Over the last decades, critiques of my reading of Buddhism have been abundant. Even those who are otherwise sympathetic to my general approach claim that I miss the point when I target Buddhism. Representative of my critics is “Nagarjuna and ecophilosophy” by Adrian J. Ivakhiv who also relies on John Clark’s “On Being None With Nature: Nagarjuna and the Ecology of Emptiness.” Ivakhiv’s starting point is the core Buddhist concept of “dependent origination”: every identity is process-relational position, which means that, say, a tree’s existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells, is conventional: “Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind.” In other words, “the thing we call a ‘tree’ is, as Buddhists say, empty of inherent self-existence; its essence is nothing other than the properties and conditions of its self-manifesting.”[1] This goes against Graham Harman’s (and others’) argument that there is something more to any object than its properties, relations, and conditions. For Buddhism, there is nothing (no-thing) left over. “But that is not to say that there is, in fact, nothing… There is the process-relational flux of what Clark calls ‘nature naturing,’ the continual coming into existence and passing away of the experiential bits of the world, all of which is quite real.”[2] 

What the claim implies is that the “negative” and “deconstructive” project that Nagarjuna is best known for “goes hand in hand with an affirmative, ‘reality-based’ project of the sort that, in current continental philosophy, is best represented by Deleuze – or, to quote Clark:

“For Buddhism the negative path of the destruction of illusion is inseparably linked to the positive path of an open, awakened, and compassionate response to a living, non-objectifiable reality, the ‘nature that is no nature.’’’

And this brings us to what I see as the central challenge for Buddhism: how do we, humans, get caught in “a dream world of illusory, deceptively permanent objects and egos, and a futile quest to defend the ego and dominate reality”? Is it enough to say that this is a “fundamental human predicament,” i.e., a trans-historical invariant? Clark makes here a surprising move in a Marxist direction:

“Where most analyses (including most Buddhist analyses) of egocentric consciousness and the egoic flight from the trauma of lack stop short is in failing to investigate the social and historical roots of these phenomena. We must understand that the ego is not only a psychological and epistemological construct, but also a historical one. Its roots are to be found in the development of large-scale agrarian society and regimented labor, the rise of the state and ancient despotism, the emergence of economic class and acquisitive values, the triumph of patriarchy and warrior mentality – in short, in the evolution of the ancient system of social domination and the domination of nature. To put it in Buddhist terms, our true karmic burden, both personally and collectively, is our profound historicity and our deep materiality.”[3]

But the question remains: how far can we go in this direction of historicity? Were individuals in pre-class societies dwelling in a “living, non-objectifiable reality, the ‘nature that is no nature’”, and should the possible post-capitalist society also be conceived as a liberation from the “wheel of desire”? Another question lurks beneath this one: “Why should the destruction of illusion lead to compassion rather than to cynicism as it often seems to in everyday life, or to social conservatism as it has in the case of Humean and other forms of philosophical skepticism?”[4] I think that, in spite of all the desperate attempts to demonstrate that the way to Buddhist enlightenment passes through modesty and compassion, the only honest answer is that of D.T. Suzuki: Zen is a technique of meditation which is compatible with any political orientation: liberalism, fascism, Communism… 

This brings us back to me and to the Buddhist critique of my work. For Ivakhiv, this is the point where Buddhism meets psychoanalysis: “The key difference between Freud/Lacan/Zizek/et al. and Nagarjuna is that the former presuppose that this /rise of dominating ego/ is unavoidable – the best we can do is to come to terms with the ego (etc.) process and try not to get too caught up in the delusional tricks it plays on us.”[5] This is why my work totally ignores “the real potential of actually reading Western Buddhism not just in light of Lacan, but the teachings of the Buddha and their lineage.”

