This was recorded during the "Criticism, Critique, Crisis: Event (Ereignis) – in Philosophy, Politics, Art & the Maternal" class co-taught by Avital Ronell and Slavoj Zizek at NYU, after an email I sent to Slavoj about some problems I had with his treatment of Buddhism in his recent book "Less Than Nothing." What I thought would be a brief exchange turned into a dialogue over 40 minutes long. Realizing that some of this doesn't make sense without the initial email, I'm attaching it below
Dear Prof. Zizek,
I've read your book "Less Than Nothing" and have some notes, mainly on Buddhism, which you said you'll discuss in tomorrow's class. You introduce Buddhism on p. 108, where you talk about the three types of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. There is a mistranslation where you call Hinayana "the small wheel" and Mahayana "the great wheel," as yana actually means "vehicle." Also, the former is usually called Theravada ("teaching of the ancients") Buddhism, since Hinayana is rather pejorative and diminutive, and Theravada practitioners who predominantly make up the population of southeast Asia, do not consider their practice in any way inferior. The "wheel" however does have an important place in Buddhist teachings in the idea of the "three turnings of the wheel of Dharma," which says that in the sutras there are three levels of teachings for people of simple, middle, and high capacities. This is an important hermeneutic tool in interpreting Buddhist philosophy to which I'll return shortly. The different schools are not incompatible, it is the same liberation that is reached with the three vehicles, they mostly differ in respect to method and efficiency (tho some do claim to have additional higher levels of enlightenment), with the Vajrayana claiming to have all the teachings (and then some) of Mahayana, which in turn includes all the Theravada teachings in its framework. There is no "irreducible split" here, in that the "egotism" and "elitism" of Theravada does not make sense, since liberation from the self is not an egotistic move, if anything anti-egotistic. Also, calling Tibetan Vajrayana regressive is inaccurate. While it did incorporate elements of earlier regional religions like Bon, the system which was imported into Tibet was at the height of philosophical complexity (right before the decline of Buddhism in India and the destruction of the university in Nalanda). On p. 110 you say Vajrayana "ended up clinging to the most mechanical and firmly entrenched institutional hierarchical framework," this is not true, there is great diversity of schools within Vajrayana, Nyingma - the oldest one, did not even have an official "head" until one was elected recently on behest of HH Dalai Lama, and even then mostly for administrative purposes of the government in exile. Meanwhile, other sects differ widely in their institutional hierarchy, e.g. the HH Sakya Tenzin, head of the Sakya school, following a monarchic bloodline back to the Khon royal family of ancient Tibet, or the Ganden Tripa, head of the Gelug school (which is not led by HH Dalai Lama as many believe) who is democratically elected. Most of the more rigourous institutional hierarchy was imposed on Tibet by the Mongols, who were the ones to make the Dalai Lama the political head of region, which has been disputed to this day, and recently HH declared that from now on his post will be filled democratically. Also, there is a very rich tradition of hermetic yogis and "divine madmen" (Drukpa Kunley, Transnyon Heruka) in Tibet who were completely outside any religious/political framework but were nonetheless admired and respected for their spiritual insight.
From the side of Buddhist practice, I think there's a problem in the way you approach things like prayer-wheels and mantra recitation, as "total externalization" used to achieve "mindlessness" (p. 110). I've noticed you use the example of mantras repeatedly in the sense of a blind repetition. However, in practice, each mantra is usually accompanied by specific and often complex deity visualizations and meditation topics, with the mantra itself being a means to keep your mind focused on the object of contemplation, rather than just letting it go. Similarly, the prayer-wheel and similar technologies are not meant to replace or externalize meditation on emptiness, but enhance it throughout all activities in daily life. The idea here being that the best thing to do is to sit and meditate on emptiness, but when one can no longer sustain this, then resort to mantras/visualizations of buddhas/bodhisattvas, and if one can't do that, like when talking to somebody or doing something, then resort to spinning prayer-wheels, rings, etc. to keep from losing focus altogether. Here there's also a karmic dimension, in that in addition to bad and good karma, there are many things (eating, walking, sleeping) that are karmically neutral, which can be used to generate good karma instead, as in the case of walking down the street while spinning a prayer wheel, or wishing in your mind that all sentient beings taste enlightenment while you are eating (typically a karmically neutral activity).
