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Nietzsche and Buddhism: An Annotated Bibliography (forthcoming)

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One of my last courses as an undergraduate was a survey-course on Nietzsche. For one of the core assignments, I ended up writing up a quick-and-dirty sort of bibliography on and a summary of his use of Buddhism. For this I found the most incredible text, Nietzsche-Wörterbuch or “Nietzsche Dictionary.” It’s published by de Gruyter, publishers of Freny Mistry’s original “Nietzsche and Buddhism: Prolegmenon to a Comparative Study.” The Nietzsche Dictionary is actually a work-in-progress, which de Gruyter explains so I don’t have to.

The Nietzsche Dictionary elucidates in detail some 300 terms from Nietzsche’s vocabulary. The first volume presents 67 of them. The account of each term includes the number of occurrences, main uses, synonyms, the various meanings, components of meanings and semantically relevant contexts (with examples), and the historical linguistic and philosophical localisation of Nietzsche’s use of the word, as well as a discussion of Nietzsche research and the reception of Nietzsche.

The complete dictionary will comprise 4 volumes. The project will be completed by 2010. An electronic version is planned upon completion of the printed edition.

Lucky for me, Buddhismus is early enough in the alphabet to be included in the first volume. Unlucky for me, the text is in German. It’s not so bad though, having taken a couple years of German. I can read through the citations (I count 66), and translate with little trouble the cited words.

What I have already done is format the 14-page section into a nifty reference to all the places Nietzsche uses the words that invoke the Buddha, Buddhists, Buddhism and/or Buddhistic (culture). I also made a small list of what Robert Morrison describes in his Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities as the only texts Nietzsche owned or probably read on Buddhism. Graham Parkes points out in a critical review of Morrison’s book that he over looked work done by Johann Figl into Nietzsche’s earliest encounters with Buddhism and Asian thought in general, which suggests Nietzsche encountered Buddhism even earlier than Morrison describes, in his days at the University of Bonn (just slightly earlier than his discovery of Schopenhauer). To be fair to Morrison, that is about the only substantial point Parkes makes. I encourage people to read Morrison’s response to Parkes, in which he addresses not just Parkes but the problems with Mistry’s book that he sought to remedy in his book while making his own original arguments. Lastly I am collecting a list of secondary sources on Nietzsche and Buddhism.

What I want to do is not only translate the Nietzsche Dictionary selection into English, but perhaps expand upon it with the secondary literature. Here is what I have so far.

Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy: Buddhism (7); Buddhistic negation of the will (7); Buddhistic culture (18); Indian Buddhism (21).

Dawn: Buddha (96); Buddhist (469)

The Gay Science: Buddha (108, 147, 353); Buddhism (99, 347); buddhistisches (99);

Beyond Good and Evil: Buddha (56); Buddhism (61, 202)

Genealogy of Morals (Essays/Section): Buddhist/ism (1/6), (2/21), (3/17); Buddha (3/7, 27); European Buddhism (Preface 5).

The Case of Wagner: “Buddhistic” in letter to Peter Gast included in Kaufmann’s 1967 translation.

The Anti-Christ: Buddha (20); Buddhism (20,21,22,23,42); Buddhists (22)

Ecce Homo (Essays 1,2,3&4): Buddha (1-6); Buddhists (Zarathustra Section1).

Nachlass (Notebook/Section): Buddha (1/5), (5/71), (7/111), (14/91, 162), (24/1), (25/16); Buddhist (1/5), (10/157, 190), (11/244), (14/107, 162), (19/148); Buddhism (2/4, 127, 131), (4/15), (10/157), (11/240), (14/91, 195), (24/1), (25/97); Buddhistic (11/4); Buddhist Pessimism (2/186); European Buddhism (2/144), (4/2), (5/71), (35/9); Buddhist negation of reality (9/62); “buddhaische Traumphilosophie” (23/4, 12); Buddhism as Passive Nihilism (9/35); Buddhist-Christian belief (25/222).

Buddhist Scholarship That Nietzsche Read – from Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism.

