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Slavoj Zizek is a little unusual I think among English-speaking philisophers, in expressing substantial sympathy for Buddhist ideas, but challenging them at a basic level. Eg

The Problems of Buddhism (https://youtu.be/UN1hP_lBtp0)

The Buddhist Ethic & The Spirit of Global Capitalism (https://youtu.be/qkTUQYxEUjs)

Zizek criticising Buddhism (https://youtu.be/IlCkLqz20W8)

Zizek vs Buddhism (https://www.youtube.com/live/9zqm7ZCP9t0)

To summarise, he focuses on Zen At War, and especially Suzuki, using an understanding of Sunyata to better be able to go to war. A key phrase he uses is Kurosawa's interpretation of Shakespeare: (only) "The bad sleep well". That is, inner peace at the expense of acting morally, can lead to a situation like in Japan where only a handful of Zen figures opposed imperialist violence, an unsettled mind is sometimes appropriate over non-stop inner peace come-what-may. He also criticises mindfulness practices used in workplaces to allow workers to tolerate intolerable conditions.

How should we answer this? Have people already in the Buddhist world responded? I feel like the answer relates to emptiness not being no selves at all, but rather intersubjectivity: to do violence to others is to do violence to our other self. Is that a mainstream response in Buddhism, and especially in Zen?

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    The linked videos are nearly 3 hours long. I suspect that people who answer may answer your summary of them, instead of watching the videos and addressing the originals. So, it probably does already, but be sure that your summary in the question includes whatever argument or view you wanted addressed!
    – ChrisW
    May 29, 2023 at 11:39
  • While it is true that some Zen figures in Japan supported imperialist violence during certain historical periods, it is crucial to note that many others actively opposed it. Zen Buddhist teachings often emphasize compassion, non-violence, and the interconnectedness of all beings, which can lead practitioners to reject violence and oppression. It looks like Slavoj Zizek had a focus skewed for an unconscious agenda, but I'm not learned in his stuff and don't feel like I would want to be.
    – user17652
    May 29, 2023 at 17:03
  • @Max: I don't think it is unconscious. The same style of Zen allegedly compatible with murdering people (rooted in 17th C work by Takuan en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unfettered_Mind), Zizek relates to CEOs claiming they are Buddhist while ruthlessly pursuing profit (he claims 80% of CEOs, as per transcript of Capitalism lecture linked above zizek.uk/the-buddhist-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-global-capitalism). He is saying the Buddhist community's unwillingness to speak against these, amounts to hypocrisy.
    – CriglCragl
    May 29, 2023 at 17:56
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    Thanks, but the subject reminds me of a gloryhole: it's made of severed drywall and there's trouble on the other side.
    – user17652
    May 29, 2023 at 18:24
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    It's also worth noting that the philosophy underpinning Ahimsa permeates pretty much all of Asian thought, and if you ask any two people they'll likely have a different opinion on the topics of violence, self defense, political activism etc. Ultimately, Buddhism is personal to the individual practicing it, so I don't think macro-generalizations about what 'Buddhists' think or do is ever going to be helpful. The same rings true for all other religions.
    – Cdn_Dev
    May 31, 2023 at 0:25

7 Answers 7

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I watched the first (15 minute) video, and I don't think the summary given here quite captures the nuances of Žižek's position. Nor do I think Žižek's position adequately captures Buddhist philosophy... There are lots of overtones of Ken Wilber's Pre/Trans fallacy here, on all sides. It's a bit of a pickle.

Žižek makes two (what I would consider 'rookie') mistakes. First, he uses the colloquial English meaning of the word 'suffering' — as misery, pain, and hardship — when that term is a fairly bad translation of the Pāli word 'dukkha', meaning something closer to discontentment or agitation. While there are undoubtably people who turn to Buddhism because they want to rid themselves of their own personal misery, that is a fairly low-level worldview. Second, he seem to conflate Buddhism with meditation, as though they are the same thing. Meditation is a practice meant to cultivate an inner state; asserting that buddhism is meditation is like asserting that baseball is just a bunch of guys tossing a ball around at training camp. Again, we can easily find buddhists who share this view, but it isn't high-level thinking.