On p. 692 you reference Jacques-Alain Miller: "'Thanks to the veil, the lack of objects is transformed into object, and the beyond makes its entrance in the world' - this gap is crucial, and is missed by Buddhist 'nihilism' where we have only flat appearances and the Void." This misses the crucial insight that "Samasara is Nirvana," articulated by Nagarjuna and central to the Madhyamaka (or Middle-Way) philosophy which most of the schools you discuss ascribe to. The middle way is to avoid the extremes of Absolutism (or Eternalism) and Nihilism, and I find you often seem to represent Buddhism as falling into the extreme of Nihilism. Here I think it's important to bring up the Two-Truths doctrine (which I feel you come very close to on p. 719 in discussing direct/indirect meaning in Buddhist hermeneutics), this being the notion there is a relative/conditioned/mundane reality and absolute reality. From the standpoint of absolute reality, nirvana and samsara are indistinguishable. The Buddha never denied the existence of the world, self, etc. he just said that they exist relatively in a conditioned manner. Relative truths are called "words for a deceiver" in Tibetan. Absolute reality is reached through equanimity and balance between extremes, rather than falling into the nihilism of voidness. Right before this on p. 720 you say "the limitation of Buddhism is that it is not able to accomplish this second step - it remains stuck at the insight that there is no true Self." From the absolute truth perspective, this is exactly what Madhyamaka accomplishes in claiming that samsara is nirvana. The Buddha does not deny that there are objects and people in the world, he denies they exist in an absolute way. Here I think it's good to return to the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, which basically teach the emptiness of the self (to beginners), the emptiness of phenomena (to intermediates), and the emptiness of emptiness (to the advanced). I feel like many of your criticism of Buddhism are more targeted at a Westernized New Age faux Buddhism popular in America, rather than authentic traditional teaching (and to be fair you sometimes openly say you're talking about Western Buddhism, but other times like p. 946, talk about "authentic" Buddhism with 'The Karate Kid' remake as your source). Also, in your treatment of Zen you make it seem like it can be applied to any military-political structure (p.134-135), following a D.T. Suzuki quote, which completely disregards the belief in karma. I've noticed you rely heavily on D.T. Suzuki in "Parallax View" as well, which is problematic, while Suzuki was instrumental in initially spreading Zen to the West, he is often wrong on many points, since he was just a lay academic practitioner with limited philosophical understanding, with strengths more in the area of translation. I had a few other points, but this is getting quite long, so I'll just add a few minor notes I have on your book and wrap it up.
On p. 461 you say that Neptune is no longer a planet, I think you mean Pluto, and while at first it would seem to support your claim about Hegel being right about the number of planets, you'd be forgetting Eris (previously called, Xena) which would still make the total 9).
Jack London's "suicide" which you talk about on p. 563, has largely been disproved by recent scholarship (granted you're quoting another's work here)
In the footnote on p. 682 you make it seem like only Hindu priests can will an erection (saying it's largely involuntary), however this is not limited to Hinduism, or even general Eastern tantric practice, in a purely secular sense, this can be accomplished by most people who abstain from sex/masturbation for a month or more, with some practice allowing not only willed erection, but even a hands-free orgasm. Similarly, different tantric practices teach how to stop an erection as well, usually by focusing on blood returning to the heart center.
Lastly, on p 700 (and somewhere a few before) you talk about the Nazca lines (geoglyphs) in Peru, but call them Inca and say they were made by Incas, even though they were made (presumably) by the Nazca people 400-650 while the Inca empire ran 1438-1533.
I hope this was helpful, and I really enjoyed your book. See you in class, sincerely,