Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Zizek's Western Buddhism

[cross-posted at And Now For Something Completely Different]

One of the Slovenian philosopher, Slavok 
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.(Self Deceptions: On Being Tolerant and Smug)

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 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.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Clark Strand's lastest volley of attack against Western Buddhism

by Tom Armstrong
Image source: Buddhist Channel
Baby Boomer Buddhism Going Bust” is the headline at Topix, announcing the gist of Clark Strand’s latest attack against Western Buddhism in an opinion piece that appeared in the Taste section of The Wall Street Journal last Friday, and was posted online in the WSJ‘s Opinion Journal.

Titled “Buddhist Boomers: A Meditation” in its hardcopy incarnation, the article first conveys Strand’s belief, previously expressed in Tricycle, that Buddhism is on the ropes, in decline because it doesn’t have the family-friendly features of the Christian and Jewish faiths.

But Strand goes further in this new op piece. He says Western converts to Buddhism are deluded to think that Buddhist practice is free of dogma and superstition. And that in its “convert”ed state is “also free of folk tales, family and ... fun.”

Western Buddhism no fun? Is this guy cranky or what!?

And if many of us set aside what seems dogmatic or is superstitious in the ancient scrolls or premodern practices, hooray for that.

Further, in a remark staggeringly bizarre to me, Strand makes his case that Buddhism isn’t in sync with current science and -- get this -- isn’t, basically, peace loving:
In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people's minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.
Today, when the Saffron Revolution in Burma weighs heavy on Buddhists’ minds worldwide, it is curious indeed that Strand chooses to say that Buddhism is not particularly peaceful. Certainly, there are calls for blessed peacemakers in the texts of the world’s other prominent religions, but Buddha’s teachings are remarkably peace loving and stripped of the justifications for war and violence found in the others.

It would be prideful for me to make the case for Buddhism’s myriad wondrous qualities, here. And it’s way beyond my scope to pull together an overview of Buddhism‘s relative excellence because I don’t know enough about religion, generally. But, is Strand nuts? The Old Testament has God requiring Abraham to slay his son. Jesus dies on the cross with the logic being that somehow that compensates for our sins. And let us not forget the Inquisition and the Crusades. And in Islam, Mohammad inveighs against the infidels and justifies making conversion to the faith by knifepoint.

Certainly, the record for Buddhism isn’t lily pure. War at slow boil continues in Sri Lanka between Buddhist sects. And in the highly nationalistic Japan of World War II, the Shinto-Zen blend of religion had a part in the war machine. But instances of Buddhist warmaking is very rare compared to other religions. That is just simply the case. How Strand arrives at the harsh ideas that he parades is mysterious.

As for Strand’s assessment that reincarnation is anathematic to medical science, I think he is wrong for two killer reasons: (1) Medical science doesn’t concern itself (or shouldn't concern itself ...) with reincarnation; it’s all about the physical properties of the body; and (2) He misses the point. The Dalai Lama, and most Western Buddhists, in contrast to adherents of other religions, accept corrections that may come from science to any “dogma” in our religion . That is why the Dalai Lama was an appropriate choice to address the Society for Neuroscience and the Pope wouldn’t have been.

In a statement near the end of his WSJ harangue Strand writes this:

Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large--from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." The object of that experiment is not to import some "authentic" version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether--one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.
I cannot see what propels Strand to write this. Buddhism in America is not a thought experiment, as ungrounded as the swirling wind. There is a universe of texts from teachers of our time that speak with very similar dispatch to the values and traditions carried over from the root of Buddhist teachings. As much as any religion anywhere and at any time, I would aver, American Buddhism is attentive to and guided by [but not nailed to] particular and specific concepts, teachings, traditions and goalless goals. The new technology aids us in this, keeping our ducks in a row.

Certainly there are many rather-casual Buddhists in America as there are casual adherents to any religion. But I think "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist" is neither in any way typical nor fair nor comes from anywhere other than Strand’s fertilized imagination.

Strand has established well the reputation he seeks as American Buddhism’s harshest, meanest, fact-flightiest critic. [In a 2003 article in Tricycle, Strand called American Buddhism racist. See Strand quote midway in this blog post.] What makes Strand most hurtful and harmful is his ongoing connection to Tricycle magazine where he has long been a contributing editor and a praised favorite of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen. Strand’s WSJ article cites his connection to Tricycle, giving the imprimatur to outsiders of him being a scholarly Buddhist heavyweight.

The last portion of a Oct. 28 article about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Canada, published in the Toronto Star [and shortly thereafter posted to The Buddhist Channel], gets commandeered by Strand’s damning views on Western Buddhism as he is treated as a knowing and reliable authority.

