June 27, 2009

Why Buddhism Doesn’t Need the West

In the Spring 2009 issue of Tricycle, David Loy’s “Why Buddhism Needs the West” predictably whipped up the Angry Asian Buddhist in me (again). When I got down to reading the piece a second time, his words began to appear less provocative and more simple minded.
From a Buddhist perspective, it would be naive to expect social transformation to work without personal transformation. But the history of Buddhism shows us that the opposite is also true: although Buddha-dharma may focus on promoting individual awakening, it cannot avoid being affected by the social forces that work to keep us asleep and submissive. It is the mercy of the West that those social forces need no longer be mystified as natural and inevitable.
These words didn’t explain anything to me, and I had to track down his article “Religion and the Market,” which presents the same notion in a different framework.
The great sensitivity to social justice in the Semitic religions (for whom sin is a moral failure of will) needs to be supplemented by the emphasis that the Asian enlightenment traditions place upon seeing-through and dispelling delusion (ignorance as a failure to understand). Moreover, I suspect that the former without the latter is doomed to be ineffective in our cynical age.
David Loy is simply a philosopher who wants Buddhism to merge with Western social justice to transform society and the world for the better. But he has no empirical argument to show that this can actually happen. He’s a philosopher doing what philosophers do best: enjoying that armchair. Buddhism doesn’t need the West “to realize its own deepest promise,” rather this is Loy’s way of describing how he’d like to make society fit his worldview. That’s great, but I think I’ll pass.


  1. Loy does make some pretty sweeping assertions, both about Buddhism and about "the West". I tend to agree with the title of this post. Irregardless of what happens to "the West", Buddhism will continue. Funny how he equates fulfilling the needs of the West with Buddhism's "greatest potential".

    As it happens, I do think that Buddhism and social justice go hand in hand, but I don't think Buddhism needs to be lectured to by Westerners in order to succeed at this. It seems to me there are plenty of resources within the existing traditions. Thich Nhat Hanh seems to me to be an excellent example of somebody addressing contemporary issues from within a traditional Buddhist framework, and unlike Loy he's certainly not just preaching from an armchair....

  2. Loy is obviously full of crap. In fact, his position boils down to a racist assertion that Asians, Africans, and non-Europeans generally are all congenitally incapable of applying reason and logic to societal problems.