- A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack
David Loy's most recent work, A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack, constitutes an intellectual history of Europe from what he calls a "Buddhist perspective." His obvious goals in this book are (1) to develop a heuristic device, if not a mature methodology, out of the Buddhist intellectual tradition and to apply it to matters that are not necessarily related to the Buddhist tradition, and (2) to reread European history from a new standpoint. I have to confess that I am not a historian and thus cannot evaluate Loy's historical claims; however, from my perspective as a scholar of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, it seems to me that not only does Loy succeed on both counts but his study of European history from what he calls the perspective of lack reveals astonishing yet previously barely highlighted insights into European thought. It also undermines, in a methodological slight of hand that at times evokes Michel Foucault's approach, the conventional assumptions about the dominant paradigms of the generally accepted periods of European history. I do not want to claim that Loy's methodology resembles Foucault's "archaeology" in any way; however, it does demonstrate that discourses and time periods are fluid rather than static and that their paradigm depends on, and changes in accordance with, the perspective of the historian.
For example, seen from Loy's perspective of lack, the central and most formative event of European history was neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment, but the Papal Revolution of the late eleventh century. In general, Loy's book is filled with observations and indictments of common myths that are not only provocative in nature but sure to challenge many of the presuppositions that the proponents of the so-called Western World hold dear. In concrete terms, Loy seems to focus on and examine not so much European intellectual history but the myths that are used to argue for the superiority of the "West": freedom, progress, romantic love, the sanctity of the nation-state, and free-market capitalism.
Loy chooses as his standpoint "a Buddhist perspective," namely the "perspective of lack." He takes as his basic assumption the dictum he borrows from early Buddhism and, as he adds, psychotherapy, namely that humans have to live with the basic frustration-Loy's translation of dukkha, which is usually rendered as "suffering"-that reality does not conform to our innermost desires. We desire immortality but cannot avoid the impermanence of all living beings. The awareness of our impermanence not only shatters our sense of and quest for a self, but it also [End Page 580] arouses the "immediate and terrifying (because quite valid) suspicion . . . that "'I' am not real right now" (p. 3).
This frightening sense of lack propels humans onto what Norman Brown calls the Oedipal project, that is, the attempt to create oneself. This sense of lack, Loy remarks, is common to all religions, but what separates Buddhism from most other religious traditions is that it does not offer a self and some kind of immortality, on the one hand, and refrains from reifying this sense of lack as, for example, "sin," on the other. Rather, Buddhism, to Loy, can be "understood as a way to resolve our sense of lack" (p. 6). With regard to his present project, Loy asks, "[i]f that (the sense-of-the-self's sense of lack) gives us insight into the individual human condition, can it also shed light on the collective dynamics of society and nations?" (p. 8). In other words, Loy asks how the interpretation of European history would change if one were to choose the primary Buddhist assumption, namely the deep anxiety over one's future death and present-day insignificance and groundlessness, as one's starting point.
However, Loy is quick to argue that this standpoint is not unique to Buddhism, and he corroborates his perspective on lack with the findings of psychotherapy, mostly the...