Money, Sex, War, Karma

Review by Jamie McLeod, The Buddhist Channel, March 10, 2008

Lewiston, Maine (USA) -- Money, Sex, War, Karma may sound like a plot summary of nearly every successful television drama for the last 25 years, but it’s actually the title of the brand new book by American Buddhist scholar David R. Loy, author of 2003’s The Great Awakening.

And what a book it is! Though 2008 is still young, Loy’s latest effort has the potential to be the most relevant dharma book to hit shelves this year. At a time when most of what that passes for Buddhist “teaching” reads like a collection of tired self-help manuals, jam packed with pop psychology and flowery language, Money, Sex, War, Karma is like the sharp thwack of a kyosaku, offered as an aid to achieving a state of wakefulness.

Like last year’s One City, Young Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern’s groundbreaking treatise on the vital importance of recognizing our state of interdependence with the rest of the world,  Money, Sex, War, Karma challenges readers to go beyond a desire for personal awakening – even personal awakening with the added caveat of “for the sake of all beings” – and to settle for nothing less than a full-scale societal awakening. (It’s no coincidence that Loy’s book is subtitled Notes for a Buddhist Revolution).

“Together, our ways of thinking and acting create society, but the opposite is also true: social institutions condition how we think and what we do,” writes Loy in his closing chapter.

“This means that, sooner or later, the bodhisattva’s concern to end dukkha and devotion to the awakening of everyone will bump up against the constraints of present economic and political systems, which in order to thrive need our complicity as consumers and defenders of that way of life.”

Through the course of 14 topical chapters, Loy digs deeply into both Buddhist teaching and human psychology expose the role of the three poisons – greed, ill will and delusion – at the roots of every problem that plagues modern society. And, rather than simply making readers offering pat assertions that war is bad or poverty is unjust, Loy holds up a mirror to show readers not only their own role in the worldwide dance of violence and oppression, but also the mechanism by which it operates.

For instance war, maintains Loy, is not merely at odds with the first Buddhist precept – not killing – it reflects a fundamental state of captivity to the crushing power of dukkha – the basic sense of nagging dissatisfaction around which the historical Buddha based his teachings.

“War can give is the meaning we crave (to fill the bottomless hole at our core), because it provides a reassuring way to understand what’s wrong with our lives. War provides a simple way for us to bind up our lacks and project them outside, onto the enemy,” writes Loy.

But  Money, Sex, War, Karma doesn’t stop there. It views a vast range of modern social issues – from consumerism to ecology, sexuality to technology – under the microscope of Buddhadharma, giving each a deep and nuanced examination. Loy even pulls some too-long held misconceptions surrounding Buddhist doctrine for a good and thorough dusting, most notably the troubling assumptions about the “law of karma,” which for centuries have enabled classist oppression and victim-blaming to continue unchallenged in much of the Buddhist world. 

As our collective societies continue down the path toward self-annihilation, Loy’s is a wake-up call few of us can afford to ignore.

Money, Sex, War, Karma by David R. Loy, is available in bookstores, or to order through:

Jaime McLeod is an American freelance journalist and Zen student. She lives in Lewiston, Maine.