Spirits in a Material World: David Loy on Re-evaluating Religion
By Pravit Rojanaphruk

(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Nation, a Thai publication. David Loy, a teacher and writer, lives in Japan. He received authorization to teach Zen by Yamada Koun.)



    A dynamic new belief system has evolved over the last few decades, says Prof. David Loy: one that he thinks can be described as 'the first truly world religion.' "It's the most successful religion of all time," says Loy, a professor of philosophy and religion at Japan's Bunkyo University, during a recent trip to Bangkok.

    "It's winning more converts, more quickly than any other religion in human history." Loy is referring to what he terms "the religion of the market", a belief system which offers "salvation through consumerism" and whose message, "buy me if you want to be happy", is transmitted through the mass media using "the most effective proselytising technique ever developed": addictive advertisements.

    Loy regards the desire to accumulate ever-increasing amounts of money and material possessions as a "religion" because he feels it is motivated by the spiritual drive -- albeit a distortion of the same, which he believes all of us possess. "All of us have a sense of lack. Buddhism says that there is no self. Well, I think all of us know this (intuitively) but we repress it. And the way it comes out is (in our) great concern for security, for grounding ourselves. Some people think, "I don't have a girlfriend"; "I don't have enough money." It comes out in many different ways. For a lot of intellectuals, like myself, I think it comes out more strongly in terms of fame. We all want to be famous: we all want to be interviewed."

    Loy, who was brought up as a Catholic, but now practices Zen Buddhism, says that many of us ultimately turn to religion or spirituality in an attempt to cope with this lacking that we sense within ourselves. "Sometimes we do it consciously; but more often than not, we do it unconsciously. We try to ground ourselves in unconscious ways. And one of those very important ways in is money. We hope that if we have enough money then we will feel comfortable and secure and complete. But the problem with consumerism is that it's fed by advertising. And it's fed from the other end by the need to make a profit and that's the sense in which I don't see it leading, in itself, into something that's healthy.

    Consumerism does not really make us happy (because) it doesn't really give us what we think we are going to get from it. And the reason it doesn't do this is because it's based on a delusive understanding of what it means to be a human being, of who we are. It defines us in terms of our greed, in terms of our desires and the satisfaction of those desires. And if Buddha taught anything what he certainly taught is that that is not the way to be happy.

    Whenever we sit back long enough to observe the people around us and we look at the people who are most content with their lives... I think we can see pretty clearly that the ones who are most caught up in this consumer desire -- always needing more, wanting to consume more -- that these are not the happiest people."

    Failing to attain happiness after playing what Loy calls the "consumer game," many people think, "well, since I'm not happy I must need more." However, at a certain point, a minority do see through the "game" and start to be open to other possibilities.

    But Loy does not believe that these people will find much help in organised religions -- as they are practised now, at any rate. In fact, he believes that the inability of traditional religions to adapt to the changing reality has been a major factor in the evolution of this religion of the market.

    This is what he has to say about Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, for instance: "I'm not especially impressed with Thai Buddhism as it is operating now. It is interesting that in Thai Buddhism, the monk is really preoccupied with rules. But when you read the original sutras you realise that Buddha wasn't very concerned about rules. Most of the rules (from that time) occurred ... when some problems happened. Then the monk would come to Buddha and say: "What should we do in this case?" and Buddha would say, "Well I don't know, let's try this." Very relaxed.

    And when Buddha was about to die he said: "Listen monks, you know, you can get rid of all these minor rules. They're not important." But unfortunately no one thought to ask Buddha what the really important ones were. After he died they were paranoid they had lost Buddha so they have clung to the dhamma, clung to the vinaya. So that's all they have. And so what it means to be a monk is that you simply spend all your time following these 200 and something rules. And that had very little to do with what Buddha was teaching."

    He points out that Thai Buddhism was created 2,000 years ago to respond to the particular problems that people had back then but there have been so many changes in the intervening period that many of these rules have become, or are becoming irrelevant. "(So you see) Thai monks walking barefoot along roads covered with broken glass when they go begging in the morning because they can't wear shoes. So there's traditional, and I think largely irrelevant things, about Thai Buddhism."

    Loy moved to Japan in 1985-86 and spent several years studying the koan system of Zen Buddhism under well-known Zen master Yamada Koun. So what does he think about the way Buddhism is practiced in his adopted country?

    "Japanese Buddhism is terribly decadent. It's almost the opposite of what Buddha taught. It's temple capitalism. The temple just exists to make money from families (through the holding of) funerals. If you read Shakyamuni Buddha (the "historical Buddha") he said nothing about funerals! Yet that's all that the Japanese monks talk about because that's their niche in the market place. So Japanese Buddhism has nothing to do with real Buddhism, as far as I can see.

    "You know Thomas Jefferson thought that every generation of US citizens should hold a constitutional convention and write a new constitution every generation! Religions need something along the same lines. My hope isn't for religion as it is practiced now. The problem of all religions is that they tend to be very conservative. I don't think they can provide what's needed. They need to respond in a healthy way to the shock of the new situation. They either have to renew themselves or die and be replaced by something healthier. Because they don't fit anymore. Although we tend to separate the spiritual world from economics ... we can't really understand one without understanding the other. In fact the distinction that we make between them is one of the great delusions that causes lots of troubles for us.

    "And the fact that the multi-national corporation is the driving force of our consumerism-market economies makes change harder to achieve. Transnational corporations are free in that they're not bound to a particular location; not wholly responsible to any one country. They're mobile and, as a result of this, they're able to manipulate governments; get governments competing against each other. This kind of economic pressure has already severely reduced the playing room of nations as far as their ability to control them (corporations) goes. And I think what we're going to see is that they're simply just going to extend their influence into more and more corners of the world because it's their nature to spread as much as possible."

    While Loy calls for "adjustment and re-invention" from the traditional religions, he believes that the dismantling of this "religions of the market" -- a belief system he considers to be both environmentally and spiritually disastrous -- will require a collaboration between progressive elements in organised religions and far-sighted individuals in two other institutions: academia and the mass media.

    "If a society no longer asks any important questions about itself it becomes stuck," Loy says, adding that "critical minorities" working in these three institutions should be able to provide ways society can use to critically reflect upon itself and ask questions like: "Well, are we a good society?"; "How well are we doing?"; "Are there other possibilities that we should be developing?"

    Still, Loy is not totally without hope for the future. "I think that there are, in all cases, good people trying to do their best, and finding that they have to struggle against severe institutional pressures. And it's all very nice to talk about this kind of thing. But even if we have an understanding of it, even a clear understanding of it, that by itself is just understanding. So the real challenge is 'How does this speak to our lives; how does it change the way we actually live in the world?'

    "So somebody could write something about this and still be as awful a consumer as anybody else. So the challenge I think is to find some way -- and for most of us it involves some kind of spiritual practice -- that can help us to integrate these insights into the way we actually live."

    For Loy the 'way' is Zen Buddhism. He says it has taught him to "live the best possible life now. Zen helps me to realise what this world is, and what I am -- right here and now."