Pussy Riot and…Buddhism?

nadya-cover-300.jpgGuess what? Nadya Tolokno, leader of the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, has a strong connection to Buddhism. The ‘Revolution’ issue of Bust magazine (Feb/March 2017) features an interview with Nadya in which she relates how she met her husband Pyotr:

It was at Moscow State University in 2007 that Tolokno first became involved with performance art and activism, joining the art protest group Voina. It’s also where she met her husband Pyotr Verzilov. The two bonded over a discussion of Buddhism while Tolokno was helping her suite mates study for a religion exam. “Pyotr had lived for several years in Japan, so he knew something about Buddhism.” There was an immediate spark. “I just couldn’t help myself from talking to him the next day.” They began dating, and she says she knew it was real love when he gave her his books. “The thing that made me fall in love with him was when he gifted me his library which was precious,”she says. “It was all French philosophers, which I adored at that time.”

Tolokno relates how she had to learn English so she could read Judith Butler’s work because her books were not available in Russian. So what do postmodernism, continental philosophy and feminist punk rock have to do with Buddhism? According to Tolokno, everything:

As a veteren of political uprising, Tolokno has some advice—get weird. “My strange punk advice is to mix everything that you care about into one thing, because I’m tired of all these conversations about art and politics. Why do you have to separate them?” she asks. “Think about the three weirdest things that come into your mind and then combine the into one artwork. If you keep it minimalistic and don’t add a lot of obstructing details, believe me, it will be good.”

Art and politics and Buddhism—now that’s one weird mixture of the three things I care about most. Tolokno combined a strong interest in Buddhism and a fierce politics of pussy-in-your-face feminism, performance art and punk rock. When I saw that Tolokno could juxtapose these ideas in her art, I suddenly felt released. I felt like this is the end of ‘acting Buddhist’ for me.  This is what it means to be a ‘rebel Buddha’, or better yet, this is revolutionary Buddhism.

This is an outspoken Buddhism that can confront fascism, racism and sexism with style and conviction. This is a Buddhism that is not afraid to take a stand, get confrontational and make some noise

Western Buddhists, by contrast, have adopted a manner of practicing a pseudo-monastic Buddhism. One must be quiet, demure, “saintly”, never say anything harsh or loud, never espouse a strong opinion about anything, never speak out on political issues. This is Buddhism as a conformist religion, not Buddhism as a revolutionary force of cultural transformation.

In her first feminist political performance, in which she and a group of women artists kissed female police officers, Tolokno turned her politics into her art, but not into violence:

“The first thing you want to do when you see a police officer,” Tolokno explains, “is to punch him in the face. But because I believe in nonviolence, I don’t do that, because it will cause more violence. So it’s a gesture of goodwill: I wanted to kiss the police instead of punching them in the face.”

Pussy_Riot-A_Punk_Prayer_Poster.jpgTolokno and her troupe are not afraid to confront religion either. Pussy Riot’s most famous performance, ‘A Punk Prayer’,  was staged in 2012 at the Russian Orthodox  Cathedral in Moscow. (The troupe’s use of the balaclava and the anonymity it produces could be interpreted as an ironic twist on  ‘non-self’.) The performance, which only lasted two minutes before everyone was arrested, declared: “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” Pussy Riot attacked the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin during his election campaign. Pussy Riot members were charged with ‘hooliganism’, convicted and sentenced to prison.

Tolokno spent two years in prison for her political art in a women’s penal colony. She went on a hunger strike to protest the brutality toward prisoners and the use of prison slave labour; she is now also an anti-prison activist.

Tolokno and Pussy Riot released an album during the 2016 US Presidential election and a video of the single, “Make America Great Again”. It was a direct attack on Trump’s brand of  racist “pussy-grabbing” politics:

 As politically engaged people who practice Buddhist meditation and the dharma, we have to break out of the religious mold that has been handed down to us by Boomer Buddhists. There is no need for us to “act Buddhist” like sanctimonious characters in a religious film.  We don’t need to exhibit a caricature of ‘asian-ness’, which is a mixture of racist stereotyping and cultural misappropriation. Rather, we have to take back the cultures we grew up with and juxtapose Buddhism with western ethnicity, without diluting either one.

We have to improvise a revolutionary Buddhism that is non-conformist and outspoken. It’s time to get vocal and in-your-face with issues we are passionate about. Our art forms must go beyond koan poetry and bell-ringing. There is no form of art that is incompatible with Buddhism, except that which promotes harm to others. This becomes clear when we develop a critical Buddhism that embraces critical engagement with the world. Critical Buddhism, a movement within Japanese Soto Zen, is a method of using Buddhist philosophy to critically engage with the world, rather than focusing on “topics” of traditional dharma (impermanence, emptiness, etc.).

