What is, would you think, one of the foremost problems that my Russian friends and relatives mention to me? Economy? Politics? Personal and family issues? Nope. It is immigrants in Europe. I hear genuine concern and aversion when my friends mention the number of Muslims in the UK or the fact that there are predominantly black arrondissements (city districts) in Paris.
This mystified me. I sensed that although they were talking about countries foreign to them, they perceived the situation as a personal threat. Why should this be so?
I postulate that it is my old frenemy, identity (or “ego”, or “self” – whichever you prefer) that is at work here. I also realised that the same mechanism works wherever people protest against feminism, contrary to all and any rational arguments. Very often, even women protest, to their detriment.
My understanding of identity is that it does not stop at defining the individual in question. Identity covers the whole world. Examples abound. If I am soldier, the world is a battlefield. Ex-combatants suffer post-traumatic stress and find it difficult to adapt to civilian life.
If I am a giver, than everyone else is a receiver. In case anybody does not want to receive my gifts, they become my enemies. If I am an educated person, then the rest of the people are either more educated, whom I emulate, or less educated, whom I disregard.
Identity casts its net over reality, forcing us to behave in the way that supports the identity. One is reminded of the Chapter “Fools” from Dhammapada, translated by Valerie J. Roebuck. A person, who is ruled by her ego, aims to rule other people and things in this way:
73. He may wish for respect among bad people,
Precedence among the monks,
Lordship in the dwelling places,
Honour among families of others.
74. ‘I did this – so let
Both laymen and renouncers think;
Let me be in charge
Of everything, things to be done or not done.’
Such is the fool’s intention.
His desire and pride increase.”
Thus if I choose nationality as my primary identity, then I need the rest of the world to structure around the same principle, i.e. nationality or even ethnicity. If I am a “real Russian,” then I need to have “real Englishmen” and “real French” in my world. When other people’s national identities shift, my own national identity is under threat.
Similarly, if I am a man in a patriarchal socially, not only do I have to measure up to the concept of a “man,” I also need other men to behave like “men” and women – as “women.” Any deviation on that front puts a big question mark over my own life. This is why in patriarchal societies certain men hate feminist women, gay and transgender people equally.
If I am a woman in a patriarchal society and spend a large portion of my life trying to fit into the patriarchal ideal, I feel threatened by women who do not. I feel aversion to women who do not diet or use makeup. I feel cheated when other women choose to be independent from men. Because if they do and they are women, then who am I?
There is a story in a fifth-century Sanskrit collection of Jataka stories of the Buddha’s past lives about how a god got threatened by what was seen as unwomanly behaviour of a bodhisattva Rupyavati. That woman sacrificed her own breasts in order to feed a starving woman who was about to kill and eat her own child. Rita M. Gross analysed this tale in Buddhism After Patriarchy, paying special attention of course to its most controversial aspect, that it, the main heroine’s attaining men’s body as a result of her virtuous deed.
However, today I am more interested in the reaction of the god king Indra. Upon hearing of this event, Indra disguised himself and came to ask Rupyavati:
By means of this austerity,
Do you desire to conquer the station belonging to Indra?
I ask you this only out of curiosity.”
When Rupyavati replied that she had no desire to rule over anyone or anything and her only aim was Enlightenment, Indra departed satisfied.
Thus if we choose to be ruled by an identity, this identity will shape the whole world around us. When women break out of the identities prescribed by patriarchy, those compliant with it panic.
The only thing that remains is to ask people who cling so tightly to their patriarchal identities: whether they want to live this life, or will they let their identities do it for them?
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band can be found here.
 The Dhammapada, Translated by Valerie J. Roebuck, Penguin Books, London, 2010, p. 16.
 Buddhist Scriptures, Ed. By Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Penguin Books, London, 2004, pp. 159-168.