Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism

Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226233260
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/16/2015
Series: TRIOS Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Marcus Boon is professor of English at York University in Toronto. Eric Cazdyn is the Distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Politics at the University of Toronto. Timothy Morton is the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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Three Inquiries in Buddhism

By Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, Timothy Morton

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23343-7




Marcus Boon


In 1937, while in exile in Svendborg, Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem entitled "The Buddha's Parable of the Burning House." The poem describes the Buddha's disciples questioning him as to the nature of "nothingness" beyond "greed's wheel." The Buddha does not respond, but confides in his close disciples that answering such questions is like answering the questions of those whose house is burning down, as to what the weather outside is like and so on. "These people," says the Buddha, "need to burn to death before they stop asking questions. Truly, friends / Unless a man feels the ground so hot underfoot that he'd gladly / Exchange it for any other, sooner than stay, to him / I have nothing to say." The poem goes on to compare the Buddha's situation to those of the communists "putting forward / Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men to shake off / Their human tormentors," when asked similarly irrelevant questions by those faced with "the approaching bomber squadrons of Capital."

The lines about communism that follow the Buddha's "I have nothing to say" were a later addition to the poem, as if the parable's Marxist subtext risked being appropriated back into a Buddhist narrative (likely derived from the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra) unless the meanings were concretely specified and articulated. Brecht's poem resonates with a parenthetical remark made by his colleague Walter Benjamin in his essay "On Surrealism," in which, elaborating the qualities of what he called "profane illumination," he has a flashback to his 1927 visit to Moscow:

(In Moscow I lived in a hotel in which almost all the rooms were occupied by Tibetan lamas who had come to Moscow for a congress of Buddhist churches. I was struck by the number of doors in the corridors that were always left ajar. What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms. The shock I had then must be felt by the reader of Nadja.) To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence.

So Buddhist practice, according to Benjamin, could be a revolutionary practice. As the recent book Red Shambhala describes it, there were in fact prominent Bolsheviks during the post-revolutionary period who pursued contacts with Buddhist organizations. This was sometimes no doubt because of realpolitik and the question of how to integrate central Asian areas such as Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva with significant Buddhist populations into the USSR. But at other times it was because Buddhism was seen as offering tools that supported a revolutionary practice. The "congress of Buddhist churches" that Benjamin refers to was probably the First All-Russian Buddhist Congress, held in Moscow in January 1927, at a point where the situation of Buddhists within the Russian Communist state was still undecided. As Anya Bernstein notes in her recent study of Buryatian Buddhism, there was a significant Buddhist reform movement in Buryatia in the 1920s, many of whose goals resemble those of contemporary/secular engaged Buddhists today. This reform movement was brutally crushed in the 1930s, with the almost complete suppression of Buddhism in the public realm — in Buryatia and elsewhere in the USSR. Even if the invitation to Buddhist monks to come to Moscow was made for propagandistic purposes, even if the invitation was accepted because the monks were also using Buddhism as a vehicle for secular ethnic/nationalist political purposes, Benjamin's observation of a truth about a practice of revolutionary virtue still stands. And the door to it still stands open. But for whom?

Common wisdom, however, would have it that Marxism, or more broadly critical theory, and Buddhism stand in opposition to each other: the world-negating spirituality of the Buddha as ideological obfuscation versus the concrete struggle over material conditions of the Marxist militant on the one hand; the deadly consequences of violently pursuing an inevitably distorted and distorting materialist ideology versus the embodied awareness of love and wisdom happening in the here and now of the Buddhist practitioner on the other, one the dialectical inversion of the other. And there is plenty of historical evidence that would support both of these dialectical positions in the narratives of the encounters of traditional, colonial, and postcolonial Buddhist cultures and communities with Marxism and/or communism throughout Asia in the twentieth century — and the decimation of Buddhist sanghas by communist regimes in Russia, China, and various Asian countries. Furthermore, the study of Asian religions, and arguments for a "Buddhist society" in Europe and America in the twentieth century were often associated with right-wing and/or fascist thinkers, who valorized Buddhism and other Asian religions in the name of anti-modern, anti-democratic, and anti-communist politics of various kinds. Conversely, contemporary writers associated with "engaged Buddhism" say surprisingly little about Marx, or for that matter the long and complicated histories of the engagement of Marxism and Buddhism within Asian societies. Following the work of Naoki Sakai, one might well inquire into the historical and other conditions under which "Marxism" and "Buddhism" have been presented so often as entirely separate or opposed entities.

