Lacan’s Encounter with Buddhism

By Anna McLellan

In the “Seminar on Anxiety” Lacan has made use of Judaism and its practices, and of Christianity; and finally he will make use of Buddhism in his effort to explore the question of desire in its relation to the Other, and of the fundamental position of anxiety in these encounters.

In Judaism the OtherGodis an exteriority, a residue of the first identification with the father, a subject that Freud explores in Moses and Monotheism. This God is positioned in a particular structural relation whose purpose is to minimize anxiety; in particular the superegoic function which Lacan links to the invocatory driveGod speaks to Mosesand to the all-seeing eye of God inherent in the scopic drive. The sacrifice of God’ s son for mankind shifts the Christian’ s position to the Othersubduing this arbitrary powerthus shifting his relation to anxiety, which Lacan describes as now “provoking the anxiety of the other.”

In May of 1963, the week after his return from a visit to a Buddhist shrine in Japan, Lacan declares his intent to use his experience at this monastery to advance his teaching on “the point where the dialectic of anxiety takes place, namely the question of desire.” He begins by reminding us of the hypocrisy of the Westerner in the belief that the Oriental is lacking in subjectivity. Lacan is emphasizing that anxiety must be understood in relation to the desire of the Other, and that this is a structural position and has little to do with “depth” or “heart.”

Desire, for Lacan, is bound up with the lost object, object a: that something of the primordial experiencing of the infant to his body that becomes separated, detached and reemerges in the world as object a, the cause of desire. (Lacan is reframing Freud’ s position that anxiety has to do with object loss. Lacan’s position is that anxiety is not the signal of a lack, but the very absence of this lack). Desire is given structure in fantasy; and implicit in the functioning of the fantasy is the break with the relation to its object, which is thus effaced and disappears. Desire is an illusion founded on the displacement of the lost object a.

Lacan takes this further: “At the root of all knowledge the totality of corporeal presence is engaged, because something has been separated from our knowledge of ourselves, something that is marked by desire.”

Lacan turns now to the position of Buddhism: “Desire is illusion,” Buddhism posits, it has no support, no outcome in nor aim toward anything; “if there is an object you desire, it is nothing other than yourself:” the “it is yourself you recognize in the Other,” Lacan says, is already inscribed in the ancient Vedantic school of philosophy.

Here he makes reference to an article he wrote in 1946, “Psychic Causality” in response to an argument for an organic theory of mental illness. Lacan is critical of this position both because if knowledge is motivated by desire, then any effort at objectivity on the part of the observer is called into question And if desire is given structure in phantasy then madness itself must be understood in a context that is structural and not organic.

In this same year Lacan’ s colleague Paul Demieville wrote an article examining the historical origins of the “sudden” and “gradual” paths to enlightenment in Ch’an Buddhism titled The Mirror of the Mind, in which the Fifth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism asks his disciples to respond to a verse he has prepared. In it, the mirror surface of the world is reflected as emptiness, allowing and encouraging the position of detachment:

Our body is the Bodhi tree
And our mind a mirror bright
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.

All the students respond, but it is the illiterate peasant whose response reveals his Enlightened state: he will become the Sixth Patriarch:

There is no Bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?

Since Lacan refers to Demieville and to his own paper on “Psychic Causality” in the “Seminar on Anxiety” we might imagine he has read his colleague’s article when he expands on this mirror metaphor to correct both the position of organic psychology and to critique the Buddhist position that the mirror is a proper metaphor for “illusion.”

“The eye is already a mirror,” Lacan says, “it organizes the world in space and it reflects what in the mirror is reflection.” We can remember Lacan’ s story of the fisherman whose comment to him about the glint of the sun reflecting off a floating sardine can“can you see it; well, it can see you!” Lacan uses to illustrate the fact that even the fisherman recognizes that there is something there beyond pure reflection. The mirror is the field of the Other “where there must appear… if not the object a, at least its place…which causes the passage from the level of castration to the mirage of the object of desire” (8.5.63). For Lacan, “that which is most myself in the outside is there, not because I projected it, but because it was cut off from me.”

Lacan’ s position is consistent with Freud’ s view in “Beyond the Pleasure Principal:” “that which has the role of looking does not arise from the function analogous to the visual function, but from the detachment of a part of the ego from the rest.” Freud goes on to say that, “if one bears in mind that the double is immortal, it will be seen that the ego aspires to nothing less than complete invulnerability.”

Freud likened Nirvana, the goal of Buddhism, to the move to zero, the Death Drive and connects the Death Drive to immortality. Andre Green adds to this in his book, Life Narcissism Death Narcissism: “The ego’ s immortality has at it’s disposal a large area in the psyche, since it extends from normality to psychosis…Negative narcissism under the influence of the Nirvana principle, representing the death drives, tends toward lowering all libido to level zero… Drawing it back to auto-eroticism, absolute primary narcissism seeks the mimetic sleep of death. This is the quest of the non-desire for the Other, of non-existence, non-being: another way of acceding to immortality.” (p.222).

Catherine Millot in La Vie Parfait will argue that something quite different is at stake. She speaks of the annihilation of self characteristic of the mystics St.Theresa and John of the Cross, and she explores this in the lives of three figures; Mme. Guyon, persecuted at the time of the Reformation, and two contemporary figures, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum, victims of the Holocaust. The extreme renunciation of the self is an intrapsychic solution that, she says, sidesteps the Pleasure Principle. She borrows from Lacan his use of the Klein bottle, a topological structure with the characteristic that the exterior and interior form one continuous whole. Millot wants to suggest a way in which a psychic structure can become indifferent to the distinction inside-outside, and consequently to anxiety, fear and even pain. With no inside-outside differentiation the outside can pass through the organism without being recognized as other, and the inside can subject itself to outside with the same familiarity as that within. This undifferentiated Real is the position of the infant. The move of the subject to a state prior to differentiation is the ecstatic state of the mystic, Millot indicates. Here suffering cannot be oriented through a dialectic of self and other; it is all One. However in these more severe forms of renunciation that she describes, forms that the Buddha ultimately abandons, we see a jouissance that suggests implicitly a relation to the other. Perhaps we could conclude that consciousness cannot determine an outcome that is fundamentally structural.

Now we consider Lacan’s position that Nirvana is not negation, not a pure reduction to nothingness, but a “not to have.” In this “not to have” we can hear the question of desire. We can see in Buddhism a support for the softening of the drivesThe Buddha, eyes downcast, neither looks toward nor sees what is outside himself. His is an indifference to the Other that is profound.

However, when we look to the origins of Buddhism, which begin with the myth of the life of the Buddha, we see yet another story of the desire of the father.

The Buddha, was probably an historic person of the 6th Century B.C.E. His teachings have been passed down through a strong oral tradition. The story of his life was not composed for 800 years, not until around 200 C.E., so that what we know of him is as much myth as legend. The BuddhaShakyamuniwas born to King Shuddhodana and his wife Maya, whose name means “illusion,” in a small principality in what is now the Northeastern part of India. There were many auspicious signs at his birth: the king is told by Brahmins his son will be a great leader, worldly if he dwells in a house and spiritual if he leaves his house and goes forth away from the world. When he is seven days old his mother dies, presaging the events that will determine his withdrawal from worldly life. She is both a true lost object and a loss that escapes into the Real; she is replaced by her sister. The king, whose own powerful desire is for his son to succeed him builds him many palaces and provides him with every luxury in order to hide from him the human suffering that could turn him from a worldly life. Nonetheless, when Shakyamuni is 29 he ventures forth outside the walls of the palace where he is startled out of his ease but the sight of old age, sickness and death. “What is this,” he asks at the sight of each, “and why does it exist?” Shocked and disoriented by this intrusion of reality, the Lalitavistara text describes this in the scene he is met with on his return to the chamber where his wives and mistresses, waiting for him, have fallen asleep: “some of the unconscious women are drooling, yawning, snoring; others, disheveled, gnash their teeth, pant and babble senselessly.” Filled with loathing for what he sees, he saddles his horse and leaves secretly in the middle of the night in search of the truth of his experience, the problem of samsara, the suffering of to life.

Shakyamuni ventured out to discover something that he “did not know.” In the seminar on “The Transference,” Lacan tells us that it is the fact that he “did not know” that sets Oedipus apart from all the stories of son’ s wanting to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. (That the Real surmounts the Symbolic is essential to the Oedipus complex, and it is how analysis operates. [Seminar XXII]). Just as it set Oedipus apart, it is essential to the myth of the Buddha that he “did not know.” Here the mother who died before she could be symbolized stands in this place. Shakyamuni returns to the palace in a state of agitation. It is the “unheimlichkeit” or “uncanny” quality of his experience that we see transferred now to the sight of the sleeping women. The norms that have guided his life up to this point have fallen away. Nothing has prepared him for this awakening to the existence of his own mortality. Simultaneous with this moment is the recognition of the of the father’s crushing desire which orchestrated this delusion.

In another version of the story, at Shakyamuni’ s return to the palace he is met by his father who implores him to stay. Shakyamuni answers that he will stay if he, Shuddhodana, can promise that he will not grow old, ill and die. In this version the father is silenced, and Shakyamuni leaves.

