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Zizek’s Western Buddhism (Redux)

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[This is a redux of an earlier post, adapted from a seminar paper] 

One of 
Zizek’s most direct, most complete critiques of (Western) Buddhism is an essay published by In These Times. It starts off analyzing what Zizek calls “a type of pop-Buddhism” that influenced George Lucas’ directing for his most recent Star Wars films, Episode 1, 2, and 3. Zizek quickly turns to a question of the ideologically mythic qualities of the films. It is here that he teases out the “’Christological’ features of the young Anakin” pitted against “Star Wars’ ideological framework [of] the New Age pagan universe.” This “pagan universe” is for Zizek, as becomes clearer later in the article, consonant with a popularly conceived Buddhist cosmos of Oneness. For this reason, Zizek argues, Anakin’s Christological character, one of “Christian intolerant, violent Love,” becomes, if he is not always-already the ultimately Evil character, Darth Vader. This transformation is possible, inevitable even, and ultimately problematic because “Christianity proclaims as the highest action precisely what paganism condemns as the source of all evil—the gesture of separation, of drawing the line, of clinging to an element that disturbs the balance of All.” The conflict arises because, Zizek elaborates, Christianity contains an ethos of difference, while Buddhism contains an ethos of indifference.

Zizek blames this clash between a perversely heroic Christological anti-hero in a Western Buddhist influenced pagan Universe for “not only its ideological confusion, but, simultaneously, its inferior narrative quality.” He would have preferred to have seen a parallel between “the shift of the Republic to Empire and of Anakin to Darth Vader,” and that Anakin “…become a monster out his very excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it,” rather than Lucas’ explanation that

He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.

The difference here is that in Lucas’ view that Anakin becomes attached to “things,” “things” are things of difference, where as in Zizek view, Anakin’s transformation into Vader arises from an “excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere [in all things] and fighting it.” In other words, this is an excessive attachment to an indifference towards things.

This ideological confusion is part of an exchange between, a switching-out of Judeo-Christian religion with so-called Western Buddhism in global Capitalist ideology. Buddhism’s influence is suppose to be one of passivism and moral ambiguity. Almost out of nowhere, Zizek launches into a tested accusation of (Western) Buddhism “[presenting] itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.”

The only ‘critical’ lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward ‘liberation.’ It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality—there is no such thing—but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.

This “inner distance” is precisely the same as the “passive nihilism” that Nietzsche assigns Buddhism. Both Nietzsche and Zizek argue that Buddhism functionally provides an effective psychological, even physiological relief to the stresses of life, without resorting to the promise of a better life after life, but within this life. When Nietzsche calls Buddhism “a hundred more times realistic than Christianity,” or “a hundred times colder, more veracious, more objective,” Zizek echoes him in claiming that Western Buddhism is “a fetish” in the sense that “fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are thoroughly ‘realists,’ able to accept the way things effectively are—since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality.”

What does Zizek mean by the term “Western Buddhism”? In On Belief, he calls it “today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to ‘Asiatic’ Marxism-Leninism.” This is a mostly useless explanation unfortunately, because Zizek never, for as strongly opinionated he is about Buddhism, discusses primary sources, the things the Buddha taught—except for the milieu of secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and otherwise ungrounded interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings (buddha-dhamma) that actually constitute the primary source of (Zizek’s) Western Buddhism. There may be, however, a useful parallel to Zizek’s Western Buddhism in what Nietzsche called “a Buddhism for Europeans.”

This kind of Buddhism was primarily represented in Schopenhauer and his following. It also arose from the scholarship on Buddhism and India available at the time, then called “buddhology” and “indology.” Because Nietzsche was a philologist, at a time when indological and buddhological scholarship was essentially philological in nature, he was friends with and influenced by some of the prominent scholars at the time, like Paul Deussen and Ernst Wunsch. Except for Coomaraswamy’s abridged English translation of the Sutta-Nipata, a small collection of aphorisms and sayings composed almost entirely in verse, like the more well-known Dhammapada, Nietzsche only knew Buddhism through secondary sources at best.

It is hard to say with certainty that Zizek has not engaged with primary sources of Buddhist philosophy and practice. As far as his written works are concerned though, he rarely engages the teachings of the Buddha, or any primary sources, but always the phenomena and so-called teachings of (Western) Buddhism. However at times he is ready to throw away any possibility of a distinction between his scholarly neologism and any traditional, even if sectarian, practice of the buddha-dhamma.

One should add that it is no longer possible to oppose this Western Buddhism to its ‘authentic’ Oriental version; the case of Japan delivers here the conclusive evidence. Not only do we have today, among the Japanese top managers, the wide-spread “corporate Zen” phenomenon; in the whole of the last 150 years, Japan’s rapid industrialization and militarization, with its ethics of discipline and sacrifice, was sustained by the large majority of Zen thinkers – who, today, knows that D.T.Suzuki himself, the high guru of Zen in the America of the 60s, supported in his youth, in Japan of the 30s, the spirit of utter discipline and militaristic expansion.

Zizek’s conflation of Western Buddhism with otherwise Buddhism is very problematic—very much for the same reasons that conflating the writings of Nietzsche with Nazism is problematic. By conflating Western and otherwise Buddhism he sets up a strawman argument to be uninterestingly destroyed, indicating perhaps more subtle, perverted, unconscious interests on his part, though totally ignoring the real potential of actually reading Western Buddhism not just in light of Lacan, but the teachings of the Buddha and their lineage. This kind of reading would be very valuable, because Western Buddhism as Zizek sets it up has no coherent intellectual or spiritual ties to the Buddha’s teachings. In this way, it really is very different from what the Buddha taught, and effectively not the buddha-dhamma at all as some Buddhists have pointed out. Patrick Kearney’s “Still Crazy after all These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy” makes exactly this point, and approaches from the Buddhist perspective the same critique of what Zizek is calling Western Buddhism, although not in quite those terms. Kearney goes a step further than Zizek though, and distances all traditions of the Buddha’s teachings from this distinctly Western phenomenon, but to the discouraging point of practically refusing any dialogue with Western psychoanalysis or philosophy.

