Zizek’s Western Buddhism

This is the first of what will probably be many entries on Zizek’s on-and-off-again critique of (Western) Buddhism. Something I have noticed where I have encountered Zizek saying anything about Buddhism (Interrogating the Real, The Parallax View, On Belief, The Puppet and the Dwarf, and at the old Different Maps-blog (should be at the bottom of this page, on June 8th), most of those encounters being represented in Revenge of Global Finance, is Zizek’s quick conflation between what he sometimes calls Western Buddhism and otherwise Buddhism–perhaps what he is talking about when he refers to the Eastern Buddhism of the Japanese in The Puppet and the Dwarf.

It concerns me that what Zizek is after is his own, which is to say our own, distortion of the Buddha’s teachings (buddhadhamma). I say this for two simple reasons, which with much more extensive research than I have done might be resolved. On the one hand, Zizek is never concerned with anything even vaguely attributable to the Buddha; in his standard Hegelian fashion, he is sacrificing the “real experience” for the idea, just as he goes to Paul rather than Jesus for the dirt on Christianity. On the other hand, Zizek uses a slippery terminology when it comes to what he is talking about, when at least we think he is talking about Buddhism. This is evidenced by the parentheses used in the phrase “Western Buddhism.” Many times Zizek outright uses “Western Buddhism” or just plain “Buddhism.” The article I cite above has a couple examples.

The problem here is that he does not make the crucial distinction between the two terms. When he uses the phrase Western Buddhism, this is already to say that this is some strain of Buddhism different from at least one other. He doesn’t exactly explain what is different about it, and from what is it different. Of course, the Leftist and Rightist explaining their opposing party shtick seems applicable, and depending on what you’re trying to get from an explanation of what Zizek means by “Western Buddhism” it might be. What prevents this from fully becoming that kind of issue, and what is my particular issue with Zizek, is that he will use “Western Buddhism” and “Buddhism” while examining and critiquing Western practices, and his condemnation rests on both.

We can borrow a passage from The Sublime Object of Ideology to help illustrate my point.

The proper answer to [Zizek’s critique of (Western) Buddhism] is therefore not ‘[the Buddha’s teachings] are really not like this’ but ‘[Zizek’s idea of Buddhism/Western Buddhism] has nothing to do with [what the Buddha taught]…” (48).

So, in other words, I am skeptical that Zizek’s criticism is against what he thinks it is. More to the point, I think that what Zizek does is compels us to respond in the ideological manner he critiques above (in that case, originally dealing with anti-Semitism and Jews), defending the Buddha’s teachings while in that same gesture showing how they’re really a sham. Why he does this, I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll develop a couple ideas below.

Another example could be the figure of Woman. To the extent that she exists, she is another name-of-the-Father. To the extent that we do not distort her with our desire though, she does not exist. Similiarly, I think that Zizek is not able to confront the buddhadhamma, at least in his theoretical treatment of it, because to him as a theoritician it cannot exist. In otherwords, Zizek can only see the buddhadhamma as its (symbolic) Western distortion, because perhaps, secretly recognizing the mystical emptiness that lay in the resolution of that distortion, it scares him.

So, I’ll end by suggesting that the Buddha’s teachings confronts Zizek, and in that scares him, with a mystical feminine jouissance. To deal with this, he radically conflates Western Buddhism (that I would critique more or less as Zizek does, if that were his only target) and Buddhism otherwise conceived, creating for himself a vision of Buddhism that allows him to actually see it, and in that condemn it. What he condemns is his own misperception, though he would like us to think he goes farther. He would like us to think he is talking about Buddhism where ever and however it is be practiced, and in doing so engages in an ideological critique of something that doesn’t exist.


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