Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ethan Nichtern and Slavoj Žižek's Critique of Western Buddhism

I was looking for something new in the Buddhist world yesterday, and came across this article by Ethan Nichtern, yes, in the Huffington post, which was, very oddly, a post that was a critique of something one Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist apparently wrote in 2001.  Was Nichtern having a problem finding something about which to write?  I mean, this bit's 9 years' old.  It came out within about a year or so when Empire came out, which frankly sets the standard of Western Marxist philosophy in this millenium, as far as I'm concerned, and nothing in the piece by Žižek shows much of the post-modern influences that are redolent in Empire.  (Like you care? Since when did I become the Post-New York Marxist Review of Old Books? )

Obviously I digress.

I guess I can be thankful to Nichtern for pointing me in the direction of interesting philosophy.  I don't get a chance to read much of this stuff anymore, and so I guess it's a nice welcome opportunity to do these kinds of things.

I want to go and give both Žižek and Nichtern a relatively fair hearing; I mean, one seems to be a non-pomo Marxist and the other is on the Huffington Post. Not that there's anything wrong with those things...

First though I'd like to bring up the definition of the word "fetish":

  1. any object believed by some person or group to have magic power
  2. any thing or activity to which one is irrationally devoted: to make a fetish of sports
  3. Psychiatry any nonsexual object, such as a foot or a glove, that abnormally excites erotic feelings

 Now this Buddhist - i.e. I - do not have any beliefs in magic powers belonging to people, groups or objects, though I have been exercising a bit lately.  This definition is important because Žižek raises the charge of fetishim with regards to Western Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular

"Western Buddhism" thus fits perfectly the fetishist mode of ideology in our allegedly "post-ideological" era, as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode in which the ideological lie which structures our perception of reality is threatened by symptoms qua "returns of the repressed," cracks in the fabric of the ideological lie. The fetish is effectively a kind of symptom in reverse. That is to say, the symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at which the repressed Other Scene erupts, while the fetish is the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth. Let us take the case of the death of a beloved person. In the case of a symptom, I "repress" this death and try not to think about it, but the repressed trauma returns in the symptom. In the case of a fetish, on the contrary, I "rationally" fully accept this death, and yet I cling to the fetish, to some feature that embodies for me the disavowal of this death. In this sense, a fetish can play a very constructive role in allowing us to cope with the harsh reality. Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds. They are thorough "realists" capable of accepting the way things effectively are, given that they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality. In Nevil Shute's melodramatic World War II novel Requiem for a WREN, the heroine survives her lover's death without any visible traumas. She goes on with her life and is even able to talk rationally about her lover's death because she still has the dog that was the lover's favored pet. When, some time after, the dog is accidentally run over by a truck, she collapses and her entire world disintegrates.3

Sometimes, the line between fetish and symptom is almost indiscernible. An object can function as the symptom (of a repressed desire) and almost simultaneously as a fetish (embodying the belief which we officially renounce). A leftover of the dead person, a piece of his/her clothes, can function both as a fetish (insofar as the dead person magically continues to live in it) and as a symptom (functioning as the disturbing detail that brings to mind his/her death). Is this ambiguous tension not homologous to that between the phobic and the fetishist object? The structural role is in both cases the same: If this exceptional element is disturbed, the whole system collapses. Not only does the subject's false universe collapse if he is forced to confront the meaning of his symptom; the opposite also holds, insofar as the subject's "rational" acceptance of the way things are dissolves when his fetish is taken away from him.

So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs and accepts social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question "OK, but where is the fetish that enables you to (pretend to) accept reality 'the way it is'?" "Western Buddhism" is such a fetish. It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw. In a further specification, one should note that the fetish can function in two opposite ways: either its role remains unconscious—as in the case of Shute's heroine who was unaware of the fetish-role of the dog—or you think that the fetish is that which really matters, as in the case of a Western Buddhist unaware that the "truth" of his existence is in fact the social involvement which he tends to dismiss as a mere game.

Nowhere is this fetishist logic more evident than apropos of Tibet, one of the central references of the post-Christian "spiritual" imaginary... 

Now this is, on its face a powerful charge against Western Buddhism. I won't go into the Tibetan aspects of this because I neither want to make a fetish of Tibetan Buddhism nor do I wish to make a piñata of it; the Western Tibetan Buddhists, are to me, Buddhists, even if they are a bit aberrant. So's the Dalai Lama. The real issue is this:

[Buddhism] enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

To Žižek, it is the rapacious "capitalist game" that's the bête noire of human existence and Buddhism is yet another opiate, a palliative, that does nothing to remedy the fundamental issue. This is horse feces as far as this Buddhist is concerned; because regardless of whether or not the capitalist game continues, regardless of whether or not the revolution comes, regardless of whether or not Richard Gere saves Tibet (and wins valuable prizes in doing so), suffering will continue.  And dammit, it's incumbent to do something, and if you're not paying attention, you can't do squat. Political battles must be fought. Yeah, capitalism is inherently unstable.  But I think Žižek, like many people like him, is so alienated from himself (please note the irony in that statement - most likely due to projection and replacing one ideology with another) that he doesn't recognize there's a plethora of human functions besides economic and political ones.  I have that impression of  Žižek's alienation  because he posits a straw-man "Western Buddhism" as a foil for his Marxist Critique.

 And while I'm sure Žižek cares about suffering in the abstract (in much the same way fundamentalist Christians care about zygotes  as people in the abstract) he's not writing about the day-to-day sufferings of himself, his family, his neighbors, his co-workers and the poor folk in sweatshops and child-laborers on the other side of the planet.  It's all the same bit of suffering.

So, like, uh, what does Nichtern say?  First...

Although his critique of Buddhism is somewhat uninformed, Zizek does offer, in his own way, a good insight into the danger of misunderstanding Buddhist practice and the techniques of mindfulness altogether. What fascinates me is that his critique parallels -- in the language of cultural theory -- the personal wariness that most beginning meditators have about the practice of meditation, especially regarding 1) how mindfulness actually works, 2) what acceptance really means, and 3) how genuine transformation comes about.

The first hint we should have that meditation is not a passive withdrawal into a mental shell is this: Meditating is actually really hard! Things that are passive tend to be easy, right? Watching Project Runway for half an hour is a piece of cake. Watching your mind for half an hour, not so much. 

 For most people who aren't doing retreats, meditation should actually not be that difficult.  The key is to show some compassion for yourself - it was great advice I once heard from Paul Gorman when he was still on WBAI - which, by the way, is a totally Marxist like public radio station in New York run by Pacifica. But I digress again. Watching your mind  compassionately, and kindly for a half an our or an hour is not that difficult.  And more than that, well, what kind of economic class are we realistically discussing?

What else does Nichtern say?

Of course, for people who don't practice, meditation can and does come across like a pitchperfect cliché of passivity before the status quo. When you look at someone sitting there, you might think: "Seriously what does that do for them? What does it really change about their situation? How does it better the world?" We ask these skeptical questions because what we rightfully want is not just the ability to pay attention, but the ability to transform our circumstances. We want change we can believe in, both internally and externally. That's the payoff we are looking for. Without the reward of transformation coming at some point on the path, meditation is useless. Buddhist teachers can preach "there is no goal" as much as they want, but most students aren't going to even stick around long enough to hear the subtleties of what that really means, either. And there are goals in meditation, by the way, just not the kind that can be achieved in 30 minutes or your money back.
Practical transformation is what Buddhist practice is all about. It's also about changing the world. To practice meditation consistently is to push back hard against the tidal wave of materialism that is quite literally killing the planet. But transformation is actually step three in a three-step process. 

Here I must strenuously differ with Nichtern: Buddhist practice is not about any "practical transformation" or "changing the world" except insofar as suffering can be transcended. It is true that there might be practical action and yeah, social engagement arising out of deep concerns for right livelihood and Buddhist ethics and morality.  But the picosecond you make Buddhist practices into trying to "get" anything other than  the practice itself (which in and of  itself  transcends suffering), you're not only messing up your practice, but you are  clinging and attached to an idea, a concept a notion, and another "-ism."

To put it another way, if you occupy your mind during a tennis match with why your shots will defeat the opponent to the exclusion of playing the game, well, you won't be playing the game.

Mr. Nichtern might remonstrate against what I've wrote here, but the only reason for doing so that he's written  is, "but most students aren't going to even stick around long enough to hear the subtleties of what [practicing without a goal in mind] really means, either."  There's that want - he wants students to stick around.  He wants to keep 'em once he's gotten 'em in the door.  In other words, this Buddhist teacher is applying a goal, a gaining idea to his practice as teacher. That's Ethan Nichtern's teaching on the Huffington Post.

Sorry Mr. Nichtern, but I think the "point" of  Buddhism is a bit more than a precondition for capitalism - greed.  And sorry Prof. Žižek, Buddhism is not an opiate; it's more like the opposite.


Kyle said...

Excellent observations. I liken Nichterns view, which is not all that dissimilar from many others, that Buddhist practice is a means to an ethical ends first and foremost. I find that is very much cart in front of the horse.

Zizek, well, we know his motivations, as you pointed out, is to use "Western Buddhism" as his means to some end beyond ordinary suffering. Of course, I'm sure you know my stance on all that; and I do find this political message very much a corruption of a Buddhist practice...just the same as I would see people doing Buddhist practice to obtain some magical powers.

First, the practice, then the action.

Bah, I hate to be that guy who says, "yep, I agree with" but yea, I'm that guy today. :-)

Mumon said...

Why thanks, Kyle. I was wondering why Nichtern actually dug up that article because it has "conjuring up a straw-man" written all over it. Then again, so does Zizek's writing.

Algernon said...

"If someone is hungry, feed them." Gaining idea? A departure from practice? Bad, corrupted Buddhism? Maybe so. In my experience, daily practice and helping someone who appears in front of me, or commenting on a situation that causes someone to be hungry as it appears in front of me, are compatible.

It need not become a campaign. And there is the risk of getting involved in acquisitive ideas and external world-changing dreams.

Yet, I'm not in it only for my own liberation. Since I live in a city and not an isolated hilltop, the "when someone is hungry" koan frequently presents itself.

But that doesn't have to mean somebody is criticizing your practice. There is a defensiveness in this debate and probably it comes from the fact that in all of this Buddhist blogging, there is an awful lot of "dharma crit" going on: checking this person's understanding against one's own understanding, and so forth. "Checking mind," Seung Sahn called it.

Whether we focus on our private practice (good idea!) or include some good works on our off-cushion time (good idea!), it might be well to beware of checking other people's practice.