Back when I was teaching, in every class I ever taught, there was always one student who would raise his hand or approach me after a lecture and say, "That's like Buddhism."
Now, I wonder if this is a distinctly California phenomenon. Somehow, I can't imagine the same thing happening at U Penn. But perhaps times have changed and Buddhism — or some version of Buddhism — has penetrated the American vocabulary, its psyche, its sense of its self.
The ideas that define and shape my thinking may share certain notions with Buddhism — a critique of the ego, the collapse of a subject/object dichotomy, a sense of participating in life rather than standing at a critical remove. No doubt, there are more commonalities.
And yet an enormous abyss yawns between Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque and the writings of Chuang Tzu. One experiences that difference immediately and palpably in their respective styles: while both are somewhat cryptic, one is exacting, dense, conceptual; the other is poetic and light.
This difference — what we can call their style — is not irrelevant. On the contrary, it is precisely what matters. Style is thought rendered as a life, as a way of going in this world. It is a posture and predilection, a mode, an operation: a living through.
I think it is safe to say that more people can reference some Buddhist notion — perhaps erroneously — than can reference Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida, Bergson, or Deleuze. The density — and, often, the absurdly pedantic prose — of Western philosophy is prohibitive. Buddhist writings, on the other hand, while complex and at times cryptic have a certain accessibility.
And this accessibility has to do with that fact that Buddhism concerns itself with how to live, how to operate in this world. Kant or Hegel, on the other hand, read like aliens: it's hard to imagine what these impossibly complex texts have to do with living life.
And, no doubt, this is a valid critique of Western philosophy: it is "academic." And yet....
And yet this conceptual approach to life is still an approach to life. And I, for one, happen to enjoy concepts. I happen to enjoy the elaborate, bizarre, beautiful conceptual structures of Kant and the careful, considered density of Deleuze. And this enjoyment is a life, is a posture, is a style. This is how I roll, and I dig it.
This is to say that I read all texts — Bergson or Buddha — as modes of living. Of course, the fact that I read this way — that I read philosophers for their style as much as for their ideas — places me outside of the academic community. And as I am not part of the academic community, I could care less. But my point is this: just because the academic approach to Western philosophy doesn't understand or concern itself with concept as style, as life, doesn't mean we need to critique Western philosophy for missing life.
Rather, it obliges us to find the life in Hegel and Kant and Derrida and Foucault. Perhaps we find that life distasteful. I, for one, have found Heidegger unpalatable. And Hegel, well, I could never digest dialectics. And, jeez, Kant is so hilariously uptight and reasonable that he's gloriously insane. I, for one, love that delirium — even if I am not a Kantian disciple.
I am a thinker. Such is my being. Such is my becoming. And so I roll with those who think aggressively, beautifully, thoroughly, baroquely: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, Foucault, Burroughs. This is my style. This is my life. Not the serenity or peace of Zen; not the quiet, cryptic piety of Buddhism; but the intellectual beauty — and at times crankiness and pedantry — of my Western cohorts.
This is not a critique or negation of Buddhism. It is an affirmation of me. Peace.