Western Buddhism, rather than the perfect ideological supplement to global Capitalism, which implies something about it before it co-dependently arises with the attitude of global Capitalism, has the functions as a fetishistic spectre of both Capitalism and the buddha-dhamma. This is not much different than Zizek argues, except that this formulation should not carry any pretension of an analytic stance towards Buddhism as much the West’s effect on it. It also reconfigures how we appraise Western Buddhism, making way for a Buddhist critique of what from that perspective could be argued an abuse, if not sheer abandonment of the Buddha’s teachings.

The transformation that Buddhism has undergone in the West for the last 200 has been an inversion very much like that of Nietzsche’s Master Morality and Slave Morality. What once were ancient, disciplined practices of meditation and monasticism matched with relatively idiosyncratic philosophies has been inverted into a relatively uniform intellectual system that seems to neither affirm nor negate any particular practice. Ironically, the phrase “kill the flesh to release the soul” comes to mind, but here the soul of the buddha-dhamma is the concrete, lived practice, and the flesh that comes and goes are the philosophies and intellectualizations.

It is in this way that Zizek sees Western Buddhism coupled so well with Capitalist ideology, and why he sees it as so dangerous. Zizek sees Christianity as much more bearable, because at least it commits itself in its “intolerant love,” where as Western Buddhism exacerbates a kind of libidinal paralysis already underway in the contemporary European or American, who in the 20th Century endured the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, the cultural relativism of anthropology, the deconstruction of all meaning, the almost total simulation of appearances, and the rise of global capitalism. This paralysis happens because the typical self-identified Buddhist in the West uncritically absorbs ideas of detachment, chakras, karma, impermanence, re-incarnation and past-lives, meditation, and non-duality from the litany of pop-psycho-therapeutic-new-age-mystic-neopagan-transpersonal-naturalist-buddhist garbage now available. Without grounding themselves in a concrete practice, their experience of the Buddha’s teachings is purely an intellectual affair—never dealing with the soul of the matter. In Western Buddhism, where the ideas and not the life concerning the Buddha’s teachings reign supreme, we encounter again (as if we ever left) the ascetic ideal. In the same way that Nietzsche saw science and atheism in his time as nothing more than the up-and-coming ideological-cultural milieu expressing the ascetic ideal, Zizek’s Western Buddhism may offer a glimpse of the new milieu to come.

What can be done now, what will be done in this essay, is an exercise in the critical engagement with the buddha-dhamma needed in the West—not to prescribe a new Western Buddhism, but to point out what is problematic about calling Western Buddhism, especially as Zizek conceives of it, a form of Buddhism at all. This latter point will be very important, because it will open up space for something Zizek has entirely omitted from his critique of Western Buddhism: a Buddhist perspective. To get there, a return to Nietzsche’s distinction between active and passive nihilism will be useful, which as with Nietzsche underpin the distinction Zizek makes between Christianity and (Western) Buddhism, because Zizek is, without a doubt, fighting in his critique of Western Buddhism the encroaching passive nihilism, and the triumph of the reactive forces, that Nietzsche detected 100 years prior.

Nihilism: Active and Passive

“And to repeat in the conclusion what I said in the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will.” This statement, rather cryptically, captures two senses of nihilism to be developed. Nihilism is, in its simplest sense, as Nietzsche uses it at any rate, the negation of life and meaning. Deleuze (in Nietzsche and Philosophy) suggests to avoid confusion that “In the word nihilism nihil does not signify non-being but primarily a value of nil. Life takes on a value of nil insofar as it is denied and depreciated.” The will to nothingness is relatively positive in that “it is and remains a will!” This will affirms the will, even if it negates life, which is at its bottom a “’good will—a will to the actual, active denial of life.” This is nihilism in its active form. Christianity and perhaps earlier Buddhism were both, Nietzsche felt, originally actively nihilistic religions; they had goals, albeit in the form of the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche suggests its counter-part, passive nihilism, as a radical skepticism:

For skepticism is the most spirited expression of a certain physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively [...] But what becomes sickest and degenerates most in such hybrids is the will: they no longer know independence of decisions and the intrepid sense of pleasure in willing—they doubt the ‘freedom of will’ even in their dreams. (Beyond Good and Evil)

Skepticism in the sense that Nietzsche uses it above is the negation of even the will to nothingness—a skepticism of the value of will. The will is paralyzed by the absolute disbelief of and detachment from meaning. Gilles Deleuze and Alenka Zupančič (in The Shortest Shadow) both suggest a relationship between the two forms of nihilism, making use of a third term reactive nihilism. They differ in that, on the one hand, Zupančič erroneously conflates reactive and passive nihilism, particularly when she explains how reactive/passive nihilism as the will negating the will to nothingness actually gives a new life, as it were, to the will. On the other hand, Deleuze, calling “active nihilism” “negative nihilism,” teases the two apart:

“’Reactive nihilism,’ in a way, prolongs ‘negative nihilism’: triumphant reactive forces take the place of power of denying which led them to their triumph. But ‘passive nihilism’ is the final outcome of reactive nihilism: fading away passively rather than being led from outside.

Deleuze argues that eventually the reactive forces (the reactive people) grow weary of the ebb and flow of reacting to the domination of the will to nothingness, or perhaps they grow suspicious that ultimately the will to power they ultimately affirm in that process will turn against them, and they “break their alliance with the negative will.” They increase their negation of the will, and, so to speak, steal the show. When the reactive forces win out, “they triumph because, by separating active force from what it can do, they betray it to the will to nothingness, to a becoming-reactive deeper than themselves.” The reactive forces, by triumphing over the will to nothingness, effectively dominate the will, which will yield a will to something (not-willing) with no countering affects; and as “negative nihilism is replaced by reactive nihilism, reactive nihilism ends in passive nihilism.”

