Saturday, May 04, 2013

Another Example of Denatured Naturalized Buddhism

I suppose a person could fill up all their time trying to chase around all the philosophers and spiritual speculators who are working on the project of "naturalizing" the Buddha Dharma into Western frames of reference.  This project of Buddhist Naturalization is basically a project engaged by people who know Buddha Dharma only from Buddhist books read from within the framework of Western philosophy. I put Jay Garfield and Owen Flanagan in this category, along with Stephen Batchelor who appears to be a failed practitioner who is overcompensating his personal failure by joining the Naturalization movement in an attempt to denature the Buddha Dharma and turn it into a Western form of philosophy. 

Western philosopher and darling of the liberal Marxist community, Slavoj Žižek is among the Buddhist "Naturalizers" and not so long ago gave a talk at the University of Vermont on “Buddhism Naturalized.”   Adrian J. Ivakhiv has blogged his response at Zizek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?   Ivakhiv's critique of Žižek is well intentioned but lacks determination and seems more supportive than clarifying about the fundamental problems with Žižek specifically and the naturalization movement generally.  Though Ivakhiv's blog "Immanance" is focused on a non-dualist understanding, he seems to have lost focus on the non-dual in his response to Žižek, and Ivakhiv seems to me more than a little bit enchanted with the "Naturalization" project.

First, Ivakhiv is mistaken to say “Buddhism and Žižek’s Lacanianism are, in crucial respects, philosophical kindred spirits.”  It is just not so.  From the outset, Žižek’s critique of Buddhism can be dismissed because it is based on Lacan’s Freudianism.  Ivakhiv erroneously states that both Buddhism and Žižek “posit an emptiness or gap at the center of us humans” but Buddhism posits no such thing.  The “emptiness” that is a gap at the center of something else, like the hole in a donut or the empty bowl of the tea cup, is not in any way, shape, or form the emptiness that Buddhism speaks of. Or to put it another way, the Lankavatara Sutra defines seven kinds of emptiness and the emptiness that is a “gap at the center” of something is the most mundane definition of emptiness that is equated with ignorance, not with the Buddha Dharma.  

Ivakhiv says, “But if reality — not just human but all reality — is the ongoing production of subjectless subjectivity, or what, in process-relational terms I have called subjectivation-objectivation, then subjectless subjectivity is always already active, not merely passive.” But it is not necessary to use such cumbersome terms as “subjectless subjectivity” or “subjectivation-objectivation,” when we say as Buddhists that reality is the activity of Dharma or the activity of Mind or the activity of Buddha-Nature or the activity of emptiness (sunyata) and mean the same thing. Whether that “Other” or that “It” is called Dharma, Mind, Emptiness, Buddha-Nature, Tahtagata, True Suchness, or any of the hundreds of other more colorful terms including such creative attempts as “subjectivation-objectivation,” it is the activity of that which is already active before we have a thought about it.

Therefore, Ivakhiv is right on target to “acknowledge that the world is always already in (affective-semiotic) motion, and that we, moving beings, are affected on a preconscious level by the in-motionness that is always at work around us.”  There is a Zen koan on this very point.   It is Case 75 from the collection called “The Record of the Temple of Equanimity” (A.K.A. “The Book of Seerenity”).
75. Ruiyan’s Constant Principle 瑞巖常理
Ruiyan asked Yantou, “So what is the root’s constant principle?”
Tou said, “Activity!”
Yan said, “At the time of activity what’s it like?”
Tou said, “One does not see the root’s constant principle.”
Yan stood still thinking.
Tou said, “If you agree, then you have not yet escaped the sense organs and dusts. If you don’t agree, you immediately sink into endless birth and death.”

This problem of a perceived necessity to either agree or disagree is the trap of logical thinking from which philosophers and Freudians like Lacan and Žižek are unable to extricate themselves.

This inability to extricate oneself from the polarized force-field of logically determined philosophical thinking leads Žižek to posit an “irreducible gap between ethics (understood as the care of the self, as striving towards authentic being) and morality (understood as the care for others, responding to their call).”  From the view of the Buddha Dharma, the polarization of opposites into irreducible gaps is the hall mark of delusion.  If there is an “irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility)” then it is one that the logical philosopher has created, not one imposed by the authenticity that transcends the subjective-objective polarity.  

Žižek also asserts that “the authenticity of the Self is taken to the extreme in Buddhist meditation, whose goal is precisely to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana.”  Incredulously, Ivakhiv agrees, “yes, this is part of Buddhism.”  Actually this is not a part of Buddha Dharma. The goal of Buddhist meditation is not “to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana.”  There are so many things wrong with that one line characterization of the goal of meditation, not least of which is that it posits a “subject” overcoming a “Self.” Then there is the pitifully inane description of nirvana as a vacuum. Sadly, Ivakhiv lets this slide with a tepid agreement.

