From Spirituality to Action

A Conversation with Buddhist Scholar David Loy
Double exposure image of a person meditating and a person running

In this conversation, Susan sits down with Professor of Buddhist and Comparative Philosophy, David Loy, to explore the need to turn spirituality into action for Life.

David Loy at new Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center
David Loy at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center

David R. Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, a prolific writer, and a teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition of Japanese Buddhism. His books include Money Sex War Karma, A New Buddhist Path, and Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis (forthcoming in January 2019). He is especially concerned about social and ecological issues. In addition to offering workshops and meditation retreats, he is one of the founders of the new Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, near Boulder, Colorado.

In June 2014, David received an honorary degree from Carleton College, his alma mater, during its 2014 Commencement. In April 2016, David returned his honorary degree to protest the decision of the Board of Trustees not to divest from fossil fuel investments.


“I came to realize that mind is no other than wind, trees and the great wide Earth; the sun, the moon and the stars.”
– Dogen Zenji. 13th century)

“The Earth is saying it’s time to wake up or get out of the way.”
– David Loy

I had this conversation with David Loy because our current ecological crisis is, at its core, a spiritual crisis. Therefore spirituality is where we have to go to solve it. As with all the great religions, Buddhism offers a very useful insight on how we can solve our personal and environmental crises: our personal suffering and our collective crises are the same because there is no separation between us and the rest of Life. The cause of the ecological crisis is the delusion that we are separate from the natural world, and then making decisions on that basis. According to teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “We are here to awaken from the delusion of separation.” That is our job: to awaken to the interconnectedness of all things.

In this wide-ranging conversation, we went from animal spirituality to the awakening of the concept of compassion in human consciousness during what is called the Axial Age, a great arising of current world religions about 2500 years ago.

David discussed that most of the great religious figures—including Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and others—went out into nature to receive enlightenment. Why? Because in nature we are not caught up in the usual human-oriented concerns. We can put aside the human-centered interpretations we have created through interaction with other humans and because we are now in a larger framework or perspective, we can see more eternal truths.

David thinks there are four major developments that have led to our sense of separation from nature, and the first was the development of language. Wonderful as it is, we tend to mind the meaning of the sounds coming out of our mouths and miss the meaning of everything else. “When you are in the natural world there’s a whole ecosystem of sound and meaning and communications going on, and for the most part, we miss it, because we are so caught up in each other’s language. I tend to see the whole Earth as one great communication system.”

The second was the development of agriculture. Once we grow food, animals and “weeds” become competitors, and land becomes property.

A third is written language, which takes us further from life than the ancient oral traditions. “Once you have script, words take on a life of their own. Once you can write down in script the sacred—which for indigenous peoples would have been the Earth, the natural world, the animals, the great sky—where is the sacred? It’s in the texts: the Bible, the Koran, the Torah. That becomes the sacred thing; not the food we eat and the natural world.”

The fourth was modern technology.

David mentioned Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest. Hawken’s idea is that all the nonprofits springing up around the world are actually springing forth from the Earth, through us, trying to respond to what we’ve been doing to her, in a sort of immune system response.

This conversation was intended to be a prelude to get to know one another in preparation for a more formal talk, but it was a fascinating and illuminating discussion, so we decided to post it. There is still much to contemplate. David and I will follow up with a more formal discussion early next year. I look forward to it.

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