Monthly Archives: September 2010

Slavoj Zizek and Religion

Zizek is a philosopher, a critical theorist, and a Marxist who is very well known and respected in intellectual circles in Europe.  He is the kind of thinker quite prevalent in Europe but increasingly rare in the U.S.(Chomsky might be one example)–someone whose theorizing is focused on actual social realities.  In any case, being a Marxist he would automatically be disregarded here in the U.S., but in Europe they have more intellectual sophistication and do not confuse Stalinist or Maoist communism with Marxism.

It is perhaps not surprising that Zizek has some sharp things to say about religion, but his thinking is cogent and his criticism cannot be brushed off lightly.  In a recent article a Buddhist teacher and author, Ethan Nichtern,  confronts the criticism of Zizek:  “Radical Buddhism and the Paradox of Acceptance.”  Let us quote extensively from Nichtern:

“Critical theorist Slavoj Zizek has an interestingly harsh critique of Western Buddhism and the meditation tools it employs.  Framing his critique in Marxist terms, he argues that Buddhism is the perfect spiritual tradition to be co-opted by our self-absorbed, destructive, and consumeristic society.  For him, Buddhism represents the perfect ideology for passive acquiescence to the world as it is, a panacea of inner peace that fits neatly into an advertising culture where, by now, ‘be present’ could just as well be the slogan of a credit card company as an instruction from a meditation teacher.  Zizek writes: ‘Western Buddhism allows us 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 how worthless the spectacle is — what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw.’

In other words, for Zizek, Buddhism, in the context of a Western consumer culture, allows the individual to believe he is transforming his mind without actually changing the conditions of suffering that shape the individual’s society.  This represents a dangerous type of inner peace — a peace not based on true insight into the interdependent nature of reality, but instead based on withdrawal into a mental cocoon, some personal oasis isolated from the turmoil of the world outside.  In this cocoon, the whole world can go to hell, and the meditator can — put simply — be ok with that.  In fact, the meditator can even be a willing actor in a system aiding great oppression, and still live at ease, because it’s ‘all good’ anyway.  By practicing ‘acceptance,’ we simply become comfortable with the status quo.”

This is a very challenging critique, and we should welcome such challenges because they help us clarify our own thinking and perhaps help us see things we couldn’t or didn’t want to see before.  Naturally Zizek’s critique could also be easily addressed to Christian contemplatives–as Merton and others pointed out years ago.  Merton’s The Inner Experience addresses some of these issues.  In any case, Nichtern welcomes the challenge of this critique and then presents an attempt at an answer.

Nichtern’s reply–and Merton’s too to a certain extent–relies on a true understanding of terms such as “peace,” “acceptance,” and “passivity.”  I would also have pointed out to Zizek the example of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who incinerated themselves in protest of the American war in their country.  No matter what you think of this kind of action, it can never be called “passive” or a “withdrawal into a cocoon.”  But Zizek would then probably reply that in fact he is specifically addressing Westerners taking up Buddhism, etc.  And in that regard he has a point.  Too many have taken up Buddhist or Christian or any other contemplative practices as a means of escape or as an anesthetic to make themselves numb to the dysfunctionality of the world around them, either their personal world or the greater social world.  This is especially true of well-to-do people.  Merton warns us of seeking a “narcissistic seclusion,” of walling ourselves up within the false peace of our religious ego.

Nichtern appears to be coming from the Theravada tradition of mindfulness meditation, so he addresses Zizek’s challenge from that standpoint:

“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.”

The first step, Nichtern points out, is mindfulness.  It is the chronic avoidance of our selves, our real self, that lies at the core of mindless consumer culture.  In Nichtern’s tradition this mindfulness is very thorough and intense.  Christian contemplatives can borrow from this tradition but their approach generally will be quite different.  In any case, both will see how their emotions, their feelings, their perceptions can be deployed in a problematic way that leads to further suffering in oneself and in others.  The understanding of what is going on in our minds is important to true transformation of what happens “outside.”  Nichtern:  “Whenever we try to change something before we understand it, out attempted transformation actually comes from habit and assumption, not wisdom.  Solutions that come from habit, as Albert Einstein pointed out, just end up reinforcing the problem.  That’s called samsara….”