It is in this sense that Nietzsche proclaims in a deceptively positive tone that

Buddhism is a religion for late human beings, for races grown kindly, gentle, over-intellectual who feel pain too easily (—Europe is not nearly ripe for it—): it leads them back to peace and cheerfulness, to and ordered diet in intellectual things … Buddhism is a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization… (The Anti-Christ)

As passive nihilism, Buddhism is a religion that has since gone through its reactive break with the active will to Nothingness, if it ever could have been characterized as one . As a spiritual milieu, Buddhism is the emergence of a will to not will, which persists until it extinguishes even itself. Hence the cheerfulness: since separating itself from affirming the will to Nothingness, the will that was at the bottom of negating that will to Nothingness becoming the total exertion of the will, Buddhism gives rise to a perverse cheerfulness, the same as would accompany the total exertion of life-affirming will. In other words, in totally dominating the will to anything and turning it into a will to nothing (not nothingness), Buddhism offers the Buddhist all the surplus-enjoyment in its excessive hold of the will.

Western Buddhism as Passive Nihilism

It is as passive nihilism that Zizek’s Western Buddhism, and his fervent critique of it, starts to make sense. Western Buddhism is “a Buddhism for Europeans” that represents, or at least encourages, the domination of the will towards a not-willing. Zizek’s condemns Western Buddhism for how it “perfectly fits the fetishist mode of ideology … as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode, in which the ideological lie which structures our perceptions is threatened by symptoms qua ‘returns of the repressed,’ cracks in the ideological lie.” On the one hand, the symptomal mode of ideology is the mode of nihilism characterized by the active and reactive forces in tandem. The symptoms are the reactive forces that come back to break-down the ideological lie or the will to Nothingness. On the other hand, the fetishist mode is the inverse of the will to nothingness turned into, and not merely at tension with a not-willing.

Western Buddhism works as a fetish because it negates, in its domination of the affective forces, the troubling conflict in the Superego prohibition and command to enjoy. Zupančič explains this conflict and its negation as hedonism and not asceticism, which invokes the cheerful quality of Nietzsche’s Buddhism.

To consume sugarless sweets and decaffeinated coffee is—far from being ascetic—a hedonistic act par excellance. It is not so very different from the proverbial Roman hedonism, where people would make themselves throw up in order to consume more food. It is also an equivalent of ‘how to will without (really) willing.’ But, of course—and this is the whole point—this modern hedonism needs the stimulation, the excitement, of the ascetic ideal, as well as the threat that looms on its horizon (rather Nothingness itself than. . .). It is a hedonism built upon the ascetic ideal, which is not a bad definition of passive nihilism. (The Shortest Shadow)

Western Buddhism embodies the moral code of this hedonism, because “our lives may well be hedonistic, but this in no way implies that they are immoral, or even ‘ beyond morality,’ that is, ‘beyond good and evil.’” The moral, Superego injunction is that the only appropriate way to behave is according to no principles, no morals. This “beyond morality” invokes a perverse interpretation of Nietzsche’s own phrase, which he attributed to the Buddha. Rather than really being beyond good and evil, Western Buddhism paradoxically insists that what is good is that which is beyond good and evil. Like the will to nothingness remaining a will, such goodness beyond good and evil is deeply moral despite its confusing appearance. Such a morality without or beyond morals is the perfect expression of the above mentioned hedonism.

This moral stance parallels the impossible claim that we live in a so-called “post-ideological” era, when such a claim is itself ideological; or more perversely, the claim that since there is nothing that is not ideological, the only non-ideological stance is to accept that there is nothing outside of ideology. Zizek’s critique of the post- or non-ideological claim could thus constitute a more subtle, perhaps unconscious attack of what he in other places identifies as Western Buddhism. To invoke Nietzsche, the Western Buddhist, true to his reactive humanity, would rather have no moral values, than not be moral.

Zizek is fervently resisting this moral stance of no moral stance, this claim to a non-ideological judgment that all judgment is ideological, the “inner distance” or fetish that allows one to “cancel the full impact of reality.” One way he is doing this is by repeatedly making the case that “we should remain faithful to the Christian legacy of separation, of elevating some principles above others.”

This is ironically Nietzschean of Zizek, in spite the fact he doesn’t like Nietzsche. The debate over Zizek’s political project thus seems to have a grounding point. He seems committed, giving prominence to active, even if nihilistic forces. It is as if Communism was the last active force of the 20th Century, and with its fall the reactive force of Capitalism triumphed.

Thirty or forty years ago, there were still debates about what the future will be–Communism, socialism, fascism, liberal capitalism, totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism. The idea was that life would somehow go on on earth, but that there are different possibilities. Now we talk all the time about the end of the world, but it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system. (from “The Marx Brother,” published in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead)

Now, as Capitalism asserts itself with no other “one goal,” as the reactive, will-negating forces dominate even our imagination for something different, we cheerfully resign ourselves to an ascetic hedonism for nothing.
What, however, has Buddhism to do with this resignation? Nihilism as Nietzsche describes and to which Zizek alludes, even if passive and “cheerful,” fundamentally contradicts the Buddha’s Middle Path, the path he describes in the saṃyutta-nikāya that leads to the end of suffering through the avoidance of indulgence in sensual pleasure and “[giving] oneself up to Self-mortification.” If this basic principle is violated, is it accurate to imply that Western Buddhism is simply the Buddha’s teachings practiced by Westerners — what is at stake here? How do the extrapolated tenets and tendencies of Zizek’s Western Buddhism compare to the teachings of the Buddha and his lineages?

