Zizek waxes on about Zionism, Sex, Gangnam Style, Justin Bieber, the Pope, and Buddhism

Slavoj Zizek

Žižek, what can I say?

He’s at it again.

Last month Žižek was in Vermont, not far from where the Dalai Lama himself was giving a talk on his latest US tour. His topic: “Buddhism Naturalized” (video below). At least that was the title of the talk. In fact he only talks about Buddhism for about a quarter of the talk. The rest, while interesting, is a bit all over the place.

And while he twice notes his appreciation for Buddhism, especially Zen, which he calls the most honest form of Buddhism, I would caution anyone from taking him as an expert – or even genuinely knowledgeable - on the topic. He cites some authors here and there and says “I’ve had debates with Buddhists, and they have admitted… so I’m not bullshitting here” (58:20). He doesn’t ever say what exactly Buddhists have admitted, instead going into “refuting” the Buddhist theory (or giving his problem with it) that all beings want to avoid suffering.

Some people seem to want to suffer. Ergo Buddhism is wrong?

He then describes Mahayana Buddhism as “to put it very naively… for me the source of evil.” (this is before he credits Zen for its honesty)

Why is Mahayana evil? Because it introduces the notion of the Bodhisattva, one who has attained awakening, but “he decides… out of sympathy… to return to our valley of the earth. He postpones his final salvation, so that… he returns here to help others find salvation.” (jump to 1:00:00 for this)

He says this deviates from the prior “radical” Buddhist message of awakened beings being in the world and introduces the idea of nirvana as meaning that “you go somewhere else, out.”

— We can pause here and just suggest that Zizek seems to be relying on very poor understandings of Buddhism, either derived from 19th century Christian missionaries or interpreters (academics have avoided talk of ‘salvation’ in Buddhism for some time now), or cherry-picked from recent works. His discussion of Zen, drawing here and there from Brian Victoria’s Zen at War (not mentioned in this talk but he discusses it elsewhere), suggest the latter.

There are plenty of points at which one could thoughtfully criticize Buddhist thought and Buddhists, but this supposed metaphysical mistake isn’t a very good one.

Žižek also criticizes Buddhism (at 1:03:50) for trying to argue for the necessity of elementary ethical training (anyone familiar with the 3 or 8-fold path will probably think of these here). He claims that this is “up to a point, true” and goes on to discuss Buddhism in the West as primarily about meditation and Buddhism in Asia as more about ethics. This point is true and has been observed by scholars and practitioners for a few decades now. But he says that many people (who?) are questioning the necessary link between ethics and awakening – and he says he agrees. This is where he cites his admiration for Zen’s honesty. He quotes (or paraphrases) D.T. Suzuki (a person that academics are cautioned to be very wary of for his mixture of Western philosophy with Zen in his efforts to popularize Zen in the West) as saying that Zen is “just a technique” and nothing more. One can do Zen and be a fascist, totalitarian, capitalist, etc.

This may have served Suzuki well in his efforts in the 20th century, but it doesn’t do service to the centuries of actual practice of Zen in Japan. Absolutely, there is antinomianism in Zen (and Hua-Yen) thought. You can listen to a wonderful discussion of this by Buddhist scholar Jin Park here. But it is also true that Zen Buddhists have been interested in the necessity of certain types of behavior to help bring about awakening.  Steven Heine has a really wonderful essay in the collection of works in honor of Charles Prebish: Buddhist Studies from India to America, called “Dōgen and the precepts, revisited” where he discusses the importance, and indeed the necessity, of proper reception of precepts in early Zen history. The fact that is most telling in the essay is the discussion of the Daruna or Bodhidharma School of Zen, which openly flaunted its antinomianism and disregard for ethics. That school did gather some following, perhaps with the help of a charismatic teacher, but it died out, nearly without a trace, in the 15th century.

In any case, as with so many things, the reality is much more complicated than Žižek would like to let on. And his use of Suzuki as the exemplar of Buddhism, let alone Zen, is deeply flawed.

I could go on. But I’ll just say that if you find him entertaining, okay. If you like his social criticism or his taste in movies, great. But please, please, please, do not listen to him as an authority on anything Buddhist (unless that is the tiny 1-2% of Buddhists, especially in the West, who might actually believe in and behave as Žižek describes). He zeroes in on anomalies and then presents them as the norm.

