Professor David R. Loy is the author of Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (Yale University Press, 1988), Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism (Humanities Press, 1996), A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (State University of New York Press, 2002), and The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Wisdom Publications, 2003). He is also the editor of Healing Deconstruction: Postmodern Thought in Buddhism and Christianity (Scholars Press, 1996) and coauthor with his wife, Linda Goodhew, of The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy (Wisdom Publications, 2004). For many years, Prof. Loy taught philosophy and religion at Bunkyo University near Tokyo, Japan. In 2006 he took a position in the Theology Department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to his academic work, David Loy is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage of Zen Buddhism where he completed formal koan training under Zen Master Yamada Koun Roshi. For more about David Loy and his work, see the links at the end of this document. The text below is an edited transcript of a telephone conversation between Tom McFarlane and Professor Loy in July of 2004. This document is copyright © 2005 by David R. Loy and is published here with his kind permission. Thanks to Sheila Craven for transcribing the audio of this interview.
TOM McFARLANE: Could you start by telling us about your childhood and youth, about your religious background, and what led you to engage in a personal spiritual quest?
DAVID LOY: I was born in the Panama Canal Zone. My father was in the Navy so we lived in a lot of different places and I attended many different schools. Moving around so much made me quite bookish and self-contained.
I was raised as a Christian, but never really got very involved with it. However, I was always interested in philosophy, especially the more existential side of philosophy. While attending Carleton College in Minnesota I was fortunate to arrange a junior-year-abroad at King’s College, University of London, studying linguistic analytic philosophy, which taught me that I wasn’t interested in linguistic analytic philosophy. I developed in a more existential direction studying continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard. From there it’s not such a big leap to D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and other writers on Zen.
After graduating from Carleton at the height of the Viet Nam War, I became a draft resister and moved to San Francisco. Although I have never regretted that non-violent anti-war organizing, by the time the war wound down I realized that I needed to look more deeply into myself. Certainly there were many serious political and social issues that remained problematic, but it was not enough for me just to criticize the social system. I had to look into myself and find the more personal source of my own problems. So, typically, I departed on a round-the-world trip. But without any money I didn’t get any further than the first destination, which was Hawaii, and I ended up living there for five years. That’s when I got into Zen practice. There was a Zen center there at that time led by Robert Aitken, who wasn’t a Roshi yet. He was very kind to me, and after I attended a couple sesshins he invited me to live and practice at the Maui zendo. He later suggested that I go to graduate school, so I ended up getting an MA from the University of Hawaii in Asian Philosophy.
DAVID: Yes, the interest and focus started in Hawaii. But it was only later, when doing my doctoral studies in Singapore, that I started to develop that thesis and publish the first papers about different aspects of nonduality. And then I realized that they were really different ways of looking at the same thing, and saw how they all fit together. That’s when I put the book together. The first draft was my doctoral dissertation for the National University of Singapore.
From Singapore I came to Kamakura, Japan, where I’ve been now for about twenty years. I originally moved here in order to continue Zen practice with my teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, a Zen Master who was then the Abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan, a lineage of Zen which combines elements of the Soto and Rinzai schools.
TOM: How did he become your teacher?
DAVID: I had originally met him in Hawaii. At that time he visited Hawaii every year or so to lead sesshins for Robert Aitken’s groups. I kept that connection up while in Singapore. We started a small Zen group there, and he came to lead sesshin for us a few times.
TOM: And are you a Zen teacher yourself now?
DAVID: After I completed the formal koan training under Yamada Roshi, he gave me a Zen name and authorized me to teach. But I’m not actually teaching Zen now, so I wouldn’t call myself a Zen teacher. You can’t be a Zen teacher if you don’t have Zen students! But maybe that will change sometime in the future.
TOM: So, now you’re mostly focused on teaching philosophy and writing?
DAVID: Yes. I’m a professor in the faculty of international studies at Bunkyo University, near Tokyo. Although we don’t have a separate philosophy department, I teach some introductory philosophy and religion courses, and in addition to that there is studying and writing.