Western Buddhism under the Buddhist Lens

Characteristic of Zizek’s Western Buddhism, and perhaps its most dangerously intoxicating quality, is a certain ambivalence and aimlessness that follow from the “inner distance and indifference” it teaches us. Such aimlessness supposedly arising from the Buddha’s teachings is quite ironic when one considers the name of the historical Buddha prior to his Awakening (Enlightenment): Siddhartha, or, “one who has achieved his aim.” Zizek would like us to believe that the Buddha’s teachings compel one to throw up their arms at the demands and difficulties of life, because “the basic premise of Buddhist ontology is that there is no ‘objective reality’.” This is remarkably similar to Nietzsche’s criticism of a tendency to inaction that follows from what he calls European Buddhism:

Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones but by extreme positions of the opposite kind. Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature, in aim- and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary affect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order become untenable. Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure at existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence. One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain … This is the European form of Buddhism—doing No after all existence has lost its ‘meaning.’ (The Will to Power)

What is consistent in these two views? Nietzsche and Zizek are both accusing Western/European Buddhism of being the “extreme position of the opposite kind.” Nietzsche saw the historical period of the Buddha as being culturally similar to his own, which had grown abstract and divorced from the dogmatic, often violent beliefs and practices of the older Vedic religion of the Brahmin priests. The Buddha taught what appeared to Nietzsche to be an opposite view of the once prevailing certainties of Vedic religion. Zizek also sees a great switching out between East and West:

The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of ‘economic infrastructure,’ Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of ‘ideological superstructure,’ the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age ‘Asiatic’ thought. (Revenge of Global Finance)

All of these accusations of nihilism and extreme ambivalence, that there is no objective reality, are blind to the Buddha’s own teachings against such tendencies. His Middle Path (Majjhimā Paṭipadā) was a rigorous avoidance of extremes, at its most abstract: affirmation and denial of views or ideas.

‘Bhikkhus, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. What are the two? There is devotion to the indulgence of sense pleasures, which is low, common, the way of ordinary people, unworthy and unprofitable; and there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable

‘Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Path: it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

So, as Robert Morrison and to a lesser extent Freny Mistry have made the strong case in the last 20 years, the basic charge common to Nietzsche and Zizek that the Buddha’s teachings are nihilistic is subject to harsh criticism, if only on the basis of the Buddha’s teachings themselves. This is expressed by Vajjiya Mahita, a contemporary lay-student of the Buddha, when he answers questions posed to him by mendicant “wanderers” about the Buddha’s teachings.

As [Vajjiya] was sitting there, the wanderers said to him, ‘is it true, householder, that the contemplative Gotama criticizes all asceticism, that he categorically denounces; disparages all ascetics who live the rough life?’

‘No, venerable sirs, the Blessed One does not criticize all asceticism, nor does he categorically denounce or disparage all ascetics who live the rough life. The Blessed One criticizes what should be criticized, and praises what should be praised. Criticizing what should be criticized, praising what should be praised, the Blessed One is one who speaks making distinctions, not one who speaks categorically on this matter.’

Vajjiya’s reply to the wanderers resonates with an exchange the Buddha had with one of his most persistent critics, the wandering ascetic, Vacchagotta.

Vacchagotta asks a stock series of questions common to the philosophical milieu of the Buddha’s time and region, probing more or less for an affirmation or denial of one of the many metaphysical theories concerning the destination of the soul upon death, the existence of the material world, the finitude or infinitude of the world, the eternality of the world, and so forth. The Buddha plainly says no to all of Vacchagotta’s questions, pointing out that he takes no one, categorical position on how things are, either in the affirmative or negative sense. This sounds much like what Zizek is criticizing, but we must not forget Vajjiya’s point that “…the Blessed One is one who speaks making distinctions, not one who speaks categorically…’” In other words, the Buddha is not advocating throwing ones arms up when it comes to making a choice, but rather that we should always be here in the moment when a choice is to be made, making every single choice in our lives, rather than be lost in some fantasy of how things are or are not that chooses for us.

D.T. Suzuki, whom Zizek has probably never read, a trained Zen Buddhist, as well as professor of Buddhist philosophy and delightfully fluent writer and speaker of English, echoes Vajjiya when he writes about Zen as life as “absolute affirmation.”

We must remember, however, that we live in affirmation and not in negation, for life is affirmation itself; and this affirmation must not be the one accompanied or conditioned by a negation, such an affirmation is relative and not at all absolute. With such an affirmation life loses its creative originality and turns into a mechanical process grinding forth nothing but soulless flesh and bones. To be free, life must be an absolute affirmation … Zen does not mean a mere escape from intellectual imprisonment, which sometimes ends in sheer wantonness. There is something in Zen that frees us from conditions and at the same time gives us a certain firm foothold … Zen abhors repetition or imitation of any kind, for it kills. For the same reason, Zen never explains but only affirms. Life is fact and no explanation is necessary or pertinent. To explain is to apologize and why should we apologize for living? To live—is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm. Herein lies Zen in all its purity and in all its nudity as well. (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism)

The point that must not become lost is that the buddha-dhamma is all about choices, which may be summarized as Suzuki does, as the choice to affirm (life). This is one of the first things the Buddha teaches, for in avoiding extremes the Buddha means that we should avoid that which negates life, including the apparent affirmation of it in the indulgence of sensuality and/or fantasies of be(come)ing this or that—both tendencies being at their core the expression of certain views about how things are. This is surprisingly what Nietzsche was concerned with as well, except his favored term was the Will (to Power). When Lacan tells us “do not concede your desire,” he is making the same point: we have this capacity to affirm our desire or negate it, and affirming the desire of the Other’s desire is not really our affirmation. A story told by the Buddha in the Middle-Length Discourses may be usefully for expressing this ethical statement.

