Western Buddhism and Other Capitalist Avatars

Saturday April 8, 2006

Western Buddhism

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.

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#1 · Sally

21 April 2006

Great to read your response to Zizek, I also felt he was too vague about who western buddhists are. I have a hunch he’s primarily referring to how western buddhism is portrayed in popular culture and hasn’t done anything like anthropological participant observation. Western buddhists are indeed shaped by our times, and it is inevitable that we are shaped by them in ways we’d rather not be! So I do think it’s a good thing that people like Zizek are thinking about this, and thus providing ways for western Buddhists to reflect on this.

#2 · Nacho

24 April 2006

Will:

Thanks for the great post. I’ve been meaning to post on two recent pieces by Zizek on ethics. Zizek can be a frustrating character, and annoyingly so at times especially in such instances as you note, but also in his engagement of the political against Laclau.

In any case, I do agree with you and Sally here. I think he is referring to a license that not just his idea of Western Buddhism grants, but the move toward a contemporary “spirituality.” I don’t disagree wholeheartedly with Zizek here (although I do disagree with the way he takes Buddhist thought), because part of me also has been thinking about the quietism that the move to an individually-centered “spirituality” of feeling the divine, buying candles, and getting in touch with the inner whatever, seems all based on consumption, decenters active engagement with concrete suffering, often conceives of political activity as “buying fair trade” or organic products (and voting as fetishistic act of the political), and most powerfully, loses the prophetic voice and ethos that accompanies the voices of such folks as the recently late Rev. W. S. Coffin, and also of MLK, Jr., etc.

Hence, while I dislike the fundamentalist arrogance and anti-democratic standpoint on many issues, I think they have awakened to the agonistic disposition needed for public life. They have turned that, as fundamentalism is wont to do, into hubris, self-centeredness, strong resentment, and hate. In contrast, I see much “inner-driven” popular “spiritualism” as fulfiling a capitalist logic of quietism and dissociation—where inner, spirit, etc. supplants, by being dissociated from the political, active oppositionality and democratic demand. At best the oppositionality is attenuated, given a “proper” realm or field in which to operate that reduces ethical challenge to the system, and thus the suffering it creates.

Thanks Will. I think I’ll repost this and link to you!

Best,

N

#3 · Will

24 April 2006

Hi, Sally and Nacho,

Thanks for your comments. And yes, I think that there is something in what Zizek is saying. There is such a thing, probably, as 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. You only have to go into your local bookstore to see this. Buddhists – along with everybody else – would be well advised to remember Aristotle’s understanding that anthropos phusei politikon zoon – Man is by nature a political animal. We are of the polis even if we decide to retire to a mountain retreat and spend our days in a cave. And I do think that there is a sense in which the political disappears in Buddhist discourse, or is seen as somehow being rather too soiled and compromised (unlike the ethical, which is seen as pure and elevated) to be engaged with. But this idea that we can not engage with the political is like saying that we can somehow not engage with the biological. Perhaps I’ll write a bit more on this in a future post.

One of the more interesting books that tackles these quietist tendencies in Buddhism head-on is David Edwards’s The Compassionate Revolution: Buddhism and Radical Politics in which he reads many of the sufferings caused by global politics as driven by the engine of the three ‘poisons’ of greed, hatred and delusion, and then looks at what it might be to formulate a political response that does not fall victim to the very thing it is attempting to resist.

Best wishes,

Will

#4 · Algis

1 August 2006

I met Zizek in 2003 in Vilnius (my home-town), Lithuania, where he was publicly lecturing in a rather loose manner about his splendorous self and eveything around it (really, the atmosphere he created was very much narcisisstic). In the end he also mentioned his anti-western-buddh. devaluations you describe well here.

He presents himself as a critical thinker, of course. In fact, from everything he said at that meeting, I concluded that he attacs commercialisation and loose kind of popularity of buddhism as a brand for moral relativism, lack of uncompromising ethical stance and so on, whereas christianity, John Paul II etc. represents clear value-driven opposition to all-encompassing “consumerisation” in present globalised capitalism.

