“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Praise of “Western Buddhism” (Object-Oriented Buddhism 25)

It seems like everyone who argues with Zizek on Buddhism at least concurs with his assault on what he calls “Western Buddhism,” a New-Agey paradigm that Joe Clement describes well as “ideas of detachment, chakras, karma, impermanence, re-incarnation and past-lives, meditation, and non-duality [absorbed from] from the litany of pop-psycho-therapeutic-new-age-mystic-neopagan-transpersonal-naturalist-buddhist garbage now available.”

So I'm going to go out on a limb here and address the scapegoat on to which everyone seems willing to pile, “Western Buddhism.”

In particular, it's the general idea that “well-being” is a good thing and something to aim for. Hence some criticisms of the Dalai Lama for muddying the waters by talking about what Aristotle would call eudaemonia. Let's face it, what Zizek hates about Buddhism is that it seems so lax and easy. The Pope is all crusty and dogmatic—that makes him great.

I'm beginning to suspect that the term “New Age” is like the term “weed.” It's something that you don't want around, just as a weed is “a flower in the wrong place.”

Now don't get me wrong. I've read the most devastating attack on Western (and Eastern actually) forms of “spiritual materialism,” Chögyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Ironically I gave a copy to Slavoj but he may not have read it. So I know the difference between pursuing spiritual things because you want POWER and pursuing them because you want something else. Like well-being. Not enlightenment, but well-being.

And now to let rip a little.

What the heck kind of a twisted attitude led us intellectuals to harsh on eudaemonia? It's in OUR traditions too. We have a MAJOR hangover from Christianity, which is that religion is supposed to make you feel BAD.

When teachers come from Nepal and Bhutan (and so on), they very often remark how much mental illness they see in the west. They put it in their terms, the terms of the subtle body (prana, nadi, bindu). Does this make them New Agey?

So many self-proclaimed Buddhists are so anxious not to appear New-Agey that they skip the vital phase of TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF and achieving what my teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, calls a “healthy human being level.” Okay, it's not becoming a Buddha. But you can use that well-being as a platform to transcend. And you better had, because actual Buddhism is not therapy and it won't necessarily make you feel good.

But there is SOME level (at least one) on which Buddhism IS about feeling good. Charles Whitfield calls avoiding this level “spiritual bypassing.” On retreat you meet plenty of self-righteous people who think they don't need therapy. They will tell you this with great smugness and arrogance, betraying themselves in their very tone.

There is something wonderfully “lame” and low key about realizing you have to become a decent human being first. Think about Siddhartha. He figured out that he really wanted that bowl of rice pudding from that passing woman. He became KIND to himself. That was the beginning of enlightenment.

I reckon you can just about talk about Buddhism in the academy now. But if you say “prana” or “chakra” you are an idiot or insane. But esoteric Buddhism is NOTHING BUT prana and chakras...

And prana and chakras are NOTHING BUT psyche and psychosomatic symptoms. We really don't have good terms for this in the west.

If you read Aristotle's Poetics (as I've been doing for a class), you read about catharsis. The accepted translation of that is “purgation”—somehow tragedy produces, then relieves you of, pity and fear.

But the actual word means “flowing down,” and an equally good if not better translation is “release” or “purification.”

In Hinduism, Buddhism, Bön, you name it, there are channels and “winds” (prana) and there is a downward-flowing wind. You know, the tingle you feel when you hear a beautiful piece of music that stirs you. It goes DOWN, right? Into your legs if you're lucky. (So they say.)

THAT'S what Aristotle is talking about, I claim. His eudaemonia is well-being, not some abstract happiness. And well-being is some kind of soothed, warm, flowing body state. I want to say “subtle body state” but the Big Other won't let me.

This subtle body is an OBJECT in the OOO sense. It's not reducible to the endocrine system or the nervous system. (Another great reason to like OOO. It doesn't beat up on what billions of people take for granted. Ever had acupuncture?)

The problem is not mind–body dualism, so much as it is the total erasure of the subtle body. Only New Age fools believe in that, right?

If we're really going to go after Zizek, we have to reject his scapegoating of “Western Buddhism.”

1 comment:

Nick Guetti said...

I know very little about Buddhism. The closest I get is Ram Dass, who seems to me to be more of a Hindu-Jain mix. But I know about Poekoelan, which is the martial art I practice.

Well-being and flow-out (what you call "flow-down") and catharsis are SO freaking important to a person's ability to function, on ANY level! I can't rate it highly enough, so I'll break with habit and not even say much about it. But we use Bamboo as a symbol: Bamboo snaps as tight as iron, but that's because it bends and releases. It's ability to be tough is a function of its bendyness. We also use Water, about which you've already said everything necessary in this post.