Speculative Non-Buddhism

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Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 3, 2013

LacanSubjectŽižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?

By Adrian J. Ivakhiv

This started out as a response to Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk 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. [Links at bottom.] 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.

Žižek 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 [...]. [131]

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 Žižek 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 calledsubjectivation-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 Žižek 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” [134].

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.

____________________________________

This essay was re-blogged from Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s blog immanence:Thinking the Form, Flesh, and Flow of the World: Ecoculture, Geophilosophy, Mediapolitics. Originally posted December 11, 2012.

LINKS.

pre-G (process-relational ecosophy-G) series
Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized
Slovoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
Adrian Johnston,Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity
subjectivation-objectivation

Adrian J. Ivakhiv is an Associate Professor of Environmental Thought and Culture at the University of Vermont with a joint appointment in the Environmental Program and the Rubenstein School of Environment & Natural Resources. He regularly teaches the core courses Nature and Culture and Research Methods in Environmental Studies, as well as electives including Ecopolitics and the Cinema, Environmental Ethics, The Culture of Nature, and the graduate-level Environmental Thought & Culture Research Seminar. He coordinates the Rubenstein School’s graduate concentration in Environmental Thought and Culture. For more information, visit here.

IMAGE.

Lacan’s Venn diagram showing the union and intersection of classes. In Stephen Heath, “Notes on Suture.”

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20 Responses to “Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?”

  1. Chris said

    Zizek would have loved Trungpa, Trungpa would have loved Zizek. It’s a loss to buddhism and philosophy that they never met.

    “Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility. . . . It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.
    Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom (MF)” p. 2

    “We can quite safely say that hope, or a sense of promise, is a hindrance on the spiritual path. Creating this kind of hope is one of the most prominent features of spiritual materialism. There are all kinds of promises, all kinds of proofs. We find the same approach as that of a car salesman. Or it’s like someone demonstrating a vacuum cleaner and telling you how well you could clean your house if you would just buy it. If you would just buy that vacuum cleaner, how beautiful your room would be, completely free of dirt and dust, down to the last speck! Whether it is a vacuum cleaner salesman or a guru, we find the same level of salesmanship. That is why both are included in the same bag of materialists. There are so many promises involved. So much hope is planted in your heart. This is playing on your weakness”.
    CTR, Illusion’s Game, p. 61

    “So if your reason for sitting or doing post meditation practice or any other kind of practice is self improvement, it is like eating poisonous food”.
    CTR, Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-kindness, CW, Vol. 2, p. 206

    “Trying to achieve a restful state of mind reflects a mentality of poverty”.
    CTR, MF, p. 48

    ” We can’t do publicity by having testimonials for meditation practice. If we did, it would be disastrous”.
    CTR, The Path is the Goal (PG), p. 135

    I could say, “Soon you’ll feel good. Soon you’ll forget your pain, and then you’ll be in a beautiful place.” But that would be an enormous falsity, and in the long run, such an approach is ungenerous and extremely destructive to the spiritual path.
    CTR, JWG, p. 47

    “The teachings do not present another form of security at all, but bring the absence of any kind of security. Enlightenment is the complete absence of any kind of promises”
    .CTR, TB, CW, Vol. 3, p. 518

    “For students who see the world in a very naïve way and have naïve attitudes toward spirituality, goodness is the issue, peace is the issue, euphoric states of Samadhi are the issue; therefore, they try to cultivate those things”.
    CTR, TOS, p. 98

    “As soon as a notion of polarity between good and bad develops, then we are caught in spiritual materialism, which is working to achieve happiness in a simple-minded sense, on the way to egohood”.
    CTR, MF, p. 68

    “The only way to deal with spiritual materialism as such is to develop an ultimately cynical or critical attitude toward the teachings and the teachers and the practices that we’re involved with. We shouldn’t let ourselves be sucked in, but question twice, thrice, from the point of view, “Is this spiritual materialism to me, or isn’t it?”
    CTR, DD, CW, Vol. 3, p.539

    One would be hard pressed to find this flavor of CTR in the teachings that are being presented now.