I am very much annoyed by this nonsense. I am a honest practitioner of a particular mahyana school and I meet many “shoppers” (people who are searching for religious “fun”), who usually drop out early in their practice. I also meet and am happy to practice with very dedicated, honest persons who are also willing to adapt Buddhadharma to local chalenges. I think that this “adaptability”, non-authoritarism of transmited dharma and stress on a rather “soft” (non-revolutionary, but evolutionary) constant personal effort is what annoys Zizek as a post-marxist. The very “grey-scale” approaoch of most of buddhist schools (even regarding zen-radicals:) is what disturbs him. Western thought-systems are deeply affected by judeo-christian black-and-white kind of divisive (“critical”) thinking.

#5 · Will

1 August 2006

Hello, Algis,

It’s wonderful to hear from Vilnius. I spent a month there doing an archaelogical dig at Verkai – up the hill above the city – in the summer of 1991, just before Lithuania gained its independence. And it was a wonderful month – I still have many warm and appreciative memories.

Yes, you are probably right about Zizek being annoyed about thinking in grey-scale. What is curious about his repeated claims about “Western Buddhism” is that, although he has been making these claims in passing for years, he shows no signs of any deeper engagement with Buddhism at all, in any of the forms that it takes in the West. A genuinely critical and reflective engagement would be welcome, but this empty bluster is singularly unrevealing.

All the best,

Will

#6 · Algis

2 August 2006

Will, thank you for your kind response to my rant:). In that meeting actually I confronted Zizek by asking him whether it is not a marketing strategy for himself as a quite popular “Sozialkritiker”, a kind of selling of his own religious prefrences. He was very, very angry at me as well as local philology and philosophy students, interested mainly in Lacan and Baudrillar & co. I am not proud about this confrontation. Still I think, since I notice the christianity (or any abrahmitic religion) related public discourse is always quite confrontational, we (“western buddhists” of course) cannot avoid this occasional challenge of being called to impromptu “dharma-combat” (as we name it in our school) and participate in such verbal conversations. In the end, the historical buddhism in Indian subcontinent, well before Ashoka, was known for it’s aptness to discuss various matters and to persuade the opponents—the first sturctured philsophical/ethical debate tradition there, no? :) Methinks we should not avoid this legacy here, in this “globalization”, “multi-culti” eon either:). What do you think Will? By the way, thank you very much for a beatifully exhaustive blog. I was long dreaming in meeting such a soul mate, really!:)

#7 · melinda

6 August 2006

this idea,although logical,seems to convey judgement of quality in thought.

is it western thought to analize the capabilty of one’s personal journey? what is the handicap for self discovery when faced with false standards of success? morality is the baseline. we can only try.
#8 · Nyla

26 February 2008

I’m sorry, but I don’t think Zizek needs to engage more deeply with Buddhism in order to find that, as you have in fact pointed out, it is politically disengaged. It just is. It does elevate ethics over real political change. The practice you described as
““adaptability”, non-authoritarism of transmited dharma and stress on a rather “soft” (non-revolutionary, but evolutionary) constant personal effort” feeds no mouths. Western Buddhism’s emphasis on meditation may be a way of stress reduction, even a way to finding compassion toward others, but in the West it does have the effect of a mere “supplement” to the flow of escalating consumption and capitalism, as Z pointed out. Sorry. A deeper engagement by Zizek would be called for if he wanted to launch a critique using the same language of Buddhist teachings, but that’s not his intention. Note that he isn’t critical of the practice in the East. Reduction of stress is a great thing, but anyone who thinks they come close to Enlightenment as away of making the world a better place, is lying. You have to spend over 10 years in solitude on a mountain side and renounce everything—then you may approach Enlightenment. It just won’t happen at your local Zen Centre or Shambhala Centre anytime soon. A recent convert to Buddhism friend told me last week that, since I was on a tight budget, I should stop monthly support of my South American foster child a donation monthly to my local humane society in favour of spending the money on a membership at a Zen Centre. I find that politically preposterous.