The Alagaddupama Sutta contains many stories about the appropriate view a monk should hold towards the Buddha’s teachings. One of them, one of the most popular in all Buddhist literature, is the raft analogy. The Buddha compares his teachings to a raft used for crossing a great expanse of water, the further shore representing Awakening. He instructs that as one should not drag the raft along with them once they reach the further shore, thinking that for as great as the raft was for crossing the water it must be worth keeping around and maintaining, one should also not cling to the Buddha’s teachings (or any view), for they are only means for becoming Awaken; after which, even they must be released.

The Lacanian reading of this is obvious. The desire that Lacan instructs us not to concede is the same desire we should properly have for reaching the further shore; becoming attached to the raft, or the Buddha’s teachings, is akin to giving up on our desire and seeking through something else, like the desire to have a phallus or be one for someone else. The difference in the Buddha’s case is that he is also suggesting that staying true to our desire will yield the satisfaction of that (and all) desire, whereas Lacan is less interested in what it would mean to satisfy our desire, if it is once we have properly identified it. That is, it is precisely in this aim to properly orient our desires that the practical side of the Buddha’s teachings appears to be the same as Lacan’s. The analyst’s refusal to give up his desire or knowledge as the “subject supposed to know” is comparable to the case in the many stories of Zen literature where a master poses to the student(s) an impossible question, and demands a response.

Shuzan (Shou-shan, 926-992) once held up his shippe to an assembly of his disciples and declared: ‘Call this a shippe and you assert; call it not a shippe and you negate. Now, do not assert nor negate, and what would you call it? Speak, speak!’ One of the disciples came out of the ranks, took the shippe away from the master, and breaking it in two, explcained: ‘What is this?’ (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism)

Rather than calling it a shippe or otherwise or being silent, which are the only desires we can imagine that the Other has in this situation, the disciple expresses his ability to act despite this otherwise paralyzing Che vois? This is the exact opposite of the wishy-washy, post-modern, Western Buddhist about whom Zizek is complaining. It is not that Zizek is lying to us, that this kind of person he sees doesn’t exist. Rather, it is that Zizek is wholly mistaken in accepting the self-identification of this person, of their guiding principles at any rate, as Buddhist. This pseudo-Buddhist is faced with the same Che vois? as the Zen monk by his teacher, but in the name of the very same principles that guide the monk to act the pseudo-Buddhist withdraws.

And Now For Something Completely Different

What Zizek has identified in Western Buddhism is not the Buddha’s teachings, but the perverse lens through which Western culture is able to view the those teachings. That lens is a spectre of the Buddha’s teachings, which, to echo a passage from the Diamond Sutra , is perhaps why Western traditions of the Buddha’s teaching fail to articulate their ostensible subject, the buddha-dhamma.

The Buddha then addressed Subhūti. ‘Do not say that the Tathāgata thinks, “I have spoken Dharma.” Do not say the Buddha has spoken Dharma. I do not think like that, and you should not think that way either. Someone who says that the Tathāgata has spoken Dharma thereby slanders the Buddha. Such a person does not understand the Buddhadharma. ‘
‘The Buddha spoke dharma for forty-nine years,’ you
say. ‘Many sūtras remain. How can one say he did not speak Dharma?’
Once Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva asked, ‘Will the Buddha
please once again turn the Dharma wheel?”
The Buddha replied, ‘Mañjuśrī, in forty-nine years I
have not spoken one word.’

This impossibility of ever meeting is to be understood precisely as the same impossibility of the sexual relationship. It is no surprise that Buddhism appears as a fantasmic spectre in the West, where masculine jouissance is predominant. Buddhism at once promises and threatens with the Other, dark, feminine jouissance. Buddhism is only conceivable in what Zizek might call the Western ideological matrix as this testement to its very failure to be concieved. Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism, therefore, has much less to do with the teachings of the Buddha than he has made it seem, and significantly more to do with the mystical, feminine jouissance it suggests, which seems to be beyond and for that reason threatening to Zizek.

Written by Joe

November 19, 2007 at 2:51 pm

27 Responses

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  1. thanks for posting this, it’s very well-put and i think a necessary rebuttal of both zizek and the new-ageists he criticizes.

    traxus4420

    December 1, 2007 at 2:36 pm

  2. Thank you for reading it all! I realize I need to back and clean it up some more. I can’t stress enough the affinity I feel for Zizek’s thinking in general and with this issue of Western Buddhism. As is the point of the essay though, I think it requires a finer touch before truly being superb.

    pdxstudent

    December 1, 2007 at 4:57 pm

  3. A very thorough analysis of Zizek and (his) Buddhism, thank you for sharing.

    I am not an expert in Zizek or Lacan, actually I am reading Zizek to get some ideas about Lacan’s writing, so far I have not come across his critiques concerning Western Buddhism. But I think his essays on Lacan are superb.

    Shinta

    February 6, 2008 at 2:50 pm

  4. I must be avoiding other work…I’m about to send you an email too on Hegel stuff…

    Anyway: I don’t think the analogy of Buddhist teaching to active nihilism is valid. Supposedly, in the course of one’s progress (this is a paraphrase out of the Pali part of the Buddhist tradition, btw), one by one attachment drops away until you’re left with a last attachment: the attachment of no attachment, or the attachment to enlightenment. The story goes: that too must be given up or else you aren’t going to be enlightened. That sounds like passive nihilism to me.

    Further, there’s some story (this is totally unsourced…) where someone gives up his wealth, and then is frustrated, then gives up his house, then is frustrated, then gives up sexual desire—still frustrated (what would psychoanalysis say about that?…)—anyway, etc. So he goes to his teacher and tells him: I’ve given up this, I’ve given up that, I’m not enlightened, what’s the deal, yo? Teacher says: give up giving up.

