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Tilling the Field of Identity

Study & Arts, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

When speaking with friends and reading the newspaper, I have the impression that the questions of identity are up for us as a nation. Whether it be a discussion of race relations, of feminism, of the widening rifts between classes, or of sexual orientation or gender, the question of identity is big right now. A lot of people are wondering how to be skillful with the aspects of identity that can be so different from person to person.

For Buddhists this can be a particularly vexing point because of the teaching of "no self." Essentially, the teaching of no self means that there is no permanently abiding self, no self that arises independent of causes and results, no self that remains fixed for even an instant. Yet, to be clear, Buddhism does not teach that there is not a self. It doesn't deny that a self appears to arise and dissipate, and that we experience that self as "me."

This raises the question, "How can we honor the things that make each person unique - like their past, their preferences, their bodies, their expression - and still abide fully in the truth that all of those things don't fully capture what it means to be a person?"

This is a question that deserves deep and sustained inquiry. For starters, I'd like to offer a brief Zen teaching, in the hopes that it might provide guidance for a skillful response. It begins with the story of an interaction between Kueishan, an 8th Century Chinese Ch'an teacher and his student Yangshan, who were the founders of the Igyo Zen tradition.

Here's the story:

Yangshan was digging on a hillside, in an effort to make a rice paddy. He said to Kueishan, "This place is so low; that place is so high."

Kueishan replied, "Water makes things equal. Why don't you level it with water?"

Yangshan replied, "Water is not reliable, teacher. A high place is high level, and a low place is low level."

Kueishan agreed.

Hearing this story in modern times, it seems to me that Yangshan is commenting that he is in the lower position of student, in the lower position of worker, in the lower position monk. This contrasts with Kueishan who is in the higher position of teacher, the higher position of observer, the higher position of Abbot. So Yangshan is pointing out their differences.

In response, Kueishan effectively says, "Why don't you just even things up with a little water?" In other words, you don't have to see it that way. You could just gloss over it.

However, Yangshan doesn't fall for this and responds by saying, "Water is not reliable." That is, you can't just gloss over differences. That is not a skillful way to practice with differences. He goes on, "A high place is high level; a low place is low level." In other words, each of us takes our place. Each of us takes our dharma position in the moment. Kueishan agreed that this is the correct view.

The lesson of this story is that the skillful way to practice with difference is to acknowledge it because, until we acknowledge what's present, we can't possibly begin to work with it. Our differences help us to see our dharma position, help us to see the ways in which we are related. Teacher doesn't arise without student. Low doesn't arise without high. While we might want to make everything the same, that is unrealistic. It's not a reliable way to interact with the world.

On a similar note, in the "Sutra of Eights," the Buddha taught that we should not view ourselves as lower than another, as higher than another, or as equal to another. Where does that leave you? It means we must view ourselves as incomparable, unique beings that are interrelated in ways that are important to acknowledge.

Returning to the story, it is interesting to note that it is Yangshan who gives the teaching words. In doing so, he is demonstrating that, by truly acknowledging and working with their differences, he was able to change the dynamic and be in the "high" place. In effect, he leveled the differences by not glossing over them. So the skillful conversation of identity begins from a place of true acceptance of difference. From there, we can step into relationship and find the ways to connect.