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.


Heart Sutra

I planned to blog about the Heart Sutra for quite some time, and now I am attending a seminar at my Faculty and there is a computer at the back so I got the opportunity to write about it now.

The key message of the Heart Sutra is nothing less than the key message of Buddhism itself. Let’s look at some of the most important passages from the Sutra:

Body is nothing more than emptiness,
emptiness is nothing more than body.
The body is exactly empty,
and emptiness is exactly body.

Volumes and volumes have been written on what the Sutra is supposed to mean, but the key here is that words alone are never enough. One will not be able to attain Nirvana through intellectual understanding alone. That is, attaining Nirvana is not something you can achieve by thinking and ratiocinating. One has to “see” reality, but it is not the kind of reality that we are accustomed to. It’s on the one hand the same reality, but on the other hand it’s completely different. It’s the kind of reality that one sees when one goes beyond all conceptual distinctions. This is not something that we can do just by deciding to do. It’s a highly advanced skill that requires a lot of effort and practice. The Buddha laid down the path toward realizing this skill through his teaching of morality, meditation and wisdom.

But the point I would like to emphasize here is the ultimately paradoxical character of the Buddha’s teaching: Emptiness is form; form is emptiness. What is there is exactly speaking what is not there, and what is not there is what is there. This way of speaking is not a play on words; it is the most direct expression of the core of the Buddha’s teaching. Some scholars try to interpret the paradox away, saying that the ultimate message beyond the paradoxical sentences is devoid of the paradox. But in fact the paradox is there, staring us at the face. Our task is not to shy away from it, but to face it and live with it and ultimately try to realize that the real truth is the paradox itself. The truth is what the Sutra says: Form (or the body in this translation) is emptiness and emptiness is form. We try to see the truth of the paradox, trying to realize its inevitably impossible and contradictory nature. It is through the contradiction that the point of the Buddha is carried through.

So this is all I can say about the Heart Sutra. So this is not quite a commentary because the point is that no commentary is possible. The Heart Sutra can also be used as a tool for those who meditate. You can memorize the whole text and when the mind is stilled within deep meditation, perhaps a breakthrough can happen. But that is not what we are looking for. The spirit of the Heart Sutra is that there is no goal while in fact there is a goal. It’s of course difficult, but one can certainly try.

Journey of Life and Mind

Public Talks on “Journey of Life and Mind”


The foundation invites the general public to attend  a conference/seminar on “Journey of Life and Mind” at Room 105 Mahachulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

There will be two public talks by Latri Khenpo Geshe Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on “Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind” and “Life’s Last Journey”. There will also be an introduction of Rinpoche’s book “Opening the Door to Bon” in the occasion of  its being translated into Thai.


Program of Rinpoche’s Talks in English (with Thai translations)

Saturday 11 February 2012

9.10-10.15 hrs: Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind

10.15-10.30 hrs: Refreshments

10.30-11.30 hrs: Opening the Door to Bon. An introduction to Tibetan ancient wisdom

Sunday 12 February 2012

13.00-14.30 hrs: Life’s Last Journey

14.30-15.00 hrs: Refreshments

15.00-16.00 hrs: Discussion

For registration, please email us at 1000tara@gmail.com. There are no registration fees. Donation to support the activities are welcome.


Mantra of Buddha Shakyamuni

We are still on the topic of Buddha Shakyamuni. He is the historical Buddha, meaning that he lived among us in flesh and blood, setting the Wheel of Dharma going for us in our days and age. He was the founder of Buddhism and was the first teacher of the unbroken lineage of monks that come down to us today. His mantra is at once a homage to him as well as an expression of the supreme quality of Enlightenment that the Buddha embodies. This supreme quality is not limited to Buddha Shakyamuni himself; on the contrary anybody can have this quality, can become one with this quality, if they follow the Buddha’s teachings wholeheartedly. So when you recite this mantra, you reflect on the quality of the Buddha and express this quality out loud by yourself. So it is a very, very powerful mantra. It says “Om Muni Muni Mahamuni Shakyamunaye Soha.”  The chant is sung by Ani Choying Drolma:


Buddha Nature

One of the important aspects of teaching in Buddhism is one on Buddha Nature. Actually this is more toward Mahayana, but it’s there in Theravada too but not much emphasized. The idea of Buddha Nature is that every sentient being has the seed of eventually becoming a Buddha inside of it. When the seed is fully realized, then the being becomes an enlightened Buddha.