The “real potential” is, of course, the affirmation of the flux of positive life, and Ivakhiv introduces it by way of a long quote from D.T. Suzuki:

“D.T. Suzuki, whom Zizek has probably never read,[6] a trained Zen Buddhist, as well as professor of Buddhist philosophy and delightfully fluent writer and speaker of English, echoes Vajjiya when he writes about Zen as life as ‘absolute affirmation’: ‘we live in affirmation and not in negation, for life is affirmation itself; and this affirmation must not be the one accompanied or conditioned by a negation, such an affirmation is relative and not at all absolute. With such an affirmation life loses its creative originality and turns into a mechanical process grinding forth nothing but soulless flesh and bones. To be free, life must be an absolute affirmation … Zen does not mean a mere escape from intellectual imprisonment, which sometimes ends in sheer wantonness. There is something in Zen that frees us from conditions and at the same time gives us a certain firm foothold … Zen abhors repetition or imitation of any kind, for it kills. For the same reason, Zen never explains but only affirms. Life is fact and no explanation is necessary or pertinent. To explain is to apologize and why should we apologize for living? To live – is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm. Herein lies Zen in all its purity and in all its nudity as well.’ (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism)”[7]

Ivakhiv’s “Lacanian” reading (supplemented by a critique of Lacan) is obvious here: far from advocating a renunciation of our desires, Buddha “is suggesting that staying true to our desire will yield the satisfaction of that (and all) desire, whereas Lacan is less interested in what it would mean to satisfy our desire, if it is once we have properly identified it.” How can this be? Ivakhiv introduces here sexual difference: he interprets (what Lacan calls) the impossibility of the sexual relationship as the impossibility to reach the goal of the masculine phallic subject which is to swallow/dominate the entire reality. From this phallic standpoint, Buddhism

“appears as a fantasmic spectre in the West, where masculine jouissance is predominant. Buddhism at once promises and threatens with the Other, dark, feminine jouissance. Buddhism is only conceivable in what Zizek might call the Western ideological matrix as this testament to its very failure to be conceived. Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism, therefore, has much less to do with the teachings of the Buddha than he has made it seem, and significantly more to do with the mystical, feminine jouissance it suggests, which seems to be beyond and for that reason threatening to Zizek.”[8]

But is this equation of Buddhist enlightenment with the assertion of the mystical feminine jouissance not totally unfounded? Lorenzo Chiesa convincingly characterizes it as “an inverted mysticism”:

“Unlike Eastern polytheisms and their stress on enjoyment, Buddhism is thus in this sense a religion of desire, but it organises it in a way that is very different from that of Judeo-Christianity. More precisely, Buddhism short-circuits all the variations of desire (as poly-desire, we might add), which appear in it, in a most incarnate fashion, ‘with the ultimate apprehension of the radically illusory character of all desire.’”[9]

The formula of Buddhism would thus be: not the mystical “being one with the world” (my immersion into the divine One bringing full enjoyment) but “none with the world,” where I identify the void of my (in)existence, the nothingness of my Self, with the void of reality itself, which lacks any substantial (id)entity. While mysticism aims at the subject’s full immersion into divine jouissance, Buddhism focuses on desire as the ultimate cause of our suffering: desire is inconsistent and can never be fulfilled, fully satisfied, because its nature is inconsistent. Since its object is illusory, the false appearance of a void, the moment of desire’s fulfillment is the moment of its defeat. Buddhism draws the radical consequence from this insight: the only way to avoid suffering is to step out of (gain a distance towards) the “wheel of desire,” to avoid attachment to any object of desire, which means to accept (not only as a theoretical statement but also as an existential stance) that desires are illusory because all objects (of desire and in general) are non-substantial fluctuating appearances. Such an existential detachment is the only way for us to attain peace.

The key question that arises here is, of course: so, where does desire come from? How do we get caught in its illusion? Desire cannot be accounted for in the terms of the opposition between reified particular objects and the void beneath them, so that it arises when we get excessively attached to particular objects. The object-cause of desire (what Lacan calls objet a) is not an empirical object; it is a virtual element, which disturbs the harmonious natural circuit described and celebrated by my Buddhist critics. So, the vision, advocated by my critics, of a desire purified of its excess, is for Lacan totally illusory: desire is in itself a “pathological” excess, a de-stabilization of any balanced natural order. Suzuki seems to imply that what makes a desire mortifying is its “intellectualization,” its submission to rational categories that reify the fluid life experience of reality into a world of fixed substantial objects. However, desire is at its most basic not an effect of mechanic intellectual imprisonment; it is a “deviation” inscribed into life itself. In other words, if we subtract desire from life, we don’t get a more balanced life, but we lose life itself. To put it succinctly: Buddhism celebrates the stepping out of the “wheel of desire,” while Lacan celebrates the subject’s very fall into this “wheel”: “not compromising one’s desire” means a radical subjective engagement in a crazy desire which throws the entire reality out of balance.

