The Work of David Loy

During my senior year at St. John’s College, I read David Loy’s Nonduality. Loy’s book gave me hope that my interests in meditation and philosophy might be connected; previously, they had seemed separate and mutually exclusive.

Nonduality, 2019 Edition

After reading Nonduality, I realized that Loy had other books, and began reading as many of his books as I could get my hands on. I was pleased to see the changes and development in Loy’s interests and writing style. Loy went from covering esoteric conflicts across mystical traditions to an increasingly broad swath of interests. While Nonduality had been a dense academic text, I found that Loy’s later works were less academic and more approachable.

In this post, I will review David Loy’s life and work, and attempt to summarize the main claims he makes across his books.

The Work of David Loy

David Loy has combined a career as an academic professor and writer with traditional practice in Zen, becoming a teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition.

Academically, Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy. He received a BA from Carleton College, an MA from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and his PhD from the National University of Singapore.

Spiritually, Loy began Zen practice in 1971, and finished Sanbo Zen’s koan curriculum in 1988. His teachers were Yamada Koun-roshi and Robert Aitken-roshi. His dharma name is Tetsu’un, “Wisdom Cloud.”

Loy serves the world through his writing and lectures. He is also one of the founding members of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Colorado.

In both his academic work and his spiritual practice, Loy’s major interest is “the encounter between Buddhism and modernity,” especially “what each can learn from each other” and how they apply to facing contemporary social and environmental issues.

Loy’s Main Claims

Over his career, Loy has written over ten books covering a wide number of topics on the relationship between Buddhism and Western culture and political issues:

While Loy’s books can be read independently, they frequently reference each other. Each book advances a series of arguments that he draws upon in later works. These works form a coherent whole that present a radical perspective on contemporary Buddhism and its relevance to current world issues like social and environmental justice.

Here are some of the main claims I understand Loy to be making in his works. I am summarizing his works in my own words, and he might disagree with or qualify these summaries.

  • Buddhism has something precious to offer the West, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on mystical truth- other mystical traditions and forms of knowing are also valuable.
  • Western domains of psychology, science, social justice surface problems and possibilities in traditional Buddhism.
    • Psychology and Continental Philosophy correctly identify that “dissatisfaction with life is intrinsic to the ego-self as it usually functions.”
    • In the West, we have four common ways that “we symbolically try to fill up our sense of lack: the craving for fame, the love of love, the money complex, and our collective Oedipal project of technological development.”
  • Buddhism is best at resolving individual suffering, but we also need to resolve collective forms of suffering, too.
  • There are structural, systemic equivalents to the problems we face as individuals, especially the Three Poisons. Our economy is an institutionalized form of greed; the military is an institutionalized form of hatred; and the mass media is an institutionalized form of delusion.
  • The climate emergency is a spiritual crisis and cannot be resolved with technological or political changes alone. We need an Ecodharma that responds to the root problems that cause our climate injustice. The same is true for social justice and political change more broadly — these are essentially spiritual crises and need spiritual solutions.
  • Mindfulness without Buddhism is watered down, and enables the perpetuation of collective suffering and systemic evils. It doesn’t offer real or complete solutions to these problems.
  • We need a new form of Buddhism to address our contemporary issues as collective, global forms of suffering. It will need to be informed by contemporary modern science, and other Western modalities of knowing.
  • A new Buddhism will require a new mythology about the origins of the universe and our role in it.
    • New interpretations of evolution and quantum mechanics suggest we are the universe’s way of becoming aware or conscious of itself. Moreover, we have a part to play in the whole.
    • A new or refined form of Buddhism, combined with these new interpretations of scientific findings, can form the basis of a new narrative or metaphor that is sorely needed.
  • The Bodhisattva ideal is a good model for how to live now. We need to become what we have been waiting for.

Conclusion

Loy’s work has informed my explorations of Buddhism, psychology, social justice and other domains. Like Loy, I am especially interested in the interaction between an individual’s exploration of meditation and Buddhist teachings, and widespread systemic solutions to the problems we face—and sense that a new Buddhist teaching or path will be needed to resolve them.

Further Resources

Thank you to Scott Garlinger for his help doing research in preparation for this post.

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