Reviews the article `Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism,' by David Loy

by Carl Becker


Vol. 2 No.1 May.1997


Copyright by Mortality

It could well be argued that death, or human awareness of mortality, is the driving force behind all religion and philosophy, the conundrum of the sphinx which we must all face someday. In earlier works (such as Breaking the circle, SIU Press, 1993), I have illustrated ways in which the Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan Buddhist tradition interpreted death, rebirth, and nirvana, drawing heavily on the meditative visions of Buddhist monks and on near-death experiences in each of these traditions. In Lack and transcendence, Zen Master David Loy illuminates another parallel tradition in Mahayana Buddhism: those philosophies which overcome human sense of lack (suffering, duhkha) not by promising karmic retribution or offering a meditative transcendence to other realms of consciousness, but by identifying the changing self with the changing world and thus overcoming our sense-of-self and sense of separation from everything else. In charting the turbulent waters around this archipelago of the psyche, Loy relies on three traditions which have significant influence and implications for Western thought: psychotherapy, particularly of Freud, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, and Otto Rank; existentialism, particularly of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegget, and Sartre; and Buddhism, particularly as interpreted by Nagarjuna (150250?, founder of Indian Madhyamika Buddhism), Hui-Neng (638-713, Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism), and Dogen Kigen (1200-1253, founder of Japanese Soto Zen). In addition, Loy draws heavily upon Ernest Becker and James Carse in developing his arguments about man's fears of facing his mortality, and on Hajime Nakamura in his analysis of the differences of Indian and Japanese societies. While readers may disagree as to whether the above figures adequately represent the psychotherapeutic, existentialist, and Buddhist traditions, these figures have been well selected for their common concerns with mortality. Loy is a philosophy professor of impressive breadth, who has spent decades in Asia doing zazen as well as teaching contemporary philosophy and studying the problems of the contemporary world. Loy proposes that a great deal of psychological suffering is due to a sense of lack caused by our unconscious desires to reify our egos and to make something objective and permanent of our mortal existence. This sense of lack, in turn, is driven by our unwillingness to face mortality. In Loy's poetic phrase: 'Time is the canvas we erect before us to hide the sneering skull, the bottomless void' (p. 39). Thus far, there is nothing new about these arguments. Readers acquainted with Foucault, Aries, and (Ernest) Becker will find much familiar here. However, Loy extends Becker's thesis that our denial of death leads to vain searches for fame and conspicuous consumerism, to embrace even our modem pursuit of romantic attachments and the very myth of technological progress itself. He goes yet one step further in suggesting the more radical Buddhist thesis that what we fear is not only our future deaths, but a radical realization of our impermanence now. Even the terror of death represses something, for that terror is preferable to facing one's lack of being now. Death-fear at least allows us to project the problem into the future. In that way we avoid facing what we are (or are not) right now .... The death fear is itself symbolic of a yet deeper fear, that right here and now I am not real (pp. 27-28). Loy critiques the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger for their failures to fully cognize non-self and impermanence, and attacks all 'fame-projects' which purport to give their authors some fleeting permanence in a universe of constant change. At times his argument becomes complicated by the need to use terms for subjects and objects in English. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate between philosophical linguists: are Indo-European languages which require subjects and objects more sophisticated (so in some sense more 'correct') than languages like Japanese which blur subjects, objects, and causal agency? Or are they rather strait-jackets which impel us to seek agencies and imply subjects when in fact everything can be viewed as a single flowing flux? Loy's Zen Buddhist views proffer the latter approach: A sense-of-self can never expel the trace of lack that constitutes it insofar as it is illusory; while in the most important sense we are already self-existing, because the infinite set of differential traces that constitutes each of us is nothing less than the whole net (p. 91). Loy repeatedly uses animals as examples of beings who are not preoccupied with questions of self, future, and death. He quotes with approval the lilies of the field, 'which take no thought for the morrow' (p. 35); Rilke's 'the free animal has its decline in back of it, forever, and God in front, and moves... in eternity' (p. 49), in contrast to the human 'animal who endeavors to real-ize himself in ways that keep unravelling' (p. 98). On one level, Loy is indeed advocating that we learn to live moment by moment, like the animals, less caught up in projects of fame and social status. This can be achieved by meditation and enlightenment, not to attain some different realm of existence, but to realize our interconnectedness with everything else: In one way, nothing becomes different: one still gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, goes to work, and so on. Yet there is something timeless about these activities. In place of the apparently solid self that does them and feels them to be lacking something, there is a groundless and therefore indisturbably peaceful quality to them (p. 48). On the other hand, Loy is not arguing that we abandon human philosophizing, religion, or responsibility for our human condition. Quite to the contrary, he is keenly aware of the ecological and political problems which plague our planet. Rather than facing them with more human contrivances and policies alone, however, Loy suggests a change