    Certainly you won’t find these quotes, in the ‘approved curriculum of the new ‘improved Shambhala of Lodro Rizler.

  2. Craig said

    …and Trungpa turns out to be the queen mother of all spiritul materialists!

    Follow me and I’ll tell you everyone is full of shit. For a moderate donation I’ll say it again.

    I really am never sure what to think when someone posts a bunch of quotes. I guess it’s better than a bunch of wiki links.

  3. Chris (#1).

    What a gulf, yet again, between x-buddhist rhetoric and x-buddhist reality. I recently took my class to the local Shambhala Center here in Philadelphia. We had personal instruction from a senior teacher for three hours. It included everything from historical background to a survey of doctrines to sitting meditation practice. My students are mature professionals. They come to me with excellent critical skills, and we develop those further in our course work. All I can say is that the gulf between words like Trungpa’s in your comment and the reality of the place was crazy-making. Sometimes critical work’s first task is simple sanity. What we found at Shambhala was rampant ventriloquism (the person’s mouth moves but x-buddhism does the speaking), pervasive employment of the principle of x-buddhist sufficiency, ideological blindness, and so on and on. The most troubling finding was the institutionally-embedded refusal to engage, much less recognize, the aporia swirling around us like those flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. Those statements suggest that Trungpa saw the difference between, as Althusser puts it, ideology and a science of ideology. But it raises a mammoth question: what the hell has gone wrong? That question requires that the questioner spend a good deal of time staring into the gulf.

  4. Chris said

    Glenn #3) 85% of Trungpa’s original students are no longer there.Those , that stayed , for their teaching sinecures, represent the cult-milieu that was always there around him, and took it to a ‘high farce” level. while allowing all his original teachings to be replaced with Osel’s ‘vision”, such that they are unrecognizable now, twisted it into the complete opposite, a Goldman Sach’s mandala a Confucianist, Tibetaphile cult of “Peace , Love , and Harmony.” . There is no connection between what is being taught there and Trungpa, only the Trungpa name brand to suck people into this cult of Osel, his son. People who have intelligence run away. It is a clown show, doing it’s part , to contributing to Quietism. That is why the Dalai Lama gave his imprimatur to it. (Trungpa had no use for the Dalai Lama). Yes, it is crazy making, beyond belief. Your description is perfect. What went wrong is what is wrong with all of buddhism now, Shambhala is just the most glaring example, and Tutteji’s satire, would be not seen as satire in that organization at all. They would see Tutteji as a ‘competitor” promoting the same product. This is why Zizek is absolutely correct, it is the perfect spiritual handmaiden for corporate capitalism, no better example exists than Shambhala, Inc.

  5. Brad said

    Chris:

    Oh, if only we could return to the pure original teachings of the Master Trungpa (Buddha, Jesus, etc.)! What a golden age that was!

    No. None of that. Trungpa — who could be forgiven for his boozing, drugging and creepy womanizing (though he just “slept” with his students!) — clearly was out to re-create the rulership of the Tibetan province denied him by the Chinese here in the West, with insecure, upper-middle class ex-hippies as his personal attendants (slaves, really). Shambhala has *always* been a cult at some level, and Trungpa is largely responsible for this. He vocally advocated for monarchy and aristocracy as the best form of government. No, Zizek would not “love” this reactionary, duplicitous guru. Can you imagine Zizek as one of Trungpa’s students? I can’t. He certainly would never have passed the English locution tests or fit into Shambhala’s dress code.

  6. Chris said

    I am not posting this to idolize Trungpa, what you say is true about monarchy, that he was tyrannical, and a despot , but all it tells me is that he was one more casualty of Tibetan lamaism, and what it reinforces in these tulkus, how could you not be crazy, ripped away from you mother and family, at 2, 3 , 4 years old? but will now be with these old patriarchal misogynistic clerics, that treat your mother, when she can visit, like dirt, like the lowest caste and you never really forgive them or forget it. That is why he had all western students running his organization and NO Tibetan lamas. (that tidbit , about how cruel they were to his mother, was in the pre-edited autobiography) , You are being trained to be ‘put out’ as a shill, for the monastery’s labrangs and to keep the crowds enthralled. But you have this ” big hole’ that can never be filled from losing your mother at such a young age , and then being put on a throne and treated like a incarnate deity? When your not being beaten for minor infractions in your ‘abhisheka performances” by your tutors? This is not a formulae for ‘enlightenment”, yet despite this, maybe because of it, Trungpa was a brilliant teacher.

