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Is Western Buddhism the perfect ideological supplement to capitalism?!

On Sat, 13 June, 2015 - 10:30
mokshini's picture

…at least this is what Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic who writes an occasional column for the Guardian newspaper in England, has suggested. Vaddhaka quotes him in his book ‘The Buddha On Wall Street’*:

“According to Zizek, what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism. He believes that the emphasis in ‘Western Buddhism’ on meditation encourages Buddhists to create an inner distance from the ‘mad dance’ of modern capitalism, to give up any attempt to control what’s going on, and to take comfort in the view that all the social and economic upheaval in the world today is ‘just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being’.  Zizek’s claim implies that when faced with injustice, pain, and suffering in the world today, Western Buddhists take cover in their meditation practice in order to avoid the full impact of this reality.” (page 3-4)

When I first read this, I was shocked – but the truth was that I could see he had a point. 

There is such a strong focus on meditation in the Western Buddhist world and this may not be unrelated to the individualistic bias in Western culture. Other elements of dharma training  - such as friendship, altruism, generosity, ethics, faith and devotion  - may well get neglected or even not be seen as ‘practice’.

Do we then assume that it is a sign of success of ‘our practice’ is if we achieve calm, don’t experience strong emotions, and stay equanimous in the face of adversity at all times? After all, we learn to turn to the breath to calm ourselves when we get stressed, and a key training is surely to wake up to the fact that all things are process, there is no ‘fixed self’, all is shunyata.

But what about Avalokiteshvara?  This bodhisattva of compassion, incidentally also the symbol of the Triratna Buddhist Order and expressing our aspiration at the heart of all we do, cracked apart into a thousand pieces at the sight of all the suffering in the world; according to the story.

Do we allow our hearts to be broken in the face of the suffering of others, social injustice, and the climate crisis in the world? Or do we avoid the fear, pain and despair that may well arise as we turn towards the overwhelming issues the world faces.

According to Joanna Macy, this is the greatest danger to the future of the world : the deadening of our hearts and mind, the apathy; the result of our seeming collective inability to take on the suffering of the world.

But a deadening of hearts and mind blocks our energy and limits, even makes impossible our compassion – compassion literally means , ‘feeling with’. And perhaps we will find, like Avalokiteshvara, that once we allow our heart to break open and feel the extent of our pain and despair, quite other forces come into being that give us previously unknown reservoirs of inspiration, energy and emotional resources.

May we all find the resources to turn towards pain and suffering in the world, and find that we can respond, each to our own capabilities and energy. 

* Vaddhaka, The Buddha on Wall Street, published by Windhorse Publications - well worth reading!

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kleinzeit's picture

I think this analysis is spot on. I would suggest, however, that as a tradition which stresses the Bodhisattva Ideal, Triratna is outside the mainstream of Western Buddhism. We certainly meditate, but we do it not as an end in itself, or as a way to “insight”, but as part of a suite of practices which have one goal; the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. We do not elevate wisdom above ethics, rather we see (I hope) that ethics, meditation and wisdom are interrelated, each supporting the arising of the others. So, my sense is that we are not Western Buddhists in the sense that Zizek is talking about at all, but rather a tradition which seeks to live out the Buddha’s original teachings in the spirit of the Bodhistavva.