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Original Sin and Original Enlightenment

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I think it’s a bit confusing to say that our original-nature is given, while sin or ignorance is an accretion. Every sort of Buddhist account of “the fall” I have known leaves precisely what separates original from fallen nature a bit obscure. What is Original Sin and Original Enlightenment.

The original sin was not an act by Adam or Eve anymore than it was an act by you or me. God’s very creation of Adam was that sin, and not because he was destined to along with Eve disobey God. That Adam and Eve were created separate from God and given the opportunity to subsist forever in this separation through the Tree of Life, is God’s own self-sundering.

Adam and Eve partake of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which prefigures the Law, and throw themselves into sin in the course of ultimately transcending it for Him, but not apart from Him. This is why Zizek is right to see Christ’s rising in Adam’s falling, and why Paul calls Adam (in Romans 5:14) “a type of the one to come” (i.e. Christ).

A great book on sin is the first half of “Lying: A Augustinian Theology of Duplicity” by Paul Griffith. Pair that then with Karl Barth’s “Adam and Christ: Man and Humanity in Romans 5,” which is basically about the samsara/nirvana relationship.

I draw on Karl Barth here, but this is why I think he’s useful for working with the Buddhist terms: our sinfulness, our ignorance of our original nature and the active withdrawal from it (think of Augustine’s shtick about how as a boy he stole that pear just to steal it, just because it was wrong – he didn’t even like pears), is given along with that original nature – not as a later stain upon it.

If you want to use a term like “openness” (Heidegger’s Lichtung) to convey this original-nature, our openness is from the beginning an openness to that very ignorance of it. What is sinful is not apart from that original nature (samsara is nirvana), but sinfulness as sinfulness, ignorance in-itself is not self-sustaining either. It’s temporal; it arises and it ceases. In a sense, it doesn’t even arise /from/ original nature (lending itself to the idea that original-nature is temporally prior to sin or ignorance), but exists from the very beginning with it – co-dependently arising. Co-dependently-arising, our ignorance of our original nature ceases while our original nature remains.

This is what Dogen is getting at when he says in his Genjokoan that

“To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

To forget the self is tantamount to taking that Adamic fall into ignorance and sinful-nature, but with the wholesome intention of realizing the original-nature heretofore under erasure. Myriad things are not-self (anatta), and the dropping away of body and mind is the dropping away of original sin. Dogen doesn’t just say it happens either, that it’s already there. Instead, it’s a moment in a process. The “no trace of realization [that] remains” is our original-nature, but it is not original nature “before” sin.

The weird idea some Christians have is that our sinfulness (or ignorance of God) is our original nature, which is to say that God created only to condemn us. To get us back on the path, whether we’re getting lost in the first Canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy or stumbling in an Ox-Herding painting, we’ve got to let go of sin, but we have to engage it in order to do that, just like we have to pass through ignorance of our original nature to realize it.

It would then seem that some Soto Zennists or otherwise proponents of shikantaza coupled with a one-sided view of “Original Enlightenment” are latter day Pelagians.

Written by Joe

May 17, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Notes on Therapeutic Buddhism

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This was apparently too long for blogger’s comments, so I’m posting it here. It’s another comment from that Progressive Buddhism post on mindfulness-based therapy and Buddhism.



I’m glad you bring up ENDS and RESULTS, because we have to make a distinction. If Buddhist practice aims at the liberation of all beings, then therapy is at best a result experienced along the way as a side-effect, and hardly a necessary one. Slavoj Zizek introduces a wonderful distinction between therapeutic and critical religion in the introduction to his “The Puppet and the Dward,” one which I think he unfairly develops on the side of Christianity. He does well to highlight the passive tendencies of therapeutic Buddhism, but he misses the psychoanalytic import of his own terms and the subsequent abuse he makes on them. To put it bluntly, what we have here is a distinction between the pleasure principle and the death drive, and it is a misnomer to oppose the “life-drives” (Eros) to the death-drive (Thanatos). To this end, Lacan argues that all drives have a little death-drive in them. Buddhism is not an inherently therapeutic religion, nor is Christianity the sole bastion of critical religion. A survey of American forms of Christianity shows that the therapeutic mode dominates, arguably with less pernicious results than that ethico-spiritual disposition that in triumphal bad faith throws its hands up in the air for the sake of “pragmatism” and getting “beyond politics.”

I also want to dispel the mind-closing connotations of “critical” as judgmental. The best way to think of this distinction between therapeutic and critical religion is along the lines that Emerson, in his essay “Intellect,” distinguishes between “repose” (i.e. comfort and resignation) and “truth.”

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

Another useful touching-point is Patrick Kearney’s essay, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy,” which is is both perspicacious and near-sighted. As the title suggests, he wishes to dispel the connection between what Kyle Lovett calls “traditional psychotherapy” and Buddhist practice (particularly meditation). The problem is when we conflate the history of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, with this image of “traditional psychotherapy,” with its parent-blaming, ego-worshiping escapism.

That is why earlier I brought up Lacan’s departure from the therapeutic mind-set of his contemporaries, who unfortunately did better than him to saturate the popular perception of psychoanalysis. Strictly speaking, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is not a program of therapy. Psychoanalysis does not proceed by labeling from some distance these or that problems, which are dealt with in the voyeuristic privacy of one’s own ego. Rather, psychoanalysis is an experiment in our painful habits themselves, though in the relative safety of the clinical situation, which in many ways we can expand to the student-teacher relation.

Is this not what happens when, for us Zen adepts, we are sitting? We do not escape from our busy minds or the world changing around us; our quietude is a noisy one, because karma is ALWAYS coming up for us. What we find and what the masters report to us is not a stillness of mind (as if they were somehow opposed in the sense of some reality behind illusion), but the revelation of that stillness in mind – that de-centered I of the storm. The transformations this brings to the practitioner are too great to be sub-ordinated to the therapeutic impulse.

Written by Joe

July 2, 2009 at 7:23 am

The Form of this Formlessness Itself

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In a comment to “The Monstrosity of Christ,” Nathan brings up religion’s therapeutic value, which reminds me of a point Zizek makes in the Introduction to The Puppet and the Dwarf (available HERE) about religion being therapeutic or critical.

One possible definition of modernity is:the social order in which religion is no longer fully integrated into and identified with a particular cultural life-form,but acquires autonomy,so that it can survive as the same religion in different cultures.This extraction enables religion to globalize itself (there are Christians, Muslims,and Buddhists everywhere today);on the other hand,the price to be paid is that religion is reduced to a secondary epiphenomenon with regard to the secular functioning of the social totality. In this new global order, religion has two possible roles: therapeutic or critical. It either helps individuals to function better in the existing order,or it tries to assert itself as a critical agency articulating what is wrong with this order as such,a space for the voices of discontent—in this second case, religion as suchtends toward assuming the role of a heresy.

Zizek focuses a main part of his book of arguing against Buddhism as the therapeutic religion par excellence and for Christianity as the critical one. However, this discussion of the Eagleton’s book reminds me that the therapeutic and critical distinction is internal to a given universal religion (too). Eagleton swoons over critical Christianity, but overlooks its (paradoxically destructive [i.e. nihilistic) therapeutic dimension, especially as dominant in the United States. Zizek has a similar blind-spot in the P&D, where he gives little attention to therapeutic Christianity OR critical Buddhism.

I think the future of a Lacanian critique of therapeutic Christianity resides in some alliance with these critical Buddhist elements, which means working through Zizek’s analysis, his focus on critical Christianity and therapeutic Buddhism, and instead invert the whole thing. In this sense, Zizek’s analysis is still stuck in the Imaginary and the relation narcissism and aggressivity, between ideal-ego (formless Buddhism) and ego-ideal (form of this formlessness itself Christianity). We might say Eagleton’s analysis is in a similar position, but apropos the relationship between critical Christianity and therapeutic Atheism.

Take Zizek’s comments on the new Star Wars movie in In These Times:

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace gave us a crucial hint as to where to orient ourselves in this melee, specifically, the ‘Christological’ features of the young Anakin (his immaculate conception, his victorious ‘pod-car’ race, with its echoes of the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur, this ‘tale of Christ’). Since Star Wars’ ideological framework is the New Age pagan universe, it is quite appropriate that its central figure of Evil should echo Christ.”

I’m not actually opposed to this reading, but it’s easy to also look at Vader, especially coming from “an overwhelming desire to intervene, to do Good, to go to the end for those he loves ” to “seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it,” and see the quasi-paranoia of therapeutic Christianity. Makes me wonder what how a bodhisattva would appear in the world of therapeutic Christianity.

Written by Joe

May 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Eagleton: What’s the Problem?

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Larval Subject’s complaint about Stanley Fish’s review of Eagleton’s new book is hard to shake (note that these are three different links). The thing that keeps me from being completely swayed by LS’s insistence on how Christianity remains the signifier for so much screwed up stuff is the thought that Eagleton’s point is a kind of reverse reductio ad absurdum: if we start out with (argue for) the premise that the Christian tradition is full of all these worthwhile political and ethical commitments, we cannot but reveal the obscenity of what is often called Christianity.