Or, to put it in yet another way, while Buddhism accepts the common view that the purpose of life is happiness (to quote the Dalai Lama, “the purpose of our lives is to be happy”), it just defines this term differently. Here are a couple of statements by the Dalai Lama that make this difference clear: “Happiness is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions.” / “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.” / “We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate. Right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.” / “Human happiness and human satisfaction most ultimately come from within oneself.” Following Freud, Lacan, on the contrary, asserts death drive as the basic component of our libidinal lives that operate beyond the pleasure principle: what Lacan calls enjoyment (jouissance) emerges out of a self-sabotage of pleasure; it is an enjoyment in displeasure itself.

A Lacanian view is much closer to Dr. House who, in one of the episodes of the series, when he tries to diagnose a patient and one of his collaborators mentions that the patient radiates happiness, immediately adds “happiness” to the list of symptoms of the patient’s illness to be explained and abolished. The feeling of happiness is a dangerous symptom, not something we should strive for. And one should add here that the same goes for what is also considered the most spontaneous parental feeling: the immense love of one’s own small child. Small children are horror embodied: stupid, annoying, smelling bad, breaking our sleep… so the feeling of love for them is a clear case of what is called the „Stockholm syndrome,” a coping mechanism in a captive or abusive situation, when people develop positive feelings toward their captors or abusers over time. Isn’t this the exact mechanism of how we cope with small children? 

So, what about the desperate Lacano-Buddhist attempt to read what Buddhism calls nirvana as basically the same stance as that signaled by Lacan’s “traversing the fantasy”? We cannot simply dismiss it as a gross misunderstanding of Lacan because there is a grain of truth in it: desire is metonymic – every empirical positive object that we desire is a trap in the sense that, if we get it, our desire is not fully satisfied but disappointed, we experience a “ce n‘est pas ca” (this is not that what we really desired). So, let’s drop our attachment to particular objects and just persist in surfing along from one object to another. In other words, a true betrayal of our desire is precisely our full attachment to a particular object as its true object: if we renounce this, if we maintain a distance towards every object, we attain peace, we are faithful to our desire, i.e., to the void in its heart which cannot be abolished by any object…

But this logic ultimately fails: for Lacan, desire in its “purity” (considered without an empirical object of desire) cannot be transformed into a peaceful integration into a non-substantial changing multiplicity of our reality because desire is as such a gesture of breaking up the balance of reality. If we subtract particular objects, we get the gesture of breaking-up, of disturbing the balance, as such. What any particular empirical object of desire obfuscates is not the balance of a void, but this negative gesture as such: any particular object particularizes this rupture as such, transforming it into a desire for something that positively exists as a particular object… But where is here the dimension of intersubjectivity?

In her “Relational Dharma,” Jeannine A. Davies deploys a “liberating model of intersubjectivity.” Her starting point is the basic goal of practicing dharma, which is

“to discern the distinction between conventional and ultimate realities through direct experience. A simple example of the distinction between conventional and ultimate reality is the difference between the concept of water and the physical sensation of water. Its salient characteristics are of wetness and of a cool, warm, or hot temperature. As awareness discriminates between the concept of water and water’s physical sensations, an insightful penetration into the nature of conceptual ideation occurs. Concepts are then seen as abstractions within consciousness, mental overlays born through prior conditioning.”

