Slavoj Žižek: Hipster Quackery
Let us start repeating the title’s ad hominem: Žižek is not much more than an entertainer. As a philosopher, he ends up looking more like a con artist.
Nevertheless, the combining factors which led him to fame are not limited to his charisma and charming emotional sleight of hand with audience expectations. The main thing to blame is the pervasive leniency on the general field we usually call “liberal arts” that the Sokal hoax has so aptly revealed.
Lacan has said his writings shouldn’t be understood through reason, but read as if engaging an enlightening effect similar to that of mystical texts. The obscurantist strategy seems to be ever recurrent epiphanies through apophenia and the steady presentation of cognitive dissonances in order to produce a simulacrum of religious experience.
Thus the existential emptiness and spiritual expectation of the listener are filled up by the endless and circular confabulation over a “twilight jargon” (a doublespeak that many times seeks to mean exactly the opposite of what would explicitly signify) and incestuously intimate references to, in the past, psychoanalytic jargon or philosophy itself, and from the 90’s onward, pop culture in particular.
The effect is a mixture of an in-joke with plain gibberish on the overall meaning of the whole presentation/book/”system” in which the lack of epistemological basis may seem, at first, quite liberating. Obscurantism is essentially a falsification of what would be profound—and that explains not only its fascination, but its tragedy.
The philosophic wine and the malt of the gods/the gutter and domestic violence
Žižek and his accomplice’s abuse of language is similar to a if by whiskey (the relativistic fallacy where you are never clear if you are attacking or defending a thesis) plus lots of loaded language that we can probably more fittingly call “philosophical sensationalism”.
Add to this that lovely post-modern quirk, abused by Camile Paglia on Sexual Personae and David Foster Wallace in many of his writings—a trend which probably begun with Roland Barthes (if we aren’t willing to go back all the way to Sterne) and which might gladly have been so overused that is fast getting out of fashion—in which you present scholarly research mixed with the most low-brow cultural endeavors, with a completely tongue-in-cheek, oh so geeky, effect. Like 9gag hand in hand with Jstor. Also, the combination of suposedly high concepts and bathroom talk and the grotesque, a similar gimmick.
Žižek’s supporters would perhaps say that he, like Lacan, the prophet, has no thesis or philosophy, but more of a way of being and thinking out loud and in public. Doesn’t saying this quite justify the ad hominen a little bit? To criticize Žižek’s ideas can only be accomplished doing exactly what he himself has done with them: leaving them so “free” of any anchor or standard that the horror of ethnic violence becomes “the sacred”, and vice-versa—if it shocks, it’s ok to use. Should we go that path or just call him a scoundrel?
When he actually means something, it is the most abhorent conclusion, as to face us with a Twilight-Zone-like twist, a combination of placation of anxiety through fake fear and the self-congratulatory feeling that the listener is really smart to reach such counterintuitive garbage together with Žižek.
At one point, in a lecture, Žižek says in jest, like some police chief from a totalitarian regime:
“Take note of the names of those two people who left the room before the lecture was finished. We might have to interrogate them later.”
His greatest joy seems to come exactly from the almost sadistic epistemic uncertainty that he plays on: oh, that’s really ironic, but what if… no, he is joking for sure—joking about making a joke, bottom line. Smoke and mirrors: nothing there but the effect of “mental tickling” that he produces on a perhaps immature audience.
What makes you tic?
Most people who are into philosophy seem to have a condition described in Tibetan medicine as “rlung (Skt. prana) disturbance”, a highly incoherent flow of “subtle winds”. This is a matter of chicken and egg: are those people interested in conceptual masturbation because they have this disturbance (they are sick) or vice-versa? Actually the two things complement and reinforce each other.
When I was a philosophy undergraduate, one of my teachers had flying flies that he usually mistook for real flies. He started talking and soon was moving his hands in the air to capture or send off the “flies”—after a while he would finally say:
“Oh, right… I do have these floaters in my eye, I always forget about them.”
When this happens at an epistemology class, you star to wonder if that is not some kind of highly theatrical way to illustrate a point, but after a dozen times, you start to realize it’s actually just disorderly rlung! He always had an automatic reaction to the black points on his field of vision, and it took him several seconds to remember his own medical condition! Žižek can’t stay still for a second. He needs to scratch his nose, or the ear, or clean away the sweat from his forehead, or adjust his t-shirt. You seldom see such level of afflictive tics on a public speaker.
I don’t know what sort of medication he takes, or how much coffee does he drink, but with those periorbital dark circles on his eyes and all those tics, it sure seems to me that he should re-prioritize his philosophical engagements. It really is not doing any good for his health. And only those who hypostasise some kind of ideal intellectual abstraction devoid of real consequence in the world would listen to what amounts to a convulsive zombie — babbling dirty jokes and anecdotal comparisons with a few interspersed supposedly philosophical name dropping and jargon — and think this could be a good source of knowledge or even good ideas.