This is, of course, immanent critique, as one commenter points out (in an exchange that riled up LS for reasons I can’t see, unless it involves a deleted comment). The part of LS’s complaint that’s hard to shake is that Eagleton’s position is the absurd, abnormal position as far as Christianity goes. Though I don’t think that means it’s an unreasonable starting point for this sort of engagement, I can empathize with the sense that this indirect engagement with concrete social phenomena somehow makes us miss the trees for the forest, if not the mountain in the background.

In this sense, LS’s complaint is not that unlike Zizek’s complaints against liberals who frame racism as a problem of tolerance rather than economic justice. LS might say that Eagleton treats a problem that could be called “What Would Jesus Not Do?” as one of atheism and its discontents rather than the exceedingly more salient issue of religious fundamentalism and the “opium of the masses.” Of course, the twist would be that these are different names for the same symptom, not unlike how I connect the hyper-rich and the hyper-poor in a recent post. The question Eagleton should have to answer is that if simply getting rid of or otherwise directly engaging “bad Christianity” is not what is to be done or even desired, then what is the problem? I have a feeling that part of the answer can be found in Timothy Morton’s engagement with an ecology without Nature.

Written by Joe

May 5, 2009 at 1:14 am

Acting, Political Theatre and Enjoyment as Political Factor

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[From an exchange between Derek and I, where I start out asking:]

Me: Isn’t it funny how theatrical a term “jobless” is?
Derek: How so?

Me: It sounds like a title you’d give to an actor. It has a very different connotation from “unemployed,” which still retained this a sense of a larger function (“you are being unemployed by the Market,” which is the dirty secret of the more popular notion that you are “employed by the Market”) and the more pagan notion of being a functional part of everything else, whose peak form of art is the ritual. Theatre has a deep connection to modern politics in this sense, and gives rise to a sense of collectivity that is essentially Marxist before Marx.

A play is a collective endeavor by a bunch of individuals, whose places are not pre-determined by and yet some how fixed according to the narrative. The narrative is is not a higher sort of function that pulls the strings and makes the actors perform the play. The actors come together of their own (of course, through a rigorous, almost religious training period before hand – i.e. study and rehearsal) and perform the play.

The play can seem like a constraining superfluity (the sort implied by deriding ideology as naivety) or as what the actors themselves put on and make for/of/by themselves. This is effectively art for no one though; how does it, like Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” be for everyone too? Theatre can be enjoyed by any and, in the digital era, everyone. An audience at the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s plays, in his time, is at once radically egalitarian communal enjoyment and a scene of obscene enjoyment of the court).

This is why Zizek says, in his “Arcitectural Parallax” essay he says Mozart is on the side of the poor! Everyone is there minimally for the sake of enjoying the performance, which is itself a kind of self-enjoyment (i.e. for no one) of the actors putting on and yet working together to accomplish “the play,” but the upper classes are their to enjoy their very presence, which is ob-scene (as Dr. Clark was always fond of explaining: literally “off or out of the scene”).

This other scene, in the fully Freudian sense, stages a distraction from the real enjoyment at hand. The performance is not a re-duplication of class-relations and social conditions, for that would suppose that one set was the original and one was not (c.f. the zen koan about what your original face looked like before you were born), but social life and class-relations are themselves performative, which is to say we all put on “a play” called everyday life wherein our our relationship as actors and the performance as a whole is of a class-nature.

In this universe of political theatre, God is a machine (Science and its support in power), and one isn’t unemployed by society, but is nonetheless acting out a jobless role in its infinitely possible flavors. Makes you think about how Keanu Reeves gets picked on for being such a one-dimensional actor, and how in a way he embodies a certain kind of ideological critique of celebrity, which he certainly has some of himself—as if his various characters, and the celebrity they gained for him, screamed out the secret of many or even most great actors: you’re really, actually boring. Could any other actor had pulled “Neo” off as well as Reeves did?

This is what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek: you (my abuser) cannot but give me equality, for it is what your own law compels you to do when I “turn the other cheek” (which given the impropriety (a very different sense of “bad” from the bad sort of thing that you could do to someone without being dishonored by it yourself) of things to do with the Left hand means striking them as an equal with an open palm or fist. To us today, it may seem that it would make more sense, from the angle of wanting to demean and degrade someone, to use the left-hand: that’s what you use to wipe your ass, after all.

Propriety and honor point towards this social commitment that we make as a kind of self-positing, where we oblige ourselves to honorability as such. Acting done well is a similar self-positing.