(1) Hermann Oldenberg’s (1882) Buddha 

(2) Max Müller’s (1881) Selected Essays On Language, Mythology and Religion (vol.ii) 

(3) Carl Köppen’s (1857) Die Religion des Buddha 

(4) Muthu’s Coomaraswamy’s (1874) Dialogues and Discourses of Gotama Buddha

Nietzsche-Buddhist Scholarship You Should Read

Mistry, Freny. Nietzsche and Buddhism: Prolegomenon to a Future Study. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981.

Morrison, Robert G. Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Parkes, Graham ed. Nietzsche and Asian Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Stambaugh, Joan. The Other Nietzsche. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.

Van Tangeren et. al. “Buddhismus.” Nietzsche-Wörterbuch. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004. 419-433.

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Written by Joe

June 21, 2008 at 8:49 am

Posted in Buddhism, Nietzsche

Hegel’s Return to Rhetoricality, and Getting High With Moses

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One of Hegel’s complaints in the Phenomenology is against what he calls “picture-thinking.” If it’s not a complaint against it as such, it’s definitely a complaint about a way of thinking about the world people have used it for. A great example of this latter sort of ambiguity is in paragraph 346, where after finishing his discussion of phrenology and otherwise physiognomy, Hegel turns to a rather potent analogy (pun most definitely intended). Since his discussion of phrenology was more or less a discussion of the difference and relationship between the objective world (i.e. explicit appearances) and Spirit, and specifically in the context of phrenology the relationship between the physical skull and the Spirit, he makes a nifty point: the genitals, but more obviously the phallus, are at once the organs of perhaps the highest ecstasy natural to human physiology (Hegel actually refers to its specialness in it being “the organ of regeneration,” which is to say procreation) as well as the organs that handle some of the most nasty stuff we regularly deal with, like urination (cf. Woody Allen in Sleeper: My brain, it’s my second favorite organ!”). While not necessarily making an interpretive point about human physiology (like Freud does with the Oral, Anal and Genital stages of development, which are all sites of otherwise nasty physiological function and pleasure, which we can easily think of as organs of (re)generation if we think of the painful pleasure (jouissance) neurotics seek out of repetition compulsion), Hegel uses this duplicity to say something about how Reason can take this fact.

Brain fibres and the like, when regarded as the being of Spirit, are no more than a merely hypothetical reality existing only in one’s head, not hte true reality which has an outer existence, and which can be felt and seen; when they exist out there, when they are seen, they are dead objects, and then no longer pass for the being of Spirit. But objectivity proper must be an immediate, sensuous objectivity, so that in this dead objectivity—for the bone [of the skull] is a dead thing, so far as what is dead is present in the living being itself—Spirit is explicitly present as actual. The Notion underlying this idea is that Reason takes itself to be all thinghood, even purely objective thinghood itself; but it is only in the Notion, or, only the Notion is the truth of this idead; and the purer the Notion itself is, the sillier an idea it becomes when its content is in the form, not of the Notion, but of picture-thinking, i.e. if the self-suspending judgement is not taken with the consciousness of this its infinitude, but as a fixed proposition the subject and predicate of which are valid each on its own account, the self fixed as self, the thing fixed as thing, and yet each is supposed to be the other. Reason, essentially the Notion, is directly sundered into itself and its opposite, an antithesis which for that very reason is equally immediately resolved. But when Reason is presented as its own self and its opposite, and is helf fast in the entirely separate moment of this asunderness, it is apprehended irrationally; and the purer the moments of this asunderness, the cruder is the appearance of this content which is either only for consciousness, or only ingenuously expressed by it. The depth which Spirit brings forth from within—but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain—and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying, are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfilment [sic], the organ of generation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgement, qua infinite, would be the fulfilment [sic] of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgement that remains [i.e. gets stuck] at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination.

What Hegel is anticipating is his eventual turn back towards Christianity (now that he has just made a certain turn away from it in his ostensible critique of the Unhappy Consciousness), when by the end of the book he ends up arguing how his metaphysics is the literal truth of what is only the metaphorical truth of Christian theology. What is amazing about this move is how it restores the place of the rhetorical, or at least rhetoricality, in contrast to hundreds of years of literalistic picture-thinking qua knowledge as representation. It goes back even further if you consider Hegel’s subtle alignment with medieval Christian mysticism. What Hegel shakes loose, decades before Nietzsche was even born, is the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche is still necessary later on though, because Hegel does not really take himself seriously enough: even in Hegelianism we idealize the transitory world, which is implicitly an attempt to escape from it that Hegel never makes explicit.

