13-1-96-1-1The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory
David R. Loy
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003
223 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Buddhist economics? When the term was coined in 1973 by the British economist E. F. (“Fritz”) Schumacher, it sounded like an oxymoron. Why would mainstream economists be interested in something so fanciful? Why would Buddhists be interested in something so divorced from spiritual practice? The answer, according to a group of writers who are shaping the nascent field of Buddhist social thought, is the same: to reduce suffering. “The economic process begins with want, continues with choice, and ends with satisfaction, all of which are functions of the mind,” the Thai scholar-monk Phra Payutto has observed. So, would deeper understanding of the mind yield wiser, more compassionate forms of social organization? Could a Buddhist economics really work?

David Loy ponders such questions in The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, with fruitful results. Loy, a professor of international studies at Bunkyo University in Japan, shows that Buddhist social theory is neither wishful thinking nor a mechanical exercise in trying to match past teachings to present problems. In this new kind of social thought, which Loy represents, inner work and work in the world are one and the same.

Buddhists seeking to fathom suffering today face a daunting array of problems and fields. “If we do not try to understand the larger historical forces moving the world today, we accede to them,” Loy asserts. Especially in light of September 11, we recognize that the social causes and effects of suffering have never been more complex. Loy devotes a chapter to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and other sections (presumably drafted before September 11) have added resonance in the post-September 11 world. When he writes, for example, of “our vindictive attitude toward offenders, who must be punished because, unlike us, ‘they’ are guilty,” he is referring to the criminal justice system, but he could just as easily have been commenting on recent American foreign policy. Such features make The Great Awakeningarguably the most extensive Buddhist response to September 11 published to date.

As Loy points out, ancient Buddhist teachings on the “three poisons” help to illuminate contemporary behavior. Our national obsession with economic growth is a kind of collective greed; the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq exemplify institutionalized anger; and the environmental crisis—rooted in a rupture of humanity’s connectedness with nature—is a sign of mass delusion. In a grim reversal, delusive passions become a surrogate for religion. “If religion teaches us what is really important . . . the most important religion for an increasing number of people all over the world is consumerism,” Loy observes.

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