Back-Handed Praise for Zizek’s Western Buddhism

Here’s a slightly edited post I left in a Buddhist Forum on Western Buddhism. It starts with a quote from another post in the thread.

Paraphrasing Slavoj Zizek:  “Western Buddhism” as it is used today represents a set of techniques and methods that are designed basically to make your crappy office job more meaningful and less stressful.  This is why he calls it the ideal supplement to or “hegemonic ideology par excellance of global capitalism” (that’s in On Belief).

I think Zizek’s onto something here.

If your motivation for practice is “stress relief,” I humbly suggest a reconsideration of your motivation for practice is in order.

This doesn’t address the broader speculative question, however, of what an authentic Buddhism that is integrated in an intelligent way with Euro-American culture might look like.  Really, it’ll have to take some generations of rigorous practice for that to come around.

I have wrestled with Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism for a couple years now, and I think he is on to something too. I also think, for as versed as he is in the Euro-American philosophical tradition, he’s sloppy when it comes to how he defines and subsequently critiques Western Buddhism. The point about “stress relief” as a motivation for practice is why I reply though.

Jacques Lacan, one of Zizek’s most important influences, didn’t view psychoanalysis strictly, if at all, as a therapeutic exercise. It was a quest for truth, particularly the truth of our desire (a complicated term that shouldn’t be immediately substituted for/by related Buddhist terms). Therapeutic benefits, in terms of self-fulfillment or “being happy,” aren’t necessarily the criterion of a successful psychoanalysis, though they aren’t necessarily excluded either.

It’s from this perspective that I think we should consider Zizek’s definition and subsequent critique of Western Buddhism. That is to say, one the one hand there is Buddhism practiced in the West by Westerners; on the other hand, there is a critical sub-set of that, which is what I think Zizek accurately identifies in his notion of Western Buddhism, that takes particular notions of well-being, which for Zizek are hallmarks of a perverse superego injunction to Enjoy, as criterion of the efficacy of the Dharma. 

Though the Buddha taught to avoid the extreme of self-mortification, it would be a bit disingenuous to characterize the motivations of acknowledged Dharma-teachers and masters as happiness. The Buddha himself identified happiness with suffering, and even equanimity (cf. Dogen’s warning in the Shobogenzo about the monk who mistook equanimity as the proof of his attaining enlightenment) isn’t strictly speaking the point of practice. In other words, the point of practice is more important than partial effects like happiness and the reduction of stress, though they are clearly not unimportant in the Dharma either—“With nothing to attain, a Bodhisattva relies on Prajna Paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear.”

Anyway, getting back to Zizek, an important question he at least implicitly raises for me is with regards to the effects of capitalism on so-called Western culture and what that means for Buddhism as it adapts to the West. Specifically, what I have in mind actually touches on a memorable remark Marx made about the effects of Capitalism and modernization on feudal societies and tradition in general: “all that is solid melts into air…” Buddhism didn’t really become influential or widely practiced in Europe or America until the late 19th century, if not much later, well after those regions had industrialized and begun, for better or worse, the process of up-rooting traditional sensibilities and ways of life. 

In its life in Asia, Buddhism had fairly well established cultures to engage in the process of adaptation, which I don’t think for the most part it had in Europe or America. That’s not to say there aren’t cultural peculiarities in Europe or America, but that the historical developments of the region called “the industrial West” and the pre-industrial civilizations of East and South Asia have yielded different encounters with Buddhism. Zizek, half recognizing this, throws his energies into criticizing (what I see as) the negative effects of the Western encounter. Unfortunately, this seems to be the larger part of his view of Buddhism. Moreover, he sloppily conflates his Western Buddhism with Buddhism in general (cf. parts of The Puppet and the Dwarf and elsewhere, where he directly argues against “Asiatic Buddhism” being a different, much less innocent phenomena), which is ironically a symptom of the distortion I see him critiquing.

Nonetheless, I think a critical engagement with Zizek’s negative and positive interest in Buddhism offers some interesting ways of wrestling with the complexities of practicing Buddhism in the Western context. He gets some things wrong and others right, but its his assessment of the problems and complexities of late capitalist culture that are the most useful for the more difficult Buddhist engagement.

Some More Thoughts On IRV

Recently in The Nation, Katarina Vanden Heuvel has spoken about electoral reform. Much of it has to do with what I view as absolutely critical, but relatively peripheral issues—public financing, ballot technologies, media coverage and the like. At one point, she does take up the concrete question of the electoral process itself (how a vote is conceived to measure political will). It’s a long article, most of which I’m not discussing at this point, so I’ll just quote at length.

