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A Buddhist Analysis of Our ‘Human’ Identity

Identity crisis, by Dilip Kalita.

The other day, I was appalled at the gloomy picture of Buddha’s idol published in The Daily Star and uploaded by the Buddhistdoor International website on 24-04-2013. As the sources revealed, the idol belonged to Shakyamuni Pagaoda of Boalkhali in Chittagong, where the miscreants vandalized the place of worship and set the idol of Buddha on fire.

It was so shocking that I can hardly describe it; for I always imagine Buddha as someone calm, quiet, blissful, tranquil and bright, who burns with a brilliant clear flame (knowledge) without black smoke (ignorance). Probably it is Buddha’s identity for me and any other who loves Him, over and above the identity He made through His teachings. It represents His form that we adore and it is His spiritual image that we place at the altar our heart. No wonder then, we would not like to see His identity to be in crisis.

Yes, we all love our identity dearly, which is predominantly shaped by our culture and tradition (though certain other factors play pretty much fair role in this regard). Well, what then is the problem? The problem is that we precisely define our identity. In regard to this definition, we never stop at, for instance, ‘I am Indian’, nor even at ‘I am Assamese’ but at our closed identity as Bodo, Rabha, Karbi, Mishing…. Needless to say, this strict precision draws a line between mine/ours and yours and in turn it implants in our mind a feeling of rejection of those who do not come under the banner what we call our identity. Sometimes, differences in languages, religious beliefs and geographical positions add fuel to this ill-feeling. Not to speak about inter community conflict, even members of the same community often come in conflict with their fellow members over the matter what we can bluntly term as non-sensical.

What is the attitude of the mainstream people toward those who live in border areas? Interestingly, the former call the latter by the name of that country/state with which their land shares border. Have we ever thought about the challenges faced by the people of border areas? The cruel true is that they have to fight a double- battle for the cause of their identity. One, they have to fight in their every breath to save their culture and tradition, which is most likely to be swayed by foreign culture. Another, they have to fight with their own people in the mainland to prove that they still belong to the same community (!) Really, such a crisis is nothing less than deforestation, carbon emission and global warming!

All these problems presumably owe their origin to our craving for precise and closed identity. What if we realize our identity in a wider denotation? Say, a Rabha man can introduce himself as a Rabha Assamese Indian. That is, he is a human who is at the same time Rabha, Assamese and Indian, and thus his identity fuses in a wide ranging denotation of ‘human’. Now how to obtain that identity of ‘human’? Let us first remove ‘Rabha’, then ‘Assamese’ and finally ‘Indian’ from his long-phrased identity. Now he is left with simply ‘human’. However, it is not quite as simple and straightforward as it seems to be. Perhaps here Buddhist analytical philosophy would be of a helpful suggestion. Let us turn on how the term ‘human’ is conceived in Buddhist philosophy.

According to the Yogacara Buddhists (particularly Dignaga and Dharmakirti), we cannot give a positive assertion of ‘human’ as ‘this is human’. For them, the term ‘this’ refers to the unique particular, which is revealed in pure sensation and the term ‘human’ refers to the thought-image and hence nothing more than thought-construction. These two things are quite different, but they are falsely identified because of the non-comprehension of the difference prevailing between them. They stated that the real is unique particular causally efficient point-instant which is beyond the range of words and concepts. And the so-called concepts, identity or similarity, are mere fancies or thought-constructions. When we call something ‘human’ what comes in our immediate experience is the parts of human body, or more accurately the point-instants, none of which is ‘human’. Hence for the Buddhists, any name is the negation of its contrary (apoha), e.g., ‘human’ is ‘not non-human’. What we see in the world (beings and non-beings) is the flow of momentary point-instants in a very close proximity. We divide them into groups on the basis of the similarity they have in some way and assign them with different names. Thus any act of assimilation or differentiation is our mental construction; whereas so far as our real nature is concerned, we are one or non-duel.Ignorance of the real nature of anything leads us to crisis. On seeing torched Buddha’s idol, I felt speechlessly sorry, may be because I identified Lord Buddha with Idol Buddha. I wrongly brought Him under a closed identity! Had I not have that illusory perception of Buddha, I would not have shocked; had I understood ‘Buddha’ as ‘not non-Buddha’, I could have stayed unperturbed. It is true that emotions play an extremely important role in human life, however we should not be driven totally by uncontrolled emotions. Rather emotional intelligence should be the regulator of our decisions on what we think, speak and act. 

To love myself does not necessarily require hating others. Real love for myself consists in the realization of me in the totality of whole, which is devoid of ‘this’ or ‘that’. Probably this is not possible if we do not remove the layers of thought-constructed identities from us. 

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