Finally, one other thing that caught my ear was around 1:23:20, where he says that the FBI blasted recordings of Tibetan horns (you know, those long ones with the deep monotone) at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in the 1990s, as if it were the key to terrorizing people and represented the “dark side” of Buddhist spiritual power. This is patently false. Although the horns may have been included in the various sounds blasted at the compound, they were not mentioned at the wiki article about it, which states:

Increasingly aggressive techniques were used to try to force the Davidians out (for instance, sleep deprivation of the inhabitants by means of all-night broadcasts of recordings of jet planes, pop music, chanting and the screams of rabbits being slaughtered).

And if you go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTg7Y9YJXR4 - you can watch a 2-hour documentary on the siege, where it is mentioned that in fact Nancy Sinatra songs (go to 1:14:40) were blasted at the Davidians, along with some of the other sounds mentioned in the wiki article. So here Žižek is pulling a ‘fact’ out of thin air – one which is either false or in need of great clarification – and making a point based on it.

The fact that Žižek discusses about 200 different topics in his 90 or so minutes makes it difficult to try to refute or clarify all of them. For instance I’m happy to let him get away with his psychoanalysis of the Torah, but I’m not sure a Jewish or Biblical scholar would be so charitable there. As for Sex, Gangnam Style, Justin Bieber, and the Pope, well, you be the judge.

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  • Jan

    The bastardization of Buddhist teachings for the convenience of Western nonethics is incredibly problematic. The BS from this guy unfortunately doesn’t surprise me.

  • d.sullivan

    I am terribly disappointed to see him touting Suzuki as the end all scholar of Buddhism. Suzuki was in the minority in so many ways, especially with his ridiculous assertion that enlightenment makes killing easier. How unfortunate that Zizek chose to focus so much time on Suzuki. I have never trusted mainstream intellectual figureheads to provide fair critiques of Buddhism, especially after Maher’s absolutely ridiculous rant on the subject, but Zizek’s seemingly substantive critique fell short of my already low bar. Sigh.

  • Margaret

    A few months ago, while visiting my sister, we listened to a CBC Radio broadcast interview with Zizek. At the end of it, I said how interesting it was to actually hear the man in person, after reading various articles about/by him. ‘Was that a real person?’ my sister asked in astonishment. ‘I thought it was a spoof.’

  • http://algerblog.blogspot.com Algernon

    Ho hum. Zizek is entertaining to listen to and read, but his perspective on Buddhism is tedious, as he just keeps on arguing with straw men and I agree with a commenter above, he’s doing this to advance a sort of non-ethical theory that is half-baked (as critical theories built on straw men arguments tend to be). When he goes off like this, he’s just being a clown.

  • Justin Whitaker

    …. Hoping for some ‘friends of Zizek’ to drop by. I think there are elements of his critique of western culture (here, but probably moreso elsewhere) that are instructive and helpful, but I did feel that so much of this talk was beyond his actual sphere of understanding that it really didn’t do him much good. I’m hopeful that someone can drop by and clarify Zizek’s good points…

  • Hsiao-Lan

    It never fails — anyone who presents himself to have known everything and be qualified to comment on everything soon makes a fool out of himself.

  • http://www.get-tantric-massage.com/ visit site

    A strange call when it comes to make a parallel between the true oridnary life and Zen. What does it take to get “there”. I know that is not a road open for everybody, and not something posible to be done over night. Is it something just for people who are prepared or have something above the normal understanding!? I think so, somethimes, since is very strange not to think that, when you see for how many they meditate and keep the balance..

  • arthur1526

    Since this world is transitory, and life is short, and one’s essential duties are many, and eternal life is gained here; and since this guest-house of the world is not without an owner, indeed, has a most wise and generous director, and neither good nor bad will remain without recompense; and since according to the verse,
    On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear
    there is no obligation that is insupportable, and a safe way is preferable to a harmful one, and since friends and ranks last only till the door of the grave; then surely the most fortunate person is he who does not forget the hereafter for this world, nor sacrifice the hereafter for this world, nor destroy the life of the hereafter for worldly life, nor waste his life on trivial things, but considers himself to be a guest and acts in accordance with the commands of the guest-house’s Owner, then opens the door of the grave in confidence and enters upon eternal happiness.

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.

