BG 238: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Evolving

Episode Description:

David Loy, Zen teacher and author, joins us to discuss the radical implications of modern narratives on the traditional Buddhist view of the world. David, whose background includes rigorous academic training and Zen practice in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, puts him squarely in the “scholar-practitioner” camp. And it’s with this dual-background that he shares some perspective on the way that modern narratives, particularly that of science and evolution, are changing our understanding of the Buddhist path of awakening. Or as David more poetically puts it, “the cosmos is waking up in me, as me, through me.”

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I am joined today over Skype with a very special guest. I am here today with David Loy. David, thank you again for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks, you’re definitely a patron saint of geekhood. [Laughter]

David: Thank you for the invitation, Vincent. I am delighted to be with you.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. A little bit of background for the Buddhist Geeks listeners, you are a professor. You’ve taught at multiple places but currently you are a visiting scholar at Naropa University and you are also an author of several of books. The most recent, which has a beautiful title, “The World is Made of Stories” and we’ll kind of get into a little bit about what you mean by stories and narratives and then you are also a coauthor of another book called “A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency,’’ which is of course a really hot topic, no pun intended.

Anyway, maybe just to start off with I was wondering if you could share a little bit of about what you are up to right now. I was in Boulder recently, we didn’t have a chance to connect but I understood that you were teaching at Naropa, which is my alma mater and wondered what you are doing there?

David: Well actually I am not teaching here, the fellowship that I have is for research and as usual I am writing another book.

Vincent: Nice. [Laughter]

David: Which actually I am not getting very much done yet but don’t tell anybody.

Vincent: This won’t go live. [Laughter]

David: No that’s okay. It’s just that moving into Boulder as we have in the last few months we’re still on the settling in process and there’s been lots of other things going on. Anyway, the book that I am working on has a working title something like, “Why Buddhism and the West Need Each Other : What they Are Learning from Each Other”

Vincent: Oh!

David: Or another title might be “The Great Conversation” or “The Great Dialogue.” Really trying to offer an overview of this exciting new co-creation that’s going on now that Buddhism is coming to the West. As you know every time Buddhism has gone to different cultures, it’s not only changed that culture but been changed. There is a real process of interaction and co-creation and so I think it’s appropriate, although it’s still very early days, it’s appropriate to take a look at exactly what is happening. Some of the influence that Buddhism is having and also some of the ways in which it is itself being challenged.

Vincent: That’s really cool. So is this in some ways mostly like a sociological look at the dialogue or what’s kinds of approaches…

David: No it’s more off; well it’s a combination of things. For example there is going to be chapter on psychology since that it seems to be really one of the major areas where Buddhism is influencing and being influenced especially, psychotherapy. There will also be a chapter on social engagement. I think that the encounter with the western tradition which emphasizes social transformation is leading to some interesting new developments. There will be a chapter on religious paradigms, how alternative conceptions of transcendence in Buddhism or interacting with more traditional western Abrahamic ones and also a chapter in science maybe focusing in lot on evolution for example which I know is one of the areas you’re very interested in recently.

Vincent: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Cool, so it’s sound like you really taking a kind of broad look at some of the major areas. That’s really cool. Well, as soon as you get that done let us know and we will another discussion [laughter] because in some ways that’s the focus of Buddhist Geeks, is really exploring kind of how Buddhism is converging with all these various facets. So that will be really great.

So before we jump into the main piece that we wanted to explore with you today, which is around modern narratives and especially around this narrative or story of evolution, which is of course more than just a narrative. But we wanted to explore that with you today and I thought to start with it’s usually interesting and helpful for people to hear a little bit about your background kind of where you are coming from, what informs your current views, and in particular I thought it would be interesting to hear about your experience with Zen. I understand you started practicing Zen in the early 70’s and that you spend time in the States and in Japan so you kind of went back and forth, so that would be interesting to hear about.

David: I started around 1971 I think it was, in Hawaii, with the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu. At the time I began I was sort of splitting my energies and time between hanging out with friends in Waikiki and also spending some time in some remote valleys of one of the minor Molokai and a friend and I learned about the Zen Center near the University in the Manoa area area of Honolulu . So he went there and it turned out that they were just about to have a sesshin, a seven-day sesshin with a visiting Japanese Zen Master named Yamada Koun. They had some spaces available, some seats available so without really knowing what we are getting into my friend and I signed up for that sesshin and that was the rather over the top arduous beginning for myself.