of mentality which alone can overcome the snowballing effects of consumptive materialism: The ecological crisis, which is no longer impending but something we are now well into, signifies the end of this collective dream [of technological progress], although it remains to be seen whether our collective psyche will recognize the fact in time (p. 150) ... Indra's Net locates the sacred dimension in this world not by privileging particular social structures or even Homo sapiens as a species, but by sacralizing the totality. The crisis of the biosphere testifies to our need for this type of universalist perspective, not for a 'higher world' that is other than and therefore opposed to this world, but for the kind of overview that is able to evaluate and respond to the needs of the whole because it is not limited by the demands of a specific nexus such as one's own social class or nation or species. Since rain forests and whales cannot vote or protest, we must realize that their needs are our needs. Perhaps that is what is unique about Homo sapiens: we are the species which can transcend itself by making that leap to identify with everything (p. 172). Nor is this recognition a merely passive meditative state. In the best sense, it enables engagement in activity, not as a self choosing to participate, but as a human who recognizes her inseparability from everything in her environment. Loy draws upon Irvin Yalom: 'Engagement does not logically refute the lethal questions raised by the galactic perspective, but it causes these questions not to matter .... Wholehearted engagement in any of the infinite array of life's activities not only disarms the galactic view but enhances the possibility of one's completing the patterning of the events of one's life in some coherent fashion' (p. 127). As Becker's solution to the Denial of Death involves recognizing our own mortality and discovering more meaningful life-projects than collecting fame and money before we die, Loy's solution to the Sense of Lack involves recognizing the ultimacy of our groundlessness, and learning to live in the now, conscious of the interpenetrating interdependence of the whole. We achieve true selflessness, not simply by engaging ourselves in some movement or cause which in turn can be an origin of egoistic activity, but also by realizing our inherent worthlessness, which in turn liberates us to work for the whole with both engagement and psychological detachment: This whole book is an argument that in the end we cannot avoid religious terms .... (p. 150) The question, finally, is not whether the world can be resacralized, but whether we will sacralize it fetishistically, because unconsciously, or wholeheartedly, because awake (p. xvii). Overall, this book is an intellectual tour de force in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition: a 'Guide to Letting Go for the Chronic Worrier'; an intellectual proof that nothing needs proving and there is no one to prove. Yet Loy's philosophical depth belies the practical applicability of the teachings he embraces. These Buddhist approaches to mortality are not only rhetorical arguments but real approaches to deathbed counselling used by Japanese Buddhist monks in our respective traditions. Zen Buddhist monks tell their terminal patients: 'You have nothing to fear, for all that exists is now. If you feel pain, feel the pain, but do not react against it. If you fear separation, realize that in one sense everything is already separated, and in another sense nothing is ever separated. All things flow in cycles of life and death, and you are a part of the cycle of all things, so flow with it. Live each moment of your life without attachment or fear'. Indeed, this was the teaching of many samurai, and leads the more reflective of patients and families to a philosophical acceptance of their state. The vast majority of Chinese and Japanese Buddhists subscribed not to the meditative Ch'an/Zen tradition, but to the tradition of devotion to the heavenly Pure Land of Amida. Pure Land monks tell their terminal patients: 'You have nothing to fear, for you will soon be relieved from all physical suffering. The Bodhisattva Amida will greet you as you depart from this world, to take you up into the Pure Land of Infinite Life and Light. There you may meet your departed parents and friends, and free from the encumbrances of this old physical body, you may meditate and commune until you all enter nirvana together. This has been promised by the Sacred Sutras, and has been observed by thousands of your forefathers on their deathbeds. Meditate on the holy name of Amida, and look forward to your journey in peace'. As one concerned with counselling terminal patients and their bereaved families, I have seen countless hospitalized, bedridden Japanese grandmothers in their 80s and 90s, rarely visited by their families, and with little to look forward to in their remaining years. On rare occasions I encounter an unusually bright and optimistic octogenarian, and when I ask the reason, I am often assured 'The Buddha Amida is soon coming to reunite me with my husband and family'. I sense that Loy's Zen Buddhism and this Pure Land Buddhism of the typical Japanese grandmother are complementary rather than contradictory. For the existentialist who fears 'that right here and now he is not real' (p. 28), Loy's Zen tradition will take him to the root of those fears, prove his unreality, and convince him that only in interdependent interaction can true peace of mind be found. For the grandmother or Toyota line-worker who fears that death will separate her from everything, the Pure Land tradition promises the continuity of a better world to come for those who believe. Lack and transcendence proposes a sophisticated, erudite, and challenging approach to transcending our mortality through transcending our notions of selfhood. While he cannot claim to represent every Buddhist tradition, Loy deconstructs our fears of mortality in terms a modem audience ought well to appreciate. We might only wish that the publisher had seen fit to use somewhat larger type and margins. We should look forward to a sequel volume in which Loy applies his philosophical discoveries to the crises of civilization and the environment.