Tag Archive: Buddhism


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…

1) Michael at Archive Fire rightfully points to the virtues of Jeffrey Bell‘s lucidly articulated point that

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Fabio Gironi has a very perceptive response to the recent posts at Larval Subjects, Ecology Without Nature, and here, over Buddhism, objects, and relations.

I like his admission that “I have never been – nor [do] I plan to be—a practicing Buddhist or a ‘believer’ of any sort, but the encounter with Nāgārjuna’s philosophy was probably the most exciting intellectual encounter of my career.”

There is something wildly exciting about reading Nagarjuna, even if it may be confusing if not accompanied by a reliable guide (and even if accompanied). My own understanding of Nagarjuna comes largely filtered through his more recent anglophone translators and interpreters: Garfield, Westerhoff, and others, and I’m sure Fabio knows his Nagarjuna better than I do. But I wonder if he sells himself short by shying away from being a “‘believer’ of any sort.” I know what he means here, but I would want to raise Deleuze’s “belief in this world” as an option into an otherwise too staid picture of ‘belief.’

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Buddhist objects & processes

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Does object-oriented ontology = Buddhism? Tim Morton has been making intriguing sounds to that effect, and Levi Bryant has begun to ask him the hard questions about how and whether that might be possible — of how to “square the circle” of independent substances (OOO) with Buddhism’s conditioned genesis (a.k.a. dependent arising, codependent origination).

Tim’s task strikes me as quite challenging, especially because Buddhism is conventionally thought to be as relational as philosophical traditions can get. Levi has a clear exposition of conditioned genesis, which he rightfully depicts as the cornerstone metaphysical principle on which Buddhist practice, psychology, and soteriology are all built.

It’s necessary, however, to think carefully about Buddhism’s relationality. One of the popular metaphors for thinking about conditioned origination is the idea of Indra’s jeweled net. Levi uses the image of a spider web, but the idea is the same. He writes:

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just sitting there

My favorite line in Patrick Groneman’s account of a group of Buddhist meditators’ attempt to bear witness, by just sitting, amidst the rival armies of 9-11 protestors in downtown New York City (anti-mosque, pro-mosque, et al) is the passer-by yelling

“This is New York, don’t just sit there…stand up and say what you believe in.”

Which made me think: Isn’t that what blogging is — everyone standing up and waving their beliefs for everyone else to see?

Ideally, of course, it isn’t that. Saying something is only one part of communicating; listening is the second, and attending to the ecology of speaking and thinking — the links made up of one’s interlocutors, the things spoken of and those left unsaid, the feeling and impulse giving rise to the speaking, and so on — is the third.

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has a good wrap-up of the debates over Socially Engaged Buddhism that have followed this summer’s symposium on that topic. (See also Fly Like a Crow.)

Meanwhile, this video, shared by Santi Tafarella, stages the encounter between the “two Americas” in a way that leaves me a little uncomfortable (because of the ethical issues the experiment raises) but that at least gives us some figures: 6 for (racism), 13 against (and willing to act in defense of a Muslim American’s rights), and 22 not willing to stand up and say what they believe, or much of anything. That’s a majority. Definitely not New York.

For any jam band lovers out there (for some reason, the term has always made me think of “ham”; I guess it’s the French jambon that comes to mind), here’s a set of clips that remind us that the genre peaked about forty years ago. (H/t to Gary Sauer-Thompson at Conversations.) It’s actually from 38 years ago, but I think the version of “Dark Star” that’s on “Live Dead” is much better — less flat and more dynamic, graced by a more central Jerry Garcia and much more mellifluous keyboard than the clunky one here. But I guess it was just that kind of August day this time around. For those who think it all sounds like a far-too-endless stew of mushy and blandly flavored noodling — and whose suspicions are confirmed in the listless version of “El Paso” this turns into part-way through the fourth clip — there is a moment in the Live Dead version that demonstrates it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. (This 1969 version comes closer to the Live Dead version, though I can only see Part 1 online, so it’s missing the moment in question. But taken as a long moment, it’s all still a pretty good one…)

Tom Verlaine used to lament that Television’s “Marquee Moon” was often compared to the Grateful Dead. This 2005 concert version displays both the reasons why it was (especially if you like the Dead) and why it shouldn’t have been (if you don’t) — though at around the 3-minute mark of this second part they show that they still can’t duplicate what happened in that studio in 1977. (Compare, for instance, with the 9-minute mark of the original.) But they do their best to recover.

All of which brings me to relationalism, ecology, earth jazz, and the summer solstice. (Warning: this gets long and complicated, and if you’re not interested in the objects-relations debate, you might just want to skip through most of it. Just don’t miss the Miles Davis clip at the bottom.)

