Things Zizek Wishes He Said About Buddhist History

At issue is how the original enlightenment discourse was related to broader trends in Japanese religion and culture. One school of thought has found in notions of original enlightenment an expression, couched in Buddhistic terms, of a pre-Buddhist, archaic Japanese mentality or psychological orientation characterized by the affirmation of nature and accommodation to phenomenal realities. This tendency to harmonize with outer reality is sometimes said to have originated in primitive responses to Japan’s scenic beauty and mild climate, with its orderly progression of seasons, and even to hold the key to healing the rift between humans and the natural world said to have precipitated the ecological problems of the West. More recently, another group of scholars has made original enlightenment thought the target of a scathing critique. These are the exponents of the intellectual movement known as “Critical Buddhism”, of which more will be said in the next chapter. Critical Buddhism charges that notions of original enlightenment introduce into Buddhism the non-Buddhist concept of an ātman or metaphysical substrate, subverting the normative Buddhist teaching that all things are empty of independent self-essence. Moreover, despite its superficial semblance of egalitarianism, the claim that all phenomena are enlightened inherently serves to sacralize the given order and thus legitimates social inequalities. Notions of original enlightenment, say the critical Buddhists, have served to bolster the emperor system, wartime imperial aggression, and uncritical, self-glorifying Japanism.

Page 4 of “Original Enlightenement and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism” by Jacqueline I. Stone.

This is quite literally an example of the kind of Critical Buddhism that I said Zizek fails to account for in his critical-therapeutic schema for universal religions in the age of global capitalism. He argues that Christianity is the only religion today that offers a critical charge, while Buddhism and associated New Age obscurantism make the whole prospect of TINA a spiritual non-problem.

One thought on “Things Zizek Wishes He Said About Buddhist History

  1. I’m reading Living in the End Times, and have read Tarrying, Violence, In Defense, First as, and some secondary literature. 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.

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