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Identity

Recently I had a chance to observe a workshop on Identity, designed to be a consciousness-raiser for therapists on the issues of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Each person in the group was asked to say what they felt were the most important aspects of their identity, in order of importance. So one person might say, " I'm a gay man, white, Irish" another might say "I'm Jewish, a married woman, a mother;" a third, "Gay, woman, Jewish," and so on. Afterwards when each person spoke a little about why they made something the most important item of their identity, it was striking how in every case, the most important part of their identity was something that had caused them a great deal of pain growing up, but which they each gradually had come to terms with, and were now proud of. They described what it felt like the first time they had been called a "nigger," or "a dirty Jew," or a "faggot." Each in turn eventually found race and religion and sexual orientation an active, positive part of their self-image. This seems a important and necessary step we all have to go through, coming to terms with what feels or has been called negative about who we are. But how easy it is to become attached to the supposed uniqueness of our experience or our identity. We may even begin comparing our suffering with others and conclude no one who hasn't gone through exactly what we have can ever understand us or our pain. For instance, a gay woman remarked how the black woman in the group may have faced prejudice outside her family when growing up, but she had parents who were like her to come home to and to identity with. But SHE was hated at home for being gay in addition to being discriminated against by the outside world.

I would like to contrast this understanding of identity with that from two older stories. The first, from the 4th century B.C., concerns the philosopher Diogenes. In Greece at that time, one's identity was first and foremost as a citizen (or slave) of a particular city-state. You were an Athenian, a Theban, a Spartan etc. But when someone asked Diogenes where he was a citizen, he replied he was a "kosmou polites" - a citizen of the universe. That's where we get our word "cosmopolitan," which has positive connotations of sophistication and worldiness to our modern ears but to the ancient Greeks it was an oxymoron. To be a "citizen" of "everywhere" was to be a citizen nowhere, and to abdicate one's primary source of identity. That's one of the reason's Diogenes was called the Cynic - which comes from the word for dog - he abdicated his place in civilized society.

The other story is the famous one you've all heard about Bodhidharma, the 1st patriarch, who brought Zen from India to China. According to the story, Buddhism already had been established in China and the current emperor considered himself something of a patron of Buddhism, having endowed a number of temples and shrines and monasteries and the like. So when this distinguished Indian Master came to town, he took the opportunity to boast of his good works and ask what merit he had earned for his future reincarnations. Bodhidharma, always teaching, never playing along with what was expected, simply replied, "No merit." The emperor, not understanding and of course offended, asked who did he think HE was to talk to him like that? And Bodhidharma answered, "I don't know." Now it's fair to say that he didn't give that answer because he was having some sort of identity crisis! That "not knowing" is not in search of an answer, but is the answer. "Not knowing," not being bound by any category, any conception, any identity whatsoever, THAT is who he is, who we all are fundamentally.

As we sit here this morning listening to the sound of the rain, who is listening? A man? a woman? a Christian, Buddhist or Jew? Is the sound of the rain male or female, gay or straight? Who's listening?