Alejandro Jodorowsky – The Finger and the Moon

The finger and the Moon" Zen Teachings and Koans

Alejandro JodorowskyThe Finger and the Moon: Zen Teachings and Koans [Le Doigt et la Lune
Histoires zen] (Alberto Tiburcio Urquiola trans.; Inner Traditions 2016 [1997])


In this book, filmmaker/poet/mime/comics author/etc. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Jodo) explores zen buddhism from a perspective heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.  He had met rinzai zen monk Ejo Takata in Mexico City long ago.  The historical background of how Jodo met Takata (and various other spiritual gurus, shamans and folk healers) is found in his other book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo [El Maestro y Las Magas].  The Finger and the Moon reproduces traditional zen koans and some haiku, and then follows them with analysis.  Much of the analysis appears to be derived from — or at least heavily informed by — other published sources of “traditional” answers/interpretations.  Zen purists of course howl about how it is anti-zen to offer intellectual analyses of zen koans and such.  Humbug.  To me, the great value of this book is precisely that it steps outside of what zen (and its adherents) argues for itself (i.e., from a self-interested perspective), and tries to introduce some outside perspective.  Of course, Jodo is absolutely a proponent of zen teachings.  But he is willing to contemplate other ways of knowledge.

There are two points that, for me, help put zen buddhism into context:  social constructs and beautiful soul syndrome.

First, let me explain what I mean by “social constructs”.  Essentially this refers to the existence of three categories of knowledge.  First, there are “objective facts”.  This category includes scientifically-measurable things, like the mass of a paperclip.  Second, there are “purely subjective” things.  This category includes arbitrary individual thoughts, feelings, and the like, such as selecting a favorite color.  Third, there are “social constructs”.  This category includes social systems and institutions that are established by groups of people and not reducible to one individual’s arbitrary choices, such as laws, language, and the like.

How do social constructs relate to zen buddhism?  Well, at least as Jodo explains it, the practice amounts to a rejection of social constructs, on an individual basis.  In other words, adherents are encouraged to recognize social constructs as arbitrary and beyond their individual control, and are further encouraged to attach no significance to them.  This is buddhist “detachment”.  So for, example, zen traditions utilize koans and often the traditional answers reject the use of language (intellect).  This is at least partly because language is a social construct.

But is it really a good thing that people reject social constructs entirely and permanently?  Put another way, if social constructs are totally rejected, are there still problematic “objective facts” and/or “purely subjective” things?  First some examples from popular culture.

In a season eight (2018) episode of the TV show Portlandia, there is a comedy sketch in which a woman living in an apartment building has concerns about a neighbor across the hall.  She hears loud noises, and suspects foul play.  But the neighbor smiles and assures her everything is fine.  Then one day, her suspicions are confirmed.  The police arrive to arrest the neighbor.  He is a serial killer.  But the neighbor smiles and explains to the police that he is just being true to himself.  So the police shrug and leave him be (advising the woman that she should probably move)!  The point here is, of course, that individual subjective perspectives cannot be given free reign in any sort of society anyone would want to live in (and society does exist, contrary to what Margaret Thatcher has said).

Another example is the film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, in which a main character is a buddhist monk.  A commentary on the film by philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains how the categories of “social constructs” and “purely subjective” things are related (reflexive):

“In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.”

This ties in somewhat with the problems that some zen monasteries have with sexual abuse and the like.  And it is a bit like the Portlandia sketch:  it is possible — and necessary — to put a larger box around individual subjective thoughts and feelings, because they are reflexive and partly socially determined.

Taking the Hegelian critique of zen further, again drawing from Phenomenology of Spirit, we arrive at the concept of the “beautiful soul syndrome”.  It is a problem of certain people claiming to stand apart from evil, as a strategy for asserting a particular kind of social standing.  Žižek explains it this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

But Jodo’s book offers excellent explanations of how “true” enlightenment goes beyond this.  Instead, he says, “When the self ceases to exist, the world exists.”  This is more like psychoanalysis, which is mostly about coming to terms with one’s own mortality.  I don’t think he means that in a literal or nihilistic way, but as a recognition of the arbitrariness of pure subjectivity — this is elaborated in his other book The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography.  So he writes extensively here about how people should accept their circumstances and avoid seeking power and superiority.  He also candidly suggests that he has not reached enlightenment, and questions whether anyone really has.  He makes no claim to being a “beautiful soul” standing apart from the corrupted world, but acknowledges his part in an imperfect reality.

