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The Buddhist Path in a New World


Excerpted from A New Buddhist Path by David R. Loy.


We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the heart of Buddhist teachings there is a crucial ambiguity. It is not a new problem: an ambivalence is apparent even in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, as preserved in the Pali Canon. As Buddhism globalizes and becomes part of the modern world, however, this ambiguity is becoming increasingly awkward. It needs to be resolved for the Buddhist tradition to fulfill its liberative potentia —not only to promote individual awakening more successfully, but also to help us address ecological and social challenges that cannot be evaded.

Gautama Buddha said that he simply taught dukkha and how to end it; the four noble (or “ennobling”) truths are all about dukkha, what causes it, its cessation, and how to end it. Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” yet that works only if we understand suffering in the broadest sense, to include anxiety and dissatisfaction generally. Why are we haunted by a gnawing dis-ease that keeps us from enjoying our lives? The ambiguity at stake in Buddhism is directly connected with how we understand the source of our dukkha: is the basic problem the nature of this world itself, or our inability to accept it as it is? Or something else?

In early Buddhism, the “end of suffering” is nirvana, which literally means something like “blown out” or “cooled off.” But it’s not completely clear what those metaphors actually refer to, because the Buddha described the nature of nirvana mostly with negatives (the end of craving, ignorance, etc.) and other metaphors (the shelter, harbor, refuge, etc.—which still leave us with the question “what sort of refuge?”).

His apparent reticence leaves us with the important issue of whether nirvana involves attaining some other dimension of reality that transcends this world, or whether it describes an experience that is immanent in this world—a state of being that might be understood more psychologically, as (for example) the end of greed, ill will, and delusion in our lives right now. Surely nirvana must be one or the other?

Today that basic ambivalence appears most clearly in the contrast between a reading of the Pali Canon that understands nirvana as an unconditioned (asamskrta) realm or dimension, and the recent “psychologization” of American Buddhism, especially in the current popularity of the mindfulness movement. Understanding the difference between these two will help us to see a third possibility, which emphasizes neither transcending this world nor accepting it as it is (or seems to be). Rather, the world as normally experienced—including the way we normally experience ourselves—is a psychological and social construction that can be deconstructed and reconstructed. We don’t need to attain anything or anywhere else, or to accept the conventional possibilities that modernity assumes. What we need to do is realize that this world is quite different from our usual assumptions about it and about ourselves.


David R. Loy’s books include the acclaimed Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution; The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory; The World Is Made of Stories; A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency; and The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons, a finalist for the 2006 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. He was the Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Cincinnati’s Xavier University and is qualified as a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Buddhism.

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