David Loy Interview

Buddhist-Christian Studies
Vol. 20, No. 1 (2000)
pp. 321-323

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA



p. 321 David Loy Interview
Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2000)

The 1999 winner of the Frederick J. Streng Book Award is David R. Loy, professor on the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Chigasaki, Japan. Professor Loy received the award for his book, Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism, published by Humanities Press (New Jersey) in 1996. The book places Western patterns of thought developed in tandem with Christian ideas into dialogic contact with Buddhism. It is thus a very Buddhist book, but a signal contribution to the practice of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Buddhist-Christian Studies asked David about his writing of the volume.

Buddhist-Christian Studies: Why did you write this book?

David Loy: It was the product of an existiential crisis, both intellectual and personal. My father, who had always been healthy and full of life, suddenly became ill with pancreatic cancer. Then my Zen teacher Yamada Koun had a bad fall that led to his death a year later. Not long before that my relationship with him and the Sanbo Kyodan had become somewhat problematic. This threatened my 'spiritual ground'. Finally, I was without a job. All this gave me plenty of time not only to sit intensively but also to read widely everything I could find on death and related issues.

Did you think that sitting and studying would lead to a book?

I didn't know. I could feel that something was gestating. I realized something was needed in this area. I was (and still am) very impressed by the last two books of Ernest Becker, but despite their brilliance his notion of death-denial is a little off-center from a Buddhist perspective. Fear of death projects our problem into the future, while the groundlessness of our sense-of-self accounts better for our sense-of-lack right here and now.

What was the final trigger for doing the book?

Another Zen teacher suggested that I try to write a Zen teisho [sermon or talk]. I sat down but after a few lines so many other thoughts began to bubble up that I couldn't write them down fast enough. There was no obvious or immediate logical connection among them, but they kept coming. This went on for about two, almost non-stop, days. After that the thoughts slowed down. I read over the notes I'd written, which led to more ideas, and then I began to perceive their relationship. After five days or so I had a detailed outline for the book and the real work began.



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Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2000)
What kind of response to the book, both positive and negative, have you received?

There have not been many reviews, but they have generally been quite positive. It's not an easy book to evaluate: it brings together many different thinkers and traditions in order to address many different issues. In the process it attempts what is almost a grand synthesis of Buddhism, existentialism and psychotherapy around the notion of our 'sense of lack', which I argue motivates us all. This involves close readings of Freud, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Naaagaaarjuna, and many others. Unfortunately, the print is small and not easy to read, the cover is ugly, and the price is too high. For all these reasons readers have my sympathies! But there are some readers for whom the book really 'clicks'. I'm pleased that it seems to work on the existential as well as the intellectual level, for such people.

After several years of reflection, would you write it any differently today?

Yes, probably. The first thing I would do is take out the last chapter 'Transcendence East and West', which was an afterthought and doesn't really fit in very well. As published, the chapter takes the concept of 'lack' into a new dimension which needs to be worked out more carefully than I did in the book. It argues that, in place of the usual East-West dichotomy, it is more insightful to view South Asian Indian-influenced cultures as in some ways the opposite of East Asian Chinese-influenced cultures. As some reviewers pointed out, however, it is rather superficial because, among other things, it relies on a simplistic 'Neo-Vedantist' interpretation of Indian culture.

What else?

The book overemphasizes the negative side of our sense-of-lack. Like `suuunyataaa itself, our lack is also the source of our freedom and creativity. Spiritual practice works to transform lack into this more positive force in our lives, so that this bottomless pit we can never fill up becomes the wellspring of life itself which bubbles up from we-know-not-where, from someplace we can never objectify or grasp.

In what directions has the research and writing of this book led you in the ensuing years?

I've been exploring further the historical and cultural implications of our sense-of-lack. Lack, as I view it, is more or less a constant in our lives, but different cultures and historical periods have understood it in different ways and tried to cope with it in different ways.

Give us an example.

Sure. In chapter five, 'Trying to Become Real', I discuss how our modern preoccupations with fame, romantic love and money -- which we now take for granted -- developed during the Renaissance, when the Christian story began to lose its spiritual power for many people. Fame, romantic love and money seemed to offer more



p. 323 David Loy Interview
Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2000)

individualistic ways to cope with our sense-of-lack. Since the book, I have written several articles offering other perspective on sense-of-lack during different periods in the historical development of the West: the classical valuation of freedom, the papal revolution in the eleventh century, the development of modernity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and others. These articles have been published in various journals. Now I'm putting them together into a book tentatively titled 'A Buddhist History of the West.'

How does Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism contribute to Buddhist-Christian dialogue?

Even though the book says almost nothing about Christianity, the implications for Christianity are pretty obvious. What is offered as a modern interpretation of Buddhism can be developed quite easily in a Christian direction, in terms of the kind of inner emptying and transformation that we all need to experience if we are to overcome our greed, ill-will and delusion -- and realize that not I but Christ liveth in me.