The dialectical critique of Buddhism has recently been taken up by critics Slavoj Zizek and Peter Hallward. For Zizek, the emergence of Buddhism in the West is a form of fetishistic disavowal of the material conditions of late capitalism, notably taking the form of an orientalist valorization of feudalist Tibetan Buddhist society and/or a fantasized position of removal from the "stress" of real material conditions via meditation and the doctrine of "no-self." For Hallward, the turn to Buddhism is one of the symptoms of a postcolonial celebration of pure difference that results in a state of depoliticized disengagement from the world. Both Zizek and Hallward in part develop their arguments in response to the work of Alain Badiou and his argument for a philosophy and practice that maintains fidelity with the idea of communism. Reading Badiou's Being and Event has provoked a rethinking of the critical spaces in which I engage both Buddhism and critical theory, just as it has provoked Hallward and Zizek.

Zizek and Hallward's descriptions of historical Buddhism are often wildly inaccurate. For example, in The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek appears to believe that "bodhisattva" is the name of a particular historical person rather than a generic descriptive type or category of being (22–23). Similarly, Hallward, at the end of his book on Badiou, describes "Sunyata" and "Satori" as specifically "Hinayana" (i.e., Theravadan Buddhist) terms, which he then attempts to contrast with what he believes to be a Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Perhaps these errors are the result of their arbitrary sources: Zizek's main reference for his knowledge of Buddhism in The Puppet and the Dwarf is Orthodoxy, a 1908 apologia for Christianity by G. K. Chesterton; and Hallward's in Absolutely Postcolonial is a relatively marginal 1951 book by Christmas Humphreys. Beyond that, Zizek relies on Brian Victoria's Zen at War, an important study of Japanese Zen Buddhists' involvement in Japanese militarism in World War II — certainly enough to disabuse anyone gullible enough to believe that all applications of Buddhism are by definition infallible. But as Ernst Benz suggests in his 1963 study Buddhism or Communism: Which Holds the Future of Asia?, the Japanese story is quite specific, and the actual historical relations between Buddhism and communism, imperialism, fascism or, for that matter, postcolonial empire have been variable. Still, despite his ignorance of historical Buddhism, many of the criticisms Zizek makes of contemporary Western Buddhism are in my opinion quite accurate, both in regard to existing Buddhist communities in the West, and more specifically my own practice. Similarly, I find Hallward's interest in putting Buddhism into relation with developments in contemporary theory and literature intriguing. In both cases, I find myself wondering why it is necessary to take this detour through a radically distorted Buddhism in order to get to the materialist philosophies to which these thinkers are committed.

Against Zizek's portrayal of the Dalai Lama as a kind of Disney figure cheerleading global capitalism, I note that the Dalai Lama has repeatedly articulated his support for Marxism, stating, for example, that "the failure of the regime in the former Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist." Buddhism is an event in any society in which it emerges, whether in India, China, or more recently Europe and America. In this chapter I will argue that the challenge of a Buddhist universalism, in the form of the Mahayana Buddhist vow to bring about the enlightenment of all sentient beings, represents a trauma for any society that encounters it, including our own. Conversely, the encounter of existing Buddhist societies with communism has also been a trauma, and I believe that this is what the Dalai Lama recognizes: that an avowed Buddhist universalism in premodern Tibet supported a feudal system that manifestly failed to carry out its own claims to universal liberation.

A few years ago, I attended an event in Toronto to celebrate the publication of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom. I was attracted to the notion of "rebel Buddha" but also wary, given that rebellion is one of the principal tropes of consumer capitalism these days. My wariness grew when we were shown a PowerPoint presentation featuring music by the Rolling Stones and images of Stephen Colbert, the Jon Stewart Show, and Rinpoche's Twitter account. Rinpoche argued that Buddhism means rebelling against the status quo, "taking down the belief system in our heads ... not an external authority." He claimed that this would lead, among other things, to a well-behaved citizenry. The status quo then would be an internally generated projection of the form an existing society takes, rather than something externally imposed — or, for that matter, the specific way in which the relations of "internal" to "external" are mediated in a particular society. Later in the day, Rinpoche mused that it's unclear what an external system that could be imposed internally could actually be, except perhaps "language."

It became clear to me that Ponlop Rinpoche had no understanding of ideology, of the way in which the internal subjective world is structured and interpellated by particular social and political structures that are essenceless or empty, but nonetheless situationally effective. Whether one can say more generally that Buddhism has no theory of ideology is a problem that this essay seeks to address. Buddhist texts often speak of "habitual patterns," but habit is not merely an internally generated form of repetition. Rather, it is imposed through interpellation. In Althusser's classic definition, "ideology 'acts' or 'functions' in such a way that it 'recruits' subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'Hey, you there!'" Indeed, even the dissemination of good habits — such as meditation practice, mind teachings such as recognition of the four noble truths, etc. — are external and social to some degree. There could be no "Buddhism" without such movements of interpellation, or without a teacher or Buddha who also said, "Hey, you there!" There are Buddhist teachings that could be considered teachings on ideological interpellation — for example, The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition — yet the emphasis of those teachings is almost always on the internal nature of the problem.

Furthermore, one might ask to what degree Buddhism itself is an ideological formation whose particular forms have gone and will continue to be unexamined so long as one insists that Buddhist practice is internal, and therefore "beyond" the particular social, political and religious forms that exist in a particular Buddhist society or community. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya makes the argument that "early Buddhism" in India (i.e., the Buddhism of the Pali canon), operating under the influence of what he calls the "primitive Communism" of rural Indian life during the epoch of the Buddha, was both dialectical and if not materialist, certainly realist, built around a proposal for an egalitarian, casteless society, and pratityasamutpada, which he defines as "dependence on definite causes and conditions" and "universal flux." This early Buddhism proposed a critique of private or "personal" property — however, this critique goes no further than a withdrawal from the world, and, Chattopadhyaya argues, lacks the tools that were available to Marx and Engels, in terms of carrying out what is implied by pratityasamutpada in terms of the universal liberation of mankind. He continues that Mahayana and later forms of Buddhism ideologically obscure the radical, dialectical materialist aspect of the Buddha's teachings, in order to obtain the patronage of the royalty and wealthy merchants. Setting aside the problematic rhetoric of originality, earliness, and authenticity, so familiar in discourses on religion, Chattopadhyaya's argument uses the classic Marxist division between ideology (distorted descriptions of reality based on class interests) and science (a "definite" materialist analysis). For Chattopadhyaya, "original Buddhism" hovers somewhere between ideology and science, since it lacks the tools to fully develop itself as science and practice in a modern form. Still, we might reverse Chattopadhyaya's argument and say that according to him, "original Buddhism" contains the elements of a productive stance on the problem of ideology. I will return to this.

It's not hard to point to the weaknesses of historical Buddhist societies that have resulted from the lack of open ideological critique: the now well-documented collaborations of the Japanese Zen hierarchy with nationalist and militarist authorities in the first half of the twentieth century; the feudal nature of Tibetan society at the moment that Mao's Communist troops invaded in 1950; the problematic complicities between Buddhism and the state in various Asian countries in the twentieth century. Even recent studies of the politics of Buddhism struggle with this point. For example, in his admirable review of political Buddhism in Asia, Charles Keyes formulates the problem of political Buddhism as the relation of Buddhism to the state. Keyes demonstrates that this relation is historically quite variable, spanning the Buddha's own remarks on the topic as recorded in the Pali canon, to anticolonial opposition through theocracy. Yet the essay nonetheless assumes that Buddhism qua Buddhism is ultimately separate from the exercise of worldly power, even when it appears to be fully incorporated into it, as in the case of a theocracy. Implicit in Keyes's argument is the notion that Buddhism is fundamentally anti-ideological, and can only be appropriated into ideologies. As such, Buddhism by definition cannot take a specific ideological stance, or bring into being its own forms of political economy — or can do so only be betraying itself. But to what degree is such an absence of ideological critique a necessary consequence of Buddhist thought, rather than a sign of an incomplete or unfinished analysis?

We should also ask to what degree critical theory, in its various contemporary Marxian iterations, has itself completely understood ideology. Much of Zizek and Alain Badiou's work can be understood as a critique of Althusserian renderings of ideology: in Zizek's case via the unresolved problem of the relationship between history (individual and collective) and the unconscious, via the equally unresolved problem of the historicity (or not) of the drives as mediators of the unconscious and (individual and collective) action; in Badiou's case, via the apparent split in Althusser between ideology and science, and the difficulty of generating philosophical criteria for distinguishing between the two. I will argue that something like a Buddha flashes up within these problematics. Perhaps both Buddhism and Marxism are incomplete projects. If so, what do these incompletions share? And to what degree does the repeated presentation of Buddhism and Marxism as opposites obscure shared territories and possible solidarities?


Excerpted from Nothing by Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, Timothy Morton. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton,
TO LIVE IN A GLASS HOUSE IS A REVOLUTIONARY VIRTUE PAR EXCELLENCE Marxism, Buddhism, and the Politics of Nonalignment Marcus Boon,
ENLIGHTENMENT, REVOLUTION, CURE The Problem of Praxis and the Radical Nothingness of the Future Eric Cazdyn,
BUDDHAPHOBIA Nothingness and the Fear of Things Timothy Morton,

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