An American Zen Buddhist training center in the Mountains and Rivers Order, offering Sunday programs, weekend retreats and month-long residencies.
Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
The Movement of the Real
Is Buddhism irrelevant in a world of brutality and permanent crisis? Does it have the legs of an emancipatory religion, a religion of liberation with the power to transform societies and cultures?
In several essays around 2000, when Buddhism in America was enjoying seemingly universal “success”—celebrity status for many of its authority figures, increasing institutionalization as it galloped into the mainstream—Zizek wrote, and said in interviews, that Buddhism in the West was functioning as a fetish. Buddhism in the globalized capitalist world, he argued, functions as a “fetish” in the sense that “fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are thoroughly ‘realists’ able to accept the ways things effectively are—since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality.” In other words, the world we are faced with is full of injustice, suffering, pain, confusion, hopelessness, and stress, all in different orders of magnitude, and the Western Buddhist’s orientation, primarily through meditation practices, allows him or her to blunt or avoid the full impact of this reality.
For Zizek, Western Buddhism coincides to some degree, with the “comtemplative view.” This general critique is not original (think of Nietzsche on Asiatic nihilism, for example), but Zizek’s frequent remarks on the subject seem to hit a nerve with some Buddhists who have blogged their regret that Zizek clearly wasn’t familiar enough with Buddhist sources (and what are his sources, anyway?), or have complained about his general characterization of Western Buddhists as indulgent, pleasure-seeking, distancing, and largely apathetic to worldwide suffering and misery.
These criticisms are certainly valid to some degree, but they also express a defensiveness that fails to engage the bigger point: Western Buddhism, with its introspective emphasis on personal liberation, fundamentally aligns itself with the societal status quo. In many respects Buddhism does seem to function as a fetish. And for those who would point to various modes of “engaged” Buddhism, we might step back and ask the same question: Are these projects transformative, or do they too functioning primarily as a fetish to maintain an image of the self as a good Buddhist, while leaving the ground conditions of suffering and injustice unaddressed? In Zizek’s view, Buddhism in the West is the perfect ideological supplement to global capitalism
To be clear, Zizek criticizes the Western Buddhist attitude not because he has a theological axe to grind, but because he is adamantly in favor of a realistic engagement with the world and its forces. Following his Marxist bent, he argues that if one possessed such a realistic view, then one would naturally feel compelled to act and not withdraw. Zizek sees the meditative and contemplative position as withdrawal. Meditation as fetish allows us to withdraw—to distance ourselves from the world—and thereby maintain our sanity. Further, the structure of the fetish relationship enables us to pretend to accept reality as it is. It enables us to fully participate in the stressful, greedy, pressured, alienated, painful working world of contemporary culture while maintaining the conceit that we are separate from the spectacle, able to play the game as we like, and supposing that what really matters is this contemplative self detached and uninvolved. What riles Zizek about this scenario is that this fetish logic leaves the world intact as it is, and even strengthens hegemonic threats.
If the fetish were removed, the structure of false consciousness would collapse, often with devastating effects for the subject. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
I think it is important to say that Zizek and cultural critics increasingly see differences between East and West dramatically diminished as Asia has been absorbed by global capitalism. Asia might be the geographic origin of Buddhism, but the distinction is of little importance as the world becomes modern, Westernized, and the hegemony of global capitalism has become total, worldwide. So it is not surprising that Zizek would maintain that Buddhism globally is becoming Western Buddhism—and increasingly functions as a fetish that ultimately enables the status quo to maintain its continuing control, dominance, and expansion.
If Buddhism is finally about liberation from ignorance and errant views, both individually and collectively, then we might consider studying not only what we are but also the culture that invisibly influences and dominates us. Quite apart from advocating any alternative to the current system, we may discover sources of suffering and new patterns of desire and ignorance that are embedded in our actions. The study of capital would quickly become the study of suffering and false consciousness. The study of capital and the revelation of the conditions for what we might call an “emergent communism” could supplement our contemplative approaches as the movement of the real. Marx approached something similar in German Ideology, a work he wrote with Engels in 1846 (first published in 1932).