This started out as a response to Slavoj Zizek’s recent talk here at the University of Vermont on “Buddhism Naturalized,” but evolved into a consideration of subjectivity, which happened to be the topic of my next post in the pre-G (process-relational ecosophy-G) series. So this can be considered part 1 of a 2-part series.
There are Western philosophers with a good understanding of Buddhism. Some of them are Buddhologists: longtime scholars of Buddhism, like Herbert Güenther, Jay Garfield, Kenneth Inada, Jin Park (the definition of “Western” gets a little blurry here), Brook Ziporyn, Stephen Batchelor, and others who are philosophers in their own right (if not necessarily academically sanctioned ones), and who have cut their teeth interpreting original Asian Buddhist texts.
Others have come to Buddhism through a side door: either by accident or through a logical extension of their own interests. Owen Flanagan is one of these, and his recent book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized provides a model for how an established analytic philosopher can develop a critical dialogue with a philosophical tradition that is foreign yet ancient, complex, and clearly worthy of comparative assessment.
Then there are those whose writing about Buddhism extends somewhat beyond what they know about it. In the past, this was excusable by the dearth of material for western commentators. Buddhist literature is voluminous — one might say it’s Himalayan in its voluminousness — and the fraction of what’s been translated into European languages is still comparatively small. But there is enough now to support full-time positions in Western universities for those who specialize in refined sub-areas of Buddhist studies. And with Buddhism alive and well now in the West and in the East, there is no end to what a Buddhist scholar can do.
Where does Slavoj Žižek fit into this continuum? The title of his talk, given here at the University of Vermont some weeks ago, was “Buddhism Naturalized.” In his opening remarks, Film and Television Studies professor Todd McGowan mentioned that his guest had originally planned a response to the Dalai Lama, but that after the latter spoke in nearby Middlebury a few days earlier, Žižek was so taken by the Dalai Lama’s comments that he changed his plans. This, McGowan intimated, would be the new “Buddhist Slavoj.”
With that friendly gesture, Žižek opened a talk that was all Žižek — ranging widely and freely over the terrain of popular culture, politics, and Western (and this time also Eastern) philosophy — but that spent a good half of its time discussing Buddhism.
In the end, however, it was the same old Slavoj, with a few (welcome) conciliatory gestures added. I’ve written about Žižek’s Buddhism before, notably after his last talk here three years ago, but in the intervening time he’s expanded on the topic in his monumental recent volume Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.
This post will summarize Žižek’s argument against Buddhism, presented in that book and in his recent talk, to make the case that while his conciliatory gestures show an advance toward a genuine engagement with Buddhism today, his critique remains a static and abstract one that is unfair to a tradition as complex as Buddhism. It is not so much a misreading as a partial and selective reading, which, for a tradition as large as Buddhism, shouldn’t be surprising. But it is primarily an abstraction intended to prop up his own case for his own philosophical perspective.
Fortunately, Žižek’s philosophical perspective is one that deserves its own hearing, and I’ll try to summarize the contrast, as I see it, between the two below. More importantly, I’ll try to show how the difference between the two raises interesting questions about subjectivity that deserve a deeper probing than Žižek has given them.
As I’ve argued before, Buddhism and Žižek’s Lacanianism are, in crucial respects, philosophical kindred spirits. Both posit an emptiness or gap at the center of us humans, which we are always striving to fill with whatever’s available: objects and possessions, self/identity projects, community/nation projects (both with their enemy “others”), and so on.
And both posit that only by facing this gap directly can genuine love become possible. Or something like that: Buddhism speaks little of love and more of compassion and enlightenment, and it’s difficult to say exactly what Lacan is aiming for. But both aim to help us cope with suffering, and their strategies share a large terrain of potential overlap.
Zizek admits more or less this general point in Less Than Nothing, where he writes:
The only other school of thought that fully accepts the inexistence of the big Other is Buddhism. Is the solution then to be found in Buddhist ethics? There are reasons to consider this option. Does not Buddhism lead us to “traverse the fantasy:’ overcoming the illusions on which our desires are based and confronting the void beneath each object of desire? Furthermore, psychoanalysis shares with Buddhism the insistence that there is no Self as a substantive agent of psychic life [. . .]: the Self is the fetishized illusion of a substantial core of subjectivity where, in reality, there is nothing. This is why, for Buddhism, the point is not to discover one’s “true Self;’ but to accept that there is no such thing, that the “Self” as such is an illusion, an imposture. [p. 129]
Deepening his analysis, he continues:
Crucial to Buddhism is the reflexive change from the object to the thinker himself: first, we isolate the thing that bothers us, the cause of our suffering; then we change not the object but ourselves, the way we relate to (what appears to us as) the cause of our suffering [...]. This shift involves great pain; it is not merely a liberation [...]; it is also the violent experience of losing the ground under one’s feet, of being deprived of the most familiar stage of one’s being.
