I know it’s old news, but I just got around to listening to the Slavoj Zizek talk critiquing Buddhism here. It’s a long lecture, but very entertaining. He’s an interesting voice, and someone to listen to, even on a topic where he’s clearly a dilatant. As far as criticism goes, most of these are pretty modest, but I thought it might be worth responding to.
Attention: There Are Some Lousy Buddhists Out There
Zizek points out that a bunch of American CEOs are Buddhists. I guess he means the late Steve Jobs, because I can’t think of any others. So, of course Buddhism is terrible because there are terrible people who are Buddhists. I don’t doubt that there are many awful Buddhists out there. That’s hardly much of an argument. At D. T. Suzuki to the mix (and weirdly, some Brazilian torturers that have a homebrew religion sort of like Buddhism). This is an incredibly weak argument. Stalin was an atheist. Does that mean all atheists are evil? If I turned up a Lacanian pedophile does that discredit Lacan? This line of reasoning is pretty shabby for a world class philosopher.
Buddhism and the Scatalogical
Zizek criticizes Buddhism for not embracing the scatalogical. It is here that he most shows his ignorance. What he is actually critiquing is formal language. And to be fair, I think he mostly included this in order to make poop jokes. But the Buddha more than any other thinker I’m aware of embraced the scatalogical. The meditation on the 32 parts of the body includes piss and shit. There are many similes such as the “earth that accepts all disgusting things” such as piss and shit. We are encouraged to be mindful while pissing and shitting. Here
Lacan Zizek just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Dispassion vs. Compassion
The one critique he brings up that is really worth discussion is the apparent contradiction between practicing dispassion and compassion. Zizek shows how dispassion without compassion led D. T. Suzuki to supporting Japanese aggression in World War II. But he dismisses “modern” Buddhists who insist that compassion is an important part of the Buddhist path. He believes that real Buddhism should be all about compassion, and that we should just live with the unsatisfying results. I think that this is an interesting line of reasoning, but I also think he is completely wrong.
First, compassion and dispassion were integral parts of the Buddhist path from the beginning. Suzuki was just wrong on this point. There is not a single sutta or living tradition that denies this point. It is not some namby weak modern innovation. It is a core doctrine.
Second, the definition of these words is probably getting in the way. First, compassion doesn’t mean “feeling as others feel” as it does in English. Rather what is meant is a deep wish for the well-being of yourself and others. It’s deeply tied up with other positive aspects of emotion such as friendliness, joy, and contentment. Dispassion also doesn’t quite have the same resonance in English. In the Buddhist context it means not getting caught up in our compulsions and reacting out of momentary desire. It does not mean shunning our emotions.
With this in mind, I would say that compassion leads to dispassion and vice versa. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you adopt compassion in the Buddhist sense. That is, you maintain a deep heartfelt wish for the well-being of yourself and others. A compassionate Buddhist understands that most of the suffering that we cause is by acting on our constant cravings. Craving for better food, craving for pleasure, craving for sex. A compassionate person would work to curb these desires. That is, a compassionate person would work to develop dispassion. On the other hand, a dispassionate person sees suffering. They see that the same things that causes suffering for themself leads to suffering in others. A dispassionate analysis would point toward developing the positive emotional mind states that lead to happiness for everyone. Namely: compassion, peace, friendliness, and joy. It’s frankly impossible to tease the two things apart in the Buddhist context.
What do you think of Zizek? Am I missing some critical aspect of this argument? Is he a secret paccekabuddha? Is he an idiot in professors clothes?
Small postscript. You might notice that Zizek dresses like a total slob. He couldn’t get a job at Subway dressed like that. You might find this unusual for a professor. I recently went as a guest to a colloquium at Carleton College. The guest was the great political science professor from Yale James Scott. After a day I noticed something telling: the assistant prof.s were all dressed like lawyers in suits and ties. The associate prof.s were in sweaters and khakis. The full professors had on polos and jeans. And the shabbiest dressed of all: yes, James Scott. The mark of a star professor is the clothes of a slob. If you don’t believe me, check here.