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13 A Question of Identity

One should not be considered worthy of respect
because of family or background or any outer sign;
it is purity and the realisation of truth
that determine one’s worth.

Dhammapada verse 393

I am told that this evening one third of the world’s population will be watching the World Cup football final between France and Brazil on television. This means billions of people! What is it that attracts so much interest? This is a relevant question for us to contemplate.

On this particular evening the perception of oneself as being French is charged with emotion. The newspapers are reporting that the cup final has triggered national pride unseen in France since the time of the Revolution in 1789. What is at stake is personal and national identity – the passionate feeling of being a substantial somebody.

All of us find our own ways of generating that feeling that we could call ‘somebodihood’. Identifying with our nationality, be it French, British, Brazilian, New Zealander or Burmese, is one of those ways. We also identify with our gender, in being a man or a woman, and with our religion, with being Buddhist or Christian or Jewish, and so on. And generating the feeling of identity is okay up to a certain point, if we are careful.

But there are clear signs that show that, past a certain point, it is not okay. Look at what happened when England lost their last match. The ugly behaviour by so-called supporters is not okay. What does our practice tell us about training attention to see beyond the kind of identity that contributes to such unfortunate delusion?

Who am I?

We could begin our investigation by acknowledging the importance of the issue. Racial wars, class wars and religious wars offer ample material for reflection. Acknowledging the relevance of perceived identity to what we do supports mindfulness around the actual bodily feeling of being a ‘somebody’. We start to notice, as it is happening, the sense of solid ‘I’-ness being born; we notice when and in what conditions we get this feeling.

We can also observe the experience of lacking self-definition. How does it feel when you first wake up in the morning after having been up late? We can learn a lot in the brief period after waking, when a sense of personal identity hasn’t yet properly established itself. Sometimes we can’t remember where we are. Next time this occurs, try not to rush past the experience. Observe how we reach out for familiar perceptions. Don’t hurry to open your eyes. Just stay with the sense of wanting to find security; of not knowing where or who you are. When you do open your eyes, how does it feel to recognise ‘my room’ or ‘my things’? Observe the sense of solidification as it occurs. This can be an effective way to begin undoing the way we grasp at our limited identities.

Using such exercises we develop an understanding of how the perceptions of ‘my body’ and ‘my thoughts’ arise. We realise that these ideas are only relatively true. We develop a sense of responsibility for those perceptions. We come to see that they are not ultimately what we are. In my situation, for instance, the perception ‘I am the abbot and have a duty to attend meetings of the monastic sangha’ has consequences which I can contemplate. Because it’s a relatively true perception, I act accordingly, even though ultimately it’s not who I am.

If we don’t exercise care in how we hold these relative identities then we set our attention chronically short of reality and grasp programmed perceptions as absolute truths. We believe ‘This body is really me’, ‘My role in this community is ultimately important’, and these perceptions can have serious consequences. I’ve begun to suffer arthritic pain, and believing in bodily identity as ultimately true leads to considerable struggle. Or if I get up in the morning still thinking about some conflict from the day before, assuming that I am what I think leads to immediate struggle. So long as I believe these conditioned activities of mind are more than the relative identities they really are, then there is no way I can be simply happy.

However, having begun to see through the apparent substantiality of these mental processes, it would be unwise to try to dismiss them. Just as it would be naïve for politicians to dismiss the power of a sense of national identity, it is likewise naïve of us not to pay very close attention to this area of our inner world. To try to dismiss our sense of identity would contribute to our deluded misery. We would experience a terrible sense of powerlessness as a result of living a false life. Fortunately, there are wise teachings given by those who have walked the Way ahead of us that invite us to engage in a training of body, speech and mind that leads to realisation of the place of true identity.

Abiding as awareness

I’ve been living in Britain now for 20 years, and sometimes I forget that I’m not British. But when I return from trips abroad I have to stand, sometimes for a long time, in line at the immigration desk along with Russians and Turks and Americans. I hold a New Zealand passport so I’m reminded that I am a guest here. These days I stand in the immigration line feeling how it feels to ‘be’ an outsider. It’s very interesting. The perception of ‘I am…’ readily reveals itself if we are there in time to catch it. With vigilance it’s quite easy. And if awareness is functioning freely in that moment, we remember that there is a bigger picture. There is much more to us than the idea of ‘me, a New Zealander’ or ‘me, a Buddhist’. In what are these ideas arising and ceasing? What was there before the idea and associated sensations arose? And what is there after that sense has passed away?

