Bernat Font interviews David Loy on deconstructing Buddhism

August 13, 2015

The Spanish language and the Aotearoa New Zealand secular Buddhist websites have come together to carry out and offer a series of interviews with well-known – and not so well-known – Buddhist figures from around the world.

Having developed the core topics and questions around which the interviews will be conducted, we want to present the stories and views of teachers, scholars, thinkers, translators, long-time practitioners … all sorts of people related to the dharma, and especially those involved in the journey of the Buddha’s teachings into the modern world.

Thanks to this collaboration, interviews are published in English here and in Spanish at

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a conversation between David Loy and Bernat Font
recorded on December 1st, 2014 at Casa d’Espiritualitat Sant Felip Neri, Spain

David Loy was born into a US Navy family and as a child travelled far and wide with his family. He grew up in the 1960s, protesting the Vietnam war in London where he studied Philosophy, and in San Francisco. He came to see, though, that protest wasn’t enough – he had to work on himself. So he ‘dropped out’ to travel the world, surviving with very little money. Living for five years as an almost homeless hippy in Hawaii, where he started to practice zen Buddhism, his first teacher was Robert Aitken. Later, he practiced with Yamada Roshi. From philosophy to zen is not such a big jump, reading D.T. Suzuki or Alan Watts, but the difficult thing he found was to practice, to sit.

BERNAT FONT The traditional goal of Buddhist practice is nirvana. What does nirvana mean to you?

DAVID LOY There are many aspects to it. For me it’s about forgetting the self and realising something deeper, opening up. In zen, there is a wonderful metaphor: the bottom falls out of the bucket. What is the bottom of the bucket? It’s the ego. The other thing is realising the emptiness of things but most important your own emptiness.

BF What about omniscience, getting out of the cycle of birth and death?

DL I’m not interested in any of that. And I’m not even convinced, when I read the Pali canon, that was what the Buddha was doing. Some of it might have been attributed to him, just like in the case of Jesus.

BF Aren’t we in danger of attributing to the Buddha all we like and to later tradition what we don’t like?

DL It’s very hard to discriminate. We don’t know. Certain things are obvious because there are contradictions. One example is the story of how women were ordained: it has problems, it doesn’t work, it was changed.

BF How can we know?

DL The story goes that the Buddha’s foster mother asks to join the sangha. The Buddha refuses, but Ānanda insists and asks him whether women have the same potential to awaken. The Buddha answers ‘yes’ and agrees to admit women if they follow some extra rules. But then he also says that because of this his dharma will disappear much earlier.

It’s a ridiculous story! It makes no sense. If this is really what the Buddha thought, the usual logic would be that he expressed his opinion in a straightforward way and defended it. It’s a way of blaming Ānanda for the ordination of women. There are many stories that show Ānanda in a bad light.

Also, we know that the ordination of women happened in the third or fourth year of the Buddha’s teaching career, while Ānanda did not become his attendant till much later. The story is clearly defective.

BF Why blame Ānanda?

DL There was a power struggle when the Buddha died, and Mahakassapa took over the sangha. And he didn’t like Ananda. My guess is that he was jealous because Ānanda was so close to the Buddha. The canon even blames Ānanda for the death of Buddha! This is ridiculous.

BF We are told that Ānanda was very nearly not allowed to take part in the first Council because he wasn’t an arahant, while afterwards he was the one to recite all the Buddha’s discourses.

DL And who decides who’s an arahant? All traditions have lots of enlightened people, but what does that mean? We have to read the canon with a critical eye even if we cannot always separate the threads. Buddhists should be wary of any kind of fundamentalism.

These texts are not sacred, they are guidebooks, corrupted guidebooks: some pages may be missing, some things were added later by people who didn’t go to that place but think they know the way to that place. It’s a genuine yet confused guidebook, and still we really need it.

BF Why?

DL This trip we’re going on is not so easy, we need a lot of help, and the canon seems to be the best guidebook we know, or one of the best. The western system works, but not sufficiently.

