Friday, February 26, 2016

David Loy's "The New Buddhist Path": Book Review

 A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World
This book opens promisingly. David Loy favors a third course, bypassing the transcendental, nirvana- and karma-based model of a Buddhism aiming at next-world reward, as well as an immanent one that tries to reinforce the self's construction in league with mindfulness gimmicks, rather than reducing it. "If my ultimate goal is something or somewhere else, I don't need to be too concerned about the her and now. And if the goal of my practice is to de-stress so I can perform my usual work and home roles better, I won't be inclined to consider the larger social and economic implications of the Buddhist perspective. In both cases, the radical nature of the Buddhist critique of self is unappreciated, and the new possibilities that arise when we realize our nonduality with this world remain unfulfilled." (38) This plainspoken approach elucidates Loy's socially aware direction well.

Loy looks provocatively to the story of Adam and Eve to wonder if "our sense of lack" is built into our human condition. As a fable of self-awareness, Loy interprets the origin story about civilization's start and perhaps the start of religion. Maybe beliefs and practices are our way traditionally to cope with our feelings, he suggests, "of lack and disconnection by conducting rituals and offering sacrifices, to get back into the good graces of the gods and harmonize with the cosmic powers. Then we feel better--for a while." (46) Christianity explains lack as sin, and condition sinners to respond.

He shifts for most of the book into the emergence of what he regards as a self-generating cosmos. He bases this on quantum mechanics: "what we experience as reality does not become 'real' until it is perceived. Consciousness is the agency that collapses the quantum wave into an object, which until then exists only in potential." (62) Certainly tricky material, and the remainder of Loy's argument, while interspersed with well-chosen quotes from a variety of thinkers, verges off into what for me felt more New Age-inspired cosmology than a critique grounded in either physics or secular Buddhism.

Still, the remainder has its moments. Loy recovers his footing when he examines the weakness of ancient Buddhism as it emerged, its force weakened as it capitulated to the institutional regimes. Accommodating itself to the state, its challenges to 'dukkha' weakened. Loy reckons (116-117) this may be how Buddhism was "reduced" to a religion, unable because of its submission to kings to challenge them. Karma and rebirth teachings then were channeled into support of inequality. The elite enjoyed the fruits of their past lives and their earlier benevolence; the poor or disabled suffered their just reward. Monastic instruction encouraged a few to pursue perfection while kingdoms ruled over a laity resigned to supporting the cadre of those who had to rely on the favors of those kept in power.

In conclusion, Loy's book, ranging across enlightenment, evolution, and ethics, seems itself aligned with rather conventional Mahayana teachings. Published by Wisdom, a press that popularizes this fidelity, it may be unsurprising that Loy's message is a bit muted. Oddly lacking any mention of Stephen Batchelor's examination of similar themes in the Pali canon (which Loy reminds us is eleven times the length of the Bible), it nevertheless may serve as an introduction to such perspectives. (2-28-16 to Amazon US)

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