We can consider the same dynamic from a meditative perspective. If we persist with our formal practice we will arrive at an experience of natural stillness in which we find we are abiding quite effortlessly. There is a sense of seeing, yet there is no apparent content. We’re not thinking, ‘I am a man’ or, ‘I am an abbot.’ The mind is not disturbed by thinking or feeling or activity of any kind. And we are not asleep. What is there? For the sake of discussion we can say that there is awareness. That doesn’t mean we’re sitting there thinking ‘There is awareness’ – we are simply aware. We are awake and alert.

As we gain confidence in sustaining such awareness, we discover how to abide as awareness – and, at the same time, allow activity to take place. There can be thinking and feeling, but we don’t forget ourselves. If, for example, pleasurable feeling is arising in the meditation and the thought ‘I like this’ appears, we don’t lose awareness and become limited by our identification with pleasure. We refrain from setting the focus of our attention on the content of awareness and, through not grasping, we cease to become lost in the joys and sorrows of existence. In this perspective we realise that we have the option to grasp and hence to ‘become’ someone, but that we also have the ability to inhibit that tendency. We see that we are not slaves to our conditioned identities – we are not the person that we have been told we are!

Our meditation begins to generate blessings in the world. Skill in awareness shows itself as increased presence in daily-life situations. To take an example: if somebody crosses over a personal boundary that I hold to, then the chances are that I will feel annoyed. If the perception ‘I am angry’ is established, but in that moment I have the strength of awareness to ‘wake up’, then I don’t start to seek security in the conditioned sense of being an offended somebody. My sense of who I am doesn’t become limited to that movement in the mind. Even when the perception ‘I am angry’ is born, I don’t start to feed on the toxic nutriment of indignation. I survive anger and abide as awareness.

We abide as wakefulness when we remember, when we are alert. Often we forget. But what matters is that we are interested in remembering. We really don’t want to contribute to the misery of the world by settling for some synthetic identity doled out by someone else. And waking up is possible. Little by little we learn to live our lives with the sense of simply being awake. It ceases to be so important whether we know who we are or where our lives are going. We can be awake to that movement of mind that we experience as feeling lost. We can be awake to not-knowing who we are and then find ourselves still able to act positively out of a sense of feeling responsible for our lives. We may not be feeling how we want to feel, but we are acting from a sense of personal reality that we recognise as true. We can be with ourselves instead of fighting ourselves.

Being one with life

When we discover how to be with ourselves in this manner we have a more ready ability to accord with both inner and outer events. Whatever is going on for us, we find we are more likely to ‘be one’ with it.

In reality we are already one with what is going on, but due to our heedless mental habits we can live as if we are once removed from everything. We feel like we are somehow not really involved, but are instead watching ourselves from a remote position. We cultivate an image of ourselves and live in that image. This causes us great suffering. The debilitating tendency to ‘manage’ life by maintaining constructed images of who we are doesn’t make us feel good. We want it to, but it doesn’t. Propping up these ideas of who we are, these false identities, consumes tremendous energy. No wonder we so often feel exhausted.

It wasn’t many years ago that mobile phones were new and something of a status symbol. I’ve heard that at that time a young chap on a train was showing off his new acquisition by carrying on long, loud conversations, to the irritation of the other passengers. Then suddenly a pregnant woman in the same carriage went into labour. Of course, everyone turned to the man, expecting him to call for assistance. Much to his embarrassment he had to admit that his mobile was an imitation phone; his whole performance had been for show. Apparently both mother and child were fine in the end. The young man probably took much longer to recover.

Being addicted to an image of who we are and to ideas of our lives, we remain locked in endless struggle and become drained of vitality. Perhaps we were never taught and hence it doesn’t occur to us that we can do something about our predicament. Or perhaps our fear of facing up to what we really are feels too threatening. Sadly, the potential of authentic being remains clouded by our habits of self-disempowerment. But when we arrive at wakefulness we realise that we don’t have to be afraid of fear. When we are awake, fear can teach us. It teaches us to be present, to be careful. Fear does not necessarily mean that something is going wrong; we often think that way out of habit. We can choose to patiently receive the fear of loss of security, loss of our precious identity, and we can witness the passing away of such fear. What remains is a more conscious appreciation of awareness.