The literal truth Hegel wants to suppose for his metaphysics as opposed the metaphorical truth of otherwise symbolic Christianity, which for the most part looks ludicrous when taken literally (a fairly popular approach), is a sort of lala-land that pragmatists, starting with James want to reject. I know I skip over Emerson, who in his own way rejects the foundationalist lala-land of literal meaning or abstract truth, but not only is he not exactly writing polemics like James kind of is (a good thing, on Emerson’s part, by my read), I’m in no position to distill anything interesting about that right now. What Rorty inherits from the pragmatists and Nietzsche is a love for language and its inescapability in how we talk about truth. One thing to which this leads him, much as with Nietzsche and to a lesser extent with Freud and Lacan, is a romantic view of language that argues for a return to, if not a full on valorization of poetry. For other anti-foundational thinkers, like Bloom, this linguistic turn has meant more modestly returning to texts themselves.

This was Hegel’s creative and not logical response to the philosophers of his time and before, though his thinking otherwise would prove to limit his system in the end. When he simply says (mind you, not argues) in Paragraph 82, “…call to mind the abstract determinations of thought and knowledge as they occur in the consciousness,” he is acting more like a poet than a philosopher typical of his time. In a certain sense, he takes experience in general to be a text, to which he returns us when he just starts interpreting it. The logical necessity, the truth of his project is, as Rorty says of truth in general, a compliment he pays to how well thinking this way, saying these things works for him. That it has and hasn’t worked for others since him has nothing to do with the text he produced, but with whether it has worked for them. I like this return to the text, but it the book, the speech of the analysand, or to what is there in all its stupid ambiguity and debatability.

It’s thinking of the text like this that I was pissed off by Benny Shannon. Professor Shannon, as he’s referred to in the article published in the Daily Mail about the burning-bush story of Exodus being a case of drug-use, is laughable and potentially dangerous as the religious zealot who claims Moses is really (no, seriously, really) talking to God in the burning bush. The story has the air of another Bible-story debunked, and I’m all for giving historical depth to otherwise literary documents, but there is no depth to be had by Professor Shannon’s interpretation. The Exodus, certainly the portion recounted in the burning-bush story, is on fairly shaky historical ground, in terms of outside, contemporary sources talking about it on terms outside of the deeply ambiguous and sometimes fantastic terms of the text itself. Professor Shannon wants to, like religious zealots, take this text as for serious about something that really happened, but wants to say what happened was something else. If we were dealing with a historical document, then I’d have less of a problem with this, but what Shannon is doing is interpreting the meaning (his meaning, his 21st century experimental drug-taking and academic meaning) “of the text” as what for serious is meant in the text itself.

On its face, we can take this as just another interpretation, but in its appeal to a real historical happening about which there are clear meanings, it asks to be nothing less than the word of God. I’m not a Christian or a Jew, but I find something fiendish in this, just as I find something fiendish in interpreting anything absolute in user-supplied meaning of the text. I am with Lacan in this respect, whose big beef with Ego Psychology was its insistence on interpreting the transference (i.e. the imaginary relations) rather than the analysand’s Symbolic context, which is to say the text that is the analysand’s situation. There is nothing particularly dangerous about Shannon’s interpretation, which is why my complaint may seem a bit over-blown, but neither is there anything particularly harmful about interpreting the text the way religious zealot does. What’s at stake for me is the very orientation to the text these interpretations take, or rather don’t take. Neither of them really have anything to do with the text itself, and that in itself is what is dangerous about this kind of thinking. Not having anything to do with the text, but ostensibly grounding themselves “in” it, this sort of thinking is effectively made up, but on dangerously unchecked grounds.

I think the more radically middle path would be give up both the concern for what the text really means, and to return to the text itself. When you hear people start talking about what this or that means, you can be sure as sunday that they’re in lala-land, because it is obvious that if we’re talking about this or that that it means something. It’s when they foreground their description with a statement of what we already know that we should be suspicious, like Zizek is of the Bush Administration’s to up-front talk of torture, and wonder deeply why are you saying this; what do you mean by your foregrounding of what this or that means?

Written by Joe

March 8, 2008 at 1:27 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