Swedenborg and Buddhism in Dialog: An Interview with David Loy



David Loy will be the featured speaker at the Swedenborg Foundation’s annual meeting:

Friday, May 16, 2014

7 p.m.: Business Meeting

8 p.m.: Free lecture — “Uncanny Parallels: The Problems and Possibilities that Buddhism and Swedenborgianism Share” by David Loy

Location: Mitchell Performing Arts Center, 800 Tomlinson Road, Bryn Athyn, PA 19009


David Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen Buddhist teacher. He is the author of nine books and numerous articles that offer a Buddhist perspective on Western culture. He has also lectured on Buddhism at the university level in the United States, Japan, and Singapore, among other countries. One of his many areas of interest is the similarities between Swedenborg’s writings and Buddhism, which will be the subject of his talk at our annual meeting. We asked him for a preview of his thoughts.


Swedenborg Foundation: When did you first hear about Swedenborg? What was your impression of him?

David Loy: Like many others, I first encountered Swedenborg by reading Wilson Van Dusen’s book The Presence of Other Worlds. It motivated me to read [Swedenborg’s] Heaven and Hell, and I was struck by the parallels with Buddhism. I remember being deeply impressed by Swedenborg’s character and life. But I was also busy with many other things and was able to return to Swedenborg’s writings only some years later.

SF: You’ve done academic research into the early history of Buddhism in America and how it intersects with Swedenborgianism. As you dug into the history, did you learn anything that surprised you?

DL: I was surprised to learn how much D. T. Suzuki [who popularized Zen Buddhism in the West] was influenced by Swedenborg, and more generally by how many other important figures have been influenced by his work. His writings are like an underground stream that has watered many great trees.

SF: Were you looking for parallels between Swedenborgianism and Buddhism when you began your research, or was it something you discovered later?

DL: At the time I first read Heaven and Hell I wasn’t investigating particular questions. It was more a general, open-ended reading, as part of my studies in comparative mysticism. My sense of the similarities developed gradually. I remember being particularly excited by two parallels: the way that Swedenborg’s description of postmortem judgment was consistent with my understanding of Buddhist karma, and the ways that it corresponds with what The Tibetan Book of the Dead says about what happens to us after we die. More generally, Swedenborg’s account of God avoids the usual theistic “Big Daddy” notion and seems much closer to what some nontheistic traditions, including Buddhism, say about a more nondual Absolute. He seems to offer an intermediate understanding halfway between theism and nondualism.

SF: In your essay “The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist Perspective,”published in Swedenborg: Buddha of the North, you highlight a number of concepts that are found in both Swedenborg and Buddhism. One of them was the idea of the self, or rather, self as illusion. Could you say a bit more about this?

DL: A central idea in Buddhism is that our usual sense of a self—that we are separate from each other and from the world generally—is a delusion that causes suffering. Different Buddhist traditions explain this in different ways, but the way that Mahayana Buddhism talks about shunyata, the “emptiness” of everything, certainly resonates with Swedenborg’s notion of an “influx.” Buddhism and Swedenborgianism agree that the self does not “self-exist”—it is a manifestation of something greater. Our task is to open up to it, whether we call it God or something else.

Perhaps Nisargadatta said it best: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life turns.”

SF: Another parallel that you find between Swedenborg and Buddhism is the concept that what we do intentionally makes us who we are, and that our mental habits can be hard to break in this world or the next. How does the Buddhist approach to this compare with Swedenborg’s?

DL: By the time of the Buddha (400–500 BCE) many Indians already believed in the doctrine of karma, but it was usually understood in a mechanical fashion: if you sacrifice in precisely the right way, you would get what you sacrificed for. The Buddha revolutionized this teaching by emphasizing intentionality: what’s most important is whether we are motivated by the three poisons—greed, ill will, and delusion—or by generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Our usual sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting and reacting, etc., but the most important determinants of how we relate to the world are our motivations. Just as my physical body is composed of the food I eat, so my character is basically composed of my habitualized intentions. So karma isn’t something the self has, it’s what the sense of self is. And both Swedenborg and Buddhist tradition emphasize how important that is—how much our habitual motivations determine what happens to us, here and perhaps hereafter.

SF: If you could recommend just one piece of Buddhist writing to Swedenborgians, what would it be, and why?

DL: With the exception of The Tibetan Book of the Dead [Bardo Thodol] the various Buddhist traditions have little specific to say about the postmortem experience/process, which was Swedenborg’s focus. Part of the fascination for me is that the terminology and basic approaches are so different, but that makes it difficult to offer specific book recommendations.

If you’re curious about early Buddhism, I’d recommend Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology In the Buddha’s Words. If you might be interested in Zen meditation— my practice tradition—I’d recommend the introduction by Robert Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen.

SF: Do you encounter discussion of Swedenborg among modern Buddhists?

DL: I never have. My guess is that very few contemporary Buddhists have even heard of Swedenborg.

SF: What are the most important things that Swedenborgianism and Buddhism have to say to each other?

DL: Well, come to the lecture! Perhaps the most important insight they share is that religion is really about personal transformation at our innermost core. It’s not about believing in some dogma or “qualifying for heaven” in some legalistic way—following the commandments or precepts—but opening up to our true nature. One important issue is how to do that. Is it enough to understand and accept what Swedenborg wrote, or do we also need contemplative practices, such as Buddhism emphasizes?

You can learn more about David Loy at his website, davidloy.org.

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