Davies, of course, has to concede that the practice of meditation is primarily focused on solitary, introspective methods, where stages of insight unfold within a climate of extreme mental seclusion and interpersonal isolation. Her aim is to demonstrate how dharma can also be achieved through a new practice of social interaction. In order to deploy this claim, she has to engage in the opposition between two main orientations of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada concentrates on achieving dharma by means of individual practice of introspection, while Mahayana emphasizes dharma achieved by social interaction. Say, when an individual is afflicted by a trauma which threatens to destroy her/his psychic balance and ability to interact with others, Mahayana practices the Relational Dharma approach which

“mediates and attunes within an environment of empathic union, nourishing an atmosphere that assuages anxiety and facilitates the generation of trust and safety to flow in the in-between. This process allows for the possibility of transforming negative or life-diminishing ’filters’ into associations that widen and deepen identity. In this experience, the appearance of something ‘foreign,’ ‘not part of,’ or ‘too much,’ is relaxed, so that one’s sense of what constitutes a ‘whole person’ naturally broadens and evolves, and a deeper understanding of oneself and the relationship between oneself and others emerges.”[10]

In such an approach, one achieves “the inner liberty to feel another’s suffering as inseparable to one’s own and the compassion to seek to alleviate it, thus respecting the freedom of others as inseparable to one’s own freedom,” a freedom to “forgive others for their transgressions. In order to forgive, the ability to ‘step back’ and recognize the conditions that gave rise to his or her actions versus reacting from a place of personalizing these actions, must be developed. As awareness into the causal relationships that led this individual to be wounded and act in harmful ways becomes recognized, relational objectivity emerges and compassion becomes possible.”[11] Such a stance opens up a path to peacefully revolutionize our world beset by violence and non-sustainable action: our

“insight into the conscious engagement of interrelatedness may be one of the most important in terms of its spiritual, social, and political implications. It is only when we see with greater clarity the intimate causation of how ’we,’ citizens of the Whole, affect totality that we find the inspiration to take personal responsibility for our presence and fine tune our physiological, emotional, and physical resonance within the Whole.”[12]

Suffering and obstacles to freedom do not simply vanish, they are not simply left behind. In an almost Hegelian way, they are re-experienced as vehicles for growth and freedom. They are deprived of their substantial identity and put in their relational context, in which they arise and disappear in co-dependence, resonating within the Whole.

Another difference between Theravada and Mahayana concerns the accessibility of nirvana which makes the subject a bodhisattva. In Theravada, encountering somebody who already is a Buddha is needed to truly make someone a bodhisattva; any other resolution to attain Buddhahood may easily be forgotten or abandoned during the long time ahead. Theravada thus held that the bodhisattva path was only for a rare set of individuals and has to be transmitted through exclusive lineage, in contrast to Mahayanists who universalized the bodhisattvayana as a path, which is open to everyone and is taught for all beings to follow.

To maintain this universality, the Mahayana tradition has to introduce a distinction between two different notions of a bodhisattva’s relationship to nirvana. The basic goal is to become arhat (“the one who is worthy”), a perfected person, one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana (spiritual enlightenment). The arhat, having freed himself from the bonds of desire, will not be reborn. While the state of an arhat is considered in the Theravada tradition to be the proper goal of a Buddhist, Mahayana adds to it a still higher level,

“a kind of non-dual state in which one is neither limited to samsara nor nirvana. A being who has reached this kind of nirvana is not restricted from manifesting in the samsaric realms, and yet they remain fully detached from the defilements found in these realms (and thus they can help others).” 

We thus obtain the distinction between two kinds of nirvāṇa: the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain engaged in samsaric realms without being affected by them. However, the predominant Mahayana notion of bodhisattva silently concedes that to arrive at such a non-dual state is practically impossible, so he heroically sacrifices his own dharma and postpones his awakening until all living beings are liberated. Bodhisattvas thus take the following vow: “I shall not enter into final nirvana before all beings have been liberated,” or “I must lead all beings to Liberation. I will stay here till the end, even for the sake of one living soul.”