The core principle in Buddhism — put somewhat loosely, for expedience — is that dukkha arises when people focus on the differences between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-one-imagines. We think we should have more of what we want and less of what we don't want, and this creates a sense of discontentment/agitation that spurs us to make changes. This becomes problematic when that discontentment become ego-identified: after ego-identification dukkha no longer merely a matter of addressing an issue, but becomes one of satisfying and defending a self-image. That can lead to frustration and resentment, to brutality and recklessness, to violence on every scale... And worse, that ego-identification is infectious. When one becomes ego-identified with dukkha others become ego-identified in competitive self-defense; when one builds an army, others build armies. That's karma in action.

The Buddhist problematic is how one lives properly in the karmic world without ego-identification in any direction. Or as the Zen Buddhists that Žižek cites at the end of this video suggest (though Žižek seems not to have grasped it), how to immerse oneself fully in the world-as-it-is without succumbing to the world-as-one-imagines. How do we confront an army raised on ego-identification without resorting to ego-identification ourselves?

As I said, it's a pickle.

Zen Buddhism is heavily influenced by daoism, and it is useful to look at the daodejing for insights into Zen thought. Žižek should look at chapters 30 and 31, where it spells out that wise men should find weapons hateful, and see no beauty, pride, or glory in them. One should only pick up a weapon at need, and only with the sober and solemn attitude that one is going to a funeral, because weapons only exist to create funerals. This isn't the passive, inactive, navel-gazing attitude Žižek presumes.

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    Ironically, Takuan who wrote the most influential work on Zen for Samurais, also had Japan's most famous pickle named after him! It really is, a bit of a pickle..!
    – CriglCragl
    May 29, 2023 at 18:05
  • nice post, i like the ego-centric dukkha idea...ppl taking advantage of dukkha, etc..
    – blue_ego
    May 29, 2023 at 18:07
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Zizek is not responding to Buddhism proper. His response is based on mis-readings of Buddhist concepts and terminologies. A philosopher of the stature of Zizek would produce some great arguments (for or against Buddhism-that doesnt matter) when and only when he reads and understands Buddhism, at least minimally and correctly. Till then, I do not find it possible to respond- for a lot of his criticism is not directed at Buddhism- it is directed at a mis-readings of Buddhism- something which the western philosophy circles often produce.

These are personal views on responding to Zizek. Please do not spread hate- Zizek is a philosopher worthy of the tile of philosopher.

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  • 'spread hate'.. Is that what you see in my post..? As I see it his point is about how Zen is taking root in the West, & whether the Buddhist community, 'proper Buddhists' to use your terms, is challenging that. Which is my question: How do we challenge the view that Buddhists can simply make peace with being violent or greedy? Please enact that, like if you were meeting a sniper who says they use Takuan's Zen, or an oil company executive who says their daily Zen mindfulness practice helps them focus on their job.
    – CriglCragl
    May 29, 2023 at 18:25
  • Dear @CriglCragl I have not written anywhere that I see hate in your post. I was responding to your question and was taking the opposite side of Zizek. After writing that those are my personal views I wrote "...do not spread hate..". It is clarifying my position that just because I disagree with Zizek for not understanding Buddhism should not be taken as a reason to hate him by anyone. May 31, 2023 at 12:17
  • @CriglCragl- I have also not anywhere used the term "proper Buddhists". I would be personally at a loss to explain what such a term would mean. The term perhaps you are thinking of is "buddhism proper". The very next sentence elucidates what I mean by that. May 31, 2023 at 12:19
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    Buddhism talks about 'right' concentration, 'right' mindfulness etc. It is to separate such cases of right from wrong. A killer concentrating or a victim of abuse just being mindful are not the practice of Buddhism. If Zizek does not understand right mindfulness from mindfulness, he is not responding to Buddhism in anyway. He is perhaps commenting about mindfulness as a product being sold in the world. May 31, 2023 at 12:32
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    I agree that Zizek's responses are useful in the sense that he is responding to the ethical flaws of quite a common and widely disseminated misinterpretation of Buddhism, not just to some confusion of his own devising. This, I think, gives them value. It is unfortunate that they are not clearly framed in that way, though.
    – Dan
    Jun 3, 2023 at 19:46
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I don't want to study his view (nor his Hegel etc.) so I'll just reply to your summary.