The link here is what Hegel called “the sensuous expression of freedom,” which strikes most of us as an expression you’d intuitively apply to something like a painting, a poem or book, or a musical performance or a gourmet dish— but not a a theatrical performance. It is here though, and the danger is always that the freedom experienced on the stage will be mis-recognized. Through this mis-recognition on a mass scale, along with other forms of mass theatrics (television shows, especially) we are more likely to relate to our own roles in a democracy as if it were a show being watched. This is why enjoyment is a political factor.

Written by Joe

May 2, 2009 at 11:59 pm

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

Repeating Lenin

with one comment

I got to get neck-deep in Zizek this last month in a last-minute paper for a class that should have been written long before the end of the quarter. While trying to hash-out some sort of thesis, I became interested in Zizek’s call to “repeat Lenin,” which is made most comprehensively in the essay-book by the same name (here, in its shorter, strictly essay-format, available through Zizek’s EGS-profile).

The gist of it is this: what Lenin did for Marx was to take his revolutionary theory and turn it into a theory for the Revolution, though the revolution Lenin enacted (the October or Bolshevik Revolution) was necessarily failed because it could only really be accomplished as a second attempt in light of that initial failure. Repeating Lenin is thus not the naively-stupid suggestion that we re-create the Soviet Union, though Zizek does not make great efforts to dissuade us of that possibility, and at one point suggests that our inability to understand the revolutionary logic of Lenin and his government may have more to do with ideological failures of our own time rather than actual failures of the Revolution, but rather the willingness to do the impossible.

In this sense, political revolution for Zizek is the Lacanian act: in either case what we must do (very much in the sense that Zizek argues “doing” is as important if not more important than “knowing” when it comes to ideological critique) is that which implies our stepping through the ideological fantasy we otherwise imagine guarantees our actions to have certain meaning. In other words, Zizek is carving another path to understanding “what it means” to “traverse the fantasy.”In recognizing Lenin’s revolution as failed, we are immediately able to grasp the reason for its failure, a reason that comes to us from the future as the symptom, or rather as our present repression of the revolution. The revolutionary gesture would then be to identify with the symptom, such that we the failed revolution in the past can attain a full ontological status as has-been-already-failed rather than the unconscious pre-ontological status as repressed.

What I took note of when reading this and other essays– and they all seem to be built out of the same stock 5000-7000 words– is the proximity between them and two of Zizek’s more overtly theological books, The Fragile Absolute and The Puppet and the Dwarf. In these books, and the essays orbiting them, Zizek seems also to be suggesting a repetition of something in the Christian tradition that he identifies as coming from Paul more than Jesus. We come to see “Christian intolerant, violent Love” as “Leninist intolerance” and “fundamentalist intolerance” as basic expressions of the same kind of action Zizek sees as possessing a perverse, subversive even, core for social, perhaps spiritual revolution.

What I am wondering is what this adds to a discussion about faith, especially when the fundamentalist invokes it. Does psychoanalysis not subvert the transparency of scientific positivist knowledge, and suggest, via Lacan’s dictum that reality is structured like a fiction, that to take any symbolic fiction so seriously as the scientist does his science and the fundamentalist does his religion is an equal matter of faith, and that only one who sees through both fictions equally is in a position to choose without dangerously making the imaginary identification with whatever fiction it may be? This is just like an old Ch’an Buddhist parable told by a master. He says that before he studied the buddha-dhamma, he would say that mountains are mountains and that rivers are rivers; that once he had studied some of the buddha-dhamma he would say that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; but now that he had attained the most high Enlightenment he says that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

The point I’d like to make is that if, as Zizek has said, only the atheist can truly believe, in that only the true atheist sees through the symbolic fiction such that he can really decide without imagining that any of it is Real, what are we to make of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris) and their renewed rhetoric of faith and reason. I would like to suggest that they take a cue from theologian, Karen Armstrong, in assessing not the idea of God as infantile, but the very gesture towards God (the divine) being anything like or compatible with an idea as the infantile and dangerous belief of our times– paralleled, obviously, by the scientific (positivist) gesture that “reality” has a form like that of the scientific idea.

The ideological gesture– if the phrase couldn’t have a more accurate example– is the same in the church, as it is in the lab, as it is on FOXNews, as it is at every White-House press conference: our idea is the guarantee of that which the idea represents. The truly radical stance is not a variation on this form, where we replace God with reality or History or whatever, but where we refuse the very (phallic) form as a guarantor.

Written by Joe

July 5, 2007 at 6:12 am