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.

7 thoughts on “Back-Handed Praise for Zizek’s Western Buddhism

  1. I think the knot, or pathology if you will, is a common one, not specific to late capitalist societies. Philip Kapleau hit the nail on the head when he said that serious practitioners are ‘aspirants’. At the time I thought such aspirants heroic, but to my surprise he went on to talk as though this were practically a medical condition. Later I noted an especially strong syndrome of aspiration among seriously practicing monks, both western and not. And of course ‘serious’ is just another word for ‘aspiring’. The personal jiujitsu, the death-defying stunt, is to continue serious practice while not wanting a result. Possible through long practice of a regulated and simplified life maybe, harder among the emergencies of a loose and unregulated life.

  2. Um, I don’t think you thought that, and didn’t mean to imply it. I was really addressing a line I have heard from Western Buddhists, which is that ours is a greedy society, a condition which leads to pathologies, and that Buddhist practice is a therapy for those pathologies.

  3. There is more documentation of Mahayana Buddhism relating to medical and even law cases. Furth, Zeitlin, and Ping-chen Hsiung (U Hawai’i Press, 2007) in “Thinking With Cases”, they juxtapose medical cases with Buddhist parables to find insight into Chinese epistemology.

    I personally think that the effects conferred by meditation between material and spiritual, similar to how the practice’s emphasis often vacillates between means (the act itself) and ends (enlightenment), supporting or attacking the statement that the means can directly lead to the end. Each school has an interesting way of dealing with this, pluralism demands we recognize each as an interesting permutation.

    I think your quest is a good one, mostly because of how often Western philosophy is used to (unsuccessfully) analyze the East. Reversal of this method is still not widely utilized. Part of the reason why the reversal is not popular is due to the difficulty. I suggest Ames and Hall “Anticipating China” as a sliver of East-West analysis.

    An insight I’ve had about Daoism v. Mahayana Buddhism in the past few months pertains to their syncretic effects. Daoism seemed to affect Buddhism subtly, adding the new forms of narrative and meditation that late schools cleaved to (e.g. in art). Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, dramatically changed anything that it touched in the manner that it changed what people perceived as the goals of society and the moral constitution of individuals.

    In the West, it seems Buddhism to take both roads, mostly due to the fact that in popular culture America absorbed Buddhism as part of an inclusive (and widely mislabeled) goody bag from the East. In regards to capitalism in the mix, one would assume that it would require adherents to target systemic practices of greed rather than individual vices. In certain respects, the asceticism seems to be diluted (just as it occurred when it became the state religion for Mongolized China) and what we have on our hands is an adoption of watered down spiritualism.

    Through all of this I think we have to ask a single question: is this not the same case as with the Protestant Ethic?

  4. Is it not in some sense the case that Siddartha Guatma himself “became a Buddhist” for the “material” reasons of dealing with his own angst — his own (albeit princely) equivalent to a “crappy office job”?

    I have to say, the more I think about this whole thing, the more it feels like the “wigger” notion — that when a white person tries to assimilate into urban black culture, he’s really just faking it and can’t possibly ever be “authentic”. Everything the white Western Buddhist does, from meditating to shaving his head to visiting a shrine in the East, is really just a pathetic attempt to be trendy… even if someone born into an Eastern Buddhist family does all the same things.

    The question is, what would Buddha make of this? (And is it *really* the case that Buddhist trinkets are only sold or bartered in the West?)

  5. I like your idea that someone who adopts a “watered down” buddhism into their western lifestyle is like when middle class, white kids try to act black just to be trendy. It is the exact same when a westerner just takes the “exotic” stuff and the “feel-good” stuff out of buddhism, and ignores the more difficult parts of true monastic life.

    But I don’t think it is quite the same thing. I think a westerner CAN become an authentic buddhist because buddhism is a philosphy, whereas being a gangster from the hood really is just a matter of where you are born.
    A middle class, white person would never actually move to the ghetto and become a gangster.
    But some westerners DO actually join buddhist monasteries. When a westerner is willing to adopt a monastic life (give up all their posessions, leave their friends and family, no sex, only one meal a day, etc.) that suggests they really believe in the philosophy. And actually when a westerner shaves their head and all that stuff, they end up looking not cool nor trendy, but kind of goofy. So you can assume their motives are authentic if they will do it even though it makes them appear odd.

    The really convincing part for me is that they (western buddhists)are willing to leave behind their friends and social life to become a buddhist. Trying to be “trendy” is just an attempt to boost your social stats. Therefore a social status cannot enter into their motives when ordination necessitates GIVING UP their social life.

    As you can probably tell by now, I am a young westerner trying to convince myself that my dream of moving to the east and becomming a Buddhist monk is legit.

  6. Well, one way a western Buddhist such as yourself might look at the situation is: Maybe this all has shades of trendiness, but so what? To deliberately avoid trendiness would be hardly any different from seeking it. Anyway, don’t fret!

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