Archive for July, 2014

In late-2012 the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a lecture in which he proposed to offer his critique of Buddhism from a Western Marxist perspective. Being Žižek, he talked about everything else as well, but he did articulate something that remains perspicuous. In the face of recent neuroscience investigating the neuronal bases of personal agency and the freedom of the will which, Žižek tentatively claims, increasingly demonstrates that “we are just neuronal machines, our freedom is an illusion, that there is no self, no autonomous agent” he put forward four separate interpretive options which we—presumably choicelessly!—must decide between.

The first, which he calls the predominant position among the majority of neuroscientists, is to simply “admit the gap” between our neuro-scientific knowledge, which asserts that “the way our brains are wired evolutionarily, we are condemned to experience ourselves falsely as free, responsible, autonomous agents” and the subjectively felt sense that we really are responsible, free agents. This results in a lived dualism, not uncommon, between what we theoretically know to be the case (for example in particle or quantum physics), and what we experience to be the case.

The second position he offers is like the first, except that it tries to give it some dignity by framing it within (in Žižek’s terms) a “Habermasian” humanistic all-inclusiveness whereby insofar as we rationally “know that we are neuronal automata, and that there is no freedom” then our very knowledge of that apparent fact only confirms our free rationality as the scientific endeavour by which we can know what we “really” are, and therefore in some fundamental sense, also transcend it. Žižek is a little doubtful about this, despite his own Hegelian proclivities, but then he is doubtful about what he sees as the entire Habermasian enlightenment project of trying to rescue (Euro-American) humanism from the assaults of science and religion.

The third option Žižek claims is the most attractive, but doesn’t hold up, and is represented in the cognitivist theory of Paul and Patricia Churchland, which maintains that “we can change our self-perception to fit with scientific results.” For these philosophers, we are not necessarily “wired to the naïve belief” to see ourselves as free agents as option 1 claims. Rather, we can unlearn this biologically conditioned falsehood (presumably over an aeon of socio-cultural inculcation), which might even in the meantime engender a better and more tolerant society. Žižek is skeptical about option 3 because it is impossible to fully eradicate the ground of free agency from the very terms of such a project, which Žižek would call a “pragmatic contradiction.”

The fourth and final option, Žižek claims, is “the only really consequent position.” Developed by the German neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger, this view stresses that we cannot subjectively believe the neuroscientific denial of free agency. As in options 1 and 3, we may know it rationally, in an abstract sense, but we cannot accept or assume it existentially. But for Metzinger, and for Žižek, there is an exception to this, discoverable in “some radical forms of Buddhist meditation” where the embodied sense of self and personal agency is seen to be only a provisionally true surface-level of a much more comparatively selfless, and complex, process of patterns of conditioning. Once the Buddhist meditator grasps this in fact (not just theory) the self is seen as a comparatively unreal illusion. In brief, Metzinger claims that (in Žižek’s words) “Buddhism is the only form of spirituality that is compatible with what science is telling us today.”

Žižek takes this seriously, and urges us to as well. He says in “this constellation of the total naturalization of man” that genetics, neuroscience and their technological applications are forcing upon the 21st century consciousness, we have no choice, as thinking beings, than to consider some kind of response within the spectrum he offers. If the neuroscience is accurate, is Žižek, Metzinger, and before them, Buddhism, right also? Can we expect the brave new world of the 21st century to include “meditative self-deconstruction” among its primary civilisational disciplines? The idea is intriguing; I leave it to your own—choiceless—imagination.

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 (Between February 2009 and 2014 131 ethnic Tibetans have self-immolated in and outside Tibet in protest against Chinese persecution, many leaving statements of intent. In 2012 an English Tibetan Buddhist in a French monastery followed them; personally known to the poet, he left no written note.)



Easy to count the numbers, all the way past one hundred and thirty,

not so much the names, or faces,

gone in fire.

23 years, a herdswoman, with a six-year old son

Father, being a Tibetan is so difficult.

We have no freedom at all…

A herdsman called Rechok

never gone to school

I am willing to take up the pain and

sufferings of all living beings.

If I fall at the hand of the

Communist Party of China, please don’t resist.

Sobha Rinpoche, in Delhi, when Hu Jintao paid a visit

Without freedom, we become a

candle flame in the wind

Student, 19 years, in a market square

No one deserves to live like this

24-year old, glasses, intellectual, a young Che, or Nelson, or Mohandas, says

It is my wish that the sun of happiness

may shine on the land of Tibet

Rikyo, 33, a mother of three

do not indulge in slaughtering and trading

of animals, do not steal,

Speak Tibetan, do not fight,

Bearing all sufferings of the sentient beings on myself,

Do not resist by fighting if I get into Chinese hands alive


we’ll never hear any more

from any of them, or any

of all the others,

in Chinese hands alive

& unresistant        as we are.





Reams, now, have been written. Nothing

redressed. (Your shoes, I noticed first – ugly

fluoro runners taking up room on the dusty,

communal thresholds.) Couldn’t tolerate the

space of living you occupied, when to live

in that knowledge of the wound of others

was itself a worse one. Sole – soul – solar




The hi-fidelity silence that

follows, curves like space around a vacuum,

terrorises untruth, in the way a child’s

muteness returns the wager of worldly

adult pretence to its shoddy source. You

true naïf, to burn that world denial,

monstre sacré, to ash.


The last walk we took, to the village,

under a southern French sun, blood poppies

in full spate. La vieille sagesse in retirement,

tender with you, but gave me short shrift,

translating her savant archaisms into

plainer speech. As if she knew your

loyalty to fire already, could scent

singed skin and hair, the siren in the

distance. Neither of us spoke on the

return; kismet of some beckoning

in the road ahead.

They said you took a flag with you;

no-one told the journalists, the policiers

at the great doors, it was a Tibetan one.

Perhaps it had burnt with you, out of all

recognition. Only shroud-fragments left

for decipherment; no-one with the

faith for breaking that

genius code.






In Norway, and a Nobel Peace Prize awarded there

a quarter-century ago, turned away, now, from the corridors

of power, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

entirely depends on motivation. If such a drastic action

takes place with full anger, then negative.

But more compassionate, more calm mind,

then sometimes maybe less negative.

No-one questions the motivation of the

Chinese Communist Party, the Norwegian,

South African, Czech, Australian ministers and all

their soiled bedfellows who have shown him the door.

This the age of diplomacy whose furthest

refinement is to exchange sealed

prophylactics between heads-of-state

pretending protection from the mutual

infection that has already coupled

with tainted blood.


Easy to forget that

fire burns germs

kills off the worst


You only have to be

tough enough

to eat its flames

without regret.


Entirely depends

on motivation.

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