should probably go out and kill myself – something like that. I don’t think I would have actually done it, but it was a very depressed time because I didn’t have enough perspective on what was happening to my mind – a good reason for not letting somebody like me sitting a seven-day sesshin.

But the result, I think, was very good. At the end of the sesshin we had a wonderful party, which we didn’t know. A friend and I were about to slip through the back door at the end, and they said, "No, you’ve got to stay around for the party." And it was a wonderful party. We laughed and talked and ate and drank, and by the end of the party we all felt great. Whatever tension had accumulated was more or less relieved. And then after that, the next couple of days, I had a couple of experiences, a couple of small openings, which in themselves weren’t very important except that they did get me very, very excited about the Zen path, and I became an ardent student after that for many years.

Afterwards I didn’t always live in Honolulu. I spent quite a bit of time back in Molokai, meditating by myself in the deep valleys of the island, which isn’t always advisable. But I would attend sesshin when Yamada Roshi came, and eventually I was invited to go to the Maui zendo. Robert Aitken, who was the teacher there at that time invited me to come, and that was a wonderful experience. That was my first real experience in communal living, and especially it just wonderfully done. A wonderful group of people, and a wonderful teacher with his wonderful wife, and that was a real turning point, as well, so after that my Zen commitment, my Zen involvement, was very deep.

Robert Aitken, himself, suggested that I might like to go back to university. I was getting more interested in the intellectual, or trying to understand intellectually the kind of experiences that I had been having, and when he suggested this idea, I leaped at it. So I went back to university. I think he was hoping I was going to specialize in Chinese or Japanese – something more relevant for a possible translator, but he didn’t know how poor a linguist I am. What I ended up majoring in was Asian philosophy, and I got a masters from the University of Hawaii then.

Right after getting the master’s degree I decided to go back to the mainland, which I hadn’t been back to for five years, and I spent a little time with my folks in Rockford, Illinois, where I had finished high school and where the rest of the family was still living. I had an interesting experience working in a half-way house for mentally ill people, especially schizophrenics. In this case what was so interesting about it was working with a young woman who, we discovered, had a multiple personality disorder, and that was quite a fascinating thing to experience. Over the year maybe we were able to help her somewhat.

And then I traveled around the country for a while, visiting a number of other Buddhists, and I was very interested in Chogyam Trungpa for a while because of his books. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism had impressed me deeply, so I visited several of his centers. A Tale of a Tiger in Vermont, My Tree, a Psychological Center in upstate New York, and also Boulder, Colorado, but though I found them very interesting, it definitely wasn’t for me, and it became clear that my spiritual path was continuing to be Zen.

But at that time I didn’t have much money, wasn’t sure where to go, and a fortunate occurrence was that my parents, who were then living in Singapore – my father was working for an American company there – invited me to come visit. Fortunately, they also paid for the tickets since I couldn’t have got there otherwise. And I went to visit them, visiting friends on the way in Japan, including Yamada Roshi and his group in Kamakura where I had a very good feeling I was welcomed, and other friends in Hong Kong and Thailand and so forth. I ended up in Singapore staying with my parents and having a quite interesting experience there. Somebody in my dad’s company, or somebody he knew, suggested I might try and check at the university if they wanted somebody in my field, which was certainly a long shot, but I did go there, and had a nice interview with the head of the department and some other people. I don’t think they were at all impressed by the Zen side, but I think my year at King’s College, London, studying Wittgenstein impressed them, since that was their own philosophical lineage, and the upshot was, quite unexpectedly, I was offered a teaching position at the University of Singapore.

That was a close call because just before that I had decided there was no chance of it, and I was about to leave, but I had agreed to give a talk at a Buddhist center, and I had to stay an extra week to do that, and the day before the talk I was offered this job. Otherwise I would have wandered off to India, and I don’t know where I might have ended up.

Singapore was a very good experience. It was a very ideal place to start teaching, and to start thinking, and developing more intellectually and philosophically the kinds of things I had been experiencing through Zen practice. So I taught courses in Zen, in Buddhism, Asian philosophy generally, and also began to write a few papers, which after a while I realized that they fitted together in a very interesting way, and so I said, why not get a Ph.D. dissertation out of this. This was the British system in Singapore, so that involved basically writing a long dissertation. That’s what I did, not only me, but my wife, or at that time, my girlfriend, Linda, an English lady whom I had met at the university. She was also deciding to get her doctorate, and that kept us there a bit longer than we had expected. I ended up staying there a little over six years, and ended up doing the dissertation, which I was quite pleased with, and eventually became the first book, Nonduality, a Study in Comparative Philosophy.

Curiously, much later when I went back to Rockford years later, I happened to look at the first paper I had ever written when I went to graduate school in Hawaii, something I had long since forgotten, had no idea what I had done, but it turned out it was a 20-page summary, really, of most of what became the book even though I had forgotten the connection completely. Clearly my mind was running in that nondual direction from the very beginning.

After finishing the dissertation, I realized Linda was going to be a few more months, so I went out to continue my Zen practice in Kamakura. Maybe I should add, since I had forgotten to mention it, that while in Singapore with some friends, especially some friends from an evening class in Zen, we had set up a small zendo, and were sitting once a week, and kindly Yamada Roshi agreed to come visit us once in a while and lead sesshin, which we did for two or three times, and so our Zen group began there. He made it clear during that time that he thought it would be good if I wanted to come to Kamakura and continue working on the koans, that he would like me to become a teacher.

Motivated by that invitation, when I finished the dissertation and Linda didn’t, rather than wait around for her in that area, I went back to Kamakura, and I was able to do some very intensive Zen practice for what turned out more like a year and a half since, as often happens with dissertations, they take a lot more time than you expect. That was also very good timing, as it turned out, because not long thereafter Yamada Roshi became ill, and had we done what we had originally expected, going around the world before settling down to do Zen there, there wouldn’t have been a chance to work with him so intensively.

After finishing the koan process, most of the other foreign students of Yamada Roshi returned to their homes in Europe or Philippines or India. In my case there was nowhere in particular to return to, and what happened is that Linda had got a job teaching at Gakushuin University, and soon thereafter I, who had been working part-time at a university, was offered a full-time position when they started a new faculty of international studies, and as a result of that I got my present position at Bunkyo University. Looking back at that time in Kamakura – we are talking now about middle 1980s – both the year and a half before Linda arrived, and a couple of year after that, it was a wonderful time. There was a wonderful sense of community because there were a large number of people who were there, just like myself, to practice Zen with Yamada Roshi. We constituted a very interesting international community. A number of Americans like myself, but also many from Europe, some from the Philippines, and all of us were doing much the same thing, working intensively on koans with Yamada Roshi.

Yamada Roshi at that time was getting a bit older. He was always a wonderful teacher, but he was also human. In some ways it was unfortunate, for example, that myself and a number of the others couldn’t speak Japanese well enough to communicate with him in his own language, but he certainly did everything he could to help us even when, as he got older, the language problem became a bit greater for him.

The system there was that people who had an opening by working on mu and had experienced kensho would then go and continue doing all of the koans. We did all the main books in order, and most of the people who finished that koan process then became teachers. They went back to their own places where they often already had groups that they were sitting with and helping, but at that time they became official sensei with a name and an official position within the Sanbo Kyodan, which was the larger organization.

Perhaps I should say something about the koan process. I think that honestly it had a different effect on me, or I had a different relationship with koans than most of the people there, and in general, I wouldn’t say that they work as well for me as they did for many of the other people, or that I feel that that is an important part of my path, which is an odd thing to say having been through them, but the process of zazen has been much more powerful and transformative in my own life. I suppose, if I was going to generalize, I would say that there is a little danger in the koan process, unless it is very carefully done, indeed, that passing koans can become a substitute in and of itself of a kind of personal transformation that is necessary, I think, in order for us to embody the Zen way. For myself, well, I could see that there is a temptation to do this koan, to pass the koans, to do the whole koan process, by learning a particular kind of vocabulary, and learning how to plug that vocabulary into the koans, in which case the process of personal development of the real sort, the kind of letting go and nondual transformation as I see it now is replaced by learning a new kind of language, learning how to manipulate a new set of concepts. I still feel a bit wary about this. I am not so sure I have found an answer to it, either personally or in terms of how one would teach other people. Maybe all this is saying that the process is a much more delicate and problematical one than I first realized, or realized for a long time as I was going through it. Perhaps that’s one reason why I haven’t become a Zen sensei, myself. I have the official name, but I haven’t wanted to teach because I haven’t seen, myself, an answer. I haven’t really been completely comfortable with the koan process as it was taught to me, which I admit is probably a much greater statement about me than anything else. But I haven’t found an alternative, or the way I would be completely comfortable with, myself. It is also true, of course, that as long as I am living in Kamakura there is absolutely no reason or need to do any of that kind of teaching.

The nonduality book had a somewhat interesting genesis, and even came to be published in an unexpected way. I received a letter from an editor who had read an article in Philosophy East and West, and she asked if I were working on a book dealing with that topic, which is Taoism. I said, "No, but that was extracted from a larger thesis." She said, "We never publish Ph.D.s, but send it to us anyway and we will see what we can do. We’ll take a look at it." The reviewer was fortunately very enthusiastic, and the upshot was, with some revisions, the Yale University Press did want to publish it.

The book itself is an attempt to try to bring together a number of different traditions, mostly Asian traditions, and understand them as saying many of the same things from different perspectives. There are really two sides to the book. One side is the emphasis on what is nonduality. As a word nonduality just means "not two," and that can refer to a lot of different types of experiences and ways of understanding. In this particular case, the one I am most interested about, most concerned about, is subject-object nonduality, the nonduality between the self and the world. The first part of the book explores this in terms of different types of experience that we have, so what would be nondual perception, what would be nondual action, what would be nondual thinking? And this is developed in terms of both trying to understand what the eastern traditions have said about this, and also try to bring in a lot of things that have been done in the western tradition. This is especially the case, for example, in the section on nondual thinking, which talks a lot about the later work of Martin Heidegger.

In general what I discovered, what seemed to be the case when I looked at it from this perspective was that the different traditions were talking about the same things, but emphasizing different ones, so if you want to talk about nondual action, then Taoism in particular has more to say about it than the other traditions, although you also find it within the advaitic tradition, or especially within the Bhagavad-Gita, and you also find it within Mahayana tradition, but it not emphasized in the same way. So that was an interesting discovery for me.

The second part of the book is trying to use that perspective created in the first part and understand the differences between the traditions. If many of them are saying many of the same things, then why is it the case that they sound so different? If you look, for example, at advaita vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism, there are extraordinary very sharp differences between their metaphysical and ontological views, so how do you cope with that? And the interesting thing in that part of the book was learning how in particular Mahayana and Advaita were really offering metaphysical categories that were so opposite, so mirror-image opposite that it became clear they were really trying to describe the same phenomenological experience, but if you start with a particular root metaphor, then you are going to develop it in a certain way. From this perspective it became quite clear why they were able to describe a lot of the same things, a lot of the same phenomenology, so that from this point it became clear that, although their metaphysical categories were extremely different, in fact, opposed, that the phenomenology of the experience they were trying to describe was, in fact, very, very similar, perhaps identical, so this, itself, was a very interesting thing to observe. That was what was going on in the two main parts of that book.