This teaching is what gives meaning to the practice of bodhisattvas. For those who are new to Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who are committed to becoming a Buddha in order for them to be fully able to help ferry sentient beings across the ocean of suffering to the shore of Liberation. The Buddha Nature teaching tells us that it is possible for everyone to become a bodhisattva and a Buddha. This is not only limited to human beings, but since a human being is but one form that a sentient being can take and since a human being used to be a countless number of animals and other forms of being in their previous lives, an animal can also become a Buddha. Even Shakyamuni Buddha himself used to be born in all animal forms, so who knows that the lowly insect in front of you might actually be a bodhisattva. In fact the insect actually has the potential to become a bodhisattva and the Buddha. This is the gist of the teaching on Buddha Nature.

There is a passage in the Tripitaka that the “original mind” of all of us is essentially pure, and it is only because of adventitious defilements that the original mind become cloudy and thus is subject of wandering around in samsara. This can well be a point for reflection in meditative practice. When the defilements and their root are gone, and the root of all defilements is avidya, or the ignorance of the fundamental nature of reality, then the original mind shows itself forth in its primordial purity. That is the goal of practice, the showing forth of the original mind constitutes entering into nirvana, or the state of totally extinguishing all causes of suffering which lead one to wander in samsara.

But how can one get rid of avidya? That is the subject matter of the Buddha’s 45-year teaching career and countless number of texts and commentaries. The trick is that the original mind should not be thought of as something existing objectively for there to be cleaned. The original mind is not a crystal ball that you can clean up. Talks about the original mind being “pure” and adventitiously “polluted” by the “defilements” are only metaphors. At this level we can rely only on metaphors because language fails us. The reason is that it is the very nature of language itself that is part of the root cause of suffering itself. But we can get very far into this and easily get lost, so enough of this for now.

In any case, the original mind shows that there is Buddha Nature in all of us. When you come to Buddha Nature, then it can be said that you come to who you yourself really is from the beginning. Total disclosing, no concealment whatsoever. This is what the Zen masters say when they tell you to look for “your own face before your father and mother got married” …

(Actually I have written a post on this topic before, but the content is not the same, I think.)

How Do You Know Someone has Attained Nirvana?

This is a really big question, something that I think has persisted in the minds of Buddhists, both in the East and the West. The goal of the teaching is of course nirvana, and we are instructed to get teachings from those who have realized them. But how do we know? How can we tell whether those who are giving us the teachings and explanations of the Words of the Buddha have actually internalized them and made them part of their lives?

There is a story (and just as almost everything I know, this one is also from Deshung Rinpoche). A very learned monk was on his way to receive an honorary position at a temple. He was deeply read in all the sutras and could expound the teachings really well. However, he had not fully realized the teachings; that is, he had not become identical with the subject matter of what he was teaching. While he was traveling he met a poor peasant, and, out of kindness, he gave the peasant a tidbit of the Buddha’s teaching and told him always to keep it in mind and to practice it well. Then he left the peasant and continued his journey. He got to the temple which was his destination and stayed there as a respected abbot for many, many years. Meanwhile the poor peasant became deeply faithful in the teaching he got from the learned monk and became a monk himself.

Years passed. One day while he was at the temple the monk who used to be the poor peasant whom he had taught for a short while came to see him. From the look and the understandings shown through the outlook of the visiting monk, the learned abbot knew that he had really attained the Goal. He became surprised when he learned that the visiting monk was in fact the poor peasant whom he had given a short teaching while he was on the way to accept the position here. The learned monk said to himself, “I had studied all the texts. I had memorized a huge amount of the Buddha’s teachings and had taught countless number of students. Yet I had not attained the result myself. This monk who got just a short teaching from me instead had achieved it.”

So he became really subdued and asked the visiting monk for a teaching. Thus the teacher became student and vice versa. The visiting monk told him to be mindful and to practice the teaching well with no distractions. The learned abbot then followed that instruction and finally obtained Realization.

