Money, Sex, War, Karma:

Notes for a Buddhist Revolution

David R Loy

Wisdom Publications (Boston), 2008; ISBN 0-86171-558-6 (pbk)

Reviewed by Ken Jones

This book comprises fourteen essays which originally appeared as articles or talks by one of the leading theoreticians and popularisers of socially engaged Buddhism. “Liberated Buddhism” is the focus of the first half. By this Loy means that “Buddhism needs to take advantage of its encounter with modern/postmodern civilisation – offering a greater challenge than Buddhism has ever faced before — to engage in a self-examination that attempts to distinguish what is vital and still living in its Asian versions from what is unnecessary and perhaps outdated”. Thus “the Dharma must find new modes of expression that speak more directly to us, including those who may not be much interested in Asian cultures” (p4).  Loy demonstrates that the Buddha himself “was more flexible and open minded than the institutions that developed to preserve his teachings” (p7). The second half of the book focuses on key aspects of an engaged Buddhism, “where the dharma offers us fresh ways to understand the fix we’re in today.”

The first essay, “The Suffering of Self”, expounds basic Buddhism around our root sense of lack. This perspective is then deployed, in three further essays, to understand our delusive experience of money, of fame, and of time, and why we never seem to have enough of any of them. Loy then slots in an introduction to the great monk-philosopher Nagarjuna (“The Second Buddha”), who argued that “we think we experience the real world, but the world as we understand it is a linguistic construct that deludes us” (p47)

The essay on karma deals with three ways in which it has traditionally been misunderstood. Here Loy recalls the Buddha’s advice in the celebrated Kalama Sutta, which would suggest that “accepting karma and rebirth literally, without questioning what they really mean, may actually be unfaithful to the best of the tradition …Given what is now known about human psychology, including the social construction of the self, how might we today approach these teachings in a way that is consistent with our own sense of how the world works?” (pp55-76).

The essay “What’s Wrong with Sex?” is of interest not least because of its rarity value in Buddhist writing. Here there is a step-by-step exploration of how far received Buddhism is compatible with contemporary attitudes towards sex and gender.  The key issue is “what we expect from our relationships … consciously or unconsciously we hope that romance and sex will fill up our sense of lack, but they don’t and can’t” (p77).

The book next moves on to social engagement with a hard-hitting essay, “What would the Buddha do?”  “I suspect there is a special place in hell reserved for those who refuse to give up the self-centred indifference that allows them to sit indefinitely on their cushions while the rest of the world goes to hell”(p81). Loy trenchantly argues against the belief that I must first attend to my own liberation before I can be of service to others, or that “from the highest point of view everything is empty” — there are no living beings so no need to worry about their fate (p82).

“The Three Poisons Institutionalised” examines the social expressions of greed (free market consumerism), ill-will (globalised war and militarism), and delusion institutionalised in the mass media (there is also a separate essay on “Why we love war”). It is followed by a piece titled “Consciousness commodified: The attention-deficit Society”.  “Our awareness is conditioned in new ways: fragmented by new information and communication technologies; commodified by advertising and consumerism; and manipulated by sophisticated propaganda techniques. Who owns our collective attention, and who has the right to decide what happens to it?”

“Healing Ecology” is a well argued study of how our characteristic personal response to our sense of lack is socially expressed in the limitless exploitation of the biosphere leading us to a wilful mass suicide. “Why is our GNP never enough? Why do we never have enough technology?”

In the concluding “Notes for a Buddhist revolution” Loy maintains that, while we can envision “a more ‘dharmic’ society whose institutions encourage generosity and compassion… this doesn’t help us very much. Is a reformed capitalism consistent with a dharmic society, or do we need altogether different kinds of economic institutions?” He concludes that “Buddhism is really about awakening and liberating our awareness, rather than prescribing new institutional structures for that awareness” (p141).

“The role of socially engaged Buddhism is not to form a new movement but, along with other forms of engaged spirituality, to add a valuable dimension to existing movements already working for peace, social justice and ecological responsibility.” What Buddhism has to offer these movements is identified and discussed as:

  • the importance of a spiritual practice
  • commitment to non-violence
  • “awakening together” (which includes various bodhisattva virtues essential for self-less social action, like not being dependent on results); and
  • impermanence and emptiness (which imply flexibility and non-attachment to fixed ideas).

Finally Loy addresses the question “What should socially engaged Buddhists focus on? There are so many problems that we don’t know where to start” (p146). For many engaged Buddhists this is likely to be the most controversial part of the book. While acknowledging global climate change and related ecological issues as the most important of all, “I suspect that Buddhism has little distinctive to offer in the short run … we are now collectively at the point where everyone knows the direction we need to move in. The question is whether there is the political and economic will to do so” (p148). (And, crucially, this reviewer would add, why is there not the will?). However, instead Loy argues for Buddhists “a distinctive role in emphasising the places where our collective awareness has been trapped, and showing how to liberate that awareness from those traps.” This means a root and branch campaign against advertising and other forms of information manipulation. “Severe curbs on advertising would have enormous repercussions for all of society, because consumerism depends on it.” This in turn would strike at the heart of our problems: “the influence of major corporations not only on the economy, but also on government and on our ways of thinking …”. Loy concludes that they are the worst expressions of institutionalised lack that has assumed a life of its own. “In reality, the future will be grim unless we can find ways to rein in corporate power” (p150).

In short, this is a book which provides an accessible and wide-ranging introduction not only to engaged Buddhism, but also to ways in which the ancient Asian dharma can be adapted to play a significant part in liberating our world from its awesome crises.