Chan Buddhism and Lacan on the Role of the Teacher
Timothy C. Huson, Ph.D.
School of Foreign Studies,
In a recent symposium in Nanjing on Lacan's philosophy,
today's most well-known English language proponent of Lacan, Slavoj Zizek,
rejected the idea of seeing Lacanian psychoanalysis in terms of Buddhism and raised
an impromptu critique of the popular Western forms of Zen Buddhism for becoming
an integral part of capitalist discourse, following a line of thought he has
taken in several publications, in one of which he describes "Western
Buddhism" as "íŽthe most efficient way for us fully to participate in
capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanityíŽ." I think Zizek is right about this latter
point, and also about the similar function of Zen Buddhism in Japanese
capitalism. But, while raising the
In 1953, Jacques Lacan began the first of his twenty five famous seminars on Freud with a reference to the Chan concept of teaching:
The master interrupts the silence with anything, a sarcastic remark, a kick.
This is how, according to the technique of Zen, a Buddhist master proceeds in the search for meaning. It is the part of the students themselves to seek the answer to their own questions. The master does not teach ex cathedra a ready made science. She delivers the answer by bringing the students to the point where they can find it.
With this Lacan announces a synthesis of the psychoanalytic method of teaching with that of Chan or Zen, and we suspect at least some parallel between the Zen enlightenment and Lacan's version of the psychoanalytic cure. (Of course, in general, Buddhist enlightenment is a cure of a spiritual illness, though in this paper I won't explore whether or to what extent they are the same. ) In what follows, then, we can think of the situation of the Zen student being structurally similar to that of the patient in psychoanalysis.
Lacan puts a special focus on the symbolic function of the teacher, intervening in the discourse of the student to bring the student to the brink, at which point only she can make that leap of faith called learning. This process involves a symbolic shift whereby the student will come to see what she formerly took to be reality (the world formed when we take the common discourse too seriously) to be an illusion or a delusion. The teacher's intervention into the discourse of the student as another speaking subject in an intersubjective confrontation is essential for shaking up the old discourse, causing it to loosen its hold, and enabling the student to break out of its prison, the symbolic social reality in her mind. It is crucial here that the student give up the prison of discourse and embrace her own parole (speech as symbolic act), a truth clouded over by the world's illusions. While in other respects, the analyst and the Zen master may be different (in considering this, we would have to be aware that there are fundamentally divergent schools of Zen Buddhism, even in Japan, and that, like any religion or philosophy, Zen Buddhism is also open to individual interpretation), the teaching techniques employed seem to function in essentially the same way, with the use of non-linguistic intervention into the student's discourse – for the Zen master, the kick, hitting with a stick, and so forth, or the koan and a host of related spoken interventions that disrupt the standard discourse and fulfill the crucial liberation emphasized by Hui Heng:
"If you wish to know the essential points of my teaching, you should free yourself from all thoughts, good ones as well as bad; then your mind will be in a state of purity, calm and serene all the time, and its usefulness as manifold as the grains of sand in the Ganges."
Teaching with an Empty Bucket
According to one well-known model of teaching, the teacher has a big bucket of water from which the students will try to gather a few drops to put into their empty buckets. It's nothing new to say that this model creates dependency and cheap imitation, and not the independence of thought needed to change the world and resist tyranny – which I think are needed today. In both the West and the East, this view has long ago been challenged by a variety of teaching models that focus on the development of latent potential in the student and the role of the teacher as facilitator in bringing the student to the position where she can activate that potential.
There is a long tradition of such teaching in both East and West. The Socratic teaching depicted by Plato is usually characterized by the teacher's use of dialogue to draw the student into making his own conclusions based on his own internal reasoning process. One might think that this reasoning process is social, not individual, if it weren't for the importance given to the role of Socrates' little demon (daimonion) or voice, which invokes a non-social aspect. Again, with the view of education found in Plato's allegory of the cave in the Republic there is something structurally similar to the teachings of Chan Buddhism – the world we normally live in, the one the cave-dwellers see flickering on the wall of the cave, is an illusion and education consists in liberation from that illusion in the "turning of the soul."
If we fast-forward some 2300 years, to Friedrich Nietzsche, we again find the Socratic motif, this time as liberation from the dominant herd-oriented thought: "Your teacher can only be your liberator. And that is the secret of all education: it doesn't offer artificial limbs, wax noses, bespectacled eyes – rather, what these borrowings can give is only the false effigy of education." Again, education comes from inside, and not from outside. And the liberation is not only psychological, but also involves a changed view of reality itself. But here as well, no view is offered as to how teacher plays the role of facilitator. That view comes up, I believe, only when education is seen in terms of liberation from the illusion of an errant discourse and, thus, the teacher's role is seen as an intersubjective symbolic intervention into the student's errant discourse, enabling the student to break from the illusion and achieve the satori of Zen Buddhism or psychoanalytic cure.
