Christianity: the original ‘Western Buddhism’

There has been a resurgence of interest out there on the blogs about Buddhism, its Western interpretations, and the various statements of the provocative Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the subject. To represent Zizek’s opinions is to take aim at a moving target, as he develops them over time, dialectically, and often contradicts himself even within a single work; but on the subject of Christianity relative to Buddhism (or indeed Eastern religion generally) he comes down firmly in favour of the Christian legacy, despite being a committed atheist. His arguments are rooted in the potential he sees in Christianity for radicalism and emancipatory politics:

No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were. It is against such a temptation that we should remain faithful to the Christian legacy of separation, of elevating some principles above others.

This caricature of Buddhists’ unworldly distance from social and political struggle is hardly borne out by the facts – one need only think of monks slaughtered while protesting against the military dictatorship in Burma.

More curious are Zizek’s arguments in favour of ‘Christian materialism’. There are certainly figures, such as Jesus of Nazareth himself, or St Francis of Assisi, to whom the Left today owes a debt in one way or another. But the significance that he reads into certain events and doctrines are perverse precisely because they are not unique Christian innovations. Why tie oneself up in knots of sophistry trying to interpret Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani (‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ – Matthew 27:48) as the death of God – and with it the birth of a human community whose obligations are to each other, with all the emancipatory potential that implies – when precisely such a rejection of divinity in favour of the principle of mutual obligation was achieved for real, explicitly, and in a way that was understood by the practitioners of the religion, 800 years earlier? Why extract a radical, disavowed ‘core’ of Christianity (that no actual Christian believes), hugging it tight, when its amputation costs the life of the host? One is tempted to affirm Timothy Morton’s recent mischievous suggestion that Zizek is in denial:

Zizek thus finds himself in the position of a closeted gay man. It would be so much easier for everyone concerned if he just came out and admitted that he was a Buddhist. To the extent that he doesn’t, he’s got a bad case of what I call Buddhaphobia.

Morton’s tongue is quite firmly in cheek, although the speculation is deserved, since it’s exactly the kind of ideology / false consciousness critique that Zizek indulges in so rampantly and spectacularly (and does so little to further discussion, since it acts as a meta-discourse in place of engagement with the arguments of one’s opponent). The double-standard is analysed more seriously, more sympathetically, and ultimately more devastatingly by Adrian J. Ivakhiv on his blog Immance; and Joe Clement’s thoughtful take on the subject, while allowing Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism, teases out the confusion behind his conflation between Western and ‘otherwise’ Buddhism.

For me, though, there is a tangential question that is raised by Zizek’s comparison between the Christian and Buddhist traditions. To what extent is Christianity itself the original Western Buddhism?

I am not drawing attention here to the hypothesised historical influence of Buddhism on Christianity’s founders, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, or on the early church in Greece. It is between the early church and today’s Western Buddhism that I would draw a parallel, in two ways.

First, it is a commonplace that Western Buddhism, at least in its diluted and bastardised form as a form of therapy or self-improvement, is a grotesque parody of authentic Buddhist teaching and practise. As Zizek rightly says:

It is here that we should locate the difference between Zen proper and its Western version: the proper greatness of Zen is that it cannot be reduced to an ‘inner journey’ into one’s ‘true Self’: the aim of Zen meditation is, quite to the contrary, a total voiding of the Self, the acceptance that there is no Self, no ‘inner truth’ to be discovered.

Similarly, I would argue, many features of the history of the Christian church read like a parody of the history of Buddhism. While the outward features of the two religions – altruism, self-sacrifice, renunciation of worldly things, the establishment of monasteries and orders of monks – are similar, many of the motifs and figures in the early history of the church are like a darkly comedic retelling of Buddhist history. Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a tree; Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to one. The secular leader who converted to Buddhism and used his position to spread the religion across a vast area – Emperor Ashoka Maurya – was prompted by remorse at the bloodshed of war. Constantine saw the sign of the cross in the sky, along with the words Conquer by this, and thus the long and bloody process of the Christianisation of Europe began. In Buddhism, the cosmic order of gods, social caste, and human dependence on the divine was overturned. In the various strands of belief that emerged among the early Christians (including various gnostic heresies, such as that world’s creator is not a benign God, but an evil demiurge) the authoritarian ideology of monotheism (leavened with a little Indo-European tripartitism) was the one that won out.

It is, however, in the changing function of Christianity within the Roman Empire, and the European powers that supplanted it, in which the resemblance to today’s Western Buddhism is most striking.

At the beginning, a counter-cultural phenomenon, alien and insidious, begins to spread from the East (like a weed, as Morton puts it), considered thoroughly disreputable by respectable citizens: ‘a most mischievous superstition … again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.’ That was Tacitus, talking about the early Christians, but it could just as easily be a conservative American in the 1950s looking askance at the Zen-inspired notions of Ginsberg and Kerouac taking root in cosmopolitan San Francisco.

Fast-forward, and the erstwhile menace to civilisation has been neutered. Zizek insightfully points out that Western Buddhism – and more broadly the milieu of commodified, atomised, pick-and-mix, commitment-free spiritual experimentation in which it situates itself, between the New Age and the self-help sections at the bookshop – is a suitable facilitating ideology for global capitalism: ‘we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance’. But the trajectory of the once radical early church was far more thoroughly co-opted by the hegemonic power of its time, the Roman Empire. The institutionalisation of the church at the Council of Nicaea established a definitive canon of scripture and embedded the religion within the structure of state power. The transformation had a terrible symmetry; once a fringe sect, its members persecuted and fed to the lions by Nero, Christianity became the sanction for the most horrific theocratic state terror: the Inquisition, witch-burning, the Crusades. If, as Zizek suggests in The Puppet and the Dwarf, St Paul played the part of Lenin, the great institutionaliser, to Jesus’ Marx, the Stalinist phase began with Constantine.

