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Archive for the ‘Western Buddhism’ Category

What Is In Buddhism More Than Buddhism Itself

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Jacob Libby leaves an excellent comment on my now somewhat old post on Western Buddhism (redux), which I have been meaning to update and otherwise revise. I would like to put it up for its excellence in itself, and as a way point for further discussion. The only thing I will say now (there will be updates) is that I whole-heartedly agree in dropping the true/false-buddhism angle. I even think I have in subsequent posts, when I pick up on Zizek’s critical/therapeutic religion distinction (though I wouldn’t isolate this split to an effect of modernity; Walter Breuggemann employs this same distinction, though without naming it, when discussing “the religion of God’s freedom” and “the religion of God’s accessibility” or religions of transendance and immanence in his book “The Prophetic Imagination”).

Set aside the question of whether Plum Village is capitalist in its Essence. Ask rather, what would it take for Plum Village exist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? This is the revolutionary question: can Buddhist “practice” undermine the Capitalist relations of production that warp and control the social and economic space of our choices — that ultimately determine where and when Buddhist practice can flourish?

If you love Haiti and you love Buddhism, please read my words!

Joe claims that the Buddhism Zizek critiques is not the real Buddhism. The properly Zizekian response here would be to claim that the division between so-called Western (postmodern) Buddhism and “true” (scriptural) Buddhism is not an aftereffect of Buddhism’s cooptation into America and European society but rather is a primordial cut inherent to Buddhism itself. In other words, the postmodern “interpretation” of Buddhism was part of Buddhism from the beginning, one of its intrinsic possibilities. In this case, Western Buddhism expresses what is to the scriptural Buddhists the repressed core of Buddhism proper, its relativistic complicity with the violence of Global Capital. So, for example, Suzuki’s commentary on affirmation “not conditioned by a negation” (mirroring Nietzsche’s notion of the Yea-sayer as well as Foucault’s double circumscription of meaning and truth in philosophical archaeology) strikes a relativistic chord sharply contrasting Zizek celebration of Divine Violence, which depends upon a double negation. For Zizek, such an act must first step out from the coordinates of world-perpetuating activity by a radically negative gesture of non-participation; only by means of this negating gesture of freedom is the space opened for a true act. In what Zizek would call “a properly Hegelian paradox,” freedom is the condition for freedom.

But does this not put Plum Village alongside the Shanghai Commune and the Paris Commune in a line of radical communities who have dropped out of society and forged ahead with a new non-Capitalist vision? The answer is clearly “No.” No where does Zizek celebrate the apolitical compassion of the sustainable, non-exploitative, and egalitarian Buddhist community. Plum village does not fit alongside the death-defying radicalism of Robespierre or the Red Guard in Zizek’s narrative of world transformation for a simple reason: a Plum Village alive and well in the heart of capitalist Europe offers no fundamental challenge to the hegemony of Global Corporate Power. The Paris Commune and Shanghai commune occurred at the epicenter of world-transformative revolutionary violence — to Zizek they were failed attempts to directly institutionalize the spirit of the revolution. Plum Village is what Zizek would call decaffeinated revolutionary — the impossible revolutionary without the revolution. If, instead, on the proverbial day after the apocalyptic scene at the end of Fight Club — after Tyler Durden destroys the computer databases of the main central banks — yes, then Plum Village would be the site of revolutionary activity (the revolutionization of the revolution) — and Durden’s death would represent his truly Buddhist detachment from commodity fetishism. But without the explosives, the personal transformation does not make it into Zizek’s pantheon: while Global Capital still calls the real shots, still controls the economic realities that interpolate and warp our reality and our choices, Plum Village remains an ideological appendage of Capitalism.

My question is therefore a different one. Does a “True Buddhist” really care whether his faith is admitted into Zizek’s pantheon? If so, why? Does he inwardly doubt this his path can build the world he envisions in the age of global ecological collapse and continental enslavement? The political dynamics of the modern world demand new questions of the original Buddha. The questions of freedom in the age of global finance cannot but change Siddhartha’s path. The modern circumstance begs Buddhism to reveal what is in Buddhism more than Buddhism itself.

And apropos to today: Who will build (and fight for!) a Plum Village in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

(PS: My understanding of Zizek is based on “Tarrying with the Negative”, “Parallax View”, “Violence”, and “In Defense of Lost Causes”)

Written by Joe

January 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Buddhist Church Inc.