Learning as Breaking from the Illusion of the Errant Discourse
For Lacan, reality is structured by language, not as natural language, but as discourse – language that has been given a meaning and a value by the speaking subject. The basis is a particular aspect of Saussure's theory of language, the view of the arbitrariness of the connection between the signifier and the signified along with its tremendous implications for the relation between language and reality:
"The characteristic role of language vis-à-vis thought is not to create a phonic means to express ideas, but to serve as an intermediary between thought and sound under such conditions that their union necessarily leads to reciprocal delimitations of unities. Thought, chaotic by nature, is forced to become precise in being decomposed."
To my mind, this theory only has its fullest force when the arbitrariness is located, as Saussure has it, between the signifier and the signified, and not, as Émile Benveniste would prefer in a point of criticism of Saussure, between the sign and reality. Language, coming between the sphere of meaning (signified) and the sphere of sound (signifier), can thus give rise to a contingent world, a world that – as Lacan extends the theory – is errantly taken as reality itself.
It is important, however, to distinguish a linguistic model of language, which Saussure still essentially uses, that is, one in which linguistic units (words, phonemes, morphemes, and so forth) have meaning due to their relation to other units in a system, from the concept of discourse that Lacan introduces – according to which the whole system of words first gains its meaning in virtue of an act of speech (la parole) by a subject. (Lacan's use of la parole is very different from Saussure's.) The mere fact of speaking a language by no means determines what world will exist for the speaking subject – she can take on the subject position that sustains the errant discourse and remain in ignorance, or she can express her own voice, her own speech, and come to see that discourse as error. In this way, for the enlightened, it is not language itself, and least of all the conventional meaning of words, that determines what reality is.
The way in which the subject's subjective intervention into the empty and ambiguous chain of signifiers gives them a sense, creating a discourse and a world, is illustrated by Lacan by means of the holophrase, an phrase that has no linguistic meaning, no meaning in relation to other signifiers, but gains its meaning only in an intersubjective context as it is employed by a speaking subject. A typical example of a holophrase is a single word uttered by children that only has meaning when employed in a particular situation – "food," "toy," or whatever. Lacan gives a more elaborate example from Fijian. In these cases, the point is that the expression only has meaning in the intersubjective relation, and not merely due to its semantic relation with other signifiers. Lacan's point is, I think, that language as a whole, in a sense, is holophrastic: "You will also see that every holophrase is attached to limit situations where the subject is suspended in a specular relation to the other." This prelinguistic field of meaning creation is not, for Lacan, an atypical case or a stage in language learning or language evolution. Rather, as I see it, it highlights an essential structural component of language as such. It is a transparent instance of what is always the case, that discourse is formed in virtue of an act of speech (la parole) that decides between the various possible webs of meaning a language contains.
Given that the illusion of reality is constituted by discourse and that this depends on the act of speech (la parole), enlightenment would consist in perceiving this error, in making another act that corrects the errant discourse, an act that makes discourse not something taken over from outside, but something of one's own creation. This reality may stay the same, but our attitude towards it, as its creators, has now changed. True teaching, then, is not the transmission of water from one bucket to the other, or of tidbits of information from one human flash disc to another, but a disruption of discours resulting in a new awareness of reality, of being, and the creation of a new discourse and hence a new world. But where is the teacher in all of this?
The Teacher's Intervention into the Student's Discourse
But where is the teacher in all of this? How does the teacher facilitate this
change? Lacan's teacher plays the
role of speaking subject in the intersubjective symbolic process of education by
intervening into the student's errant discourse. Lacan points to the connection between
teaching and speaking – playing on the connection
The importance that Lacan gives to transference in analytic technique parallels this role of the teacher as subjective speaker intervening into the student's discourse. As the patient first begins to be cured of his/her neurosis, there is inevitably a setback where he/she replays with the analyst the neurotic relation that he/she had formerly experienced with someone else. It delays the cure, but, for Lacan, it is also an essential step in that cure, for it is in the transference that the analyst confronts the patient in an intersubjective relation of two discourses in a way that disrupts the patients discourse and forces her to work through that discourse and, eventually, realize that it is her own creation, an illusion – the essential step in her cure. It is only by entering the patient's symbolic world as a speaking subject that the analyst can bring about a shift in the patient's world: "Transference admits of effects, of projections of imaginary articulations, but it is situated entirely in the symbolic relation." This is not a transmission of information so that the patient comes to understand what is wrong using the rules of the given discourse – simply being informed of what one is repressing, for example, will not result in a cure, as Freud has often mentioned. Rather, what is needed for a cure, as for true education, is a symbolic intervention into the world of the patient so as to interrupt it and bring her to where she can transform it herself. No water is transferred into the student's bucket, but rather, her bucket changes, the meaning of her words changes, and her reality changes:
Lacan's own teaching, recorded in his twenty five seminars, exemplifies to some extent this type of teaching. The point is not so much the content as it is the intervention into the student's discourse to the purpose of enabling the student to see that reality is ultimately created by the act of speech (la parole) that orients language into a discourse:
"I teach you the sense and the function of the action of la parole to the extent that it is here the element of interpretation. It is this that is the foundational medium of intersubjective relation and retroactively modifies the two subjects. It is la parole that literally creates what is constituted in this dimension of being that I am trying to make you catch sight of."
