Buddhist not-self meets poststructuralist subjectivity

Sadly, at a time when so much sophisticated cultural criticism by hip intellectuals from diverse locations extols a vision of cultural hybridity, border crossing, subjectivity constructed out of plurality, the vast majority of folks in this society still believe in a notion of identity that is rooted in a sense of essential traits and characteristics that are fixed and static.

bell hooks, Art on my Mind

Asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender, with feminism. I would start by stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, being a seeker on the path. Feminist and antiracist struggles are part of this journey. I stand spiritually, steadfastly, on a path of love — that’s the ground of my being.”

bell hooks, “Contemplation and Transformation” in Buddhist Women on the Edge

On what ground does a person stand when declaring their existence? bell hooks’ essay in the 1996 collection Buddhist Women on the Edge begins “Asked to define myself…”. Here is already a subject. Self-definition is often a privilege of the middle and upper classes, but the request itself is also a marker of unstable social standing. For who is asked to define themselves but those whose power needs to be defined, constrained, controlled? The dominant are defined by their power and privilege, and only have to define themselves when something happens to disrupt the narrative.

Asked to define herself, she wouldn’t start with race — she doesn’t have to, or doesn’t have a choice, because it started without her, long ago. She wouldn’t start with gender. This choice to not “start with” is indicative of substantial agency, but the need to do so, or to announce what one is not doing, signals the presence of external force. Her alongside orientation, “love”, and activity, “seeker”, are gestures of resistance not only to the identity fundamentalists but to the dominant power that demands she define herself in the first place. In this essay I’ll discuss pragmatic essentialism in relation to Buddhist thought, discuss social structures that support the Buddhist practices that lead to deconstruction of the self, and note some pitfalls in the import of those practices to the west. I’ll then read Seth Eisen’s queer history piece Homo File as an example of a queer Buddhist-influenced theater that performs a “path of love” as liberative stance in relation to hegemonic authority.

Subjectivity arises when the self is perceived in relation to another, and is the state of mind in play when identity, cooperation, and resistance are active. Subjectivity has an Other always in its field, and so is predicated on a dependent, or interdependent, self. Peggy Phelan writes, “ Subjectivity can only be ‘had,’ that is to say, experienced and performed (through the performance one has the experience of subjectivity), in the admission and recognition of one’s failure to appear to oneself and within the representational field.”

If one “succeeded” in appearing, the other would fade from predominance or be eclipsed by that which would now hold the center, the point at which the perspective coheres. Nevertheless, asserting identity and subjectivity are necessary and powerful when oppression is overwhelming. hooks, though she is deeply aware of and has fought against the oppression perpetrated upon black people and women, chooses to take her stand alongside, as a “seeker”, as one who is steadfast “on a path of love”. Though she references Buddhist teachings and teachers, she takes refuge not in the transcendent Emptiness suggested by Buddhism, nor in the traditional objects of refuge — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — but in the most sublime of “spiritual” qualities: love. This stance holds deep implications as a contemplative identity practice for engaged members of society, artists and art consumers, and members of oppressed groups, particularly in how it eschews stances of resistance and struggle.

hooks’ embrace of love as fundament performs a Buddhist understanding of the self as conditioned by past, choice, and intention, and intersects with postmodern discourses of multiplicity even as such theories have faced substantial cultural drift toward fundamentalism, essentialism, and tribal violence. She writes also as a Buddhist practitioner engaging with social liberation struggles while holding a classically Buddhist utopian orientation “beyond dualisms”. She understands that discourses of multiplicity and the non-autonomous — discourses beyond dualism — are not often or easily embraced by oppressed communities that rely on essentialized traits and self-other dualisms for ontological and material survival.

From not-self to safety

The transcendent vision of Not-Self (anattā) in the Pāli Canon, in which no thing can be identified as being a stable or reliable self, and its Mahāyāna descendent, Emptiness (śūnyatā) as an ultimate quality of all things and experiences, are the taproots of the Buddhist understanding of the self — that there essentially isn’t one in the way that we tend to imagine or desire. But the crux of understanding how Buddhist ideas about self meet postmodern experience is perhaps in the social formations that surround Buddhist practice more than in the philosophies themselves.

Buddhism’s famous deconstruction of the self is predicated on there being enough stability of frame (ego, status, community, society) to support a psychological and energetic unraveling, though this predicate is only implicit in the early texts. Traditionally this unraveling, the consequence of sustained meditation and contemplation, would have been undertaken only within the social structure of the ordained saṅgha, which operates under a very codified and strict set of rules (called the vinaya), and is the oldest continuously operating organization in the world.