Shakyamuni Buddha seeks out and ultimately rejects various forms of Hindu mysticism before finally sitting down under the Bodhi tree determined not to move until he has discovered the solution to the problem of the impermanence of life. From this meditative experience comes the essence of Buddhism, “The Four Noble Truths.”

The Four Noble Truths consist of laws or precepts: (1) Suffering exists, (2) There is an origin of suffering, (3) The cessation of suffering is attainable, and (4) There is a path to the cessation of suffering. This path leads to the end of suffering by way of the exhaustion of desire, for it is attachment, aversion and ignorance that perpetuate the cycles of death and rebirth. This is the Dharma, the True Law.

During the time of the late seminars Lacan had been playing with a variety of models to find a better ways of thinking about the human subject. Lacan looked outside language, to mathematics and then to topology for models for the exploration of the psyche. Thirteen years later when he is invited to make a presentation at a colloquium on James Joyce, he finds in Joyce a subject through which he can explore the representations of
the Borromean knot, and this becomes Seminar XXIII. Here Lacan addresses the question of the author of Finnigan’s Wake, why is this not the work of a madman? Perhaps this same model can help us to explore the position of the Buddha and of Buddhism. Although it’ s important to remember that the position of Shakyamuni is closer to the of Oedipus in their “not knowing” and in the traumatic way in which the unconscious position shifts into a Real. It’s interesting also that Oedipus does not die, but disappears.

The Borromean knot consists of three rings hooked together in such a way that they come apart when any one of them is unhooked. Lacan designates these rings the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. In the center space where the rings overlap he designates object a. In Lacan’ s designation the overlap between the Symbolic and the Imaginary represents meaning; where the Imaginary and the Real overlap represents the jouissance of the Other, and the overlap between the Real and the Symbolic represents phallic jouissance. Where the Imaginary projects into the Symbolic Lacan places “inhibition;” where the Symbolic projects into the Real he places “the symptom;” and where the Real projects into the Imaginary he places “anxiety” (Freud’s inhibition, symptom, and anxiety). In using the Borromean structure to analyse James Joyce by way of his extraordinary writing project, Lacan suggests there is a problem in this psychic structure between the Real and the unconscious, the Symbolic; a faulty knotting, suggesting that the Borromean knot of Joyce would have come apart if he had not found a way of repairing it. For Lacan, it is Joyce’s ego that will repair this connection. Because of how the Borromean knot is made any repair must be made to all three rings; this fourth ringthe repaircreates a singularity which Lacan designates the Sinthome, something which marks a subject not as an individual member of a groupthe group of human subjectsbut in the position of singularity. Lacan’s example is Socrates who chose immortality over his own existence. We see that the Buddha is also a Singularity in his willingness to discard all that life holds for an unknown and perhaps non-existent Truth.

The Buddha experiences Enlightenment, the true law, something he has grasped in the void of thought and action, a “snuffing out” not only of desire but of existence as we know it. And yet he returns from this experience, out of compassion we are told, to teach the Dharma so that others may achieve Enlightenment. The Buddha teaches not a doctrine, but a practice through which the state of Enlightenment can be achieved. This “Way” is embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

At the end of the Seminar X, Lacan shifts Freud’ s formula, “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety,” to “Desire, Omnipotence, and Anxiety.” The position in Buddhismthat there is no Otheris perhaps one of its challenges for us, and its attraction. This shift from the panoply of Hindu Gods is nothing like the shift from Judaism to Christianity. Yet it holds an inordinate attraction in our own culture: on the one hand a new age stand-in for the difficulty of belief in the God of our forefathers and on the other, surprisingly in dialogue with contemporary physicistsscientistswho see in the language of the infinite interior space a description of their own construction of the Universe. At the end of Seminar X, Lacan shifts Freud’ s formula, “inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety” to “desire, omnipotence and anxiety,” suggesting a position for omnipotence, the dissolution of the position of the other, as a solution to the problem of angst. Nirvana is the extinguishing of desire, the obliteration of self; the dream without a dreamer, the nothing. We wonder, can Buddha’s description of the experience of Enlightenment be understood in the context of the structure of the human psyche? And if so, can this structure be articulated by way of the Borromean knot? Or are we caught up in a myth much like our own Christian myth? Can there be a dissolution of the Borromean psychic structure, and would this be madness, the madness of Omnipotence, or can there be a return? Can there be a suturing of the unknotted Borromean with a fourth that makes of the Buddha, like Joyce, a sinthome. If so, is this sinthome found not “in the writing of a name,” but “in the writing of a Law” beyond the law of the father; a True Law or Dharma. For we see that the Buddha desired nothing less than the original and failed promise of the father: Omnipotence.

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