[From the Introduction to A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, due out at the end of this summer. This excerpt is from the section laying out the difficulties involved in fashioning a substantive critique of Buddhism, and offering a strategy.]
Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel
What are we to make of Western Buddhism? Is it the serious form of thought and practice that its adherents would have us believe? It certainly speaks in the idiom of seriousness. Buddhist teachings invite us to entertain possibilities that should make even the most impulsive of the proverbial rushing fools balk: emptiness, selflessness, freedom, rebirth, the multiverse, enlightenment, abiding happiness. Topics like these, of course, have occupied some of the brightest minds that humanity has produced since the dawn of recorded human thought, thinkers from Parmenides and Plato to David Hume, Hannah Arendt, and Stephen Hawking, to just barely get the list going. Now, we’re hearing about Buddhism’s ability to address the most vexing issues confronting the twenty-first century, issues such as the domination of technology, environmental degradation, the intricacies of trauma and addiction, and the mysteries of the human brain. Western Buddhist teachers suffer no loss for words when it comes to any of these topics. Academics, too—principally in Buddhist studies, but also in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy—laud Buddhism’s contributions to interminable debates on epistemology, ontology, logic, language, perception, and consciousness. The accumulated result is that Buddhism enjoys a blue-ribbon reputation in the West as a profound all- encompassing system of thought, or at least, to those less inclined toward intractable conundrums, as a self-help remedy par excellence.
Is this reputation deserved? Perhaps the most obvious approach to investigating the viability of Buddhists’ claims for their ostensibly pansophic teaching would be to systematically present and analyze these teachings. Such an approach, however, would be tedious beyond belief and ultimately unproductive. Why do I say this? It would be tedious because “Buddhism” is the name of a two-and-a-half millennia amassing of ideas, beliefs, rituals, worldviews, texts, theories, art, architecture, music, fashion, practices, universities, monasteries, lay communities, virtually ad infinitum. And all of this in the cauldron of cultures spanning Beijing and Boston. Although this baroque assortment bears the shared name of “Buddhism,” the commonalities across time and space are mostly of the family resemblance variety, wherein the self- identity of each lies in its difference from the others. Like the proud factions of a venerable and extremely large clan, Buddhists seem to be particularly sensitive to this matter of difference. This sensitivity, furthermore, informs the reason that a doctrinal analysis of Buddhism would be as unproductive as it would be tedious. Contemporary Western Buddhists commonly respond to criticism with an appeal to exception. This tendency parallels what I call a detail fetish among Western Buddhists, a kind of exemplification reflex. Providing a particular example in order to make a finely calibrated point is, indeed, not unusual in complex systems of thought. Heidegger has his hammer; Wittgenstein, his slabs. Spinoza has his hatchet, and Descartes, his wax. If you have ever read even the first page of a book on classical Buddhist philosophy, you will almost certainly have come across “the pot.” Buddhists, in the written word and in dialogue, have always been quick at the draw with their own mechanism of ideological damage control: the hyper-specific doctrinal detail. Apparently, there is no criticism of a given Buddhist concept that cannot be decisively dismissed with an added detail, an overlooked facet, an ever-so-slight shifting of the dharmic goalpost. The detail is taken from this teacher’s meticulous interpretation, from that pinpointed textual passage; or, failing its intended effect, from the hidden sphere of wisdom known as personal experience. The detail corrects, alters, refines, and reshapes. And along the way, it inevitably derails any criticism, rendering it irrelevant.
If Buddhism is in equal measure elusive and unassailable, how is an evaluation of it possible? If the term “Buddhism,” or for that matter “Western Buddhism,” is a catchall for such a wide diversity of phenomena, what is it exactly that is being critiqued? And even if we can say, if every particular instance that is offered up for critical analysis is countered by a supposedly more salient yet resistant instance, on what foundation can a critique be raised? To indicate more about my approach to these matters in A Critique of Western Buddhism, and to convey a sense of the book’s spirit, I would like momentarily to band together the Buddha and the bearer of such ad rem wisdom as “Where there is a stink of shit/ there is a smell of being.”
