Morton on Western Buddhism

Here. Yesterday, I was interviewed on camera at USD about different forms of rationality between East and West. I don’t have much to add here, but let me quote from Morton and then add what may be taken as a back-handed supportive point:

It seems like everyone who argues with Zizek on Buddhism at least concurs with his assault on what he calls “Western Buddhism,” a New-Agey paradigm that Joe Clement describes well as “ideas of detachment, chakras, karma, impermanence, re-incarnation and past-lives, meditation, and non-duality [absorbed from] from the litany of pop-psycho-therapeutic-new-age-mystic-neopagan-transpersonal-naturalist-buddhist garbage now available.”

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and address the scapegoat on to which everyone seems willing to pile, “Western Buddhism.”

In particular, it’s the general idea that “well-being” is a good thing and something to aim for. Hence some criticisms of the Dalai Lama for muddying the waters by talking about what Aristotle would call eudaemonia. Let’s face it, what Zizek hates about Buddhism is that it seems so lax and easy. The Pope is all crusty and dogmatic—that makes him great.

I’m beginning to suspect that the term “New Age” is like the term “weed.” It’s something that you don’t want around, just as a weed is “a flower in the wrong place.”

The first point: I think this last sentence is well played… Buddhism is for those people.

Second point: I think that what Zizek critiques is the quietism of “Western” Buddhism. It’s an old attack on Eastern forms of spirituality, but it’s one I’d like to see Morton address head-on, namely because the line of attack is that an emphasis on “inner life” has been seen as the obverse of political praxis and an engaged sensibility.

Last point: This is the one that may seem back-handed. One lesson I’ve long taken away from reading on cross-cultural diagnoses of mental illness is just how hegemonic our conceptions of identity are. Ok, that’s not news, and I didn’t need to read that to understand it. But I recall well after the tsunami when aid workers (counselors) flew into Sri Lanka, for example, and found stoic “survivors” seeming repressing their grief. (I discussed this recently on this blog in a quick review of the book Crazy Like Us.) The Sri Lankans embedded this “trauma” (the term is too loaded for the moment) in age old stories involving their indigenous religions and notions of community. But the aid workers found this reaction “irrational,” and preferred that these Sri Lankans have the “typical” Western and irrational reaction (crying, rolling on the floor, etc., all of which, is a reaction is by definition irrational since it does nothing to bring one’s loved ones back, etc.), which they found more “rational.” In other words, where rationality by definition should end, we still make distinctions about a “more rational” irrationality.

And so, back to this point: if I’m not Buddhist, I might find the discussions of the type Morton goes on to discuss “irrational.” And yet, other forms of “irrational” discussions in the West are often championed as “narratives” for embedding one’s life stories in larger traditions. What’s more, obviously this raises a whole discussion about how catharsis, etc.–mentioned by Morton—are now deemed “rational” if pegged to a very tight (and often wrong) conception of bio-materiality.


  1. Is Zizek really against just “the quietism” – or just “Western” Buddhism (cf. in On Belief his collaspe of the distinction between Western Buddhism and its “authentic asiatic version”? It has always seemed more like he attacks their actions as quietism in disguise. He does this not entirely unlike the way he illustrates Nazi Ideology taking hold of the anti-semite, who when confronted with the good nature of his actual Jewish neighbor says something like: don’t you see how insidious they are, hiding their isidiousness behind amicability?

    1. Joe, That’s a good question and I just don’t have the materials in front of me. But let’s not let that stop me! I recall that Zizek was doing his contrarian “Western Buddhism is in fact not different that its ‘authentic Asiatic version.'” This means that both suffer from the same problems… Now, is this another reversal: that the “quietism” actually is a very active reactionary political agenda?

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