A conversation on identity with Zen priest Zenki Christian Dillo.
Article by Ethan Cutler
Art by Isabel Aurichio
What follows is a conversation with Zenki Christian Dillo, the resident teacher at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. Instead of talking about Buddhism directly, we talked about identity through a Buddhist lens. This isn’t quite an interview; instead, it’s a conversation between a beginner and an experienced teacher.
Ethan: So it seems to me that “identity” has become a buzzword. It’s been used to refer to so many different things that it’s no longer clear to me what it means. But maybe it still retains a core meaning—something like: being someone who has certain consistent attributes and carries these attributes throughout time.
We talk about identity a lot in college, but we also feel about it a lot. There’s a lot of anxiety about identity: about race, gender, class, and sexuality. Sometimes it feels like crafting an identity is the whole goal of college. I know that your view is starkly different from how identity is commonly conceived, so maybe you can just start by talking about how you conceive of identity generally.
Zenki: A distinction that I make is between what I call identity-thinking and activity-thinking. And like you pointed out, an identity is something that stays self-same over time. So you can look at yourself this way, but you can also look at things in the world as remaining self-same over time. Let’s say there’s a tree in your front yard—the tree grows over time, and at some point it will also die and decay. But we look at the tree every day and we think of the tree as self-same. It’s that tree: that maple tree in the front yard. And this kind of identity-thinking is useful to some degree. It has a certain functionality because things do stay self-same to some degree over time, so we can orient ourselves this way. If I know you as Ethan and I see you again in a few months, I can refer to you as Ethan, and you will be a person who is self-same enough for me to identify you as the same.
So I’m thinking of identity-thinking in contrast to activity-thinking because Buddhism would say that how things actually are is that they’re not self-same entities, but always changing activities. Everything is an activity. So the tree in your front yard that we’re imagining isn’t just an activity because it’s growing. It’s also an activity because the wind is blowing and the leaves are fluttering in the wind. And it’s an activity because insects are crawling on it, because squirrels are jumping around in the tree and the sun interacts with the leaves, which are doing their magic, photosynthesis. And because water is drawn up from the ground and pumped into the leaves and even released into the air!
So if you look at the tree as a thing, it’s separate from all these other things I just named. But when you look at it as an activity, you really have to start looking at it not just as an activity but as an inter-activity. The tree is interacting with the soil and the minerals and the water, the wind and the insects, the air and the sun. It interacts with everything.
So imagine a world where you look at everything as activity. We have the freedom to look at self as identity—something that stays self-same over time, but we can also look at self as activity. So rather than asking, “What is more true?” we could shift that question and say, “what is more useful in relationship to lessening suffering?” The Buddhist perspective would be this: looking at self as activity is more conducive to reducing suffering than looking at self as identity, though it is functional and sometimes necessary in our culture to look at self as identity.
E: Sure, but then, how do you distance yourself from it? How can our attitudes toward identity change in some helpful way?
Z: I think it’s useful to look at the word “identification.” Say we do construct an identity, which we all do because it’s something we need in order to function. Now the question is, how strongly are we identified with that identity? This is a slightly different question. So, for example, I may find it necessary to construct and maintain an identity of being a teacher. Because my teacher is asking me to teach, and then people are relating to me as a teacher. And then when I’m asked, ‘what’s your role at the Zen Center?,’ I say I’m the resident teacher. So I’m accepting this identity or role because it allows me to have a certain social and societal interface with people.
But now the question is, how identified am I with this role? Because I’m maintaining this role of teacher over time as somewhat self-same, one danger would be that I begin acting in the role and identity of teacher all the time and I begin to identify with the role. It could start to be who I am. The question is if that’s necessary. Can we, I wonder, hold our actually various identities loosely as roles, and then enter into them and step out of them? Can we find a space around those identities that is different from being in one of those identities? I think we can, and that space around the identities is something we could call “not being identified with those identities.” And this is one aspect of our practice: to find that space, that freedom, to be able to construct identity, but to not be identified with it, and then to let it change, or let it fall apart even, and not be threatened by that.
E: That makes me wonder, why, in the first place, are we all so inclined to identify with our identities? We’ve said that they’re functional, but we always seem to take it too far.
Z: Why do you think?
E: Maybe because having and clinging to a fixed identity gives us a sense of safety and continuity, and abates a fear of change, maybe a fear of death. So maybe we’re worried that if we don’t identify with our identities, there won’t be anything that fills the need for continuity and stability. Or maybe that need is also something to be let go of.
Z: I think you’re right that the tendency to grasp at your identity and identify with it comes out of fear, and the longing for security. For safety, as you said. And what is that fear? It’s the fear—well, in part it’s the fear of not knowing who you are. And this is a fear of not knowing whether other people will accept you and support you and respect you. Our identities are very much interwoven with how others are seeing us, so we’re trying to construct an identity which we feel good about, yes, but it’s an identity which, to a large degree, we feel good about because other people feel good about it. So if you’re interested in an identity that has high status, what you’re really after is how other people are looking up to you. Or if you’re looking for an identity that is accompanied by making a good amount of money, you’re looking for how other people are willing to pay you that money because they’re valuing what you’re doing. And then the danger is that how other people value what you’re doing can translate into your own feeling of self worth. So you then see threats to your identity. There’s the threat of, let’s say, when you stop making a good amount of money. Once you’ve tied how people are valuing you in monetary terms to your own sense of self-worth, then when your income goes down, your self worth goes down. This is kind of crazy! Because of this fear, we’re constructing something that we’re then selling to other people, and then we’re tying our own self-worth and well-being to it.