Though, on the other hand, Jodo rejects certain tenets of psychoanalysis too.  Jodo goes on and on about happiness, though psychoanalysis rejects this.

“In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.”

The larger point here, which is not very well drawn in Jodo’s book, is that detachment from social constructs is never permanent.  But attempts at detachment, and perhaps temporary detachment, allow both the individual recognition of attachments to social constructs and — most importantly — a choice of attachments to social constructs.  Such choice is not always (or even usually) a happy one.  It is difficult.  In zen, the tendency is to detach from certain social constructs while bracketing out others from the field of view, leaving them in place but immunized from scrutiny.  Moreover, in “A Definition of Zen,” a master repeats the same definition as the disciple, but it is different because the master is “enlightened” while the disciple is not.  It is interesting to look at this from the standpoint of sociology.  In the book Language & Symbolic PowerPierre Bourdieu discusses the hypothetical christening of a new ship, in which a town mayor was to read a speech and break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s hull.  What if, before the planned event, a random person sneaks up and reads script for the mayor’s speech and breaks the champagne bottle on the ship’s hull?  Is the ship christened, or does the other person lack the symbolic authority to do so?  What does “enlightenment” mean from this perspective?  Is it just a social position of symbolic power? One that zen “masters” seek to immunize from scrutiny?  Some of this might also be critiqued from the standpoint of Fredric Jameson‘s notion of the “vanishing mediator”, with the sort of real, authentic master being one who disappears.

Injecting the perspective of psychoanalysis (or sociology, or whatever) helps to bring back into view the disavowed social constructs on which zen practice relies.  Even if Jodo stops short of drawing all these conclusions, his book suggests asking these sorts of questions and offers meaningful attempts to problematize the tacit assumptions of zen practice.  For instance, for one of the last koans in the book, “Tchau-Tcheu Tests an Old Woman,” he explains how even zen “masters” were male chauvinists who offered sexist “teachings” when supposedly “enlightened”.

The discourse of the master supposedly declined over the 20th Century. Jodo seeks a revival, but in a reformulated way.  In fact, as a “guide” to leadership, this book probably belongs up there with stuff like F.G. Bailey‘s Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership, a good biography of Lenin (plus his writings), and ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War.  This book does a lot to highlight unusual techniques and the limits of some leadership styles — if one reads closely and between the lines, that is.  Its strength in that regard is that it is not trying to be a book on leadership!

Anyone demanding a purist zen book will be disappointed (though, of course, such expectations are anti-zen).  But readers seeking to uncover wisdom for themselves may find some valuable tools and assistance here.

Michael Hudson & Charles Goodhart – Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations Be Reintroduced Today?

Link to an article by Michael Hudson & Charles Goodhart:

“Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations Be Reintroduced Today?”

 

