I’ve been meaning to catch up on the discussions over Buddhism and objects/relations, Slavoj Zizek’s critique of “Western Buddhism,” and related topics, which have been continuing on Tim Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, Jeffrey Bell’s Aberrant Monism, Skholiast’s Speculum Criticum Traditionis, and elsewhere. I haven’t quite caught up, but here are a few quick notes on some of what’s been said…
“[O]bjects are neither autonomous realities that are independent of all their relations, nor are objects reducible to being nothing other than their relations. If one follows the first approach then one accepts the appearance/reality distinction. There are appearances of objects, their phenomenal noematic correlates as Husserl puts it, or the illusions of maya as the Buddhists would understand it, and then there is the object itself that exceeds and is irreducible to each of these correlates and illusions. If one accepts, by contrast, that objects are nothing other than their relations, their causal dependencies, then an object is indeed undermined and cast asunder by the proliferation of depenencies. Nagarjuna’s middle path of emptiness steers a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of realism and nihilism.”
2) Seeing Tim “come out” as a Buddhist amidst objects and objectologists has been one of the more rewarding blogosphere developments for me of late, since my own efforts to bring Buddhist psychology and metaphysics into philosophical discussion have sometimes left me feeling a little discouraged. It’s great, for instance, to find a new ally who would help in debunking Slavoj Zizek’s underinformed critiques of “Western Buddhism” as the handmaiden of capitalist/consumerist well-being. (My own posts on the topic include this piece and some of the others under the “Buddhism” tag on this blog.) The discouragement has come mostly from offline conversations I’ve had with philosophers, most of which happened some time ago. My hunch is that there’s a growing cadre of young western philosophers for whom orientalist assumptions about non-western traditions just don’t cut it anymore.
3) In response to Peter Gratton’s point that what Zizek is critiquing is the “quietism” of Western Buddhism — one could substitute words like “passivity,” “otherworldliness,” “escapism,” and the like — I would simply point out that Zizek doesn’t seem to have conducted any studies, or even referred to any studies, showing that Western Buddhists are any less socially or politically engaged than anyone else. If anything, I’m pretty sure that research would show, and has shown, that that isn’t the case. (I’m relying on my memory of one or two suggestive surveys that I’ve seen, but I would have to dig for them to support this point any further.) The fact that there have been some heated debates over whether there need be such a thing as “socially engaged Buddhism” tells us both that mainstream Buddhism hasn’t seemed “engaged” enough for some Buddhists — thus the need to articulate a branch that is — and that, for others, Buddhism is inherently engaged and the term is simply redundant. The third possibility is that Buddhism should not be engaged, but the only version of that argument that I’ve seen or heard voiced on more than one occasion is the tactical one that political posturing can be counterproductive for the growth of any religion, and that while Buddhists themselves may be political in the same ways as anyone else, publicly connecting their politics to their Buddhism may not be wise.
4) Finally, Tim’s posts on “Object-Oriented Buddhism” — of which there are now some two dozen and counting — haven’t convinced me that Buddhism is more about objects than about relations. But I find his thinking on this topic both thought-provoking and challenging, which, after all, is what philosophy should be about. And he does seem to tacitly admit that it’s a balancing act, so while he may be balancing in one direction and I in another, the point (like Nagarjuna’s whole philosophical enterprise ultimately) is in the act. I’m happy to observe that act from the sidelines (when Tim, or Nagarjuna, are doing the acting). But once one recognizes that there is only the act — only the play (as Heidegger puts it in his lectures on Heraclitus), the great child of the world-play that plays without why — then the sidelines become just as much fun.