BF What is missing in it?

DL Working to transform institutions to make them more socially just is very important, but in itself it won’t be sufficient to create the kind of society we want unless we work to transform ourselves too. We can’t simply think that the way to solve our problems is to change our structural, legal institutions, if there are deeper problems in terms of our own greed, ill-will and delusion.

BF Institutions are made of people in the end.

DL In America, we have pretty good institutions, but if people are still greedy, and so on, then there’s always going to be people working to subvert those institutions.

BF So we have to start with people.

DL Yes. One of the implications is that we have to think of reforming our educational system. Education isn’t just a matter of information or even skills for jobs. It needs to involve an internal dimension, so we are a lot more aware of how our minds work. What ways of thinking create problems for ourselves and for others? How can we understand our minds in ways that liberate us from those problems?

BF What motivated you at the start?

DL I wasn’t concerned with enlightenment, I didn’t know what it was, but I had a teacher who really inspired me. I knew that was the kind of person I wanted to be. His example was very, very powerful.

BF In your books and talks, you develop the idea of the institutionalisation of the three poisons. What is that about?

DL Rather than a struggle between good and evil, which is fundamental to Judaeochristian religion, Buddhism thinks in terms of the three unwholesome motivations: when what I do is motivated by greed, ill-will or delusion, this creates problems, there is dukkha. What we see today is a situation that didn’t exist in the Buddha’s time: much more powerful institutions.

Nowadays, because they’re so much greater and complicated in the way they are structured, institutions can take a life of their own and become much more difficult to control. They have their own motivations built into them that are quite different from the motivations of the individuals involved. Our economic system motivates greed.

BF Do you mean our economic system is the personification of our greed?

DL It takes our individual greeds and puts them together, in a certain way. But it has its own greed so it ends up collectivising or institutionalising it quite apart from any individuals.

BF So it is designed to serve greed and it does this very well.

DL I’m not sure whether the original design was quite so deliberate, but in many ways this is how corporations developed. They were intentionally developed to free themselves from social constraints. That’s how the process occurred in the 19th century.

In the same way, militarism now institutionalises our ill-will. In order to rationalise the huge military system we have, we have to keep finding enemies and wars. If you have all that money and people ready to fight a war, you’ve got to find somebody as an enemy or you’re wasting your time.

BF Like someone looking for problems to justify his or her anger?

DL Well, think of the schoolyard bully. He’s probably not going to go up to someone and start fighting, he’s going to look for some reason to be angry: ‘Are you dissing me? I saw you.’ This tendency is very deep.

BF And what about the third poison, delusion?

DL Delusion seems to take the form of our media, which has become something like our international nervous system. For the most part, they decide what is real. And the political and economic systems know this and are very careful about manipulating it and keeping certain things out.

The major newspapers and TV channels are very afraid of doing something that will anger the president. They have learnt that if they want to have access to these people, they have to be very careful what they say.

So you end up with all those limitations in addition to the fundamental one: that they are corporations the primary concern of which is profit, and they make profit from advertising. They are not about helping us understand and create a better world, they are about normalising this world and the kind of economic system we have. That’s part of their built-in message, as it were. It’s very scary.

BF You explore the encounter of the dharma with the modern world. What is the best case scenario for that encounter?

DL That our civilisation wakes up, that modernity wakes up and realises we are embarked on a self-destructive course. So the question is: what would that awakening involve? There is a transformation of consciousness happening, we are working through consumerism in a way. But it’s easy to miss it because the main media have no reason to emphasise it, they are not interested in transforming but rather in advertising, right?

The big issue, of course, is how quickly this change is happening. We see ecological, economic and social crisis. How do these things meet? How much do we have disaster and how much do we have a change of course that helps diminish the disaster? Somebody put it very well: ‘The bad news is that civilisation as we know it is coming to an end. And the good news is civilisation as we know it is coming to an end’ (laughs).

BF Why do you say that Buddhism and modernity need each other? What do each have that the other lacks?