I mention Tibetan medicine in connection to his physical appearance and gestures and his “philosophical activity” just because he opened this door, when he started meddling with Buddhism. In fact, I would totally ignore him if I didn’t have to face, from time to time, people who ask me “hey, and how about Slavoj Žižek’s criticisms on Buddhism? How do you Buddhists answer him?” Also, I sure confess to want to know nothing about Lacan and other such delinquents because—most of philosophy is like that, but this is particularly true of obscurantists; that is, those who make no effort to speak clearly, and develop clear theses etc.—it all seems to be quite like quicksand: the more you move around it, the more it becomes quite impossible to escape. Brain washing of the worst kind.
It’s not that I am advocating judging a book by its cover, but you don’t really need to read everything to dismiss it as bullshit. A few warning signs (and Buddhist-wise, someone's demeanour is one of them) would suffice, and you don’t have all the time in the world to check everything already written, so you need to prioritize according to your best criterion.
There is no criterion with which you could evaluate the… we can use several words: validity, utility, coherence, practicality, the “what is this shit for” behind all the word salad available in the world.
Not only that, but all the verbal hallucination many times seems to be there exactly in order to avoid evaluation, and so that we may be more focused on the text as an end on itself. That’s why, actually, this is so often referred to as “masturbation”.
The Charlie Sheen of philosophy
It has to be said that, on the context of Buddhist civilization (I won’t use religion, philosophy or Science to refer to the cultural phenomenon), the particular way in which Žižek’s expresses himself wouldn’t be respected. You would never hire a bum as a financial consultant. In the same way, you would not listen to a balloon of spasmodic fluids about good living or understanding the world, anything profound—subjects considered valid and worthy of verbal expression on the Buddhist milieu (of course you wouldn’t stay there to hear about the opposite or pure ramblings).
When we are dealing with the Buddhist context, even a charlatan would have a good posture and would behave with a quite elegant disposition—he would certainly do that if he wanted to be convincing. There is no place for a middle age crisis style Charlie Sheen. This actually is a good example: there is a tragic fascination over Sheen at his most public moment and this fascination seems to arise in a similar way for the Žižequian “breakdown”. We can see, in both men, the fascination for exaggeration for its own sake, for the dirty old man, for sheer decadence and effect.
Furthermore, in particular, I understand a little about Buddhism, so I can try to evaluate Žižek’s charlatanism on the subject. Many times when he starts to express this or that idea about this cultural phenomena he begins with a suspicious disclaimer: “I have heard this from people who know the subject, people with whom I have debated”.
I have no idea how wrong he might be about his guru Lacan, marxism, Gangnam Style, the movie “Project X” or Justin Bieber—only some of the possible subjects happening in a Žižek lecture, always preceded by some sort of excuse in the style of “I’m am not pulling your legs, I’m not the kind of French intellectual that comes here and ridicules the low-brow American culture… it is not that”—but again, it is and it isn’t, simultaneously and how best it fits the ears of those who listen… “if by whiskey…” Anyway, on those subjects I can’t really evaluate him.
I do have some kind of clarity over some of his specific mistakes about Buddhism, and more than that, about the kind of overall naiveté over the complexities and vastness of the Buddhist tradition common to him and other pseudo-scholars.
Buddhism is not what you think
Buddhism is vast (in number of texts, the time it has survived, and how broadly it adapted to different cultures during its existence) and quite complex, yet Žižek, through his lack of clarity, adds at least another layer of complexity. The stuff Žižek berates (or compliments with certain irony and without, again, a clear epistemic ground: could it be an ironic compliment that becomes an even greater compliment exactly because it is ironic, or is it effectively sarcasm etc., ad infinitum: tickling for the hipster audience) on Buddhism, when he is not just completely wrong, is mainly related to:
1. versions of academic understandings of Buddhism, with several degrees of pertinence;
2. popular versions of understandings of Buddhism, that somewhat demonstrate what it is in its present forms, particularly in the West;
3. a series of misunderstandings about Buddhism, also somewhat common in an audience of non-experts;
4. if by whiskey criticism of "zen militarism", for which ironically a great deal of blame could be put precisely in the penetration of Japanese thought by German Romantism, such as exactly the hegelian stuff Žižek loves, from the last decades of the 19th century on until after the war.
Sure the first three layers are not clearly separated from each other: he can start a sentence with Buddhism as it is more or less practiced in the West now, put a few tirades on Schopenhauer-like understanding of Buddhism, a peculiarly chosen bit of classical text misinterpreted, and finish with the greatest wrong stereotypes about Buddhism ever. Of what Buddhist actually teaches, on its root texts and commentaries, on the living teachers lectures, Žižek is almost completely silent, and probably truly ignorant.
Then he treats the bastardized German-Romantic militarization of skewed Zen with awe, as if it was related to what the Buddha taught, or to what was practiced in Japan for centuries before the dissemination of western ideology there.
