The truth is that I must call myself Buddhist for it would be dishonest to do otherwise. I don’t take this word as a label or a badge that I show off proudly; I equally feel no shame in stating that I am such. I imagine that some of you might though and those that have thought about it seriously have elaborate stories for why. I could pretend I am nothing and leave it to others to decide for me what I am or am not. Or I could insist on ever better definitions that fit with whatever idea is dominant in my mind, and obsess over them each year in the vain search for the perfect capture, the true me. That’s a popular game at the moment, isn’t it? Really though, it comes down to questions of identity, and truth, which are two concepts continuously under siege in our current age. In modern society, we are asked, after all, to identify with emergent dominant titles, and then posture up and display our credentials to an approving clan: I am a … (fill in the blank), therefore I am absolutely not a … (fill in the blank). Identity politics has made this all worse of course and some have rightly made the connection between its seeping influence across society, and a perennial form of adolescence, and collective narcissism; each of these latter two being wholly concerned with itself, its image, its vision of the world, its pain, and the dramatization of each.
The division between what is real and what is imagined has always been a contentious issue for our species and this divide continues unabated. The Left and the Right in their ideological capture are currently thrashing about with their ideational toys trying to make reality fit their warped visions of the world; each utterly convinced of their truth and the need for the world to adapt to its demands. The performative nature of identity means that games of identity at all levels have become far more contentious, forever problematised, increasingly theatrical, and even violent. You don’t need me to list the growing cases of stupid humans doing stupid things in the name of stupid ideologies, and to repeat how such stupidity has crossed all political divides. One may reflect on where it’s taking us all and my two cents at this point is that it will likely continue to be towards a set of destinations unpredicted by those most vocally caught up in the fervour. Self-obsession and foresight rarely go together after all.
Some of us rightly assume that giving up on the whole game of identity is the quickest way out of the identity trap and a means for escape from the madness made most evident on Twitter and Youtube. Just ignore it they say. But, this is a sort of cop out if we’re honest, and it is an attempt at transcendence, which ultimately fails. The return of an obsession with identity is, if anything, a reminder of the cyclical nature of history and a consequence of our collective struggle with the ongoing process of shuffling into a new century, and the necessary and inevitable challenges of a species in struggle with itself, and its surroundings. It is right that we imagine ourselves anew in cycles of social upheaval and change; it is not so great that we continue to do so blindly whilst ignoring history, yet again, but that is clearly asking too much of our imperfect species right now.
After an increasingly therapeutic century, it was perhaps inevitable that we would struggle with the lingering centre of our identity; the question of who we are and what we should be. Coupled with the elaborately constructed individualisation of the last century, we inevitably end up with an over-focus on ourselves, with an idea of ourselves as the locus of meaning, of responsibility, of pleasure, of identity, which is to say a self with an acute case of Narcissus syndrome.
From reality TV shows to Youtube ‘stars’, do we not live in an age of peak, unwarranted narcissism? Identity politics is too often not a balance to this excess, a reassertion of us, of community and togetherness, but an elaborate collective manifestation of the same set of dysfunctional urges. It is not just look at me, it’s now look at us, keep looking, keep us in your gaze (for we might disappear if you look away). Don’t look at them, don’t maintain their existence; if you ignore them, they will vanish. Attention at its most extreme has become a new mythological power; hunted for far and wide, accumulated and guarded jealously. The one dark ring to rule them all…
It is no surprise that our younger members of society would unconsciously plough their natural maturational urges into what makes most sense to them at the time in which they are born and grow, and in a way that will mark them apart from their dysfunctional and forever disappointing forebears. It’s a shame that they have been handed such a mixed bag of tools and that most of these tools were not fully formed and are actually inadequate for facing the really big challenges of our time. Challenges that have far less to do with identity and far more to do with transcending not only our race, gender, sexual preference and linguistic obsessions, but with maintaining the planet as an inhabitable host for our whole species and its other living beings, which are so desperate for our attention, care, and love. Challenges that concern the elaboration of an economic system fit for purpose in a very different world, necessarily accompanied by a salvageable form of democracy that is robust enough to withstand the rise of China and the inevitable risks to human freedoms that will increase as times get tougher.
If we stop for a moment, and pay attention, it’s hard not to recognise that we need our greatest minds and talents focussing on far less parochial issues than our current political climate is captured by, though there are glimpses of some change taking place. The next generation, in its reaction against its elders, may end up being one of dedicated pragmatists and realists after this brief utopian woke moment. Though, and this may surprise you if you are caught in our moment, I very much hope they don’t reject the justice and equality obsessions of their older siblings, but merely temper them within a truly global view of activism beyond identities to a reformed global togetherness that is inclusive of the birds and the bees, the trees and rivers, and the older generations, which although forever disappointing to younger generations, cannot be left behind in our global battle with global challenges.
Why state all this? Especially as I have not pondered for so long on the connection between these thoughts on our identitarian age and my odd need to state that I am a Buddhist in this post. Like many, I have felt cautious about claiming a Buddhist identity and for good reason. The statement here though is not really a claim about identity but simply an honest observation of what I am after a series of conversations in recent months demanded I be more explicit with my commitments and claims. As I stated in the Political Turn, I am not a possessor of truth or knowledge, but a participant in these two. I feel no need to own what emerges as an apparent truthful observation that I possess over here, inside, somewhere, someplace. After having made some headway with Buddhist practices over the last decades, I could hardly tell you who or what it is that would possess such knowledge anyway, and where this knowledge would be held. Evidence merely states that I am Buddhist.