Fortunately, Ivakhiv rebounds off the ropes when he states, “Žižek’s critique sounds to me not so much as a critique of Buddhism’s philosophical core, which I think he hasn’t adequately grasped.” Though, there is no need for Ivakhiv to be so tentative about it.  Žižek plainly doesn’t grasp or realize the core of the Buddha Dharma, and he can only perceive those aspects of Buddha Dharma that he can see through his polarized eyeglasses of philosophical Marxist Freudianism. Thus, Žižek sees only a perverted and twisted view of the Buddha Dharma that is his own attempt at naturalization which he has created.

However, Ivakhiv falls back onto the mat with a knock out punch to himself when he then asserts that there is virtue to Žižek’s critique of Buddhism.  Ivakhiv says, “Subjectivity is only possible because of our condition of separation, the very gap that underlies our suffering,” but is that so?  I don’t think so.  Subjectivity is not “because of” the delusion of separation: subjectivity is the condition of the delusion of separation.  Subjectivity is exactly the delusion of a “gap.”   Apparently because Ivakhiv can’t see this identity of separation, subjectivity, and gap, he posits a false dichotomy between “eliminating that gap” and “recognizing that the gap is one we share will all manner of other gapped, broken, suffering (because groundless yet ground-seeking) others.” Thus Ivakhiv and Žižek seem to share the notion that subjectivity is irreducible and that we are forever bound to stay within our delusion of subjectivity and the only distinction is whether we acknowledge that we share it with everyone else or not.

This error toward subjectivity leads Ivakhiv to say, “A Buddhist who works only to eradicate suffering in him or herself is, I agree, a Buddhist that does little for a world full of suffering. (But is such a person really practicing Buddhism?)”  The answer to the latter question is, yes, such a person is a Buddhist of the Two Vehicles, yet still is very much a Buddhist. But the premise is mistaken.  A Buddhist who works only to eradicate suffering in him or herself IS INDEED a Buddhist who does a great deal for a world full of suffering.  Only a person who believes in the literalization or reification of “the gap” would imagine that such a person were not contributing toward eradicating a world full of suffering.  If Ivakhiv can’t see this, then he has not seen the full vision of Buddha-Knowing (buddhajnana), the realization of which is the purpose of Buddhas coming to manifestation in the Buddha worlds.  


vajramrita said...

Link to quick response:

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

The comment by vajramitra is difficult to interpret. The twitter tweet links to Dwight Goddard epitomized translation of the Lankavatara Sutra and says "we can see author is wrong - 'gap at centre' emptiness NOT most mundane." Unfortunately vajramitra does not offer an alternative to which of the seven kinds of emptiness is correctly characterized as the most mundane. BTW, this is one reason I don't do tweets because there is no room to make a real statement, only room for such usually inchoate phrases.

I presume that the label "the author" means me, and it is a refutation of my statement: "Or to put it another way, the Lankavatara Sutra defines seven kinds of emptiness and the emptiness that is a “gap at the center” of something is the most mundane definition of emptiness that is equated with ignorance, not with the Buddha Dharma."

I stand by my comment that the "gap at the center" is the kind of emptiness that refers to something "missing" where something should be, like the hole at the center of a donut. This is the emptiness that the Goddard translation at the linked page refers to as "By the emptiness of mutuality which is non-existence is meant that when a thing is missing here, one speaks of its being empty here." Then the Buddha says about this kind of emptiness, "This is the lowest form of emptiness and is to be sedulously put away."

So whatever the tweet by vajramitra intended, it is clearly wrong because the missing gap kind of emptiness is definitely "the lowest form of emptiness" using the Goddard translation.

By my translation of the Lankavatara, the seven kinds of emptiness are "(1) The emptiness of characteristics (lakshana), (2) the emptiness of the own-nature of nature (bhavasvabhava), (3) the emptiness of doing (pracarita), (4) the emptiness of non-doing (apracarita), (5) the emptiness of all things being free from verbal articulation (nirabhilapya), (6) the great emptiness (mahasunyata) of the noble innate-knowledge (aryajnana) of the primary meaning (paramartha), and (7) the emptiness of one and another (itaretara) which is the seventh." Goddard has rearranged the order of the seven by placing the seventh as the first, because in the original order, the first six are in an order of increasing profundity and then the most shallow and conventional meaning of emptiness is listed the seventh.

It is this seventh (or first in Goddard) kind of emptiness that is the conventional emptiness of when we say something is missing as in a gap at the center of something. The importance of this in the context of the Zizek and Ivakhiv discussion is that modern philosophers approach the most profound meaning of emptiness as used in Buddha Dharma as if the Buddha Dharma is speaking about the most mundane and conventional form of emptiness. This failure to perceive what the Buddha Dharma is talking about leads to all the misunderstandings about Buddhism and the false accusations that emptiness means "nothing" in the conventional sense.

Jayarava Attwood said...

Thanks. I enjoyed your demolition of Žižek. He seems to have the knack of grabbing attention without really having much of interest to say.