So I became very deeply involved with the Diamond Sangha and Robert Aitken who was just beginning to teach and I practiced there with him and the visiting Yamada Koun from Japan about four years in Hawaii and then later after a little break in the mainland I ended up going to Asia teaching at the National University of Singapore for some years starting a small Zen group there. And then eventually being invited back by the Japanese teacher Yamada Koun to do a more intensive practice Koan practice with him in Kamakura. So I moved there in about ‘84 and was one of his main international students at that time.

Vincent: Really interesting, and the tradition that this teacher was in, is that Sanbo Kyodan tradition?

David: Yes, that’s right. It’s actually a fairly new tradition, a combination of Soto and Rinzai the two main Japanese Zen traditions. I don’t know if you are familiar with the book that “The Three Pillars of Zen” written by Philip Kapleau…

Vincent: Yes, classic.

David: That’s the same tradition.

Vincent: Okay.

David: Kapleau studied in that and his teacher was Yasutani was my teacher’s teacher and in fact Yamada was the main successor the third dharma, the third spiritual director of the Sanbo Kyodan in Kamakura, Japan.

It’s not terribly well know in Japan but it has a very large number of international students who come, well quite a few from Europe for example, some from America, some from Asia, it’s having quite a bit of influence in its own way.

Vincent: I remember reading some stories about Yasutani Roshi and I remember some of things from him were sort of the intense focus on kensho.

David: Yes, that’s right.

Vincent: Like having a breakthrough, and then I remember shikantaza the way it was described didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun [laughter], it sounded pretty intense like sweating bullets while you sit. Could you share a little bit about sort of the characteristic of that practice or that approach like what it was like?

David: Well, Yasutani like his own teacher Harada who started the Sanbo Kyodan, he was a Soto priest but he wasn’t able to find a sufficiently enlightened Zen master. So he actually had to turn to Rinzai tradition to find somebody who could really teach him. It was out of that experience that the Sanbo Kyodan as kind of a merger of the two occurred.

So the focus in Sanbo Kyodan is very similar to traditional Rinzai in a sense that there is a great deal of focus on kensho. A lot of very strict practice working on, usually it’s Mu, the koan Mu, what is Mu? The kensho also the whole koan curriculum that follows after the first experience.

So that’s to be distinguished from shikantaza, just sitting, which is what’s emphasized in the Soto tradition. That isn’t emphasized so much in our lineage, although sometimes people in between koans will do that practice. If they are not working on a particular koan with a teacher at that time that’s one of the practices that’s certainly run very valid and recommended. But the focus generally is on the koan tradition and working through that. Using that as device to help open up realize one’s true nature and then clarify more deeply, more clearly what that true nature is.

Vincent: How was your experience doing that training?

David: Well, going back to my first experience it was a quite a shock, neither my friend nor I really knew what we are getting into. So a seven day sesshin, it wasn’t a matter of sitting around chatting and having tea with the Roshi like we expected, it was seven days of hell, hurting back, hurting legs and most of all hurting mind watching those thoughts bounce off the wall and not really having any perspective on that and it was very shocking and very disturbing experience for me to that point where I wondered if I was going crazy. But afterwards something happened, something small but it certainly gave me the sense that this was a right path that is what I need to be doing.

The actually working on Mu it can be quite intensive that’s why it’s really important to do in relationship with a teacher and preferably in relationship with Sangha that are sitting together that can help one.

Vincent: Kind of like a container or something to hold the intensity of it.

David: Exactly, exactly.

Vincent: Very cool. Well thanks for sharing some of that, it’s really interesting, these different approaches and traditions within the Buddhist world. And it’s also interesting that there are multiple narratives in the Buddhist world as well it’s not just these different practices and approaches. One of the things that you write a lot about are narratives in Buddhism and we have obviously in the Buddhist tradition inherited a lot of narratives from the Asian traditions. Most of which were formed in sort of pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-western enlightenment times and then now we live in a sort of modern world and we have modern narratives which are quite different in a lot of ways but it still seems like in some ways this whole things hasn’t shaken out. There are these different narratives, that are kind of meeting, colliding and one of them that’s quite strong in terms of modernity is this topic of evolution, which of course only really started a few hundred years ago, at least in it’s current form. And I was wondering if you could talk about, from your perspective, because this is something you have explored and written a lot about the significance of this topic of evolution on contemporary Buddhism.

