Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism
By David Loy

Reviewed by Steven Heine

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 1998)
pp. 668-670

Copyright 1998 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

p. 668 Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism
Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 1998)

Lack and Transcendence, by David Loy, analyzes two main approaches in comparative philosophy to the relation between death and transcendence. One approach sees these as separate or even opposing dimensions, with transcendence understood as the attainment of an eternal or everlasting realm that marks the overcoming of death, which is the hallmark of human finitude or mutability. This view is associated, according to Loy, with mainstream trends in Western monotheistic theology and eschatology, which maintain a belief in the unending survival of the soul after death; the conception of Platonic Ideas, or of mental forms subsisting in a timeless realm distinguished from the visible world of everchanging sensory phenomena; and Vedāntic claims of an unchanging

 

 

p. 669 Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism
Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 1998)

Brahman. Even in these standpoints, however, there is a connection between realms in that death can be understood as a necessary entranceway to the experience of eternity.

    The second approach considers death and transcendence inextricably linked in that a full awareness of and an encounter with dying is essential for a realization of a transcendental state. This view is associated with various strains of modern psychotherapy and existentialism, particularly Kierkegaard's focus on anxiety and despair, Nietszche's view of the eternal now, and Heidegger's notion of Dasein as being-unto-death, as well as the Buddhist emphasis on the inescapability of impermanence and the attainment of enlightenment in terms of, rather than by departing from,, the universal flux. Yet in these standpoints there may linger a sense of a distance or gap if death is seen as something external or objective that happens to or befalls someone and is thus cut off from a truly subjective, internalized transcendence.

    David Loy's book seeks to demonstrate the priority and superiority of the second view as best exemplified in Buddhist theory and practice, which asserts the unqualified inseparability or nonduality of death and transcendence. Loy uses the Buddhist standpoint as a tool for critiquing the limitations in the first view based on the opposition or duality of realms, which he feels results in an inadequate understanding of the basic structure and meaning of human existence. The key factor linking death and transcendence for Loy is the category of "lack," an ontological guilt or "contradiction between this sense that I am and the suspicion that I am not" (p.55), as manifested in the feeling that "there is something wrong with me" (p.12). Lack, which is more basic and lies at the root of an awareness of death, must be completely accepted and reconciled with to attain transcendence. Buddhism offers the most authentic approach because it fully eliminates any subtle duality between the perception of lack in selfhood and the understanding of impermanent, contingent reality. Other apprpaches including the existentialist outlook tend to repress anxiety about death and lack in generating notions based on a hoped for but illusory timelessness.

    Loy begins by analyzing and to some extent agreeing with the arguments of a variety of modern thinkers, including Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, who have challenged traditional Western onto-theology from the perspective of highlighting guilt, anxiety, finitude, or loss. These thinkers have pointed to the necessary intertwining of a highly personalized anticipation of dying and the realization of transcendence. In particular, Loy adopts Heidegger's notion that temporality is a more fundamental constituent of existence than death, but he also stresses that the futural orientation in Heidegger's view of authenticity harbors a duality between now and then that falls short of the Buddhist approach. "That [problem] points to the Buddhist solution, which elimi-

 

 

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Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 1998)

nates this dualism dialectically by realizing that I am not in time because I am time; and if I am time I cannot be trapped by time. To be time is to be free from time" (p.44).

    Lack and Transcendence works best in its critical examination of Western psychotherapy and existentialism as well as in its insightful commentary (especially in the fifth chapter on "Trying to Become Real") on the foibles of a contemporary society that generally hides from facing the notion of lack through the pursuit of fame, fortune, obsessive love, or a false sense of progress. Loy's analysis is penetrating largely because it is carried out from the standpoint of Buddhist doctrine. However, the discussion of Buddhist philosophy itself is far less convincing. The volume suffers from presenting an idealized picture of Buddhism as a consistent tradition stretching from Pāli texts to Zen, discussing Zen thoutht primarily from the standpoint of the author's own experiences rather than on an interpretation of classical texts, and concluding with an absence of criticism of Buddhist societies. The reader is given the impression that Buddhism can solve a host of social problems stemming from an inauthentic view of death and lack, but is not told how the religion has actually functioned and performed in its native settings except in a couple of brief passages, such as a mention of the bushido code and "funeral Buddhism" (p.162). The final chapter is especially weak in uncritically rehashing Hajime Nakamura's perceptive but outdated account of Eastern thought in Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, without acknowledging recent critiques of Nakamura's work.

    But Loy's strength lies not so much in serving as a buddhologist as a compelling thinker/commentator in his own right who deftly and insightfully analyzes the shortcomings in the notions of death and time in contemporary philosophical standpoints and social-psychological attitudes.