Typical Žižek: “old Buddhism is somewhat worthy, but Mahayana… Mahayana is evil”. Now, remember, when Žižek says something is evil, that is simultaneously a criticism and a compliment. He delights particularly in not leaving the crucial thing clear. But why Mahayana Buddhism would be “evil”? Due to the Bodhisattva ideal, of course: someone who abandons nirvana to work in the benefit of other beings that might be further away from this goal.
How does Žižek interprets this to be evil? In his psychoanalytical view, he sees that as some sort of “delaying of reward", for some kind of idealism more fit for romantism.
But Mahayana’s deal goes much further than that, mr. Žižek.
In the same way you “evil” can be a “glory of sacred horror”, nirvana is not univocal on all Buddhist traditions. Some schools would say nirvana is a goal for inferior schools, others would say that samsara (the seemingly endless cycle of suffering all beings find themselves) and nirvana aren’t essentially different. Even Wikipedia has separate articles on nirvana and enlightenment. The nirvana Žižek is able to fathom, it’s easy to guess, is more like conceptual heroin: it is of the same nature of the epiphanies he delights in creating and absorbing, maybe just a little bigger (he actually wonders if he hasn’t reached nirvana himself, maybe at some point during some of his lectures). For him there's no concept of mahayanist bodhi, which is considered superior to nirvana to the point that boddhisatvas should feel nausea even to consider such a lowly state.
His, to say the least, might be a very popular and common stereotyping of nirvana. There isn’t a careful examination of, for example, all the plethora of things described in Buddhist texts that people commonly confuse with the nomenclature “nirvana”. Nirvana’s explanation is often a via negativa, that is, it is mostly explained through what it isn’t. And it is not the achievement of some kind of intellectual clarity or diluted orgasm, a big chocolate or eureka moment, as sometimes we are led to think — even considering, also perhaps because of European romantic ideology, this has become the common use of the terminology outside strict Buddhism with its due measures of quality control. So Žižek might have a little leverage to argue around this, but on the other hand, it is clear that he himself doesn’t even start to have the least Buddhist scriptural and praxis based understanding of the concept in any longitude—so it gets, again, deceitful in many ways.
If you excuse yourself saying that you know it is polemic, you know it is a modern, temporary pervasive (or not) mistake, even if you go on and criticize the thing by its least rounded façade of a scarecrow, you, for decency sake, at least would mention what the real thing is supposed to be, wouldn't you?
Not wanting happiness is part of the definition of suffering
But it is when Žižek speaks on suffering that he really screws it up. For psychoanalysts in general, there are two very problematic things with Buddhism: first the fact that Buddha states (and, according to whoever has taken refuge, gives an example to be followed for) the possibility of total liberation from suffering and neurosis. But I would concede that this, the belief that the maximum potential of beings is total freedom of all forms of entrapments and habit, can be taken as a point of faith, a particularly religious aspect of Buddhism.
The second problem psychoanalysis has with Buddhism is the so-called demonization of suffering. Žižek states: “There are people who like to suffer”—and in fact he goes to say that most people, psychoanalytically speaking, do actually enjoy suffering!
But more than that, from time to time there arises a psychoanalyst who says “without suffering, how would the artist x created the work of art y? On a Buddhist culture we would never have the art of z!”. The confusion all those people engage is in not understanding the very peculiar use of the somewhat mistranslation of the term dukkha as suffering. Due to many old translations and mental habits created due to these translations, we are still using the word “suffering” to talk about dukkha, although, in general, any introductory lecture on Buddhism would clarify the expanded meaning of this word to the audience. It does not refer only to discontentment, pain, anguish, sorrow, discomfort.
Also it is not only the (true) fact that nothing really brings us comfort. Dukkha is, besides all, the fact that our expectations and perspectives, our visions of the world and of things in general do betray us, time after time. We do have plain anguish, pain and lack of comfort in that, and the best word might be unsatisfactoriness. But the main point is that when you do not recognize the trappings, nothing changes. And most of our happiness’s are of the very same nature, they are sure bitter at end, even when a bit sweet all around. Even our apparent satisfaction, the lack thereof, our masochism, any justifications of "I would never do that again", or "I would do the very same", all of that, they are all part of dukkha, and sometimes part of the composite dukkha, that is the dukkha that doesn’t recognize itself as dukkha—the most common one.
So when Žižek says that not everyone wants to stop suffering, he needs to recognize that yes, there is masochists in the world, Buddhism accepts this. But, as the Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues used to say, the really sadistic is the one that denies beating the masochist. Not wanting to cease suffering is a very much recognizable kind of suffering for Buddhism. It’s just a vastly common, albeit a little bigger, ignorance. If you are willing to become a Buddhist, then you should try to recognize suffering and avoid it systematically—but Buddhists do recognize that many beings do not see Buddhism as particularly interesting, and even can think that they enjoy suffering. It is actually very common, and described as very common. Much more common indeed that wanting to abandon suffering the Buddhist way!