TOM: Your first book, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, develops the thesis that there is a core doctrine of nonduality shared by many schools of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, as well as by mystics of other traditions. Beyond its academic significance, I’m curious what relevance you think this thesis of nonduality might have for society as a whole and also for individual spiritual practitioners.
DAVID: Western culture, and especially the United States, is quite dualistic in the sense that it is a civilization based on subject-object discrimination. If that’s a delusion—as many spiritual traditions claim it is—it’s very important for us to realize it, because it may have a lot to do with the kind of problems we’ve gotten ourselves into.
On the personal level, the claim of subject-object nonduality helps to give some validity to the spiritual experience and the spiritual path. Confronted by such a variety of systems and truth claims and practices, it can be hard to make any sense of them. In academia now it’s rather fashionable to doubt whether these systems can really be talking about the same thing. If we can understand the relationship among them in a nondual way—to see, for example, that Buddhist categories are one way of trying to articulate something, and that Advaita categories might be another way of trying to articulate what seems to be the same kind of experience—that can be helpful in understanding and validating the experience, thereby helping us to pursue such a spiritual path. It also encourages us to pursue it in a non-dogmatic way, so that we don’t get hung up in, say, identifying only with Buddhist categories and thinking that other versions of the spiritual path must therefore be deluded or incorrect.
TOM: I’ve heard some academics present the view that, because all experience is conceptually mediated, all religious experience is fundamentally different, so one can not say that there is some single unified religious experience. I was wondering how you would respond to this claim.
DAVID: I think there’s some validity to that point, but it depends on how we understand the claim. There are two points to make. First, it’s true that, insofar as we interpret our experience or even become aware of it as a particular kind of experience, then it’s already mediated. It is only afterwards, when we try to relate our own experience to the various articulations of spiritual experience that have been offered historically and culturally, that we can see the similarities among them and talk about a common experience. So, in that sense, I’m agreeing with the criticism. All our experiences are unique. But I don’t think that prevents us from looking for similarities afterwards.
The second point is that, with regard to spiritual insight in Zen, there’s no “pure experience” to be found apart from the nondual sensory experience. There’s no universal consciousness that is exactly the same across culture and time. With a kensho—a first opening, as it were—you let go of yourself and you experience something in a nondual way and an empty way. The important point is that there is no awareness of a distinction between subject and object. The fact that the experience is nondual makes it similar to other nondual experiences, but there’s an enormous variety of particular experiences that can trigger this: a sound, something visual, a physical sensation. So, we’re not talking about transcending the sensory world to experience some higher reality, some unchanging transcendence. In Zen, it’s experiencing one’s particular situation in a nondual way—maybe only for a split second, or maybe longer.
TOM: Let’s move on now to this notion of lack that’s central to so much of your work. Perhaps you could start by giving us a definition of lack, and tell us how you came up with this concept.
DAVID: The easiest way to understand lack is to think of it as the “shadow” of the sense of self. The Buddhist teaching of anatta, or non-self, implies that our sense of self is a construct, an ever-changing process, which doesn’t have any reality of its own. Because it lacks any reality of its own, any stable ground, this sense of self is haunted by what I’ve called a sense of lack or, for short, lack. The origin of this sense of lack is our inability to open up to the emptiness, or ungroundedness, of the self. Insofar as we’re unable to cope with that emptiness, insofar as we deny it and shy away from it, we experience it as a sense of lack.
TOM: What came to my mind when I first came across your term lack is the use of the word lack in the context of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, which teaches that all things lack inherent existence. It made me wonder if perhaps we could say, more generally, that this lack of an inherent existence—or emptiness—is the shadow of the idea that there is an inherent existence of things.
DAVID: Everything is empty of own-being, or self-being. But the most problematical emptiness and lack for us has to do with our own sense of self.
