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The World Is Made of Stories
By David R. Loy
Wisdom Publications, 2010
128 pp.; $15.95 paper
Once upon a time . . . Thus I have heard . . . From the cradle on, we are reminded that “the world is made of stories,” as the poet Gary Snyder once wrote. Now the teacher and Buddhist scholar David Loy has borrowed Snyder’s observation as the title of his latest—and arguably most provocative— book.
Much of what we take as culture and civilization, Loy tells us, consists of stories— personal, societal, and mythical narratives that we create as evidence of our existence. “A story is an account of something,” he observes, and the “foundational story” is that of the self. Our deepest fear is that we are insubstantial, shadowy, unreal. And so we fashion a very human world of stories—myth, history, fantasy, romance, horror, and quest—in an endless, creative, and ultimately impossible effort to locate the ground of what the Buddha demonstrated is groundless. “Stories are not just stories,” Loy asserts. “They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible. Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is no world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.”
And therein lies a conundrum, a koan. “Storying” is how we make the world— no way around it—and how we grapple with that haunting sense of lack we feel. But stories hold out what an anthropologist friend of mine who studies folklore calls the “false promise” of narrative. A story promises truth and certainty, but this is a promise it can’t deliver, because the narrative itself is constructed. Loy retells the Hindu creation myth in which the world is said to be held up by the great elephant Maha Pudma, who in turn is supported by the great tortoise Chukwa. When an Englishman asks a Hindu sage what the great tortoise rests on, “Another turtle” is the holy man’s reply. And what does that turtle rest on? “Ah, Sahib, after that it’s turtles all the way down.” Enchanting story, but a false promise, of course. Still, as Loy explains, “the unconscious does not distinguish between true and untrue stories.” We count on the world to stay beneath our feet. True or false, we really depend on those turtles.
The World Is Made of Stories is a short book, just 128 pages, but it is packed with propositions and more than 150 quotations— from sources as disparate as Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Grateful Dead, Nagarjuna, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, and Garrison Keillor—stitched together by Loy’s commentary. It is a book of questions, each of which is left unanswered. This is what Buddhist teachers do best: pose questions for us to answer in our own way, or answer our questions with another question.
It is a difficult book to write about. Although Loy’s exposition has a clear arc, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This story about our dependence on stories is built on fragments that are at once incomplete and complete, impossible to pin down. Zen Master Dogen wrote, “When dharma fills body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” Loy’s book is like the self: layer after layer peels away, and the center is empty. But the pleasure is exactly in the exploration. If you crave linearity, you might find yourself adrift.
“In the Beginning Was the Story,” the first of the book’s four sections, looks at the universal nature of story across all time and culture. Loy points to myth, the unifying power of place, and our yearning for an overarching story that explains everything: “We want to discover the master-story, the one true meta-story that includes and explains all other stories— but it’s turtles all the way up too.” Even our efforts to “strip away the accounts of the world to get at the bare facts” are doomed: “To try to see the world-as-it-is is to enact a story.”
“A Storied Life,” the second section, explores the dynamic relation of story and identity, personal and social. “Stories give my life the plot that endows it with meaning,” Loy writes. In what is the most essentially “Buddhist” section of the book, he asks the inevitable question: “Am I the storyteller or the storytold . . . or both?” If there’s a dynamic relationship between identity and story, then it follows that we have multiple identities that change— rapidly or glacially—as our stories change. We have choices, Loy asserts:
One meaning of freedom is the opportunity to act out the story I identify with. Another freedom is the ability to change stories and my role within them. I move from scripted character to co-author of my own life. A third type of freedom results from understanding how stories construct and constrict my possibilities.
The story of self and freedom leads logically to the third section, “The Power of Story, The Story of Power.” Here, Loy talks about the melding of individual stories into a larger narrative—the making of history and myth. He quotes Tolkien: “History often resembles ‘Myth’ because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Although he cites “the growth of freedom [as] the central story of history,” history is invariably a story of power that begins at the personal level, Loy argues.
We try to fill up the hole at our core—the sense that something is missing, that I am not real enough— by becoming more wealthy, famous, attractive . . . more powerful. Power—the ability to impose my stories—offers the promise of reality. How could I be unreal, if I’m the one who decides what happens?