Reality, then, is not something existing externally to us, but rather is immanent to the discourse we found as speaking subjects, subjects of the act of la parole. Since he makes education and cure hinge on overcoming the illusion of a language-based reality and gives the prime place in this process to a non-linguistic function of speech, Lacan's theory parallels the views of Zen with which he opened his first seminar.
The Chan Buddhist Master as Teacher
Zen verbalism parallels the analyst's role in transference as a sort of subjective intervention into the student's errant discourse enabling the student to see it as illusion. Bear in mind, it is not essential that the teacher's intervention with la parole be literally spoken words, since la parole is extra-linguistic. Speech as symbolic act essentially has no meaning in terms of the system of language, as was seen with the phenomenon of the holophrase. So the Zen master's kick, a blow with his staff, a twist of the nose, or any other gesture, even silence, can constitute a symbolic intervention of the master as "speaking" subject into the student's discourse. And, of course, the famous koan and numerous other Zen tropes suit this role well, precisely due to the fact that, while they employ the words of the standard discourse, they do so in ways that violate usual linguistic meaning. In many cases, the master's intersubjective intervention into the student's discourse directly illustrates the holophrastic nature of Zen verbalisms, since the point is to get the disciple to liberate himself from the conceptual linguistic meaning of the terms. This usage of words, as Daisetz Suzuki tells us, cannot be analyzed by any of the standard models employed in the philosophy of language – it "violate[s] all the rules of the science of linguistics." The verbalism of Zen is, like the tao of Laotze and Chuangtze, from which it is derived, ungraspable and unnamable. (As is la parole for Lacan, with its connection to unconscious repressed truth: "There are essential relations that no discourse can sufficiently express except in what I just called between the lines.") The point is not to grasp the meaning of words in the system of language to which they belong as linguistic entities, but rather, quite to the contrary, the language usage of the Zen master, like the intervention of the analyst, serves to change the student's mental state in reference to the reality constituted by that normal discourse.
Suzuki, in his chapter on "Practical Methods of Zen Instruction" from the first series of his Essays in Zen Buddhism, distinguishes two sorts of methods, verbal methods and direct methods (physical striking the student and the like), both of which I have suggested can be understood in Lacanian terms as interventions into the students errant discourse. Among the verbal methods, the category that Suzuki calls the method of repetition is of particular interest here, for it quite clearly shows the holophrastic characteristic that Lacan found to underlie discourse. The Zen master's use of repetition clearly shows his entering into an intersubjective confrontation with the student's errant discourse and thus enabling the student to liberate himself from it. Suzuki gives the following example of an unenlightened student offering the following lines in response to the Zen master Jimyo's (Tzu-ming, 986 – 1040) question as to the fundamental principle of Buddhism: "No clouds are gathering over the mountain peaks, / And how serenely the moon is reflected on the waves." After the student spoke these words, Jimyo scolded him for his ignorance of Buddhism and then, in response to the student's entreaty for instruction, repeated the same lines back to the student, resulting in the student's enlightenment. Like the holophrase discussed by Lacan, the same lines have taken on a different meaning in the intersubjective confrontation, and a collision of two discourses ensues, resulting in the student's liberation from the errant discourse. In reference to such a verbal repetition, Suzuki describes the new use of language according to which "Zen is not to be sought in ideas or words, but íŽ without ideas or words Zen cannot convey itself to others." As Suzuki says, the point is not the linguistic meaning of the terms, but rather the way in which they point back to the speaking subjects: "Language is then with the Zen masters a kind of exclamation or ejaculationíŽ. No meaning is to be sought in the expression itself, but within ourselves, in our own minds which are awakened to the same experience." With this non-linguistic use of language in education, we have something that precisely parallels the role Lacan gives to la parole in analysis and education.
