Žižek and Buddhism

I came across Slavoj Žižek’s critique of Buddhism, which he delivered in a lecture at the University of Vermont some months ago and thought about writing a reply to it for some time. But I think now is the time actually to sit down and write it out. There is a nice blog posting on the background and actually criticism of Žižek’s talk. The blog also has a good summary of Zizek’s rambling talk, which is almost two hours long. You can watch the talk here:

Before coming to my main critique of Žižek, there’s an academic joke which is so typical of him. In the talk Žižek talks about the prayer wheel, which Tibetan Buddhists use to send out mantras by the thousands through its turning. For Žižek this is not a substitute technology for those whose mouths may be too busy talking to do the mantras, but the prayer wheel actually does the recitation and sending out of mantras for you. It is like the canned laughter in sitcom programs. You watch the sitcom and there are laughs. The laughs are there, according to Žižek, not to provoke your laughter, but they do the laughs for you. You don’t have to laugh. Although it’s a comedy and you are supposed to laugh. If you are too lazy, the canned laughter sounds will do the laughing for you. Isn’t that neat? In the same way, Žižek says that when Tibetans turn the prayer wheels, the purpose is not to actually do something which result in sending out the mantras. But the turning is an ersatz; it churns out mantras for you. You don’t have to do anything.

A Prayer Wheel

But Žižek is quite mistaken here. There are now two kinds of prayer wheels. The traditional kind is something you have do put some effort to make it work. You have to hold it in your hand and move it so that the wheel turns, and you have to keep it turning and turning. Although it does not require much effort in turning the wheel — this is something you can hold easily in one hand, and you only need to turn the wheel, which is usually well oiled, by flicking your wrist — if you keep on doing it for hours as Tibetans do, it can be quite an effort. So the analogy with the canned laughter is not accurate. You still have to do some work with the traditional prayer wheel. However, there is a newer type of prayer wheel which is automatic. You put in some batteries, and there’s a motor inside which automatically turns the wheel without any exertion of your muscle power. Some prayer wheels are so advanced as to utilize solar power to do the work. You can sit and watch the wheel turns. This kind of prayer wheel might be closer to the canned laughter.

But back to my main criticism. Toward the end of his talk Žižek has the following to say. His purpose

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]

The passage is taken from page 135 of his recent book, Less than Nothing, which is quoted in the blog I mentioned above. I think this is the core of Žižek’s criticism of Buddhism. The Buddhist’s intent on realizing nirvana, on achieving the state of selflessness, is regarded by Žižek as being separate from the state of moral goodness. That is Žižek sees that it is possible for one to achieve nirvana according to Buddhism’s guideline but remain an immoral person. Presumably what he think is that: If you realize the state of emptiness and non-self, then it is your own realization, your own deluded attachment of the self that has now been overcome, this does not seem, for Žižek, to have anything to do with being loving and caring and compassionate. One can be in nirvana but can commit really horrible crimes. Perhaps Žižek thinks that when one realizes emptiness of all things, perhaps the lives of other people become empty too. When those are empty, one does not have to have any qualms in destroying those lives. Nevertheless, Žižek realizes that Buddhism does recognize this pernicious tendency; that’s why he says immediately afterwards that that is why Buddhism so vehemently affirms that compassion is very important and is indispensable. But then his point remains: When one is in the state of Nirvana, one is (as per Žižek) cut off from the breathing, living world, so much so that a possibility opens up of (gasp!) committing really horrible crimes.

Žižek’s point here is not lost on the ancient Buddhist thinkers. Śantideva has a famous passage (I have to go and look it up) to the effect that when one realizes Emptiness, one still has to remain compassionate, and he takes great pains in emphasizing that one cannot even function or remain viable without the other. In the chapter on wisdom, Śantideva has his imaginary opponent raise a question: “Since everything and everyone is empty, then to what or to whom is our compassion directed?” — a very important and profound question — to which Santideva replies that the compassion is directed to any who has not realized Emptiness, in other words to all beings who are still wandering in samsara. The connection with Žižek’s criticism is that he seems to believe that it is possible to separate realization of Emptiness from that of compassion, but in fact that is not possible at all. Total realization of Emptiness not only opens up your vision so that you see the total, exceptionless interconnection of all things, it urges you to do something about it too. This is the reason one aspires to become a bodhisattva in the first place.

Moreover, one does not have to already be a bodhisattva to see the point Śantideva is making here. Emptiness does not mean that you cut yourself off from everything surrounding you. That is just not Emptiness or its realization. There is no you to be cut off in the first place. So when Žižek talks about the “irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness,” the presupposition is that authenticity can be achieved independently of goodness, but that is just not happening. You realize Emptiness when you see yourself in others and others in yourself, not only persons but all things whatsoever. It’s a crazy vision, much crazier than Žižek’s craziest moment. He is right when he says “in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity,” but the “inner peace” he is talking about consists in being fully engaged from the beginning.


One thought on “Žižek and Buddhism

  1. Ken Herold May 5, 2013 / 8:08 pm

    Thanks for this Soraj. One has to be bemused at a non-Buddhist academic putting up shallow arguments against any scholar of Buddhist philosophy, much less pretending to target the Dalai Lama and its sophisticated Tibetan schools. The most basic premise of the unity of wisdom and compassion appears where? Study Nagarjuna, then let’s talk.

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