In a certain way it is kind of a miracle that some people do have the lucidity to approach Buddhism and think “yes, it makes sense”—Buddhism itself encourages a certain peculiar pride about this, and compassion, of course, for all those who say “well, but I enjoy suffering”, and those who randomly strive for the most weird kinds of happiness’s, even in crazy bare concepts such as “not wanting (true) happiness is ok”. Bellow those who lack a coherent view, are those who have wrong views. These suffer the most, exactly because they are more ignorant: sometimes even not recognizing suffering, and not admiting the wish (or possibility) to get rid of it. Very common indeed.
Furthermore, the first homework most of us have when we start practicing is exactly to purify these kinds of notions: what is suffering, do I really want it, how to avoid it. As a Buddhist, you should work on this. You should take time to reach and internalize such discoveries. They are not at all common! They are not "natural" for the ignorant. Of course our habitual tendency is not recognizing it for what it is, and we keep striving after it, exactly as an alcoholic or a drug addict. If it wasn’t like that, all the initial apparatus of Buddhism, recommending our contemplations on such topics, and making clear the need to arrive at a experiential conclusion over that would be redundant. What Žižek is saying is almost the same as claiming that Buddhism has no way to explain addictions, which is quite a big chunk of the Buddhist discourse, if I may say so.
When the Dalai Lama tells us that all beings want to cease suffering and find happiness—that I believe may be the fragment wherein comes Žižek’s claim that it is (or shouldn’t be) like that—Žižek doesn’t really notice how His Holiness is actually being, on the Buddhist perspective, quite provocative and counterintuitive!
This kind of statement is quite uncommon in Buddhism. With this the Dalai Lama is saying three things: mainly that all beings are basically the same, or the same when we are talking about basic needs; that all beings suffer, have problems, do become unsatisfied; and, that at the bottom of it, this yearning that all beings have is spiritual. But he does say this in a peculiarly neutral way: no one would deny that he wants a glass of water when he is thirsty (even an ascetic wants certain kinds of very material and basic forms of happiness). A true masoquist would refuse to eat or drink water. If you drink water, you are seeking to satiate a very intimate reflex for happiness.
In a sense, everyone gets thirsty and wants to get rid of that discomfort. Very rare people are able to, in the name of some idealistic goal, with lots of hope and expectation, voluntarily stop drinking water until they are dead. Animals don't do it. But Mr. Žižek seems to think we are talking about something different than this.
If we are talking about a masochist, or a normal person, as mr. Žižek puts it, is exactly on his confusion, suffering, messiness, pain, trouble that he strives, oh so hard, in the pursuit of a very strange and peculiar happiness. Nothing that weird if we look the situation thoroughly.
Then mr. Žižek quotes D. T. Suzuki, with his classic militaristic argument, on which people trained on Buddhism would, for instance, kill much better. The meditator doesn’t look at it as killing: he sees a sharp blade going through a butter-like neck: a mere aesthetic vision. This would be some kind of understanding of “emptiness”.
Two points here: yes it is true that, particularly in Japan, but also everywhere Buddhism has estabilished itself, to a much lesser extent, general non Buddhist methods syncreticized by Buddhists were abused for war and killing. Meditation is actually quite older than Buddhism, and albeit used by Buddhists, it can be used by any secular endeavor where it can help certain kinds of temporal benefits. Someone can meditate to play videogames better, say, if she doesn’t have the right motivation: and she will do everything better if she meditates, including killing aliens on a videogame.
But that isn’t what Buddhism teaches, this is a very well estabilished distortion of Buddhism, and we must recognize that meditation is a method that Buddhism uses for some intrinsic goals in Buddhism that can just be used for many other purposes, secular, maybe non-virtuous and particularly non-Buddhist goals. But we naturally tend to find it hard to dissociate Buddhism from meditation.
Žižek thinks this is true Buddhism, of course, it exactly corroborates his hegelian frenezy of if by whiskey and delight on the gruesomely counter-intuitive. He doesn't seem aware of the deep distortion of Buddhism in Japan by those very same ideas in the decades before the war. Zen militarism true source is not much further than the European ideological garbage that created the same sort of thing among white people. The cultural imperialism of Hegel and similars by the Japanese intelligentsia since the late 19th century is well documented.
But, anyway, really, who stills reads D. T. Suzuki as a credible source on Buddhism? Not Buddhists. With so much good scholarship being done in the West on Buddhism, particularly since the 90’s, why use a controversial, dated, certainly quite peculiar author?
Žižek might argue that he is quite influential on Western Buddhism. Ok, he is still in print and people, say in Brazil, with half a dozen Buddhist books available in Portuguese, might still read it and have no second thoughts about his place in the Buddhist world nowadays. But, seriously, how about a worldwide perspective? The way Žižek is going he might as well get Blavatsky, Schopenhauer, Lobsang Rampa or Jack Kerouac. These are fast becoming D. T. Suzuki’s companions, as he gains a place on the history of distortions about Buddhism, year after year.
If someone wants to keep criticizing Buddhism as it is presented in the mainstream media and in “orientalist” introductory classes at low quality colleges, then we as Buddhists actually miss the opportunity to set things right. Scarecrow Buddhism should not be considered a worthy opponent, even as you try profiling and fantasizing representatives of it.
