The Signifier Pointing at the Moon: Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism – Author's notes — Karnacology



I wrote this book to help clarify some misconceptions about Zen and psychoanalysis and particularly to explore the relationship between Zen and Lacanian psychoanalysis. First, psychoanalysis and Zen are not worldviews or philosophy in the common sense of the words.  Psychoanalytic ideas are subject to critique and verification by the clinical practice between analyst and analysand. Zen also has to be confirmed within direct personal experience, the teacher-student relationship, and the relationship to the larger community.

Second, Zen and psychoanalysis are embedded within cultural contexts that emphasize different aspects of knowing and experience. Zen represents a traditional form of Eastern psychology and philosophy while psychoanalysis is emblematic of the Western enlightenment. Lacanian psychoanalysis represents a poststructuralist and Continental approach evolving out of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Buddhism has been widely accepted and recognized within North American and English-American psychoanalysis, while European and Continental psychoanalysis has remained skeptical if not overtly critical of Buddhism. Despite Levi Strauss’ enthusiastic embrace of Buddhism, Heidegger and Lacan’s use of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, many Lacanians and Lacanian psychoanalysts have remained uninformed about Zen Buddhism. Lacanians tend to view Buddhism as an ascetic attempt to eliminate suffering or desire and achieve happiness or Nirvana. Buddhism is viewed in this way despite the fact that Soto Zen arrived in Paris in the early seventies and from there spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, I began Zen practice in Paris in 1978 after already having studied Lacanian psychoanalysis for five years in Buenos Aires.

Freud believed that psychoanalytic treatment converts neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. In Sophocles play, Oedipus dies after being literally blinded by his own ignorance and with his heart/mind permanently injured for having married and lost his mother as well as killed the father that had aimed to destroy him. However, the self-knowledge he gained was henceforth transmitted from generation to generation as a way of preventing harmful repetitions of the complex drama. Psychoanalysis can prevent catastrophe and harmful repetitions, but does not guarantee happiness.

Soto Zen Buddhism is critical of ideologies of self-improvement and of using enlightenment for gain, either financially or otherwise. Neither desire, nor suffering, or happiness can be eliminated or attained because they are empty of inherent existence. Delusion, desire, and pain cannot be eliminated not only because they are empty but also because they contain their opposites: enlightenment, Nirvana, and happiness. For Lacanian psychoanalysis jouissance is both joy and pain, and without pain there is no gain. The symptom cannot and should not be eliminated but can be transformed into a sinthome and jouissance itself can be transformed into different types of jouissance that are no longer inconvenient or destructive. Finally, equanimity is not the same as “quietism” or nihilism. In Zen, activity, social and otherwise, is not reduced or transformed into stillness. Stillness itself is a form of activity, and at the core of activity lies stillness. Practice over-includes stillness and activity. Bodhisattva (enlightening being) practice includes both meditation practice and social practices and services. The historical encounter and disagreements between these two great traditions stands to be of great benefit to the future of both disciplines around the world. 

Raul Moncayo, San Francisco, CA
Author of The Signifier Pointing at the Moon: Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (London: Karnac Books, 2012).



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *