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Mar 08
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Not Same, Not Different: Identity and Buddhism’s Two Truths

By Melanie Klein

The subject of identity is prevalent these days. It’s a term often used when referring to someone’s membership in a demographic group different from the predominant one. While this would seem straightforward – recognizing differences in our bodies and backgrounds and predilections – it’s anything but. I remember how, at the Boulder Shambhala Center after we introduced People of Color events some years back, white members would sometimes express confusion about the need for exclusive gatherings. They’d ask, “But aren’t we all the same in basic goodness?”

During my Master of Divinity education at Naropa University, I became more aware of the challenges in creating an inclusive society and this tension between difference and sameness. I wondered then if holding notions of difference and sameness simultaneously – a paradox – could broaden understanding of them and promote genuine inclusivity. And what the Buddhist teachings might tell us about it.

This interest deepened when, after Black Lives Matter became a national phenomenon, some people responded by declaring “all lives matter.” It was disheartening to see sameness touted as noble and inclusive while difference was dismissed as self-serving. More subtly, I’ve noticed a similar discomfort with difference in the way white leaders will sometimes invite people of color to join their organizations (“We’d love to have you”) – affirming sameness but not extending curiosity about differences in perspectives, needs and aims. As a white leader myself who’s experienced this discomfort, being openly curious can feel awfully close to exposing ignorance.

Difference doesn’t always involve discord or harm, of course. But certainly when it does, non-predominant identity groups can benefit by exploring the complexities of social location (whether racial, gender, sexuality, age, etc. or any combination of these) with those most likely to understand them, as well as being able to collectively advocate for change when norms are constraining or hurtful. More subtly (and insidiously), I’ve learned, people in such groups can feel invisible or discounted by the larger demographic, and being able to gather under the banner of a distinct identity with distinct perspectives is a call for recognition and respect.

Is there a way to properly acknowledge both difference and sameness? Here, Buddhism provides guidance. According to a prominent stream of Mahayana teachings on the Two Truths, exploring difference pertains to relative truth: the discernment of this versus that. Buddhism encourages us to explore relative truth, to come to know the astonishing world of richness and variety in all its detailed appearance. Concurrently, our teachings advise us to see this display as essentially empty of fixed characteristics. This view, absolute truth, points us toward experiencing reality directly, beyond descriptions altogether. As the Mahayana tradition observes, this world of ours is at once tremendously vivid and completely ungraspable. Holding difference (characteristics) and sameness (ephemerality) together in our mind is the paradox of the Two Truths of relative and absolute wisdom.

It’s important to note that neither of the Two Truths is considered superior to the other. The whole point, in fact, is that wisdom arises from seeing them as related aspects of a whole: a mind free from the extremes of difference-only and sameness-only. Also, in light of how easy it can be to reside in abstract notions, it’s important to affirm that wisdom absent compassionate activity isn’t wisdom – more later about what that looks like.

Perhaps an even better way to describe this paradox is to use negative reasoning, as in not-same and not-different. I encountered negative reasoning when studying a debate that took place a thousand years ago, resulting in the ongoing split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and found it informative.

Briefly, the New Testament doesn’t mention the Trinity. Yet by the third century C.E the trio of God the Father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit had become essential to Christian theology. By the ninth century, however, deep questions regarding the status of the three “persons” and their relation to each other were the basis of an increasingly contentious debate. For Roman Catholic theologians, the persons of the Trinity all held the same status (they were equally divine) but were different in relation to each other: God created Jesus, and they both “processed from” the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox clergy objected. They argued that placing the Trinity in an explicit hierarchy of relationship voided the notion of equivalent divinity (isn’t the Holy Spirit in this model higher than God and Jesus? Doesn’t being God’s son place Jesus lower than his Father?). And more to the point, they noted, it left little room for transcendent connection to God. The Eastern Orthodox Church determined that the only way to describe the Trinity without reducing it to an organization chart was to use negative reasoning. Thus, they asserted, the persons of the Trinity were not the same and they were not different.

In terms of the Two Truths, negative reasoning may reduce the paradoxical tension between apparent phenomenal display and its nature, emptiness, because if understood as “not the same and not different” they may no longer seem such separate calls to action, as with those competing cries of “all lives” vs. “Black lives” matter (yes and yes). Exploring society’s challenges might become less a matter of choosing or defending one perspective over the other and more an invitation to hold the wisdom they reveal at the spacious center of enquiry.

In this way, perhaps we can rouse courage to name differences and be openly curious about them. In this way, perhaps we can investigate our personal and societal karma, exploring the many ways kleshas (craving, aversion, delusion, pride, envy) perpetuate the suffering of samsara in order to alleviate that suffering. In this way, perhaps by seeing ourselves as vividly appearing (vividly feeling) yet essentially empty of fixed characteristics we become more aware of interdependence: borderless connection with all those other non-selves longing to reside, with complete dignity, in unconditional basic goodness. Through unobstructed insight – the wisdom of the Two Truths – our compassionate activity perhaps can be directed precisely where it’s needed most.

Interestingly, while second-turning Mahayana teachings equate the notion of identity with a mistaken self-image and point to egolessness as the negatively-described true nature, identity in Shambhala is described in affirmative terms: a golden basket filled with the qualities of human virtue: wisdom, goodness, kindness and strength.

Whether in affirmative or negative terms, we have the opportunity to apply the teachings of the Two Truths and the compassionate activity this naturally inspires as we recognize the qualities we share as well as those which surprise or delight when seeing the fullness of each other.

Melanie Klein has been a student and leader in Shambhala for more than twenty-five years, having held various roles such as Executive Director of the Boulder Shambhala Center and Director of Operations for Shambhala Global Services. Melanie is an ordained Buddhist chaplain in the Shambhala tradition.

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3 responses to “ Not Same, Not Different: Identity and Buddhism’s Two Truths ”
  1. Margot Elyse Iseman
    Mar 11, 2022

    Dear Melanie,
    I’ve so appreciated your perspective in this article. Thanks so much for taking the time to elucidate this challenging juxtaposition.

  2. Philip Keogh
    Mar 11, 2022

    Hi Melanie, loved your post – beautifully written; simple and profound. Thank you.

    “people in such groups can feel invisible or discounted by the larger demographic, and being able to gather under the banner of a distinct identity with distinct perspectives is a call for recognition and respect.”
    That line got me thinking of how ancient peoples have approached this paradox of sameness and difference.

    I love the sophisticated forms used by ‘The people of the longhouse’, Haudenosaunee.
    https://youtu.be/S4gU2Tsv6hY (apologies for the ad). The feminine principle is especially empowered.

    And ancient wisdom approaches are still relevant to differences in Shambhala or Europe/Russia.
    We urgently need to listen humbly to our ancestors.

    May we find nourishment in ancient wisdom lineages.
    May basic goodness arise from holding paradox gently and firmly.

  3. Kristine McCutcheon
    Mar 9, 2022

    Eh Ma Ho

    Thank you Melanie. Clear! So interesting to hear about negative reasoning in the Christian tradition. I do hope you write more.


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