More than that, since these militaristic ideas and distortions of the Buddhadharma that happened particularly in Japan were in fact caused by the influence of European ideology, which became quite fashionable among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the 19th century, it is not so amazing that Žižek focuses on that. D. T. Suzuki particulary has a "Zen style" (never practiced Zen!) profoundly connected with German Romanticism, and particularly the scum ideology of Hegel! This distortion and violence that Žižek if-by-whiskey-criticizes/revels-on is founded upon and reified by his own European and quite degenerate ideals.
Emptiness and steroids pumped capitalism
Even considering D. T. Suzuki’s relevance, Žižek’s criticism more or less about zen militarism is ok-ish. It is good because it presents a historically true facet of Buddhism (Buddhist militarism, samurai ethics and aesthetics hanging over the Buddhist milieu etc.)—in the sense that Buddhism was frail to Western influence — and also a bit of contemplation on what “emptiness” could mean, or be mistaken for.
He mentions that nowadays, where the stock market might be controlled by algorithms, and where everything is so virtual, Buddhism is the de facto ontology (one could say it better: non-ontology, or “nontology”1Buddhism negates the possibility of ontology as being something like the supreme imperialism of the mind.) that best works with the mind of the broker/businessman that has to deal with all this volatility. This comes through as a Marxist criticism, but together with a compliment, as with Žižek it often does. (He also mentions Steve Jobs, whose connections with Buddhism and oriental philosophy can’t really be seen as more than a brief curiosity. It may be relevant for the perspective of Buddhism in the popular imagination that he seems to try to target, but not much more.)
Žižek’s original criticism is that Buddhism has replaced socialism as the engagement focus for the low-brow and middle-to-high-class folks: and as a matter of fact, as a religion, Marxism does seem to be inferior to Buddhism. Marxists should actually enjoy a statement like this, shouldn’t they? (Yet we know how Marxism replaces a religious yearning, in the same way Lacan cunningly uses this yearning…) Even so, His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself, exiled by Maoists and an activist for a population raped — culturally, economically, and physically — by the Chinese Confucio-Marxism2Another very damaging instance of cultural imperialism: an European ideology, again connected to Hegel, which phagocyted the weakest distorted strains of Eastern thought systems, and resulted in genocide, famine and cultural obliteration of the native culture., claims to be himself a socialist!
Buddhism has competitiveness as one of the five main aflictive emotions (kleshas: indifference, attachment, aversion, competitiveness and self-satisfying fake contentment, best known as ignorance, desire, anger, envy and pride), and we can have a million good things about capitalism, yet Buddhism will never be able to condone its conservative nucleus of exploitation and unbridled competitiveness, much less the self-serving and individualistic absolute focus on efficiency (of society, of market, of personal goals, etc.) and the ensuing shortsightedness it entails.
Actually, when we consider advertisement, one of the main features of capitalism (the so much discussed “free speech of capital”) is completely antithetical to Buddhist mind training. If Buddhists would have a say on policy, they would surely limit invasive advertisement (which could be very easily proved to be simply any advertisement). It grabs you attention and tries to entrap your mind—and Buddhism is the foremost system on attention economy. We can have a discussion on Buddhist and free speech, maybe this is not such an easy topic for Buddhism, but when it comes to free speech of capital, I think it would just be a big "no". Any mechanisms to limit the relentless chatter of money in our lives sound in fact be quite Buddhist. Equality also means equal voice from all, not more from big money and about money, and for money. If we could say Buddhists don't have anything against money per se, they for sure have something to say against the money's influence on mind and society.
Also, on the issue of fastness and volatility: if you just strive after trying to fit any other time or aesthetic to Buddhism, you might be able to find a way to combine practice with the times. Of course Buddhism works good when things are fast and don’t seem real, solid. But when they are really slow and solid, Buddhism is more revolutionary: this may be even more attractive. One thing that might arise from these considerations is the idea that volatility (of markets, or anything else) might be something that pleases the practitioner. But not at all, what seem best conducive to most Buddhist practices are slow, stable environments. It is quite absurd to try to pigeonhole Buddhism for the times, since it has spanned 2600 years and lots of different cultures. When things are difficult, degenerate, compassion is stronger; when things are easy, a true golden age, with slow and stable settings such as old India — then other qualities, such as discipline and systematic study seem to be easy. Buddhism is quite adaptable. It is a narrow view that creates the illusion of some kind of Buddhist hype or surge in the early 00’s, related to external conditions or not, that Žižek seems to be (still) reacting to. If Buddhist teachers are right, Buddhism will take another two to three hundred years to really settle in the West.
Also, to say that Buddhism doesn’t condone capitalism doesn’t mean Buddhism isn’t able to penetrate any environment, in particular those in which there is lots of suffering, lots of potential for transformation, and lots of raw energy in the form of mundane power and money. The Buddhist practitioner is confronted all the time with the idea that all great Bodhisattvas (exactly those Žižek considers to be altogether wrong in their lack of psychoanalytic … lack?) penetrate all degraded mind landscapes to help beings trapped in those conditions. Thus we can have “secret agents” on all levels: crypto-animals (animals which in fact are Bodhisattvas), crypto-prostitutes, crypto-stock-brokers, and so on.
