What is Western Buddhism and why is it so damn popular—and important? Pop culture critical theorist Slavoj Žižek offers some possible answers in his article “Revenge of Global Finance” in In These Times. The article was published in 2005, but the bank failures of ’08 and the following recession have imbued the insights presented in the article with a palpable potency. Filtering both the Star Wars and global capitalist universes through Buddhist thought, Žižek explores how Western Buddhism might serve as the perfect ideological supplement to our current, distinctly Western predicament—for better or worse.
The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.
Buddhism may provide a system of thought whereby we can participate fully in the global economy while maintaining a sort of inner distance and, hence, sanity.
Just as Buddhism serves global finance, so might global finance serve Buddhist practice. Žižek considers how a comprehension of the reality of global capitalism could act as a “first step toward awakening”:
Perhaps our traditional viewpoint of the world was based on naive notions of a substantial, external reality composed of fixed objects, while the hitherto unknown dynamic of “virtual capitalism” confronts us with the illusory nature of reality. What better proof of the non-substantial nature of reality than a gigantic fortune that can dissolve into nothing in a couple of hours due to a sudden false rumor?
Read the full article and see how Star Wars (sort of) fits into all this.
Image courtesy of Corbis.