Blog Post

Zizek on Buddhism

My talk at MLA in January will be about my book project Buddhaphobia. I'm focusing on why on Earth Slavoj Zizek has to savage Buddhism at almost every opportunity. Especially when his mentor Lacan did such a nice job on it in the Tenth Seminar.

I'll argue that it's something disturbing about Buddhism's view of the subject that's got Zizek's goat. In particular, it's an object-like entity that withdraws from access: Buddhism calls it Buddha Nature. Fear of this object-like entity is akin to homophobia: a kind of horror and fascination combined that's particularly acute when the writer is a closeted Buddhist—as a quick glance at Zizek's philosophy will readily demonstrate. 

Manifestly, Zizek dislikes Buddhism insofar as it gives you a good reason not to be a Marxist. It's “Western Buddhism” that he mainly attacks, but the assault leaks into “proper” Buddhism, thus betraying its Buddhaphobic core.

This corrupt form of Buddhism—or is it Buddhism tout court that's corrupt? Zizek can't decide—disturbingly emphasizes unconditional, narcissistic forms of pleasure: self-soothing. 

I examine two symptomatic moments: Lacan's analysis of a Buddha statue, and Hegel's analysis of something he takes to be a Buddha statue (although it isn't one). Lacan correctly perceives the threat to heteronormative masculinity that the statue—an “object” if ever there was one—evokes. Hegel exemplifies the phobic response that Zizek only repeats.

A Buddhist would perceive a perfectly elementary reason for Zizek's hostility to Buddhist self-soothing: a narcissistic woundedness so painful that it seems better to paint the whole world with its raw colors than examine itself, even for a second.

Timothy Morton's picture

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).