Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Buddhism fits well with consumerism? Huh? And sorry, but a Protestant Reformation in this case is not needed.

While I agree with Kyle regarding the nipples aspect of this subject, I want to expand on a couple of other points that are lying around on that "Buddhism is the opiate of the people" Guardian piece. (Yes, I'm very proud of myself for starting a post about Buddhism, philosophy, history, etc. with a sentence containing the word "nipples.")  Besides, Paul Krugman's right, Kyle, and if you'd listen more to liberals and Marxists you'd have a better retirement portfolio. See, when it comes to economic stuff, one-time Zen practitioner and some kind of monk Thomas Merton was right: their diagnoses are spot on; their prescriptions suck.  I won't get into hummus - or Bearnaise sauce for that matter. (If thee didst not click on Kyle's post, well ,thee couldn't figure out that sentence at all, could thee?)

But I digress.  I'd rather get back to the fact that some guy is quoting Slavoj Žižek, whom I've previously discussed here.  As I wrote on that post - a critique of Ethan Nichtern in fact - this Slovenian Marxist doesn't have a clue as to what Buddhism is:

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.
Mark Vernon, the guy who wrote the Guardian article says, "What is it about Buddhism, she mused, that makes it such a perfect fit with modern consumerism?"  And here's his "analysis" citing Stephen Bachelor, one John Peacock, and that Marxist Slovenian to "prove" his point:

[Žižek's, Peacock's and  Bachelor's] analysis  is [sic] different. [Nota bene: That means there are three  analyses.] Western Buddhism is undergoing its Protestant reformation, Batchelor observed. It is about two centuries behind western Christianity in terms of its critical engagement with its canonical texts. The quest for the historical Buddha – an exercise that parallels the 19th-century quest for the historical Jesus – is only just under way. An essentially medieval Buddhism has been catapulted into modernity. It's hardly surprising that it will take two, perhaps three centuries for an authentically western form to emerge – by which is meant, in part, one that resists, not supplements, consumerism. For if Buddhism is to live in the modern world, it must be treated as a living tradition, not a preformed import. As the reformation leaders of the 16th century knew, this is a profoundly unsettling project – though it is also compelling for its promise is new life.
An important task is dismantling the common assumptions about Buddhism that do the rounds, assumptions that are made within Buddhist circles as frequently as without. For example, Peacock noted, there is no word for meditation in the early Buddhist lexicon, though it is often taken to be the defining Buddhist practice. Instead, the Buddha encouraged his followers to "cultivate", to "grow", to "bring something into being". He deployed a host of agricultural, not existential, metaphors.

What is also missed in the focus on meditation is the ethical challenge implicit in his call. Any practice must concern your whole stance towards the world, and it's a stance that is intensely, relentlessly critical. The aim is to enquire into all aspects of your form of life. A meditation class on a Friday evening that makes no impact upon your work on a Monday morning is an exercise in Žižek's decoupling.

Or take the commonly cited Buddhist truism that everything should be questioned and nothing should be taken on faith. Lip-service is paid to it, Peacock continued, but Buddhists typically adhere to all manner of doctrines, from the law of karma and reincarnation, to the truth of suffering and no-self. The result is that Buddhism becomes a religion, even as it's insisted it is no such thing. Western categories of thought are being deployed at the same time as they are presumed to be being subverted. The very word "Buddhism" is a western neologism, in fact.
And yet, it's mistaken to think that the western categories that shape us can be circumvented. You can't chose the gods that you worship. To hope you can, by adopting someone else's gods or a cluster of eastern ideas, is the fundamental error.
Instead, the individual who seeks to continue in the Buddha's way must "enter the stream", must continue along the ever-changing flow that is the living tradition. It's a tough calling. Peacock and Batchelor attract as much opprobrium as praise. And as Albert Schweitzer concluded after his quest for the historical Jesus, it can often be a misguided and dispiriting process.

We don't need a Protestant Reformation, thank you very much.  What makes you think the first one was any great shakes anyway, with the way in which those churches have been transmuted into the Trinity Broadcasting Network, creationists, and "witch" murdering in Africa?  

Moreover,  it seems that while "Buddhism" may be a western neologism, there are so many Buddhisms that just because some of them don't fit into The Critics Criticism, they fall off the table.  Needless to say, in Japanese at least, "Buddhism" as the exact word may not exist, but 仏教 - ぶっきょう -  pronounced "bukkyoh" - certainly does.  And it means,  "Buddhism"  - the "kyoh" part means "faith" or  "teaching."  

So there.

Yes, Buddhists adhere to all manner of doctrines - and all should be questioned.  But Vernon's complaint is the complaint of a guy who plays soccer but belittles American football because the rules are different. Or some other metaphor like that.  Hey, I regularly play neither American or the other football, and while I'm more amused by both footballs than a fan of it, I wouldn't claim that no professional player lacks skill in what he does.  If we're talking about Buddhists who adhere to all manner of doctrines,  as long as they're enabling themselves and all beings to become more skilled at transcending suffering, it's no skin off anyone's body.

I don't care much about David Beckham, and simply because he's rich and successful and has a beautiful wife and tattoos and sponsors advertising  and practices Buddhism (or maybe he doesn't - I don't know; the article stated he has a Buddha statue) doesn't mean that he's not concerned about all beings.  His success is not particularly important to The Matter at Hand.


Kyle said...

Ha! You know the funny thing is, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say a lot of people don't know about Paul Krugman or even what hummus is. I actually like Krugman, twas just a joke. :-)

Žižek, politics aside, is a nincompoop. And what he says about Buddhism is just awful.

I agree, Buddhism doesn't need some Reformation (regardless of my name, which actually has another meaning lol), though some progress and change isn't a bad thing either. But most of the time, what we end up with stuff like Big Mind and Equisync, or groups like SGI. Could you imagine a Calvinist Buddhist? hehe

Beckham's wife is not hot, she looks like she needs to eat some food. And I agree totally, none of the authors concerns, including Beckham, have nothing to do with "The Matter at Hand."

PS Do you ever worry your readers take my humor seriouly, and then wonder why we talk so much? :-D

Mumon K said...


If they don't realize that a word like "nipples" is funny per se, there's not much I can do.