To summarise, he focuses on Zen At War

Firstly:

  • Without throwing Japanese Buddhism under the bus, it is a bit out there (i.e. atypical), both geographically and in other ways. It's the only form where priests can marry. I think it was influenced/altered by the State. But it's relatively famous in the United States.

  • Wthout throwing lay Buddhism under the bus, "Buddhism" in general e.g. as taught by the Buddha was more especially addressed to monks, including the Vinaya and so on.

  • Warfare, conquest, civil war, brigandry, serfdom, social inequality, economic exploitation, have existed in virtually every historical human society. The fact that warriors interpreted, adopted, adapted a religion to their own life is IMO no more an indictment of Buddhism than it is of Christianity, Islam, nor Atheism.

    It reminds me of God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule which was written in the aftermath of "9/11":

    Humans don’t need religion or God as an excuse to kill each other—you’ve been doing that without any help from Me since you were freaking apes!

Maybe I should say this, if you use the particular (he focuses on "Zen At War") to criticise the general (i.e. "Buddhism" writ large).

But it's a bit of a trivial argument -- it's an example of "No true Scotsman":

  • cw: Buddhism doesn't teach violence
  • sz: The Samurai were violent
  • cw: No "true" Buddhist etc.

I don't know whether he knows other aspects of Buddhism, nor why he "focuses on Zen At War".

That is, inner peace at the expense of acting morally

Is he setting himself up as judge? Is he saying, "Your behaviour is immoral, therefore you should have no peace, therefore anything which brings you peace is wrong"?

Because that doesn't sound like well-wishing, "I'm glad you found at least some peace."

And maybe too all-or-nothing, "If it didn't prevent all State violence then it's worse than useless."

Instead, who knows, maybe it was a net benefit morally. Many of the "101 Zen Stories" for example seem to me to be moral, meant to be exemplary.

an unsettled mind is sometimes appropriate over non-stop inner peace come-what-may

That sounds plausible -- but as Confucius once wrote, "For this reason I distrust plausible men."

At least two of the Zen stories look into the causes and consequences of anger:

The Gates of Paradise

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"

"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.

"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.

"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.

Another is this, which is also about "emptiness":

Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

I find it difficult to see such doctrine as worthless. I think it's inline with some of the classic Buddhist doctrine

  1. He who checks rising anger as a charioteer checks a rolling chariot, him I call a true charioteer. Others only hold the reins.

I feel like the answer relates to emptiness not being no selves at all, but rather intersubjectivity: to do violence to others is to do violence to our other self.

You're not wrong

  1. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

That's not what "emptiness" means to me, though.

I think that "emptiness" is an extension of the non-self doctrine, expanding that to not just "the self" but to "all things".

"Emptiness" means, I mean I use my little understanding of it to say to myself something like, "those stupid reasons you had for acting stupidly are 'empty' and not worth holding onto" -- i.e. that both "conceits" and "views" (e.g. as explained here) are more-or-less fabricated.

I don't think that's meant to be instead of morality, used as an excuse to say that no-one exists and that it's impossible to be harmful, because I think that's explicitly a "wrong view".

There is admittedly also the story called Great Waves -- a bit of an odd one, more about a lay-person than a monk -- which tells of a wrestler becoming more powerful or less "bashful", less inhibited. I don't see that as an example of violence or immorality however -- nor of morality especially -- just professionalism maybe.

