Sep 7 2012

Academia: Early Indian Buddhist Ideas of Self, and Spiritual Care in Traditionally Marginalized Communities.


Below is a paper I wrote for school. I have several edits going on. More academic than practice, hence the Academic tag. I invite you to bring up questions, concerns, ideas, etc in the comments. Would be interesting to see what kind of discussion can be generated here.

Early Indian Buddhist Ideas of Self, and Spiritual Care in Traditionally Marginalized Communities.

When I was 16, I was encouraged to go to “reparative therapy” for being gay. I resisted. My thinking at the time, and continues to be, that being gay is my natural state, and that there is nothing to repair. Despite all of the teachings that had been thrown at me already about the “wrongness” of being queer, I somehow had the emotional fortitude to embrace the beauty of my natural state. I believed that being gay was as much a part of who I am as having red hair, hazel eyes, and white skin. As I began to explore Buddhism, I found relief in some of the teachings, but had a struggle with what was being presented to me in the way of the no-self doctrine (anatta). How is it that I can feel empowered as a gay man, and also believe in an empty and unchanging self? When something as important as queerness seems intrinsic, how do we reconcile that with no self? For that matter, what is it to be heterosexual in regards to no-self. Is there an assumptive normalization that makes no-self easier to understand without the moniker of “queerness” to buffer one’s response. In other words, without the label “queer” is it easier for us to let go of our questions regarding the “no-self”.

Personal identity within marginalized communities plays a much bigger role than in what I will refer to as mainstream culture and society. It is with this in mind that this paper will explore both how personal identity operates and functions in traditionally marginalized people, and also how to understand the practices and teachings of shunyata and annata in this context. I will offer practical ways to practice with a personal identity and still hold to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha in regards to Self. It is my intent that this will allow for a widening of understanding of the teachings as well as how to understand and work with difference in our sanghas, and in our spiritual care. This paper will first briefly examine the Western psychological perspectives of personal identity and how that might relate to the Buddhist idea of a self. From there I will examine the teachings on self from an Abhidharma perspective and then from a Yogacara perspective. I will summarize with some considerations and possibilities toward incorporating these ideas into our understanding of and relationship to our personal practice and life in the sangha.


When speaking about a Western psychological view of self, the closest correlate is probably in line with what is called a “healthy ego”. It is that part of the mental construction that is aware of its place in the world around it, has an idea of itself being itself over time, and also has a healthy sense of individuation from others. On the surface each of these can prove difficult for a Buddhist, as they appear to conflict with common teachings on self from the Buddha. This Western view of self particularly seems in contradiction to the teachings about dependent origination. This contradiction, however, is merely superficial and has been dealt with a number of times by a variety of authors. It is outside the scope of this paper to elaborate on this topic much more and will claim this as merely my personal bias at this point.

Within traditionally marginalized communities, as members try to overcome the internal as well as external oppression, this healthy ego becomes highly important. Its role in establishing one’s place in the world, as an empowered and substantial person is without argument. It is that place that a degree of self-esteem and worthiness can arise, giving rise to boundaries which encourage individuation, and the ability to live beyond the limitations of an oppressive mainstream. The White Male Heteronormative (WMHN) goes a long way in supplanting in the mind that anything outside of the WMHN is abnormal and therefore subject to disregard at the very least. Disentangling this idea both internally and externally is often a life long process of learning more and more subtle ways in which it operates within ourselves and in the world we inhabit. For example, the unlearning of the internalized homophobia only begins with the process of coming out. The internalized assumptions about masculine, feminine, gender, etc. that are part and parcel of homophobia still operate in sometimes subtle, sometimes gross forms. Should one move into a sense of power as an oppressed person; one has an ongoing opportunity to reconstruct these beliefs in others as well as within oneself. For Example, in Oakland’s “Occupy Oakland movement”, there has been extensive discussion in regards to the name “Occupy” and its history with First Nation peoples. The dialogues have been initiated by those with healthy egos which allow them to point out and try to educate others about this instance of the normalization of privilege. In a sense, it is an experience of a group of people seeing a subtle form of WMHN behavior and making efforts to address it. In order for this experience to be possible, one must have already addressed and resolved the same WMHN message internally.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung states in Marriage as a Psychological Relationship “So far as we know, consciousness is always ego-consciousness. In order to be conscious of myself, I must be able to distinguish myself from others. Relationship can only take place where this distinction exists. “ Buddhist teachings do not assert that this distinction is without existence. The distinction between self and other, rather than the nihilistic approach of not existing, is viewed in the same way that everything else is viewed. That is without an ultimate or absolute existence. In Mahayana terms this would be empty of “inherent” existence.