This concept of lack is a helpful way for us to understand the Buddhist concept of dukkha. Although dukkha is often translated into English as suffering, when you look at the Buddhist texts, obviously dukkha is a much broader term that includes more general dissatisfaction, a basic frustration in our lives that we are never quite able to resolve. And this broader meaning of dukkha includes a basic dissatisfaction connected to the conditioned nature of the self. One of the distinctive things about Buddhism is that it brings out so clearly this connection between dukkha and anatta, between our basic dissatisfaction and our deluded sense of self. The concept of lack is an attempt to flesh out what I think is so distinctive and powerful about the Buddhist analysis.
The basic concept of lack came to me from reading Ernest Becker. He’s obviously a major influence in Lack and Transcendence (which remains my favorite book despite the ugly cover and tiny font). In his last two books, Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, Becker focuses on how the inevitability of our death is denied and repressed, and it’s not such a big leap from Becker’s death-denial to a Buddhist lack of self. One significant difference is that focusing on death projects the source of our problem into our future, while in the case of Buddhism the source of the problem—the emptiness of the self—is right now.
TOM: So, from the psychological or existential point of view, we’re worried about the future death of some self we think exists, but from the Buddhist point of view it’s actually deeper than that: we’re really worried about the fact that, right now, we don’t exist in the first place.
DAVID: That’s right. If the problem is death, we might think we’re really okay right now, and it’s only what’s going to happen in the future that’s so scary. Buddhism is saying that our dukkha isn’t just due to impermanence and death, our dukkha is pointing at something fundamental about the groundlessness of the sense of self right now. There’s a tendency in psychotherapy to say that our problem is due to childhood conditioning, so we just need to uncover and work through our memories of that. In Buddhism, on the other hand, the problem isn’t just with our particular conditioning, the problem is with all conditioning, with the nature of the sense of self. So, I think that Buddhism has a deeper understanding of the problem of dukkha and also a deeper understanding of tfhe alternatives. Freud thought that all we could ultimately hope for is to get rid of certain types of neurotic suffering. The message of Buddhism is that something more is possible. There are deeper, more transformative human possibilities. Yet the whole psychotherapeutic movement is changing so quickly, and today certain circles are moving strongly in a more spiritual direction.
TOM: In Lack and Transcendence you discuss some ways our lack relates to psychological repression and compensation. How do these psychological concepts help us understand lack and the ways we try to avoid it?
DAVID: Well, the basic concept of repression is an extremely important one that I think we’re still digesting. Anything that we repress is something that we’re unwilling or unable to cope with, so we turn our attention away from it. But if it’s something really pressing—like sexuality for Freud, or death for Becker, or non-self for Buddhism—then it’s not so easy for us to escape it. It’s going to find a way to return to awareness, which is what Freud called the return of the repressed. If we are not able to accept and acknowledge and live with the experience of our own emptiness, if we repress awareness of our ungroundedness, then it will return as the various compulsive ways that we try to ground ourselves in the world, to make ourselves feel more real in the world. This is a general preoccupation for almost all of us, but the particular form that it takes depends upon the kind of person you are and the kind of cultural context that you find yourself within. So, in the modern American context, accumulating money is probably our main, number one reality project. Collectively, we seem to believe that more money will make us more real. But there are also other basic reality projects, especially fame and sexual fulfillment. These are three of the common ways we try to overcome our sense of lack and ground ourselves in the world. Those are quite different than, say, how a medieval peasant in Europe would have understood and tried to overcome his or her sense of lack. If you look at the whole history of human civilization, lack has usually been understood in a religious way. Religion is the way that humans have tried to understand and resolve their sense of lack. A religion teaches us what our lack is—for example, Christian sin or Buddhist karma—and how to resolve it.
TOM: I wonder if you have any thoughts on the origin of our sense of lack. You said it was the shadow of the self and that it’s related to this denial of our ungroundedness. But why do we have this problem with accepting our ungroundedness?
DAVID: Our sense of lack is a problem, but it’s also an opportunity. Lack is only the negative aspect of something that’s much greater—something that’s, in fact, salvific. It’s our ungroundedness—a kind of bottomless hole at the very core of our being—that we usually experience as lack. Because we’re so uncomfortable with or even terrified of this ungroundedness, we experience it as a sense of lack that we flee from. But if we can open up to that ungroundedness at our core, if we can let go and yield to it, then we find that it’s the source of our creativity and our spirituality, that at the very core of our being there’s something else there, something formless that can not be grasped, something that transcends the self and yet is the ground of the self. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart expressed it, “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” That’s a wonderful way to put it. So, the question is, what can we do to open up to our ungroundedness, in order for that to manifest in me and as me, and thus in the world.
