Why is identity an illusion in Buddhism

What is a Buddhist Identity? Plea for a turn to practice

For religious communities, state recognition promises the prospect of improving their social position and reputation, possibly the attainment of a status that is comparable to that of the large Christian churches. This creates the task for the religious communities to define themselves in order to be able to designate who and what should be representative for them. This harbors dangers - especially for Buddhism, which teaches "anatman" - there is no permanent self.

A plea is inherently partisan. The following considerations are also meant in this way and in no way lay claim to a balanced view of the diverse activities in connection with the endeavors to promote a prosperous coexistence of people of different views, cultures and religions.


In order to promote this kind of coexistence, the state has initiated agreements on mutual recognition with some religious communities. The state authorities are concerned with regulating social life. They are not entitled to the recognition of a religion. Consequently, they ask members of religious communities to propose representative contacts. The state is concerned with the reliability of the interlocutor, with the maintenance of inner peace. For religious communities, state recognition of the bodies representing them promises the prospect of improving their social position and reputation, possibly achieving a status that is comparable to that of the large Christian churches. So it is also about advantages that go beyond the mere right to practice religion, which is already guaranteed in this country by the Basic Law. This creates the task for the religious communities to define themselves in order to be able to designate who and what should be representative for them. For the traditional Christian beliefs, this is part of the local religious and cultural heritage. (The overriding of Jewish tradition has long been one of the abysmal aspects of European tradition.)




In the wake of the political situation

Where a representative body is only being newly formed to create a point of contact for state authorities, it can hardly be avoided that this becomes an authority that the tradition to be represented did not previously know. Constellations can arise that give groups a weight that corresponds more to the political situation than to the meaning within a tradition. In this way, religion suddenly becomes a category that can lead to social prestige that is otherwise not so easily obtainable. Quite apart from the fact that in times of a “fleeting modernity” (this is how the great Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterizes our society, in which binding social relationships are entered into and terminated at short notice), belonging to a “community” that is as visible as possible is a remedy for the increasing uncertainty and isolation seems to promise.


Truth claim with hegemonic tendencies

With the presence of members of other religions in this country and the turn of some Europeans to these previously “foreign” traditions, such as Buddhism, a new dynamic of self-perception and perception of others is emerging. Not dissimilar to the processes involved in the spread of Christianity in the ancient world, in the course of which the term religion acquired a different meaning than it was previously common in ancient times. At the same time, the striving for demarcation, identification and exclusion played into one another in a way that had far-reaching consequences in European history. While “religio” initially meant certain practices, cult acts, it gradually began to denote affiliation, combined with a claim to truth with hegemonic tendencies. At that time, too, it was state authorities - in particular Emperor Theodosius - who pushed for a "confession". In the meantime we use religion and creed ("denomination") almost synonymously. And Buddhists in this country have also formulated a “confession”. To be able to have a say “at eye level”?

The Indian economist Amartya Sen has already pointed out the violent potential of the definition of an “identity” that aims at homogeneity - purity and uniqueness (1); The researcher and educator Frank-Olaf Radtke (2) knows how to report on the potential for conflict that can arise when defining cultural entities, after corresponding experiences in intercultural dialogue. He warns urgently against the resulting ethnicization of conflicts. What was meant as a dialogue to achieve equality and tolerance then fixes boundaries, the definition of a “contact person” promotes the formation of parliamentary groups, a space for competition opens up, fronts arise.



Practice instead of confession

In reflecting on the genuine traditions of Buddhism, I believe that there is a potential to develop that could work in a completely different direction. Where identitarian discourses threaten to become essentialistic, the insights and teachings of Buddhism regarding the composite nature (skandha) of individual existence and consciousness, the lack of an underlying substance, a constant self (anatman) are suitable to counteract the tendency to counteract the delusions of desire to add according to guarantors of duration.

In the political debate, a “strategic essentialism” - the assertion of a “being”, a firmly established identity - can sometimes appear necessary, but the Indian thinker and fighter for human and women's rights Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who coined this term, noted that strategy is easily lost in the course of political action.

Instead of a commitment to a truth system, I advocate a commitment to the practice of the eightfold path, the way of the middle, which overcomes the supposed security of fixed positions. Because practice means constant debate, which also makes it clear that identity, like origin and tradition, is always “composed”, hybrid. The history of Buddhism also bears witness to this when it broke away from the familiar environment and proved itself in other socio-cultural contexts - for example in China - which required deepening and a new approach.


"Own" and "foreign" are mixed up in practice

In my opinion and experience, it is not possible to filter out what is “own” and “foreign”, it mixes in practice. Just as we all only become what we “are” through our lives. Those who turn to a practice and make it their own feel compelled not only to deal with its tradition, but also with their own origins and history, in the context of which this encounter took place.

It is not uncommon for people to gain new access to the content of the traditions in which they grew up by practicing a meditative practice of Buddhism, regardless of whether they have turned away from them or still feel a part of them.

This stimulating, renewing potential needs to be promoted, I believe, and not to position another “religion” on the “supermarket of religions” (as the Protestant theologian and researcher Friedrich Wilhelm Graf characterizes the effects of globalization).

Or related to one of the essential sila: Even in the race for recognition, the commandment not to get drunk should be a reminder to maintain a state of mind that is suitable for clarifying the view of the current situation and for acting responsibly. How else should it be possible to develop a coexistence in solidarity, beyond all differences and beyond good intentions that are all too easy to exploit?

(1) Amartya Sen: Identity and violence. The illusion of destiny, New York 2006
(2) Frank-Olaf Radtke: Cultures don't speak. The politics of cross-border dialogues, Hamburg 2011



Bertrand Schütz

Bertrand Schütz, student of Philippe Coupey Reiryu, began to practice zazen with Master Deshimaru in 1978. He worked on the translation of Deshimaru's instruction into German, was director of the Zen Dojo Hamburg and founded the dojo in Flensburg. He now lives in Ludwigslust (Mecklenburg) and is responsible for the dojo there.

All articles by Bertrand Schütz

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