The more we live our lives from awakeness the more readily we remember our ability to be aware. Everything teaches us – even confusion. Being confused but aware of it reminds us how not to become limited. If we forget to be awake, if we grasp, then we are born into limited self-identity and we become confused. This process is always one of our options, but it’s less painful to opt for remembering to be aware and not to assume some detached, limited identity as a confused victim.

The wife of the American ambassador in Korea once went to visit a famous meditation master there. I heard this story in the 1970s. Apparently the woman asked the master to explain the essential teachings to her, and he told her that Buddhist meditation was about becoming one with everything. She was unimpressed, and asked what good such teaching would do for people if an atomic bomb was dropped. The master replied that, if the bomb was dropped, she would become one with everything anyway, so she may as well prepare herself.

That is not meant to be flippant. Meditation is about preparing ourselves. When we sit and walk in formal practice, we are exercising our spiritual faculties. We are sharpening the tools of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and discernment so that we can be present when the real teachings come to us. And of course the real teachings come with the flaring up of our wild passions. In formal meditation we prepare ourselves for our own life. It is like the way we eat food so we can live – not live so we can eat. Similarly we meditate so as to live; we don’t live to meditate.

Knowing the ‘in between’

Being rightly prepared for what comes to us means we are fully involved. All of our being is present, which means we can draw on all possible resources for wise action. Hopefully it won’t be anything like an atomic blast. Every day circumstances arise in which we can feel the agony of being not fully present.

We tend either to feel once removed from what is happening, or to become entirely lost in it. Both tendencies leave us with a sense of artificiality, however dramatic and sensational the situation may be. My understanding of the Middle Way is that it’s possible to abide in between these two modes of limited being. From an ego perspective this ‘in between’ feels insecure and thoroughly unattractive. But this is not a problem – isn’t it what our Teachings tell us to expect? Getting my way is not the Way, whereas the Way is what is true. With this contemplation our attention is drawn towards and becomes interested in the ability to abide in this Way. We no longer react and object to feeling insecure and unsafe. We don’t like the feeling, but we cease being driven to divided or heedlessly absorbed states by its appearance. We remain one with experience – not torn apart by a commitment to an image.

Through abiding in the in-between we discover a subtle kind of personal confidence. It is not ‘my’ confidence, because it is a confidence that belongs to reality. The sort of investigation we are talking about, if followed, will undermine any views of ourselves that we hold too tightly. It can take us into feelings of despair, of hopelessness and of inadequacy. But it can also take us beyond the limited identities conditioned by those feelings. The struggle of moving from finding security in false identities into realisation of limitless abiding beyond personality is difficult. It feels like it will cost us everything. There should be no mistake about that. This is why we have teachers and why we need to attend to their guidance through this process of transformation.

Identity and personality

Last week a young couple who live nearby brought their nine-week-old daughter to the monastery for a blessing. Observing this small being, there didn’t appear to be any substantial sense of a somebody. There wasn’t yet any accumulated perception of an individual differentiated from its parents or the sensory world. Child development theorists tell us that it takes about seven years for such a differentiation to fully take place. This happens to correspond to the age of the youngest arahant recorded in the scriptures. Maybe before seven years of age, there isn’t enough of a somebody for transformation of the mistaken identification with personality to take place.

Learning to abide in awareness beyond limited personal identity doesn’t mean that we are trying to get rid of our personalities. That the Buddha taught anatta, no-self, doesn’t mean we are supposed to feel guilty for having personal desires, or embarrassed about who we are. We all have personalities; we had to work hard to attain one! Buddhism is telling us that personality is not all that it appears to be, but this doesn’t mean we have to start apologising for our experience of being a particular somebody. We need to consider this carefully. The precious ‘pointing to reality’ that constitutes Dhamma teachings becomes dangerous when turned into doctrine. By this I mean that the concept of anatta should be understood as just a concept; the experience to which it points is something completely different.

