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I don’t know man, I don’t know…

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Where is the Real in this image?

These are babies, pretending to be stupid animals; see how the one on the right has a human ear. It is somehow significant that we only see one, but are likely to assume there are two. This is what babies would say if they could really talk, and this is how they would appear to us if we really heard them.

Written by Joe

December 2, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Buddhism and Abstraction

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Extending a thought I started in a comment at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt I add:

G.W.F. Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?” and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche’s “herd mentality”) are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha’s everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom.’

‘Common-sense’ abstraction as opposed to the more conventional attribution of abstraction to academic and otherwise educated people. Hegel’s response to the question ‘who thinks abstractly?’ is ‘the uneducated, not the educated.’

We have to remember that with the exception of Hui Neng and some other figures in the Pali canon, most of the prominent figures of Zen and Buddhism in general were either directly from or just outside the aristocracy of their time and place, the Siddharta Gotama especially. However, I think we are led astray if we chase after some hitherto repressed ‘householder/everyday buddhism’ as something very different from what does appear in the written and orally transmitted teachings/stories. There is no authentically ‘everyday’ form of Buddhism, and it would be absurd not to view the already given teachings as speaking to and from everyday life. Kings and Queens and Masters and Buddhas are just ordinary people.

We should recognize a form of this ‘talk in plain speak’ attitude in the appeals many conservatives and hicks make to the common-sense appeal of creationism and intelligent design (or the common-sense appeal many liberals feel comfortable making to ‘the market’). Mind you, those two bits in particular are beside the point. The point is in the way that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric appears even when we seem to be talking about universality and equality and the close ties it has with other forms of reductive thinking.

Written by Joe

August 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

Zizek’s Bodhisattva; or, Hegel as Shuzan’s Disciple

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From the aforementioned appendix to Metastases of Enjoyment:

In our everyday lives, we constantly fall prey to imaginary lures which promise the healing of the original/constitutive wound of symbolization, from Woman with whom full sexual relationship will be possible, to the totalitarian political ideal of a fully realized community. In contrast, the fundamental maxim of the ethics of desire is simply desire as such: one has to maintain desire in its dissatisfaction. What we have here is a kind of heroism of the lack: the aim of the psychoanalytic cure is to induce the subject to assume his constitutive lack heroically; to endure the splitting which propels desire.

What I have bolded could be a very succinct definition of what a bodhisattva does in renouncing Nirvana and “remaining in” Samsara. Perhaps, in this sense, we could say Dharma is pre-Oedipal, that Samsara is the Unconscious as such in its groundless materiality, and awakened being is that which determinately does not wake up, which forecloses the father function after already accepting the Oedipus complex. That precisely as he says it the previous sentence:

This gap that forever separates the lost Thing from symbolic semblances which are never ‘that‘ defines the contours of the ethics of desire: ‘do not give way as to your desire’ can only mean ‘do not put up with any of the substitutions of the Thing, keep open the gap of desire’

‘That’ precisely in the sense of ‘the This’ in Hegel’s chapter on Sense-Certainty:

Sense-certainty itself has thus to be asked: What is the This?

‘The This’ precisely in the sense that Shuzan’s monk yelled “what is this?” when Shuzan said:

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!

We could also call Dogen’s “non-thinking” (his response to the question, “how do you think not-thinking?”) a possible response to Shuzan’s disciple. When the disciple breaks the shippe, he might as well be holding Heidegger’s hammer, in whose broken (i.e. samsaric) state we experience its ‘disclosedness’, its openness (in the sense of Heidegger’s ‘clearing’ or Lichtung). All dharmas are empty, all tools (for skillful means) can be broken, and in the end it makes no sense. “It” in the sense of Freud’s Es. The sense that it doesn’t make, besides the idiomatic phrase, is that captured in Hegel’s phrase “sense-certainty.”

“The This,” again, is that interrogated by the Siddharata on his four trips with his charioteer (a potential superego figure, who almost seems to enjoy telling Siddharata that everyone (including the Prince) gets sick, ages and dies) where he saw old-age, sickness and death, but also the mendicant. “This” gave rise to bodhichitta, to desire that persists in its renunciation (i.e. the desire to awaken all beings and therefore put off complete enlightenment) Bodhisattvas (and psychoanalysts) are beings who practice one thing: the arousal of bodhicitta. The Buddha’s bodhicitta expresses how the ego-ideal introjects itself and begins the process of symbolizing, of putting into words, this painful split caused by the wall of language.