The message of the story is that it does not quite matter whom you get the teachings from. You could even get teachings from a radio or, in today’s age, from the Net, but if it is a genuine teaching and if you are persistent in practicing it, you will eventually be Realized. The point is not the actual identity of your teacher. The point is that you have unwavering faith in the teaching and in your belief that you are getting the teaching from an Enlightened One. What really matters is your mind.

So how does this story answer the topical question of this post? Maybe the story is not directly to the point. But perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don’t really need to know that the one we are studying with is Realized or not. That would distract us from really practicing and being really mindful. It does not quite matter whether our flesh and blood teacher is Realized or not, that is in fact a matter for the teacher himself or herself to practice on his or her own. But for us students we need to look inside our own minds and practice from the insides of our hearts.

Nirvana, Parinirvana, Enlightenment, Buddhahood

A follower of mine on Twitter asked what are the differences between ‘nirvana,’ ‘parinirvana,’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ This is a very good question, but to answer it in Twitter is like walking with the feet tied together, so I have to answer this in more detail here. I have already gave an answer in Twitter, but my tweets there are necessarily too short. This might not be clear enough, especially for those who are new to Buddhism.

Nirvana is the goal of Buddhist practice. This is why people became a Buddhist in the first place, and it is the goal that the Buddha taught everybody to pursue since he began his teaching career soon after he had attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Etymolotically, ‘nirvana’ means ‘extinguished,’ like when a fire is extinguished, in Sanskrit one would say the fire is ‘nirvana.’ This sense of ‘being put out’ then is transferred to refer to the state where the suffering is ‘put out’. There is no more suffering. Thus, one gains total liberation from samsara.

‘Parinirvana’ literally means ‘being put out all around;’ that is, it is all extinguished. In this sense it means the same as nirvana, only that there is the emphasis on being totally extinguished. However, it is more commonly used to refer to the dissolution of the body of one who has already entered nirvana. So when one has entered nirvana while one is alive, his ego attachment is completely dead, and when that one finally ‘dies,’ it is said that he enters ‘parinirvana.’ In Theravada tradition this is only used for the Buddha.

‘Enlightenment’ is the state where one gains complete Knowledge. This is what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree that enabled him to become a Buddha. A ‘Buddha’ means ‘one who is awakened.’ Those of us in samsara are not awakened because we live in the dreamworld of thought construction and conceptual fabrication, believing that they are real. So we believe that our egos, our “I’s” are real and so on. The Buddha, on the other hand, realizes that this is an illusion, and in reality there is nothing but pure state of naken, unadorned, expansive being. This is what an enlightened being knows. In Pali one says, sammasambodhi, meaning perfect, complete Knowledge (actually I have to put in the diacritical marks on the Pali or Sanskrit terms, but it takes time to do that and I don’t think it’s really necessary here as we are focusing more on the meaning.) ‘Knowledge’ here, by the way, does not refer to one’s ordinary, commonplace knowledge that relies on concepts, but the complete knowledge obtainable only when one lets go of all concepts. Thus ‘Knowledge’ with the capital ‘K’ refers to the state of complete knowledge, or the Buddha’s state of Enlightenment, and ‘knowledge’ with a small ‘k’ to refer to ordinary, conceptual knowledge.

Since all sufferings are caused by not realizing this truth, the state of complete Knowledge here is their direct antidote. So one who is enlightened naturally is free from any and all sufferings. So in a sense Enlightenment and nirvana mean the same in that they refer to the same situation. But literally they mean differently.

Now, there is still another distinction between those who have attained nirvana and have totally abandoned samsara, and those who, though they have attained nirvana but chose instead to remain in samsara to help beings. This is a key idea in Mahayana Buddhism. In Theravada, the goal of practice is to eliminate all causes of suffering and entered nirvana, becoming an ‘arahat.’ In Mahayana, on the other hand, that goal is commendable, but it is not the complete or ultimate goal of one’s practice. The aim of a Mahayana practitioner is not just to liberate oneself from samsara, but to be able to help all sentient beings to attain nirvana also. Thus the goal of the Mahayana practitioner is to become a Bodhisattva, or one who has the aspiration to attain Buddhahood, that is to become a fully enlightened Buddha, in order to be able to help beings.

So this is all for now. I’ll write more about all these in later posts. Those who would like to know more might want to read my earlier post on Nirvana and Samsara.