I believe Žižek would find irony in that too, but the fact is that, between the few viable actions and the perfect action, the Buddhist practitioner follows what is called “skillful means”: something not unlike McGyver, the 80's TV series. The explosives to be disarmed are one or two poisons on our minds, and a brief and small benefit towards someone else, on our work desk, wherever that may be. We work on what is workable, we use whatever we can use—for the benefit of all. Buddhism is a recycling of attitudes, ideas, concepts, situations. Nothing needs to be rejected altogether: the poisonous plant might be found to have a medicinal property if only the labs do the research. This doesn't mean at all passivity, on the contrary: it means total engagement.
The Marxist ideal of an abstract utopia construction—immanentizing the eschaton, as critics say—is to much an article of faith for pragmatists such as us. Religion—such as Marxism—is the opiate, etc. Buddhism is way more earthy and mundane than such "lofty" holier-than-thou adolescent yearnings.
Yet, there is the possibility of myriad political and revolutionary engagements based on the shock of Buddhism and confusion. Like a network of causes and effects, it does produce effective chances in the many worlds beings are functioning in.
Three kinds of beings in the path of enlightenment
Žižek has also stated that he has found a bit of Buddhist polemics on the three kinds of Bodhisattva, and that he prefers what he considers to be the Theravadim view.
The three kinds of bodhisattva would be the kinglike, the captainlike and the shepherdlike. The kinglike seeks enlightenment before his subjects, since he would be more able to help them from the superior position. The captainlike bodhisattva comes to the other shore of enlightenment together with all other beings, and the shepherdlike bodhisattva leads all the beings to enlightenment before he himself enters it. According to some Buddhist schools, the latter is the more courageous and therefore preferable for those who aspire highest. According to other Buddhist schools, the only realist option is the kinglike bodhisattva. Theravadims actually have a bit of discussion over if they accept a bodhisattva path at all (they all have the concept, but some deny a particular form of practice attached to the concept). But there is some diversity, and Žižek seems to have some problem, again, with the seeming postponement of gratification of the shepherd bodhisattva.
His problem is due to not understanding the separation of aspiration and application in Buddhist practice. Amazing as it may sound, there might be good wholesome ways to position your mind which are not in literal accord with definitive reality. Our common notion is that when what we think and reality are the same, everything is better. But this doesn’t take into account some elasticity and delay, some kind of accommodation, the mind might need.
The main image used to exemplify this is of a piece of paper rolled up, if you want it flat, you need to roll it up in the opposite direction first, then leave if for a while on a flat surface. The idea of the shepherd bodhisattva is similar to rolling up the paper in the opposite direction. Even if, in reality, enlightenment as a separate entity is not possible, when you still think about separate entities you put them first—this is to counteract your ingrained habit of self-serving. Doesn’t serve you well to think that you mind and reality can just be synchronized just like that: your superficial theories are much governed by mental habits. They mostly are stronger than you: someone may know that cigarettes are bad, may want to stop, and may be just governed by habit and the new configurations on his biology. The Greeks called this "akrasia".
Even considering that you must strive to think of others as more important than you, yet, in the end you are not different from anyone else, so you don’t “deserve less”, neither should you put yourself behind, on an absolute sense. It is only for the training of mind that it may be quite important that you put yourself a little behind, for a while, as folding a piece of paper in the opposite direction it is now folded, in order the get it flat in the end.
This kind of confusion about the nature of the Buddhist polemics, mixing it up with psychoanalysis, cannot help anyone. First you study the subject, then you compare. If you study it while at the same time you keep comparing and mixing the ideas, you will never have a clear understanding of the subject you want to incorporate or destroy. A confusion between the scope of the polemic is also clear. It mainly is a polemic inside Tibetan Buddhism. Theravadims and Mahayanists have similar polemics, but on other levels.
Selfish attachment and plain attachment
Žižek seems to stubbornly place the idea nonattachment as some kind of aloofness that he sees as a big problem that we with a Jewish-Christian background don’t necessarily need to acquire. He sort of ties this together with D.T. Suzuki’s militaristic emptiness, but I decided to treat it separately.
It seems clear, when talking about this subject, even by sheer scientific study, that empathy is consistently higher amongst Buddhist meditators. The problem then doesn’t seem to be Buddhism or a very limited section of misinterpretation among people who consider themselves Buddhists, but the very misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of attachment.
Particularly, one of the three main mental afflictions, the main actually, is usually translated as “ignorance”, but it means, in an emotional sense, much more indifference, or a feeling of alienation and separation, than actually not knowing something. What is not known (if we talk about knowledge in relation to this indifference), this ignorance, is just the very notion that things (and beings), by their very nature, can’t be truly separated. Attachment is a development of ignorance that we crave or grasp for something exactly because we reify the notion that they are separated. By the same token, the third poison, aversion or anger, arises from the same separation, yet with a characteristic more connected to fear and blame placing.