    Also: to have future Joe critique past Joe, this is what you just posted:
    “This reminds me of a story I’ve heard from somewhere about the Buddha and a farmer. The farmer comes to the Buddha, who he heard has this great teaching, and asks him if it can help him with this or that mundane problem of his life (nagging wife, unruly kids, failing crops, etc.). The Buddha says his teaching cannot help with any of those problems. He tells him that life is full of all kinds of problems, 83 to be exact, and the Buddha’s teaching will help him with none of them. The farmer, kind of ticked off, asks the Buddha just what good his teachings are then, if they in no way answer to any of these issues in his (or anyone else’s) life. The Buddha points out that his teachings are good and only good for one still yet unmentioned problem, an 84th problem enveloping all the other 83 problems: the farmer wants to have no more problems.”

    That aside, I think you still hit the critique of Zizek here, as well as add a good vocalization of a larger problem with Zizek’s theory. What he is criticizing is Buddhist ideology. Buddhist ideology I think *is* actually fairly close to what he calls it (minus the Zizekian tone which seems to color everything with semi-ironic reprehension). But Buddhist *practice* is completely antithetical to capitalism: leave your home, don’t work, beg for a living, teach whoever wants to learn, devote your life to the Sangha, etc. In fact, Buddhist ideology is entirely in the service of Buddhist practice: here is a set of truths—which you must give up in time—designed just to make you take the step and enter Buddhist practice and for no other purpose really, ultimately self-annihilating.

    I think this is a problem throughout Zizek’s work: he does not adequately distinguish between practice and ideology, and in fact tends to subsume towards the latter. Note that this is not a separation between mental and material: Zizek is not really even critiquing the mental *practice* of Buddhist, just the representation of that practice into ideas.

    —But yeah, now that I wrote that it looks rather problematic…—

    BTW, this is very well written. Nice job.

    Evan

    Evan

    February 26, 2008 at 9:37 pm

  5. I appreciate that you sat down and read this. I really like your point about the difference (or rather, the relation) between ideology and practice, which is of great concern for Zizek too. I think he’s actually quite adept at distinguishing between practice and ideology, though his stance on ideology does not presuppose the same sort of distinction we have in the old Marxist, false-consciousness formulation, “they do not know… but they still do it. He locates ideology in action itself, in what we do despite the things we might say to the contrary, which I think is quite right.

    You are right to point out with the Buddhist situation, however, that (perhaps, just perhaps, because of the kind of insights on which it’s running) this relation has different implications. Where Zizek may come out on the top in the end is where I think he points toward the Western appropriation of Buddhist ideology sans the earnest practice. In fact, now that I think of it, that is what I’m doing when I talk about the “flesh” and “soul” of Buddhism. Take a look again and tell me what you think.

    I should reiterate: my problem with Zizek is not his particular formulations about Buddhism, since they have their place, as much as that they are deployed in what I think is a sloppy manner, even for Zizek.

    As for labeling Buddhism as active nihilism, I’m not sure where you’re getting that. I mean, I understand what Nietzsche means by “a Buddhism for Europeans,” which is why spend a whole section talking about “Buddhism as Passive Nihilism.” I mention active nihilism and reactive nihilism to set the stage for talking about that passive nihilism, but also the way in which I think Zizek is waging a similar critique. Maybe you mis-read me, in which case it’s no big deal, but if this is how you think I characterize the situation, please tell me how.

    pdxstudent

    February 26, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  6. I think since you were juxtaposing active vs. passive nihilism and then western buddhism vs. buddhism, I assumed that the link between western buddhism and passive nihilism implied a link between buddhism and active nihilism. My bad. As for the rest: yep.

    Evan

    February 28, 2008 at 12:40 pm

  7. Excellent. And much obliged for your fair minded comments on Suzuki.

    Shaena Lambert

    May 1, 2008 at 2:25 pm

  8. tl;dr

    JM

    May 20, 2009 at 9:04 am

  9. Hey, I was wondering if there was any way I could contact you and maybe have a short discussion? I see that you also live in Portland and are interested in philosophy. I’m also very interested in Buddhist philosophy and Western political and social thought. Anyway, I know that’s very vague but I’d be glad to tell more if we establish a conversation. BTW I’m a student at Reed College if you happen to know anyone from there.

    My name is Reed btw. I’m mainly interested in emancipatory social praxis(historical materialism) and Buddhist and other spiritual praxis.

    anarchobodhi

    October 22, 2009 at 12:41 am

  10. the Buddhist idea of compassion as a soteriological technique must have a practical application otherwise it accomplishes no personal change, therefore Buddhist praxis cannot at all be complicit with capitalism because capital reinforces the reified notion of subjectivity which the Buddha thoroughly denied. I don’t think genuine Buddhist ideas or practice are compatible with capitalism, but what is compatible with capitalism is the superficial appropriation of ideas without regard to their implications—this is the very danger of capitalist ideology and passive nihilism; they both deny that there are implications because they both deny any depth to social reality.

    The notion of a inter-subjective social reality is crucial to Buddhist philosophy because without it one can never realize no-self, and this is exactly what capitalist ideology prevents because it is based on the reification of social relations to the point that one essentializes self-identity as a given, and not as something conditioned—-is this not the very definition of Samsara?

    anarchobodhi

    October 22, 2009 at 12:51 pm

  11. To realize no-self , which is crucial to Buddhist philosophy, is to realize the fact that inter-subjective social reality is an imaginary construction by a split subject wanting to be whole.
    Also there are so many versions of versions of Buddhism around that one has to be specific to really get at anything. Especially the mainstream popular stuff, which, in my opinion, HH the DL and other Buddhist celebrities tend to join in the confusion. An example is the idea of personal change as a Buddhist ideal for making a better world.
    Buddhists can be some of the hardest people to have a conversation about Buddhism because it ends up that being a Buddhist is nothing more than talking about wanting to live as a Buddhist.