Siddharta’s encounters are moments of the shape of consciousness called Sense-Certainty. “This” is the ground zero of critique (the Buddha was a HUGE critic, was the basis of Nagarjuna’s school of dialectical criticism). In the sense, the interpreters of Job’s suffering were all answering in addressing Job’s story a version of a question that is really more than Job, “what is this?” To this end, they simply “don’t get it.” The Buddha strays down an ideological path of his own when he tries to strike it out as an ascetic, though he was left unsatisfied — “This is not it!”—and his bodhicitta grew, like a baby in the womb.

The ascetic ideal and the pleasure principle are two (always-already unsatisfactory, “failed” in the sense Zizek describe feminine and and masculine sexuation as failed-whole) ways of enjoying, but jouissance rears its head as a painful excess of this-enjoyment, which we desperately address by enjoying the enjoyment some more. The Buddha’s renunciation of his ascetic-life recapitulates his renunciation of his pleasure-life after having his four sights, and the gesture is still the same one of not enjoying samsaric existence. The middle-way is the way that is beyond the pleasure-principle, beyond good and evil, and as Badiou expresses it in talking about a peace that is “beyond the war, and not merely the lazy hand of it.”

Shuzan’s disciple asks the Buddha’s same question of the broken shippe, but leaves the back door open for affirming and negating. As with the Buddha after his four sights up until his enlightenment, the wall of language and alienating identification persisted for Shuzan’s disciple, who having uttered the full truth doesn’t yet realize that it was not all said. Only by virtue of his double mis-recognition does the Buddha finally become awakened. If his disciple returned Shuzan’s message to him in inverted form, the form of the broken shippe, the “This” which Hegel shows already betrays its supposed concreteness and stability by being the highest abstraction and negation, what should Shuzan say then, if he is to effect the same dialectical reversal that his student makes?

Written by Joe

April 25, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Something is Missing

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From Slavoj Zizek’s “The Eclipse of Meaning: On Lacan and Deconstruction”:

This gap that forever separates the lost Thing from symbolic semblances which are never ‘that‘ defines the contours of the ethics of desire: ‘do not give way as to your desire’ can only mean ‘do not put up with any of the substitutions of the Thing, keep open the gap of desire’. In our everyday lives, we constantly fall prey to imaginary lures which promise the healing of the original/constitutive wound of symbolization, from Woman with whom full sexual relationship will be possible, to the totalitarian political ideal of a fully realized community. In contrast, the fundamental maxim of the ethics of desire is simply desire as such: one has to maintain desire in its dissatisfaction. What we have here is a kind of heroism of the lack: the aim of the psychoanalytic cure is to induce the subject to assume his constitutive lack heroically; to endure the splitting which propels desire.

From Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen zen-ji’s “Genjo-koan”:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

Is Dogen preaching a similar heroism of the lack? This is so different from the Western Buddhism that Zizek critiques, which clings to the pseudo-Gelassenheit, “let it be” attitude, and sometimes exerts itself as the commandment to tolerate or in the liberal apology for ‘the market’. The ‘liberal pragmatic’ outlook and charge of many Western Buddhists, compared with ‘religious fanaticism’, is an ideological caricature that veils class-struggle. However, Zizek’s emphasis has been on the obfuscating qualities of this ideological veil, not too unlike Marx’s critique of ‘false consciousness’, while neglecting the revelatory dimension of such a veil, which by definition functions on account of both concealing and unconcealing.

The question to put to Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism IS NOT what can it do for the Left, but what can it not do for itself? What is missing—not as a specific object, but in terms of the splitting and rendering asunder that propels desire? Moreover, what do popular conceptions of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ put in the place of this lack, this missing-something, so as to maintain a certain semblance?

Written by Joe

March 2, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Back-Handed Praise for Zizek’s Western Buddhism

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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.

Written by Joe

July 28, 2008 at 1:58 pm

What’s the Big Difference?

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If zazen is when you’re on the cushion, and Zen is when you’re not, then the only substantial difference is whether you’re on the cushion or not. If zazen is what we call it when we’re on the cushion, then it doesn’t matter what we call it when we’re off. The key to zazen is if done with Right Intention, the difference between standing and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will become clear and empty. To that end, advocating zazen with Right Intention is at minimum and all it means to spread the Dharma.

The key to zazen is if pursued with Right Intention, the difference between standing/walking and sitting, i.e. between being on the cushion and not, will appear clear and empty. Thus Dogen says in the Genjokoan that when Dharma fills this whole body and mind we realize that something’s missing. Not only does this mean realizing our psycho-physical self is empty, but that emptiness is form, and that when we have psycho-physical form it’s only finite, which means temporal and ontologically determined. To that end, we realize that standing is standing and sitting is sitting all because of this, which we already know is nothing special.

Written by Joe

May 11, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Dharma, Practice, Zazen, Zen