Socially Constructed Buddhist Selves

A Response to Dharma in Color

Melissa Fan over at the blog Dharma in Color wrote a piece about identity, historically marginalized peoples, and Buddhism. For some reason, I felt compelled to respond, mostly because of this point she made late in the post:

Also, might I add, as a woman of color, my identity is not something that I can willfully drop. My being a woman and my being Asian is constantly being pushed on me by the society in which I live. When I leave the house, someone reminds me that they view women as sexual objects. When I meet a new person, they remind me that to them I am just a set of racial stereotypes. It’s not the attachment to the identity of Chinese American woman that creates suffering but of other people’s reactions to it. And since it’s very difficult to learn how to love and value yourself in a society that is constantly trying to beat you down, as Buddhist’s we shouldn’t add to that burden.

If I understand her correctly, she’s pointing out that while I may have a sense of personal identity, identity itself is not something that exists apart from my interactions with others. In simplest terms, as a host of feminist scholars and social theorists have been saying for decades now, identity is socially constructed. This is especially true when it comes to historically marginalized persons because the dominant discourse labels bodies in reference to itself — i.e., black bodies are black because they are not white, queer bodies are queer because they are not straight, and so forth. Thus these persons may be able to personally transcend their own individual sense of self, but that’s not going to change how the society at large defines them.

The other point Ms. Fan is trying to make here is that it’s unfortunate when Buddhists use “Buddhist language” in order to minimize the suffering caused by the rhetoric of the dominant discourse — in other words, when someone says, “Shouldn’t Buddhists be non-attached to identity? Identity like ‘female’ or ‘Asian’?” This attitude is unfortunate for at least two reasons: first, it’s extremely dismissive and condescending; and, second, it betrays (to my mind) a fundamental misunderstanding of the Buddhist project.

I don’t think I need to explain why it’s condescending and dismissive. If someone stubs their toe and is in real and legitimate pain, telling that person that “pain is an illusion” is both unhelpful and makes you look like a jerk. The proper response to someone in pain is to ask them if they are all right, and what can you do to help. That’s just common sense and good manners.

The bigger issue is my second point. By claiming that Buddhists should be unattached to identity markers or the ego, what one is doing is assuming that the ego is some “thing” that we have an attachment to, some “thing” that we can “let go of” in the first place. This is a naive and incorrect understanding of what the Buddhist path says about the ego or one’s identity. Saying that one should “let go” of the self implies that the self is something that has existence in the first place; this attitude reifies the self, gives it form and substance.

That’s the exact opposite of what the Buddhist project is, in my opinion. The Buddhist project seeks to deconstruct the self. It does not begin by saying that you have a self or an identity or an ego. It begins by saying that there is only anatman (no self). Or (in other traditions) that everything is marked by sunyata (emptiness of inherent existence).

If the beginning of the Buddhist path is a recognition that one has no self, that everything is marked by its emptiness of inherent existence, then there is no identity to begin with. There is nothing to “let go of” in the first place. 

The rest of the Buddhist project is a complicated and very difficult process of deconstructing all of the reasons that we think we have a self and all of the factors that go into making one up. This process of deconstruction necessarily includes a process of recognizing that our sense of self or identity or ego is empty precisely because everything is interconnected. Sunyata is the idea that the particular only exists because of the collective. Without everything, no one thing exists.

I believe that Buddhist philosophy could learn a thing or two from feminist scholars and social theorists who posit that our identities are socially constructed. These two bodies of knowledge (Buddhist philosophy and contemporary continental and American philosophy) have much to say to one another about the interiority of ego and its relationship to the exteriority of culture, society, and politics.

It does no one any good to dismissively state that one should let go of one’s identity. It ends dialogue, it ignores real suffering caused by social and political ills, and distances us from persons who can and should be our allies.