The bodhisattva who wants to reach Buddhahood for the sake of all beings is more loving and compassionate than the sravaka (who only wishes to end their own suffering): he practices the path for the good of others (par-ārtha), while the sravakas do so for their own good (sv-ārtha). I find this distinction between par-ārtha and sv-ārtha potentially very dangerous: although Mahayana appears more “democratic,” allowing everyone to attain dharma, does its notion of bodhisattva who refuses to enter nirvana not conceal a new form of elitism? The select few who remain caught in our ordinary reality (in the wheel of desire), legitimize their special privileged position by the fact that they could have reached nirvana but postponed it to help all others to reach it. In some radical sense nirvana thus becomes impossible: if I reach it, I act as an egoist, caring only for my own good; if I act for the good of others, I postpone my entry into nirvana…

I consider this privileged position dangerous because it remains caught in a dualism that authentic Buddhism promises to leave behind: the realm of nirvana becomes a Beyond which we strive to reach. The danger resides in the fact that this position relies on what one could call the basic syllogism of self-sacrifice: I want all living beings to overcome their suffering and achieve the supreme good; to do this, I have to sacrifice my own happiness and accept suffering – only in this way my own life has meaning. Again, the danger is that a short-circuit necessarily occurs here: I automatically take my own suffering as a proof that I am working for the good of others, so that I can reply to anyone who criticizes me: “Can’t you see my suffering? Who are you to criticize me when I sacrifice myself for you?” This is why the only authentic nirvana means that I fully remain in this world and just relate to it differently: “non-abiding” nirvana is the ONLY full and true nirvana. So, where does even this authentic nirvana fail?

Buddhism ignores the radical intersubjectivity of desire, the fact that desire is always reflexive (a desire for desire, a desire for being desired), and that the primordial lacking object of desire is myself, the enigma of what I am for my others. What this means is that, as Hegel clearly saw it, domination of others and violence towards them is a key moment of the painful process of intersubjective recognition. This violence is not an expression of my egotistic self-interest; it relies on an “evil,” for which I am ready to put my own welfare and even my life at risk. Relational dharma is not enough to account for this “evil” since this dimension of “evil” is constitutive of how I experience an Other: as an impenetrable abyss, which cannot be dissolved in a fluid network of appearances. At is most basic, “evil” has nothing to do with my egotist interests: it is more spiritual than simple self-interest. The Buddhist notion of samsara (“the wheel of desire”) ignores this spiritual aspect of “evil.”

This is where the already-quoted passage about the “key difference between Freud/Lacan/Zizek/et al. and Nagarjuna” – “the former presuppose that this /rise of dominating ego/ is unavoidable; the best we can do is to come to terms with the ego (etc.) process and try not to get too caught up in the delusional tricks it plays on us”[13] – totally misses the point. Buddhism describes how we can gradually get rid of the egotistic stance of domination over others and of being enslaved to our desires that both cause suffering; our goal is to reach dharma, in which our ego dissolves in the flux of appearances and loses its substantial identity. Within this space, Freud and Lacan can only appear as going halfway: they clearly see the self-destructive nature of the dominating ego, but they ignore that there is a domain beyond the ego and its paradoxes, the domain of inner peace and happiness, so their ultimate reach is to describe the paradoxes of the ego. For Freud and Lacan, on the contrary, there is nothing beyond the antagonisms of our reality, nothing but the gap of impossibility that thwarts it from within: everything that we perceive as its Beyond, we project there. What this means is not that what Buddhists describe as nirvana or dharma is an illusion or fake: it is a profound experience of subjective destitution, but it nonetheless functions as the obfuscation of a more radical experience of a gap out of which our reality appears.

