Saturday April 8, 2006
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has, for several years now, been calling into question the notion of “Western Buddhism”, and he has had few kind words to say about those Westerners who claim to be practising the Buddhadharma. In terms of philosophical fashion, Žižek is very much flavour of the month at the moment. Last weekend, the British Phenomenological Society’s 2006 AGM was dedicated to his work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the conference, but I thought I would put down some thoughts on Žižek’s criticisms of Western Buddhism nevertheless.
The following passage is more or less representative of Žižek’s view: it reappears under different incarnations in a number of Žižek’s articles, for example in his 2001 paper Self-Deceptions: On Being Tolerant and Smug, in the 2005 essay Revenge of Global Finance and also in the 2001 paper in Cabinet, From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. The following version of the argument comes from the first of these sources.
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. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents 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.
Consider the phenomenon of “future shock”- the popular term for how people today can no longer psychologically cope with the dazzling rhythm of technological development and the accompanying social change. Before one can become accustomed to the newest invention, another arrives to take its place, so that increasingly one lacks the most elementary “cognitive mapping.” Eastern thought offers a way out that is far superior to the desperate attempt to escape into old traditions. The way to cope with this dizzying change, such wisdom suggests, is to renounce any attempts to retain control over what goes on, rejecting such efforts as expressions of the modern logic of domination. Instead, one should “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of the accelerated process. Such distance is based on the insight that all of the upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being. Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.
For Žižek, the term “Western Buddhism” seems to stand for a largely uncritical hodge-podge of vaguely “Eastern” systems of thought that, in placing a high value upon the supposed virtue of detachment and in its aspiration to “go with the flow” risks obscuring the evils of global capitalism. For Žižek there is a kind of dishonesty – or, less straightforward than dishonesty, a kind of repression – in this “going with the flow”, in the claim that we have nothing to do with the “mad dance”. The flow that these Western Buddhists are going with, in Žižek’s view, is the very thing that they are claiming to have withdrawn from: and it is a pretty nasty flow at that.
A common response to Žižek’s claim that Western Buddhism is merely another avatar of the capitalism it purports to disavow is to say that the term is so vaguely drawn and so impressionistic that it is hard to see what it points to. It does not appear that Žižek has really made a sufficiently deep study, either of Buddhism or of the vastly complex variety of its Western manifestations, for his argument to rise very far above the level of slapdash sensationalism. His “Western Buddhism” is a straw man. Upon what research are Žižek’s claims founded? Who are these Western Buddhists? What texts is he drawing from? Are they representative? What would it take for a text, in the vast field of Western Buddhim, to be representative at all? And so on.
But there is another problem Žižek’s view, and that is that he does not take into account the fact that at the heart of the various traditions of Buddhism there is is a deep and abiding concern with suffering, its causes and its alleviation. This is what Buddhism is about, if it is about anything at all. At this point, loyal followers of Žižek might offer the following response: even if Western Buddhism concerns itself with suffering, this concern is fetishistic, and is therefore a further strategy of repression and denial. Žižek gives a clear indication of the nature of this fetishism in the following passage in From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism
…the fetish is the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth. Let us take the case of the death of a beloved person. In the case of a symptom, I “repress” this death and try not to think about it, but the repressed trauma returns in the symptom. In the case of a fetish, on the contrary, I “rationally” fully accept this death, and yet I cling to the fetish, to some feature that embodies for me the disavowal of this death.
Taking this view, it could be argued that the Western Buddhist purported concern with suffering is merely a means of repressing the fact of suffering: we go around, saddened by the suffering of the world, our eyes set upon some distant liberation, and in our effete hopes for a future freedom from suffering, we do not turn ourselves to the very real injustices and cruelties of the world in which we live. Such a claim, however, is unjust. In this bizarre hall of mirrors where Marxism meets Lacanian analysis, and in which every single move can be represented as a sign of a deep sickness that has been decided upon in advance, every act, every thought, every word spoken can be read as a sign of denial – either through the power of fetishism or through simple (or not so simple) avoidance.
But surely, one could (perhaps with equal injustice) say the same about Marxist philosophy and Lacanian analysis, or any of the other activities with which Žižek preoccupies himself. Why not argue that Žižek’s powerful arguments against the global capitalist economy fetishistically mask the fact that he too is thoroughly involved in it? Why not point to how Žižek’s books fill the bookshelves, how conferences are organised in his name, and say that these are all signs of some kind of denial, repression, fetishism. Why not conclude that he, too – like his semi-mythical “Western Buddhists” whoever they may be – seems to be having his cake and eating it? Why not? Because, I think, this kind of enterprise, with its assumption of prior guilt, does not in the end tell us very much that is interesting about Žižek, in the same way that Žižek does not tell us very much that is interesting, alas, about Western Buddhism.
Having said this, Žižek’s writings can still act as a powerful reminder that we are all inescapably the product of our times, that we are immersed in forces over which we have no control, and that the waters upon which we find ourselves adrift are more treacherous than we often dare to admit. They can remind us of the dangers of flight from these realities of which we are a part: either through seeking safe havens of comfort where we can block our ears to the fact of suffering; or through fetishising the fact of suffering so that, whilst we may speak about nothing else, we still insulate ourselves from a true understanding of its nature and its causes. But in the end, these are dangers from which none of us are exempt: whether Western Buddhists, Lacanian analysts, Marxist philosophers, or anybody else.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Tigers, Mushrooms, Money and Monks: Monday September 26, 2005
A fashion for tiger-skin in Tibet is threatening to hasten the extinction of the Indian tiger.
Meditation in Schools?: Monday August 6, 2007
Should meditation be taught in schools?
Numskulls, Dumskulls and the Evolution of the Mind: Thursday September 27, 2007
Out of the dumb came forth… the slightly less dumb.
A Problem with Bandwidth: Friday February 20, 2009
A few late-night thoughts on consciousness
The Meaning of the Meaning of Life: Saturday October 14, 2006
Life has no meaning; but that doesn’t mean it is meaningless…
Things Worth Knowing: Friday August 7, 2009
The stuff we know (or claim to know) and a few thoughts on ethics.
Unwholesome Imaginings.: Monday August 8, 2005
Buddhism, and the invention of hell.
Dennett's Modest Proposal: Tuesday November 14, 2006
Dan Dennett, religion and science.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.