Agamben on Buddhism

Adam Lobel and Steven DeCaroli are currently engaged in a book project on Agamben and Buddhism. (Read a brief overview of Agamben here.) This book will apparently include an extensive interview with him. An und für sich recently published excerpts from the interview. DeCaroli’s is the first published scholarly article on Agamben’s enagement with Buddhism.

To me, these encounters—Agamben with Buddhism; philosophy with religion; Lobel and Decaroli with Agamben—reveal the extreme fecundity of the Great Feast of Knowledge. One question that never fails to strike me when I (so seldom!) come across stimulating engagements with Buddhism, is: Why doesn’t such intelligent, creative thinking about ,and uses of, Buddhist materials originate within Buddhist   communities? Why always from outsiders and…heretics? It’s a question worth pondering. Anyway, to the Feast…

Lobel and DeCaroli: Prior to Karman, there are only three references to Buddhism in your work—twice in The Coming Community and also in a short chapter at the end of Idea of Prose. In The Coming Community you reference “Indian logicians” and in The Idea of Prose you specifically mention Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. Though these are relatively early references, for many years it has seemed to us that a familiarity with Buddhism has been a subtle influence on your work more broadly. Is this assumption correct? And given the recent publication of Karman, what has made you turn to Buddhism more directly and in a more sustained and expansive way?

Agamben: My readings of Buddhist texts—and more generally of Indian thought, in particular the Vedas and Upanishads—go back a long time, certainly long before 1985, when I published Idea of Prose. In the 70s, in Paris, I read the Vedas in Louis Renou’s translation and also occasionally attended Rolf Stein’s lectures at the Collège de France on Tibetan Buddhism. If citations are lacking in my books, it is because I have always followed the principle according to which one can work seriously only on texts whose language one has mastered. In any case, for me the early reading of the Nagarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle Path (Madhyamaka kārikā), which came out in Italian in 1968 in Raniero Gnoli’s translation, was decisive.

The proximity—and at the same time the distance—between this text and the tradition of Western philosophy struck me in an extraordinary way, as is evident in “Idea of Awakening” at the end of Idea of Prose. In particular, the idea of the error of imperfect nihilism, which consists in capturing and holding the doctrine of emptiness in representation, has much to do with my conception of philosophy. 

Read the entire excerpt at An und für sich.

One response to “Agamben on Buddhism”

  1. BW Avatar

    I am disappointed to read that Agamben has joined the ranks of Covid-deniers and those who compare mask mandates to the Holocaust.

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