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.

Three Types of Compassion

When I was staying at the Khadiravana Center someone I had known before came to visit the Center and talked with me for a while. He was a student of Buddhism and used to translate a number of Tibetan Buddhist books. He had an interesting question which he told me many monks and scholars could not answer. It has to do with compassion and emptiness. Since everything is empty, that is, lacking in their inherent existence, when we have compassion, what exactly are we having the compassion for? If everything is empty, isn’t the thing for which we have compassion empty too? If it is empty, then wouldn’t our compassion be directed to an empty object, a compassion to nothing?

This is clearly a clever question, and it shows that someone who does not understand the Buddha’s teaching thoroughly could get mired in these conceptual web. Not that the Buddha himself planted these webs, but it seems that some of his followers created these webs for themselves because of their attachment and preconceptions.

In any case this question needs to be fully answered, and the answer is not an easy one. The question rests on a very fundamental tension in the Buddha’s own teaching – the tension between taking things as they appear, on the one hand, and seeing their ultimate nature as being empty through and through on the other. This tension lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching.

On the side of taking things as they appear, there certainly are beings who need compassion. They are suffering; there are innumerably many of them. They are beings in samsara. Clearly they are there as objects of the Buddha’s and bodhisattva’s and our own compassion.

On the other hand, things are empty of their inherent character. What this means is that things do not stay the same forever, and even at a moment when they are what they are, they are what they are only because of their being dependence of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are no exception either; they depend on other causes and conditions too, and so on ad infinitum. In the end everything is what it is because of their dependent nature, which for Buddhists means that they are empty of their inherent character which would make them truly what they are without such dependency. Since this has no exception, any object of compassion, any suffering being, is ultimately empty too. So when we feel compassionate toward them, what exactly are we compassionate toward?

One way out of this is to treat things at two levels – that of ‘conventional’ truth and of ‘ultimate’ truth. This is the path Nagarjuna takes. In fact talking about levels is rather misleading, for in fact things do not present themselves in levels. They are one and the same things, but described differently. According to one way of describing, they are there as objects of reference and certainly of compassion, but according to the other description, they are empty. Since all things do not possess any essential properties from the beginning, there is no contradiction in the two descriptions.

However, there is another way of looking at this which is perhaps less philosophical. According to Deshung Rinpoche in The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, when we practice compassion, we should do it with the realization that there are three types of compassion. We should always take into account all these three types whenever we feel compassionate toward other beings and practice compassion. The first type is the ordinary compassion we have toward other beings. The second type is the realization that these beings suffer because they are mired in avidya or fundamental ignorance. The third and most refined type is the realization that in ultimate reality there is no one to be compassionate to, no one who is being compassionate, and no such thing as compassion.

The trick is that the third type is classified as a kind of compassion. This neatly solves the problem that my friend asked me before. The tension between compassion and emptiness is only apparent and arises only if the first type is understood to be the only type. But when one takes into account the second and third types, then the tension dissolves, because the realization of emptiness is a kind of compassion too.

This needs to be unpacked. Buddhist teachers usually say that compassion and emptiness (or wisdom) are the two wings that enable a bird to fly. A bird cannot fly with only one wing, so one cannot attain Buddhahood with realization of either compassion or emptiness only. One needs both to attain Buddhahood. And a way to achieve this is suggested in Deshung Rinpoche’s teaching that the third type of compassion is just this realization of the wisdom of emptiness itself.

How is this so? It arises from the understanding that the truly genuine way for true compassion to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to achieve the wisdom of emptiness – the realization that ultimately all beings are of one nature. Furthermore, it also arises from the understanding that the only way the wisdom of emptiness to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to have genuine compassion toward other beings. When one has genuine compassion, the apparent boundary separating oneself from the world and every being breaks down, but that is just emptiness in action.

So in the end the two, compassion and emptiness, are one and the same. Thus the question I mentioned earlier arose only out of some misconception. But it is a very strong misconception. This is why the practice of compassion is so crucial in Mahayana Buddhism. Without it there will absolutely be no way toward Buddhahood.

Buddhism and Civic Consciousness

I have just read a very good post on Buddhism and the need for taking care of our fellow human beings by a Thai author. He argues that ‘suffering’ or ‘duhkha’ is a fundamental conflict, such as one between our desire and the world — we suffer when the two do not connect; and he also says that Buddhists need to be more mindful of the plight of their fellow human beings, since we are all “suffering beings.” We are in the same boat, so to speak.

