Althusser and the Ideology of Buddhism

Matthew over at Post-Traditional Buddhism is running a great series on Non-Buddhism, and Buddhism as ideology.

[To Matthew ] I’m interested in following up on your invitation to explore Buddhism as an ideology. About the best explanation of ideology I have read is Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970, 56 pages). (I tried to reduce jargon but stay close to the text.) In his essay, Althusser makes several claims about ideology:

  1. For Marxists, “ideology is conceived as pure illusion, a pure dream, i.e. as nothingness.”
  2. Althusser’s claim is that ideology has a specific function: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The key word is imaginary, e.g. hoped for, symbolic, ideal. What is presented in ideology is an imaginary representation of the world and an idealized relationship to it.
  3. Ideology has material existence in the actions of the participant, or subject, habituated as practice  . . these practices are governed by the rituals in which these practices are inscribed, within the material existence of an ideological [state] apparatus.
  4. Ideology is constructed by the category of the subject and for subjects. Ideology has the function of ‘constituting ‘ concrete individuals as subjects.
  5. The subject is constituted through the mirroring the subject, by which he recognizes himself as the Subject.
  6. Religious ideology is indeed addressed to individuals, in order to ‘transform them into subjects’.
  7. A subject is both free to choose and also subjected to ideological authority. “In the ordinary use of the term, subject means: (1) a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission.”
  8. The reality in question in this mechanism, the reality which is necessarily ignored in the very forms of recognition (ideology = misrecognition/ignorance) is indeed, in the last resort, the reproduction of the relations of production.
  9. In sum, Althusser asserts that the function of ideology is to impose an imaginary representation over the subject’s experience of the real conditions of existence, in an imaginary relationship of the subject to a world as a symbolic ideal. This function requires the transformation of participant into “subject”, as subjected to the authority of the ideology. The result is that the real world, or relation to the real conditions of existence, are misrepresented and ignored.

So, how is Buddhism an ideology? When it imposes an imaginary (hoped for symbolic, ideal) relationship of its subjects to an imaginary version of the world, which obscures the real relations and conditions of existence.

Does contemporary Buddhism do this? By and large, yes, by offering a ‘Buddhist bubble’ that offers only idealized simulations of the real world; artificially constructed “direct experiences” of that idealized world; shallow, ritualized relationships between members of a sangha; ideological excuses (dharma) and practices (meditation) that justify ‘checking out’ from the real conditions of existence.

The chief mechanisms for ‘checking out’ are the doctrine of emptiness, which says that all phenomena are empty, therefore the (non-existent) individual is not subjected to any ideology; ideologies are mere concepts which have no real existence. The practitioner is thus ‘liberated’ from the trappings of ideology.

The dharma of emptiness functions as an ideology because it operates as a symbolic ‘cloaking device’ that vanishes the ideologies, state power, and the material conditions of existence. It renders the real conditions of existence invisible and substitutes an imaginary relationship to an imaginary dharmic universe.

Buddhist ideology re-constructs the participant as the Buddhist subject, the practitioner as the “exceptional” who obtains the idealized state as fully awakened, so long as they subject themselves to the ideology, the teaching hierarchy and the practice.

Meditation is the material practice of this ideology that enables the subject to temporarily ‘check out’ from mundane reality and obtain the idealized, exceptional state.

It could also be said that dharma is capable of doing the opposite: of deconstructing the imaginary world of the subject, deconstructing all ideologies that obscure the relations of production, including Buddhism itself. Critical Buddhism (Hakamaya) only substantiates a critical approach to both ideology and Buddhism: ’only that which is critical is Buddhism.’ A  post-traditional Buddhist approach which is purposefully critical liberates the practitioner by deconstructing ideology and revealing the real relations and conditions of existence.

