- Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays
What is the place of religion and of religious thinking in relation to the critique of culture and society? This perennial question of modern thought has dramatically recurred in the critical-theoretical debates of the recent past, perhaps most influentially in the distinction made by Edward Said (1935-2003) between "secular" and "religious" forms of critique. For Said, and the generations of critical theorists who have followed him, "religion" figured as an antagonist to social critique and social change. In this version of Viconian Marxism, religion is always directing attention to a metaphysical sphere understood as being beyond the realms of society and history, an unchanging and imaginary dimension of essences or eternal substances the contemplation of which blocks a realization of the humanly constructed (Vico) actions of human history with all of their demands for worldly engagement and temporal understanding (Marx). Critical theory must be secular, addressing human concerns and realizing that what is human is changing and sociohistorically produced. Religion can be an object of critique (the critique of religion is the beginning of all criticism, in the words of the early Marx) but not a subject, because by definition a religious view is focused on eternity rather than time.
More recent discussions of these issues have called into question Said's relatively simple opposition between secularity and religion. The work of Slavoj Zizek returns repeatedly to the potentially liberatory and even politically revolutionary tendencies in religion, specifically the notion that the apocalyptic-prophetic tradition in biblical religion, transmitted through the Christian legacy of the West, represents a resource and model for the secular theorists and revolutionaries of a post-religious period. For Marxists like Zizek and Frederic Jameson, the prophetic tradition of Christianity marks a space for a utopian imagination that provides ideological leverage for the critique of the seemingly eternal socioeconomic order of capitalism. The personal atheism of Zizek and Jameson is interestingly complicated by their intellectual willingness to take seriously religion and theology as critical languages for intellectual work. As such they suggest a role for religion on the plane of the critical subject and open the possibility of dialectical interchange between religious and secular perspectives.
But the model of religion for these Marxist theologians is Western. Zizek recuperates Pauline theology and Christian apocalypticism for Marxism, but he is an odd case of the atheist as Christian triumphalist in that no non-Christian religion is taken seriously as an alternative set of resources for the utopian imagination that he evokes in terms of the Christian legacy. When Zizek writes about Buddhism, for instance, the thrust of his concern is the idea that "Western Buddhism" has become one of the chief legitimating ideologies for late capitalist consumer society. Zizek reads Buddhism in the West as a system of ideas and practices that functions therapeutically [End Page 249] for the harried and stressful lives of the managerial class while assuring that class, and intellectuals as well, that society and politics are unreal tissues of ungrounded illusions requiring no responsible engagement. For Zizek Buddhism is a philosophy that reduces matter to images and deconstructs the material concerns of people into states of immaterial consciousness. The ungrounded world of images-as-commodities keeps the economic machine of profit generation flowing while the actual circumstances of the laboring populations is dismissed as illusory. For Zizek, then, Buddhism (by which he means Buddhism in Western countries) is one of the chief means by which society is mystified and social change blocked, just as Marx said of Christianity in the nineteenth century.
Enter David Loy, one of the foremost of contemporary Western Buddhist thinkers, offering a collection of his essays of the last decade. Loy's work is that of a public intellectual who takes religion seriously as both an object of inquiry and as a subjective resource for ideas and perspectives, and whose view of religion does not succumb to the Occidentalism of Zizek. Loy's Buddhist critical theorizing ranges widely from comparative philosophy (juxtaposing the works of Dōgen Zenji...