TOM: In A Buddhist History of the West you point out that lack is not just personal but is also collective, and you discuss how certain developments in the history of the West can be seen as shifts in how we understand and deal with our collective lack. How do you think this perspective on Western history may be helpful?
DAVID: It helps us to understand the particular kinds of ways that we are stuck today. There is a Zen phrase, “bound by ropes of our own making,” which means, trapped by our own ways of thinking. Our dukkha isn’t just something individual. Dukkha is also collective, culturally conditioned suffering, which has a lot to do with our cultural institutions. If there’s such a thing as collective dukkha, then there’s such a thing as collective lack, and collective understanding of that lack. Buddhism emphasizes delusion, and there’s also collective delusion—for example, myths about what America is and what it means to be American.
An important point about lack is that it’s unavoidable. It’s the nature of lack that you’re going to have to deal with it one way or the other. Historically, people have usually dealt with lack in religious terms, referring to some other reality. But if you doubt any spiritual reality, if you are a secular person living in what you understand as a secular world, then you’re going to have to objectify and cope with your lack right here and now, which is why consumerism is so addictive. The promise of consumerism is that something you buy or consume is going to fill up your sense of lack. But it’s also the nature of consumerism that nothing ever can. Consumerism never makes you happy. Yet, it’s always promising to make you happy. It’s always the next thing that’s going to make you happy. That’s one example of a collective bind that we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Lack can also help us understand war and our response to terrorism since September 11th. Psychologically, war, despite all its horrors, is a comforting, familiar way for us to project our collective sense of lack onto somebody else. So, for example, we might come to believe al-Qaida is the cause of our lack, they are our problem, because, hey, they are trying to kill us! This involves a lot of anxiety, obviously, but we also feel a sense of relief that we can now understand what the problem with our lives is and how to deal with it. To keep lack from gnawing at our core, we objectify it: the problem is those terrorists over there, and if we eliminate them, we eliminate our sense of lack, and then we will be okay. Part of the tragedy with that projection, of course, is that it’s a false promise, just as with consumerism. If you kill those guys, you don’t solve the basic problem. There’s always going to be some other enemy, somebody else who starts to threaten us, because, insofar as we’re thinking in that way, we have to keep finding or creating new enemies, just like we have to keep finding new things to consume. Conveniently, one of the very dangerous things about the war on terror is that we don’t know if or when there will ever be an end to it. The evil guys can be anywhere and they’re a constant threat. That is very unsettling, and it encourages us to let go of some of our commitment to human rights and democracy because, after all, the terrorists might be within the United States as well. This distorted way of understanding our collective lack encourages us to acquiesce to the need for a national security state. But if terrorism can never be defeated, we’ll keep needing a stronger and stronger national security state.
Many people are committed to these ways of overcoming our sense of lack. They identify with such distorted objectifications of our lack, with such familiar, even traditional understandings of what’s wrong and what we should do and how we should live to overcome lack. At the same time, many other people are becoming more aware that these accepted ways of overcoming our sense of lack—the emphasis on money, the emphasis on success, the emphasis on collective economic growth, the emphasis on violent solutions to conflicts and threats—are not really working. Quite a few people now are starting to see through this, so there’s a split. It’s a rather exciting time, as well as a very dangerous time, in American history. There’s something struggling to be born.
TOM: So, do you have a sense of where this might be going, or what the next stage might be?