But in the end, for Žižek, Buddhists
do not repair the damage; rather, [they] gain the insight into the illusory nature of that which appears to need repair. [p. 130]
The difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, then, is that
for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive [...]. 
Or, put differently:
Far from being the same as [Buddhism's] nirvana principle (the striving towards the dissolution of all tension, the longing for a return to original nothingness), the death drive is the tension which persists and insists beyond and against the nirvana principle. In other words, far from being opposed to the pleasure principle [which Zizek had earlier critiqued], the nirvana principle is its highest and most radical expression. In this precise sense, the death drive stands for its exact opposite, for the dimension of the “undead;’ of a spectral life which insists beyond (biological) death. [. . .]
Even if the object of desire is illusory, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive content is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real; which is why there is more truth in the unconditional fidelity to one’s desire than in the resigned insight into the vanity of one’s striving. [132-3, emphasis added]
This last passage is a crucial one: instead of recognizing “the vanity of one’s striving” and opting for inner peace instead, Žižek seeks an “unconditional fidelity to one’s desire.” That desire, for Žižek, arises out of the tensions in the (Freudian) drives, generating the subject and making us human. (Lacanians and Žižekians can correct me if I haven’t quite gotten that right. From reading a fair bit of Žižek and some other commentators, like Adrian Johnston, I’m still not entirely sure.)
Ironically, this “unconditional fidelity to one’s desire” sounds not so different from what some forms of (Tibetan) Vajrayana Buddhism aspire to. In Vajrayana, what the practitioner should aim for is not extinction in the blissful passivity of Nirvana, but rather the following of desire in order to unite with the deities that are its emanations — which, since those deities are themselves “empty,” means a union with Desire itself.
Žižek, however, dispenses with Vajrayana by caricaturing it as one of the most “ridiculously ritualized” religious forms. As Žižek put it in his talk, it was Tibetan Buddhists who invented what we now know as television’s canned laughter; their version of it was the prayer wheel. (That is funny. Back to it in a minute.)
But the difference can be specified more precisely. In Žižek’s Lacano-Hegelian understanding, it is the empty subject that we need to retain. For Buddhism, on the other hand, it is emptiness itself, which Buddhism takes to be an open, cognizant awareness that is empty of all reifications, all stillings of the flow, yet which nevertheless consists of an irrepressible flow. (I’m drawing more on the Dzogchen tradition here than on others, and Dzogchen is admittedly not representative of all Buddhism, but I think the general point holds for many other strands of Buddhism.)
The difference, then, is this: what counts for Žižek is subjectivity at the point of its (individual) creation; for Buddhists, it is subjectless subjectivity.
Understanding this distinction requires asking not only what subjectivity is, but also what the nature of reality is. If reality is inert substance, mute matter, or mere existence without subjectivation, and if the human subject is the one thing that transcends that mere matter, then there is nothing more significant than human subjectivity at the point of its origins. Žižek would, in this case, be absolutely right about what needs to be protected, defended, and cultivated: the human subject as willful decider and actor. The only alternative would be passivity (of the sort that Žižek ends up ascribing to Buddhism).
But if reality — not just human but all reality — is the ongoing production of subjectless subjectivity, or what, in process-relational terms I have called subjectivation-objectivation, then subjectless subjectivity is always already active, not merely passive.
In this sense, Buddhist prayer wheels are not exactly identical to sitcom laugh tracks, but they operate on the same principle. Both acknowledge that the world is always already in (affective-semiotic) motion, and that we, moving beings, are affected on a preconscious level by the in-motionness that is always at work around us.
With its mantras, prayer wheels, and other habit-forming practices, Buddhism attempts to shift that motion into a movement toward liberation. Sitcom laugh tracks, on the other hand, attempt to shift that motion into laughter and distraction. Each pursues a different goal. If Zizek dislikes both equally, it is because he values willful subjectivity — the kind that speaks “I” into the void of its own creation — at the expense of the affective but subjectless subjectivity that a more processual (and process-relational) ontology would ascribe to humans and to the world.
