By Rita M. Gross

Who am I Really? Self as Hybrid Identity:

Just as the solidity of “the other” becomes ephemeral upon deeper reflection, so does the purported “self.”

This is one of Buddhism’s most famous and enigmatic teachings, its teachings on egolessness, meaning the lack of a singular, uncaused, unchanging, permanent self-identity.

We all assume blindly that such a thing exists; it feels very real. However, the perpetual challenge of Buddhist teachers is: “find that kind of a Self without mistaking it for something that is actually evanescent, ever-changing, unstable, and unreliable.”

No one has yet succeeded at finding that kind of a self. Yet we build our lives, our societies, our governments, our religions, around protecting that self which we cannot really find. We call some friends and other enemies on the basis of their supposed support of our supposed self.

Nevertheless, something does appear when we look for the ”Self,” as also happens with the appearance of others who feel to us as if they exist independently, separate from us.

In the process of looking for that unitary, real Self, we do find multiple identities. We identify with many roles; there are many facets to our lives. The problem is that none of these roles, these facets of our lives, can rise to the standard of being a real, truly existing, permanent Self, that self that Buddhist teachings challenge us to look for, given that we believe in it so desperately.

Like “others,” who also seem to be fixed and truly existent, our identities are always in flux, though we often ignore this reality. Nevertheless, glimmerings of recognizing the multiplicity of identities we experience have led to a new phrase: “we are all hybrids.”

Actually, in terms of flourishing with religious diversity, the lesson inherent in learning to acknowledge the hybridity of our identities is not to accept and use the Buddhist terminology of egolessness. Even many Buddhists remain quite shaky in their understand of this view until well into their lives as meditators and practitioners.

What is important, critically important about acknowledging the multiplicity of our identities is that it allows us to stop foregrounding our religious identity as somehow our ultimate identity, as if it were our only identity or the only one that matters.

It is not.

We have many other identities as family members, members of communal, cultural, or national groups, as workers and professionals, etc., that are important to our lives but have little or nothing to do with our religious identities or lack thereof.

Many of the other people we will encounter in living out these other identities will not share our religious identity, at least in the religiously diverse societies that are the norm in the modern world. But we are able to interact with them in completely satisfactory ways, nevertheless.

This point is not about not valuing our religions and the sense of peace and security they can bring; it is about not foregrounding our identities as members of that religion in an unrealistic and counter-productive way, a way that promotes rather than eases social tensions. One of the most important lessons we can learn about flourishing with religious diversity is that there are many things we can successfully work on together with those with whom we may have profound religious or political disagreements.

We do not have to agree; we only need to learn how to be agreeable across religious differences.

And recognizing that religious identity is only one of our myriad, hybrid identities is extremely helpful to learning how flourish with religious diversity.

What Next? How Interdependent Selves and Others Interact to Promote Flourishing with Religious Diversity

There is much to say about how the co-arising self and other need to interact with each other to realize the promise inherent in realizing the non-ultimate nature of each. In my book, many chapters deal with this topic, but in this much briefer summary, only a few things can be mentioned.

Perhaps the most important is that we need to know what, if anything, about religions is worth disputing. Many people seem to enjoy “arguing about religion” (or politics) and many a holiday family gathering has undoubtedly be ruined by indulging in that somewhat useless and counterproductive pastime.

As pointed out earlier, people simply don’t agree about religious ideas and there is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. Furthermore, given how different people are in temperament and intelligence, there is little reason so assume that they should be able to agree about what constitutes a cogent religious idea. This is especially the case regarding metaphysical and theological truth claims—peoples’ ideas about the nature of ultimate reality, none of which can be proved either rationally or empirically.

Such ideas are more the adornment or entertainment provided by religions than the heart of the matter and simply are not worth arguing about. They are a matter of preference, and preferences are mysterious and idiosyncratic. Because intellectual truth claims are so prominent in many peoples’ concepts of what religion is about, many are aghast when I make this suggestion that religious ideas, the various truth claims put forward by religions, are simply not worth arguing about. They assume that, therefore, my position must be one of complete relativity, “Does anything go, then?” they ask me.

Most assuredly, I am not suggesting that there is nothing about religions that matters or makes a difference, about which it is worthwhile to care.

I am arguing that theological beliefs are not the proper place for drawing lines about what matters and what doesn’t matter, despite many claims to the contrary. What matters is the ethical practices a religion instills in its followers and how well they live up to them.

It does not really harm either oneself or the other if theological agreement cannot be found, but their ethics for interaction with each other make a great deal of difference for both. It is much more dangerous to engage in relativism regarding ethics than regarding theological and metaphysical beliefs.

One needs to do more than shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Their values regarding women or various minorities differ from mine,” or “I don’t want to get involved with how they treat other people and other groups.”

One needs to ask whether an ethic of non-harming is being followed or whether oppression, discrimination or disparagement are being practiced—often in the name of religion, often justified by religious beliefs that it’s okay to denigrate or oppress those who have the “wrong” religious beliefs.

The great advantage of regarding theological beliefs as far more negotiable and relative than ethical practices is that religions themselves show much greater consensus about ethics than about theology. Theistic and non-theistic religions, for example, have quite similar ethical guidelines and practices, despite their incommensurable theological differences.

Greater clarity about the interdependent co-arising of self and other and deeper understanding that neither has ultimate, ontological existence but only relative appearance does a great deal to promote easier, less tension-filled interactions and flourishing with religious diversity. However, how does that greater clarity and deeper insight arise?

In conclusion, I need to present two essential disciplines that will facilitate the arising of such insight and contribute to its growth to maturity—one pertaining primarily to one’s own spiritual life and the other to facilitating our understanding of and appreciation for those who are religiously different.

For oneself, an appropriate spiritual discipline is absolutely essential.

The outer-directed speed and aggression promoted by our society militate against the arising of the kinds of insights that facilitate flourishing with religions diversity. That speed and aggression promote a self-righteous, “it’s-all-about-me” attitude that is not very self-reflective.

People need very much to practice a discipline that counters speed and aggression, promoting instead the deep introspection and contemplation that allows us to really weigh and evaluate the norms we are force fed by media and by the rote learning that characterizes so much education, to say nothing of many religious institutions.

Though I believe there are many such disciplines, including perhaps even gardening, and I wouldn’t claim they are all traditionally “religious” or “spiritual,” they all share several characteristics. They require silence and time alone, as well as time not connected to media. They require much less distraction and not so much physical exertion that physicality itself distracts from slowly turning options over in one’s mind. They require one to contemplate essential questions slowly rather than grasping for easy answers and clinging to party lines.

Fortunately such disciplines are much more readily available today than they were even ten years ago. They could do much to promote our physical health and mental sanity.

Finally, in the inter-connected but religious diverse planet on which we live, everyone has an ethical obligation to develop appreciative, empathetic understanding of other religions.

I contend that one should know as much about at least one other religion as about one’s own.

It is much more difficult to denigrate and vilify others if one has stood in their shoes to some extent, and that is quite possible to do with empathetic study of other religions. Fortunately, the discipline of the academic study of religion makes that understanding much easier and much more possible than it was even a generation ago and infinitely more possible than when I was being educated and socialized.

Reliable, readable books are readily available. There are many media resources that promote such understanding. Most universities offer courses on world religions.

In the future I hope that many more religious institutions will also offer such training for their members.


* See Part 1 of this article here.



Religous Diversity




Rita GrossRita M. Gross is Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies of Religion at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Senior Dharma Teacher in the Nyingma Lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. A past president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, she has participated in many forums for interreligious exchange. Gross is the author of many books and articles. