Post #3231: No Self isn’t No Identity

In the last year or so, I’ve been troubled by some of what I’ve been hearing from the corners of North American Buddhist and meditation circles with regards to social justice and identification to a racial or social group. Most recently, a popular secular meditation teacher, literally called politics motivated by racial identification “an ethical and psychological dead end” and “a mental illness“. I am not going to drive you to that individual’s site, but you can read Matthew Remski’s piece for more information. This isn’t the first white meditation teacher to use the Buddhist doctrine of no-self to chastise politicized communities. Brad Warner, a Zen teacher whose writing I really connect with on some levels, questions the right of individuals to have their gender self-identification respected by others, and then goes on to describe how he has worked at getting over this problem of the need to identify. (In a post I can’t locate at the moment, he also suggested that there is no room for politics in the Zendo).

Now, I’m not a popular meditation teacher, nor do I claim enlightenment, but when I read or hear these kinds of pronouncements I prickle because no matter how definitively they speak to their particular audience, they do not represent the totality of Buddhist thought on the matter. Additionally, these teachers rely on us to believe their profound insight gives them access to a truth the rest of us don’t have, and therefore accept their position as inarguable. In this case, we are left with some pretty retrograde ideas masquerading as spiritual enlightenment: there simply is no place in our culture for a politics that coalesces around racial or cultural identification; we must not have discussions about politics in our Zen centers; political activity is frivolous. Etc.

Though both of these individuals are experienced meditation practitioners, they seem confused about the difference between attaining the state of no-self in our practice, and how we are identified, and thus treated by our society. As a cis-gendered woman, I don’t have to tell people I’m female to be treated to the sexism of my society. A visibly Indigenous individual does not have to tell others what nation they originate from on Turtle Island before they encounter the racism of the settler state. This has nothing to do with our spiritual insight (though what we do after we encounter abuse based on identity will be informed by our vows and our practice).

I will illustrate using the example of feminism, without which I would not have the right to vote or control my reproductive body (or work, or drive a car, or wear pants). The feminist activism I have engaged in over the course of my life is not borne out of a need to identify myself with other women, irrespective of context. The joining of women in a political movement called feminism to march, protest, petition, and demand change comes about because we want a kind of justice that is otherwise denied due to our body parts, or self-presentation that challenges the masculine in some way. In other words, we may come together as female-identified people, creating a politics of identity, but it’s not for the sake of identity in and of itself. It’s because we want to change something. And wanting political change is not a kind of mental illness, nor is it “superficial and needlessly noisy.” It is necessary to the liberatory project we find in the roots of our Buddhist practice.

No-self is a state we might access in our practice, and I believe I have had glimpses of understanding the bottomless well that appears when body and self drop away. This tells me something about my experience of the Dharma through practice, and I can take that understanding into my daily life in various ways. It’s a radical state (or non-state) to be sure. But even having touched no-self in my practice, it doesn’t mean that in my everyday life I want to live the politics of misogyny, exclusion and physical violence enacted at my gender.

In order to understand this dilemma of no-self versus identity in political movements, I turn to the book Radical Dharma : Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, a work by three non-white Buddhist teachers in the United States. In it, Zen teacher Rev. angel Kyodo williams unpacks the shortcoming of sticking too closely to the purity of our spiritual traditions as the sole way to escape our hardwired human tendencies. She says, “neither Christianity nor any other faith alone can deliver us into a systems analysis that can unravel the massive entanglement that white supremacy is in every aspect of how we think, feel, dream, and act toward ourselves and others based on our perception of their place in the social order. Rank is still the evolutionarily Neanderthal mode by which our social and religious cultures are organized, and it systematically undermines every enlightened impulse we have. 

She challenges modern Buddhist teachings that promote “the acceptance of a ‘kinder, gentler suffering’ that does not question the unwholesome roots of systemic suffering and the structures that hold it in place.” Roots that are firmly planted in racist and colonial structures that persist in how we are identified, which means that a one necessary locus of political change is going to be found in those identifications.

I practice in the Soto Zen tradition and am attached to the lineage with North American origins at the San Francisco Zen center (first brought by Shunryu Suzuki in the 1960s) . How I stumbled from secular meditation practice into a whole scale commitment to Zen is a story for another day, but one thing I discovered early on is that my adopted tradition does not shun discussion of real-world issues. In dharma talks, tea-circle, or “engaged” practice discussions, we are free to raise the worldly oppressions and identifications that we work within. We discuss how to approach these issues through the lens of our precepts, and to develop skillful means when approaching social problems. We commiserate with the suffering that racism, sexism, transphobia, ecocide, and other painful manifestations bring to one another’s lives. I have never once encountered any of our long-committed teachers suggest that someone’s identification with their race or gender expression was a sign of mental illness, or that activism as I have participated in it is superficial and needless. And while it is true that founding teachers like Norman Fischer do not speak out through social media on every issue that arises, to listen to his talks (all freely available online) is to understand how we thread our worldly lives (including our politics) into our understanding of the dharma.

We are fortunate to have choices about what kind of teachers we follow in this era. There is no monolithic church, no single mode of faith. When one person proclaims they know the truth, it is a simple matter to turn elsewhere and listen to the guidance of others. I hope that in the modern Buddhist and meditation world we continue to evolve our understanding, just as the world around us evolves, and that together we may break down the illusory divisions of our culture. Be we aren’t going to do that by calling great swaths of individuals committed to social change “mentally ill” nor by exposing our the privilege it takes to “stay out of politics”.

I don’t believe there is only one way to do social change. I am sometimes critical of the tactics or rhetoric I see people employ. But instead of loudly disavowing the activity of those whose cause I otherwise support, I have learned to first stand back and ask whether this is a space or argument I need to enter into. Mostly, it turns out, the skillful answer is no. In this case, however, I am entering into the discussion because I believe it is crucial to developing a modern Buddhism with social justice at its core, “a radical Dharma that deconstructs rather than amplifies the systems of suffering,” (Rev. angel Kyodo williams). And I hope also, to contribute a different perspective for the person who feels they must abandon their political community in order to become enlightened, or a “real Buddhist”. There is not a single truth of how politics, mediation and spiritual community interconnects, nor how each of those things informs our path to enlightenment. Not one truth, and definitely not one teacher who knows it.

One Comment on “Post #3231: No Self isn’t No Identity

  1. Preaching to the choir over here, but nicely explained! One helpful thing about not fitting into the Christian box is that I no longer feel like anyone who identifies as “Christian” necessarily speaks for me. . .but that also means I don’t often take on the systemic racism within the institutions of faith. Good for you for speaking up on behalf of what I understand to be the majority of the Buddhist community.

    And also, I am enjoying reading your various blogs and writings (in no particular order)!



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