Turtles All the Way Down

Review by Edward J. Taylor


The World is Made of Stories by David R. Loy. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 144 pp., $15.99 (paper).


In his position at the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics, my brother is a teacher of words. He has a profoundly personal relationship with words; they inform how he defines his relationship to self, and how that self relates to the world. When this relationship takes a particularly unhealthy turn, he saves himself by changing the narrative.

He’s apparently become aware that he can do this on his own, which is not surprising considering his decades-long meditation practice. And I know for a fact that he hasn’t read David Loy’s book, The World is Made of Stories, published in 2010. Loy, as a member of the Zen Buddhist sect, Sanbo Kyodan, has frequently fished in this same pond of meditations as my brother, a pond where the turtles go all the way down. These turtles, part of an ancient Hindu myth, are a metaphorical example of what “reality” rests upon, and what reality rests upon, Loy tells us, is stories: “The world is not composed of facts, because what counts as a fact is determined by the theory — the story — it is related to.”

Loy’s book examines the role of stories in various ways. As stories are often told in, and for, fun, Loy’s tone is light in this slim volume — light yet also profound in its approach to the subject. The turtles here stretching all the way down are quotations, two to three a page, ranging from sources as likely as Wittgenstein and Dogen, and as unlikely as Lord Voldemort and the Grateful Dead. Loy intersperses his own insights between the quotes, an interplay of elliptical dialogue that frequently turns back on itself to support (or refute) a previous hypothesis. Which is the point really: culture and self support stories, at the same time they are supported by stories, stories that are fundamentally empty. It is, in the Buddhist sense, a fecund emptiness that in turn gives birth to… more stories. Turtles again.

What makes stories hollow is the limited perspectives of the tellers. We are always the subject of our own stories. As our perspective shifts, so does the narrative, the very insight that my brother finds so comforting.

The book is divided into four sections, the first dealing with how story has pervaded all cultures since the very beginning. Two of the oldest forms of story are religion and myth. Loy distinguishes between them thus: “The metaphorical nature of religious language makes its truth claims the most difficult to evaluate, because we cannot agree on what criteria to use. Myth avoids this problem by being meaningful in a different way. Religious doctrines, like other ideologies, involve propositional claims to be accepted. Myths provide stories to interact with.” We look to give order to the universe through our creation of story. In turn, “we are how the Cosmos creates meaning.” We desperately want story to explain the complexities of the world to us. But such a story is in itself not reality but an artificial construct of its own. “The map,” as Alford Korzybski put it, “is not the territory.”

This sets up the second section, which delves deeper into fundamental Buddhist issues, specifically the complex relationship between the teller and the told. What is presented is a nice encapsulation of basic Buddhist principles. Our roles in our stories eventually assume a fixed role, and therefore become a deeply ingrained self-identity. “Samsara — this world of suffering, according to Buddhism — literally means going around and around.” Loy allows us some leeway here, showing that these attachments are reinforced by the culture, the stories that we cannot escape. Being trapped in our stories isn’t the fundamental problem; it is our attachment to them that is the trouble. He also gives us an out: “What happens when I realize that my story is a story?”

Meditation is the ground where we can learn to let go of our stories. We begin to see that new roles and stories are possible because “I am that narrative and also am not that narrative. For identity to change, there must be something other than that narrative, something that is not bound by it. This recognition allows us to liberate ourselves from our stories, to structure them more flexibly, according to the situation. Failure to do so brings great peril.”

In the book’s third section, Loy looks at the politicization of story. Throughout history, governments both right and left have shaped myths and history as a means to consolidate their power. Who controls the narrative controls the audience. Today, however, the stories those governing tell us are no longer working. The audience is beginning to see that the stories have become corrupted, and as Aung San Suu Kyi reminds us that “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.” “Our deepest fear,” Loy adds, “is rooted in a compulsion to secure what cannot be secured,” Fear and compulsion drive the stories of those who govern us, and as fear and compulsion make a flimsy base, their stories are falling apart.

To add credence to our myths, we enmesh them in Big Stories, such as the Bible and Buddhist sutras. These Stories try to explain it all, but inevitably fall far short. Their promise of absolute truths is empty since these Big Stories too were (and forever are) constructed. Here again is where Loy’s background in Zen comes into play — that Zen is a means of seeing through story, and that story, like ourselves, is fundamentally empty. This fourth section of the book is filled with optimism. “Are we on the cusp of a new Big Story about Big Stories?”

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

This is a very difficult book to review due to the elegant sparsity and profound depth of its matter. A multitude of perspectives would present themselves if each of the names on, for example, the Kyoto Journal masthead were to pen their own review. Each of us could only engage the material from our own experience. My own story shapes how I read the story of this story of stories. Feeding the turtles, all the way down.

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Edward J. Taylor

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