Zen & Zizek

Recently, for reasons that have thus far eluded me, my interest has turned to Zen Buddhism. In the past month or so I’ve dug out my old copies of Religion and Emptiness, The Logic of the Place of Nothingness, and a couple collections of Nagarjuna and Dogen. In the process, I discovered it took me back with welcome. I’m still not sure where I stand, not fully with or against it, and certainly not (yet) a practitioner, but I do find it continuing to defy expectations. Indeed, one of the things that I’ve long appreciated about Buddhism is its capacity to run against the grain of its Western embrace.

In America’s Zen industry, the practice of meditation is often another means of “finding yourself.” It is regarded as a means to see through the false and realize the true. But in my, admittedly novice, understanding, neither of these notions seem sufficient. What I gather from Nagarjuna, in particular, is a sense that there is no discovery as such, no “truth on the other side.” In meditation, one doesn’t find truth, but rather the means finally to see the false as false. And that’s it. In many respects, despite his protests, how far removed is this from Zizek’s presentation of the Real as “that invisible obstacle, that distorting screen, which always ‘falsifies’ our access to external reality, that ‘bone in the throat’ which gives a pathological twist to every symbolization, that is to say, on account of which every symbolization misses its object.” If the Real is a kind of falsification, in the guise normally of hope or desire for something beyond the false, Zen is consumed with the apprehension & internalization of this falsification. Is it not the religious embodiment of “Enjoying Your Symptom”? Could one even say that philosophy on the way to the Real is a form of Zen?

14 thoughts on “Zen & Zizek

  1. There is no positive reality outside these distortions. This insight-and here, my God, I will turn almost New Age-is also present to some extent in Nagarjuna, the founder of Mahyana Buddhism. What Nagarjuna argues is that where Buddhism affirms the notion of void – sunyata (emptiness/nothingness), it is not nothingness in the simple sense that there is nothing. The idea is, rather, that every positive entity emerges from a distorted perspective and that nothing exists independently from it. Objectively nothing exists, and entities only emerge as the result of perspectival differentiation in which every differentiation is a partial distortion.

    Slavoj Zizek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Zizek,(Cambridge, 2004), p.96

  2. One of the reasons it stuck with me was that Terry Eagleton’s After Theory, which was published around the same time, also mentions Nagarjuna in passing.

  3. Becareful to not get hung-up on the role falsity and falsification play in Zen practice and teaching. There is a Zen story from China, where an old master reflects on some stages in his life. Before he practiced Zen, he’d say mountains are Mountains and rivers are Rivers; after having taken up the study and practice of Zen, he would say mountains are-not Mountains and rivers are-not Rivers. After having reached the highest Enlightenment though, he can now say surely that mountains are really mountains and rivers are really rivers.

    My problem with Western Buddhism as Zizek conceives of and critiques it is similar to my problem with a lot of my friends who are avowed atheists. I simply haven’t come from the kind of Western Buddhist or Christian culture that fuels these critical stances, so I find them interesting but not satisfying. With Zizek in particular, I understand he’s critiquing a Western phenomena more than the Dharma itself. He is sometimes sloppy about making this clear though, such as in The Puppet and the Dwarf and a couple other places, where he argues that there isn’t a difference between our conception of Oriental and Western Buddhism, given the role Zen played (or didn’t play) in Japan in WWII.

    I understand that there is a highly questionable affiliation between the Kyoto school, which saw a very interesting meeting of Hegel and Zen especially in Kitaro Nishida, and the Imperialist hard-on Japan had for itself at the time. I’m hoping to clarify those relationships over the summer.

    At any rate, I think Zizek accepts something that he is at the same time critiquing when he makes these back and forth gestures, and I want to also hold it out for him that he has a substantial point too, even if he has to waddle through his own bullshit to make it. I’ve spent considerable time with this, which you can go to my blog and check out.

    At the end of the day, I think that there is a glimpse of feminine jouissance in many aspects of the Dharma. I think this has Zizek a bit overwhelmed, scared even, and he lashes when well-aimed points about complicity in the economic and political order vis-a-vis *a Capitalist ideology* of all things Eastern are more interesting, valuable and tenable.

  4. Joe, you’re definitely right about Z.’s criticisms of Buddhism. That was the largely unspoken point of the post. The danger of the criticism is the avoidance of the philosophical disposition because of its popular reception. Danger is perhaps too dramatic. It is, rather, simply unnecessary and needlessly alienating.

    And, yes, Nishida became an Imperialist at the end of his life. No doubt about it. Though, I’m not sure if the Kyoto school as a whole did.

    I’ve not read the story you mention re: the master, so perhaps there are left-out details. But what you’ve presented here doesn’t seem outside even a Zizekian account. What I mean to say, the experience of mountains as mountains is not necessarily jouissance — and thus not a mystical rapture — but an apprehension & appreciation that a mountain is truly a mountain only inasmuch as it is not a mountain. This is on par, too, w/ Schelling’s account of God in Ages of the World.

    The difference I think is in the religious accounting. I don’t yet know how to articulate this, but I really like Goodchild’s emphasis on “piety” as “a paying attention to what matters,” which has a ring of meditative practice. This accounting does not run against Z.’s, but it is not made explicit at all either. Nor would I really expect it to be.

  5. The top end of Nishida scholarship over here at the moment reads him as a vitalist and puts him into conversation with Deleuze.

    However, Nishida’s later penchant for describing the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as a harmonised Leibnitzian monad was complete simulacrum. The Emperor occupying the Place of Nothingness too. The Kyoto School – particularly the second generation under Tanabe – co-operated and had secret meetings with Navy officials and were in favor of a more liberal running of the Empire opposed to the rapid-expansionist, go-fast imperialism of the Army.

  6. I read zen as pulling all the bloated transcendence back out of buddhism. Every time you want it to mean something other than being mindfully and responsibly in the moment, the master hits you with a bamboo cane. Sit still and stop fidgeting, Slavoj.

    Thwack! It’s not for everyone.

  7. “In meditation, one doesn’t find truth, but rather the means finally to see the false as false.”

    In the Heart Sutra, it is said that Bodhisattvas “relying on the perfection of wisdom” (prajna paramita) are “far beyond all inverted views” or “confused imagination.” Brad’s point is also consonant with how Jay Bernstein teaches Hegel’s method and aim in the Phenomenology, especially given the final line of the post.

  8. One of the most irritating things I hear about Buddhism is that it is, pace Zizek, individualistic and hence amounts to another version of liberal individualism hence capitalism. This line was repeated by someone at the Grandeur of Reason conference last year much to my anger. Two central premises of Buddhism, and particularly Zen, is that firstly all see differences as illusionary and embrace the interconnectedness of all things, something Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing – “In Buddhism there is no such thing as an individual” and secondly the notion that the self as such that is capable of being selfish is strictly illusionary.

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