The way this is approached in Zen is that you need to learn to face that fear and break through it, and become profoundly comfortable with not knowing who you are. But you can turn that around and say, being comfortable with not knowing who you are is the knowing that you’re always changing, that you’re always an activity. You’re not just losing identity. You’re actually gaining the insight that you’re an ever-changing activity. So what you’re getting instead of a fixed, stabilized, but also rigid identity, is a very dynamic, always-changing aliveness.
And you were asking, if that identity starts to crumble and you’re not identified with it any more, what can you rely on? Well, in Buddhism we start the practice with bringing attention to the breath. And the breath is an activity. Your attention can ride that cyclical activity of the breath, and it gives you stability. And like the tree that’s connected with everything, the breath can give you experiential evidence that you are an interactivity with air. But of course you’re interactive with much more than air—with ground, gravity, the sun, etc. So even though everything is changing, there is a kind of always-present aliveness that we can first discover, and then settle into. And then, once we can learn to trust in this always-changing aliveness, there’s a lot of creativity to how we meet changing circumstances. There’s an enormous power, which we all have, to relate to changing circumstances rather than defend against threats that come to our identity.
E: So then an identity with which we’re identified is like a constant opposition to changing circumstances. I think I get that, and that’s definitely how it feels sometimes. So maybe identity politics, then, is so complicated because it’s dealing with the constant clashing of identities. Maybe whenever you have an identity, we could not only come up with lots of examples of threats, but we could say there will always be threats because things are always changing. So to not be in that rigid, oppositional identity thinking is somehow both grounded and groundless. Maybe that’s too abstract. But I feel this sometimes in zazen [seated meditation], when on the one hand it’s groundless because there is no stable thing you can identify with, but on the other hand, you’re grounded in all this stuff that’s going on. And it’s….I don’t know. It’s comforting.
Z: So for the intellectual, conceptual mind, it’s a problem to say you’re grounded in groundlessness. But experientially it’s not a problem. You can legitimately say there is no ground because there is nothing stable, and at the same time, it is so dynamically active and creative that you feel secure in a very new way. So in that sense you feel grounded. But these are just words. So we can talk about it—I don’t have a problem with words—but the experience starts to be expressed with paradox, which is a problem in language, but not a problem in experience.
E: Yeah, so there’s definitely a lightness, or playfulness with words in Zen—this sense that the words are never really gonna get there. And behind that, it seems like there’s this view that not only does identity resist change, but actually the whole conceptual mind itself tends to resist change—which is to say, it resists reality. And that’s harder for me to wrap my head around because, I don’t know, I can’t wrap my head around my head. Does that have something to do with the discomfort we feel when trying to align ourselves with identities?
Z: I think the discomfort that we can have with identity is that we know our experience doesn’t neatly fall into these categories, and for sure isn’t exhausted by them. How we feel ourselves as the location of our experience is always richer than anything that can be said with these categories. So it always feels like a little bit of an aggression to me to reduce someone to those categories. The classic example of reducing someone to those categories is racism: “Because this person has such and such a skin color, it means they have these kinds of attributes. They’re not as intelligent,” or something. And this is a kind of violence.
In the current social justice movement, although it’s important that the oppressed need to stand up and say, “I am not willing to be reduced to these categories,” the oppressed might relate to a whole social group as oppressors, which is structurally similar to how they themselves had been forced into categories. And then there’s further conflict because people who are grouped with the oppressors know for themselves that they are so much more than the attributes used to group them, say white, male, middle-class, privileged.
So when this kind of conflict is being played out, it’s functional because we do need to negotiate and renegotiate these relationships so that there can be more justice. But we need to be equally aware that what we really are, a location of and for experience, is always richer than any of these categories. And for truly flourishing social relationships, that’s what we really need to respect in each other. And that’s what the oppressed are rightfully demanding of their oppressors. The difficult position that protestors against social inequality are in is that if they don’t want to fall into the same trap, they need to now extend this full recognition to the social groups they are criticizing. They might have to say, “You are more than this category of person who has taken advantage of your privilege. And I am meeting you as this presence that falls into no category.” And this is a huge challenge.
E: Oof, yeah. It’s beautiful, but it’s a lot to demand of anyone.
Z: Well, I’m not saying that we’re well-equipped to do this. I just think that when we get trapped in the idea that all we can do is negotiate our identities within these categories, we are not touching our true natures. So then we will always feel somewhat defeated because we’re not living up to our highest ideals of mutual respect, and meeting each other outside of the categories, which is what we truly desire, I think. I want to be met by you outside of these categories, so I can assume that you want that too. And this is how we can have a mutually compassionate relationship.