    THEY ARE ALL CRAZY from the Tulku system.

    It’s just that the third stringer , celebrity lamas, are all pretending they are, not only perfectly sane, but models of ‘enlightenment,” superior beings, come only to this earth to help us with their ‘bodhisattva actitivity” , they are all delusional, the whole tulku trip depends on delusion.. The whole system is a formula for psychopathology and group idiocy that choses to be duped by this system and willing to throw away the whole western canon, substituting some need for a mostly ritualistic , extremely theistic, theatre of a superstitious, occult.

    We don’t get to rip apart Zizek’s neurosis, while we are discussing his philosophy, though, nor would you even think to do so. Yet he, himself , presents a very , shall we say, ‘odd appearance” and one has to suspend irritation and even revulsion at his body language, for example to ‘hear’ what he is saying. One has to suspend ‘judgement” to hear him, in other words.

    I was just talking about the difference in what Trungpa was teachings as buddhism, and what is passing for buddhism now.

  7. Chris (#6). I started to write a reply, but it got so long that I am going to make it a post. Your recent comments are helping to return the vast, meandering wanderings of this blog back to an original question: regarding x-buddhism, what the hell has gone so terribly wrong? Given, for instance, the thrust of your Trungpa quotes, how do we get a Lodro Rinzler? I can see now that the current post on Zizek attracted me because it helps to think through this problem. So I will post something on that later. Thanks.

  8. JRC said

    And now moving on to the praxis of the “subject” … onward ho …

  9. I once considered — all on my own and way out of my pay grade, not to mention, way beyond any talent for it — considered, I say, writing a biography of sorts of Trungpa. The question which drew me to this project was the question of what was going on with him, in his drunkenness and womanizing, and what was going on with his students. I came into the scene later, just after Trungpa’s death, and observed the many debates among the people he had taught, some who had left the Shambhala scene because of his behaviors and others who had stayed for his “crazy wisdom.” And it was that fork in the road that was interesting. So I read Chris’ post with appreciation, not to mention Glenn’s question: What the hell has gone so terribly wrong? I think of how groups evoke and become thrilled by the charisma of their leaders as well as how leaders are fed and defined by their groups, a topic that this blog has contemplated (“Biography of an X-buddhist Thaumaturge,” by Matthias Steingass). That’s not the whole story, of course, of what the hell has gone so terrible wrong, and I look forward to Glenn’s post.

  10. First, Ivakhiv is mistaken to say “Buddhism and Žižek’s Lacanianism are, in crucial respects, philosophical kindred spirits.” It is just not so. From the outset, Žižek’s critiique of Buddhism can be dismissed because it is based on Lacan’s Freudianism. Ivakhiv erroniously states that both Buddhism and Žižek “posit an emptiness or gap at the center of us humans” but Buddhism posits no such thing. The “emptiness” that is a gap at the center of something else, like the hole in a donut or the empty bowl of the tea cup, is not in any way, shape, or form the emptiness that Buddhism speaks of. Or to put it another way, the Lankavatara Sutra defines seven kinds of emptiness and the emptiness that is a “gap at the center” of something is the most mundane definition of emptiness that is equated with ignorance, not with the Buddha Dharma.

    Ivakhiv says, “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.” But it is not necessary to use such cumbersome terms as “subjectless subjectivity” or “subjectivation-objectivation,” when we say as Buddhists that reality is the activity of Dharma or the activity of Mind or the activity of Buddha-Nature or the activity of emptiness (sunyata) and mean the same thing. Whether that “Other” or that “It” is called Dharma, Mind, Emptiness, Buddha-Nature, Tahtagata, True Suchness, or any of the hundreds of other more colorful terms including such creative attempts as “subjectivation-objectivation,” it is the activity of that which is already active before we have a thought about it.

