August 12, 2008
I am currently reading David Loy’s sensationally titled Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. It is probably the most thought-provoking book on Buddhist themes that I have read for several years.
MSWK comprises a series of fourteen essays that address major cultural, political, economic, and spiritual issues from a Buddhist perspective. The book is written in a direct, urgent, yet almost conversational style. Topics include money, time, Karma, sex, attention, ecology, food, and war.
While a committed Buddhist, Loy is no apologist. Rather than simply adopt some ready-made Asian version of Buddhism, he argues that we must renew it in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life. A key theme here is that any personal awakening must be supplemented by what Loy calls ‘social awakening’. This means that while Buddhist practice aims to transform the individual it must also transform society because the two are interdependent.
I won’t comment on all of the essays here but they all warrant serious attention. A couple of essays struck me as especially valuable. In ‘Lack of Money’, Loy suggests that the problem with money is not that it makes us too materialistic but rather the opposite; we begin to cherish the symbolic value of money above what we can actually buy with it. So, for instance, a wealthy professional may be more concerned with how his luxury car advances his social prestige, rather than simply enjoying its practical comforts (p.29). Ironically – but I think convincingly – he argues, ‘the problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough’ (p.29).
In ‘Consciousness Commodified’ he argues that in the present age it is not attachment that is the problem but rather distraction. Our attention has become a precious commodity, which all kinds of agencies compete for. This leads to a ‘fragmentation of attention’ (p.96), which results in having less time to give to what is most crucial in our lives. As soon as we begin to focus on something important, we are distracted by an advert, our mobile phone, or an Internet message. This may help to explain why I find meditation such a struggle!
Loy does not pretend to have a blueprint to solve the world’s ills but believes that Buddhism can open our awareness to some of the deepest problems and so enable us to begin to imagine how things could be different. His work succeeds in drawing attention to a wide range of issues facing the contemporary world and the contemporary spiritual practitioner. Two points seem most compelling; first, Buddhist ideas and practices must be renewed in order to deal with the unique challenges of modern life; and second, individual and social transformation are inextricably linked.
David Loy’s is an urgent and vital voice, and his latest work is a thoughtful, passionate, and bold sweep through major issues that face us individually and collectively. I strongly recommend it.