DAVID: Well, in addition to writing various essays on what I’ve been calling Buddhist social theory, I’m gathering material for a book on the axial revolution and its implications for us today. Karl Jaspers coined the term axial age to describe the revolutionary period around 600–400 BCE when many influential figures such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Plato, and the Hebrew prophets all lived. As I see it so far, the axial revolution involved the realization or construction of something transcendental—God, Nirvana, Reason, or some other transcendental reality—by which we transcend or “rise above” the experienced world. This axial revolution introduces universalistic ethical and legal principles as the basis for a just society. The transcendental makes demands of us, it requires us to change our lives and reorder our societies in accordance with its principles. This was something new, creating new possibilities. Now, the whole point of these transcendentals, the reason they’re so valuable, is that they give us a perspective and a handle on power and the lust for power. Without such axial perspectives, we have a world where the only important issue is power: getting power, gaining power, using power. So, the axial revolution was the beginning of a great struggle between the lust for power and these transcendental perspectives, a struggle that is still going on.
From another perspective, the axial revolution hasn’t happened yet. There was an opening to different worldviews at that time, but what occurred historically is that axial principles were largely swallowed up and manipulated by powerful religious, economic, and political institutions. So, although the world as we experience it today is still to some extent a legacy of that opening, it’s a legacy whose full implications are far from having been worked out. We haven’t gotten very far yet. In a way, the axial age has just begun. It may take us a thousand more years—if we have them—to develop and apply the full implications of the axial revolution. What we’re experiencing today is the continuing struggle of the axial revolution to manifest itself.
Part of the problem is that the United States considers itself “post-axial.” In other words, we tend to take it for granted that we’ve realized the axial challenge, that we are a society based upon rational and ethical universal principles. It may need a little fine tuning, but the presumption is that the American way of life is the goal to be achieved, the standard by which all other societies should be evaluated. Yet, we’re deluding ourselves by patting ourselves on the back that way: the United States is in some ways a very poor example of a just society embodying transcendental principles. For example, if you look at the Bush administration’s foreign policy and the neoconservative New American Project for the new American century, basically it’s all about power. We’re back to power: might makes right. Marxists sometimes talk about capital as if it were a living thing, as if it had a life of its own. But I wonder if capital is only one example of something bigger: power. Power rationalizes itself in many ways, and the other tendency is for power to grow and self-perpetuate. It tends to take on a life of its own, without any ultimate goal outside itself. And that’s something very scary and dangerous, especially at this point in history. Today, due to our technologies, there are extraordinary amounts of military, economic, and cultural power to be accumulated and wielded. If we don’t learn how to use this power in a healthy, constructive way, it’s going to destroy us. It will get out of control because, if the desire for power is one of our modern reactions to lack, we can never have enough power.
TOM: You point out in various places that technology can be used as an instrument of power, to help manipulate the world, to get what we want from it, to avoid experiencing our lack. And in modern society there’s this idea that technology will be the answer to a lot of our problems. We just need to develop all the right technologies, then we’ll have all the cures to all the illnesses, and so forth. Would it be possible to have a kind of enlightened technology that is selflessly developed without a motive for power?
DAVID: There’s a deep-rooted split within the Western tradition between the notion that technology is the solution to all our problems and the other extreme of a romantic reaction that wants to go back to nature. But it’s not a question of asking: “Technology: for or against?” Instead, the question is: “How do we understand technology, and what do we want from it? Why do we want to develop it?” Too often, technology manifests our desire for greater power and then ends up creating all kinds of problems, especially in the case of military and economic forms of technology. In response, we have to find ways to ask questions about motivations. That’s what’s so wonderful about the Buddha’s understanding of karma. Historically, when you look at what was going on in the India of his time, his spiritual innovation, or spiritual revolution, was emphasizing the importance of cetana, which means motivation, or intention. Karma isn’t just something mechanical that we can manipulate with sacrifices and the merit they accrue. The Buddhist understanding of karma requires us to look into our minds and understand what is motivating us. Are we motivated by the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion, or are we motivated by generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom? Rarely, if ever, will our motives be completely pure, in this sense, but we need to find ways to bring those kinds of questions into the public arena, into the Great Conversation, and that won’t be easy to do. For example, if you question our motives for developing certain technologies, then you’ll also have to examine the basis of our globalizing economic system, which is largely driven by greed, the desire for higher profits, increasing gross national product, more consumption. What can we do to get a handle on that collective greed and how can we restrain it? Do we need a new kind of economic system and new kinds of technologies, or is it a matter of applying certain kinds of restraints on the ones we have? I don’t know of any simple answers to those vital questions. That’s something that has to be worked out.