Why, it was asked, was Buddhism in Japan operating for the most part as a force for supporting and reinforcing the status quo rather than for disputing and attempting to reform social deficiencies? (Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought by James Mark Shields)

Any art that is critically engaged with the human experience is qua “Buddhist art.”

I am making a promise to myself to never ‘act Buddhist’ ever again—except when I feel like it, when I want to intentionally chill out. I resist any pressure from Buddhist media and institutions that expect me to conform to some cartoon version of what a Buddhist is supposed to look and act like. Done with that shit. Let’s get all the bad hombres together and make some revolutionary Buddhist art.

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10 thoughts on “Pussy Riot and…Buddhism?

  1. Ok, got it. At first reading I thought that is a text was from Bust. Can you provide me with a scan of that Interview? Please delete my two comments.

  2. Hi Shaun, I am a bit irritated after reading the original article in Bust (p. 36) to which you are referring. First the article is not an “interview” but a portrait with citations of statements from Tolokno. Whoever knows how interviews are metamorphosed into portraits and how distorted the result can be should already by a bit suspicious about the content and resulting representation in articles of that kind.

    But that is not my point. I don’t see what in that article leads you to the important statement in your text that Tolokno has a “a strong connection to Buddhism”? Buddhism is referenced in the Bust-article twice and then only in passing.

    Second you suggest in a very direct way that Tolokno puts together postmodernism, continental philosophy, feminist punk rock and Buddhism in a kind of assemblage. At first I thought, wow, that person is interesting, but on reading the Bust-article it is clear that this mix isn’t something Tolokno works on. It is not the case that “Tolokno combined a strong interest in Buddhism and a fierce politics of pussy-in-your-face feminism, performance art and punk rock.” – at least that picture doesn’t emerge from the article.

    Apart from this, I like your promise “to never ‘act Buddhist’ ever again”. I wish you well with this undertaking.

    1. Tolokno’s ‘strong connection’ to Buddhism is that it was the topic of a conversation through which she bonded and fell in love with a young man who later became her husband. That suggests a strong intellectual connection through Buddhism, and an erotic one as well. (I would like to see the Non-Buddhists take on the erotics of Buddhist practice). Her husband had spent several years in Japan and had studied Buddhism there. He was also a founding member of the political performance art troupe that Tolokno joined. Later she founded her own all-female feminist troupe, Pussy Riot. Tolokno also spoke of the post-modern and continental philosophy that deeply influenced her work. I mean c’mon, she learned English just so she could read Judith Butler. That’s a huge commitment to post-modern theory. Besides, what I know about Pussy Riot doesn’t come from just this article. I’ve been following their work for years.

      1. Do you have some sources about Tolokonnikowa’s and her husband’s connection to Buddhism? That was my initial interest in reading your text at first. I thought Tolokonnikowa really has some idea in a direction Speculative Non-Buddhism never began to follow. That is taking concepts from Asian Buddhist traditions and philosophies, trying to understand there specific epistemic forms and therewith trying to get something out of them… into our thought and thereby infect us

      2. I don’t have any other references to Tolokno and her relationship with her husband, other than the Bust article. I’ve read about the history of the troupe in the english-language news, which includes the bit about it as an offshoot of the husband’s performance troupe. I’ve been following Pussy Riot since the story of their performance in the Orthodox Church and subsequent arrest, trial and imprisonment. I’m sure there’s a lot more available in Russian.

        The point I’m trying to make is that if we stop thinking of Buddhism as a religion, and rather make use of it as bricolage, as a ‘found’ collection of ideas and practices that can be mixed with western ideas and applied in novel ways, it can yield some pretty interesting results. The Beat poets did this to great effect, and so did the process composers like John Cage and the expressionist painters of the 50s. John Cage never meditated a day in his life, neither did Jack Kerouac. Tolokno and her husband used Buddhist concepts to spark some new ideas. Buddhism is alien to western culture, and I like to use its very alienness as a heuristic device to force us to think about the world in a different way. That’s why sometimes I don’t agree with Non-Buddhism as a project of ‘correcting’ Buddhism. Buddhism is weird, so let it be weird. For a great example of Asian Buddhist weirdness, check this out: https://engagedbuddhism.net/2017/02/18/the-birth-of-buddhist-futurism/

  3. Hi Shaun, I am a bit narrow minded when it comes to sources and their usage. But that is a philological point. On the other side I agree with you about “using” ‘Buddhist’ material. I will take a look at the experiments of Gyosen Asakura. Thanks for the link.

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