Here is a criticism of the kind of Buddhism that is being practiced in Thailand today. I am not talking about Theravada Buddhism, because Theravada Buddhists can be very kind to other human beings and all sentient beings too. This is not unique to Mahayana as pundits seem to believe. Caring for others is at the heart of Buddhism. The Buddha decided to come out of his Enlightenment to teach all of us simply because he cared for us. It is his love for us samsaric beings that prompted him to spend forty-five years tirelessly showing the way, teaching each of us differently according to our individual backgrounds and abilities, all in order that we “get it” and see that the lives we have been living for so long is pointless and there is a way out of this pointlessness which is achievable by everybody.

So the kind of Buddhism that the author is criticizing is not Theravada per se, but a social form of Buddhism that is being practiced in Thailand. Thai people emphasize the “merit making” aspect of Buddhism, so much so that somehow they seem to forget that this is only a path toward the goal. It seems that most Thai Buddhists mistake the path for the goal. We make merit not as an end in itself, but the merit helps us eventually “see” the way that the Buddha wanted us to see. Instead most Thai Buddhists see practicing Buddhism as little more than making merit and storing it in order to quality for some goodies that will happen afterwards. But that is not the heart of Buddhism.

We will understand the heart of Buddhism if we look at what the Buddha himself is doing. He left his princely, luxurious life to become a poor mendicant. This is terribly shocking, but when Buddhism is taught to Thai students this aspect is not emphasized much. The Buddha’s life story is related straightforwardly without letting this point seep into the listener’s mind. What does it mean for someone to abandon a wife, a son, a career, a home, a host of staffs and servants, a father, a mother, a bright future, to become a beggar? Why did the Buddha do that? What is the whole meaning of it? Reflecting on this and we eventually see how kind and compassionate the Buddha is to us. He took great sacrifice on himself so that all of us benefit. Not only did he abandon his palace, but during his practice he undertook very austere practices. We all know the story of how the Buddha tormented himself and was on the brink of death because he wanted to achieve Liberation. He wanted to know how to get rid of the sufferings — birth, old age, sickness and death — that afflict us all.

We don’t have to become exactly like the Buddha. But at least we can emulate him a little bit. Even this tiny bit will do us tremendously good. The whole point is that the Buddha did not all this for himself. It is not like, he wanted to become the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one that will be revered by millions of people. No, he did not want us to prostrate to him day in and day out. He did not want people to build gilded images of him and held him in highest respect either. All that he wanted was that we see the point and get it. He did all these sacrifices for us!

So this is what we can do. Instead of thinking only of ourselves — oh I am making this much merit today, so I will be eligible for even higher rewards afterwards, especially after I die — we should instead think of others and put their interests above our own. In fact this is the point of making merit, such as giving (dana). We give because we want others to be happy; we share what we have so that others can enjoy what we are enjoying too. We rejoice when others are happy. This is the real merit.

So what about civic consciousness? The author of the Thai article I mentioned earlier says that Buddhists should be more civic minded. He means Buddhists should not think only of themselves but they should care for others. When others in society are suffering we should not ignore them. We should understand, according to him, that suffering does not occur only at individual level, but at the structural level too. For example, there is an unjust system of distribution in society which leaves some very rich and some very poor. This is a simple example of the structural kind of suffering. Buddhists should strive to end that kind of suffering too. Thai Buddhists are usually blind to this, and in fact they have been programmed by the power-that-be that what they are doing (making merit and obtaining individual positive karmic results) is about the only thing they can do.

When we understand that injustice and structural kind of suffering all arise from human decision and intention, we realize that the individual level and the structural level are not that remote from each other. A good Buddhist, then, should do what he or she can to address both the individual and structural level of suffering. However, in Thailand Buddhists, especially monks, have been conditioned so much that they are expected to remain aloof from society and attend to their individual business only. That is wrong,and that is not what the Buddha taught.

So having strong civic consciousness is part of being a good Buddhist. Some Thai Buddhists may think that this is Mahayana. In fact ‘Mahayana’ or ‘Theravada’ are just labels, and neither term appears in the entire canon of the Tripitaka. The Buddha was neither with Theravada nor Mahayana nor Vajrayana nor what have you. He is with us. He wants us to get the point! It is the responsibility of those who can see something to help others who have not seen. This requires caring and helping others. This is what the Buddha taught us his students.

Praise of the Twenty-One Taras

It is quite well known that the Bodhisattva Tara has twenty-one emanations so that she could help sentient beings in every which way possible. The praise of Twenty-One Taras is one of the most widely chanted and universally loved by Tibetan Buddhists. The first video here presents translated texts of the Praise, accompanied by beautiful pictures and music:

Here is another praise, very beautifully chanted. The words you see in the pictures are those of the Praise to Twenty-One Tara while the words chanted — Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha — is Tara’s seed mantra: