issue 19 winter 02
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A Buddhist History of the West

Studies in Lack

David R. Loy

State University of New York Press

$19.95/£14.25 p/b

Loy follows the rise of global capitalism to its present status as the first truly world religion, and sees economics as its theology. He notes its pernicious effects, such as ecological degradation and the encouragement of greed. He shows how it has come to occupy the status of dogma when all it really offers is a particular, historically conditioned, and in many ways inadequate and misleading way of valuing and devaluing the world. He contrasts this with his understanding of the possibilities offered by Buddhism.

We learn that during what Jaspers called the 'Axial Age' (800-200bce) in many cultures religions sprang into being that posited a transcendent world standing in contra-distinction to this one, which was, by comparison, devalued. Ethics and faith became the credentials for entry into this better world. Loy shows that our world becomes a place of lack, defined through comparison with the better place. This lack has haunted western culture ever since, though it has undergone numerous transformations and survived the demise of belief in the other world from which it sprang.

After sketching his own interpretation of Buddhism, Loy offers a critique of 'freedom', an ideal that has stimulated many wars and revolutions – French, Russian, Chinese – that have culminated in tyranny. America is sometimes claimed as the exception, but arguably the American attempt to export its variety of 'freedom and justice' currently lies at the root of civil strife around the world. The western ideal of freedom is connected to the centrality it accords the potentially autonomous self – and it becomes imperative that this potential is actualised. However, Buddhism suggests that autonomous selfhood is impossible because selfhood can never be isolated from the conditions upon which it depends: the environment and the community. It is no accident, therefore, that the triumph of the western freedom-view has been accompanied by the devastation of environment and community. 'Self-actualisation', whether of the individual or the state, is all too often at somebody else's expense.

Freedom is the mother of anxiety. The freed masses have, therefore, often traded their emancipation for the security offered by autocratic direction. Even if this is avoided, the pursuit of freedom becomes an endless chase after a mirage that recedes as we approach, because to secure freedom one has to achieve control. At the collective level the whole exercise is self-defeating, but Loy explores these themes through the history of classical Greece. The Greeks invented humanism and individualism and were even more competitive than ourselves, but he argues that although the Greeks developed the 'higher religion of the self' their prime achievement was to demonstrate that it didn't work. Democratic Athens was the most imperialistic of the Greek city states. We have, however, failed to learn the lesson.

I agree with Loy that freedom-anxiety is closely related to a basic mistake about the nature of the self. On this mistake rests a consumerist edifice in which people have an illusion of freedom that obscures the cruelties in which they are implicated, the manner in which they are being led by the nose, and the ways in which matters might be righted. We have created a world in which exploitation is accepted because it serves the profit that underpins our way of life. We think that if we can only secure 'enough' then we will be freed from anxiety. This anxiety, however, does not come from not having enough. It is the shadow of the very self-consciousness that we hold so dear and that rides under the banner of 'freedom'.

Loy's analysis of the trajectory of ancient Greek culture is salutary in its parallel to our own age of supposedly secular humanism. Toward the end of this period Greek culture became increasingly introspective, just as ours is becoming. In Greece this further blinded the psyche to the world of objects and aggravated the sense of lack. We see in our own day a veritable epidemic of perceived personal inadequacy and mutual blame.

None the less Greek subjectivism carried over into medieval Christianity and further developed around the notion of sin: 'lack' raised to divine proportions. Belief in self generates anxiety, and anxiety seeks rationalisation. It asks: 'What is wrong with me?' Christianity, particularly through St Augustine, had the answer: 'I have sinned'. This message crystallised the problems of a whole culture and the Christian vision took hold across Europe.

If we must suffer for our sins, then control can be achieved by getting the suffering over with now. Punishment proportionate to sin thus became a means of salvation and the modern system of law was born as a science of penance. Man could anticipate God's work by administering His punishments, and thereby performing a mercy. Dying at the stake, for instance, would be better than burning in hell for eternity. Legal punishment could, therefore, obviate the need to suffer in the hereafter, and the Church became the administrator of a legal system. But anticipating God's work soon amounted to usurping it. If man can administer the law himself, God is redundant.

Nevertheless, in Europe, the power of this notion fuelled the 'Papal Revolution' of the 11th century that thrust the popes into a position of great power. In these papal reforms Loy sees the origins of many institutional elements of modern society. The gradual redundancy of God they implied, however, led, in the post-Renaissance world, to the triumph of subjectivism in spiritual matters – firstly, in the doctrine of a direct relationship between each believer and God that claimed priority over all other considerations and, secondly, in the depotentiation of the divine through its internalisation. Self is now god. In our society the law retains a remnant of sacred status, but even this is decaying.

To summarise: the search for civic freedom in Greece fuelled wars, and eventually turned in upon itself in chasing the solution to the anxiety it generated. Christianity 'solved' this problem with its early doctrine of sin and its later doctrine of direct responsibility to God, and, as belief in God has waned, this has left us still alone and no less anxious. No longer believing in sin we blame others. No longer believing in God we feel pointless. The solution, however, lies not in finding further substitutes, but in cutting the root of the problem, which is the alienation inherent in the self-view itself. Instead we chase after progress but increasingly confront the limitations to growth inherent in the fact that human life cannot be made independent of nature. Imminent ecological collapse poses an urgent challenge to the future-oriented quasi-religion of consumerism, and highlights the underlying contradiction upon which our culture rests - the attempt to achieve collective salvation from an individualistic premise through the theory of economics.

I would like to add to Loy's thesis the suggestion of Buddhist theory that greed has a tendency to flip over into hatred. I am writing this review in Sarajevo where the effects of recent war are palpable. 'Reconstruction' seems likely to create a more lack-oriented and less community-oriented society than existed formerly. Buddhism is a remedy for hatred as well as greed, and for the drive to power as well as the tyranny of lack. Both halves of the cycle need to be tackled if we are to reconstruct the fabric of wise compassion that a genuinely creative society requires.

This brings me to Loy's interpretation of Buddhism itself and to ask whether he is open to his own critique. Loy places the teaching of non-self centre stage and I agree with him in doing so. But the version of the non-self teaching that he favours emphasises the supposed interdependence of phenomena. Could it be that the idea of interdependence that is beginning to find widespread acceptance in the West is simply the latest attempt to reincarnate the god of promise who will relieve us of our lack without requiring us to grow up? Is it another chimera of salvation held before us in secular clothes?

David Brazier (Dharmavidya) is the founder of the Amida Trust