The second step, as Nichtern points out, is “acceptance,” and this is the more subtle one.  It has nothing to do with being passive toward the suffering of others to say the least.  What it really means is that when we become mindful, we realize how much about ourselves we really don’t like.  Acceptance has to do with coming to terms with the deep fundamental reality of who we are.   Without too much exaggeration one could say that so much of the hurt and “bad” that people cause in the world comes from a very deep down self-hatred, self-rejection that is then unconsciously projected outward.  In Nichtern’s tradition, there is a very clear, explicit solution:  “There is no product we can purchase to aid this work.  It only comes from the willingness to be with yourself, nakedly, openly, and lovingly, again and again over a long period of time.  Which means we have to spend time with ourselves.  A lot of time.  And the time we spend with ourselves on the cushion is the opposite of passive.  It’s often tough, it’s usually intense, and it leads to a hard-fought, slow-won, revolutionary victory over self-hatred.”  And here we may note a cautionary word for Christian contemplatives–they too have to find their particular way toward this kind of self-acceptance.  To simply call yourself a “sinner” as in the Jesus Prayer, without having some realization already that one is already forgiven, already bathed in the mercy of God, already totally loved and accepted, already “good” in a very fundamental way because God calls me into being, because I am his handiwork moment to moment, well unless one has that realization from the get-go, the mantra-like repetition of calling yourself a sinner can lead to some pathological states of mind.  But we shall address such issues in our postings on The Art of Prayer.

Let us give Nichtern the last words:  “Does the kind of self-acceptance which Buddhist meditation techniques systematically cultivate in the individual really change the world?  Well, no, not alone.  Zizek is right about that, as well as the danger of thinking that acceptance is the end of the journey and believing in any way that we are ‘in it but not of it.’  Eventually you have to get up and do something.  But trying to change your life or the world without a real method for changing your own mind is inherently doomed to failure, because society is just a matrix of the hearts and minds of those who inhabit it.”

The Art of Prayer, Part I

The Art of Prayer  is the title of one of the most wonderful books on Christian spirituality that there is.  In fact, in the eyes of this blogger it is a sine qua non of the Christian spiritual life, though there are for sure some that would disagree.  Among modern writings there are only a few others that deserve such accolades–among them would be: Merton’s  The Inner Experience,  and Andre Louf’s Teach Us to Pray–two very different works but of exceptional importance.  Speaking of Merton, The Art of Prayer was in his hermitage and constantly at his side during the 1960s, the last years of his life.  His copy was heavily underlined and referred to in his notes.  What we will do here and in future postings is simply comment on some passages.

The modern English edition comes with a helpful introduction by Kallistos Ware, an English scholar who became eventually an Orthodox monk, and who later became a bishop.  The original work is a masterpiece of Russian Orthodox spirituality.  Basically it is a compilation of various spiritual sources by Igumen Chariton, that is Abbot Chariton of the great Russian monastery of Valamo.  Amazingly enough this was compiled and published during the terrribly repressive years of the Stalinist regime–and Valamo was still a thriving monastery.  The actual material that Chariton puts together ranges from ancient Greek and Slavic sources to the majority being from Theophan the Recluse, one of the greatest Russian spiritual figures of the 19th Century.  In a sense it is a kind of “Reader’s Digest” of Russian Hesychasm, but of course it is much more than a “digest”–one can go very far just being guided by that work.  In the absence of someone who could guide you in the living tradition, this book will do more than adequately.

The Introduction announces the main theme, the main concern of this book with its very first words:  “What is prayer?”  A very big question.  The reality of prayer ranges from simple words and sentiments addressed to God to what this tradition calls “unceasing prayer of the heart.”  The goal of this collection, and the goal of the Russian Hesychast tradition is precisely to lead one to that unceasing prayer of the heart even as one might begin with simple oral prayer.  It also always assumes liturgical prayer as a kind of constant background of the inner journey.  Now the focal point of this prayer journey as it were is the Jesus Prayer, and it is amazing in its simplicity and power.  And Ware is quite correct in showing the scriptural roots of this prayer.  But before we get to that, there is the important point of the intended audience of this book.  Certainly The Art of Prayer originated in monastic circles and is primarily meant for monks, but it is also offered to all who seek continual inner prayer.  And in the Russian Hesychast tradition, and maybe in not all other traditions, this reality is available to all people, whether they are officially monks or not.  Recall that Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima says that monks are not some special kind of people but only what all Christians should be.  In fact a person in any condition or situation, even one who is crippled or paralyzed and helpless on a bed, can practice this prayer and achieve the highest realizations.

Now for some terminology clarification–or maybe we should say a certain caution about mixing up terminology.  Even within this very tradition of Russian Hesychasm there are different terms:  “inner prayer,”  “continual prayer,”  “prayer of the heart,”  “unceasing prayer of the heart,” etc.  These all seem to point to the same reality, more or less.  Among the Western Christian traditions you get terms like:  silent prayer, mental prayer,  contemplation (and this term is also used by Theophan), active contemplation, passive contemplation, infused contemplation, meditation, etc.  Now these seem to have their own distinct and different meanings with some overlap.  And from the great Asian traditions there is the import of the term “meditation” with a whole new meaning of its own.  And even here there are some significant differences among the various Asian traditions.  The best thing to do is not to confuse or conflate these terms.  They all do not point to or refer to the same reality–although they may all have some very positive contribution to make to a spiritual life.  Let each term be taken in the context of its own tradition, and leave it at that.  For our purposes here we will simply focus on this “unceasing prayer of the heart” (and we will use the other equivalent phrases that this tradition uses).  The one thing we can say is that this “prayer of the heart” is not the same as any kind of meditation–it is not about awareness per se, concentration, consciousness, etc.  It is more about a Presence, which slowly becomes the total reality of one’s existence:  “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me.” (St. Paul).

