David Loy sent me a copy of his book, “Lack and Transcendence”. Here I am sharing my response to some of his ideas in the book. David’s key concept
is lack. This is his term for existential malaise: the anxiety that humans suffer when facing their finitude. People seek to transcend this finitude by grounding their lives in something that they collectively agree to consider reliable. This then becomes what is held sacred and determines the nature of the culture. David thus refers to the creation of a sacred realm as transcendence, even though in the actual strategy chosen by a given culture the sacred locus may be immanent to some aspect of existence. He envisages transcendence, therefore, as a universal phenomenon – something that all cultures do. If a culture seems to have no overtly transcendental icons or institutions this does not mean that no transcendence is happening, simply that it is concealed in some way. David has been very skilful in some of his writings in revealing how such processes are concealed in our own culture, for instance.
The book is presented in effect as a dialogue or debate between psychotherapy, existentialism and Buddhism on how we should best understand this phenomenon. All three are presented as having some insights to offer, but the first two are finally found wanting, and Buddhism – or a certain sort of Buddhism, a point I will come to below – is presented as having the solution. In the final chapter, David introduces a further threefold categorisation, this time of cultures: Indian, Sino-Japanese, and Western, and speculates a little on where the West may be heading.
Both the Indian and the Sino-Japanese approaches are seen by David as forms of avoidance of the reality of lack. I found myself in broad agreement with this diagnosis. I wonder, however, if his preferred remedy cannot not itself be accused of being another manifestation of the same disease.
In the dialogue of ideas that makes up the main part of the book, psychotherapy is represented primarily by Freud, who gets severely criticised, Existentialism by a number of people among whom Heidegger is foremost, and Buddhism largely by the Avatamsaka philosophy of non-dualism. Ernest Becker has quite a large part as a mediator between psychotherapy and existentialism. Many other figures are mentioned, but this choice of main protagonists, about all of whom David has strong views, substantially shapes the impression that the reader is intended to receive.
Let me skip to the last chapter first. David identifies three significant approaches to the inevitable struggle to transcend lack. People can solve the problem of lack by reference to a transcendent other world, by making the social structures of this world sacred, or by making the individual sacred (whether the word soul is used or not). These three are the characteristic styles of India, China-Japan, and the West respectively. David particularly elaborates the contrast between the Sino-Japanese approach and the Indian approach to Buddhism, the former concrete, deferential, superstitious, specific and this-worldly, and the latter abstract, transcendental, logical, metaphysical and universalizing. In the former, ethics cannot be separated from specific social obligations. In the latter ethics is grounded in overarching universal principles. Casting his net wider, David sees the ancient societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt as conforming to the Chinese-Japanese pattern and those of Judea and Greece to the Indian one. This makes me think that it is societies that attempt to be monlithic that conform to the Sino-Japanese pattern of worshipping a sacred state and those that are segmented into competing groups that need an overarching transcendental sacred zone to both hold them together and provide a reference point of universal values essential for resolving differences between factions that acknowledge no common this-worldly overlord. It would be a mistake in this regard to think of Indian society as a monolithic hierarchy – the different caste groups are in incessant competition one with another. It is worth reflecting how far this applies to our own society too. Societies that depend upon internal competition between groups for their dynamic need a transcendental referee. Those that outlaw such competition cannot afford to have a source of values unidentified with the state. David does go on to consider the Western case. What immediately strikes me is that Western society draws its cultural inspiration from one side of this classification and not at all from the other. Europeans are of Aryan stock, like India, with a cultural heritage from Greece and Judea. In our society the principle of competition has gone furthest generating principles not just of group competition but of individual competition. This has led to an intense concentration upon the refinement of law as a transcendental principle. Even the most secularized, atheistic people in the West have no hesitation in appealing to assertions about what is “right” and “true” as if these transcendental categories were as real as tables and chairs – more so, in fact. This, I think, is essentially David’s point – the transcendental religious function has not disappeared from our society, it has simply been reclothed, redesignated and, in a sense relocated, but I sense that even the relocation is more apparent than real. I think, therefore, that I am broadly in agreement with David’s schema, though am rather inclined to collapse it into a twofold one, a spectrum on which the West and India, in slightly different ways, I grant, now lie at one end with China and Japan at the other. In this final chapter David devotes only the last paragraph to his preferred solution presumably assuming that he has made his main point already quite adequately in earlier chapters.
