Friday, March 9, 2012

More on identity matters

Soft Granite

I've been mulling these identity issues I mentioned in my previous post a little. I had a thoughtful conversation about it on Twitter with NellaLou and Mumon, and Mumon posted about it on his blog a bit later, and then Barbara O'Brien picked up on it. Funny how that sort of thing happens; I didn't think that particular post would be particularly interesting to anyone, as it was more of a somewhat self-indulgent post-zazenkai mind-state dump than anything thoroughly considered.

Also, Barbara pointed out that what we called jukai isn't what's usually called jukai in Zen; the ritual that was actually performed is usually known as fusatsu.

Yet the identity issue did come up—even if peripherally—in Kanja sensei's talk, and she did most definitely call the ritual jukai. I also read up on jukai on Wikipedia (and some other places), and it's clear that usually this is the name of the ceremony associated with receiving the rakusu--that little bib Zennies sometimes like to wear. As far as I've gathered, the procedure for getting the rakusu in our tradition is very much as Wikipedia describes the preparation for jukai, and I believe there is a ritual associated with actually receiving it too.

So clearly the senseis have shuffled some stuff around somewhat. I'm sure they have their reasons, and perhaps I'll ask them later, the next time I see them.
But yeah, identity. I do find myself still uncomfortable with the idea of adopting a Buddhist religious identity. On the face of it, there's no reason I should. I don't have any particular trouble with the precepts as such (other than the obvious one that everyone would have, i.e., that it's impossible not to break them most of the time). I may be no great shakes as a Zen student, but I do have a practice, and I follow it as I'm able. I have no huge doctrinal disagreements with Buddhism as it is taught in our tradition, or indeed in general. The ritual aspect of Zen greatly speaks to me.

Yet I find a strong reluctance to thinking of myself as Buddhist, or going through a ritual gate that would publicly make me one. Why?

I've identified three reasons.

One has to do with negative experiences I've had with converts in general, and converts to so-called Eastern religions in particular. I was marked by my experience of dharma tourists in Nepal when I was fifteen or sixteen, and the contrast between them and the way Nepalese practiced their religion. The converts just seemed so thoroughly phony about it. While by no means all converts I've encountered since fit this stereotype—in fact, most probably don't—I still keep tripping over Westernerns who make a big song and dance of their adopted religious identity, and manage to be thorough assholes about it. That kind of sours it for me.

The second reason segues from these experiences. It has to do with cultural appropriation and white privilege. Most Finnish Buddhists born to the religion belong to ethnic minorities. For them, a Buddhist identity is also a cultural safe space in a society that is often overtly hostile to their identity. A white Westerner, especially a white male Westerner adopting that identity is treading perilously close to invading that safe space. I do not want to be That Guy, the one who's more Buddhist than those silly superstitious backward Asians.

The third and certainly most important one has to do with the sense of identity I have, and have had for all of my adult life. It crystallized in my teenage years as I realized that the Christian mythos is just bogus—that it doesn't make any kind of intellectual sense, yet there is a very strong demand in Christianity to accept obviously impossible stuff as having "really happened," in the same sense that, say, Caesar's assassination or the battle of Waterloo "really happened." I am a skeptic, secularist, and rationalist. As I understand it, Buddhism is not at all incompatible with these stances, but at this point, adding "Buddhist" to that stack feels very much like, as the Zen expression has it, putting a hat on top of a hat.

I also notice that one famous Zen bugaboo that has mostly left me alone has been rearing up its ugly head: "comparing mind." Perhaps this has something to do with my stick-wielding duties. I imagine there are expectations of what I should be doing, what I'm doing relative to the other stick-wielders, and how others see me. Yet I feel very strongly that it would be a bad idea to adopt a Buddhist identity because I imagine that's what those "others" expect me to do.

These are not insurmountable hurdles. I know plenty of convert Buddhists who wear that identity very well indeed; many of them I sit with every week. But they are hurdles, or knots, and they do need untying.

The funny thing is that if I manage just to do any or all of this stuff—sitting, walking, bowing, chanting, ringing a bell—it is very simple and very straightforward. The complications only arise around it, as it were. Perhaps I will become a Buddhist one day. That day is not today, though. For the time being, I will simply continue to do what I've been doing so far—doing Buddhism, rather than being a Buddhist.

I just fried us up some fresh smelt. Most people here consider it a smelly side-catch only good for bait. We thought it was delicious, delicate and aromatic, and as close to boneless as fish get. Sardine is much smellier and in my opinion not as good, and that's an expensive imported delicacy. Funny how that goes, too.


  1. Good post. My mileage varies a bit, as you'd expect.

    1 & 2 relate to how you and "Asians" and "Westerners" perceive each other and the appropriation of identity as cultural things that began in one place or the other. You've kind of got a point, but some of it reminds me of things like the first time I became aware that Japanese were becoming avid golfers. They've become avid golfers, not fake golfers.

    I know exactly what you're talking about phonies - it's the phenomenon of Westerners adopting the trappings of The Mysterious and Exotic East, as though that's something to be adopted.

    For someone like me, that lives on the boundary as it were, people are people. My teacher had a messy garage; he's driven a pickup truck. His brother's kitchen at the temple where his brother taught was a man kitchen. My brother-in-law's feet sometimes stink, I've been told, though I've not noticed it when visiting China. Just folks.

    For the third thing, I look at being Buddhist as endeavoring to have an identity that is eternally in question - an identity of no identity. I too tend towards skepticism, and generally secularism but - hey, you're European! - I can't imagine anyone being a dogmatic rationalist after the 20th Century.
    Though I tend toward secularism and skepticism, I think it's good to keep the "-isms" in check, and although Buddhism is an "-ism," it's not that much of a worldview that can be chosen like one chooses vegetables in the supermarket.

    Of course, that last point can be taken as it's pretty much irrelevant to self-identify as a Buddhist if one's point is to drop "-isms." But as I've said at my place, it's good to commit if one's doing that way anyway. It's got its own ritual value.

  2. Petteri,

    You might enjoy my post from a while back on adopting a Buddhist identity and Jukai....