Now from the standpoint of The Art of Prayer and the Russian Hesychast tradition, the unceasing prayer of the heart is found most quickly and most surely through the use of what is called, the Jesus Prayer–this latter is sometime also referred to as the Prayer of the Name, and here we come very close to our Sufi friends.  In fact, within the hesychast tradition the two seem to be almost the same thing.  The writings are not all consistent about this, and in some cases it seems one can arrive at unceasing prayer of the heart by other means.  Kallistos Ware:

In theory the Jesus Prayer is but one of many

possible ways for attaining inner prayer; but

in practice it has acquired such influence and

popularity in the Orthodox Church that it has

almost come to be identified with inner prayer

as such.  In one spiritual authority after another

the Jesus Prayer is specially recommended as a

‘quick way’ to unceasing prayer, as the best and

easiest means for concentrating the attention and

establishing the mind in the heart.

Whatever be the case, our book and the Russian Hesychast tradition focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This is a prayer of utmost simplicity and seeming superficiality.  In English it is only 10 words:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (and there are variant wordings).  In Greek and Russian the prayer is only 7 words long–first on the lips, then silently in the mind, finally “in the heart.”  And finally the prayer never ceases in the heart, and then one is far beyond any words.  Some people have likened the Jesus Prayer to a Christian mantra, but that is a mistake.  Yes, it has some of those characteristics, and it may produce some effects like a mantra (as Ware implies above), but in its essence it is something different–just like prayer and meditation are different things but may overlap in both effect and significance for any given person.  More about all this as we go through the book.

As a final point for this posting, the scriptural roots of the Jesus Prayer as a route to inner prayer are very significant.  This stands in contrast to a kind of psychological or philosophical approach to prayer–albeit these may be valuable in their own right but they are different.  The foundations of the Jesus Prayer can be traced out in three directions.  First there is this whole thing about “the name.”  In the Old Testament the name of God was itself considered sacred.  It somehow carried the very mystery of God and so it was not to be pronounced out loud.  The Name was seen as an extension of the Personhood of God, and as a revelation of His being in Mystery and Power: “I am Who  I am.”  The Sufis and Islamic mysticism also have these same roots and a very similar mysticism pertaining to the Name of God.  Now from the Christian perspective, when we get to the New Testament, the name of Jesus picks all that up with the additions of “familiarity” and “closeness.”  Jesus in his humanity is the fullest and highest expression, manifestation of the Mystery of God.  But also he is very human with a very human name: Jesus.  Thus in this name we have both the awesome infinite mystery of God and the unspeakable closeness of God to humanity combined in one.  Much more could be said about this, but one can see the theological richness of just the invocation of the Name.

Then there are two moments in the Gospels that are important foundational places for this prayer.  The first is the cry of the blind man (Luke 18:38):  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”    The second is the prayer of the Publican (or tax collector):  “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  The Jesus Prayer absorbs both of these moments and seeks to place the pray-er in the shoes as it were of both of these people.  In the first instance there is the situation of ultimate blindness and of a realization that there is only One who can remove that blindness.  The blindness that keeps us from seeing our own condition and from beholding the Mystery of God and being totally aborbed into it.  The second instance brings before us one of Jesus’s most powerful illustrations–the difference between the Pharisee and the Publican–two different pray-ers, two very different ways of praying.  First of all, the Pharisee posits himself as some isolated entity who is “unlike” “that sinner”–the Pharisee keeps an account of “his goodness”–this so-called goodness is the doing of his religious ego, and the Pharisee is totally locked inside that.  The Jesus Prayer, on the other hand, takes up the attitude and state of heart of the Publican.  It simply knows the universal need for God’s healing mercy in the human condition.  Here we may note that some people either find this prayer too negative in spirit or if not that they kind of drive themselves into a depressive darkness by constantly invoking that they are “sinners.”  A bit of understanding and guidance here helps a lot, and we will touch on this as we go along through the book.  Suffice it to say for now that the path to inner prayer through the Jesus Prayer leads one into a boundless compassion and a sense of oneness with all people with the realization that we all are immersed in this sea of illusion and delusion which the Buddhists call maya, this illusion of a separate isolated self which then feels a need for self-assertion, self-protection, self-polishing,  self-grasping, etc.  There is the usual way of feeling superior to others–through better education, through wealth, through all kinds of external means; but the most insideous separation and most illusory one is the one where we see ourselves as “religiously better” than other folk.  The Jesus Prayer deconstructs all that and opens our heart to our common predicament and then leads us into the light of the true reality: endless and boundless communion–and ultimately this also includes all animals and all creation–as the great saints have always recognized.