    Therefore, Ivakhiv is right on target to “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.” There is a Zen koan on this very point. It is Case 75 from the collection called “The Record of the Temple of Equanimity” (A.K.A. “The Book of Seerenity”).

    75. Ruiyan’s Constant Principle 瑞巖常理
    Ruiyan asked Yantou, “So what is the root’s constant principle?”
    Tou said, “Activity!”
    Yan said, “At the time of activity what’s it like?”
    Tou said, “One does not see the root’s constant principle.”
    Yan stood still thinking.
    Tou said, “If you agree, then you have not yet escaped the sense organs and dusts. If you don’t agree, you immediately sink into endless birth and death.”

    This problem of a perceived necessity to either agree or disagree is the trap of logical thinking from which philosophers and Freudians like Lacan and Žižek are unable to extricate themselves.

    This inability to extricate oneself from the polarized force-field of logically determined philosophical thinking leads Žižek to posit an “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).” From the view of the Buddha Dharma, the polarization of opposites into irreducible gaps is the hall mark of delusion. If there is an “irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility)” then it is one that the logical philosopher has created, not one imposed by the authenticity that transcends the subjective-objective polarity.

    Žižek also asserts that “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.” Incredulously, Ivakhiv agrees, “yes, this is part of Buddhism.” Actually this is not a part of Buddha Dharma. The goal of Buddhist meditation is not “to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana.” There are so many things wrong with that one line characterization of the goal of meditation, not least of which is that it posits a “subject” overcoming a “Self.” Then there is the pitifully inane description of nirvana as a vacuum. Sadly, Ivakhiv lets this slide with a tepid agreement.

    Fortunately, Ivakhiv rebounds off the ropes when he states, “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.” Though there is no need for Ivakhiv to be so tentative about it. Žižek plainly doesn’t grasp or realize the core of the Buddha Dharma, he can only perceive those aspects of Buddha Dharma that he can see through his polarized eyeglasses of philosophical Freudianism. Thus, Žižek sees only a perverted and twisted view of the Buddha Dharma that is own attempt at naturalization has created.
    However, Ivakhiv falls back onto the mat with a knock out punch to himself when he then asserts that there is virtue to Žižek’s critique of Buddhism. Ivakhiv says, “Subjectivity is only possible because of our condition of separation, the very gap that underlies our suffering,” but is that so? I don’t think so. Subjectivity is not “because of” the delusion of separation, subjectivity is the condition of the delusion of separation. Subjectivity is exactly the delusion of a “gap.” Apparently because Ivakhiv can’t see this identity of separation, subjectivity, and gap, he posits a false dichotomy between “eliminating that gap” and “recognizing that the gap is one we share will all manner of other gapped, broken, suffering (because groundless yet ground-seeking) others.” Thus Ivakhiv and Žižek seem to share the notion that subjectivity is irreducible and that we are forever bound to stay within our delusion of subjectivity and the only distinction is whether we acknowledge that we share it with everyone else or not.
    This error toward subjectivity leads Ivakhiv to say, “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?)” The answer to the latter question is, yes, such a person is a Buddhist of the Two Vehicles, yet still is very much a Buddhist. But the premise is mistaken. A Buddhist who works only to eradicate suffering in him or herself IS INDEED a Buddhist who does a great deal for a world full of suffering. Only a person who believes in the literalization or reification of “the gap” would imagine that such a person were not contributing toward eradicating a world full of suffering. If Ivakhiv can’t see this, then he has not seen the full vision of Buddha-Knowing (buddhajnana), the realization of which is the purpose of Buddhas coming to manifestation in the Buddha worlds.

  11. Craig said

    Glenn,

    Could you say more about the Aporia of the center. I always thought Poria was doubt or puzzlement. So we’re the Shambhala folks puzzled, confused or just unaware of the meaning of what they were teaching?

    Craig

  12. Are we going to hail Trungpa Rinpoche now?

    Chris:

    Trungpas original teachings are unrecognizable now?

    What is with his books?