    Ted Bagley

    October 23, 2009 at 8:39 am

  12. the Buddhist idea of compassion as a soteriological technique must have a practical application otherwise it accomplishes no personal change, therefore Buddhist praxis cannot at all be complicit with capitalism because capital reinforces the reified notion of subjectivity which the Buddha thoroughly denied.

    The major point of Marx is not the reduction of capitalism to a subjective mode of greed but rather the hegelization of greed into an objective social relationship. Purifying the soul from greed is not meaningful in this regard. This is also why many leftists don’t blame wallstreet managers to acclaim astronomical boni because they think that’s just the system and it can’t behave otherwise. It is the liberal, meritocratic bourgeoisie which is going to moralize their attitude.

    Kay

    November 14, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    • ..Yet it’s still good to work on your greed…he said moralistically…

      Tim Morton

      October 19, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  13. Nice one, Kay!

    Ted Bagley

    November 15, 2009 at 8:30 am

  14. I totally agree Kay, but the problem is that the majority doesn’t see greed in terms of the objective social relations, but as something having to do with an essential condition concerning human-nature. So even if the problem is essentially a material and objective one (because, technically, the solution is a type of ethical EGOISM)it still exists transubstantiated in the internal realm of desire and self-identity. To be clear, what I’m saying is that although the problem IS the structural and systemic embodiment of greed, it is (especially by the contemporary middle classes) not interpreted as such.

    anarchobodhi

    November 16, 2009 at 2:57 pm

  15. Set aside the question of whether Plum Village is capitalist in its Essence. Ask rather, what would it take for Plum Village exist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? This is the revolutionary question: can Buddhist “practice” undermine the Capitalist relations of production that warp and control the social and economic space of our choices — that ultimately determine where and when Buddhist practice can flourish?

    If you love Haiti and you love Buddhism, please read my words!

    Joe claims that the Buddhism Zizek critiques is not the real Buddhism. The properly Zizekian response here would be to claim that the division between so-called Western (postmodern) Buddhism and “true” (scriptural) Buddhism is not an aftereffect of Buddhism’s cooptation into America and European society but rather is a primordial cut inherent to Buddhism itself. In other words, the postmodern “interpretation” of Buddhism was part of Buddhism from the beginning, one of its intrinsic possibilities. In this case, Western Buddhism expresses what is to the scriptural Buddhists the repressed core of Buddhism proper, its relativistic complicity with the violence of Global Capital. So, for example, Suzuki’s commentary on affirmation “not conditioned by a negation” (mirroring Nietzsche’s notion of the Yea-sayer as well as Foucault’s double circumscription of meaning and truth in philosophical archaeology) strikes a relativistic chord sharply contrasting Zizek celebration of Divine Violence, which depends upon a double negation. For Zizek, such an act must first step out from the coordinates of world-perpetuating activity by a radically negative gesture of non-participation; only by means of this negating gesture of freedom is the space opened for a true act. In what Zizek would call “a properly Hegelian paradox,” freedom is the condition for freedom.

    But does this not put Plum Village alongside the Shanghai Commune and the Paris Commune in a line of radical communities who have dropped out of society and forged ahead with a new non-Capitalist vision? The answer is clearly “No.” No where does Zizek celebrate the apolitical compassion of the sustainable, non-exploitative, and egalitarian Buddhist community. Plum village does not fit alongside the death-defying radicalism of Robespierre or the Red Guard in Zizek’s narrative of world transformation for a simple reason: a Plum Village alive and well in the heart of capitalist Europe offers no fundamental challenge to the hegemony of Global Corporate Power. The Paris Commune and Shanghai commune occurred at the epicenter of world-transformative revolutionary violence — to Zizek they were failed attempts to directly institutionalize the spirit of the revolution. Plum Village is what Zizek would call decaffeinated revolutionary — the impossible revolutionary without the revolution. If, instead, on the proverbial day after the apocalyptic scene at the end of Fight Club — after Tyler Durden destroys the computer databases of the main central banks — yes, then Plum Village would be the site of revolutionary activity (the revolutionization of the revolution) — and Durden’s death would represent his truly Buddhist detachment from commodity fetishism. But without the explosives, the personal transformation does not make it into Zizek’s pantheon: while Global Capital still calls the real shots, still controls the economic realities that interpolate and warp our reality and our choices, Plum Village remains an ideological appendage of Capitalism.

    My question is therefore a different one. Does a “True Buddhist” really care whether his faith is admitted into Zizek’s pantheon? If so, why? Does he inwardly doubt this his path can build the world he envisions in the age of global ecological collapse and continental enslavement? The political dynamics of the modern world demand new questions of the original Buddha. The questions of freedom in the age of global finance cannot but change Siddhartha’s path. The modern circumstance begs Buddhism to reveal what is in Buddhism more than Buddhism itself.

    And apropos to today: Who will build (and fight for!) a Plum Village in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

    (PS: My understanding of Zizek is based on “Tarrying with the Negative”, “Parallax View”, “Violence”, and “In Defense of Lost Causes”)

    Jacob Libby

    January 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

  16. Fantastic article.

    Btw, It’s very rare to find a Lacanian dialectical take on Buddhism in relation to the ‘non-self’. I would love to see how the non-self of Zen-Buddhism correlates and ties in with the Real: Is the desire for nothingness a desire in itself and therefore an illusory Object?

    PS

    From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism’, 2001, by Slavoj Žižek:

    http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php

    Erin Farrier

    June 10, 2010 at 3:22 am

  17. Doing a bit of online research to find a quote I once read from Zizek on Buddhism for my own blog I was very glad to come across your well-thought and well-written article. I recall him saying that Buddhism is the only real posture one can take in regards to spirituality in modern capitalism and my turning back to zen practice is my own personal attempt to suspend intellectualizing (“Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block in our understanding. In Buddhism knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for understanding. If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at the door, we won’t let it in,” Thich Nhat Hanh) and be present in the world wholly.

