I have recently been preoccupied with the notion of identity. I confess, however, that my reflections were not inspired by a sutra or a commentary by a Chan patriarch. Instead, as a writer for Buddhistdoor Global, I had left some thoughts about two Hong Kong films on our Tea House blog,* that unwittingly reveal something about the unreality of identity, through the radically different scripted personalities of the protagonist, who features in both films. The story goes that actor Tony Leung noticed that the personality of Chow Mo-wan, the main character, had changed so radically between films that it was hard to recognize that he was playing the same person. In response, he asked director Wong Kar-wai if he could grow a mustache so he could concentrate on the role of what he felt was a different character altogether.
Most films, overtly or subtly, have religious themes, but with the films in question (In the Mood for Love and 2046) there is little to suggest philosophical undertones apart from the role of memory and time. Yet, inspired by this incident, I enjoyed pondering questions that I’m still thinking about this week: What makes us who we are? Can we depend on anything to give us a solid sense of self—be it the names given to us by our parents, our nationality, our religion, or our work? What about our personality or behavior, do such expressions of our interior being in the external world constitute “the self?”
And there has been more to discuss about identity in the last few weeks. In our Buddhistdoor View last week,** we sought to analyze the events that took place in Charlottesville. The historical and societal roots of what occured are conventionally identified as racism, a history of slavery, the Civil War, and segregation. All of this is true, however, at the heart of it all we find the basic problem of identity. Specifically, we find political or social movements that celebrate or cultivate attachment to the self, and constructs that reinforce the self, fermenting delusion and ignorance.
Buddhists should be able see that extremist movements, regardless of location or rationale, are essentially grasping at identity and self-constructs as the foundation of their existence. Buddhists should join anti-extremist organizations in proposing alternative ways of seeing the world. I think that, despite their chaotic nature, these events can teach us about deeper issues if we are willing to look past the superficial media headlines that cheapen or simplify the subject matter.
My Buddhist practice, as inadequate and incomplete as it has been and always will be, has felt like drawing water from a bottomless well of insight. I truly believe that the wisdom of this tradition is not only inexhaustible but also relevant to everything in life and the cosmos beyond, if only we are able to discern the bell of the Dharma ringing through all things. This is certainly not a new idea; Chinese and Japanese Chan/Zen masters believed that everyday, mundane things had the most potential to help us think about the Dharma. Teachers who are based in the West, from Vajrayana masters to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, also continually emphasize that the Dharma is present in the here and now.
I’m happy to accept that this focus on the present moment is slightly different to exploring possible Dharma resonances in, say, a film or piece of news, but when Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we be mindful while walking, eating, and washing the dishes, I take it to mean that there is a Buddhist lesson to be found in everything.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into daily life or popular culture. I do like to think, however, that my exegesis of everyday mundaneness and easy entertainment is a leftover from my studies in religion and theology, where I was encouraged to discern the meaning of the present moment. In New Age terminology, one might be tempted to invoke the idea of how the microcosm—the minute, the insignificant, the momentary—actually reflects the macrocosm, the universe, the big picture. Thinking theologically, I thought of a few points that I hope could articulate my sense of the profound in the everyday a bit further:
Reality is big—very big—and our experiences are tiny and fragmented. Scriptures such as the Avatamsaka Sutra talk of endless world-systems and infinite Buddhas. Our personal lives (even factoring in multiple rebirths) are painfully limited by our social contexts and existential ignorance. The fact that we are still so interconnected to this broader, higher reality despite our limited perceptions is, to me, a call to openness and a quest to discovering the teachings wherever they might whisper to us.
Buddhist Dharma is everywhere because it transcends human hands. It cannot be compared to a new formulation produced by a think-tank or even the well-tested theory of a scientific genius like Einstein. The Dharma was discovered by sagely beings called Buddhas; it has always been so and it will always be so even after our own world has passed into dust and quarks. It cannot be managed. It spills everywhere. And its omnipresence calls to us.
And finally, my favorite: surprise, absurdity, and humor are facts of life. We should be open to such surprises, whether they elicit delight, dismay, or hilarity. Philosophers have often spoken of the surrealism of human life. Is it too much to seek Dharma in the unexpected and random?
* Identity in “In the Mood for Love” and “2046” (Tea House)
** Buddhistdoor View: Charlottesville—Identity and Personhood Gone Mad (Buddhistdoor Global)