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  • Hello King of the Mods. It is interesting how this question over 2000 views. May 30, 2023 at 23:53
  • Thanks for telling me. Yes it became a "hot network questions, appearing on the sidebar of other SE sites, probably because the question was upvoted to +5 and attracted s3everal answers.
    – ChrisW
    May 31, 2023 at 2:20
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We all should accept that there's an incongruence between Buddhist nondiscriminatory/nonjudgemental awareness and ethics. Any attempt at reconciliation between the two is mental gymnastics (like calling the Japanese soldiers not-true-Buddhists or saying that meditation is a process to cultivate a suitable mental state, and so on and so on).

It's my understanding that Siddhartha meant to say that all suffering arises from a dogmatic (logically imprecise) understanding of events (saying that "this is bad" without having a logical basis for it) because the human mind is inclined towards order (one way to arrive at order is through being logically precise). Still, at the same time, he understood the perils of nondogmatic, logically clear, nonjudgemental awareness in the events involving interacting with other people. Because you can't logically prove why everyone should act nicely, you can murder someone and justify yourself by saying, "I was just a nonjudgmental observer of thing-event."

The best you can do is make "being nice" a dogma.

So the solution he proposed (and I'm taking the liberty of putting words in his mouth) is to take the middle path and be nondogmatic by observing things without judgment, except (and this is the dogma) when you find yourself hurting other people. And this is the noble Eightfold path.

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Mr. Zizek has many arguments.

The Buddha once scolded some argumentative folk:

MN128:6.1: “When many voices shout at once,
MN128:6.2: no-one thinks that they’re a fool!
MN128:6.3: While the Saṅgha’s being split,
MN128:6.4: none thought another to be better.
MN128:6.5: Dolts pretending to be astute,
MN128:6.6: they talk, their words right out of bounds.
MN128:6.7: They blab at will, their mouths agape,
MN128:6.8: and no-one knows what leads them on.
MN128:6.9: “They abused me, they hit me!
MN128:6.10: They beat me, they robbed me!”
MN128:6.11: For those who bear such a grudge,
MN128:6.12: hatred never ends.
MN128:6.13: “They abused me, they hit me!
MN128:6.14: They beat me, they robbed me!”
MN128:6.15: For those who bear no such grudge,
MN128:6.16: hatred has an end.
MN128:6.17: For never is hatred
MN128:6.18: settled by hate,
MN128:6.19: it’s only settled by love:
MN128:6.20: this is an eternal truth.
MN128:6.21: Others don’t understand
MN128:6.22: that here we need to be restrained.
MN128:6.23: But those who do understand this,
MN128:6.24: being clever, settle their conflicts.
MN128:6.25: Breakers of bones and takers of life,
MN128:6.26: thieves of cattle, horses, wealth,
MN128:6.27: those who plunder the nation:
MN128:6.28: even they can come together,
MN128:6.29: so why on earth can’t you?

He then continued with a simple direction:

MN128:6.30: If you find an alert companion,
MN128:6.31: a wise and virtuous friend,
MN128:6.32: then, overcoming all adversities,
MN128:6.33: wander with them, joyful and mindful.
MN128:6.34: If you find no alert companion,
MN128:6.35: no wise and virtuous friend,
MN128:6.36: then, like a king who flees his conquered realm,
MN128:6.37: wander alone like a tusker in the wilds.
MN128:6.38: It’s better to wander alone,
MN128:6.39: there’s no fellowship with fools.
MN128:6.40: Wander alone and do no wrong,
MN128:6.41: at ease like a tusker in the wilds.”

And having said what he had to say, the Buddha then left the arguments to the arguers...

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  • Your extensive references are impressive. But, I don't think you get at the issue. Japan has a 'warrior monk' tradition en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_violence#Japan & it has become influential in Western Buddhism, pitched as not really making moral demands, only finding peace with whatever you think you have to do
    – CriglCragl
    May 29, 2023 at 18:14
  • @CriglCragl, yes Japan does have a warrior tradition. My Zen teacher was Tanouye Roshi.
    – OyaMist
    Jun 4, 2023 at 23:54
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He focuses on Zen At War, and especially Suzuki, using an understanding of Sunyata to better be able to go to war.