    I went through some of them last year with the following question in mind: What knowledge he had about our society? The answer: He knew next to nothing. Why? He adhered to the principle of sufficient buddhism 100%. His solution for the malaise he indeed partly saw (especially that most of his pupils where out for a cult leader)? Look within and find the solution there.

    Conclusion (and working hypothesis for further investigation): CTR is the blueprint for everything what is x-buddhism today.

    Example: He has the same a-historical view as Sogyal from Lakhar or His Holiness the BlaBla Lama himself.

    The citation Chris gives we find with every other so called spiritual teacher today. The problem lies in what these people do not say and what these people do not know. Namely how our society works. The problem is that because they obey the principle and law of sufficient buddhism they not only do not know what they are missing, they even miss that they miss something at all. In this regard Donald Rumsfield knew more and was a better spiritual teacher than CTR.

    Trungpa saw the difference between, as Althusser puts it, ideology and a science of ideology?

    Glenn, I bet he didn’t.

  13. Thanks for this, Adrian. I wrote about Zizek last November after seeing his talk:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2012/11/zizek-waxes-on-about-zionism-sex-gangam-style-justin-bieber-the-pope-and-buddhism.html

    I was hoping then for a more nuanced account of Zizek from someone sympathetic to him (and a decent understanding of Buddhism) and this seems to fill that void nicely. A friend of mine, Dr. Dion Peoples, has written a very good article (you can find it on his academia.edu account) and might write more, as might I.

  14. JRC said

    [“It”] is the activity of that which is already active before we have a thought about it … the authenticity that transcends the subjective-objective polarity

    I think that something inside me thinks that it might be thinking about something inside it, etc. separating and floating off into absolute and perfect release[ment]. Tom? Glenn? Where do each of you stand in relation to that floating something (mine or yours … it doesn’t matter)?

  15. Glenn. #3 .

    But it raises a mammoth question: what the hell has gone wrong?

    (…& comment 80 on the Sogyal thread.)

    And that is a central question isn’t it? Or perhaps a better one is: how can alternatives become available for those who are inspired by message’s such as the Trungpa quotes above, or similar, without having to fall into the honey-trap of mainstream Buddhism? I’m much more interested in that discussion than bashing the likes of Lodro, which is kind of easy at the end of the day and gets tiresome. Aren’t you guys tired of it yet? Instead of trolling, I think it timely to invest energy and thought in considering alternatives and means for addressing what Buddhism had been considered as being able to do in the past and yet which obviously fails to do in the majority of cases today. I am extremely interested in that question. It seems to me that it’s time to move on. Expecting others to do it is a waste of time and cursing them for their inability to live up to your expectation, or desired mode of engagement is pointless. The article I sent you is in part an attempt at that, whatever it’s failings.

    Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility. . . . It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.
    Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom (MF)” p. 2

    This quote is great. The mistake it seems is to read such an expression of insight and then expect others to be able to provide it for us, or to understand its applied depth whilst not having been co-opted by institutional survival strategies, which in the case of Shambhala does seem to be a form of corporatism. You guys seem to expect too much from the x-buddhist melange. As Tom states again and again, but keeps coming back all the same, it’s time to move on from Buddhism isn’t it? …and if sufficiently interested, find or build alternatives? That seems a more worthy project. Putting together this website and its articles and long comment exchanges is insufficient. It’s been a fascinating experiment so far, but perhaps it’s starting to run the end of its course?

    Mathias. #12.

    I went through some of them last years with the following question in mind: What knowledge he had about our society? The answer: He knew next to nothing.

    For those with a fair intellectual capacity, Buddhism is unlikely to be approached as a means for changing the world and the fact is that the majority of Western Buddhists are not genuinely interested in such matters, preferring a private, pursuit of well-being. So what. Why expect anything more of them. Disruption can be a powerful wake up call, but only if people are willing to engage and play the game. The opposite effect of course is the one Glen has experienced: refusal and/or indifference. I like some feel that the force of your arguments, insights and understanding are more than sufficient without the trolling to eventually sway those who have taking a comfortable position within contemporary western Buddhism. If you bash them on the head with it though, the refusal is more likely to become permanent.