During that period of quite intense zazen and practice in Kamakura, something else began to happen over a period of about a year. I think it was connected with a number of things, including the sudden illness of my father that I hadn’t expected. Much more strongly than ever before I had a sense of my own mortality, and this was something that had to be understood and coped with and gone through. So in addition to the zazen I was engaging in a pretty comprehensive and deep project of reading everything I could talking about death, the meaning of death, and in particular I was very struck by the things that Ernest Becker said in his books, especially The Denial of Death, and Escape from Evil where he talked about the role of death repression personally and in society. This was only one element, but it was along with a number of other books and things I was thinking about, and something was trying to come together here. All I did for almost a year was simply read and take some notes. And then, Dorchi Roshi who was living in Kamakura at that time asked me to write something else, and that gave me the need to sit down at a table and to start trying to write, which he wanted me to, but I only got like two lines into it, and suddenly it felt like some sort of floodgate had been opened, and for the next week to two weeks I simply sat at this sunlit desk, flooded by the winter sun, and it was almost like a kind of automatic writing – that I would simply sit there and these thoughts would come to me, and I would simply write them down as fast as I could. There was no question of them being connected with each other because there was no process or structure to it, but after about two or three days of writing down all of these thoughts that just came, then I reread them again, and in the process of rereading those thoughts, I had other thoughts, and so forth. After about two weeks I realized when I looked back at what had happened, maybe as a kind of example of nondual thinking, itself, I had the structure for another book, which I actually hadn’t expected and hadn’t planned. That was the book that became Lack and Transcendence. Like the other book, it was published bit by bit in various journal articles here and there, and in fact by the end I think almost all of it had been published in one place or another. But the actual idea of the book in this case came first, and it was a matter of elaborating and developing each part as it was published. If the nonduality book is emphasizing metaphysics and epistemology, this book is much more on psychology and existentialism, and it deals more with Western thought, more of an attempt to use this new perspective on Buddhism as a way to understand and critique Western thinkers such as Heidegger and Neitsche in particular. The point of it is that, unlike Freud who saw a kind of sexual repression as our main problem, or even existentialists like Becker who saw death repression as our main problem, most of what Becker writes seems to me very much to the point, but from a Buddhist point of view there is a slight change in that, instead of death, I think the main point is repression of the emptiness of ourself. In Buddhism we say that the self is a construct, or the self is empty, but I think all of us at some level know this, and we experience this as a kind of lack that we feel, a sense that something is wrong with us which we understand in different ways according to our situation, and that both personally and historically we can understand a lot of what is going on when we life as basically oriented around an attempt to fill up the sense of lack, an attempt to ground the self, an attempt to make ourselves real.

This understanding of Buddhism in terms of being motivated by a sense of lack and an attempt to solve our sense of lack, this is very much an interpretation, of course – Shakyamuni Buddha didn’t speak in this way – but it does seem to give us a lot of understanding into our own motivations and the history of motivations. For example, I think that from this perspective we can look at what happened in the Renaissance at the end of the Middle Ages, and understand the development of the new preoccupations of human beings at that time. We can understand them in religious terms. Traditionally we understand that what happened in the Renaissance was the decline of a religious interpretation of the world in favor of a more secular way of living, but since lack is a constant, and since the attempt to resolve lack, I think, is the motivation or the impetus for all religion, then you can say that the new ways of living that evolved at that time were still religious insofar as they were other ways of trying to solve our sense of lack. In particular I am thinking about our preoccupation with fame. That is something that nowadays we take for granted, but in fact, that had no interest for medieval man. It was something that became very important for renaissance man because somehow fame became a way of trying to fill up your sense of lack. If you were acknowledged as real more and more by other people, then it was a way to start to feel more real, yourself.