DL The wonderful thing about the modern west is the emphasis on reforming our institutions to make them more socially just. We’ve had democracy and human rights, to a certain extent, anti-slavery campaigns, civil rights movements, feminism, gay rights, and so on. There is a real blossoming of freedom, resistance and revolution in the sense of working against divisions. That’s not part of the Buddhist tradition, which is not only patriarchal in every Asian Buddhist society but hasn’t had anything to do with looking at the social, institutional causes of dukkha. That’s a fundamental problem.

According to the Buddha, the teaching is about understanding and ending dukkha. But the way the tradition has defined it has been very narrow: my own mind, my own karma. The west has done a good job in some way at creating more just societies. Obviously we are a long way, but we’ve come a long way too.

From the other side, Buddhism has done a wonderful job at developing all these contemplative practices and techniques that can help us become aware of how our ways of thinking create dukkha for ourselves. We need both.

BF During yesterday’s workshop, you suggested that Buddhism originally had a social dimension which it lost. What happened?

DL There are texts that support the argument that the Buddha had a broader vision. One can look at his attitude toward women and castes. It’s very suggestive. What happened later? It’s not clear. My speculation is that this happens to all religious traditions: when the founder dies, the people in charge aren’t nearly as wise or as progressive.

The problem is that while religious institutions are born to carry on the tradition, at the same time they inevitably become preoccupied with their own wellbeing, their wealth, their power, their prestige. The excuse is that their survival and wellbeing is important because their raison d’être is to keep the liberating teachings alive. This creates tension.

BF But do we still need those institutions today? Or do we need different ones?

DL Very big question. If you go back to the earliest teachings, the Buddha talked about sangha about having four parts, including lay men and lay women. This was lost, probably quite early. We now see a strong difference: the job of lay people is to create merit and give things to the monks, and the monks’ job is to follow all the rules so to be good fields of merit for the lay people. This is very far, I think, from what the original teachings were about. This relation is problematic and we certainly don’t want to continue this in the west.

The bigger question is this: how important is it to have monastics at all, given that most practitioners in the west are not monastics and do not become monastics? They have families, jobs and other responsibilities which limit how much time they can devote to the practice. This is a big controversy in western Buddhism. How much emphasis will be given to monasticism? We don’t have an answer yet, it’ll be interesting to see.

BF It is easy for the tradition to label new things as wrong or degenerate. Such a criticism is hard to face. I’m sure they are convinced that what they uphold is for the better. Isn’t there resistance to change also?

DL Yes. Buddhism itself emphasises impermanence and insubstantiality, and that applies to Buddhism too. That’s the rationale or excuse. It points to the necessity of transformation according to new circumstances. Tibetans assume theirs is the highest form of the dharma, the same is true in Japan. We know so much culturally and historically: Buddhism transforms, and this built-in potential for transformation is one of its wonderful things. Now that it is meeting the modern world, inevitably it is transforming also.

Of course, the question is how much is it becoming simplified, how much is being degraded, how much is it fitting into consumerism and western individualism? This has to happen. We are having all the things Stephen Batchelor talks about, and which I talk about: we’re trying things out, they are experiments, a thousand flowers bloom and we don’t know which of them will really work. The fundamental issue for Buddhism is always which teachings or practices truly are liberative.

We have to make an effort because we have to appreciate, number one, that Asian Buddhism is stuck. I lived in Asia for 30 years, visiting all the Buddhist countries except Mongolia. And none of their Buddhisms I would wish to import in those forms. Their time is past – premodern, a different mythology, worldview.

The separation of what’s essential and liberative and what’s culturally and historically conditioned is not easy ever, but it’s unavoidable. Our challenge is to find the form that speaks to us, modern people living in the 21st century, and the teachings that really help us the most.

BF Do any of these Asian forms of Buddhism fit more easily in the West?