E: Right, to meet someone within those categories is not really to meet someone at all—you’re just meeting the categories. And as you implied, this extends beyond the typical identity politics categories. If I were to meet you only as a teacher, it would be stale and it wouldn’t really be fulfilling at all.
So, OK. We’ve established that people want to be met as more than their categories, which doesn’t seem very controversial. But it’s so easy and so common for us to only meet each other within our respective expectations for the other person. So how do we actually get beyond the categories? What would a world of real mutual respect look like? And because this meeting each other outside of our categories is required for compassion—or, I don’t know, is compassion—maybe the question is, what would a world of compassion look like? And how do we get there?
Z: So, technically in Buddhism you would say that to meet someone as more than their categories is wisdom. This is a look into how things actually are. We are not bound by categories, and not exhausted by them. Compassion, at least in the technical meaning, would be to simultaneously accept the categories that a person uses to project an identity into the world. So it’s this simultaneity of compassion and wisdom, of both seeing the need for appearing in the world through certain categories and not fully buying into them at the same time.
This is a subtle mental posture, so let’s keep exploring: when I meet you as a person, part of what our meeting involves is your narrative and my narrative. You’ll say, “I grew up in this kind of family with this cultural background in this region. These are the experiences I’ve had, these are the dreams I have for my life.” I’m calling that a narrative. Well, from a wisdom point of view, your narrative is a pure construction. It could be otherwise. You could interpret the circumstances and events of your life differently; it’s just something you’re currently inhabiting as your narrative identity. It will change, and it is already changing all the time. But part of my compassionate relationship to you is to accept your narrative as it is. I simultaneously see that you’ve just constructed it, but I’m also seeing that you are identifying with it. And I’m respecting that.
E: What does that mean, to accept it and respect it?
Z: Well it means, for example, if you have a complaint as part of your narrative—say you grew up in an underprivileged context in one way or another, racism, sexism, or other disadvantage—it means seeing that this is real suffering you’re conveying to me through your narrative. Does it mean that you’re completely bound by it? No. You lived through some challenging conditions, but from an absolute point of view, from a wisdom perspective, there’s a lot you can let go of or reframe. There are many degrees of freedom right now that you can choose. But if I only relate to you with this wisdom perspective, I would just be saying, “You’re already free, you can drop your complaint. The whole field of possibilities is open to you.”
This is an important perspective in empowering people, but it isn’t enough. The other side is that I want to deeply acknowledge the struggle and difficulty and suffering that you’ve experienced. We can do both these things. We can compassionately understand how someone has suffered from being boxed into categories, from having been identified negatively and then identifying themselves negatively because others have always looked at them that way. I acknowledge this compassionately, and, at the same time, from the perspective of wisdom, I can remind you that your freedom isn’t gone, that it can be actualized at any time, that you are not limited to this particular narrative. So I’m relating to you as more than your narrative and I’m also relating to you as the narrative.
E: Wow, that sounds so...nice. But maybe it gets more complicated because it’s not just a matter of me recognizing this narrative as a mere construct while also respecting it. These different narratives are constantly being created, recreated, and pushed on us by everyone we interact with—and this is true more so for some than others. Part of what white privilege means, for example, is that white people don’t have to constantly be reminded of their whiteness. I don’t get pulled over all the time by cops, for example. Sometimes the reality of some narratives are forced on people whether they like it or not. So how do you deal with the continuing pressure from everyone around you to sort of shove narratives onto you?
Z: I recognize that when a narrative is shoved onto you for years and years, there are very strong invitations to identify with that narrative. It can lead to a massive amount of self-aggression, when you start to believe on some level that you really are a bad or inferior person who deserves to be pushed around like this. That would be to identify with the narrative that’s forced on you. Or, alternatively, you can stand up and fight against that narrative and become a person who protests against the social norm and who then is in danger of getting treated even more like someone who needs to be disciplined. It’s a terrible dilemma. So what I’m saying isn’t easy to enact or to realize. The difficulty doesn’t make it untrue, though: we are more than the narratives that are being pushed on us.
In addition, a racist or sexist narrative tells one group of people to identify with being superior. Even though that creates so-called privilege, it’s actually suffering too. It generates separation and alienation. It generates anger on one side and shame on the other. No matter in what position we end up with in the narrative, we need to realize for ourselves that these invitations to identify with the narrative can be declined. We are actually already free from any narrative. This realization is personally freeing but it doesn’t change the societal conditions. That’s why I think it’s our mutual responsibility to deconstruct those narratives that generate oppression and injustice and co-create new narratives that have more freedom and less oppression built into them. When we engage in social activism like that, we need to be aware that changing social narratives can take a long time.
As a practice, there’s the actualization of wisdom, which is the practice of non-identification. And there’s the practice of compassion, which is how to use your non-identification to deliberately work toward constructing narratives that are more beneficial. Those two together are freedom. It’s both the freedom from identification and the freedom to construct functional identities.
Part of the Ego issue