#9 · Eric Scovel

4 November 2009

It’s wonderful to see such a discussion about Zizek’s writings on Buddhism going on here. I have been a Buddhist for 8 years or so now, and I have struggled to find a way to have an authentic practice that is not almost instantly corruptible by the commercial and consumerist ideologies of contemporary American culture. I still struggle with moving from the acknowledgement that I continue to fail at this, honest as such an acknowledgement may be, to a practice that leads out of delusion and the cycle of suffering. As someone committed to a lay, non-monastic life for the foreseeable future, I believe a path of social action, ideological activism, and regular spiritual practice and reflection is the best option in my circumstances—but only if these activities can resist co-option by the larger capitalist and ideological forces that dominate and torture the vast majority of beings on the planet.

Within this personal context, Zizek’s critiques, unfair and overgeneralizing as they may be, came as a relief, and for over a year now have been deepening my inquiries into being authentic in my view, meditation and conduct in this perverse global capitalistic system I was born into. Also, as a poet and a scholar of poetry I have seen too much writing that, for all of its good intentions, does nothing more than feed this politically and socially withdrawn, self-help idea of Buddhism and add to the shelves what are essentially consumer products aimed at a specialized-niche market of readers that need something more to prop up their intricately constructed identities/egos. That it also feeds the strain of Postmodern quietism that dominates the poetic mainstream is something of a problem for me as well.

Although I too would be interested in seeing Zizek expand on his commentary on “Western Buddhism,” I would much rather see someone more studied in Buddhism in the West look into his concerns of fetishization and sublimation as potentially new forumulations of hindrances to spiritual progress. As easy as it may seem to discredit the Post-Marxist and Lacanian context of Zizek’s thought, any close study of philosophy, economics, literary theory, anthropology and cultural studies reveals that most of the great works of theory written in the last hundred years or so owe a tremendous debt to the core conceptual frameworks provided by Marx and Freud. It is upon the stage of their ideas of mind (revealing the workings of the unconscious) and society (the underlying structures of production) that Buddhism enters Western thought. Their insights, as well as their ghosts, still define/haunt the Western imagination; and if one considers the great amount of suffering and death that the late capitalist system produces for the majority of what is left of life on Earth, then a deeper understanding of the ideas and actions (or non-actions) that support it is necessary to really combating the sufferings of this world at their core.

Zizek, to me, is best understood as an instigator. It is good to consider what he says and writes as intentionally outlandish and offensive to commonly held doctrines. His writing is meant to shock those curious and knowledgeable enough to read him into a new line of thinking that, one must hope, is more than just reactionary. And if you are familiar with his work, you should know that, aside from some of these comments about “Western Buddhism,” most of Zizek’s thought is much more than reactionary, and strives uncompromisingly for an emancipatory-revolutionary political vision—something which is sorely lacking in contemporary life and discourse.

#10 · Alana Lamella

5 January 2010

u mad

#11 · Fred K

4 February 2010

I definitely agree with Eric Scovel. It is sometimes difficult to swallow Zizek’s confrontational style but his message is truly emancipatory and makes its case not in the ‘hall of mirrors’ discourse of Lacan, but in the materialistic politics of Marx. The ‘hall of mirrors’ here is the ridiculous language of disinterested modern “spirituality”, and Lacan is a framework for critique. Zizek provides a tremendously articulate account of the larger social and economic structures that violently fund the deluded search for the ‘self’ plaguing the west. As Will said, you only have to ‘go to the local bookstore’ to find a ‘largely uncritical hodgepodge of vaguely ‘Eastern’ systems… that risk obscuring the evils of global capitalism.’ It is not hard to see which “western buddhists” Zizek is talking about here.

#12 · Shiva Shankar

12 May 2010

I am a practicing Buddhist, and I was very glad to hear of Edward’s book. About Zizek, the only clear refutation that ‘western’ Buddhists – especially those in the US – can give to his erroneous arguments is by OPPOSING wars that the US is always fighting, in Vietnam, Cuba, Honduras, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan … an endless list. Millions have died and millions more have been maimed, yet the curious silence of US Buddhists is baffling. Perhaps US Buddhists are the frauds that Zizek claims they are, chant some mantras at home while the US even refuses to ‘do body counts’. In India, such engaged Buddhism is the hallmark of Navayana Buddhism, initiated by the great radical Dr.B.R.Ambedkar.

#13 · Flip

13 February 2011

Thanks for this fascinating debate. I was a moment ago reading an article by Lacan on Kant and Sade, in which he made oblique reference to Buddhism, prompting me to search the internet for Lacanian views on Buddhism. Anyway, this is just the sort of vital debate I would not initiate in a graduate seminar (which pretends to be a dialogue) because Buddhism would immediately be labeled religion – and if we are coming out of Marx and Freud, religion is an institutional fantasy that justifies an uncritical, infantile state.

Ironically, I’m currently in a seminar where we attempt to read Wordsworth, Keats, and Blake through the lens of Zizek, poets who were not political in any conventional sense, and who seem to have much stronger affinities with Buddhism. At the same time, I cannot help but ask what an obscurtanist academia, invested in complicating every question to the point of endless intellectual combat, really has to do with politics (except as a fashionable stance) anyway. Naturally, an academic philosopher must point out the faults of ‘western buddhism’, not perhaps because it raises itself on an altar, but it raises itself on the wrong altar (with too much popular appeal,one might add)..

But, who cares? Is there value in academia? Yes, certainly. In the long run, it’s necessary to society, and may even lead to a better society – one that questions iteself. I just don’t see an academia in the short run as any sort of solution the world’s problems, and must ask whether it should pretend to be. It’s more like an “entelechy” – a thing’s work-in-progress being its end -having value for its own sake.

All the same, Zizek certainly has a point about how many people go about adopting buddhism, really as a sort of self-help tool, which, even from a buddhist point of view, would probably only lead into greater illusion and suffering. And this begs many questions? Should westerners avoid secularizing buddhism? Yet, if they approach buddhism with its whole mythological apparatus, won’t they also miss the point? A point of intersection that actually seems of value is that of science and buddhism. I’m particularly thinking of David Bohm. Unlike Marx, perhaps, 2nd Century B.C. Nalanda philosophy saw reification as a basic, almost natural misperception of the human mind. Sure, activism is a fantastic approach, as long as it’s not self-referential and utopian (leading among other things to bitterness). But – to respond to the awful, though not always innacurate word, quietism – for me the biggest problem with academia is that it almost categorically rejects any step beyond signification and discourse into experience (for this see the work of Francisca Verela en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Varela). In short, academia seems to patently reject the very notion of meditation, without investigating its meaning and practice. Hey, so do many western buddhists! – so that in fact, yes, meditation does look like consumerism!

The last issue this raises is whether action can really every be effectual if there hasn’t been a more than intellectual experience of relationship – a genuine insight that de-solidifies the ego and the whole world of objects. I’d say, such relative action is valuable, definitely – because the whole world which one confronts is never an object after all – one can learn through doing, theorizing, meditating – take your pick!

#14 · Anreal Perception

19 February 2011

@ Flip …
“a sort of self-help tool, which, even from a buddhist point of view, would probably only lead into greater illusion and suffering.”

I am responding only to this particular statement. :)

To say that people using something as a ‘self-help’ tool means they are missing the point seems a bit strange.

Yes of course, it would be great if people can totally liberate themselves and be enlightened right, understanding all the finer nuances of reality etc. However, realization is nothing other than the constant state of ‘no suffering’ so ‘helping oneself not to suffer’ is most certainly a good place to start.

It is said that the goal of Buddhism is realization, but failing that, to live a happier, more peaceful, stress free and joyful life.

Is there anything MORE important than this? If all human being were just doing that one simple thing, surely that would be an incredible feat.

Buddhism is most certainly a ‘self-help’ tool, in fact, it is probably THE MOST ‘help yourself’ self-help tool ever. ha.

The fact that there are other, less advanced, less detailed and dare I say “less tasteful” methods that fall under the much looked down upon ‘self-help’ section in the bookstore … should in no way demean either Buddhism, nor the desire of a people who want to help themselves.

The demon of exalted expectations ever plague our world. All the academic wafting in the world cannot help anyone, if it does not provide people with a way to help themselves. As my friend says “unless you can give people the methods of SELF-LIBERATION it is at best just tokenism.”

Maybe I have misunderstood you but I felt the need to address that particular point nevertheless. Thanks.

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