The same thing is true with romantic love. Again, something we take for granted today, but if you look at the history of romance, it starts right at that time. The romance of Tristan and Isolde, and the troubadours, originally a very spiritual approach, especially with the troubadours, but after a while you can see that degenerated or became a more secularized with a preoccupation with the personal and sexual fulfillment through another person. So the relationship that you establish with another person becomes a kind of religion for two people. And perhaps even more important, given the kind of social changes we are undergoing now, our present obsession with money, stock markets, and so forth, is again something that would have seemed very strange to medieval man. It is something that has historical roots in that time. People like Max Weber, the great German sociologist pointed out, he has argued, though it is still very controversial, that the preoccupation with profit and growth, and capitalism as we know it, evolved out of certain and particular religious situations. The way that the Calvinist Puritans believed in predestination and therefore that discredited all the usual ways of trying to purify yourself spiritually, but in order to try to find some kind of sign that they were favored by God, they turned to material success. This led to a certain kind of psychic development, what Weber called a this worldly asceticism where you didn’t enjoy what you produced, but you tried to reinvest it in order to get more and more and always more in the hope that this would be a sign that you were saved.

Well, since then what has happened, of course, is that the preoccupation with the goal – God and salvation after we die – has disappeared, but that psychic way of looking at the world continues. We still look upon money as a kind of god, but a god that we can never atone completely. You never have enough money. You are never rich enough. You never consume enough in order to feel completely real. So if this is a kind of symbolical way to make ourselves real, it becomes a demonic one because we never make enough money, we never become rich enough, to feel real enough.

The Buddhist perspective in all this is that all of these ways of trying to make ourselves real simply cannot work, and that’s what makes them all demonic. If trying to become famous is how to make yourself real, you are never going to become famous enough. We can understand a lot of the problems that happen in interpersonal relationships, the high rates of divorce and so forth, is that people are trying to achieve something through a personal relationship that the relationship cannot provide. And of course the same thing is true of money. We are preoccupied with money as a means to feel real, you are never going to have enough, and I think that says a lot about the kind of culture that we are caught in now. The only solution as I see it is a religious one. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist. I think all religions at their best have offered an alternative. The Buddhist is simply one good example of it. Through following the Buddha’s path it enables us to realize our emptiness, to let go of ourselves in order to stop denying the emptiness, stop trying to see it and feel it as a void that makes us uncomfortable. Instead, by dereflecting, and letting go of our egos, we can fall into this void. We can let go of ourselves, and then realize we are a manifestation of it, that it is not something to run away from, but if we accept our essential emptiness, then we realize that we are like fountains flowing forth from something whose source we never really understand or need to understand. That is what transforms this emptiness from a sense of lack because we are always trying to secure ourselves into something very creative at the very core of our being. It gives us a sense that we are in touch with something much deeper than we are. It is as if at the roots of the unconscious something is opened up, and it enables something to flow forth, which wasn’t able to flow forth before.

This perspective on money and what money means to us symbolically, because money is of course a symbol, it is the socially agreed symbol, but it is basically just a symbol – you can’t eat it or travel in it or sleep under it – but this has led to sort of rejuvenating me or bringing me back in touch with the social concerns that were originally expressed with the draft resistance during the Vietnam war. It has enabled me to see much more of the relevance of all these kinds of religious ideas for what is happening in our society today. So out of the money article, or the money section of the book, I have been looking much more into the nature of our present economic system. This has led to a number of other articles, one of them called "The Religion of the Market" which is arguing in much the same vein that I have expressed, that we can’t really understand the kind of obsession that we have for money and stock markets and banks and so forth, and the growth of the economy until we realize that our obsession with the market is because it has become a kind of religion for us. It now serves a kind of religious function. We think we have gotten rid of religion. Well, you never get rid of religion. If you get rid of it consciously, it comes out, it comes back in all kinds of unconscious, repressed, and therefore usually demonic forms. Unfortunately, again, if it is a religion, it is not a very good religion because it can never give us what we really want from it. We can never have enough. We can never be rich enough. We can never consume enough.