Note on Some Limitations of this Thesis
Let me emphasize that what I have said about the link between Chan or Zen teaching and Lacan in terms of the teacher's intervening in the student's discourse is put in terms that are not always those of Zen teachers themselves. Daisetz Suzuki does emphasize the crucial function of language, but he does not explicate exactly how the intersubjective intervening of the teacher brings about the enlightenment. So I am drawing on the structure of Lacan's views on teaching to give an account for how the phenomenon of Zen teaching seems to work.
While I have here focused on the teachering methods of Lacan and Zen, this already points to other realms of convergence. I'm not, however, suggesting a complete convergence, but only the parallel in the role of the teacher in instigating the student to break from his/her errant discourse. The question concerning to what extent the ultimate goal of the Chan teaching method and the truth attained can be assimilated to that of Lacanian psychoanalysis is beyond present concerns. Addressing objections to a more general synthesis – such as to what degree, if at all, the truth that Lacan finds outside of language can be paralleled with the truth that Buddhism finds there, in what sense each involves indifference and how that indifference is to be understood, or in what way the self of Zen outside of the errant discourse is or is not different from the self outside of the symbolic order realized by Lacanian psychoanalysis, and so forth – would be a much larger project. The sweeping objections made by Slavoj Zizek, while interesting, only open the door to an investigation of these issues. (Zizek's overgeneralized conclusions are perhaps partly due to his conflating Zen with other forms of Buddhism and to his apparent unawareness of the practices of the different schools of Zen Buddhism or the possibility of various interpretations of it.)
Also, I need to clarify one particular ambiguity by Daisetz Suzuki on the Zen use of language. First Suzuki distinguishes Zen's use of language from its ordinary usage that is discriminatory, logical, and dualistic. In distinction from this Suzuki refers to a Zen language usage that applies to the things themselves, comes out of the subject, and serves as a pedagogical tool to awaken the student from the illusion of the errant discourse she is in. Suzuki frequently mentions a famous example from Zen that can serve us here for illustration: "In the finger pointed at the moon, there is no Zen, but when the pointing finger itself is considered, altogether independent of any external references, there is Zen." If we see the hand as a signifier, then it is the signifier as such that is the goal, and not the signified, not the illusion that the signified has in the standard discourse. We then can see the how the word, in its pointing function creates an illusionary world, we can see the word as a word, as potential for creating other worlds, and we can see that we need not be controlled by the discourse of the word, but rather that our subjective attitude gives meaning to the word. In focusing on the direct use of language, I think there are, then, three inter-related things going on: 1) shocking one out of the illusion of the discourse of error, 2) seeing things (the extra-symbolic real) outside of their discourse framework, and 3) seeing the subject outside of its role in the world framed by discourse.
Theory and Practice of Teaching
This paper is primarily motivated by my own practice as a
teacher in the
Today, education in
Hui Neng, the most famous Zen master and native of Guangdong, was an illiterate woodcutter, and precisely for this reason, I think, he was able to illustrate by his own example that learning comes from within, not from without. Once, when a student came to Hui Neng to ask him if he saw the essence of mind, Hui Neng responded by striking him with his cane, asking him if he felt pain. The student responded that he both did and did not. So Hui Neng responded that he both saw and did not see the essence of mind, explaining that he saw his own mind but not that of another. He then instructed the student that it is only he, the student, who could answer the question he came to ask of Hui Neng: "Instead of asking others, why not see it for yourself and know it for yourself?" To me there is a truth in this statement that goes far beyond any specific philosophical school, or rather, it is the element of truth in Chan Buddhism that is found in every genuine thought, what Suzuki was after when he wrote: "Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion. Every intellectual effort must culminate in it, or rather must start form it, if it is to bear any practical fruits."
1 I want to thank D. W. Chu for his assistance in improving an earlier draught of this paper.
2 Slavoj Zizek.
The Puppet and the Dwarf: The
Perverse Core of Christianity.
Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003, p. 26. See also The Parallax View (Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, 2006, p. 383f) and On Belief
3 Zizek dismissed Zen along with Daisetz Suzuki, appealing to local sentiment, for the latter's sympathy with Japanese nationalism. In conjunction with Suzuki, Zizek also emphasized the role of meditation – that one could meditate and be oblivious to the external world – apparently unaware of the diminished role meditation plays in the Rinzai school to which Suzuki belonged. Nonetheless, I wonder whether one reason for Zizek's failure to appreciate the Zen aspects of Lacan's teaching is that Zizek's own teaching method tends a bit towards the bucketful of water teaching metaphor that I depict below.
4 Literally, from the throne, that is, from the pulpit, from the lectern, or as though she were the authority.
5 Jacques Lacan. Le Séminaire Livre I, Les écrits techniques de Freud 1953 – 1954. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1975, p. 9. All translations in the present paper are mine, except where otherwise noted.
6 Zizek, while acknowledging the common facet of recognizing illusion of what Lacan calls the big Other in both Zen and psychoanalysis, has raised objections as regards the goal of freeing oneself from attachment. I address this later in this paper. Zizek has emphasized that analysis is not directed to freeing us from desire and attachment, but to the contrary, "the Lacanian act is íŽ Original Sin itself, the abyssal disturbance of primeval peace, the primordial 'pathological' Choice of unconditional attachment to some specific object (like falling in love with a specific person who, thereafter, matters more than anything else)." (The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 22)
7 Hui Neng. The Platform Sutra. Translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam (http://zen.thetao.info/read/platform.htm)
8 Lacan interpreted Socrates as teacher more in line with the analyst. See Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre VIII, Le transfert 1960 – 1961. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
9 Friedrich Nietzsche. Schopenhauer als Erzieher. In Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe I, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. München, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999, p. 341
10 Ferdinand de Saussure. Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Tullio de Mauro, Paris, Grande Bibliothèque Payot (1995) (first published, 1916, with commentaries, 1967), p. 156.
11 Émile Benveniste.
"Nature du signe linguistique," in Problèmes de linguistique générale, 1,
12 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, pp. 348.
13 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, pp. 381, 391.
14 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 381.
Daisetz T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism,
16 I believe, for both Zen and Lacan, the breakthrough in learning is a sort of symbolic act.
17 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 354.
18 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 417.
19 See Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 309ff.
20 Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture.
21 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 373.
22 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 312f.
23 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 291.
24 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 289f.
25 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 299.
The Awakening of Zen.
27 Hui Neng, The Platform Sutra.
28 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 268.
 I want to thank D. W. Chu for his assistance in improving an earlier draught of this paper.
 Slavoj Zizek.
The Puppet and the Dwarf: The
Perverse Core of Christianity.
Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003, p. 26. See also The Parallax View (Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, 2006, p. 383f) and On Belief
 Zizek dismissed Zen along with Daisetz Suzuki, appealing to local sentiment, for the latter's sympathy with Japanese nationalism. In conjunction with Suzuki, Zizek also emphasized the role of meditation – that one could meditate and be oblivious to the external world – apparently unaware of the diminished role meditation plays in the Rinzai school to which Suzuki belonged. Nonetheless, I wonder whether one reason for Zizek's failure to appreciate the Zen aspects of Lacan's teaching is that Zizek's own teaching method tends a bit towards the bucketful of water teaching metaphor that I depict below.
 Literally, from the throne, that is, from the pulpit, from the lectern, or as though she were the authority.
 Jacques Lacan. Le Séminaire Livre I, Les écrits techniques de Freud 1953 – 1954. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1975, p. 9. All translations in the present paper are mine, except where otherwise noted.
 Zizek, while acknowledging the common facet of recognizing illusion of what Lacan calls the big Other in both Zen and psychoanalysis, has raised objections as regards the goal of freeing oneself from attachment. I address this later in this paper. Zizek has emphasized that analysis is not directed to freeing us from desire and attachment, but to the contrary, "the Lacanian act is íŽ Original Sin itself, the abyssal disturbance of primeval peace, the primordial 'pathological' Choice of unconditional attachment to some specific object (like falling in love with a specific person who, thereafter, matters more than anything else)." (The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 22)
 Hui Neng. The Platform Sutra. Translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam (http://zen.thetao.info/read/platform.htm)
 Lacan interpreted Socrates as teacher more in line with the analyst. See Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre VIII, Le transfert 1960 – 1961. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
 Friedrich Nietzsche. Schopenhauer als Erzieher. In Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe I, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. München, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999, p. 341
 Ferdinand de Saussure. Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Tullio de Mauro, Paris, Grande Bibliothèque Payot (1995) (first published, 1916, with commentaries, 1967), p. 156.
Émile Benveniste. "Nature du signe
linguistique," in Problèmes de
linguistique générale, 1,
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, pp. 348.
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, pp. 381, 391.
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 381.
 Daisetz T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism,
 I believe, for both Zen and Lacan, the breakthrough in learning is a sort of symbolic act.
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 354.
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 417.
 See Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 309ff.
Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture.
 Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre I, p. 373.
 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 312f.
 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 291.
 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 289f.
 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 299.
 Suzuki, The Awakening of Zen.
 Hui Neng, The Platform Sutra.
 Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 268.