David: Well first just a little bit about narratives generally. As we said earlier every time Buddhism goes through a different culture it engages with that culture, it interacts and not only changes but it’s changed by that culture. And another way to say that of course is that the narratives are intersecting and what they have really end up doing of course is creating new narratives or new stories that evolve out of the old ones but are also something quite different, because they are formed in response to other possibilities.

So I mean really now we are at the point where we can see that so many Buddhist narratives or elements of the Buddhist narratives are so relevant to us today, but also we have to acknowledge that Buddhist cultures in Asia are pre-modern mostly mythological and I think we are therefore still in the early days of really trying to distinguish what’s basically essential about the Buddhist narrative, about the Buddhist awakening path, about the Buddhist transformative process, from what’s mythological and what needs to maybe be distinguished. In other words, it seems be the case that because we are a different culture, we are different civilization we are eventually going to have to be able distinguish between what’s essential about the narrative from what’s culturally conditioned and no longer relevant in our case.

One of the interesting issues though right now as Buddhism comes to the West is that it does give us a different kind of alternative spiritual perspective on the split, the traditional split in the modern West now between the old Abrahamic Judeo-Christian stories which frankly for many people, many educated people is simply no longer very believable, God and his Heaven and so forth. And in response to that of course in the modern world we have science which gives a very different kind of approach, a very different story, but also seems mired in a kind of, how to say it? Science asks certain types of questions and then it takes the answers it gets to those questions as an only possible one. So we are in situation where there really does seemed to be a split between religion understood in Christian terms and the scientific worldview, which is so different and one of the ways that falls out I think is in terms of how we understand evolution.

Obviously, evolution is a huge issue within the Judeo-Christian tradition because it has very different creation story, doesn’t it?

Vincent: Yes.

David: But when you bring in Buddhism which has no problem with evolution. In fact evolution seems to fit in so well with Buddhist principles of impermanence, insubstantiality and interdependence. It seems to fit in very well. But also evolution does seem to give us something of a different perspective on the Buddhist understanding of the world. For example in the Mahayana tradition there is this claim in some places that when the Buddha became enlightened the whole universe became enlightened, which is quite an intriguing thing to say.

Can we understand the evolutionary process not just in mythological terms but as part of this broad sweep of evolution whereby the cosmos is struggling to become self0aware? My own desire, my own urge to become awakening, from the other side can that be understood as the urge of the cosmos itself to wake up in me, as me, through me.

There’s all these interesting possibilities, it would seem as if these can give us a new narrative, a new more scientifically compatible narrative that helps to make sense of what’s going on with the Buddhist process of awakening and that’s very exciting. One of the reasons it’s so exciting of course is that it would seemed to point the way to help overcome this unfortunate duality within the Western tradition whereas on the one hand you have a fundamental predominate religious paradigm that just doesn’t work anymore versus the scientific approach which tends to be very materialistic and reductionistic. And then if we come in with something like Buddhism and then we have a totally new story, a totally into new narrative about what’s going on in our lives and what it means to be human, what the possibilities of being human are and I think this is very very exciting. This is one of the really most exciting and creative places in which the Western tradition in this case science, cosmology, evolution seems to be interacting with what the Buddhist tradition has to offer.

Vincent: That’s so beautiful. I think you just opened up a really interesting area to explore now because you spoke about awakening in terms of the universe sort of awakening in some sense to itself to discovering itself. It sort of reminded me of some of the things that Carl Sagan said in the intro to his cosmos, except of course I don’t think he really had a deep interior practice, he was sort of looking at it from a scientific perspective, almost purely. That said, does that change that view? Does that change what we are awakening to? Does that change the awakening process itself when you reframe it that way?

David: Well, if it is reframes it maybe in a positive sense in the way that it sort of overcomes some of the mythological overlay. One common way of trying to articulate awakening is to talk in terms of realization of emptiness. I think it’s generally agreed that the awakening involves letting go of the sense of self, realizing that the sense itself is not the source of our thoughts and feelings but in fact the sense itself is itself a kind of psychological construct of the way… that mostly habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting and so forth interact. And so getting beyond the sense itself opens us to deeper levels of awareness but the interesting thing about those is those aren’t something that when grasped or understands. The point of emptiness is that there is something deeper than ourselves, deeper than our sense of self that is acting through us, or takes form maybe that’s a better way to say it takes form as us. You remember the old Heart Sutra saying form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

The old Buddhist challenge if there is no self than who becomes enlightened, who becomes awakened. In a way I think the realization that the thoughts spring up, the actions spring up from some much deeper level. I think this is in fact quite compatible with a claim of the sort that it’s the cosmos itself that’s awaking up.

