what does it mean to “be a Buddhist”?: the pathologies of the singular self

Attentive reader: note that the title of this post is not “what does it mean to be a Buddhist?” That question is the one all too commonly asked as the presumptive basis upon which debates over beliefs are engaged—”Does one need to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist?” for example.

Similarly, it is the presumptive basis upon which assertions about ethical stances are made—”As a Buddhist, I believe it is wrong to incarcerate nonviolent criminals,” for example.

Why, I find myself repeatedly wondering, are such discourses framed in terms of religious identity? How does it matter whether I’m a Buddhist, or a Zoroastrian, a Zen Buddhist or a mindful one, a good Buddhist, or a bad one?

Why is it treated as simply given that religious identity determines one’s ethics? This is perhaps a classic instance of Sartrean bad faith—I’m not responsible for my ethical choices, they simply follow from my religious identity. The idea that religion’s function is to provide ethical guidance is not somehow natural. It was instead constructed over the last two centuries.

People find Buddhism hard to understand because they cannot see that the singular self is itself a construct, a socially determined understanding of who we are. So the emptiness of the self only sounds like a denial that the self exists. Likewise karma is only understood as a moralistic system of retribution, instead of the natural consequences of a self who exists in relation with other people, and with the natural environment that surrounds them. The idea that we are singular, autonomous individuals, agents determining our actions solely by our own interests is a kind of psychopathy.

I have become increasingly fascinated by mushrooms—no, not ‘shrooms—but rather with the way that they are so ephemeral and yet so strong and enduring. They are simply a network, the mycelium, connected to other living things, and often out of sight above ground. What a wonderful image for the self.