The Buddha said in many places (e.g Dhp XIII) most people are unenlightened & only a relative few people will attain enlightenment. Those Japanese soldiers who were taught Sunyata obviously did not have any realisation of Sunyata. If there is the realisation of Sunyata, two results occur:

  1. The realisation the world is empty of self (SN 33.85) & the destruction of conceit (AN 6.49).
  2. The destruction of any motive & capability to kill (AN 9.7) because intentional killing can only occur due to self-view.

That is, inner peace at the expense of acting morally, can lead to a situation like in Japan where only a handful of Zen figures opposed imperialist violence

The above is again wrong in assuming D. T. Suzuki was enlightened. Again, there are only a relative few enlightened beings. The handful of Zen figures who opposed imperialist violence would have probably represented the extent of people who had some type of genuine realisation. Or otherwise they simply understood basic Buddhist moral principles of non-greed, non-theft, non-violence, non-killing, etc.

As for the other Zen priests, they were probably engaged in political correctness. The matter of political correctness is unrelated to inner peace. Political correctness is a cowardly narcissism where priests & monks think they are protecting the religion. In recent years, we have witnessed first hand Theravada monks & nuns openly supporting actual violent imperialist war-monger USA Presidential Candidates and even publicly lamenting Presidential threats to women's reproductive rights, aka 'abortion'. These monks & nuns probably behave this way to maintain their woke benefactor support base. This cowardly narcissism is unrelated to the Buddha's instruction, where the Buddha taught monks & nuns to be Heirs To Dhamma (MN 3) and not heirs to material things.

He also criticises mindfulness practices used in workplaces to allow workers to tolerate intolerable conditions.

The word 'mindfulness' is simply a generic word meaning 'memory' or 'keeping in mind'. Buddhism teaches Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness means to maintain in the mind the ethical principles of Buddhism (refer to MN 117); to remember to do what is 'right' and avoiding doing what is 'wrong'. As falsely taught by American individuals such as Joseph Goldstein & Jeffrey Block (aka 'Bhikkhu Bodhi'), right mindfulness certainly does not mean 'non-judgmental awareness'; the type of amoral mindfulness used in corporate workplaces. Right Mindfulness means to have judgmental awareness/assessment, as taught in the metaphor of the Gatekeeper (SN 35.245) . Thus Buddhism also says non-Buddhists can have wrong mindfulness. Again, in the workplace, the non-Buddhist secular corporate mindfulness also means to be politically correct; to not rock the boat. It is unrelated to Buddhism. Just because war-mongers, corporate gurus & woke globalist white supremacist monks & nuns hijack Buddhist words for their personal nefarious purposes does not mean it is related to real Buddhism. Slavoj Zizek can join Buddhism StackExchange and become my student. I can instruct Slavoj Zizek on the right view about Buddhism.

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My statement is derived from a paper titled "Response to John Cobb".

I'll give Zizek credit, he has a skewed interpretation of śūnyatā. He perhaps is showing early symptoms of what Zen calls "sunyata disease", or zen sickness. I'm sick too, we should negate our faults.

And just to say, we procrastinate the first turning of the dhamma wheel, obsess the second turning of the wheel (sunyata as void, an abyss, a nothingness), and exaggerate the power of the third turning.

The second and third turning are our mind games. not living the first turning, our insight is both demonstrative and corrupted.

From the article:

Western scholars of Mahayana Buddhism represent an essentially academic and intellectual tradition.It is not surprising that they identified and studied that dimension of Mahayana Buddhism, namely Madhyamika philosophy and its doctrine of sunyata, that is most scholarly and the most easily susceptible to academic methods, particularly as they existed in the earlier part of this century.Not having paid much attention to the specifically 'religious context' of the Madhyamika school, these scholars tended themselves to view Madhymika as an independent Buddhist enterprise, separable from its religious context. Correspondingly, they tended to view sunyata as a notion that could be separated from its religious context.And, more or less enamoured of the Buddhist viewpoint, they naturally wanted to present Buddhism in the best light to Western audiences, and this further encouraged the depiction of sunyata as a concept that can be understood apart from specifically religious concerns and activities

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