I love Buddhism. Really, I adore it. And since going “post-traditional” and dancing in the stark, naked embrace of non-buddhism, I have learnt to love it more. Its grace as an immense field of human practice is so evident. The struggling, striving wonders of men and women attempting to grapple, reason with, and develop practices for coming to terms with, understanding, and ultimately striving to transcend our shared human suffering is a joyful, historical, and thoroughly human event. Even as the excesses of those desires that have emerged in different historical phases and shaped the traditions that follow become clear, discovering the flaws of the many Buddhisms has actually made its many manifestations far more attractive to me, even as I find so much of it superfluous within this emerging, liberated relationship with its ideas, ideals, and practices.
In more colourful terms, Buddhism to me has become a beast that now knows how to inhabit the space of my home without tearing up the cushions, shitting in the corner, and attacking visitors. It’s been tamed. Not turned into a passive, obedient pet, struggling with its own desire, but rather a wild thing that knows how to respectfully engage with its environment, and leave space for others to live and act differently. It now knows how to play with the other kids without being a prick. The identity is not important, the reality is.
Whereas westerners may have once felt special or different in stating “I am a Buddhist”, later stages in Western Buddhism’s development saw practitioners finding the whole show and tell game rather superficial, vain and, in more conscious moments, rather irrelevant to the core concern that captured and maintained the attention of longer-term practitioners; namely, that of the ego, of the self, of the soul, of a fixed, permanent ‘I’ at the core of being. There is a clear contradiction in claiming an identity whilst working on identity after all. On exploring phenomenologically the process of identification with.
I am Buddhist, fundamentally, because I am consciously committed to reducing suffering and ignorance in myself and others, and I recognise the indisputable value of phenomenological, contemplative practice in working towards such an open ended aim, and the utility of many Buddhist principles. What’s more, the commitment to reducing these two is a pervasive compulsion that comes naturally to me, and as a desire that drives me instinctively, capturing my deepest concerns. It is also the safest, most reliable ethical means I know of for avoiding my worst instincts and keeping me honest: How am I contributing to suffering and ignorance here and how can I reduce doing so, or stop entirely? This is not a calculating plan, it’s not performative, not designed to boost my social credentials or make me appear as a ‘good’ person, especially because those are things I am naturally bad at.
This compulsion is informed by Buddhism but also my own involvement with various forms of the therapeutic enterprise, by having taught a variety of ages for over fifteen years, of looking at the world, of being a parent, a husband, a friend, and a person, like you, that sees how difficult life can be, how suffering is so often hidden in the margins of social interactions, behind the posturing and presentations, identities and roles. Buddhism is one of our greatest collective efforts at answering the question, ‘What is to be done about all the suffering?’ It has a fundamental role at the Great feast for this reason.
At its best, Buddhism is wholly concerned with the aim of tackling individual and collective ignorance and pain and that never-ending dissatisfaction we all try to ignore (choose your favourite translation of dukkha). That is the potential within its ideological apparatus. It can be reset towards such goals, recalibrated so that it is not a mere ideological machine capturing subjects and reforming them in performative acts of sufficient Buddhism. It can be more than the mere reiteration of tradition for tradition’s sake. Those of you that recognise the capture are usually the first to dismiss the title of Buddhist, but if you are like me in your concerns, then you kind of are Buddhist: That’s at least what my friends would say.
Like the distinction between practice and performance, the distinction between Buddhism as capture and Buddhism as liberating force is not so easily identified and often difficult to recognised for practitioners and teachers. My commitment to reducing ignorance and suffering also involves making the ideological, performative nature of contemporary western Buddhism evident, and speaking to it, so that its inherited limitations may not be an obstacle to the great potential within Buddhism to enact itself. For those currently thinking deeply about western ideological hegemony, this is not me reiterating another manifestation of the ‘West knows best’ and ‘let’s drop all that backwards superstition of those dark folk who corrupted the pure teachings or original secular-scientific-humanist message of old prince Siddhartha’. Such value laden comparisons are uninteresting to me. Recognising how our current age and knowledge must be integrated into how we imagine Buddhism anew is. It is also a non-negotiable inevitability.
This is not about better than, purer than, truer than, that last one a game many traditions continue to play anyway (and to their own disadvantage in my humble opinion), but rather the desire to keep returning all practice materials to the Great Feast – a truly democratic space where all of history can have a place in a fair fight. Traditions are welcome to continue as they will, but their contribution at the Feast declines once they fail to innovate or give birth to revitalised manifestations of their most important insights and practices: There is no resisting change after all.
To me, the personal and the Buddhist are too close to be separated so I am happy to accept the title of Buddhist. I just demand that the kind of Buddhist I am be seated wholeheartedly at the Great Feast where definitions of suffering have come on since Siddharta and Tsongkhapa and our other wonderful forebears in the struggle for greater knowledge and practices. At the Feast, I am sat among great women and men from all over the globe from great varieties of human traditions, experiments, and striving, and there are many answers to what is ignorance, to what is suffering, and to what we should do about each that transcend the limits of Buddhist thought. There at the Feast I am a better Buddhist. What is obvious is that we know more than we ever did. This means that we have more resources for both understanding the qualities and range of ignorance and suffering, and far more resources for tackling both in their multiple manifestations. It is also means we all have a duty to do our part to ensure that this knowledge and these practices do not remain as mere materials for the elites, for the privileged, for the few, or that they remain in the hands of those who are drunk on ideology and are likely to give rise to yet new forms of ignorance and suffering. The Great Feast is where we can all get better at the real projects contained in the greatest moments of our human species.
I personally happen to be most interested in those moments where we tried to figure out how to help those caught in the confines of pain and ignorance to see that there are so often ways out of both. For this reason, I am clearly Buddhist.