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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 170-174

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A Buddhist History of the West: Studies In Lack . By David R. Loy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. 244 pp.

The religious and philosophical situation of our time seems polarized between resurgent fundamentalisms and a cosmopolitan awareness bridging heretofore separated traditions. Even a few decades ago the notion of a dialogue between East and West was a novelty in which demarcated traditions and cultures (say the Buddhist East and the Christian West) experimented with attempts to find a common language to speakacross the boundaries between their respective identities. In such a context,"Western Buddhists" were those pilgrims of the counterculture who "went East" in search of some civilizational and spiritual other; the West, abjected to the realm of soulless scientism or outdated religious authoritarianism, was left behind. The situation is different at the beginning of the twenty-first Christian century. The dialectical complexities, both inwardly in the soul or mind of seekers, and outwardly in the strange twists of contemporary history, emerge to forbid any simple assessments of what can be left behind or indeed what the use can be of what seekers have found in the "non-West." People of Western background begin to realize and consciously address the [End Page 170] karmic-historical presuppositions of their search, which continue to constitute a kind of historical unconscious to the formulation of any possible "Western Buddhisms." Meanwhile, while fundamentalists of many backgrounds posit "clashes of civilizations" that assume an absoluteness of traditional distinctions, cosmopolitans realize that, for all the particularity of their respective starting points, the global situation is inextricably a shared one. In such a context, what canWestern Buddhist intellectuals, cognizant of their own starting points but having learned some things along the Way that are perhaps of universal relevance, speak to our common condition?

The "Buddhist History of the West" that David Loy provides is less a historical narrative of the events constitutive of the societies descending from Greco-Roman civilization through European epochs and American empire into the age of globalization than a form of psychoanalytic anamnesis of those societies' cultural constructions of reality. Loy's psychoanalytic interpretive frame is composed of Buddhist insight into the human mind's deep-seated grasping for solidity and certainty in the face of a reality fundamentally characterized by impermanence and ungroundedness (the "Lack" of the subtitle, our simultaneous awareness of death, impermanence, andontological emptiness and the ego's wish for eternal selfhood in an endless but impossibly fulfilling world). Loy's Buddhism is combined with the existential psychology of Ernest Becker and the revisionist Freudianism of Norman O. Brown called on as Western resources for the spiritual therapeutics "the West" seems to need as it enters the third Christian millennium both triumphant and in despair of any meaning to accompany its economic and pop-cultural hegemony.

Seven anamnestic chapters take us through twenty-five hundred years of Western cultural constructions, from the Greek and Roman philosophical inquiries into Freedom, a kind of origin-tale of Humanism seen as a "religious" (religion for Loy being the way humans attempt to answer the problem of Lack as if to ground our groundlessness) vision of meaning as the development of human capacities for rational thought, through the intertwining of classical and Christian constructions in medieval and Renaissance periods, through the Protestant Reformation into the political and ideological space of modernity, culminating in a vision of the globalizing West as purveying a "Religion of the Market," an ironically meaningless (centered on the symbolic code for Value—Money—as a displacement of Value itself) system of meaning. This last, our contemporary situation, would perhaps be simply a problem of aesthetic tastelessness (American pop culture performing the dissolution of all surviving traditional sacred orders following the description of capitalism by Marx as causing "all that is sacred" to "melt into air") were it not for the massive social injustice and environmental devastation it structurally produces. Loy's therapeutic vision, following the Buddhist deconstruction of the demarcated "self" and Becker and Brown's cultural-historical or collective...


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