If there’s a musical demonstration of relationalism, and by extension (as Skholiast points out) of ecology, it’s the kind of improvised music that the Dead are supposed to have excelled at (and occasionally did). The universe gives rise to many wondrous entities in its long history of spontaneity, relational responsiveness, habit-formation, and form-building. The habits start as rhythms, melodic chirps that turn into territorial refrains and calls, and that gradually maneuvre their way into verse patterns, melodies, harmonies, polyrhythms. Distinct songs develop for particular purposes and gradually get freed from those purposes, taken up into improvisational routines and performances, some of which crystallize into larger-scale architectonics, but only ever temporarily.

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cataclysmic eventology

Hiroshima mon amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959)

In my reply to kvond’s and Meg’s comments on the Event, I alluded to a quote from Derrida’s Cinders, which I thought would be worth posting, especially since I can’t find any reference to it online and I don’t have the book handy to check it.

“At what temperature do words burst into flame?

Is language itself what remains of a burning?

Are cinders all that’s left from the ringing at the origin of words?”

Derrida’s reference point is the Holocaust, but it’s also the entry into language, which resonates with Lacan’s notion of a gap between the Real and the Symbolic. Following up on Meg’s suggestion of petrification and Pompeii as western civilization’s perhaps archetypal reference point for volcanic/traumatic cataclysmic events, what’s left behind, and what Herzog dwells on in the films I mentioned, is the signature of the Event (though, in the case of La Soufriere, it’s a non-Event). Rather like a nuclear explosion that leaves its radioactive shadow splayed across everything, the traumatic event leaves everything askew, haunted by a spectre, or ringing with an inaudible sound, the meaning of which we can’t make out. The vacated city, the empty landscape, the city frozen in time, with its illegible ciphers, the Event we can never come back to, yet which we perpetually circle around. If the human disappearance from this planet is genuinely thinkable, Herzog is one of its most evocative thinkers.

But sometimes reading these fragments can only be done in still shots, not in movement images. Unlike Deleuze’s time-image, which is always an image of movement, these might be something more like a geological frozen-time-image, which is always an image of movement stilled, of time passed, and, as Barthes put it in Camera Lucida, ultimately an image of (one’s own) death.

La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1962)

For all that I value the vibrant materiality of process-relational and vibrant-materialist ontologies, I still turn to Derrida (and Buddhism) to remind us of the resonant emptiness at the heart of things. Derrida and his followers (Caputo, Mark Taylor) groped toward an ethic, a call, a claim on us from within that emptiness; but for a pretty reliable method for hearing that call, we could do worse than to turn to Nagarjuna and the Buddhists.

The objects versus relations debate has revved up again over at Larval Subjects, in the commentary responding to Levi Bryant’s Questions about the possibility of non-correlationist ethics.

The debate, as I would describe it, circles around the following question: If we agree that traditional philosophy has been too centrally premised on the relationship between humans and the world at the expense of the world itself (with all its other things, beings, entities, relations, and whatnot), then is it better to promote a philosophy that focuses on objects, that is, not just on human subjects/objects but all objects, or one that focuses on relations between things (subjects, objects, networks, processes, whatever)? The first approach is taken by object-oriented philosophers like Bryant, Graham Harman, and others; the second by relationists, such as those influenced by Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, and Spinoza, among others (though the exact list depends on whom you ask; a few recent and recommendable books in this latter tradition are Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, John Protevi’s Political Affect, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter).

Since I’ve responded to Levi’s points on his blog, I’ll restrict myself here to addressing in greater depth the question raised by Levi, Scu, and anxiousmodernman (in their comments) about the politics of relationalism.

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(I love this photograph, so here it is again…)

I think the idea and image of dark flow streaming out of our universe has also been resonating with me because of the work I’ve been doing using Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young’s system of mindfulness training. Young is one of the most erudite and intellectually rigorous teachers of Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, having synthesized decades of training in Zen, Theravadan, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions along with what seems a voracious appetite for languages, into an “algorithmic system” that takes what, in other places, seems a morass of mutually incommensurable terms and makes it thoroughly coherent and applicable.

Many meditation teachers teach ways of developing clarity, concentration, and equanimity, but none of them — at least none of those I’ve come across currently living (and, of all places, just down the road from me, when he isn’t traveling) — draws in so many different traditions, East and West, into a system that is very approachable, practicable, and yet somehow thorough and complete. (See links at bottom to his talks and writings.) More than that, his system resonates with many of the ideas I’ve been exploring on this blog, including the process-relational and Naturphilosophical streams of Continental philosophy, and in some respects the Lacanian-psychoanalytical (as I’ll point out below), not to mention, of course, other Asian field-theories such as Daoism, western traditions of Hermetic philosophy and Christian negative theology, and the like.