The idea most people have about Buddhism, and in this very limited sense Žižek is right, is that aloofness would be a quality cherished by Buddhists. Yet the quality most often described when people talk about any famous Buddhist teacher is mostly exactly the opposite: warmth.
This could be because attachment is actually the artificial feeling of separation, the reified separation. Also, when we are training the mind, it is quite clear that we should start substituting attachment over oneself for the attachment to others. The first thing you should do is to put the focus on attachment outside, and step by step you may purify attachment of its main ignorance of reified separation. This way you may transform attachment in empathy and compassion.
Also, cold-bloodness, or at least some sort of surgical approach to compassion is also possible. Say when you need to save some dog who is infested with maggots: the Buddhist story goes to say that Atisha used his own tongue to clean a dog’s wound, in order not do harm the maggots but at the same time save the dog. This is the kind of interest and passion for others that is highly considered amongst Buddhist practitioners. One does not need to do exactly the same thing, but our engagement to the benefit of others must be completely passionate and engaged.
Tip of the iceberg
Besides the distortions, there is the chunk of Buddhism unknown to Žižek and most of us in the West—and it is quite a huge chunk. Some scholars talk about us having only around 5% of Buddhist classical texts already translated to Western languages: and that may be quite generous, some talk about 1%. Among some of the things that I, who can’t read in any Asian language, can see Žižek completely missing is, for example, something like the Indian mahasiddha tradition—whose magical powers might not be the most interesting aspect.
Žižek could, as some Western commentators already did, say something about the diversity on the different social circumstances of those Buddhist teachers: on the mahasiddhas hagiographies we have a gay teacher, a king teacher, a more “normal” monk teacher, even a whorehouse helper teacher, etc. maybe even some philosopher of dark rings around the eyes and tics like Žižek might possibly identify with some of them. But I believe diversity is not something Žižek is particularly for: it is not as shock intensive and doesn’t tickle the current post-modernist crowd anymore.
We could also have many discussions on Buddhist politics, as well as language and Buddhism—yet those themes are completely lost to him: I can easily think of many examples that he could easy distort in order to carelessly entertain his listeners, but we had the good fortune that he didn’t do his homework properly, so he doesn’t seem to have come upon a lot. What he tries to criticize, if you can summarize, is just a view of compassion and emptiness from an unreliable Japanese scholar and a Schopenhaurian/Nietzschean misunderstanding of dukkha.
“The problem of evil” as incompatible with the Buddhist “operational system”
Interestingly, Žižek and his tradition are really focused on evil, that really is not a real issue with Buddhism: it is mainly a Jewish-Christian neurosis, or at least a theistic one. I have never seen Buddhists approaching the subject other than to say that it somebody creates harm to others, she will by necessity suffer too, exactly like someone who drank poison because she didn’t check the label.
What we call evil, things like the holocaust and so many others we wouldn’t like to trivialize, Buddhist bottom line, are just overarching superstructures built on the same petty personal ignorances that lead us to small daily corruptions like verbally hurting someone or being lazy. It’s not that the big things are banal: it’s the small ones that also need to be taken very seriously.
Do an experiment: try to explain the notion of evil to a Buddhist teacher not very familiar with the Western culture. Then check how many days you will be engaged in the task: to establish something that truly exists in the world, a feature of reality, sometimes seen as part of the nature of things and beings, or sometimes seen as a totally external feature, but there, for sure influencing human action. A thing which might sometimes even become a kind of scapegoat for huge atrocities: we might take it as a sort of intrinsic banality latent on the very structure of things, or we might trivialize it through the very action of not trying to make it explainable.
Would it be a innate characteristic of the human mind? Or would it be just an adventitious feature of the natural freedom? In this case, would it be really a thing, and not just a state of temporary confusion?
I believe you would take many days to explain this, and if perchance you are very knowledgeable about the subject, and if you are quite patient, it is possible that that Buddhist teacher end with a clearer view of the degree of philosophical confusion on the Western mind.
Žižek is totally mystified by the longhorn (Tib, dung chen), a very deep low frequency Tibetan trumpet. He says something to the effect that Tibetans know about the “dark side” of nirvana. It is quite interesting as the extensive efforts of Tibetan teachers to establish that what we call wrathful deities have nothing to do with evil, but are just an extreme display of compassion is subverted again into the theistic neurotic mentality. Actually, if we are talking about the dung chen, the sound is described as “dragons mating”, and albeit it is mainly used as an instrument in wrathful ceremonies, it is also used in processions and as a sort of calling signal for great ceremonies.