Because the modern approach has been an obsession with power, modern science has looked for what Aristotle would call efficient causes. When we analyze something, we want to know what changes we can make, what can make it do this, what can make it do that, how it can enable us to get what we want. But if we weren’t motivated in that way, what other questions might we ask, how else might we perceive the world? Maybe there would be the possibility for a more nondual science. When you go back prior to what happened with Francis Bacon and the Western scientific revolution, people still wanted to understand the world, of course, but for them the world was God’s signature. Everything revealed something about God because He made it. The world was full of signs of God, and people wanted to understand the world as a way to better understand the mind of God.
TOM: Somewhere you wrote that to experience our unconscious, all we have to do is look at what we see as objective. Most people think of what’s objective as the physical world and the laws that govern it, at least in a materialist view. And so perhaps you could look at science not as a way to discover things about the world that we can manipulate and control, but if you took a different perspective on it you could say, well, this is actually showing us something about ourselves, something about what we’re not aware of.
DAVID: That makes a lot of sense. The scientific materialist worldview sees the world as a collection of objective things interacting in objectively existing space and time. And this way of seeing things, as each having its own separate reality, is the fundamental misconception that Buddhist philosophy deconstructs. The Buddhist response to that is emphasizing the interdependence, or interpermeation, of things. Things are not only connected with each other, they’re so much a part of each other that you can say each thing contains and is contained by all other things. For example, viewing genetic engineering and biotechnology from a materialist or reductionistic view, we tend to think that we are our genes. The foundation of human life is the genes that human beings have, and they are the reality that creates us. But if you look at it from the standpoint of interdependence, you see that genes are nothing more than a program to express certain proteins, but in order for that program to work, many other factors come into play—in fact, virtually everything comes into play once you begin to look at it closely. Insofar as you’re looking for power, however, you’re going to focus on isolating the genes because you want the power that comes from altering genes and altering the kind of proteins that they create. But if you’re not so preoccupied with power and that kind of efficient causality, then you can emphasize more the mutuality and the implications of genetic processes for everything else. This example is very relevant to the problems with a lot of biotech today. The people motivated by power—and money is “liquid power”—are taking enormous risks because they’re not reflecting on, or very concerned about, the extraordinary and often dangerous implications of these changes for everything else. This illustrates how you can sometimes understand the ethical dilemmas of technology as reflecting a tension between these two ways of seeing the world, that is, between seeing the world as a collection of objective things, or seeing the world—as Thomas Berry put it—as a community of subjects, each of which is implicated with and part of other subjects.
TOM: So, if science and technology can be understood and used in a more enlightened way, rather than used to gain power over the world and avoid our sense of lack, I wonder if there are also positive sides to our other personal and collective reality projects. For example, in your book you discuss how romantic love can be an attempt to avoid our sense of lack. But then you also point out how love can go beyond being just a selfish project to escape our sense of lack, and you use the example of Etty Hillesum there, a remarkable young woman whose diaries were published in the book An Interrupted Life. So, I wonder if the other projects, like money, can also be transformed in a similar way, to be liberated from selfish project to selfless activity.
DAVID: Money is such an important reality-symbol in the modern world, and most of us really do get hung up with it to some extent. And yet, there’s nothing bad in itself about money. The problem with money has to do with our motivations for seeking it and the ways we use it. In the process of getting money, some people can realize that money isn’t going to resolve their sense of lack, and some of them start to look at money in a new way. They can use it to change the world in a good way. It’s not money itself, as the Bible says, it’s our love of it. It’s the way we crave it and use it.