Concluding his brief foray into Buddhism in Less Than Nothing, Žižek refers to a paradox, whose formal structure is that of the “double vacuum” of a Higgs Boson field. This double vacuum
appears in the guise of the irreducible gap between ethics (understood as the care of the self, as striving towards authentic being) and morality (understood as the care for others, responding to their call).
For Žižek, “the authenticity of the Self is taken to the extreme in Buddhist meditation, whose goal is precisely to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana” .
To which I would say: yes, this is part of Buddhism, but it is not the whole of it, at least not in the Mahayana tradition where care for others — or for the liberation of others — is equally, if not supremely, important.
(Žižek acknowledged, in his talk, that there is more than just this one Buddhism: Buddhism, as he put it, oscillates between two goals, a minimal and a maximal one. The minimal one is the “spiritual shift” that occurs “within”; the maximal one is a more radical ontic reading for which the global goal is to liberate everything from suffering.)
But let him have the point, which, he concludes,
is not to criticize Buddhism, but merely to emphasize [this] irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility): the difficult thing to accept is that one can be totally authentic in overcoming one’s false Self and yet still commit horrible crimes — and vice versa, of course: one can be a caring subject, morally committed to the full, while existing in an inauthentic world of illusion with regard to oneself.
This is why all the desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps towards (and conditions of) Enlightenment misfire: [D. T.] Suzuki himself was much more honest in this regard when he pointed out that Zen is a meditation technique which implies no particular ethico-political stance — in his political life, a Zen Buddhist may be a liberal, a fascist, or a communist.
Again, the two vacuums never coincide: in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity. [135; paragraph breaks and emphases added]
Žižek’s account of the “desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps” may ring true, again, for someone steeped in Vajrayana. These “desperate attempts” are guideposts — “Careful here, don’t tread further unless you’ve already gone through the preliminaries and quashed your egoic defilements and stupidities!” — that are easy to ignore in a world of total availability (the practices, the rituals) where the rewards (Tantric Enlightenment!) are too compelling for the avaricious spiritual seeker. Repeated incessantly by the carriers of the traditions and lineages, they may start to sound a little desperate.
Ultimately, though, Žižek’s critique sounds to me not so much as a critique of Buddhism’s philosophical core, which I think he hasn’t adequately grasped, than a critique of one of the main tropes and vehicles by which that philosophical core has so often been adumbrated. This is the trope of inner peace and happiness — the cessation of suffering and attainment of bliss through the elimination of ignorance.
Toward the end of his talk, Žižek revealed that he sees “only two [!!] serious ethics” in the world: the Buddhist and the Judeo-Christian. The latter, for him, is an ethic of external encounter, an ethic of the Fall, of falling in love, the traumatic encounter. The former, it seems, is the smiley face of inner peace that, in Žižek’s view, makes Buddhism a perfect handmaiden to global capitalism.
The virtue of Žižek’s critique of Buddhism is in the value he places on suffering and on choice. Subjectivity is only possible because of our condition of separation, the very gap that underlies our suffering. Eliminating that gap should not be the point of a spiritual or philosophical practice; what should be is recognizing that the gap is one we share will all manner of other gapped, broken, suffering (because groundless yet ground-seeking) others.
A Buddhist who works only to eradicate suffering in him or herself is, I agree, a Buddhist that does little for a world full of suffering. (But is such a person really practicing Buddhism?)
Analogously, a philosophy that values the arising of subjectivity out of the drives (or wherever subjectivity comes from) without recognizing the fundamental entanglement of those drives with everything else that lives, that moves, that suffers, that dies, is a philosophy that privileges will without offering a means for deciding how that will should act.
That, perhaps, is why Žižek needs his Marxism: it provides him with an ethical foundation for action. To the extent that it offers an understanding of our relations with all beings who suffer, Buddhism may be more inclusive in this respect: it provides a wider vision for justice and solidarity than Marxism, even at its humanistic best, has ever provided.
But that’s a debate for another day.
- on Buddhism, objects, Zizek, Morton, etc.
- Žižek and his Others
- more on Žižek & nature’s discontents
- On the subject(s) of experience
- On ground and groundlessness: Jamesonian Marxism v. Derridean deconstruction v. Buddhist onto-phenomenalism (w/ guest appearances by Lacan and Freud, spiked all the way through with ecology)
- Nagarjuna, ecophilosophy, & the practice of liberation