The historical discussions at the beginning of this article are very significant.  The policy proscriptions at the end do address some, but not all, of the important facets of this question (what about militarism/imperialism, race/gender/etc. discrimination, and the like?).  But the proffered solutions are politically naive.  For instance, how will the political power to implement any of these changes arise in the first instance?  People like Thomas Ferguson have shown that electoral politics will not permit candidates with mass-based support to prevail without vetting by elite interests first (“Nobody wins on small-donor cash.”).  Hudson and Goodhart put forward technocratic fixes as a way to sidestep political problems — as if the gating issue is a lack of good technical measures to propose, rather than ideological opposition to the idea that anything needs to be fixed in the first place.  Moreover, when they suggest enforcement is possible just like with tax avoidance, are the authors aware of how lax prosecution of tax evasion crimes is a public disgrace?  And why is advocacy of private home ownership so important to promote, as opposed to, say, public housing provision?  No explanation is given for that normative choice.  And as much as I hate to defend the odious reactionary Walter Scheidel, the criticism that “[h]e does not acknowledge progressive tax policy, limitations on inherited wealth, debt writeoffs or a replacement of debt with equity as means of preventing or reversing the concentration of wealth in the absence of an external crisis[,]” is unfair, because Scheidel is actually correct (and in agreement with Marxists here) that these have historically been temporary anomalies in the absence of revolution (external crisis?) that shifted which class controlled the state and therefore the ability to impose their preferred policies — these are still good ideas, albeit old ones.  Hudson has for a long time made offhand (and unsupported) comments about how “mixed” economies perform better than communist/socialist or laissez-faire capitalist ones at opposite ends of the spectrum.  This is one of the few times he has gone on record explaining what the vague term “mixed” looks like in terms of real economic programs — a milquetoast, insufficient compromise!  Actually, there are a few decent suggestions here, for instance, the advocacy of government equity stakes in small/medium business enterprises (an extension of Hudson’s long-standing argument that the old German banking model is superior to the currently hegemonic Anglo-Dutch one) would work well for some economic sectors, though that would be the case only with some sort of effective democratic control and probably only alongside full nationalization of at least heavy industry (and probably also banks, and probably large agribusinesses too, etc., basically the commanding heights of the economy).  In short, this article spends so much effort trying to avoid red-baiting that it drifts into irrelevancy in view of superior policies to the left of what the authors propose.  The means they end up trying to smuggle mildly center-left policies in without opening a meaningful political discussion, which would highlight the authors’ political naivety.  Oh well.  Read the historical section and then just skim or skip the rest.

 

Bonus links: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Trouble in Paradise (“the goal of politico-economic analysis is to deploy strategies of how to step out of this infernal circle of debt and guilt”), “Debt Is a Determining Factor in History” and “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity”

Michael Hudson – The Land Belongs to God

Link to an interview with Michael Hudson (and others):

“The Land Belongs to God”

This interview summarizes some of Hudson’s most important work.  And yet, it also highlights a blind spot in it: his claim that others’ interpretations of ancient history are colored by ideology, as if his is not also.  Instead, philosophy teaches, “In an event, things not only change, what changes is the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change, i.e., a turning point changes the entire field within which facts appear.”  Hudson is fighting an ideological war — for the good side, mind you — but tries to portray himself as one of the select few pursuing “objective” scientific economic/historical research rather than another partisan.  Robespierre would have categorized that as treasonous.  Hudson should be more of a Leninist and just accept that he pursues power.

Bonus link: “He Died For Our Debt, Not Our Sins”

Slavoj Žižek – The Fragile Absolute

 Cover of: The fragile absolute or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? The fragile absolute or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for?

Slavoj ŽižekThe Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (Verso 2000)


Typically Žižek writes long and short books, with the shorter ones restating concepts he had introduced in longer works.  But The Fragile Absolute is a bit different in terms of being shorter but also developing (relatively) new concepts.  His views on christian atheism are significant enough that this book was reprinted years later as part of the publisher’s “Essential Žižek” series.  Yet for as important as the the core christian ideas are to the book, given its title, most of the first half or so scarcely mentions religion at all.  And for that matter, Žižek doesn’t ever mention Thomas J.J. Altizer‘s “death of god” theory, or Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity (1968), which seem to set forth a similar frame of discussion.  Instead he starts with Alain Badiou‘s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism (1998).  In short, Žižek’s thesis is that christianity offers a radical position that used “love” as a way toward universality.  Using his typical Lacanian psychoanalytic techniques, and a heavy reliance on Hegelian philosophy, he explores how a sense of duty in the christian concept of love — specifically Pauline agape (love as charity) — can rupture the duality of law and transgression and the pagan notion of life cycles built around a global social hierarchy (of each person and thing in its “proper” place).  In other words, he sees christianity as offering a significant step forward toward an egalitarian society by asserting that each individual has immediate access to (and the right to participate in) universality, without seeing it as “evil” when a person (or strata) no longer is satisfied with a position within an ordered social hierarchy (which inherently has masters who must be obeyed).  Žižek’s key arguments are as profound as ever, yet those could have been distilled to more potent essay or article rather than a book that comes across as rambling in the first half.