  • http://www.nature.com Agnikan



  • Engin Kurtay

    Justin Whitaker’s critics is based on “interchangeable” particular empirical examples given by Prof Zizek about Buddhism. However one can always argue (like Whitaker) either that such examples do not correspond to facts, or showing another example that contradicts with the previous example. But Zizek’s subject matter here is not Buddhism, neither Gangnam Style, nor Zionism etc.. Zizek speaks of SPIRITUALISM in general, about Gangnam Style, Zizek speaks of the CYNICAL CHARACTER of contemporary ideologies in general… Whitaker’s critics that Buddhism was much deeper, complicated that Zizek’s understanding is totally nonsense, which is a typically multiculturalist anthropologist reaction showing lack of theoretical thinking. A “spiritual” doctrine is always “much deeper” than can be expressed, examplified, that is, there is never a bottom in this deepness and it is exactly for this reason that it is an abyss which can get twisted into the most horrible forms of savagery. The same formula goes also for islamism: one can always show democratic, humanitarian examples within the multitude of islamist sects and practices, argueing that what you know about islam was false. But remember the first performance of the Military Junta after the Coup d’Etat of Sept 12, 1980: it was to legalize the compulsory religious courses in the first and secondary schools in Turkey… and their argument for this, was exactly similar to that of Whitaker’s: “We want our children to learn their religion in a correct way”!

    • Justin Whitaker

      Dear Engin,

      Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful response. I don’t understand all of it, but I think that’s part of your point about my lack of theoretical thinking. I think Zizek has thoughtful things to say about social criticism and contemporary cynicism. And perhaps this was just not a good day for him, but his talk plainly skirted around these topics and rambled (it seemed to me) about several aspects of Buddhism that Zizek has a poor theoretical grounding in. It’s not that I expect him, or anyone, to fully comprehend the deepest depths of Buddhist philosophy; but instead to have the humility to say that he only understands some small fragment, and leave it at that. I’ve read some Marx and Critical Theory, debated with Marxists, etc, but I wouldn’t dream of giving a 90 minute talk on Marxist ideology. It’s just bad form, in my humble opinion. Theory cannot operate sanely without data, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Engin Kurtay

    Dear Justin

    After his conference in Istanbul he was criticised by radical leftists almost by the same way: in this conference he also gave many empirical (mostly from history) examples about Ottoman, Austrian-Hungarian, Chinese Empires; about the horrors of Christianity, Judaism in The Balkans; about the horrors of ethnic nationalism etc., and people here vigorously attacked him accusing him again in being ignorant and even in being a conformist, liberal, fake-communist, deconstructivist, traitor etc…, saying that he was a disguised pro-islamist, neo-ottoman, secret agent, giving support to American imperialism etc.. These accusations and discussions on him processed even on censored and/or fraudulently altered interviews, newspaper articles by very influential journalists. Therefore I am too sensitive and over-reacted when saying “lack of theoretical thinking”. Excuse me for this rude expression. On the other hand, the problem on how to derive “information” from “data” and how to derive “knowledge” from “information” is a long story in the philosophy of science. What makes Zizek special here is that, not only the data (what is seen and said) defines the fact but also the LACK of data (what is not said) also defines -in a particular way- the fact. That perfect Lacanian-Althusserian-Marxist theoretical syntesis makes Professor the biggest philosopher of the century.
    My kindest regards with my excuses.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Dear Engin,

      Wow – it’s amazing what length some people will go to to discredit a philosopher. This was in part why I made sure to include the video and times for the quotes I used so that everyone could make sure I wasn’t being unfair. In my studies of Critical Theory I ended up ‘siding with’ Habermas for the most part (though I think Zizek’s quick criticism of Habermas in this video is correct, that the 20th century wasn’t really as awful as so many anti-modernist theorist thought it was in comparison to earlier, even more barbaric, centuries).

      In any case, I think our ability to communicate, right down to these blog comments, from positions of disagreement (or worse at times) and to form at least a mutual understanding of one another is essential to the future of humanity.

      With that, I must say that I’m probably still quite far away from understanding this last piece of your comment. If you mean that Zizek’s talk was not so much about “Buddhism Naturalized” as it was about “A Lacanian-Althusserian-Marxist understanding of Buddhism… Naturalized” then perhaps we are in agreement. He is not talking about “Buddhism” or “Zen” or “Japan” or anything like this, but rather he is talking about contemporary Lacanian-Althusserian-Marxist discourse on these things, which is a much smaller, more focused area of discussion. And because I, a modernist philosopher/student of Buddhism, fall outside the Lacanian-Althusserian-Marxist discourse, I have naturally misunderstood much of the point of the talk.