When examining early Indian Buddhist Texts it is often considered impossible to find positive portrayals of identity . This is particularly true in regards to identity as oppressed or marginalized communities. This could be attributed to the fact that most of the actual writing down of the teachings was done by monks who had enough privilege to access education in reading and writing. It is possible they did not have an awareness of, or experience of marginalization or oppression. Given that societal norms have changed over the centuries and so the socially constructed idea of oppression and marginalization also must have undergone change, so whatever writing is there is obscured by the reader’s own view against the view of the author at the time of the writing. Although misogyny existed at the time of the Buddha, and certainly at the time of the actual writing of the scriptures, it is viewed and responded to differently at that time, then it is in modern society. Is it possible however to extrapolate a positive view from what is available? Will a close reading of the teachings reveal some information about what we as modern Buddhists can do to address what we know as marginalization and oppression?

Before we delve too deeply into the text, it is important to first understand what we mean by a modern view of “identity” as it relates to traditionally marginalized people. The view I have developed comes from my own experience as a gay man and contains to a large part the qualia (the quality of “what it’s like”) of a gay man in an oppressive society. In this view this queerness feels intrinsic or a natural disposition. Although I understand it (queerness) as a social construct in the same way ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs are socially constructed. This construction even when deconstructed doesn’t fully remove the qualia of queerness from the person. I may not behave or follow the societal construction of maleness, but that doesn’t remove from me the identity of being male. In this way, part of our definition has to go beyond social construction ideas, and into something more basic and/or inexpressible. This definition must also contain some sense of irretractability. I didn’t go to “reparative therapy” because I didn’t believe that being gay is something that is in need of curing, but I also felt it wasn’t possible to remove it. I see this as intrinsic to whatever it means to occupy this experience of a life, or to live inside this skin-bag. Another way to understand this would be to say that being queer may indeed be changeable, in the same sense that arms being above legs is interchangeable, only through extreme violence to and alteration of what it means to be a human person.

So there we have the idea of “self” we are looking for within the Buddhist teachings. Is it possible within the teachings of Annata (no-self) to find the experience of this “identity” or do the teachings negate this to such an extent that we have to abandon those things which play such an important part in our social/psychological experience of the world? How do we practice with these teachings as traditionally marginalized peoples and still maintain a sense of integration, integrity and wholeness?

Sarvastivada Abhidharma

The Sarvastivadan School (or the Everything Exists School) laid a lot of the groundwork for the current Mahayana Schools. This school has unclear historical origins, but we can place its start somewhere in the 2nd Century B.C.E. It no longer is an existing school, but its texts are still influential in the Mahayana School and to a lesser degree the Theravada school. The Sarvastivada school is characterized by it systemic approach to sutra study and incorporating through argumentation, philosophical understandings in a Buddhist context. They are called the “Everything Exists School” because they hold that the dharmas of past present and future all truly exist.

The Sarvastivadan understanding of “self” is understood in the context of causation. They hold that there is no self, but merely an ever-changing series of five skandhas. Their response to the Doctrine of Momentariness says that the self is like a movie, the skandhas reappearing each moment after the next. This allows for continuity, because it’s not that there is one thing called the self that exists over time, but the arising of the five skandhas for a moment, then they arise again in the next moment and so on like the frames in a motion picture.

The Sarvastivadan idea doesn’t meet our criteria of a self because there isn’t anything “intrinsic” or irretraceable in their system. There is no room for there to be an identity or pride. In fact, the issue of pride as a state of mind is not looked on favorably in any circumstance. To be proud is seen as holding onto or grasping an idea of self and reifying it into something permanent.

Consider however the possibility that what we call “gay pride” is actually corrective of the “pride” that is expressed as inferiority. “Gay pride” doesn’t have within it the hierarchical quality that I think Sarvastivada is pointing to as defilement. It could be seen that “gay pride” is in fact corrective in the sense that it actually begins to move one into the view of fully human and equal to everyone else.


Yogacara is called the consciousness-only or mind-only school. It basically says that the only access we have to anything are our constructed thoughts about that thing. This includes ourselves. This school expands on the ideas of emptiness to the point where not only is everything empty of any permanent or abiding self, but that we don’t even have the ability to get in contact with the thing itself, but only our ideas about that thing. For example: A chair exists, and is seen as empty, but it is also recognized only by the story I associate with it. A chair is a chair because I think it’s a chair.

This brings us closer to our criteria of some kind of intrinsic self. The emptiness theory doesn’t preclude there being a self, it’s just a self that is empty, and without anything permanent or abiding. It is also a constructed self, meaning there isn’t any part of it that exists on it’s own, it’s constructed of parts.

The interesting offering from Yogacara is that because our access to our “self” is only through our story about it, this makes practicing with this self, an investigation into the relationship of our mind and this self. So an “intrinsic” or queer self would be related to differently at different times, but the queerness itself, as part of this constructed empty self, doesn’t necessarily have to change.

