Identity Politics and Zen

A Zen Master once said, “When you eat breakfast you become a breakfast eater, when you take a shit you become a shitter.”

Identity is a topic of great concern in Zen Buddhist philosophy. One way of understanding the Zen take on things is that it often boils all of our problems in life down to a simple case of mistaken identity. Once our identity confusion is solved, we can start to be happier.

This is not an uncommon premise for religions in India. A lot of them claim that we are mistaken about who we are and that if we recover our true identity everything will be cool. In those other Indian religions, the goal is usually to replace the identity you have now with a different identity. After Carlos Santana became a devotee of the Indian guru, Sri Chimnoy he used to put one of Sri Chimnoy’s favorite sayings on the backs of his records; “I am not this body. I am the spirit-soul that flies within.” The Hare Krishna people change their names to new ones that all mean “eternal servant of Krishna.” Thankfully Krishna has lots of identities so not everyone ends up with the same name. Some forms of Christianity also see one of life’s goals as being born again and establishing a new identity as a servant of God or Christ.

Buddha agreed with this notion that our root problem is mistaken identity. He just didn’t think the solution was to establish a new identity to replace the mistaken one.

When practicing zazen, it is possible to actually watch the way your own identity ebbs and flows. Some practitioners report the feeling that they are dissolving. Dogen often used the phrase “dropping away body and mind” (shin-jin datsu raku) to describe this. Even if you’re not dissolving you often find yourself switching though multiple identities as you sit there quietly.

This can be disconcerting. I often found it highly disturbing to spend several hours quite literally not knowing who or what I was. More than a few times it freaked me out bigly. I’d gave up zazen for a week or a month because I couldn’t stand the sensation of losing myself.

When you replace one identity with another identity, at least you still have an identity. But asking someone to let go of their identity and then to resist the urge to replace it with something else, that’s tough. No one can manage it at first. It takes perseverance and a kind of dogged determination. It also helps to have someone around who has done this stuff longer than you and can demonstrate that one can do this and still come out reasonably OK.

But what is identity anyhow? Lately a certain faction has emerged who believe that society has an obligation to accept and affirm whatever identity an individual has chosen for him / her / them / zem / em / hum / pehm / per / thon / ver / xem / yo / hir / mer / zhim-self (ref: But is that how identity actually works?

For example, is Brad Warner an Enlightened Zen Master? Or is he a transphobic piece of shit who never should have been given a set of Buddhist robes? Or is he the bassist for Zero Defex (his preferred definition)? Is he white as most people assume? Or is he of mixed race, which he knows to be true given his family history? Is he an angry rebellious punk, like in his books? Or is he kind of a goofball, as he often comes across when you see him in person?

What I think I am is often at odds with what other people think I am. Who is right? Is it useful to try to make everyone I encounter agree with the identity I have chosen for myself? Should there be a law requiring them to see me the way I see me? Or is that just a lot of wasted effort?

Whenever I was unsuccessful at convincing someone else to see me as I saw myself I felt a terrible need to fix the situation. This often proved impossible and so I was left wondering if maybe I really was whatever they said I was, and if I was, in fact, wrong about myself. For me, the first step toward a more Buddhist sort of understanding of identity was seeing how much of a waste of effort it was to try to convince others to see me the way I saw myself. 

The next step was to see how much effort I was wasting in trying to convince myself that I was who I thought I was. This is where Zen practice started to get really rough.

I started to see the ways that I was constantly trying to redirect and refine my own thoughts to keep them in line with a specific identity. When I let go of that, all sorts of unsavory thoughts got let loose to run around in my brain. Suddenly every racist thought I’d suppressed came rushing to the surface, every violent thought, every vile and disgusting desire, every weird twisted idea that I could barely even comprehend, they all started showing up and demonstrating to me in unmistakable ways that I was not the identity I had spent so much time, effort, and energy establishing.

I started doing zazen in my late teens. This is a time in everyone’s life when establishing an identity takes on a kind of urgency. So questioning the very concept of identity at that age is especially problematic. On the other hand, starting when I did may have had some advantages in that there was comparatively less to dismantle. But it sure wasn’t easy.

What happens after you do this? You’d think you’d just turn into some kind of amorphous identity-less blob. But I looked at my teachers and it was clear that exactly the opposite had happened with them. Both were very strong and clear personalities. But there was a naturalness to the way they manifested themselves that no one else I met seemed to have. They were unconcerned with knowing who they were. Rather they simply were who they were.

These days, identity has become politicized. As a minor public figure, I’ve seen people become obsessed with defining my identity and therefore my politics. Those of you who follow me on Facebook may have seen the appearance of a few people there trying to pin me down as an enemy of progress because I have not been sufficiently vocal about my misgivings about the current president and his policies. If they can identify me as a bad person spreading evil ideas, then the uncomfortable things I sometimes say can be ignored.

That response is understandable. Buddhist philosophy is difficult. It identifies one of our most precious possessions — our sense of self — as the source of our misery and the root of the world’s most threatening problems. It says that the only way we’ll ever be happier is if we give up who we think we are. Doesn’t that mean I can never be happy because there would be no I who could experience happiness?

The answer is surprising. You don’t need to be you in order to be happy. In fact, you are happiest when you stop being you. We all experience this when we lose ourselves in a great movie, or in creating a meal, or in sex, or sports, or whatever activity does it for you. It can happen in zazen as well, often in a way that transcends the loss of self in those other activities.

We are all different. We are all unique. We are all, dare I say it, special snowflakes. That’s true. But identity is only one small aspect of that. And it’s far from the most important. In fact, it’s so unimportant that we can learn to simply ignore it most of the time and still be pretty much OK.

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Speaking of identity, if you identify as “really Zen” but have never attended a Zen retreat, you can fix that by registering for the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Spring Retreat April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center !  

Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings).  Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.

Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!

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September 8-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland

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