I think this is probably the most disturbing abuse of language Žižek engages in. We do have Western scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism and violence, and we do have some ideas about turf wars between monasteries being fought on a “spiritual” arena. Žižek could have researched this better since if he wanted arguments towards his position he would find them—he could have found not only the mystery and fear he sort of plays with, but could maybe keep the criticism quite up to date. But no, he doesn’t really engage in debate. From what he says, we have almost something that would amount to a bad advertisement of some weird evil in Tibetan ritual/praxis/underlying philosophy—something that you would hear from your usual pub occultist: "oh, but the nazis really liked Tibet... even went there to research spiritual weaponry".
The funny thing is that Buddhist Tantra is focused on transforming poisons, so it is something like not demonizing even the most Mahayana-wise difficult or “evil” features of mind, like the poisons I just described. It is vastly complex and with a huge history of polemics itself: not something that is made any relatable by a commentary on a deep sound produced during Tibetan ritual. It’s completely irresponsible to do this sort of sensationalism.
Sure, how come no one thought of that before? To criticize Buddhism, great!
Žižek's motivation for criticizing Buddhism seems to be, at least in some level, how unusual it is to do that. Buddhist public relations are quite excellent: the only criticisms that we usually see are aesthetic (for the masses, kitsch, out of fashion, too fashionable—Žižek plays around these) or, with some particularly rare and shameful occurrences (monks beating each other, sexual harassment in the sangha).
When it does show up on conversation, and this is a little bit Žižekian also, most people might raise this or that objection: if you want to keep the conversation, it is always good to create a little friction, isn’t it?
Since Žižek is quite a good entertainer, he goes directly after that which is most unimaginable, and with that he tickles the hipster audience with polemics of all qualities, but particularly the easy, the petty, and the phony.
(This rant was in part inspired by Zizek waxes on about Zionism, Sex, Gangnam Style, Justin Bieber, the Pope, and Buddhism—it was first published in Portuguese on Papo de Homem. After watching another video by Žižek on Buddhism some things were added for this version.
I must confess this is not a particularly Buddhist text in its form. Criticisms of this sort are unusual. There is a delightful anecdote about His Holiness the Dalai Lama first talk in the West, in Poland, during the 70’s. The very first question the Dalai Lama got from a westerner in the West was “What do you think about Lobsang Rampa’s Books?” His answer tells us much about the Middle Way and the Buddhist ethos: “Well, I believe his books are not 100% trustworthy.”
Žižek seems to be sort of a Lobsang Rampa for western philosophy. Popular, grotesque, sensationalist—wrong. What to say than of his views of Eastern thought.
I have no anger towards Žižek, in fact I find him really entertaining. There is some weird aspects of this rant which are really a compliment. I just hoped academics in general could raise the level of discussion about Buddhism. There are some rare good things around Asian Studies; I might be biased, but particularly from self-confessed Buddhists—and we might say even lineage holders who are working from the “inside” as “secret agents”. But in general the level of noise is too high for benefiting either Buddhism or society in general. That’s my two cents on the subject “academic Buddhism”.
Some people call me Padma3A commentary on social networks about my name and this article: "Most interesting of all: the author is named Padma, almost like Padme Amidala of Stars Wars, that most Buddhist of movie series, and a frequent object of Zizek's criticism. You can't make this stuff up." I don't consider Star Wars Buddhist at all, altough the producers seem, according to themselves, to have mixed a pletora of ideas from a new age salad which included Buddhist bastardizations. I am not a fan of Star Wars either. Padma is lotus in sanskrit, and is a name given to girls in india until this day, like say, Daisy in English. To connect this name to Star Wars in the first place can only be due to some intellectual wasteland perspective. I, a male, received this name in early 1998, a full year or more before it showed on the shopping malls and megaplexes. But I think this comment, made by a random reader of Žižek and I, in a sense illustrates well the way Žižek himself thinks. Poorly and in bad taste. Dorje. In the peerless words of Belchior, I'm just a Latin American lad without money in the bank nor influential relatives… I live in Porto Alegre and I have been trying to practice Buddhism for the last 19 years. Sorry for my awkward English.)
1. ^ Buddhism negates the possibility of ontology as being something like the supreme imperialism of the mind.
2. ^ Another very damaging instance of cultural imperialism: an European ideology, again connected to Hegel, which phagocyted the weakest distorted strains of Eastern thought systems, and resulted in genocide, famine and cultural obliteration of the native culture.
3. ^ A commentary on social networks about my name and this article: "Most interesting of all: the author is named Padma, almost like Padme Amidala of Stars Wars, that most Buddhist of movie series, and a frequent object of Zizek's criticism. You can't make this stuff up." I don't consider Star Wars Buddhist at all, altough the producers seem, according to themselves, to have mixed a pletora of ideas from a new age salad which included Buddhist bastardizations. I am not a fan of Star Wars either. Padma is lotus in sanskrit, and is a name given to girls in india until this day, like say, Daisy in English. To connect this name to Star Wars in the first place can only be due to some intellectual wasteland perspective. I, a male, received this name in early 1998, a full year or more before it showed on the shopping malls and megaplexes. But I think this comment, made by a random reader of Žižek and I, in a sense illustrates well the way Žižek himself thinks. Poorly and in bad taste.