DL In the past I would have said that the most dynamic form of Buddhism is zen, but now it’s clear, at least in the US, that it is vipassana, insight meditation. They seem to have done the best job so far in separating some of the cultural aspects of theravada from the meditation practice. They’ve left behind a lot of the ritual and ceremony, and still study the texts trying to extract and practice what they can.

Some traditions seem more stuck than others, such as the Tibetan tulku system, and this makes it very very difficult for those systems to reform themselves, though I think they will. Also, there is something defective in the model of zen practice; zen awakening allows teachers to become so important and yet also be so immoral. There have been so many scandals; one of the big problems in zen is the notion that the awakened person is beyond good and evil.

BF Is it true that zen lays less emphasis on ethics?

DL This is true of Japanese Buddhism in general, not only zen. Buddhist ethics are not that important in Japan. The ethical foundation of Japan is Confucianism, and Confucian ethics is role-based which contributes to the problem. ‘Oh I am awakened and beyond good and evil, and now I’m interested in having sex with my students.’ Whatever awakening they’ve had is not deep enough to get at the heart of the issue, which is ‘I should not behave in any way to my students that might cause dukkha.’ Zen in America is in a similar state of crisis.

BF Scandals happen in Tibetan Buddhism also.

DL Tibetans are better at covering it up. A lot of this is the cultural idea that women are there to serve men, so there is no full appreciation of the consequences.

BF People often ask whether they should study more, or practice more. How do you think study and practice work together?

DL In my own life, study and practice are both very important, but the proportion changes in different times. When I first got into zen, I read a lot prior to doing the practice. But then it was necessary to put the books back on the shelf and focus primarily for a number of years on sitting.

I then went back to university to try and understand what happened to me as a result of the practice. At the beginning, if you really get into the practice, it may be important to reduce the study for a while and focus on the practice, especially if you have opportunities to do retreats.

BF So you suggest different periods.

DL That’s been my life, generally. Some talk about a daily balance between sitting and studying. But in my own life, there have been times when I was able to sit a lot and periods where, for whatever reason, I am sitting very little. I’ve learnt to accept that. I may think ‘oh, I would like to sit more,’ but then I understand the circumstances and it’s okay.

BF That’s quite sensible.

DL I’m talking not only about study but about life. There may be situations that pull us in different directions. It’s ying and yang: the ying is the sitting and the yang is the activity in the world. If one has a solid foundation in practice, being in the world is easier.

BF People commit to meditating every day, so when they can’t sit regularly they feel bad.

DL First they have to accept it, and then they need to emphasise the mindfulness. If you can’t sit because you have a young baby, taking care of the baby is your practice, being one with him or her. Also, while some people have very regular routines where sitting an hour a day is easy to do, a lot of the time life isn’t that regular. Sitting daily is important. Intensive retreats are also very important.

BF Do you prefer the term ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’?

DL Nowadays I prefer awakening. I think it’s closer to the original meaning. The term enlightenment can be confusing. In the west, we think of the European enlightenment. Also, what does it mean as a metaphor? Do you see the world filled with light? I feel the idea of awakening is more expressive.

BF What, in your opinion, would be a success for the Buddha’s path today?

DL I think it is more obvious in Buddhism that religion isn’t only about preparing for the next life. This is ironic given that in Thailand, making merit for the next life is so important. But if we go back to the original teachings, we realise that Buddhism shows us that real spirituality is about transforming how we live here and now, and that we can learn something liberative.

My hope is that we have a culture that would be aware of the possibility of awakening or transformation. Buddhism would be one way of articulating it, although this culture doesn’t have to be only Buddhist and I don’t think it will be.

If we have to survive and thrive, we have to evolve into a culture that, instead of emphasising consumerism which in many ways is the religion of modernity, emphasises that we need to learn something about the nature of our minds. This has to be built into the educational and general social media institutions.

Something like that has to happen. What specific forms that is going to take I don’t know. The mindfulness movement is a move in that direction. Given that most people won’t become Buddhists, there’s something there from Buddhism that can be transformative.



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