This incredibly stable structure is the ground — in most Asian Buddhisms, at least — that supports the dissolution of the self in intensive practice. You can go to pieces because everything around you is there to support your going to pieces! This shelter is the privilege of the monastics, who don’t have to raise families, go to work, or in any substantial way rely on ego structures for daily functioning. Lay Buddhists in Theravādin countries, for instance, historically don’t meditate much, but practice generosity and ethical action, devotional observances, and support the monastics, who reciprocate with teachings, life cycle rituals, and in some villages coordination of education, medical care, and other social services. These laity would not be pursuing practices that lead to dissolution, and if they stumbled into it, as some do, would generally immediately ordain, having recognized the import of what was happening.

When Buddhism found converts in the west it was in a psychologically-oriented middle-class with enough comfort and hubris to want to engage in the most “profound” practices, and though they formed strong lay communities (like Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the San Francisco Zen Center), the full support structure of the monastic saṅgha was essentially lost. An emphasis on the deconstruction of the self, however, was retained and emphasized. One consequence of this shift is that a huge number of people (myself included), are practicing and teaching deconstructive meditations with minimal social or psychological framing structures that guarantee the safety of those who take these meditations to their natural end.

This is an acknowledged issue in western Theravada, with its love for intensive lay practice, and is being addressed by many western Buddhist communities. Attraction to deconstructive practice but separation from support structures has deep implications in the unfolding of meditative communities in the west, including giving rise to work that I and many of my teachers and peers are doing to integrate trauma-healing and complementary psychological understanding and skills into the dharma teaching toolkit.

It is commonly repeated, after all, that before one lets go of the self, one has to have one in the first place. bell hooks repeats this teaching in relation to gender, saying “A central problem for women is that you can’t give up the ego and the self if you haven’t established a sense of yourself as subject”. Here psychology and soteriology can be understood as sequential: psychological process, including grounding, orientation, establishment of healthy ego boundaries, secure attachment, and emotional maturity are prerequisites for deconstructive, and liberating, inquiry.

If this is the case, then the popularization of Buddhism and mindfulness might be to some extent misguided. Indeed, most people who attend intensive meditation retreats spend much of their time processing personality content rather than the traditional vipassana insights, and the question is begged whether the Buddhist practice being pursued in earnest by western practitioners is culturally or psychologically appropriate, or even as effective as the exercises are designed to be in the traditional context. Further, there is a conversation happening now in western Theravada about whether intensive meditation retreat is contraindicated for people with histories of trauma or otherwise unstable psychological histories. We may be prescribing a strong medicine that does not serve the patient.

The signature Buddhist practice of mindfulness and inquiry was not originally intended to be a populist practice, with everyone invited to meditate and given the impression that such practice would be good for them. According to the Pāli texts, after the Buddha’s awakening, he felt that the wisdom he had realized was too subtle for people to understand, and initially decided not to teach. He changed his mind only after being exhorted by a deity (Brahma Sahampati) to see that there were in fact “beings with little dust in their eyes” who would in fact understand the Dharma. And even then he reserved the teachings on not-self for the monks and nuns, not offering them to lay people for many years.

In our culture where substantial politically rightward drift is only reinforcing tribalism, paranoia, solidification of identity, affinity, and insularity, teachings on the Emptiness of self are perhaps simply not the right medicine, and should be de-emphasized in favor of ethical and community-building teachings.

An integrated Buddhist response to the question of subjectivity and power alongside and in non-autonomy might be rooted in the understanding that in order for deconstructive discourses to take real root, strong support structures must be in place that affirm the subjectivity and positionality of each person and community, even if that affirmation must rely, temporarily perhaps, on undesirable (and ontologically misleading) essentialisms. Saṅgha in a way is such an essentialism — as its translation “community” must also be. It imagines unity where there is always already difference. This is a conceptual parallel to the pragmatic feminist essentialism of Irigaray, and in the Buddhist west is perhaps a vital counterbalance to the practices of psychoenergetic deconstruction.

A healthy Buddhist self that acts alongside hegemonic forms of power is one who holds identity and community/affinity in perspective, not as ontological absolutes, but as Skillful Means, and does not abandon them. Perhaps the wise practitioner finds or makes a safe space — in her home or church or neighborhood, alone or in a group — in which to let go of or soften essentialized identity in a way that doesn’t threaten the material and social well-being of her group. And emerging, she takes it up again, as necessary, in the struggle for justice and peace. I know that it is my hope, and the hope of those who teach Dharma, that our groups and classes are that safe space for oppressed people. And I know that we have far to go before this is really true.

There exists now a rich and growing literature on “Engaged Buddhism”, written mostly by practitioners of meditation and Buddhist contemplation who endeavor to bridge a gap between Buddhism’s clear love of renunciation and yogic disengagement and liberal-progressive struggles for justice, peace, and ecological sustainability. Engaged Buddhist discourse recognizes the power of identity constructions around race, gender, sexuality, class, size, geography, and other power-relevant distinctions, and like the feminists rightly suspicious of essentializing philosophies, which tend to either ignore oppression (when practiced by the privileged/oppressor) or support tribalism and insularity (when practiced by the oppressed).