Since dharma is, as a rule, described as the highest freedom accessible to us, one should point out that, to anyone who knows a little bit about Hegel, the radical opposition between the Buddhist and Hegel’s notion of freedom cannot but strike the eye. For Buddhism, we are truly free when we liberate ourselves from the rational categories that cut into pieces and thus mortify the pure non-substantial flux of reality, while for Hegel, the basic form of freedom is precisely the infinite power of abstraction that pertains to our Understanding (not Reason), the power to interrupt the smooth flow of reality and to cut mechanically reality into its species. The very idea that there is something (the core of the substantial content of the analyzed thing) which eludes Understanding, a trans-rational Beyond out of reach, is the fundamental illusion of Understanding. In other words, all we have to do to get from Understanding to Reason is to subtract from Understanding its constitutive illusion! Understanding is not too abstract/violent; it is, on the contrary, as Hegel put it apropos of Kant, too soft towards things, afraid to locate its violent movement of tearing things apart in the things themselves. In a way, it is epistemology versus ontology: the illusion of Understanding is that its own analytic power – the power to make “an accident as such – that what is bound and held by something else and actual only by being connected with it – obtain an existence all its own, gain freedom and independence on its own account” – is only an “abstraction,” something external to “true reality” which persists out there intact in its inaccessible fullness. In other words, it is the standard critical view of Understanding and its power of abstraction (that it is just an impotent intellectual exercise missing the wealth of reality) that contains the core illusion of Understanding. To put it in yet another way, the mistake of Understanding is to perceive its own negative activity (of separating, tearing things apart) only in its negative aspect, ignoring its “positive” (productive) aspect: Reason is Understanding itself in its productive aspect. 

The common counter-argument is here: but is for Hegel such a mortifying abstraction not just a negative moment followed by a notional mediation, by means of which we return to a higher form of organic unity? Yes, but this higher organic unity in no way returns to the reality of direct experience: in it, any reference to direct experience is obliterated, we move entirely within notional self-mediation. This doesn’t mean that Hegel does not allow for something that echoes the practice of meditation which (within Theravada Buddhism) “has primarily focused on solitary, introspective methods, where stages of insight unfold within a climate of extreme mental seclusion and interpersonal isolation.” However, while, in Buddhism, through such practice, the mind “experiences a kind of current of quiet peace,” for Hegel, introspection confronts us with an awful space, in which ghastly apparitions of partial objects float around. Here is his most famous and often quoted passage of this “night of the world”:

“The human being is this night, this empty nothing that contains everything in its simplicity – an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him – or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye – into a night that becomes awful.”[14]

One should not be blinded by the poetic power of this description, but read it precisely. The first thing to note is how the objects that freely float around in this “night of the world” are membra disjecta, partial objects, objects detached from their organic Whole. Is there not a strange echo between this passage and Hegel’s description of the negative power of Understanding, which is able to abstract an entity (a process, a property) from its substantial context and treat it as if it has an existence of its own? “That an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom—this is the tremendous power of the negative.”[15] It is thus as if, in the ghastly scenery of the “night of the world,” we encounter something like the power of Understanding in its natural state, spirit in the guise of a proto-spirit. This, perhaps, is the most precise definition of horror: when a higher state of development violently inscribes itself in the lower state, in its ground/presupposition, where it cannot but appear as a monstrous mess, a disintegration of order, a terrifying unnatural combination of natural elements. And Hegel’s ultimate lesson is to learn to “tarry with the negative,” not to dissolve its unbearable tensions into any kind of natural positive flux of appearances. 



[1] Ivakhiv, op.cit.

[2] Op.cit.

[3] Clark, op.cit., p. 28.

[4] Ivakhiv, op.cit.

[5] Op.cit.

[6] Incidentally, I DID read Suzuki, not only in my youth (when he was a key point of reference of the hippie movement) but also later, when I learned that, in the 1930s and early 40s, he fully supported the Japanese war against China and elaborated how Zen training can make individuals much better soldiers.

[7] Ivakhiv, op.cit.

[8] Op.cit.

[9] Lorenzo Chiesa and Adrian Johnston, God Is Undead:  Psychoanalysis Between Agnosticism and Atheism, manuscript (to appear at Evanston: Northwestern University Press in 2023). Quotes within the quote are from The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X: Anxiety, Cambridge: Polity Press 2016, p. 226.

[10] Op.cit.

[11] Op.cit.

[12] Op.cit.

[13] Ivakhiv, op.cit.

[14] G. W. F. Hegel, “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” in Frühe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, Albany: Suny Press 1985, pp. 7–8.

[15] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977, p. 19.