Žižek points us to the dark side of Buddhism, again

Žižek points us to the dark side of Buddhism, again April 18, 2015
Screenshot from Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring
Screenshot from Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring

This week The Guardian published a selection of short essays titled, “I watch therefore I am: seven movies that teach us key philosophy lessons.” The newspaper deserves great praise for bringing together a wonderful variety of philosophers to draw our attention to the moral and epistemological issues in films. Greats like Julian Baggini, who I had the fortune of seeing with Owen Flanagan and Tim Lott last spring (video), Christine Korsgaard, an exemplary Kant scholar and philosopher in her own right (who I quoted at the start of a paper I gave in Oxford in 2012), and Peter Singer, among others.

And yet the most curious part of the series of essays come from Slovenian philosopher (and arch-nemesis of all things Buddhist, one might think) Slavoj Žižek. It’s called Is the quest for good a road to evil? and reads:

Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring begins with a wise Buddhist monk and a small, innocent boy, his pupil. A few years later, a young woman arrives to be healed, and chaos is unleashed: the woman and the boy – now an adolescent – copulate, and the boy follows her to the city, abandoning the monk’s lone dwelling on a raft that floats on a mountain lake. A few years later, the boy, now a man in his early 30s, returns, pursued by two detectives. He has killed the woman out of jealousy, thus realising the prophecy of the old monk, who had warned him that love for a woman leads to attachment, which ends in the murder of the object of attachment. The first thing to do here is to take the film’s cycle more literally than it takes itself: why does the young man kill his love when she abandons him for another man? Why is his love so possessive? An average man in secular life would have accepted it, however painful it would have been for him.

So: what if it is his very Buddhist-monk upbringing that made him do it? What if a woman only appears as an object of lust and possession, which ultimately provokes a man to kill her, from the Buddhist position of detachment? So that the whole natural cycle that the film deploys, murder included, is internal to the Buddhist universe?

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.

So horrible on so many levels.

Perhaps “the average” man in secular life would have accepted it, but we don’t often make movies, especially ones that hold lessons about life, about the average man. Nor can we say that the average man in secular life necessarily would have acted differently. Domestic violence is all to real in the secular world, as it is anywhere else.  Why is Žižek trying to drive a wedge between the secular man and the character in the movie with his Buddhist upbringing?

“Why is his love so possessive?” Žižek asks. And this is the point where, as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think Žižek has much of a clue about Buddhism. A message throughout Buddhism, and typified in this film, is that romantic love plays on the emotions of desire and resulting attachment. Love itself is not problematic, but love which objectifies and seeks to own the other for oneself, is an undeniable source of suffering. The movie could have had the young man simply return, brokenhearted, to the tiny temple on the lake. This itself would have portrayed the Buddhist teaching about the first noble truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.[1]

However, this would have lost the opportunity to connect us to an earlier scene in the movie, when the young man, then a boy, tied stones to several animals in the woods. When his teacher saw him, he tied a stone to the boy’s back to teach him a lesson about the suffering this burden had caused to those animals. The boy complains and the monk, holding a Buddha statue in one hand, sends him off to unburden the animals, saying that when he returns, he too will be freed, but if any one of those creatures has died, “you will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”


No spoilers, but what happens next, as the boy sets out to free the creatures and his reactions along the way closes out the first chapter (Spring) of the movie.

Žižek’s questions seem to show not only his ignorance about Buddhism, but about much of human history itself:

So: what if it is his very Buddhist-monk upbringing that made him do it? What if a woman only appears as an object of lust and possession, which ultimately provokes a man to kill her, from the Buddhist position of detachment? So that the whole natural cycle that the film deploys, murder included, is internal to the Buddhist universe?

Really? Because nowhere outside of Buddhist cultures have women ever been treated, legally or factually, as objects of lust and possession, right?

Come on, Žižek.

He next turns to Hegel, as if drawing from this exceptionally obscure 19th century philosopher will help his bizarre case. There is no doubt great value in Hegel’s philosophy, and even the notion to which Žižek refers: reflexivity. But Žižek’s analysis misses the point by trying to pin the evil action on the teachings about evil themselves. Again, this would seem to suggest that in the absence of such teachings, and the quest for non-attachment (not detachment), such evil actions simply would not and could not happen.

Žižek also seems oblivious to the fact that the teachings come from the elder monk, himself an exemplar of the Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion: caring for the boy, teaching him, and even knowingly letting him go when he –a young man by now– decides to chase after the young woman. The viewer is presented with this contrast: the boy (young man, and so on) who is ignorant, lustful, and angry, and the elder monk who has embodied the Buddhist teachings as a way of both engaging the viewer and making him/her reflect on his/her own place on the path between worldly obsessions and non-attached care and wisdom. And yet this simple cinematic device seems totally lost on Žižek.

If you haven’t seen the movie, do. It really is phenomenal, not just as a Buddhist-inspired fable, but also for it’s music, cinematography, and acting. Read some of the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, ignore (or contemplate) Žižek’s analysis, and let me know what you think of the movie and the message it carries.

1. SN 56.11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth, translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera


(Updated 4/20 with correct spelling/diacritics on the ‘z’s in Žižek)

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  • derse handrich

    The movie is a true meditation, a word that Zizec hasn’t a clue about.

  • TonyC

    People refuse to listen to Mark Twain’s advice: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

  • Diane Wenrich

    It sounds a great deal like the plot of Siddhartha.

  • Don’t fret, Justin, the dharma will still be preached long, long after people have woken up and marvelled at the fact that Zizek was ever taken seriously.

  • curveball7

    Over the years I’ve watched a number of Zizek’s statements on Buddhism. ALL of them have missed their mark. And not just on this topic, both other topics as well where isn’t really an expert, but he places himself in the role of critic. I think he shouldn’t do this as it makes people think he’s an idiot. The man isn’t dumb, but he has a really really really bad habit of strawmaning things that don’t add up, except for in his mind. Inadequate comprehension of an object or subject 9 times out of 10 years to inadequate critiques. Zizek, do yourself a favor and comment on things that you’ve adequately studied.

  • Marc

    From his other writings, it’s clear that Zizek’s underlying concern is that postmodern/New Age Buddhism is bringing a form of Stoic acceptance to the western world, resigning the will from exerting the sort of active, worldly thinking and action which characterized (past tense) modern western culture. He thinks the popularity of Buddhism in the west goes hand in hand with acceptance of circumstances we’d like to change but have lost the will and imagination to change. That’s an interesting and thought-provoking point of view. To simply defend Buddhism as wonderful because it’s exotic and Other is just mainstream Politically Correct unthinking claptrap.

  • Algernon_D

    Zizek is really reaching, to the point where his argument seems disingenuous.