This has also encouraged me to look at things like corporations, the history of corporations, not only the history of corporations, but the history of our modern institutions generally. The last main piece that I have been working on has been trying to offer an institutional complement to the personal understanding of what happened in the Renaissance. There I could see pretty clearly how our present preoccupations with fame, romantic love, and money began, but you can also look at the evolution of our institutions, not only capitalism, but also the origin of the nation state, which occurred at exactly the same time, and the origins to our present approach to science and technology. The nation state is something we tend to take for granted, but it was very much an outgrowth of the chaos that happened in the 16th and early 17th centuries when the old paradigm of the Holy Roman Empire collapsed, along with the schism in the Catholic Church. This led to a number of chaotic situations, including the horrible 30-years war, and it was only out of that that the nation state evolved. It was formally established in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia, but the reason I mention that is that this approach that I have just outlined helps us to understand it better. Historians have noticed without understanding how it is that up until the end of the 30-years war people were totally preoccupied with issues of religion, of whether their version of Protestantism or Catholicism was right, and they were basically going around killing each other because this was the most fundamental thing for them. This was how they would fill up their sense of lack. And that disappears almost overnight beginning with the nation state as a totally new mentality because the nation state becomes a kind of substitute religion. And that’s when absolute kings arise because they are serving a secular role, and yet in a way they are the equivalents of the pope, they are providing that kind of spiritual grounding. Not very well. Eventually they are gotten rid of, but by that time what has evolved is the state as we know it today, so I think the state, as well, has spiritual roots, and we can’t understand its control over us until we understand that the kind of commitment that people have made to it was originally religiously motivated, that it offered them a kind of security that ostensible religion no longer did.

One thing that I haven’t talked about very much is the dialogue, the interaction between Buddhism and Christianity, which I, like many others, think is one of the most important things going on today in the spiritual dimension. Although I lost interest in Catholicism quite early, clearly I think something has always been gestating at some deep unconscious level, so this dialogue has always been of interest to me. It has led to a number of papers where I have tried to compare Buddhism and Christianity, one of them looking at The Cloud of Unknowing as offering a very similar path to what goes on in the Zen koan process. Another one comparing Swedenborg and Buddhism, the 18th century Swedish mystic Swedenborg who is an extraordinary person offering an extraordinary system. I still don’t know whether I believe in it or not, but I find it absolutely fascinating, and one of the things I find fascinating is the truly profound parallels between some of the things he is saying and some of the things that Buddhism seems to be saying.

But in general, I am still thinking, still struggling, like so many other people, trying to understand what is the relation between the Christian path, between the Christian mystical path, especially, and the Buddhist enlightenment path? I think this is something that all of us are struggling with, and all of us are offering different understandings, different ways to approach it. Some people tend to think of them as obviously very similar in what they are working toward. Other people, just as obviously, think that they are doing something very different. It is still something we are going to be working on for a long time, probably generations. One thing that does occur to me, though, something I have been tossing through my mind for a long time, back and forth, is thinking about whether they are, in fact, operating on different functions, or different aspects of our being. If this is the case, it is not just that we are contrasting Christianity and Buddhism, but rather, that both of them, and all of the other great religions, as well, I think, contain both. I think Buddhism contains a more devotional aspect, just as Christianity contains a more intellectual aspect with people like Meister Eckhart – mystical aspect I am referring to. But I think that the comparison in bringing together Christianity and Buddhism in dialogue brings out this aspect much more clearly than anything else. In particular, the Buddhist path as we now understand it works on the intellectual part of our selves, the mind. The meditation is working on letting go of thoughts, letting go of feelings and emotions, as a way of deconstructing the self, dereflecting the self, letting it disappear, and that’s why the kinds of nondual experiences that one has as a result of that are talked about in terms of mind, in terms of wisdom, in terms of nondual wisdom, which is prajna. That’s the one side of it.