      I don’t mean to sound flippant, that’s my best shot for now…

  • Alan Sharples

    Zizek knows very little about Buddhism, he admits it, but he is interested in its popularity in the West. He is being deliberately provocative and controversial, as he often is in his talks. There are anomalies in Buddhism in the West the whole question of “right livelihood” for example, is ignored. I know a devout Tibetan Buddhist who works in a company that makes cluster bombs etc., and another who is a racist. Buddhists in the East are soldiers and kill people. This does not prove Buddhism is wrong, anymore than wars in the West proves Christianity is wrong, Zizek is just interested in how beliefs manifest themselves. I would tell anyone to read one of his books and just see if he is a only a clown.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Dear Alan,

      Thank you also for your thoughtful reply. Based on your examples, it seems that the beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity manifest themselves in remarkably similar ways – at least sometimes. And some aspects of the path are ignored, or just set aside at times for one reason or another, in both the East and West. To really understand how ideas manifest requires a fairly rigorous understanding of those beliefs to begin with, along with a ‘big picture’ discussion of their manifestation rather than secondary or tertiary sources (that may be in fact quite misleading – as with Suzuki) and some anecdotes.

      It turns out that Ethan Nichtern, another Buddhist, made a similar case a few years ago: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ethan-nichtern/radical-buddhism_b_671972.html

      He writes, “Although his critique of Buddhism is somewhat uninformed, Zizek does offer, in his own way, a good insight into the danger of misunderstanding Buddhist practice and the techniques of mindfulness altogether.” – As I wrote above, 1-2% of Buddhists do seem to exist in complete misunderstandings of the practices and ideas. And this is interesting in its own right, but what I think Zizek does, wrongly, is to suggest that this tiny minority IS Western Buddhism.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Okay, I’m reading “The Puppet and the Dwarf” – just to see for myself a bit of how good a writer Zizek is; and (22 pages in), my response would still be much the same as above. Committed Lananian-Marxists may like this work (and most things Zizek does/writes), but I highly doubt that Christian scholars anywhere are going to think, “oh, wow, this guy’s new understanding of Judas, etc really makes sense.” That is, I suspect, because it just doesn’t. Outside the Lananian-Marxist framework, all of this just sounds too unsupported, too circumstantial, too tangential, etc. Here, on pgs 22-23, Zizek makes a similar wild set of claims about the role of the Bodhisattva and the ontology or metaphysics of nirvana.

    Seeing that he hasn’t really understood these things to begin with, we can say, okay, he’s not criticizing Buddhism, because that is something else. Then what is he criticizing ? If it’s the misunderstanding(s) of Buddhism in the West, fine (a great topic for criticism), but he would need to be more focused, and, I must think, more educated in Buddhism.

    “[Victoria] no longer claims, for example, that Suzuki was an active supporter of Japan’s 1930s aggression in China and its WWII militarism, but instead recognizes that Suzuki was “one of a kind” in refusing to engage in the promotion of emperor worship or support for the “holy war” against the West.”
    http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/CriticalZen/Question_of_Scholarship.pdf (this is a great read for clarifying Suzuki’s place in WWII).

  • http://www.iabu.org Dr. Dion Peoples

    Short & Sharp: The more we know about Buddhism and use our critical thinking skills, we may spend less time arguing with Zizek and more time focusing on the real issues behind the surface that he is addressing. I may have to do a new paper on Zizek. I posted my recent one on the ‘academia’ site, but I can do a better one now…. now with the information maturing in my mind. Remember Zizek is a psychoanalyst, so he is trying to get people to think of new things. Quite successful.

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  • http://creative.arte.tv/fr/space/Mutatis_Mutandis/messages/ Mac Cabe

    Mis bout à bout le nombre de vue du clip de Gangnam Style représente à ce jour l’équivalent de plus de 9 000 années de visionnage.
    La vidéo la plus partagée sur internet participe à la mémoire collective du monde, que pouvons-nous, au-delà des apparences, comprendre de l’humain dans ces images ?

    Gangnam de Turin à voir sur arte creative
    Rencontre entre Psy et Nietzsche

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  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    Zizek is so confused about Buddhism that it is pathetic to hear him discuss it. He can’t keep straight from one paragraph to another. He mischaracterizes the Noble Truths, Bodhisattvas, Nirvana, etc. He says “Mahayana is evil” then in a few sentences later says Zen is the best form of Buddhism as if he is clueless that Zen is Mahayana. There is very little that Zizek has to say about Buddhism that is worthwhile because there is so much BS mixed into what he says. Zizek’s Freudian Marxist materialism paints him into a corner from which he can’t extricate himself from polarized reification of subject and object.

  • Zen Buddhism

    This guy is quoting DT Suzuki? How about Robert Aitken or John Daido Loori?
    Better yet, do some serious zen training under a good teacher for a few years and then report back. Ethics and realization are one and the same. If Zen is honest it’s because the tradition stresses direct, personal experience of the dharmakaya, which is never anywhere but right here.