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Buddhism through Lacan’s eyes: desire

December 23, 2007

Nietzschean nihilism is the one being used most when people attempt to write an analogy between western and eastern philosophies. Yet, lately I found out that Freud and Lacan also serve as examples par excellence to define concepts of Buddhism in western mode of thinking. Zizek, a contemporary thinker that renders Lacan readable through popular culture, opens a new horizon to me. I finished reading his book Looking Awry and am reading the second one, Enjoy Your Symptom; Lacan seen through the eyes of Chaplin, Rosselini and Alfred Hitchcock. Lacan being read through the eyes of Kafka to Stephen King.

Personally I still consider the Buddhist explanation as the easiest one to understand. However, the simple language of Buddhism may not be considered as sexy writing by the western thinkers. On the other hand, in the dazzling works of modern western philosophers I find the echoes of Buddhism. The Freudian drive, later on elaborated by Lacan as jouissance is described in Pali canon as tanha, literally translated as craving or desire.

The jouissance (enjoyment) is not a matter of reaching your aim, but lies in the pursuit itself. It is like a vicious circle that enthrall and captivate mankind, precisely because of its repetitive character of going after the elusive goal which can not be grasped. As soon as the goal is accomplished, you lose the pleasure of pursuing it. Sysiphus from the Greek mythology gives a good illustration about this endless enterprise.

Lacan goes even further by stating that anxiety is not caused by the lack of the object of desire, but by the disappearance of desire. You become anxious not when you get your reward, but when you get too close to it. Not the goal, but the process of endless going after it is the real drive to ecstasy.

Buddhism talks about the same thing, and much more than that. Instead of setting a full-stop after the psychoanalysis of desire, Buddhism goes further to explain how you can break this vicious circle. The teaching of Paticcasamupada is an important part of Buddhist spirituality that expound how you can be the one that has control over your drives. How to be the master instead of being enslaved by your very own desire.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2008 18:03

    I’m impressed that someone else has made the connection. I think it’s a bit more complicated then that though. For Lacan, there is a mode of jouissance that is total, namely Feminine Jouissance. What I think is interesting about reading Buddha avec Lacan, as it were, is that I think he opens our eyes to the kind of bliss or serenity or at-easeness that is undoubtedly present in those who attain Enlightenment.

    For Lacan, enjoyment is not the problem as much as the dialectic of desire, which gets started by our entrance into the Symbolic Order, gets in the way of our enjoyment. There is something superficially anti-Buddhist about this, with all its positive talk of desire, but the Buddha did not categorically condemn desire; in fact, Ananda points out (I think to Vacchagota) how critical a certain kind of desire is to getting anywhere on the Path. I think that the Buddha, like Lacan, taught us to think better about our desire, but also more deeply on the relationship desire and volition have to how reality is even constituted.

    You should know that Zizek has a strange love-hate relationship with Buddhism, and not having read every single word he’s ever written it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here. He generally speaks against Buddhism though, in the way one speaks of a good though unfinished or otherwise insufficient idea. I nonetheless think Zizek and Lacan are invaluable to finding a way to… not so much make Buddhism Westernized, but in learning the same lessons in our own culture. That doesn’t mean that Lacan (or Hegel or Nietzsche) was a Buddha, but that he wasn’t so far off either.

    Check out my blog. I would like to perhaps work more on this with you.

  2. July 19, 2010 09:07


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