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.