Excerpts from an interview with Agamben on Buddhism

[Translator’s note: A few months ago, I was approached by Steven DeCaroli and Adam Lobel to translate an interview that they were in the process of conducting with Agamben on Buddhism. I accepted, mostly out of a desire to see what he had to say! In this fascinating exchange — which is still ongoing — Agamben addresses every stage of his work and reveals that Buddhist texts have formed part of his reading and thinking for a long time. The complete interview will be published in an edited collection on Agamben and Buddhism, which is still in its early phases. As the author of the first published scholarly article on the topic, DeCaroli is especially well-suited to helm this project. They are still looking for potential contributors, so please drop them a line if you have relevant expertise and interest: steven dot decaroli at goucher dot edu and/or adam dot releasement at gmail dot com. In this excerpt, the co-editors’ questions are in bold and Agamben’s responses are in normal type.]

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?

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. Philosophy is not a doctrine that could be expressed in the form of a series of correct opinions on the state of the world; as I write in that text: “awareness of the emptiness is not, in its turn, a representation; it is, simply, the end of representation” (pg. 132 of the English translation). In any case, Nagarjuna’s book is a masterpiece that I never stop rereading.

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It’s Buddhist, so it must be true!

I conducted a short Introduction to Buddhism presentation tonight, as the culmination in a four-week world religions survey course. Of the religions covered, it is really the only one I had a personal investment, as I’ve “dabbled” in it; and have lingering sympathies, if not actual practice. Obviously, it is impossible to cover all that you’d like in a ninety minute introduction. One can barely get through the life of Gautama and a too-quick gloss of the dubiously simplistic three-pronged typology of the “Three Vehicles,” let alone explore the complexities of the human condition. Oh, but I tried, and in the process, I think, did a hatchet job to the two-truth doctrine. So much so that I feel like I should make up for it here, in the only other public venue I have for these kinds of things, and tap out a lay-level presentation on the topic. Take from it what you will. Given the venue, however, I welcome comments on its relative coherence, and am also curious whether others otherwise unconcerned with Buddhism find any resonances with their philosophico-political projects. Continue reading “It’s Buddhist, so it must be true!”