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.”

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