Shinzen describes human subjective experience as phenomenologically distinguishable into three primary “fields,” “spaces” or “elements”: Feel, which are bodily sensations experienced as emotional; Image, which are internal forms of visual thinking; and Talk, which are internal forms of monologue/dialogue/talk or “auditory thinking.” The three subjective “spaces” in which these arise develop in sequence from infancy: first we learn to feel with our bodies, then we start to see things (once our eyes learn to focus on them) and “image” the world and its relationships through imaginal fantasy, and finally we learn the words and the linguistic-discursive constructs that come to shape both our subjectivity and our world for us. And over time the three kinds of elements (distilled, for simplicity’s and usability’s sake, from Buddhism’s “five aggregates”) become densely entangled and knotted into emotionally-laden force-fields.

In a very interesting sense, these three spaces correspond with Jacques Lacan’s tripartite analysis of the psyche into the Real, a kind of nondual state of nature from which we become separated as we take on the qualities of socially defined subjective experience; the Imaginary, the image-based world of self-other relations and fantasies that emerge through the “mirror phase,” when we learn to recognize the body that appears in a mirror as the same one that others see when they see “me”; and the Symbolic, which is the language- and narrative-based world that “interpellates” or “hails us” into being the kind of subject that would fit into the social world.

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The image of dark flow, described as 1400 galaxy clusters streaming toward the edge of the universe at blistering speed in the ongoing “afterglow” of the big bang (or something like that), has haunted me ever since I read about it several days ago. Caused “shortly after the big bang by something no longer in the observable universe,” and possibly by “a force exerted by other universes squeez[ing] ours” (umm, a force… doing what?… I can imagine Jon Stewart’s face squinting after hearing that), I can’t help thinking that astrophysicists are arriving at the point where the known universe is being bounded and taking its place amidst a more mysterious space of otherness, where we have no clue (and can’t possibly have a clue) what goes on. So it becomes the realm of poetry, of dreams and nightmares, of haunted imaginings, like the deep sea, beyond the reach of sunlight, that still fascinates us, but even more deep, dark, vital.

Einstein had famously said that “as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it”; and perhaps the current constellation of events — the economic crisis with its Ponzi schemes, bank machinations, and the West’s growing indebtedness to po-faced and unreadable China, the gradually accumulating reports about climate change, and films about forthcoming apocalypses (2012), zombies and vampires (Zombieland, Twilight Saga: The New Moon), and zombieless apocalypses (The Road) — are conspiring to make us all a little curious, and spooked, about what’s out there in the growing darkness… What god will put the squeeze on us next, and what’s to guarantee he or she will be benevolent?

I’m also recalling a recent set of exchanges between Ben Woodard, kvond, and others on dark vitalism, a thought-stream brewing out of the nature-philosophical wing of speculative realism that Ian Hamilton Grant helped unleash with his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling… which perhaps is a Zeitgeist thing.

Zizek’s account of the Robert Heinlein novel “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” includes a lovely passage where he equates the Lacanian Real, the unassimilable kernel around which subjectivity is formed, with the “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life” that emerges at the boundary of the known world and the unknown, outside the traveling couple’s car window. The Lacanian spookiness is perhaps what’s missing from Buddhist accounts of emptiness (though it’s hardly foreign to the Tibetan tantrics, with their graveyard nightshift meditations), and, to the goth-loving nature hound, it’s a nice addition. The passage is worth reproducing in full:

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Žižek and his Others

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Speaking here at the University of Vermont last Friday, Slavoj Žižek responded to a student query about where to study Lacanianism by lauding our Film and Television Studies Program as the only one anywhere at which Lacanians are actually “in power” — the current chair, former chair, and at least one other faculty member, plus an overflow audience composed primarily of undergrads providing pretty good evidence of this — and then by characterizing the world of Lacanian theory as a kind of widely but thinly spread diaspora, in which the Lacanian had to craftily pretend to go along with the powers-that-be until they got into a secure position at which point they could turn around and “shoot,” i.e. do the real (Lacanian) stuff.

It’s nice to have one’s university marked out as a unique place in this way, not necessarily because of the Lacanianism (though some would say for that, too) as because having Žižek’s imprimatur adds some always-welcome cachet to it. Compared to the talk Žižek gave in Montreal recently, where his topic had been theology and the death of God, he was more on home turf here, both in terms of having the sympathetic packed-hall audience and because his topic was the more familiar one (for his fans) of ideology, film, and Jacques Lacan.

As I’ve related here before (to some extent), I admire Žižek’s passion, am awed by his energy and prolificacy, and strongly sympathize with his overall project, which he has loosely characterized as waking people up from their ideologically induced slumber, where the ‘waking’ is part of a Lacanian unmasking of psychologically driven illusions, and the ‘ideology’ is the one propping up capitalist injustice. But when it comes to the details of his arguments, I don’t always find them as convincing as I would like.

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