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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.

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