- Ecodharma: Buddhist Teaching for the Ecological Crisis by David R. Loy
Those who are familiar with David Loy's work will not be surprised to learn that this book once again demonstrates his ability to transpose even the most complex Buddhist teachings into astute diagnoses of social ills and proposals for remedying them. In this he ranks alongside Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy, who are frequently quoted in this work. Here he focuses a Buddhist lens on what he discerns to be not just a climate crisis, but a full-blown ecological emergency whose outcome [End Page 470] could be the destruction of human and all other life. This may seem alarmist, but Loy marshals empirical data from a wide range of ecologists and climate scientists as evidence of the damage done by decades of ruthless exploitation of natural resources and the willful refusal of political leaders to acknowledge this.
The book is not a set-piece Buddhist-Christian dialogue, comparing point by point what the two traditions teach. Its standpoint as it probes the roots of the ecological crisis is unambiguously Buddhist, but in undogmatic Buddhist fashion insights from Jewish and Christian, Daoist and Confucian, indigenous and scientific sources are woven seamlessly into the analysis. A feature of the book is the scores of quotations from religious and secular authors, whether ancient or modern, as transitions between the chapters. These alone are worthy of meditation. Loy dispenses with scholarly apparatus; he has covered that ground extensively in the past. This is unapologetically a work of advocacy. Loy's central strategy is to move Buddhist teaching beyond its focus on the liberation of the individual to address institutional and social dukkha, in much the same way as Christian liberation theologians tried to identify the structural sin at the root of political and social injustice. Loy is aware that he is making a bold move, which will not be easily accepted in more conservative Buddhist circles.
At the heart of his diagnosis is the concept of separateness, the prevailing assumption that humans are somehow detached from the natural world, tellingly known as "the environment." Rather, we are nature, and the rights and privileges that accrue to us are those of the natural world as a whole. The crisis we are facing is at bottom spiritual, and its causes are summed up as "cosmological dualism and individual salvation" in the teachings of virtually all religious traditions, including some strands of Buddhism. The antidote is nondualism, an understanding on which Loy's entire life of scholarship and practice has been based since his recently reissued Ph.D. thesis. Most accounts of religious transcendence fail to escape the constraints of dualism, resulting in a devaluation of "this" world in favor of another, postulated realm of transcendence. To this extent the ecological problem is not in the world but in our mind, which objectifies and instrumentalizes the world by using language to construct concepts of it (the basic construct of course being the Self) on which all the destructive activities of political ambition and economic enrichment are focused. An obvious example is the concept of property, the earth as "mine," which converts nature into commodities that can be bought and sold. Here Loy draws upon American indigenous traditions to illustrate alternative views of nature as integral to human reality, not separate from it. The prospect of extinction, the collective death of humanity, and the species that enrich and sustain it, he calls the "collective koan" of our time.
With this we arrive at a point where Buddhist and Christian spiritual teachings can engage in fruitful tension. Though we are constrained by language to talk in terms of autonomous selves and objective realities, what Loy calls "consensus reality," Zen Buddhism in particular tells us that beyond the conceptualities of science and common sense there is neither birth nor death; samsara is the same as nirvana and emptiness is form, form emptiness. Such profoundly paradoxical language may seem to undermine the language with which we represent to ourselves the ecological crisis [End...