In the case of romantic love or sexual fulfillment, the same point can be made. There’s nothing wrong with romantic love or sexuality in itself. Again, it’s the way that they get distorted when our lack gets projected into them. Romantic love becomes a problem when we expect our relationship with another person to solve our sense of lack. That places enormous burdens on the relationship, burdens that relationships usually can’t endure because the other person can’t do that for us. The other person cannot be our God. Nevertheless, for many of us it is relationships with other people that open up our hearts to the world. A relationship can open you up to a kind of love that becomes much more than one’s own desire, which is what touches me so deeply about Etty Hillesum. Those who get involved in relationships can realize that sex or the other expectations they have of the relationship aren’t getting them what they want. A common response to that is breaking up: obviously, this isn’t the right person for me; time to find someone else who will fill up my sense of lack. When that person doesn’t work out, we keep looking for someone new, trying to recover that romantic glow. But there’s another possibility: transforming our way of understanding the relationship, so it becomes an opening to something deeper, to seeing through to the other side of our sense of lack, to realizing that there’s something more profound and more creative going on there.
TOM: And, just as this transformation can happen to the heart, you write about a transformation in the mind as well. So, on the one hand, a symbol can be used as a way of grasping onto some objective truth, as a way to compensate for our sense of lack. On the other hand, you write that a symbol or thought can be a way that the mind consummates itself, that it can activate the mind. I wonder if you’d elaborate on that, on how thought isn’t necessarily always used to grasp at things and to ground ourselves in the world.
DAVID: Well, this relates to the way we understand spirituality and meditation. For example, we often tend to understand meditation—in Zen especially—as getting rid of thoughts. We think that if we can just get rid of thought, then we can see the world as it is, clearly, without any interference from conceptuality. We view thinking as something negative that has to be eliminated in order to realize the emptiness of the mind. But this reflects the delusion of duality, rather than the solution to duality. As Dogen put it, the point isn’t to get rid of thought, but to liberate thought. Form is emptiness, yet emptiness is also form, and our emptiness always takes form. We don’t realize our emptiness apart from form, we realize it in form, as non-attached form. One of the very powerful and creative ways that our emptiness takes form is as thought. The point isn’t to have some pure mind, untainted by thought, like a blue, completely empty sky with no clouds. After a while that gets a little boring! Rather, one should be able to engage or play with the thought processes that arise in a creative, non-attached, nondualistic way. To put it in another way, the idea isn’t to get rid of all language, it’s to be free within language, so that one is non-attached to any particular kind of conceptual system, realizing that there are many possible ways of thinking and expressing oneself. The freedom from conceptualizing that we seek does not happen when we wipe away all thoughts; instead, it happens when we’re not clinging to, or stuck in, any particular thought system. The kind of transformation we seek in our spiritual practices is a mind that’s flexible, supple. Not a mind that clings to the empty blue sky. It’s a mind that’s able to dance with thoughts, to adapt itself according to the situation, the needs of the situation. It’s not an empty mind which can’t think. It’s an ability to talk with the kind of vocabulary or engage in the way that’s going to be most helpful in that situation.
I’m reminded of something that the Buddha says in the Pali Canon. One of his students asks him, “Whenever somebody asks a question, you know the answer. You have this ability to answer anything. It’s amazing. How are you able to keep all this information in your mind?” The Buddha answers to the effect that, well, it’s not that way at all. My mind is empty. According to the situation, the proper thoughts, the proper response arises naturally and spontaneously. It’s the freedom to engage rather than to just empty the mind that needs to be emphasized.
TOM: And the key to engaging with thoughts in this way, the distinction here, is non-attachment as opposed to attachment to thought?
DAVID: Thoughts flow naturally and spontaneously and creatively out of that ungroundedness at the core of our being, if we’re not attached to them. The problem isn’t thoughts themselves, the problem is the attached way we usually think. Thinking is a very important part of human creativity. We’re in a situation now where we need creative thinking because, as you know, the world is in a mess. My interest as a Buddhist scholar and philosopher is asking, “What is it in this very rich Buddhist tradition that can help us understand the binds that we’ve got ourselves into?” And, of course, that requires thinking, and that’s one example of the kind of thought and creativity that we need today.
TOM: This relates to the problem of how we each can respond to that challenge, and how to live an authentic spiritual life in the context of a society that is dominated by collective projects to avoid lack.
