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  • The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory
  • Christopher Ives
The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. By David R. Loy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 228 pp.

In recent decades, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and other "Engaged Buddhists" have been responding to a range of social, political, and economic issues. To date, however, they have not coupled their wide-ranging and sustained praxis with an equal measure of systematic, rigorous theory. Granted, facing such urgent problems as war, poverty, and environmental degradation, few if any of us would urge them to put their activism on hold until they clarify their theoretical foundations. Yet given how these Buddhists have diverged on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, intoxicants, possible legitimate uses of violence, and sexual contact between Buddhist teachers and students, further theoretical labor would sharpen their praxis and develop Buddhist social ethics.

In this respect, David Loy's The Great Awakening deserves a close read. Though not pursuing the degree of systematic theorizing implied by the subtitle, A Buddhist Social Theory, Loy takes a significant step in that direction. After expounding on Buddhist dukkha (suffering) and linking it to "social dukkha" (ch. 1), Loy offers discerning treatment of poverty (ch. 2), globalization (ch. 3), corporations (ch. 4), the "war on terror" (ch. 5), crime and punishment (ch. 6), violence (ch. 7), technology (ch. 8), and worldviews that exacerbate or help resolve our environmental crisis (ch.9). [End Page 170]

Drawing on two of his previous books, Nonduality and Lack and Transcendence, Loy deploys the constructs of nonduality and lack to grapple with these issues. Working over the "three marks of existence" (suffering, impermanence, and no-self), Loy sketches adroitly how the vague recognition that we lack any substantial self or soul leads us to engage in fearful "reality projects," attempts to "ground" ourselves "by modifying the world" (p. 164) or by objectifying ourselves as something real in the world (p. 22). This response to "lack" is exacerbated by dualistic ways of knowing: "The sense of duality between ourselves and the world feeds our insecurity and therefore our preoccupation with power, which we seek in order to secure ourselves. The unfortunate fact that we never feel secure enough is experienced as a lack of sufficient power" (p. 29). Overall, Loy's presentation of the cause of suffering (dukkha) in terms of lack, fear, reality projects, and dualism augments well the traditional Buddhist focus on clinging and ignorance of impermanence.

Loy develops his analysis by expounding on the three types of suffering outlined in the Pali canon and their connection to social dukkha. He amplifies the construct of the "three poisons" (greed, ill will, and delusion) by highlighting their "institutionalization" and the ways in which capitalism promotes and spreads these mental states (pp. 80–86). And, proceeding along this trajectory, he expands the scope of the traditional antidotes to the three poisons: "Collectively as well as individually, institutionally as well as personally, greed must be transformed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, ignorance into wisdom" (p. 29). Loy also deploys Buddhist critiques of dualistic conceptualization to point out that the problem of poverty concerns not only the lack of material things needed for physical well-being but several other dimensions: "the craving for wealth as haunted by fear of poverty, global poverty as necessary to monetarize and commodify the 'undeveloped' world, and poverty as a necessary benchmark for the wealthy to appreciate their own achievements" (p. 196).

Other parts of the book deserving close attention are Loy's social interpretation of the five precepts (p. 38), his sketch of the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism (pp. 117–119), and his presentation of karma, about which he writes, "we construct ourselves by what we choose to do. My sense of self is a precipitate of my habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Just as my body is composed of the food I eat, so my character is built by my conscious decisions" (p. 7). And contrary to those who construe contemporary Engaged Buddhism as the first form of Buddhism to engage itself significantly with sociopolitical problems, Loy astutely...


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