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From Buddhist Geeks:

We continue our discussion with Shambhala acharya, Judith Simmer-Brown, about how we can strategically invest in American Buddhism so that it survives in the long-term. We explored the first three areas of importance in-depth in part 1, which included the translation of core texts, the development of a monastic lineage, and the appointment of dharma heirs.

In this part of the discussion we flesh out the details of the fourth area, which is royal patronage. Judith speaks about how, given a lack of that kind of support, most dharma teachers and organizations turn whole-heartedly to the market to sustain them. And with that come all sort of issues–including the pursuit of fame and fortune. We finish the discussion, going back to the question of whether we’ll be able to develop a monastic community in the West, and why that’s important to the healthy development of Buddhism in America.

What better than a Buddhist Church Inc. to supplement the post-modern feudal order? I mean, Nazi Germany was nominally Christian, right? Stalin’s Soviet Union was still haunted by the big Other. What about nationalism is consonant with a vision of universal liberation?

Written by Joe

November 10, 2009 at 9:46 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

Who Thinks Abstractly?

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Hegel’s essay can be summarized in contemporary terms with a response as pithy as his own terse statement: “the uneducated, not the educated.”

Those who think abstractly are those who believe in some kind of metaphysical common-sense: whether the universal rationality that supposedly governs market-actors’ choices or some common-sensical naturalistic “way”. This goes for the fashionable, artificial back-to-nature simplicity of new agers and their western-buddhist, -taoist and -hindu cousins.

“Be yourself” is metaphysical common-sense. The romantic appeal to feelings is metaphysical common-sense. “The invisible hand” is metaphysical common-sense. Ideology as Marx engages and critiques it is metaphysical common-sense. “The way things are” is an appeal to metaphysical common-sense. The super-ego is metaphysical common-sense as an obscene agency shaping ahead of time the contours of how our ownmost convictions even appear to us as our own.

Written by Joe

June 30, 2009 at 11:08 pm

A Bodhisattva Vow Made in Bad Faith

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In an instant-messenger conversation with my friend Jon, more of which I will post above as their own chunks, I was stroked by genius.

Me: I didn’t notice this earlier, but this is the (neo)liberal fantasy par-excellance: ‘my practical goal is to bring about a fruition of captialism worldwide with as few losers as possible.’ It’s a kind of bodhisattva vow made in bad faith.

Jon: oh yeah

Me: That’s a really interesting marriage of theological concepts: a bodhisattva vow made in bad faith. I think it embodies what Zizek sees in Western Buddhism.

Me: Oh my God.

I think I just figured out my paper topic for that conference.

Jon: woaaaah! do it!

Update: From further down the conversation, still concerned with Zizek and Buddhism, I take up an earlier issue in the conversation concerning hegemony and the tendency of the Left to try to undermine hegemony rather than use it.

>You could think of a hegemon as the monopoly on the production of knowledge, where bodhisattvas ‘rely on prajna paramita’ or the production of wisdom for their work. What is wisdom though? Maybe it’s just the way that liberating knowledge first appears, and in todays spirituality industry we (arguably Zizek) have a glimpse into a primitive accumulation of our very souls. If the stress of living in capitalism is experienced as a kind of (what Zizek would call) subjective violence, the spirituality industry inflicts an objective violence that we do not immediately experience, just as we do not immediately experience the environment or our social support networks degrading. I want to risk an even more daring hypothesis though: what if the subjective violence that we experience as stress and other psycho-physiological distortions caused by Capitalism’s gutting of our world were a manifestation of the objective violence more usually called structural violence? In other words, they are not-two. This is the psychoanalytic marxist description of the Buddha’s compassion for suffering.

That is to say, people caught in the new-age, thearapeutic religious loop try to address their subjective suffering at the expense of an objective suffering, though they are one in the same. Such a spiritual path remains stuck in a dualistic paradigm, the very same paradigm it threatens to realize in its relegating of social welfare to self-fulfillment. Freedom for all beings: that is the answer to the first half of Lenin’s rhetorical question aimed at proponents of democratic freedoms in a capitalist society: “freedom for whom, and to do what?”

What of the latter though?

Written by Joe

June 9, 2009 at 3:10 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

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