    On another note, taking a handful of insights from Trungpa’s earlier works is no bad thing. The point is not to lose yourself in adoration for such men and their works. In this case context is importantly the yardstick for extracting the use and relevance of Buddhist material.

    Sogyal. #80. Great comment Matthias. Very well said and I heartedly agree.

  16. Craig (#11).

    Could you say more about the Aporia of the center. I always thought Poria was doubt or puzzlement. So we’re the Shambhala folks puzzled, confused or just unaware of the meaning of what they were teaching?

    I am using aporia in its non-technical sense of a poros, without passage. I think that in the case of the Shambhala people there was lack of even the most basic awareness that their doctrines and claims created countless confluences that could not be bridged. The most pervasive one was the intersection of their overall rhetorical framework of “naturalness” and their reliance on the originary-epistemological myth of the terton–the finders of the hidden text (terma) that contain all the goodies.

    The “naturalness” rhetoric was, like I said, pervasive. But to take one example, in the meditation instructions we we’re told to breathe in and “just be present,” and breathe and “just that–that’s it, right here!” The accompanying “dharma talk” emphasized the point that “really, there is nothing to teach: it is all right here.” Innate natural wisdom, and all that. Well, one of my students asked, if it’s “all right there, what’s with the endless complicated teachings of the terton? What’s with the stories of magical gurus? Could it be more obvious that none of that is right here?”

    The Anglicized adjective, aporetic, derived from a poros, means, to be at a loss. When questions like these were asked, our guides were at a loss to answer them. They tried, but obviously, they could not have it both ways. So, it is as you suggest: they were unaware that such aporia were constanly swirling around them.

    I see a pervasive aporia in x-buddhism generally. It involves the teaching/fact of impermanence and the zombie-like persistence in x-buddhism of atman, not to mention the notion of some sort of cataclysmic “enlightenment.”

  17. Craig said

    Glenn,

    Thank you for the explanation. I’ve experienced that in pretty much all of my ‘dharma’ escapades. I’m glad to have a word for it as aporia definitely goes beyond confusion or doubt…even beyond ‘at a loss’. It probably goes without mentioning that christian churches are rampant with this too.

    It’s interesting though as there seems to be a disconnect between the aporia and the reason people go to church or sangha. It’s generally for social reasons, so the doctrine takes a back seat. I’ve wonders how dangerous this can be. On the one hand it seems insidiously dangerous. On the other, it’s just people getting together that may or may not believe certain things.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Craig

  18. Craig (#17).

    On the one hand it seems insidiously dangerous. On the other, it’s just people getting together that may or may not believe certain things.

    I agree. That’s why it’s important that people spend time in their refuge of choice. A church community or an x-buddhist sangha can be a place of genuine nourishment–for a while. Maybe such a community is like an oasis in the desert, a place of rest and refreshment. But how quickly it becomes something else! How quickly it becomes a prison to thought. The “Warning!” page here is meant to discourage those needing an oasis from going into premature exile.

  19. Craig said

    Glenn: #18,

    Yes! I needed to re-read that. I wonder if one can still stay in a place of rest and still think? That seems to be one of the big non-buddhist questions. I’m reminded of your catholic mass attendance. For a while, the church was a respite for me. There was much thinking, but we still had to confess sin and declare beliefs. Thought prison indeed. Great point. Thanks for the response.

  20. Thanks, Glenn, for re-posting my article and bringing it to the attention of your readers. And thanks to the readers for their attention (and to Justin for directing me to your very interesting article, which I enjoyed reading).

    Glenn has asked me if I would care to respond to any of the comments, and in particularly to Gregorywonderwheel’s comment #10. The following is a response to that comment. (Since the writer remains mysterious to me, I’ll simply call him/her “Gregory.”)