The dark side of power is fear, which arises individually, then can spread like a virus to sicken a whole society, until there is little left to see beyond power and fear. Loy quotes Aung San Suu Kyi, the nonviolent opposition leader of Burma: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. The fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Even then, the fear of losing power is not our deepest fear. That, Loy proposes, “is rooted in a compulsion to secure what cannot be secured.” And so we look for “The Big Stories”—the subject of the last section of the book—stories that try (and fail) to explain everything and our place in it. We seek God, and embrace the story that God somehow needs us. But there is a paradox here: “Essential to the God story is the denial that it is a story.” For Buddhists, the challenge is to see the dharma as a raft “for ferrying across the river of samsara, not a Big Story to be carried on our backs everywhere we go.” Buddhism’s Big Story is “not to be deluded by story,” but in fact we often are. Even Buddhists can fall into the trap of dualism. (Consider the role of institutional Buddhism in 20th-century Japan and Sri Lanka. In the name of nationalism, Buddhist clergy advocated violence against non-Buddhist populations, who were seen as less than fully human—a threat to the dharma and the nation.) In just one example of the ambiguity at the heart of the book, Loy suggests that we might rather think of Buddhism as a path of failure:
Although Shakyamuni Buddha’s life is usually mythologized as the predictable destiny of a spiritual conqueror, is he better understood as a failure? He practiced this way and that, but could not find what he was looking for: that which enabled him to stop looking. Did he finally give up and just sit down?
Maybe so. That’s the story, at any rate. Sitting down, giving up, letting go—only then do we get a glimpse of William Blake’s doors of perception, the doors that lead to liberated imagination. But has Loy, in wandering far from any Buddhist orthodoxy, through a world of stories in which the dharma is simply one story among so many others, purposely led us into a dazzling wilderness? The method of Zen meditation is simultaneously to see the story and see through it. Loy himself observes, “When meditating one dwells in the empty, silent nothing-ness from which mental phenomena arise.” The story of “my self” may be compelling—to me, at any rate—but at the same time, through Zen practice, I come to disbelieve it. Seeing through stories, belief systems, and subtle narratives about identity enables us to act with some freedom. We can plunge into life directly, or we can stand by and wait and watch.
I wish this were where Loy had gone in The World Is Made of Stories. I would have liked to see a fifth section in which he examined the mysterious leap from story to action. This is the heart of Zen, wherein one’s body/mind is the vehicle for action that sometimes appears to be inaction but is, in fact, what Dogen called “undivided activity.” Stories vision the world, and actions manifest that vision moment by moment, whether we are sitting zazen, walking down the street, or getting down to work.
A Buddhist understanding of karma rests on thought, words, and action. Action is the necessary outcome of the other two. When the outcome is yet another story, we sometimes call it art. But truth—that’s another matter. In Buddha’s way we must have enough faith to act as if a story were true, while at the same time we cultivate sufficient doubt to see through the story, to hold it lightly as something precious and delicate but evanescent—“ a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream,” as the Diamond Sutra says. “The problem is not the stories themselves,” Loy reminds us, “but how we relate to them.”
Loy’s last questions in the book point in the direction of action and our responsibility as humans:
If the world is made of stories, who knows what our best stories might accomplish? If we ourselves are Buddha, who but us can create the Pure Land?
The World Is Made of Stories is at once Loy’s most accessible and most philosophical work. The language is simple, yet the ideas are slippery. They will not stay still, which is the truth of impermanence. Is this a “Buddhist” book? I’m not sure—or sure it matters. While Loy’s earlier writing is about dharma, this book speaks dharma, with a voice that echoes both the ancient ways and the postmodern mélange. Loy cleanses the doors of perception just enough for us to catch a glimpse of the problem of the constructed self as it flits from story to story. The meaning is not in the story but in the impulse to tell it. Once upon a time there was a man who told stories about stories….
Hozan Alan Senauke is the vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and the founder of Clear View Project (clearviewproject.org), providing Buddhist-based resources for training and relief in Asia and the U.S. His latest book is The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches From Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines (Read a review here).