The other side, the devotional, which is more emphasized in Christianity, I think is working more on the heart level. Again, we find that in Buddhism and other religions, as well, but I think it is very clear, very much emphasized, in Christianity, and therefore we can see what is going on there. But here is the interesting question, I think. If as I now think we have a pretty good sense of how the intellectual process of meditation works to help develop prajna, nondual wisdom, what’s comparable for working on the heart level? What I would now say, what seems to be the case, is that you don’t work in this heart level so much in meditation, although there are meditations that help it, but I think the heart level has to do with developing love, with purifying and extending our love, and the most important way that we work on this is not by sitting, facing the wall, but in community with our friends and families, with our wider circle of community that we help to develop, which provides the opportunity, which provides the place, for this love to be worked out. In the situations that arise in dealing with other people, it allows us to see how the way of love can help us to let go of the kinds of resistances and selfishnesses that normally tend to limit our way of relating to other people. It seems to me that when we really do this sincerely and over a period of time, then what we get is a sense of a community of love. Love is not simply something that is an attribute of me that I am expressing and bouncing back and forth with other people. It is not just a subjective process, but that we start to realize that out of this community of love we are participating in something deeper than us, and then we begin to see that love isn’t something that belongs to me, it is not something that I have or show, but that it is something that I participate in. I think this is what is at its best going on in following the Christian path, and I see this very clearly among a lot of the Christians that really endeavor to live in this way.

Unlike Buddhism, which emphasizes the nondual wisdom, that side of it, the mind side of it, the nondual love is necessarily relational, and therefore necessarily, if we try to understand it, we are not going to understand love in itself without a sense of love of whom for whom. We can understand it in terms of our love of each other, I love you, or I love God, or God loves me. In a sense there is always a sense of relationality to it which helps us to understand why religions that are devotional, that seem to work on this more devotional level, tend to understand the Supreme in a theistic way, as a person rather than as something neutral and nondual in the mental sense.

I am aware that I haven’t said that well, perhaps partly because it is such a difficult thing to articulate, and it is something that a number of us are trying to think about and trying to understand the implications of, but what I would suggest, what I would hope, is that this would become a theme for those of us who are so interested in this dialogue, which is so important. I hope we will consider this and try to look at it more carefully, and see, first of all, whether it fits in with our own understanding of the traditions, and perhaps even more important, whether it seems consistent with what we, ourselves, are experiencing in our Buddhist and in our Christian practices. Hopefully that’s a theme, a focus, a way to consider how they can be brought together.

The other implication of this, of course, is that an understanding of a community of love inevitably implies quite a critique of the kind of society we have now. It is not simply a matter that we have a pluralistic society which is neutral, which allows us to do what we want, but historically we have a supposedly secular state based on fear. You look at what Thomas Hobbs, his whole conception of a social contract, which everyone accepts as a myth, nonetheless it is in a way the foundational myth of the nation state, that the nation state is involving fear, of societies competing with each other, and it’s designed to protect us from each other. We create an absolute king of Leviathan because he is the only one who can protect us from each other. This is not only different than the community of love that Christianity at its best promotes, but it is diametrically opposite. One thing we really do have to look at is to see how those things can be reconciled. Perhaps reconciliation isn’t the right word. I think what we have to do is be very aware that if we feel this community of love, and if we see what nondual wisdom implies, we can’t just stay by ourselves and enjoy whatever peaceful bliss that comes from this. We realize inevitably a great social responsibility because we have a world which is going to hell in many different ways rather quickly, and we have to do whatever we can to bring this perspective, this understanding, to bear on the kind of social problems which are now existing, which I firmly believe are not going to be solved, genuinely solved, in any other way. The kinds of approaches that are taken to things like environmental and social issues are band-aids that are not going to solve the problems. This is the other thing. We have to think collectively together what are the best ways for us to bring this to bear on the larger social issues. I think Christians have always done a very good job of this. There are lots of Christian groups who I think are very much trying to contribute what they can. More recently Buddhists have become engaged, and I think there are very exciting things going on in such groups as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship based in Berkeley, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists based especially in Thailand. I have great hopes that these groups, perhaps working with Christian ones, as they already are, will have some influence.


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