In other words, one way to articulate the realization process is to realize that same emptiness, if you want to use that term, that takes forms as rocks and trees and grass and giraffes and so forth also takes form as me, you and me. In particular it takes form as the thoughts and feelings that arise. That there is the same fundamental ungraspable emptiness that is manifesting in all of these different ways, and what’s exciting is I think it does involve a more dynamic understanding of emptiness than has sometimes been held within the Buddhist tradition but it also is very compatible with this realization that the universe, the cosmos is fundamentally creative. It’s fundamentally this stuff constantly taking new form. And we are the one of those forms and what’s exciting about us is that we are not only creatures or creation of the emptiness but that we seemed to have a special function, a special ability because with us this emptiness is becoming self-aware.

Look at it this way, if the emptiness wants to create a symphony or a cathedral or a computer, well it has to go through human beings. It’s as if with us new types of species become possible.

Vincent: Very interesting and you know some of what I hear and what you are saying that seems very different form some of the traditional Buddhist narratives for instance…

David: Oh, for sure.

Vincent: Yeah, for instance, yeah absolutely. And I wanted maybe tease out some of the implications of this because they seem huge to me. I could be wrong but some of the traditional narratives, my understanding like in classical Buddhism the understanding of the universe seems to be more that it’s cyclical and that we have just going through cycle after cycle and in a certain sense we are trying to wake up from that cycle. There is not a necessary a sense that the things are getting better or more complex and as with the evolutionary narrative, which seems to me to be a radically different statement about what awakening is? I wonder if you could comment on that.

David: Sure, well two things. First of all it’s interesting that some of the latest and most sophisticated cosmology is now somewhat reinterpreting the Big Bang, the Inflation Theory for example which has become very important in the decade or two, is talking about a new kind of inflation of the universe which understands the cosmos as not just being one expanding ball of fire, the Big Bang, but that there is something fractal about it. That it consist with many inflating balls that produce new balls which in turns produce new balls ad infinitum. So from this perspective it’s more of series of ever produced cycles, self-reproducing cycles some of which come to an end but then create new cycles. And in some ways maybe that fits in with traditional Indian cosmology better than more a linear Abrahamic notion that it all begins at one time than might end up another time in the future.

But the more important point that you are touching on is about this tension between the notion of the evolutionary theory which emphasizes increasing complexity and increasing consciousness versus the realization within in the Buddhist tradition, the realization of your true nature. One way of saying that is that the emptiness doesn’t get better or worse. It’s not a matter of something that’s trapped in time but rather that seems to give us some insight into that which is outside of time, outside of samsaric cycles. I don’t think that’s consistent with this new evolutionary understanding. From the perspective of the emptiness itself, the creative formless sunyata, it’s definitely the case that there is no matter of getting better or getting worse, it remains the same creative principle. But if you look at it in terms of the forms that this creative principle is taking that’s where you can see a developmental or evolutionary model, an evolutionary progression.

What I’m getting at is if you go back to the old metaphor of sea and waves or ocean and waves, in terms of the ocean, in terms of the fundamental created ground, I guess we can even call it kind of a groundless ground that which is constantly taking form. From that perspective there is no getting better, there is no worse, there is nothing to gain or lose but if you simply look in terms of the forms and the way in which the forms have been developing for the last well 14 billion years that we’re aware of, then definitely there are some pretty phenomenal changes and I think we need to try to understand what’s going on with that.

So the realization of our true nature doesn’t do anything to our true nature in the sense that it doesn’t make it better or worse but nonetheless there is a kind of a developmental process going on at the same time. So there are two sides to it, two sides of a coin, whether you are looking at the form is emptiness or whether you are looking at the emptiness is form.


David Loy

David R. Loy is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. David has taught at the National University of Singapore and Bunkyo University in Japan. From 2006 to 2010 he was the Besl Family Chair Professor of ethics/religion and society at Xavier University in Cincinnati.