Buddhism, in its recognition of the Emptiness of identity and the self, can itself easily become an essentializing philosophy, especially in the hands of privileged communities who are comfortable and safe enough to even consider letting go of the shelter of self (and therefore other). It is no surprise that the meditative and philosophically subtle forms of Buddhism have generally taken root in the upper classes first when imported to a new country, while the devotional and ritual forms have remained the practice of the poor and less educated.

Engaged Buddhist approaches in both Asia and America have grown out of Mahayana traditions that emphasize compassion, and applied that compassion in service of social good. This engaged Buddhist path that is more concerned with immanence and the suffering of others than with transcendence and the end of suffering in the self is one that might be called, in hooks’ American post-Christian vernacular, a “path of love”.

Art as a path of love

Queer Buddhist performer, visual artist, and theater maker Seth Eisen uses a convivial postdramatic acting style, puppetry, drag, and aerial dance to create intimate spectacles telling stories from queer history. His recent piece, Homo File (2012) portrayed the life of Samuel Steward, who was “a college professor, a prolific author of homoerotic fiction, an influential tattoo artist, and Queer sexual rebel”, in arch and touching scenes depicting his meetings with Alfred Kinsey, Gertrude Stein (played in buoyant drag by Michael Soldier), Alice B. Toklas, and a parade of sailors and sexual partners. 

Eisen’s theater is warm at heart, kind toward his protagonist, with barely a dramatic arc — the crisis of the story is that Steward will not hide his homosexuality and loses his university job. The piece barely mourns, pouring forward in a biography that does not attempt to package Steward into a single iconic or tragic myth but allows him to inhabit several: now he’s a tattoo artist, now writes erotic fiction, now seems a full time libertine, now is a satisfied old man (embodied as a beautiful bunraku puppet operated by the whole cast, one body taking on multiplicities of intent).

The subjectivity represented in the character of Steward is that of a self that acts not in resistance to dominant forces but simply outside their ken. He is his own person, and teaches that confidence and presence of self to the audience. As a piece of queer history I don’t know how revisionist the emotional portrayal is — the piece is based almost wholly on the one published biography, Secret Historian, by Justin Spring — but Eisen’s Buddhist practice is revealed in the emphasis on Steward’s equanimity and jouissance, readable as Barthesian in his blissful invitation of encounter after encounter.

The pleasure of the text that was Steward himself — and he was, covered in ink — is read by hundreds of men, each sexual encounter documented on file cards and meticulously stored. His body becomes text, jouissant, blissful, and he reads — and then writes — the bodies of his lovers, charting an intimate path through an intolerant mid-century America. Though it is a story that revolves around sexual secrecy and persecution, Homo File was never grim, and a palpable kindness filled the theater.

Because drag disrupts perception so fully, it easily becomes a manifestation of ontological Emptiness — more than just acting — especially when, as in Homo File and often nowadays, not performed with mimetic intent. Soldier was never going to “pass” for Stein, but in his masculinity, wearing thick skirt, plump belly, and grey wig, did a delightful Gertrude — the one we’ve seen in the pictures, with diminutive Alice beside her, all hospitality, gossip and expat self-assurance. Doesn’t all acting reveal Emptiness, or the insubstantiality of things? It doesn’t, when illusion is being pursued, because we’re both so used to pursuing and so used to believing that it’s very difficult to turn away (to know our own subjectivity alongside). Eisen’s transparency of material — the cast, in costume but without masks or any veiling, simply moving puppet-Steward’s limbs slowly, making him stand and walk slowly forward, their attempt at communal coordination creating a poignant old man with tottering limbs; an overhead projector serving as the screen for shadow puppets becomes a quick, erasable field for drawing, and sketches of men fly up onto it as Steward talks about his lovers, their outlines like brush calligraphy, erotic, easy, gone  — assisted me in this revelation. On the body — heart, mind — can be written, drawn, felt, any story. No one person owns a story, but sung as history in a community where queer ancestors are often unknown, stories become the bodies of the listeners, especially for those who actively seek them out. For the seekers.

In the Buddhist doctrine that pairs Emptiness with Compassion, each arises as the natural flowering of the other. Love the spontaneous activity of Wisdom, or seeing clearly; Wisdom the maturing of Love without limit. Neither requires self or subjectivity to be fixated in order to manifest. Emptiness becomes a field of potential, of the virtual, of multiplicity, in which because nothing is fixed, anything can arise. This “anything arising” depends on conditions cultivated, of course, and love is the queen of conditions.

Hatred never ceases by hatred
but by love alone is healed
This is the ancient and eternal law.


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