Buddhism: IDENTITY, who we are

One of my growing obsessions is the question of identities, the identities we ascribe to ourselves. Think about it. Think about the last time you uttered the words, “I am…”How did you complete that sentence? For instance, most people I know and who read this blog are American. We could all say, “I am an American.” What does that mean though? What, specifically, does it mean for the way I live in the world? Does it mean that I wave a red, white, and blue flag? Does it mean I support the ideals of our forefathers? Or does it simply mean I have a US passport?

Who Am I?

If it is contingent and could change, then is it right to say “I am an American.” Or would it be more correct to say “I live in America, was born here, and carry a US passport.” What’s the difference? The first seeks to ascribe a label, a quality, (an accident to use the Aristotelian term) to a fixed me, my essence. The second gives only verbs, actions carried out by the ‘I’.


I just read a short piece by Victoria Austin in Turning Wheel magazine (the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship). There she describes her experience at Princeton in the early ’70s, where the dean of students placed all Jewish students (she is a Jew) and black students together in dorms, with the lame excuse that he thought they would be more comfortable “with others of your own kind.” Obviously both groups were exacerbated. Yet in the eyes of the old school white (protestant) guy, both Jews and African Americans represent an ‘Other’ and thus fit together. Austin relates another experience where she was un-invited to give a talk to a group of black students. She notes how whitethis makes her feel (now she is together with the old school white guy), and she states, “And I am white.”


I was surprised to see that from an accomplished Zen teacher. I guess I have long taken Buddhism in all its forms to be a process of dropping labels, to stop identifying. Isn’t it clear that race and color are (ignorant) human constructs? Who we are, for all of us, goes far beyond these.

But then don’t tell that to the Jew or African American (or others) for whom such labels form an integral part of their person. In fact, Austin’s article is in a feature of four Jewish Buddhists speaking of their experiences “as allies,” essentially exchanging self for other, both broadening themselves and finding new perspectives from which to more deeply examine themselves.


What exactly does Buddhism teach about “who we are?” Is it to abandon such labels and live purely in the moment? Perhaps is is more to recognize the contingency of all labels, to use them but not be trapped by them? Or could it be that for some, labels, as bonds to history and other beings, are as necessary as the air we breathe?
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