For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of American voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. During the 2004 presidential campaign, one poll suggested 57 percent of voters thought candidates besides Bush and Kerry should be included in the debates. In the latest biannual survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics of 18- to 24-year-olds, 37 percent of young voters agreed that there was a need for a third party.

If majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan and third parties more than “spoilers,” we need to experiment with more accurate ways to represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and opinions of the American people. Proportional representation–in which 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the seats–is one way. But the United States is an outlier when it comes to PR. We’re one of the few “advanced” democracies that don’t use it in national elections. But PR isn’t as alien as it might seem: Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a proportional voting scheme to elect its City Council for seven decades. Illinois used a similar system to elect its lower house from 1870 to 1980, and it enjoys broad bipartisan support. As opposed to our winner-take-all system, in which a mere plurality of voters can carry an election, full representation allows for the expression of a broader range of interests.

The Democrats’ use of proportional representation in their nominating process gives a sense of what it means: every vote counts, no matter how lopsided the result might be in any district or state.

Although not as radical a departure as proportional representation, instant runoff voting (IRV)–in which low-scoring candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ second-choice votes are added to those that remain, until one candidate wins a majority–is another way to challenge the duopoly while protecting majority rule for all.

Backed by groups like FairVote and the New America Foundation, IRV also has the support of McCain and Obama, along with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and third-party candidates like Libertarian Bob Barr, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader.

And instant runoff voting has begun to catch on with the public. IRV has won thirteen of the last fourteen times it appeared on a ballot, winning landslides in cities like Oakland (69 percent), Minneapo-lis (65 percent), Sarasota (78 percent) and Santa Fe(65 percent). San Francisco just held its fourth IRV election, and exit polls have found it popular there with every measurable demographic. This fall, Pierce County, Washington, with a population of nearly 800,000, will use it for the first time for a hotly contested county executive election. And new cities voting to adopt it will include Glendale, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Memphis, Tennessee. A bill instituting IRV for Congressional elections in Vermont was vetoed by that state’s Republican governor but will be back next year.

Finally, fusion voting has the weight of long experience behind it. Before the twentieth century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties, until major parties started banning it. Fusion allows two or more parties to nominate the same candidate on separate ballot lines. That simple change permits people to vote their values without “wasting” their vote or supporting “spoilers.” The positive experience of New York’s Working Families Party in the past decade shows you can build a viable minority party this way. And fusion has also helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system. These options would dramatically open our electoral system to more choices, ensuring the representation of diverse views instead of seeing them co-opted or suppressed by the “least worst” options presented by the duopoly.

Heuvel doesn’t tout its advantages as well as she could, nor really the problems it helps to mitigate. The dominance of two-parties is, on the face of it, a problem, but when you consider how it arises from our electoral process itself, you realize it is actually a response to the deeper insufficiencies of that process. As a response, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s comparable to the nasty symptoms you get when you have a cold or the flu: they suck, but their absence despite the presence of infection would probably mean worse things.

IRV doesn’t simply remedy the two-party system (a symptom) any more than a decongestant remedies a cold (a deeper problem). IRV remedies the way our political choice appear to us from without—notably in the media, but also in the sense that makes “Candidate A stole votes from Candidate B” meaningful, as if the votes belonged to them. In this sense, our vote is not our own, but almost literally the property of the candidates. When our political choices appear to us to come from sources other than us, the electorate, then our political will is effectively not our own. Worse yet is the triangulation that takes place between us, the politicians, and the supposed place where we meet to tell them what to do. We end up compromising with the politicians and media, rather than amongst ourselves, which is both the source and the end of political polarization from Nixon onward.

What’s at stake in calling for IRV is not simply the “freedom of choice,” if that at all, but the ability to take political responsibility. In this sense, it is not only demands that we change how we look at politicians (“now with more choices!”), but how we look at our own political responsibilities. It’s easy to, taking a cue from the above mentioned the implicit politicians vs. the people relationship demanded by our current voting system, view our political impasse as a failure of the gub’mint and not a conflict born of the electorate’s own inability to articulate its political will. Opening the conversation of electoral reform to include this thought will be a key transformation in the process that changes anything.

Like any Twelve Step program: admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.