Our personality is what we experience ourselves as, and we welcome and value it. The last thing to do is attempt to get rid of it. Should we be foolish enough to try – and some of us have been that foolish – then a lot of our personality goes underground. When it’s not out in the open but relegated to the shadowy underworld, all that is dark in our character grows larger. Sometimes we get hints of its underground activity, and if we are sensitive to its rumblings we would be wise to welcome it back into the light of day before it grows into too much of a monster. We can be sure it will come to light some time. Perhaps it might wait until we have become well-known; one day somebody might criticise us in public – and full-blown repressed vengefulness raises its ugly head for everyone to see.

If our practice is not driven by wilful ambition, caution will guide us and we will learn from the lessons of life naturally. There will be no need to try to get rid of what we don’t like about ourselves. From his perspective of perfectly unobstructed vision, the Buddha pointed out the delusive nature of the feeling of ‘I’. From our perspective we take up this invitation to enquire and, remembering whatever degree of awareness we have access to, we examine the very dynamic of personality. We find that what we thought of as our ‘self’ is in fact a dynamic process. This realisation can be shocking. If we are not prepared, the shock might trigger an even more tenacious grasping, which would be regrettable. But, if through our patient and consistent surrender to right training, we have been made ready, then when we do see through the apparent nature of personality, awakening can be deepened.

Coming home

From here on, the struggles to defend or promote ourselves turn into the material of our contemplative enquiry. The force of feeling that drives us to protect our individual rights alters, transforming into active, compassionate concern for all beings. Just as a dead-looking branch in winter changes into a fragrant blossoming tree in spring, our hard-edged personal tendencies soften and reveal themselves as means of enhancing conscious relationship.

So we are not interested in getting rid of personality. We are very interested in altering our perspective on it. In moments of being one with ourselves we discover such clarity and sensitivity as was previously unimaginable, as well as an interest and willingness to accept in awareness everything that we might previously have sent underground. This process is very humbling and proceeds at its own pace, which is often not ‘my’ pace. ‘I’ want it over and done with. However, if we arrive at this stage naturally, that is, without straining for it, then all the resources needed for enduring the tests will be available. As we recite in our morning chanting: ‘The Dhamma holds those who uphold it from falling into delusion.’

A heart that is awake studies delusion, doesn’t run from it and doesn’t push past it. Of course, we still have our habitual desire to avoid it, but we study the desire too. By carefully investigating what is already at hand, who and what we really are begins to become clear.

The instruction to contemplate anatta is not an injunction to become something or somebody other than that which we already are – and that includes trying to become nobody! It is drawing us back to a recognition of the reality that already always is. The gradual dawning of this recognition dissolves the apparent solidity of our somebodihood. We can gently trust in the benefits of all that we have endured in the process of investigation as we experience the unfolding of a more agile being. We find there are more and more situations in which we remember ourselves more quickly. We are now more likely to be able to accord with whatever situation we are in as we move through the world – not because we have become more liberal or compromising, not at all, but because we don’t hold ourselves so tightly.

I once heard a venerable monk speak of the difference between the awakened and the unawakened states as like the difference between flowing and frozen water. A mind identified in egoity is like an ice cube that only fits into spaces its own shape. As our rigid frozen ego is subjected to the fires of the passions in the course of committed practice, eventually a kind of melt-down occurs, and like flowing water we can move more freely with the circumstances of our life.

Question: Could you say a bit more about having a personality – does what you have been saying only apply to us, or do arahants have personalities too?

Ajahn Munindo: That’s a very good question. I can’t say that I’ve ever sat down for a heart-to-heart sharing with an arahant and said ‘How do you feel about your personality?’ though I’d like to. I think the closest I have ever come to it is conversations I’ve had with Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Tate. Whether they were arahants or not I don’t know. Actually, I don’t find talking about whether or not somebody is an arahant very appropriate. To me the state of purity of somebody’s heart is an intensely personal matter. What I do have confidence in is that both were great monks who were very well-acquainted with reality and practice. However, the question remains. When Ajahn Chah was questioned along these lines he persistently told people that it was none of their business and to get on with their own practice. Yet on one occasion, apparently when he was asked whether he was an arahant, he said, “My experience is like being a tree, I’ve got branches and leaves and berries and fruits and so on. And the birds come along and they sit in the branches and they eat the fruit, some say it’s sweet, some say it’s sour. And they go on about whether they like it or dislike it and so on and so forth. That’s just the chattering of the birds, that’s just what they do. So I just am what I am. You call me an arahant or not, you can say what you like about it.”

