In Sophie Fiennes’ wonderful documentary starring the contemporary celebrity philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek speaks of the spontaneous arising ideology that we all employ to help us manage our lives, but which instead keeps us from seeing what’s really happening in the world.
The basic element of every ideology, he says, is the reliance on, what he and his progenitor, Jacques Lacan, call the Big Other.
The Big Other is comprised fundamentally of two qualities: First, it involves a presupposition that there is a secret order to our lives, someone or some thing is controlling us, and more importantly, guaranteeing our meaning. Second, and more interestingly according to Zizek, there is the element of the Big Other that we attempt to appease in order to maintain our appearances.
“So, that’s the tragedy of of our predicament. In order to fully exist as individuals we need the fiction of a Big Other. There must be an agency that registers our predicament. An agency where the truth of ourselves will be inscribed, accepted. An agency to which to confess. But what if there is no such agency? If no one is there to listen, you experience what Lacan claims—that there is no Big Other. We are alone.”
The Big Other can be any number of things. It’s not only God; it can be the State, an idea like evolution, or anything that is used as something to put our faith in, to guarantee our meaning.
This is very interesting to me as a Buddhist. Zizek states that we need the fiction of the Big Other to confirm our existence as individuals. In Buddhism, of course, our existence as individuals is also a clearly stated, and oft emphasized, fiction.
Buddhist psychology states that after the confusion, or black-out, that created the idea of a separation of self and other, we constantly reinforce the notion of our existence by contrasting our experience with the existence of objects deemed to be other by our conceptual mind. Buddhism teaches that both of these notions, self and other, are built on false premises.
In a talk at Naropa University (then Naropa Institute) in Boulder, CO., in 1974 Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave a very interesting talk where he pulled the rug out of from under a large gathering of students.
He spoke of how, ultimately, there is no reality, no existence of anything—self, other, phenomena, etc.
“We’ve been trying to find out the meaning of life, who we are, what it’s all about… All of that is uncertain, not only that, it doesn’t exist. So, why do we sit around here and talk this nonsense? Why we are here doesn’t have an answer… The questions themselves are non-existent. I would like to make sure that you understand that we’re doing this because there is nothing to understand. I would like to make sure 100% that you understand that we have nothing to understand. This is philosophy, doctrine, dharma, the truth, and all the rest of it. And I want you to face this fact…that we are trying to understand that we have nothing to understand. That’s a very important stepping stone to begin with. That is absolutely important.”
What does this mean there is nothing to understand? We consider it a positive thing to be a seeker, to constantly search for meaning, to understand the mysteries of the universe. If there is nothing to understand, then what of science?
Last year at a leadership gathering in Europe, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche spoke about the idea that no one really knows what they’re doing.
“I’m saying this out of humor, but I’m also saying it completely honestly, because I have now not only been teaching within the Shambhala context, but as I do now meet more people in leadership positions, and whether they are the mayor, or they are working with another religious group, or whether they’re working with a business, somebody always thinks somebody else is in charge. And you think, I am in charge. [laughs, laughter] That’s why you are here. This I know. [laughs, laughter] And I’m here, if you want to know, because I thought you were in charge. [laughs, laughter] I said, “Who’s the Center Director?” So, as you introduce to me, you think, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing.” I look at you and say, “You must know what you’re doing.” [laughs, laughter] So either we can look at this and say, “I’m the only one that doesn’t know what they’re doing,” or we can say, “Nobody knows what they’re doing.” But, as I said, nobody knows what they’re doing, because this is life. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. That’s why we have insurance. [laughter] That’s how they make their money. [laughs] So, we live in a very, kind of, fragile situation.“
To me, these three ideas: there’s no Big Other, there’s nothing to understand, and no one is in charge, are all saying the same thing. All three statements are pointing to the cause of our suffering. We suffer because we have so much invested in these ideas and they are not true.
We have built up this fantasy, consciously or not, to make life more liveable. But, it actually contributes to all of our problems and suffering.
So, what if we consider that there is no grand meaning? What if there is no one behind the curtain, not a single person who knows the answers. Then what? What would our lives be like?
How, and why, do we need to totally give up the idea of anything existing, watching, controlling or meaning anything as a basis for having it all, to waking up from our delusion?
I think that this language can be off-putting, but we have to find a way to make it not be that way. The language is so severe, I think, because we really need a jolt to bring us back from the experience of sleep walking through our lives. Or, it is severe because we take it that way, because it is like a tornado coming towards our house of cards.
This lack of a Big Other, or Big Brother, doesn’t have to be a frightening experience. As the Sakyong said in his talk to Shambhala leadership, “It’s okay not to know all the answers, and to be able to hang out and relax and be in that space of not knowing.” He went on to say that we get our strength and confidence by remaining present with that uncertainty, and that space gives birth to wisdom. So, the path then is to let go, to relax. We have to let go of what is harming us.
In that same talk from 1974, Chogyam Trungpa called this experience of totally and absolutely giving up the idea of meaning, of Big Other, the “dawn of enlightenment.” This is a very interesting idea! The experience of enlightenment, of a lightening up, of joy, humor and wisdom begins with a feeling of desolate meaninglessness—and, according to him, there is no other way.
I think what these three statements are pointing to is our seeming need to figure it all out, and also our neurotic pursuit of comfort.
In Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron talks about one of the first teachings she ever attended, in the section of the book where she is describing the lojong slogan Abandon Any Hope of Fruition. She said that the teacher began by saying, “I don’t know why you came here, but I want to tell you right now that you’re never going to get everything together.” Pema said that he was saying, “There isn’t going to be some precious future time when all the loose ends will be tied up.”
The twist is that once we realize that there is nothing to understand and nothing that we have to be, we can then actually just be. We can find freedom and we can relax by giving up the struggle. As Pema says in that same chapter, the struggle, even to wake up, always begins with the same poverty mentality that caused all of our problems in the first place—we’re not good enough as we are already.
By giving up this project there is finally room to live. There is space to accommodate our experience and participate in our world with what Suzuki Roshi called, a “beginner’s mind.” It is with this sense of curiosity and appreciation for our world and everything in it, that we can begin to be available and be of benefit to others. But, we have to make sure that we don’t turn that into our Big Other.
As Trungpa Rinpoche was fond of saying, “Jolly good luck!”
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