    This is not a turning away from what Arendt would call “thinking what we are doing” but rather an embracing of it, a rejection of “world-alienation”. Discussions above about any passive nihilism seem to me to be besides the point, at least again personally. I’m not denying “the ideological supplement” but in that there is no outside to ideology I certainly accept the principles of openness thus represented.

    With a visit planned to Plum Village soon, I didn’t even realize that one would or could think of this space as revolutionary–except in that by changing ones mind, one changes the world within very certain limits.

    I will share my blog entry on this topic as it gets developed. Thanks again.

    Jules

    November 3, 2012 at 2:57 am

    • Jules: Here’s something quite different that I wrote on the subject of Buddhism and Zizek, which I thought you might appreciate. Its short and right here:

      I probably should get through The Puppet and the Dwarf before I fully decide, but my feeling is that Zizek’s deepest and most important conviction, going all the way back at least to the early nineties, is that the revolutionary actor is not ultimately the Proletariat, the lumpenproletariat, the a populist movement, a benevolent dictator, or even divine Christian violence per se. Although each of these can be the substantial background twisted and distorted by the subjective rupture, it is Hegel’s substanceless subject (the pure subjectivization of substance whose substance is presupposed by the very act of freedom which is this movement itself). You remember all of that language. Its basically the idea that in order to break out of a sense that fate or empirical objectivity predetermines all, I simply choose freedom in a radical break from the logical chain of signifiers that make up our scientific (or religious or whatever) worldview.

      Although Zizek is clearly brilliant and reads German, Czech, French, English and maybe some Spanish or Italian; he clearly does not know any variants of Arabic, Persian, Hindi, much less Chinese or Japanese. This is why he mainly focuses his attention on Western “new age” Buddhism, uses some examples from Japanese Zen Buddhist (mostly Suzuki), and makes clear that other folks know more than him.

      The key thing to take to heart from his analysis of Buddhism and Christianity, I think, is simply that fascist and egalitarian motives can be found anywhere. Christianity has generally been known as the religion of Capitalism (from Max Weber to Lou Dobbs), and yet if read in a certain way it contains the seeds of that self-transformative substanceless courage needed for a Leftist movement. Buddhism, in the West associated with the Dali Lama and the sine qua non of non-violence and the universally egalitarian liberal-left, in a similar reversal can be revealed to contain the seeds of fascism and/or resignation to the Capitalist status quo. It is the reversal of commonsense notions that makes his analysis so rude, and yet so fascinating . . .

      And in my opinion, although there is some value in the substance of his analysis of these religious traditions, the main deeper level point to be gleaned is different. Probably in a similar manner to the way a Zen poem is meant to silence the mind (to cut a break into the chain of signifying relations of cognitive mental process), the paradoxes in his analyses cause the logical-empirical processes of the mind to subside, leaving space open for the irrational emergence of subjectivity. His writings are in fact often an attempt at Lacanian psycho(therapeutic)analysis designed to unmoor our fetishistic attachment to the deep-level Master Signifiers that are the moorings of the signifying chains upon which our substantial identities are based. By these means, we are meant to come close to the raw experience of substanceless subjectivity (like the android in Cloud Atlas who awakes from the stupor of her preprogrammed circuitry and without identity or history is therefore the only being who can articulate the consciousness of resistance).

      The irony is funny. Zizek, who’s been attacked as a proto-fascist uses Zen Buddhist logic in order to support an argument against an authoritarianism he locates with Zen Buddhism itself. Of course, the main difference for him is that this unmooring in radical freedom from the chain of empirical-logical objective Being does NOT — as in his so-called “Buddhism” — open the the curtains of “Maya” to reveal the stable and consistent oneness of the universe. Instead, and this is very important to Zizek, it is as Hegel says: The subjects relating with the other of universal being is a self-relating; although the curtains open, what they open upon is themselves; “universal being” is not a real Being underlying the illusion of everyday Being, but instead all Being is always already generated in the self-relating between being-as-immediacy and being-as-the-sublation-of-new-presuppositions. And Zizek’s concluding point on this score is that substanceless subjectivity must preserve itself in its radical negativity and not fall back upon any secondary illusion of a “Big Other” that will take care of everything.

      There is another danger, which is that in its attempt to preserve this substanceless subjectivity, a movement will fall into what Badiou calls the “temptation of the sacrificial void,” and like early Stalinist Russia eat itself alive until there is nothing left but terror and misery. These two dangers — falling back upon the stable illusion of a Big Other and dissolving into self-terrorizing brutality — must map on to Zizek’s notions of perversion and neuroticism (respectively). A healthy psychological orientation to the world requires us to instead see the substancelessness of the objective world (and us in it)— that is, we know full well that there is no certainty in our knowledge or action, but nor is the world predetermined and closed-ended — while simultaneously refusing not to reach beyond this world for an ethereal “true” realm that will save us — that is, we remain in the here-and-now of this soup of objective empirical Being and act from out of the midst of its substance. In other words, although this world is an ideological illusion and it is yet the only world we have, and therefore truth is up for grabs.

      I can see where you’re coming from because I’ve always thought that Hegel and Zizek’s use of Hegel are very much products of the Eastern influence on Western philosophy. In fact, the strange new twist that Jesus adds to the Hebrew tradition is likely itself the first introduction of Eastern thought into the Western mythos. In this sense, we might even claim, to use one of Zizek’s favorite turns of phrase, that Jesus — the divine excremental God-man who breaks down the illusion of an omnipotent God and thereby sets the stage for a birth of radical freedom — is himself what is in Eastern philosophy more than itself.

      Jacob Libby

      December 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

  18. I’ve written a blog entry myself on the question in citing your own– http://rendered-public.blogspot.ch/2012/12/facebook-free-december.html . I appreciate the depth of your review and your thought on the subject. I look forward to following your blog.

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