Asian Tradition’s Got it Wrong Again

Tricycle Editors’ Blog today touted an article by David Loy in the current Tricycle issue. I’m happy to see that his view on karma is in many ways not much different from my own. But the author of “Why Buddhism Needs the West” seems to never miss the opportunity to point out how wrong we Asians are, as he does below.

THERE ARE AT LEAST two other major problems with the ways that karma has traditionally been understood. One of them is its unfortunate implications for many Asian Buddhist societies, where a self-defeating split has developed between the sangha and the laity. Although the Pali canon makes it quite clear that laypeople too can attain liberation, the main spiritual responsibility of lay Buddhists, as commonly understood, is not to follow the path themselves but to support the monastics. In this way, lay men and women gain punna, or “merit,” a concept that commodifies karma. By accumulating merit, they hope to attain a favorable rebirth or to gain material reward, which in turn redounds to the material benefit of the monastic community. This approach reduces Buddhism, quite literally, to a form of spiritual materialism.

The other problem is that karma has long been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and so forth. Taken literally, karma justifies both the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it’s already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. You were born crippled, or to a poor family? Well, who but you is responsible for that?

Time and again, David Loy’s words have so many things wrong with them that I find myself too stunned to say a thing. Am I wrong to read that he’s drawing a line connecting Asian Buddhism, spiritual materialism and social inequity? The saddest truth is that he could have written his entire article without racial and ethnic terms, and it would have had the same rhetorical force. He is implicitly saying this is an issue for Asians (not white folk). He is casting Asian Buddhism in an unfavorable light for no other purpose that to contrast with and promote his own “modern” views on karma. These are views which, by no coincidence, are shared by countless Asian Buddhists too.

One thought on “Asian Tradition’s Got it Wrong Again

  1. Archivist’s Note: Comments have been preserved from the original website for archival purposes; however, comments are now closed.

    ArdieJune 23, 2009 at 9:44 AM
    I hate to say this but Loy is quite wrong about the relationship between monastic and lay–at least from the standpoint of the Pali Nikayas.

    One doesn’t have to be a monk to be an Arahant or the same, to win nirvana. Moreover, the Triple Gem Sangha is ONLY for holy persons (ariyasavaka) who have at least entered the stream of sanctification which can be accomplished without being a monastic. Thus it follows that lay people can be holy persons while monks can be run-of-the-mill persons called in Pali, “puthujana” who are NOT members of the Triple Gem Sangha.

    Peter Masefiled, the Buddhist scholar and PTS translator, has covered all this in a most excellent fashion in his book, _Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism_.

    AlJune 23, 2009 at 11:41 AM
    Ardie, Loy is saying that laity can attain enlightenment if you read the quote. The rest is about social practices, as I read it.

    AlJune 23, 2009 at 11:46 AM
    I think you are reading into Loy’s statements a bit. I get the sense that he is, rightly or wrongly, talking about Buddhist societies historically, not necessarily modern understandings. The fact that is viewpoint is shared by many Asian Buddhists should validate it to some degree doesn’t it?

    I think Loy is struggling, as many convert Buddhists in the West do, with how (or if) to separate Buddhist customs developed over thousands of years that are particular to a people or region with what the Buddha may or may not have taught. Of course, this ignores the fact that there is no pristine or pure Buddhism lurking out there, untainted by history. Buddhism is part and parcel of these same regions and cultures historically and cannot be separated from it necessarily.

    ArunJune 26, 2009 at 2:38 AM
    @Al: The point that really gets to me is David Loy’s expressed focus on using ethnic terms as a basis of contrast to promote his argument. He’s talking about Buddhist societies of over 100 years ago – fine – then the racial monikers are moot. I imagine if I wrote about “white Buddhist magazines that discuss things that have nothing to do with Buddhism,” I would get more flak over my use of the term “white” than over my critique. Actually, I think I might have already done that.

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