A friend of mine came out as gay back in the nineties—he had left our little town for a few years after high school and then come back, the same guy I knew but also sort of like a new person. What I remember about that first conversation after he returned was him talking about how important the word “gay” was to his understanding of himself. He told me, “It’s not the first word in the sentence of me, and it’s not the last; it isn’t capitalized or in italics; it isn’t in bold print or underlined. It’s just there, alongside all the other stuff. It isn’t all of who I am, or even the biggest part.”
What is in the sentence of you?
Buddhism really downplays identity in general. One of the first teachings I ever heard was that “I” is the fundamental delusion—everything we get wrong in our lives, all our suffering, starts with that basic idea of self-existence, of there being a “me” (and by extension, a “you”). That one teaching can be an easy shorthand for the whole tradition, portable wisdom we can take out of our pocket at any time to examine. Who do I think I am? How much of my story of [insert anything] is really about me? What aspects of myself do I think can’t be changed—or, put another way, if they did change, then I wouldn’t be me anymore? We can dig into this all day and never get to the bottom of it.
It’s a little ironic, then, that we have to contend with the identity marker of being Buddhist. It seems backward. Yet for many of us, it’s a powerful part of how we understand ourselves, especially if it’s something we’ve chosen.
This isn’t everyone, of course. You may not identify as a Buddhist at all. Maybe you’re just curious about it; maybe you’re a lifelong practitioner and just don’t like labels. Maybe it was a big deal to you once but now you’ve let it go. But for many Buddhists, especially in the West, it can be like a favorite shirt, the one we want to wear every day, in every setting. It’s who we are. It’s our brand.
And it makes sense. If you were born into a Buddhist family or a Buddhist culture, it probably doesn’t feel like anything special to you. I doubt my teacher gives much or any thought to being Buddhist. Everything around him in every direction is Buddhist, from his clothes to the buildings he occupies to the things he reads to the things he does. It’s not a big deal because what else is there? My kids are kind of the same. If you asked them their religion, they’d probably say they’re Buddhist—they know their parents are, and they’re exposed to it a lot. But it’s just what’s normal. If it’s in the sentence of them at all, it’s probably in a parenthetical or sandwiched between their favorite book and a toy they used to love.
But if Buddhism is something you discovered later in life, if it’s something different from what you grow up with, then that choice was probably a huge moment for you. When I started reading about Buddhism, and especially about Zen, my mind was blown. Every word on every page was true—I was discovering something that had been hidden, or that was how it felt. It shook me up, made me want to change my direction in life. It was exciting, in a way that it never, ever will be for my kids.
I love talking with people who are new to the practice. They’re on fire with it, full of questions, in awe of the new perspective it offers them. It’s beautiful. But I can also see, in those early days, how it is already forming into a new identity, a new me, a word that is in ALL CAPS, or maybe at the end of the sentence with an exclamation mark!
There’s no punch line here, just a reminder that “I” really is the fundamental delusion, even when “I” is defined by its love of Buddhist teachings and practices. It’s like those signs at the start of hiking trails or at campgrounds, the ones that remind you that anything you pack in, you also have to pack out; for the purposes of this discussion, maybe it’s “Whatever you put in bold, you eventually have to unbold.” Something like that. At least put it in a nice, reasonable 12-point font, nothing too fancy. No big deal.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.