Yogacara and Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness do not create a privileged reality of dharmas. Ultimately emptiness only affirms conventional reality, which is where identity construction (including iretracticble identities) occurs. The Dharma theory of the Sarvastivada give no way to work with oppression or identity construction since there is this multiple reality system with Ultimate Reality being privileged over Conventional Reality.

Because Yogacara is about the relationship to the self, we then can begin to truly examine and appreciate the cultural constructions, and work with them in a way to integrate and empower ourselves beyond the oppression of the normative. I move through my ideas about maleness, and begin to allow what it means to be a man change and alter as my relationship to it changes. Since my access to maleness is only through my mental ideas about it, then there is a freedom in examining it more closely.

Yogacara also has in its system, this part of the mind called the alaya-vijnana. The alaya-vijnana is also often called the storehouse consciousness. This consciousness flawlessly captures and stores all of our experiences in totality. Even those parts we aren’t aware of. These experiences are stored as “seeds”. The alaya-vijnana flows from the distant past up to the present and can be considered the psychological base of our life. It is also said that this alaya-vijnana contains the karma we were born into this life with. If we hold that rebirth happens, and that it is a continuation of some other life that ended before we were born, then how does that karma come into being? Alaya-vijnana would explain that. The “seeds” of karma that we come into existence with that are intrinsically part of us, would also be part of this consciousness. So if in fact we are “born this way”, as Lady Gaga says, then it would be through the alaya-vijnana.


So we needed a sense of something intrinsic in our nature that allowed us to be empowered and integrated. We needed to develop a teaching in Buddhism that allowed for an irretractability, yet changing and impermanent, way of being. It seems we get closest with Yogacara. The opening provided by a consciousness based teaching, with a storehouse that contains all of our experiences and karma, including that which we are born into this world with gives us the opportunity to utilize Buddhist practice as a way to empower and integrate the experiences of traditionally marginalized people.

Studying the relationship between myself and those parts of myself that I use in the construction of an identity, and then to study the relationship of that identity in the world, allows for a changing and empty self, but one that has as part of its construction, intrinsic and ongoing characteristics. In a philosophical sense we could label this a consistency through time. Practicing with this consistency through time means to study those constructed parts, and seeing how they are connected, not connected, and otherwise related to the constructed parts that exist in those humans around us we would call other. Because we only see our stories about those around us, we can change those stories as we study them. My stories about women, people of color, or other white people can all be changed; which then changes how I relate to those people. If I have some story about “straight” men, I can examine that story, as a story without having to make it true. I can see how it perhaps served me in the past, but when I find it not useful, or only aiding in my separation, then I can discard it.

As a chaplain, I believe that it is important to notice first how I build stories, and separations. Do my own work first. Then I can begin to bring that awareness further out to those I am serving. I can study or invite investigation into how a story of someone’s relation to another is constructed. This could serve to loosen up some old ideas that may help healing and finding some relief. By doing my own work as well, I find that I can be more able to meet people with an openhearted nature and allow more space for those who aren’t “like me”.

JD (not his real name) was a straight man who I served while caregiving at hospice. He was typical in most ways one would expect from a straight guy. Tough, stoic, and a guy who liked drinking beer, girls, and fishing; not necessarily in that order; JD taught me a lot about my construction of stories about “straight guys” and through our couple of months of weekly interaction, I was able to see past my own ideas, and could see how I had held myself back to avoid being abused, bullied, or otherwise harmed. JD never really gave me any indication he would do such things. I simply had these stories based on guys I knew like him. I recall the day I “let slip” that I was gay. We were sitting in the library of the hospice looking for places he and his brother could go fishing that would be “doable” given his current condition. Somehow it came out, and when it did I noticed my heart rate increase, and my breath becoming tight as I waited for his response. JD simply went on with the conversation we were having, almost like he missed my accidental confession. As we were walking back, I asked him if he had heard me. He said simple, “Yeah, but I already knew that. You aren’t exactly subtle.” Then he gave a great laugh and we continued to his room. He totally disarmed any ability I had to construct my usual story about “straight men”. I was left with just two people interacting, and being close. It was my first experience of feeling close and intimate with a straight guy without fear. JD died a few weeks after his fishing trip, and we had a few other conversations. His teaching to me was invaluable.

There is a way for one to be proud, and be a Buddhist. We don’t have to throw away or discard our identities in order to practice. The practice is just the opposite. To integrate and continue to study what it is to be a traditionally marginalized people, to continue to study our stories, our ideas about that, and our ideas about those we see as different or separate. It is through recognition of our difference that we can reach an equanimity and connectedness and see into true emptiness and interdependence. Or at least that’s my idea about it.