The Buddha did not write books, but if he had, I can imagine him thinking, along with his scatological comrade, Antonin Artaud: “I would like to write a Book that would drive people mad, that would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go; in short, a door that opens to reality.” In the terms that I introduce in Chapter 2 , what Artaud calls “reality” is better understood as “the Real.” In one of its uses, the concept of the Real gives us a way to talk about disavowed features of reality that threaten to sunder our constructions of order, sense, and meaning. In another usage, the Real names a facet of existence presupposed, yet unaffected, by human symbolic systems, such as language and ideology. So, I will accordingly adjust Artaud’s terminology here. The Real, in Artaud’s charged and idiosyncratic idiom, is marked by “cruelty.” It is, in fact, the definitive cruelty. The very purpose of theater, Artaud believed, is to refract this cruelty: theater should be coextensive with the Real. It should ensue from the Real, thus operate alongside it. And yet the theater of his day aspired to be little more than a melodramatic retreat from the threats of modern life. It sought to protect its audience from the cruel. Artaud had a different vision. He saw in theater a practice that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.” With this aspiration, he was up against no less than a popular institution that served, like the church and the police, the creation of a public submissive to an oppressive status quo. Artaud thus made it his mission to transmute this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent” maelstrom, one that exposed its viewers to the primal truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience’s “nerves and heart,” he believed, is worthy of the name. Such a theater must be built on the cruelty that is the Real, on those eschewed features of reality that, to evoke Artaud’s wise words from above, stink. Such a theater must not shrink from the possibility that “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits” must ensue from its feral process. For, if not pushed with such intentional zeal, the machinations of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by the lucid acknowledgment of the cruel Real.
What do the fiery dreams of a bona fide madman like Artaud have to do with the cool and eminently sane Buddha? To suggest a parallel, let’s turn to the primal scene of their respective spheres of action. We see demented revels of the Dionysian maenad dancing and drinking themselves into orgiastic frenzy, shredding, with their phallic thyrsoi, then ecstatically devouring, the raw flesh of the sacrificial beast. Out of this appetite, the theater is born. Buddhism’s myth of origin is hardly less dramatic. Revisiting the locus of its founding scene, the seat of the Buddha’s awakening, we are in the presence of overwhelming elemental power: trees, water, sky, fire, earth, bodies beautiful and decaying, lust, passion, storms, death, swirling cosmos, occult powers, animals, sprites, spirits, gods. Sitting against the trunk of a massive ficus , the Buddha, as Gilles Deleuze says of writers, uses all the resources of his athleticism to “dip into a chaos, into a movement that goes to the infinite.” By engaging in extreme contemplative experimentation, the Buddha enters into a “Dionysian space of undoing” within which he enacts “not a system of demonstration, but an ordeal in which the mind is given new eyes.”
Each of these spheres represents a literal theater, a theatron, a space of violent, if perhaps cathartic, seeing. And yet from a catalyst for the crushing ordeal of human awakening, the Theater of Buddhism, like that of Artaud’s France, lapses into a refuge of comfort, into an institution of sleepy, complacent social conformity, into thought so sluggish as to mope its way into the desert of the Western New Age. That, at least, is one of two major premises of this book. What creates this breach is that the progenitors of Buddhism and of the Theater of Cruelty presuppose a “Real” of which their particular forms are crucial recoveries. This fact, the positing of a relationship to the Real— indeed, the very evocation of the notion—permits a corollary to the premise. In the case of Buddhism, this corollary is that its conceptual materials may, despite its lapses, offer valuable resources for radical reformations of thought and practice and of self and society in the contemporary West. But now a shadow of this first premise appears; namely, the noun “Buddhism” indexes an historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought. “Buddhism,” that is, names an obstinate containment of potentially vital human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere functions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal certainly appears to be to remain unscathed—in some sense or another—by life’s vicissitudes. Paradoxically, therefore, we cannot look to Buddhism—to its teachers and defenders, to its commentaries and explications, to its communities and organizations—to assist us in removing its auto- erected bulwark of resistance.
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