Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Communities, Identities and Buddhist Bloggers

Self Portrait In Curved Window With Passers-By
Self Portrait in Curved Window with Passers-by, Helsinki, 2007

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about identity lately. Or, perhaps, identities—those self-portraits we like to paint for all kinds of situations. I have a work identity, a husband identity, a blogger identity, a national identity, a cultural identity, a sexual identity, a Zen identity, a political identity, a Facebook identity, and so on and so forth, I can't even remember all of them.

These identities are the building-blocks we use to create communities. Some of the communities are "real" in the sense that we have some kind of personal contact with everybody who is part of the community. Others are imagined—we only form a community because all of us in it believe we share in whatever the community has selected as its distinguishing characteristic. These run the gamut from small, loose groups of maybe a few score people (like the sangha where I practice—we are a community, although I haven't met everyone who's part of it) to supra-national super-identities, such as the slowly emerging "European" identity vaguely oriented around the cultural-political-ideological concept of the European Union, or the loose collection of values and ideas underlying that political edifice.

Whenever two people meet, identities will get constructed. Context determines which identity comes to the fore. At the office, we'll exchange business cards, and I'll have my software expert identity on show. On a blog somewhere, I'll be wearing my Buddhist blogger identity. Even people who post anonymously on Internet forums are creating identities, by the very fact of being anonymous, and by their choice of words and style. Doing without an identity is incredibly difficult; so difficult that someone had to invent a whole damn religion about it—that, among other things, is what "transcending subject-apprehender and object-apprehended" is all about.

Identity comes with baggage. It creates expectations and internal pressures. If I'm a "Finn," I'm expected to like the sauna, be fair-skinned, be socially reticent and require a lot of personal space, be literate, practical, up-to-date with world affairs and fluent in at least one foreign language, but not too sophisticated intellectually, be honest and a bit naive, have no dress sense and not take care of my shoes, drink too much and possibly turn violent when drunk, like heavy rock, like ice hockey and motorsports, be nonreligious, not have the sense to put on sunscreen or stay in the shade when it's sunny, and so on. If I do happen to have some of these characteristics, they're ascribed to my Finnishness, if not, they're written off as exceptions to the stereotype.

Communities form when we buy into these fictions of identity; when there's enough interaction and enough overlap in these imaginary characteristics to create something that coheres. Sometimes even a fiction of a fiction is sufficient—people might have drastically different ideas of what the supposedly shared characteristics are, yet still imagine they belong to the same community. When people making up the community wake up to those differences, crises can result. Sometimes the community disappears altogether, or gets torn by civil war, or splits up; at other times, it can re-invent its shared identity and emerge stronger but different.

There's a visible effort to create a community of English-language Buddhist bloggers. If I comment on other Buddhist-flavored blogs, or someone in that community reads something here, I'm treated as belonging to that community. Sometimes I feel like I'm trespassing. Who am I, after all—about a year of regular Zen practice under my belt (or butt, to get technical about it), not even a native English-speaker, never even mind Anglo-American like almost everyone else in that community? Hell, I'm not even a Buddhist! (Or am I? If I am, what kind of Buddhist, and what does it imply? Does it even matter?)

What does it mean to be a Buddhist blogger? What kinds of expectations does it create? What are the rules and bylaws, explicit and implicit, of that community? Is it enough to be interested in Buddhism and blog about it, or do you have to assume a Buddhist identity? Do you have to have a practice?

Some want to exclude "bookstore Buddhists"—people who are interested in Buddhism but don't want to practice it. Others want to exclude people who don't hold certain metaphysical views, regarding rebirth, for example. Yet others want to exclude people for sectarianism, or syncretism, or corporatism, or lack of conformity with the ethos the people accused of corporatism espouse. Does the Buddhist blogger identity come with a prepackaged set of political positions you're expected to hold? You know, free Tibet, stop the war, go green, vote left of center (or be an antiestablishment activist), and so on?

What about the jargon? Do you have to go "gassho" and "metta" and "namaste?" Do you have to cite the paramitas and the precepts? Make a point of not eating meat or drinking alcohol (or, conversely, make a point of eating meat and drinking alcohol, despite being a Buddhist blogger?) Make a point of being a Buddhist, or make a point of not being a Buddhist? Do you have to ooze kindness and compassion even if you have to clench your sphincter so tight you'll shit diamonds? Or, conversely, make a point of not oozing kindness and compassion etc.? Do you listen attentively at the feet of Pema Chödrön and Ajahn Brahm and Robert Aitken Roshi, or make a point of challenging authority?

What is the whole community supposed to be for, beyond just being a bunch of people who are interested in Buddhism, for whatever reason, and are loosely connected by the magic of the Internet, which allows them to gassho, metta, and namaste each other, in between denouncing each other for superstitious beliefs in demons and spirits/nihilistic disbelief in rebirth/use of foul language/masking their true intent in fake kind language/banging their students/being prudes/teaching Zen on the Internet/not teaching Zen on the Internet?

Blogging is set up to be a competitive sport. There are great ways to count hits—my platform just made stats and graphs from Google Analytics a standard feature that can't even be disabled. There are Facebook Like buttons and reaction buttons and link-backs and comments. It's very hard to resist the temptation of counting those hits, and measuring your worth as a blogger by them, and let that steer your blogging. (But why shouldn't you? I don't know about you, but somehow I feel very strongly that I shouldn't. I've been there and done that, in writing about photography. Apart from some pocket money from Google, that experience didn't do me any good, and it may have done me some temporary harm.)

We can't do without identities. Yet the moment we assume one, it becomes a prison. The more strongly we assume it, the stronger the bars and gates in that prison. I want to blog. I just don't want another identity to go with it. I'm just me, not a community-builder, community-breaker, or even community-member, any more than I can help it. I would prefer that the community of Buddhist bloggers remain as loose as possible, with as few expectations, constraints, exclusion, inclusion, rules, regulations, manners, mannerisms, habits, enforcement, cliques, status games, leaders, followers, and politics as possible.

That will never happen.


  1. I was hoping you'd blog on group identity, as it's cropped up a bit lately in several of your posts, but I admit this is certainly not the way I expected you to go. I'll let your fellow(or not)Buddhist bloggers deal with that particular aspect, but I just want to address your last remark, very briefly.

    If identity is indeed a prison of attitude and labels, wouldn't one's mission be learning how to open the door? Perhaps a lot of this identity struggle is inherent in accepting the Buddhist ideas of not clinging to such things, but speaking outside that view, letting go of negative identity, and appreciating beneficial aspects of it seem to make it less a prison and more a vehicle of expression, and even of possible accomplishment, as you've touched on before in speaking of the demise of nation states and so forth. Seems to me one shouldn't be a prisoner of one's identity, but a messenger of it.

    Just my very quick two cents.

  2. It would be good to be able to do that. It sounds like a fruitful way to approach the matter.

    I think I may have more to say on this topic later. This post was rather off-the-cuff.

  3. This is the best thing that I've read on the Internet about Buddhism/community in a long, long time. Thank you (gassho, metta, namaste, and all that) very very much.