Who am I? What am I?

A secular life is one embedded in the diversity of this world. There are many different “me”s: I am an animal; I am a human being; I am a white, heterosexual male; I am a brother; I am a husband; I am a European; I am British; I am a writer; I am an artist…. etc. I am a mixture of “me”’s — I am legion. I belong to numerous intersecting communities, one of which is called “Buddhist.”

What kind of Buddhist? In Korea or Tibet, I behave as a Buddhist: attending ceremonies, bowing to monks etc. without any sense of discomfort or bad faith, but with a slight sense of being “other”, an intruder on the beliefs and practices of a foreign culture with people who do not look like me and do not seem to think like me.

For many Buddhists, being Buddhist is also what it means, for example, to be Thai or Tibetan – especially in a non Buddhist environment. In Europe, here in France, or in the West in general I am ambivalent about being a Buddhist. In social gatherings, I sometimes dread having to declare myself as a Buddhist because of then having to explain how I do not believe things most Buddhists believe. I avoid this label because I do not wish to be pigeon holed by other people’s poorly informed conceptions of what they think Buddhism is: Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, worship the Dalai Lama, hang Tibetan prayer flags in their garden, are vegetarian etc.

I am equally uncomfortable justifying myself to those who think Buddhism is cool and sexy as to those who think Buddhism is alien and weird. I would find it very difficult to be introduced as the local Buddhist to give a talk to high school students on Buddhism: I would be torn between talking about Buddhism as it has existed historically and what I personally understand Gotama’s teaching to be about. I do not believe that what I experience now is the result of ignorance and craving and the fruit of actions committed in numerous past lives… I believe in the Big Bang and evolution through natural selection. I believe that humans have emerged recently on this planet as the result of largely contingent factors and are destined to evolve eventually into other forms of life that we cannot imagine. I believe we might be entirely alone in the universe, that we are essentially tentative. I believe that life is utterly wondrous and mysterious, not something suffering and pointless to be transcended in nirvana which is the end of birth and death and thereby of life itself. I do not believe in rebirth: I cannot understand how after death I could continue in any way that could still be considered “me” — in any of the senses recognised above. I cannot disprove either the theories of karma or rebirth any more than I can disprove the existence of God. All these theories have little if any explanatory power. They are not even wrong; they are irrelevant to what it means to flourish as a person and society. Doctrinally, I do not believe in the four noble truths or the twelve links of dependent origination or the three marks of being. I do not believe that the Buddha became enlightened through understanding the nature of ultimate truth, or the true nature of mind or reality. I do not believe that the monk or nun is the ideal role model for one practicing the dharma in today’s world.

I arrived at these conclusions after years of reflection and study, not just as a knee jerk reaction to alien ideas. On the other hand, I have spent my entire adult life studying and practicing Buddhism, writing books about it, teaching its philosophy, its psychology, and its meditation practices. I wouldn’t be here talking to you now if I had not been educated and trained as a Buddhist monk. I love Buddhist art, I love being in Buddhist countries. When I read Buddhist texts, I do not do so as a detached philologist but as one who engages in a dialogue with the writer of those texts about the things that matter most to me — though the same is also true when I read other religious and philosophical writings.

I find it difficult to identify with any particular form of Buddhism. If forced to, I would probably identify as a Zen Buddhist.

Monk: What is enlightenment?

Deshan: Get out, don’t shit in here!

Monk: Who is the Buddha?

Deshan: An old Indian beggar.

Deshan: “I don’t hold to some view about the ancestors. Here there are no ancestors and no buddhas. Bodhidharma is an old stinking foreigner. Shakyamuni is a dried up piece of shit. Manjushri and Samantabhadra are dung carriers. Enlightenment and nirvana are a donkey’s tethering post. The twelve divisions of the scriptural canon are just paper for wiping infected skin boils. The stages on the path to enlightenment and the original mind are just graveyard guarding ghosts. What is known as “realising the mystery” is nothing but breaking through to grab an ordinary person’s life.” [Ferguson. Zen’s Chinese Heritage.]

The irony is that these texts are now enshrined in the very canon that Deshan denounces. They are accepted because they are teachings of a revered “Zen Master” – but were I to declare something similar to a gathering of Buddhists at a conference today, I would probably be ejected.

Discussion Question: What kind of mix are you? Is being Buddhist part of that mix? And if so, how does it fit with the rest?