DAVID: Perhaps the first thing to recognize is that it’s extremely difficult to do something like that by ourselves. We usually have to find other like-minded people. And, fortunately, there are many people concerned about these things. We have to support each other and recognize each other.
In addition to that, what I have found very helpful in my own life is periods of retreat for intensive meditation. Some people build meditation into their daily lives in a way that seems to work well enough for them. In my experience, it’s also important to have longer periods when I am able to withdraw and to go into some kind of intensive retreat. I think this is especially important in the early stages of one’s spiritual practice. And I find that this is something I need to renew and relive to keep on the spiritual path. At this particular point in history, it’s important for all of us to do what we can in order to respond to the world’s dukkha in a mindful and helpful way. But simply to engage in social action isn’t sufficient. It’s also necessary to keep this contemplative side to our lives. Otherwise, we’re going to burn out and be of no help to anybody, including ourselves.
TOM: You write that the institutionalized forms of suffering in the world call us to compassionate action, to become what the Buddhists call bodhisattvas. What are some of the pitfalls of social activism, some of the ways it can itself become a project for avoiding or repressing lack? And what can we do to guard against those pitfalls or help recognize them?
DAVID: Especially in the Western context, lack encourages us to live in the future. Lack makes us live in time. We are preoccupied with the future because we think that’s when our lack is going to be resolved. We think our projects in the present are so important because it is only by acting on them now that they can be fulfilled, and it is only by fulfilling them that we can resolve our sense of lack. But the future doesn’t make the present real. Any genuine solution to our problem with lack involves overcoming this way of thinking about time and realizing something about the nature of the here and now. A spiritual life involves learning how to live in the here and now—and we’ve never been anywhere else, of course—rather than always living with reference to the future. On the other hand, we don’t want to get rid of time, either. In Zen practice there’s a paradox. On the one hand, we’re completely perfect right here and now. There’s nothing lacking in me or in the world right now, there’s absolutely nothing to gain, nowhere that we have to go. And yet, in order to realize that and, even more, in order to live in that way, we often have to engage in extraordinarily intensive practice. So, we’re trying to live in the present, but there’s a certain future orientation in the sense that most of us have to follow a spiritual path in order to realize that there’s absolutely nothing lacking now. If you just say, “Oh, I’m just here and now,” it doesn’t work. You need a practice in order to realize that here and now, otherwise we just get diverted, the mind becomes unfocused and wanders. And yet, if you become preoccupied with what you have gained or want to gain from that practice, then you lose what it is that you’re practicing for. Exactly the same paradox is true for socially engaged spirituality. Personally and socially we need both sides of it: The world is perfect just as it is now, and yet it also calls desperately for radical action. That paradox can’t be resolved in an intellectual or rational way, but it can be resolved in our practice, in how we actually live our lives. We need to realize something wholly healing about the here and now at the same time as we’re trying to develop in a fruitful direction. Does that make any sense?
TOM: Yes. It reminds me of the Diamond Sutra where it says that the bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings, but—if the truth be known—there are no sentient beings.
DAVID: That’s a very good example, because if you vow to save all sentient beings, you can easily get caught up in the future thinking, “I’ve got to save so many people. What an enormous task.” But the other side of it is getting caught thinking, “Okay, since there are no sentient beings, they are already saved, and I don’t need to do anything.” Neither one of those perspectives by itself is satisfactory. To really see that sentient beings are empty, that they’re already saved, that’s the moment of seeing things as they are, perfect right here and now. But to become fixed on that, to dwell on that, is only one side of it. That’s not really fulfilling the bodhisattva vow. The real fulfillment of the bodhisattva vow is not being fixed on either of those two perspectives. And, again, that’s intellectually irresolvable, it’s just a contradiction. To actually live that way is the challenge.
TOM: I really appreciate you granting this interview and taking the time to prepare for it and to talk to me. I’m hoping that the result of all this will be something that’s enjoyed and helpful to many people.
DAVID: Thank you for your thoughtful questions, Tom.