Buddhism as an ideology is part of a dominant hegemony that reproduces conformity, quiescence and non-resistance, the good Buddhist subject. But as critical Buddhism it can also function as a counter-hegemony (Gramsci) that provokes critical analysis, deconstructs dominant power structures, and offers alternate ways of conceiving of life apart from the capitalist imperative to exploit,  produce and consume. Critical Buddhism lays the groundwork for, but falls short of, generating a counter-power, i.e. “a countervailing force that can be utilised by the oppressed to counterbalance or erode the power of elites.” (David Graeber, 2004, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology). This is the functional limit of a religious or philosophical ideology such as Buddhism. To function as a counter-power, Buddhism would need to serve as the counter-hegemonic ideology of a more complete alternative socio-economic system.


5 thoughts on “Althusser and the Ideology of Buddhism

  1. The Buddhism you describe is nothing like that which I have experienced. The return from meditation, of getting up from a meditation practice and returning to the world is the most difficult and important part of Buddhist practice, and which requires the most time to develop skillfulness. How does one live one’s life? Everything proceeds from encountering that fundamental question, not in meditation, but in the vicissitudes of the ten thousand things, the samsara into which one returns. Questions of intellectual doctrines may become interesting, with their mulitfarious mental constructs, especially within an academic setting. Meditation practice, however, is the crucible from which the value of Buddhism derives. How one lives is the great art, with religion as merely the highest art form, which may or may not even be relevant to living.

  2. I can appreciate a well-crafted rejoinder such as this. I also have a meditation practice, and in case you didn’t notice, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the dharma, trying to find more genuine ways to wake up. I also see meditation practice as a possible counter-hegemony, a resistance to the forced labour of capitalism, a resistance to living only as a consumer. I’m in the process of writing a paper, “Ordinary Rebellions: A Buddhist Reading of John Holloway’s Politics of Dignity”, in which Buddhist practice is proposed as a “refusal and other doing.” But in order to function as a counter-hegemony, there has to be the intention to practice it as counter-hegemony. As you know, in Buddhism, intention is everything; it defines the act. So one must consciously engage in dharma practice as a counter-hegemony, as a refusal of coerced capitalist relations of production/consumption and as an “other doing” toward a life of liberated realization.

  3. Oh. I just use it to keep my head straight. All the other good stuff depends on that.

    My counter-hegemonic practices spring from Camus’ quotation — modified — as my computer screensaver, “The only way to deal with an unfree society is to become so free that your very existence is an act of liberation.” Actually that is just a reminder of what I’ve learned, and not the source of my guidance.

    As for a necessary approach to dharma practice, I have known many good people who have had other ideas than practicing “as a refusal of coerced capitalist relations of production/consumption,” and none of them felt their approach, if they had a defined approach, was a necessity. Were I to be queried, I think I would agree with Trungpa Rinpoche, on the negativity of using dharma practice to reinforce one’s egotism. Beyond that proscription, I think the scope of wholesome intentions would be quite broad — intention being a criteria for judgment of morality, if a moral assessment is needed for the practice of sitting still and watching the mind.

    I do think that just doing that is revolutionary, if not in immediate consequence, then eventually.

    1. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading it right now, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Yes, Tom Peppers theory and argument is brilliant. I proposed a similar theory, based not on Althusser and Badiou’s philosophy, but on basic sociology. That the results of our actions (karma) create social conditions that survive after the death of the individual, and shape the consciousness and life trajectories of individuals born into those social conditions (rebirth), producing new generations of the same types of individuals with that same kind of consciousness and tendency to behave (karma and rebirth). Pepper’s theorization is more sophisticated and has much to offer in the way of richly theorizing the connections between Buddhist practice and karma/rebirth, but we both have the same basic approach. I also claim that the ‘awakening’ is an awakening to socially-constructed ideologies and ‘world-views’, political, cultural (race, gender, etc.) and economic (class structure), and that liberation is a liberation from oppressive world-views and social conditions.
      I think that my approach has some advantages in that it’s based on a more intuitive understanding of social relations, rather than continental philosophy, which many people may not be familiar with or able to understand. My social psychology approach works with the affective conditions of suffering, including personal psychological suffering, whereas Pepper’s approach is highly intellectual and abstract, and does’t relate well to feeling or bodily experience. My social-psychology approach is also conducive the affective liberation of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, etc, whereas Pepper’s approach is mostly intellectual. We’re both going to the same place through a similar route, its more a matter of what works for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s