    Gregory seems to agree with my characterization of Zizek and/or of Buddhism on some points, and to disagree with others. A blog post is fair grounds for taking issue with inadequately formulated characterizations, and there are undoubtedly some of those in my post. Yet it is easy to take them for more than they are. For instance, my seeming assent to Zizek’s point about the “subject” overcoming its “Self” and entering “the vacuum of nirvana” was not intended as an agreement that this formulation is an adequate, let alone a precise, characterization of Buddhist philosophy or psychology. It was simply a nod, a way of saying “okay, there’s something to that, but there are bigger fish to fry here.”

    Something similar could be said about Gregory’s first point about emptiness–that Buddhist emptiness is not “like the hole in the donut or the empty bowl of the tea cup.” Gregory is assuming here that “positing an emptiness or gap at the center of us humans” is equivalent to positing an emptiness at the center of a donut or tea cup. But I’ve said nothing to indicate that I consider “us humans” to be like a donut or tea cup; that is Gregory’s own addition. If I had to say something about that, I would prefer to say that humans, like all real entities (and possibly donuts and tea cups among them)–all conditionally co-arise, or, in my terms, all subjectivate-objectivate (or, rather, participate in subjectivation-objectivation). If there is emptiness at their center, this is (at least in part) because there is no center; the center is a process of subjectivation-objectivation that is as “empty” as that which encloses it. Calling it a “gap” is a way of pointing to its groundlessness. I think there is more in common between Buddhism and Lacanian psychoanalysis here than Gregory acknowledges, but to argue this requires that we say more about Lacan, and I’m not really expert enough to go there in an extended argument.

    It is also fair enough that Gregory would not find my own philosophical terms (such as “subjectivation-objectivation”) as attractive as the Buddhist terms he prefers. I don’t expect them to win over a reader at a quick first encounter.

    Gregory’s depiction of my punching myself out to a knock-out makes for an enjoyable image. I fear that here, too, semantics may be getting the better of him. But this may also be a genuine point of disagreement between us. Gregory writes:

    “Ivakhiv says, “Subjectivity is only possible because of our condition of separation, the very gap that underlies our suffering,” but is that so? I don’t think so. Subjectivity is not “because of” the delusion of separation, subjectivity is the condition of the delusion of separation. Subjectivity is exactly the delusion of a “gap.” Apparently because Ivakhiv can’t see this identity of separation, subjectivity, and gap, he posits a false dichotomy between “eliminating that gap” and “recognizing that the gap is one we share will all manner of other gapped, broken, suffering (because groundless yet ground-seeking) others.” Thus Ivakhiv and Žižek seem to share the notion that subjectivity is irreducible and that we are forever bound to stay within our delusion of subjectivity and the only distinction is whether we acknowledge that we share it with everyone else or not.”

    For Gregory, the gap is a delusion, and this delusion is subjectivity. Calling it (the gap/subjectivity) a delusion means that it is a misperception, and that what it (mis)perceives is not real but illusory. This seems to imply that the universe must therefore be one seamless whole, with no gaps, no delusions, no subjectivity(ies), and (by implication) no suffering. For me, however, a philosophy that contends these things is inadequate to deal with the experiential reality of real humans (and other sentient beings). It is also not my understanding of Buddhist philosophy at its best.

    Nowhere do I state that subjectivity is “irreducible” or that we are forever bound to stay within it. For one thing, I disagree that “we” are forever anything, or bound to anything. I do assert that subjectivity arises, as does objectivity; that they arise together; that they arise conditionally, but not fully deterministically; and that in their mutual co-arising arise such things as feeling, affect, desire, attachment, suffering, and much else. I do believe that there is separation, or a gap, between any arising-subject and any arising-object; without such a gap neither would be possible. But none of these is forever, since the arising of any subject (or the objects that it refers itself toward) is only ever momentary.

    If this way of describing things sounds foreign to one trained in Buddhism, it should not. It comes from the process philosophical tradition of thinkers like A. N. Whitehead, among others. The differences (which are subtle) and commonalities (which are greater) between process philosophy and Buddhism have been explored by numerous scholars; my blog is one popular venue where these things are discussed.

    In closing, I wish to thank Gregory (and Glenn, as mentioned) for the opportunity to expand on these ideas. I welcome further discussion, but may not have the time to follow up here, for which I apologize in advance.

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