Thursday, September 8, 2011

David Loy & the White Buddhist's Burden

In a 2009 Tricycle magazine article (link), David Loy claimed that the Dharma needs the West just as much as the West needs the Dharma. In particular, according to Loy, Asian Buddhism has a deeply ingrained tendency to "passively accept, and sometimes actively support" injustice, inequality, oppression and other bad stuff that, you know, us westerners would never, ever, "passively accept and sometimes actively support"!


Loy employs pathetic FOX-News-worthy rhetoric such as "But wait a moment … what does Buddhism have to do with political movements? Buddhism, so the response often goes [emphasis added], is a spiritual path for individuals, not a platform for social change. The problem with this way of thinking is ..." Well, in point of fact, the "problem with this way of thinking" is that David Loy is pulling it out of his ass.

Loy himself admits that the historical Buddha was concerned with social and political issues, and that these concerns are clearly reflected in the Buddha's teachings. But then Loy turns around and claims, falsely, that as soon as the Buddha was safely dead, those bad old monks (it's always the monks, isn't it?) coldly abandoned this "social" aspect of the Buddhadharma in favor of the more comfortable lifestyle that comes with "royal-patronage" (never mind the fact that the historical Buddha was himself from the ruling elite and enjoyed patronage from and generally cozy relationships with others of his own class).

The simple fact is that David Loy is full of shit, as anyone familiar with the Rock Edicts of Ashoka knows very well. In those edicts, King Ashoka forcefully advocates for religious tolerance, the humane treatment of prisoners, the protection of animals, and generosity to the poor. He also lists many public works projects for the common good undertaken by his administration, including tree planting, digging wells, and building of rest houses for travelers. Ashoka also supported government subsidized health care for both humans and (non-human) animals! Ashoka also declared his intention to set a good example for others to follow by showing respect to all human beings regardless of their social status, including the poor and servants. And he specifically encouraged people of all religions to put their beliefs into practice by caring for the poor and the elderly.

If one has a mind to, one can find other examples of post-Sakyamuni Buddhists who have been socially "engaged" in ways similar to Ashoka. There is the Tang era Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, who used Buddhist teachings to defend the right of women to be active in public affairs and even to hold high office (including the highest office of all, the one she occupied). She also lowered taxes, reduced the size of the standing army, and reformed civil service hiring to the benefit of lower-class families who had previously been excluded. Several centuries later, during the Sung era, the great Chinese Chan Masters Yuan-Wu, Ta-Hui, and Hung-Chih all argued strongly for the full equality of women in Buddhism, and they put their ideas into practice by promoting women to positions of prominence and authority (over men) within their lineages. Around the same time, the Japanese Zen Master Dogen and his grand-student Keizan similarly advocated for full equality of women within Buddhism, including the recognition of the capacity of women to teach as equals with male teachers.

There is also the somewhat different sort of "engagement" of the Korean Soen Master Sosan Taesa, who led a guerilla army (composed of Buddhist monks) that helped to liberate Korea from Japanese military occupation in the late 16th century. It is worth pointing out that far from being a pampered favorite at the royal Court, Sosan Taesa lived during a time when Buddhism was on the receiving end of religious persecution.

It is even more relevant to point out that the religious persecution of Buddhism during the Korean Joseon Dynasty was child's play if it is measured by western standards of religious violence. The five centuries (roughly 1400-1900) of this "persecution" (of Buddhists by Confucianists) in Korea coincides with the period of western history which saw the Inquisition, the Witch Hunts, the fratricidal Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, the forced conversion of untold millions of Africans and Native Americans, violent (and eventually genocidal) anti-Semitism, and so forth.

But, wait a minute. That 500 year period just alluded to above - isn't that the same historical period when the west became, you know, all socially revolutionized and everything? Hmmm. Isn't it funny how if you carefully select which parts of western history you choose to focus on you can make us look like a bunch of high-minded selfless social reformers, or, alternatively, like the most savage race of bloodthirsty criminals to ever evolve from the primordial ooze, if you can call that evolution?

If David Loy wanted to he could find plenty of Asiatic precedents and exemplars for the virtues that he wishes to extoll as uniquely Western. But he does not want to. It must be said, though, that at several points in his essay he makes it clear that he is uncomfortably, if less than fully, aware of the truly collosal cognitive dissonance involved in the former colonial masters lecturing their former colonial subjects on Justice, Equality and Social Conscientiousness. But the bottom line for Loy is that he cannot accept the simple fact that he needs the Dharma, but the Dharma does not need him.

Further Reading:

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