The Mimetico-Buddhist Connection

AFTER ANATTA : TOWARDS A GIRARDIAN ETHICS

Part 1

This text is a brief summary of my other essay-series,
The Non-Self of Girard

As I have argued in a previous essay-series, 1 one common struggle comes out through both René Girard’s mimetic theory, and Buddhist metaphysics: a resistance to the often unquestioned solipsistic reflexes of contemporary western mainstream culture. It is on the basis of this shared concern that an initial dialogue between the two ought to be set. Correlated to this resistance are both Girard’s and the Buddhists’ skepticisms as to the actual power, and more dangerous risks, of the self-proclaimed ‘primary’ faculty of the enlightened human: Reason. Realising this common plane of views, this earlier work had presented the hypothesis that the mimetic theory, which falls short of appropriate corresponding schools of thought within western philosophy, could find such a support if it turns to Buddhism. It also aimed at highlighting the relevance of the terminology of Buddhist philosophy for the possible philosophical, and ultimately, ethical implications of Girard’s theory.

To demonstrate the relevance of Buddhist metaphysics with regards to the mimetic theory, I highlighted in a nutshell the main aspects of the former’s central concept, Anattā, or non-self. As is well known, Shakyamuni Buddha, the 5th century bce founder of Buddhism, had exposed what were according to him the three characteristics of the world: impermanence (Anicca), suffering (Dukkha) and non-self (Anattā). The Buddha had realised that the suffering condition of life – both in human and non-human forms – is greatly connected to the fundamental state of ignorance in which beings are dwelling. One instance, or core case of such ignorance, is the human belief in the existence and properties of their self. Whether understood as self, soul, personality or essence, the belief in the Ātman (paramount in the Brāhmaṇical system, hegemonic during Buddha’s time) is unambiguously distressing for (human) beings, as it fuels and amplifies the mental phenomena of craving, attachment, and of the illusion of ownership. This is particularly wrong, and deceiving, since, according to the Buddha, reality is a flux in which nothing ever remains the same (Anicca), and therefore where no unchanged entity could be found.

As we saw in this earlier study, a large part of the Buddha’s teachings aimed at corroborating this fundamental intuition, mostly through the response he gave to visitors who could not initially accept such a challenging view. One pitfall, however, has to be carefully avoided. Though the idea might not please the Romantics of 19th century European philosophy, Buddhism is not an antique cult of nihilism. It does not deny any ground, and therefore value, to reality. Buddha was deeply pragmatic and saw as his main project the construction of a path to eradicate the suffering at the heart of (human) life. 2 Such an authentically compassionate intent could not coexist with a nihilistic agenda. Moreover, Buddha used linguistic formulations which we may label today as philosophical, only as one tool to express his views to some of his interlocutors, but never was his purpose to construct a sophisticated philosophical system with unambiguous axiomatic claims. ‘Philosophy’, if it may be called so, was at best only an Upāya-kauślaya or “skilful means” to help the Buddha further his message. A reader of the Buddhist canons may actually be perplexed when realising that the Buddha could give one answer to one person and its opposite to another individual. Buddha’s teaching was pragmatic in concern and adapted to its audience. This distant and peaceful relation with the way one undertakes a discourse on reality is to be set as the background of another fundamental Buddhist conception: that all things around us are conventional truths (Samvrti Satya), ephemeral and reductive in nature. This, of course, applies to labeling, that is, to language, but also, therefore, to philosophy as well. There is an ultimate reality for the Buddhists: Nirvana, the liberation, as the absolute truth (Parmartha Satya). But this level, which transcends all abstractions, thoughts or linguistic expressions, can only be reached through experience.

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The fundamental thesis of Girard is that human desire is for the most part not autonomous and independent: our desires do not arise from the intrinsic qualities of the objects desired, but through the mediation of particular individuals around us. This way, desire is triangular: it is not just the relation between a subject of desire and its desired object, but a triple relation between each of them and the mediator, the model.

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Our exploration of the possible links between Girard’s theory and Buddhist philosophy have led us to mention the few discussions on the part of the French thinker, about Buddhism. It is rather obvious, from these sparse statements, that Girard was under the influence of the European Romantic understanding of Buddhism, when he argued that the oriental tradition only aimed at a “renunciation” of life in an intent to get “out of the world altogether.” 3 Buddhism was clearly not a topic of interest amidst Girard’s already impressively large oeuvre. It was, however, discussed in relation to the mimetic theory by American theologian, Leo D. Lefebure. 4 His work is enlightening as it reveals the planes of compatibility between mimetic theory and Buddhism, but it dwells more on the movement of Engaged Buddhism than on properly metaphysical questions. The latter is the project I undertook.

What was its basic construction? My attempt was to discover Anattā, the idea of a lack of autonomous and independent self, as a possible philosophical foundation to be found behind each of the three poles of the Girardian triangle of desire. The fundamental thesis of Girard is that human desire is for the most part not autonomous and independent: our desires do not arise from the intrinsic qualities of the objects desired, but through the mediation of particular individuals around us. This way, desire is triangular: it is not just the relation between a subject of desire and its desired object, but a triple relation between each of them and the mediator, the model. My demonstration went step by step, commenting upon passages taken from Girard’s work itself to corroborate the new hypothesis.