I think that Strand has lost objectivity regarding Buddhism and has other religious fish to fry -- his next book is called How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not) [Scroll to the bottom of Morgan Road Books' current News & Events notice]. For whatever reason [Bitterness? Loss of fervor?], Clark Strand has lost the Buddhist mojo he had in the past as a Zen monk, founder of a monastery, and Buddhist writer. It is time he was relieved of the connection to Buddhism Tricycle gives him that is used as his claim of being authoritative.

Update 11/15: Both the New York Times, in "Autumn of the American Buddhist," and Tricycle, with "Graying Buddhism?", have posted opinion pieces regarding Strand's Wall Street Journal essay. Both the Times and Tricycle focus solely on the idea of Buddhism dying out in America and not other issues Strand raised.


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Monday, 12 November 2007

Obstacles to Practice & Progressive Buddhism?

My apologies for the lengthy disappearance. I had to retreat a bit in order to keep various commitments and obligations, and to keep a modicum of peace and stability in the midst of recent professional turmoil.
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I recently sat down to list (ostensibly for the mindfulness group I’ve been developing on campus) what kind of obstacles we can experience in our practice. As I was putting these down it quickly became apparent that these are nothing but my own challenges to practice. All of them. Persistently. Hence, the list became an inventory of obstacles to my own practice, and a good way to look deeply at the same.

I thought they also made sense as obstacles to a progressive Buddhism, or as I prefer, to a “zen humanism.” I offer them here as an initial foray for us to contemplate and expand, and repost.

Basic Obstacles/Challenges to Practice

  1. Either/Or Thinking: This kind of polarization is particularly unhelpful as I often come across folks who repeat things like, “a good practice HAS to be like this,” or who make claims about “Buddhism” or what being “Buddhist” is or is not. In any case, a practice marked by either/or thinking would seem to be pretty limiting for exploring the self and for transforming suffering. A progressive engaged Buddhism might also conceive of this as a need to be explicitly self-conscious about its own assumptions.

  2. Fear of Truth: This refers to the fear of facing the insight that emerges from deep looking. Often this fear becomes so intense that the insight from practice is distorted in order to make it fit with one’s own cherished assumptions. Discomfort with what we face about ourselves is unavoidable. A progressive Buddhism must welcome bracing insight about its own assumptions, beliefs, and claims.

  3. Seeing Only What We Expect or Have Learned to See: The tyranny of assumptions and expectations that are unacknowledged, or that we have been conditioned to expect, is enormous. A progressive Buddhism must look deeply to challenge attachments to “the old country,” or this or that master, or particular practice.

  4. Intolerance for Change, Not Knowing, and Uncertainty: Nothing kills a practice like holding on with a death grip to long-held assumptions, not being willing to say “I don’t know,” or needing to be certain about everything. A progressive Buddhism needs to exemplify skillful harmony between affirmation and epistemic agnosticism.

  5. Overclassification, Categorization: Attempting to fit everything into boxes and easy categorization systems as a way to make sense of them. This is the way human beings work, but we ought to consider that easy categorization does not wisdom render and immediately imposes a narrowing of circumference. When we engage in simple categorization we stand to engage in two fallacies: the fallacy of composition (taking the part for the whole), and the fallacy of division (taking the whole for the part).

  6. Seeking Control, Being Dominant: Some folks and groups need to be dominant, to control, and to assert themselves or their beliefs. Seen from another perspective this translates into inability to be receptive and non-controlling. A progressive Buddhism need not be “top dog” neither in cultural wars nor among other “Buddhist” groups, even as it shares its understanding and/or insight.

  7. Need to Conform: The counterpart of seeking control, the need to conform translates often into playing it safe, and not challenging ourselves or the information we encounter. A progressive Buddhism ought to blaze new paths and not be afraid to confront challenges.

  8. Over-Respect for Authority: For individuals this refers to being too much of a follower, and unwillingness to question “authority.” The balance that must be struck is between reification of the self on one hand, and being too compliant and submissive on the other. We must remain open to wisdom and insight from various sources, while seeking to ground wisdom in light of our own practice. A progressive Buddhism can find wisdom in venerated masters, but must also carefully look broadly at other sources of wisdom and challenge “authority.”

  9. Need to Challenge Authority: The counterpart to over-respect for authority, the need to confront and fight authority or the knowledge of others can be quite a detriment because it usually means a reduced circle of wisdom sources, and a “too healthy” belief in ourselves. A progressive Buddhism must challenge authority but not just for fighting authority’s sake.

  10. Eschewing Tradition: This refers to the easy dismissal of tradition and the seeking of thrills or the “new.” In short, we must be careful not to fall for the “latest and greatest” craze as it might signal fetishization and faddishness rather than open-ness to new ways of being. A progressive Buddhism needs a connection to tradition(s) as a way to form and solidify fellowship, while remaining unfettered by over-respect for the authority of the “traditional.”


Thanks,

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Why Progressive Buddhism?

[Edited for silly mistake]
What is the purpose of 'progressive Buddhism' and why do we think is it needed? Doesn't being 'progressive' about Buddhism imply that the teachings of Buddha are flawed in some way and in need of improvement?

Buddhism has a long history of adaptation to new cultures and of evolutionary development from Theravada to Mahayana, Zen and Vajrayana. Similarly, customs and rituals adapt to the native culture as does the role of dharma practitioners in society - for example, the emergence of Zen monks who could marry and practice a trade.

The arrival of Buddhism in the modern West is particularly significant for several reasons. Previous host societies have been feudal, agrarian and mainly non-literate. Buddhism has arrived in a post-modern world, scientifically-literate and sophisticated scholarship recources. On the other hand it has values and social structure which makes it difficult for monks to survive with no source of income other than begging for alms. The costs of living are high and what few Buddhists exist in the population do not wish merely to support, they wish to be practitioners. It seems obvious that Buddhism must adapt, but how?

It is also a time of great opportunity. For the first time in history, all the different strands of Buddhism, which have so far evolved in isolation from one another, have for the first time become fully aware of one another. Should all of these regional variations continue unchanged, should we seek a synthesis or some combination of the two. All the expressions vary, but surely they are all trying essentially teaching the same thing. The appearance of all of these schools simultaneously in the modern west seems like a great opportunity to find a constructive synthesis between the various sects, between Buddhism and western thought and between Buddhism and science.

We also have access to sophisticated scholarship, archaeology, linguistics and cross-disciplinary scholarship, which can provide new insights into the origin, evolution and meaning of Buddhist text of all ages. The Buddha's original teachings are revealed as rational and pragmatic approach to the human situation which stresses lived experience rather than metaphysical specualtion.

Most traditional Buddhist societies believe in rebirth and karma in the most literal sense. And Buddha himself lived in a society in which these were given 'truths' of the human view of the world. We have no reason to suppose that he was omniscient. His original teachings were the means to escape from suffering, by following the Eightfold Path, and modifications of the concepts of reincarnation and karma which did not include a separate self or soul, a concept for which Buddha could find no corresponding experience or phenomenon in his investigation of the human condition. In the modern west, we do not generally have traditional beliefs in karma or rebirth, yet they are unneccessary for value to be found in practice. Buddha himself says this in the Kalama Sutta. Indeed, much common ground can be found with psychotherapy and a number of modern therapeutic methods have borrowed heavily from Buddhism.

Just as Dogen travelled to Korea and China to find and bring back the essence of Buddhism to Japan, we can investigate it in every contemporary expression and in the early teachings alike.

Furthermore, we now have access to scientific tools with which we can investigate the core tenets of Buddhism - the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering.

One danger with the current situation, is that investigating the dharma as individuals is an activity of ego, a form of 'picking and choosing' what we like and dislike and hence a dualistic, samsaric condition. And we are not equally blessed with wisdom. We need the advice of teachers.

However I believe that this situation in not significantly different from that of Buddha's day and people will judge the value of a teaching according to its results and reputation. If we are wise we make our choices based on what we can verify personally and that which is 'praised by the wise'.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Book Review: Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis


I found this book by chance in the Buddhist section of Borders bookshop. From the title, I assumed it was one of the many introductions to Buddhism that tend to inhabit the shelves of such shops - and indeed I imagine that the purchasers at Borders assumed the same thing. But, in that respect the title is misleading, for although the author indeed focuses on a few suttas from Pali Canon which he considers to define the fundamentals, this is not ordinary introduction aimed at the casual reader.

Wallis is an associate professor of religion at Georgia and has a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard. The book he has written cuts through cliched translations of Buddhist terminology and popular assumtions of what practicing the dharma means, revealing the Buddha's teachings as a highly rational and pragmatic methodology based on direct, empirical, personal experience.

I didn't find myself convinced by every one of Professor Wallis' interpretations. For example, there is a passage from the Tevijja Sutta, in which two Brahman's ask the Buddha which is the direct path to communion with God, and Buddha refutes the notion that the 'religious authorities' know such a path, instructs them in the way of the dharma and tells them that this is the path to communion with God. Wallis interprets this as a refutation of the very idea of God and infatuation with it. But I see nothing supporting that in the text. Instead it seems to me, an example of the provisionality of the teaching of the dharma, of teaching not in absolute terms of fact, but in terms what can be understood by the listener and what will aid the listener in awakening - he taught in terms of 'God' because that was the language and the conceptual system being used by the Brahmans.

Nevertheless, this is a highly insightful and refreshing read - a must for every progressive Buddhist.

4.5 Stars

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