The solution that he sees is the philosophy found in the Avatamsaka Sutra symbolised by the idea of Indra’s Net. In this image all elements of existence are interrelated and part of a greater whole. Application of this image would amount to the sacralisation of the whole of existence through a recognition of the inter-relatedness, indeed inter-identification of all species and all of creation. I think we could call this the “complete immenance” (my term) solution. This is interesting to me because I once held this position myself, but have since rejected it. I do not any longer think that this is an option. I now think that you cannot make everything into one sacred category without making sacredness meaningless. We cannot and will not ever make it all one. Oneness is a chimera, an attempt, if I may use one of David’s themes from earlier in the book, to be one’s own father and so control one’s own being and destiny. I very much like the insight evidenced in David’s categorisation of the Indian and Sino-Japanese modes, but I am not so taken with his attempt to solve the resulting problems by a flight into “non-dualism”. I am not so willing to give up the whole basis of analytical thought. Is there an alternative?
What is this lack that David equates with death? It is the extent to which one is less than everything, one’s life is less than eternal, one’s location is less than everywhere, one’s being less than foundational to the universe. It is the wailing against there existing something other. In this light, one can see why a consciousness of Oneness might appear to offer a solution, but is not the hankering for exactly that solution just another symptom of the disease? Here I find myself in accord with Ortega’s observations that David in fact quotes as a counterpoint: we are shipwrecked. Only when we realise that we are lost do we find the possibility of reaching out to something other and discovering the possibility of real relationship, relationship that is not an attempt to restore oneness – to make the other me or me him or, even worse, to be my own other so that I become self-sufficient. Only when we know we are lost will we admit the possibility that there is something out there beyond me, something holy. That something other is not a symptom of my lack. I am what I am. He is what he is. I understand neither with any fullness, nor need I. Relationship does not require my wholeness, only my acknowledgement of my shipwrecked condition. This being my understanding, I was keen to see what David does say in support of the non-dualist position and to see if I can really understand it. I cannot say that I have been entirely successful in this, but this failure may well owe more to my lack of sympathy for the non-dualist position than to any lack of lucidity in David’s writing.
Near to the core of his argument lies the assertion: “death is not our deepest fear… immortality is not our deepest wish” (p.27). Apparently they are symptoms of “the desire of the sense-of-self to become a real self”. This assertion is rather heavy with jargon, but what he is getting at is that our primal anxiety has to do with what we sense our state to be now rather than with something that will happen to us in the future (namely, die). He suggests that immortality would not satisfy us because it would still be immortality as a being that lacks inherent meaning. These are valuable insights. At the same time, I wonder if they are not a flight from one extreme into the other.
In advancing these ideas, I sense that David is trying to rationalise his own lack or loss. That is an eminently understandable desire. When things fall apart we seek to find new meaning as a way of putting life back together again. One option is to find a philosophy that tells us that although things seem to have fallen apart, there is a more fundamental wholeness that we can fall back upon. Another option is to find one that tells us that “falling apart” is the ultimate nature of our being. If there is anything that is not an instance of falling apart, it does not partake of the same kind of being as ourselves. It is possible to interpret Buddhism as being either of these philosophies. David takes it to be the first. I take it as the second. To me, the Unborn is not something that I can become; even less something that I already inherently am. The Unborn is that which points out to me my nature, not by identity, but by contrast. I am born. I do die. I do think with a mind that cannot be anything other than dualistic. I do have desires and fears. I am like that. No spiritual procedure or philosophical conviction is going to make me or anybody else I know otherwise. Shipwreck. Though even the idea of shipwreck, like that of the Fall, implies a prior state that was otherwise and I see no reason to postulate such a state. We are like this, we always have been and we always will be.
Spirituality is not about adopting or attaining a different mode of being. It is about relating. It is about the encounter between a being such as I and that which is completely Other. The escape is not into becoming or realising oneself to be the Unborn but into the kind of relationship with it that brings home forcefully one’s actual born nature. The escape is found only in the kind of encounter that blows away all escapism. I suspect that there are elements of this alternative analysis that David might find attractive, but it is different because it rests upon an acceptance that duality is foundational to any human way of understanding the world. We cannot get away from being what we are. We can relate to what we are not, but we cannot be it. Our primal longing is not something to solve, it is something to cherish.