First, Girard himself mentions, via his study of the works of five major novelists, that the subject of desire often comes across a feeling of inner nothingness, of a dizzyingly vast dependency on others for all things of his life. In contrast, the subject fantasises the metaphysical superiority of his model who, on the contrary, appears as being full of essence. Girard’s vocabulary is particularly important and revelatory: human desire is for him an ontological desire, a quest of the individual to acquire an unbreakable ontological basis.

But what these novelists have found – and this is the core of Girard’s theoretical reformulation of their discoveries – is that the model’s fullness is only an allegation, worse, an illusion. All the novelistic heroes undergo a life journey, which culminates in their realisation that the self of the idealised other is not more ‘solid’ and independent than their own self. This is the final goal of this realisation; in Girard’s vocabulary it is the conversion.

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Girard’s vocabulary is particularly important and revelatory: human desire is for him an ontological desire, a quest of the individual to acquire an unbreakable ontological basis.

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This set of considerations on human psyche and interactions seem interestingly compatible with the fundamental intuition of the Buddhist Anattā. Indeed, through Anattā, Buddhism is also able to explain why we can occasionally feel our lack of self, while running after it throughout our life, and believing that others are full of self, while ours, if even existing, would be tragically inferior to theirs. In this demonstration, we can suggest that Anattā may be found behind two of the three poles of the triangular desire: the subject, and the model of desire. In other words, Girard’s theory is compatible with the view that both the subject and the model of desire are void of an inherent, unchanging self.

But what about the object of desire? Is there a lack of self behind this one too? In my earlier work, I had acknowledged that the Mimetico-Buddhist connection is perhaps at its shakiest here. This is due, in part, to Girard’s conscious effort not to draw the metaphysical implications of his intuitions. Indeed, he argues only that we desire a particular object through its mediation by another individual, and not for its alleged intrinsic values. Girard does not go beyond this level, but Buddhism would: if we cannot desire an object for its intrinsic values, it is because the object, ultimately and absolutely – that is, beyond the realm of the conventional, empirical truth – is void of essence or self, that is, of a support for any ‘intrinsic’ set of qualities.

This connection between Buddhist metaphysics and Girard’s mimetic theory had invited us to draw two conclusions, of terminological nature. These are to be understood as ‘refinements’ to the prevalent vocabulary of the mimetic theory, through this instructive deviation of Buddhist philosophy.

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Most of human life, and even most human learning, is a heritage, the continuation of a flux that has gone through the hands of previous generations. And desire is one of the forms of this heritage. New desires do not arise; they are only the perpetuations of earlier forms of desire, settling through new subjects, via new models and towards new objects.

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First, I had argued that if the subject and mediator of desire are void of a self, then desire does not start from one of them – ‘desire comes from the mediator’ is the usual expression among scholars –, but passes through them after being manifested in other triangular relations. Indeed, most of human life, and even most human learning, is a heritage, the continuation of a flux that has gone through the hands of previous generations. And desire is one of the forms of this heritage. New desires do not arise; they are only the perpetuations of earlier forms of desire, settling through new subjects, via new models and towards new objects. Desires are borrowed, and therefore, mimetic. Consequently, one does not desire from the model but through the model.

Second, I suggested the critique that qualifying the desire as mimetic – as it is usually called – is limiting the scope of inquiry to only a few individuals in the desire’s dynamic (the members of the triangle), while the proper picture is a much larger one, where the existence and aspects of desire are to be traced ultimately to the whole of human societies. We could instead speak of desire as interrelated, that is, as one instance among a network of communicating and interdependent instances of desire. These initial conclusions are the prerequisites to install the present study, which aims at drawing the ethical conclusions that can be established through the Mimetico-Buddhist dialogue.

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References

Image courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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Footnotes

  1. Samuel Buchoul, “The Non-Self of Girard,” Contagion: A Journal of Religion and Culture 20 (2013): 101-116; you can read it on Samvriti here.
  2. Alain Delaye has argued that the Buddha was more a ‘therapist’ than a philosopher. Alain Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus (Paris: Accarias/L’Originel, 2007), 102.
  3. René Girard, “Séminaire de recherche sur l’œuvre de René Girard tenu au RIER,” Studies in Religions/Sciences Religieuses 10/1, 1981: 83 and René Girard, The Girard Reader, Ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad): 63, as quoted by Leo D. Lefebure, “Mimesis, Violence and Socially Engaged Buddhism – Overture to a Dialogue,” Contagion 3 (1996): 122, and “Buddhism and Mimetic Theory: A Response to Christopher Ives,” Contagion 9 (2002): 177. It is also found in Rebecca Adams, “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” Religion and Literature 25, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 24.
  4. Lefebure, “Mimesis, Violence and Socially Engaged Buddhism” 121-40, later followed by “Buddhism and Mimetic Theory” 175-84.