It’s similar to the question as to whether or not an arahant has a personality. We could discuss the dynamics of an arahant’s behaviour from the perspective of being an observer, and we could say ‘Well, their personality is like this or their personality is like that.’ I’m speculating here, but I would imagine that from the perspective of the arahant they don’t have a personality.

I would suggest that perhaps it is more useful to see how we have things. Ajahn Chah often spoke about having and not having as being the same thing. He said, “Hai mee mai mee – make having not-having. Have but don’t have. Having and not-having need to be seen as the same thing.” And he would say, “Like this cup here; actually you can have this cup, but you have to know also how to not-have it. And when having and not-having are the same thing then you’re free.” There’s having with attachment and there’s having without attachment and there’s a big difference between the two, a huge difference.

So I would expect that an arahant could be quite articulate in talking about tendencies of his or her mind and commenting on their own behaviour patterns, but there would be a very tangible sense of equanimity. They would be having without having; they’d be having without grasping. And that’s what makes the difference.

The characteristic of an arahant is that their heart is completely free from all tendencies of clinging. All manifestations of ignorance and conceit have been removed. And so according to the Buddha’s teaching all their activity is governed by wisdom and compassion. This does not mean they are always perfect in all the decisions they make. They are only perfect in the sense that they are incapable of becoming caught up in any unwholesome states. The Buddha had to reprimand one particular arahant for his decision to not attend the recitation of the monastic rule (patimokkha). Because he was free from all impurities of heart, this monk figured he did not have to join with the rest of the Sangha for their fortnightly gathering. From the perspective of the Buddha’s superior insight this was a misjudgement, because it could have led less realised members of the Sangha to bad practice.

Neither does it mean that you’re going to like all these manifestations of wisdom and compassion. I think we could be in the company of an arahant and feel thoroughly annoyed, really disliking them. They may have grown up in an environment where they weren’t taught proper hygiene for instance. Or they might have bad breath, or an accent we find unattractive, or they may not have washed their robes or something. And to them, according to their particular conditioning that’s perfectly acceptable. Or they may even have a rather grubby sense of humour. I have known some people who were pretty much like arahants and they used to enjoy rather coarse jokes. You may not find that agreeable, you might say, ‘That person can’t be an arahant, he’s too vulgar to be an arahant.’

But the Buddha said that you couldn’t tell an arahant by looking at the outside. The outside’s not just the complexion of their skin or their bodily features; it’s everything that you can perceive from the outside, including what we might call personality. You have to be an arahant to know an arahant.

There are several stories in the scriptures which undermine some of the assumptions people might have about how an enlightened being would appear. One is from the sutta called ‘Lakuntaka Bhaddiya’ from the Samyutta Nikaya. In this sutta the Buddha mentions a monk who is called Bhaddiya who he says is ugly, unpleasing and even despised. Yet this same monk ‘has arrived at and fully realised that uttermost goal of the holy life.’

Then Dhammapada verse 408 says: ‘Those who speak truth and give gentle encouragement, contending with no-one, these do I call great beings.’ It is explained in the commentaries that this verse was uttered by the Buddha in reference to incidents involving an elder monk called Vaccha, who was in the habit of addressing everyone in a patronising, even abusive, manner. He called people ‘wretched’ and ‘vile’, which of course wasn’t what they had come to expect from a Buddhist monk. With their feelings hurt, they went to see the Buddha who, on hearing their complaint, looked into the mind of Bhikkhu Vaccha. The Buddha saw that this monk’s heart was completely free from any intention to cause harm. Indeed he was a fully awakened arahant and the reason he spoke in such a way was because of deep but completely innocuous character traits. So the Buddha took the occasion to explain this matter, saying that it is possible for such an enlightened person to appear offensive but be inwardly perfectly pure.



© 2005 Aruna Publications