Again, none of this is to deny the radicalism and power of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, many individual Christians and certain praiseworthy tenets of Christianity: turn the other cheek; do as you would be done by; do good for its own sake rather than to be seen to be doing good; judge not lest ye may be judged. But if, with Zizek, we are to honour our ethical responsibility to elevate ‘some principles above others’, it is incumbent upon to recognise the outcomes, intended or otherwise, of the ideological trajectory entailed by a given religious fidelity. The chequered history of Christianity, and its institutionalised reversal of every one of those principles, is its own empirical refutation of his critique of Buddhism (even in its dilute, anaesthetised Western variety) vis-a-vis Christianity. As Jesus said: he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.

Porter, A P, and E C Hobbs, ‘The Trinity and the Indo-European Tripartite Worldview.’ Budhi III: 2-3 (1999): 1-28.
Zizek, S, The Puppet and the Dwarf, The Perverse Core of Christianity, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Absolutely fascinating thanks Joshua, from your point that Buddhism has not historically been apart from the social and political events (I think of the mad ‘Bloody White Baron’ Ungern-Sternberg using Tibetan Buddhist cavalry for his most dangerous missions against China in early 20C) to your discussion of Zizek and your analysis of the history of Christianity as a parodic version of Buddhist history. I’ll be coming back to follow up your links and shall be thinking about this for some time.

  2. Interesting stuff, Joshua. One could say that the history of the Church is a parody of Christ’s teachings full stop. It is imperative to any discussion such as this to make the distinction between ‘Christianity’: the following of Jesus Christ and belief in his teachings and claims about himself – and ‘the Church’: the often corrupt institution that arose in a perverted attempt to claim power and control. As for any similarities between Christianity and Buddhism – that is, the fundamental message of Christ and the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – they are few and far between.

    1. Just to clarify, I’m referring here to ‘the Church’ in a historical context, as opposed to modern gatherings of Christians today.

  3. I’m not sure such a neat separation of Christ and church is possible, Claire. The bishops at the council of Nicaea determined the scriptural canon that includes the four gospels we have today in our bibles. The exclusion of many other gospels deemed heretical by those bishops certainly shaped our understanding of the teachings of Jesus. One could take a ‘maximalist view’ that includes the Nag Hammadi scriptures as well as the canonical gospels, but the diversity of the material is such that this would pretty much preclude identification of a ‘fundamental message’. So parsing ‘pure’ Christianity from church tradition is considerably more problematic than you allow.

    The most important similarities between Christianity and Buddhism are, I think, are: renunciation of worldly things, concern with inner rather than outer virtue, altruism and non-violence. They may sound like typical religious platitudes now, but that’s because of the enormous influence of these religions over time.

  4. Joshua,

    By the other gospels I assume you mean the ones written centuries after Jesus walked on planet earth? As opposed to the four written within the lifetime of Christs generation ?
    Could we include Joseph Smith as an authority too ? Not so sure.

    I wonder if we can drill Christianity down to the bare essentials of renunciation of worldly things, concern for inner virtue etc. In contrast I think the Christian faith is based on a wrath absorbing Jesus in the place of a wicked and depraved human race.

    If we had any inner good, surely Jesus was not necessary? Are not these things secondary to the faith?

  5. We certainly can’t reduce Christianity to those elements; I was not suggesting we could.

    The scriptures left out of the bible are not necessarily more recent texts. Many other gospels – including alternative versions of the canonical gospels – existed at the time of the council of Nicaea, and we have no reason to suppose that the ones we have are older or more authentic. My point is not that these were better, or more accurate, but that the Bible we have is based on the decisions and the ideology of the church.

    As to the question whether Jesus is necessary. Certainly he was, in theological terms within the Christian tradition; but only if you accept the existence of a wrathful God in the first place. The Christian notion of the wickedness of the human race has had some absolutely awful consequences, so I’d have to say regrettable, rather than necessary.

  6. Thanks for the link. I really like your analysis, and should say that I wrote my own a number of years ago as an undergrad in a grad theory-course, shortly after I began to read Zizek. I poured over his writings at the time, and he does affirm a critical position for the Buddha in his time (against the caste system in particular), but this is just one or two mentions.

    I saw and still (though less so) see relevance to that brief moment in Zizek’s criticism where he speaks out against (as Luthern theologian Walter Breuggeman puts it in “The Prophetic Imagination,” a slim volume I wholly recommend) “religion of immanance” and its soothing techniques. This is the worldview of, as Breuggeman puts it, the “royal consciousness” and says in full Ecclesiastical cynicism that this is it and stop your bitchin’. Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism” is along these lines too, and probably holds more water from a historical materialist perspective too.

  7. Surely we cannot look at the world around us and conclude humanity is good? The notion of human wickedness certainly doesn’t only come from reading the Bible, how about reading the newspaper?

  8. Joe. Thanks for the tips, will check those books out – sounds interesting.

    AM. Indeed, but you can see bad things and interpret them in different ways. The ‘sin’ concept is inherently oppressive.

  9. Thanks for this great post. It’ll take me a while to digest it all but for now I’ll add that the Stalinist purges began with the excoriation of “gnosticism”–that is in the first century. To this extent Zizek is only continuing the momentum of Irenaeus et al. There’s nothing particularly materialist about that…I also think we should be brave and defend “new age” self-soothing, a crucial step in Buddhism the avoidance of which is known by some as “spiritual bypassing.” There is some crude sense in which misery is supposed to be better than warmth.

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