Heart and Conduct
One way we create identity is seeing ourself as a member of a particular ethnic group, religion, tribe, caste, and class. I can identify myself as a middle-class, university-educated American. I can identify with being a Buddhist. I can identify with my ethnic roots as a Jewish person with Russian and Turkish ancestors. Each identification is a description of a particular circumstance and social structure, but on a deeper level they too are tentative, an illusion. Sometimes tribe and ethnic descriptions are used in healthy ways: to honor our culture, to awaken dignity and respect, to value our deep connection with others like ourselves.
But these same distinctions can be used for racist and discriminatory purposes, creating enormous suffering. Ethnic, religious, and tribal identifications are repeatedly exploited for power and security, for separating “us” from “them.” Modern demagogues have used this identification to stir up powerful hatred of “the other.” Hate mongers so successfully inflamed the feelings of Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats that they created a cycle of horrendous wars and ethnic cleansings. Hindu fundamentalists fan tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, all to gain political power. In the United States, similar fears and identifications are exploited in the conflicts between established citizens and new immigrants. At the root, these identifications are not who we really are.
In one of the most revolutionary statements of all time, the Buddha urged every one of us to see through the blindness of identification with role and caste, with race and belief. He declared: “Since you are searching for understanding of identity, don’t ask about caste or class, riches or birth, but instead ask about heart and conduct. Look at the flames from a fire. Where does the brightness arise? From the nature of wood—and it doesn’t matter what kind of wood. In the same way the bright heart of wisdom can shine from wood of every sort. It is through virtuous conduct, through loving-kindness and compassion, and through understanding of truth that one becomes noble.”
As we examine our self-image, our tribe, our roles, we can acknowledge that they are tentative. We can learn to honor them without being completely identified and lost in them. In each of our lives we will have periods when it seems that we have great freedom to choose a direction. And then there will be times when more limited roles must be fulfilled: parent, breadwinner, citizen, community member, contemplative. A mature life requires an ability to enter each of the roles given to us. Freedom arises when we hold them lightly, when we see them for what they are.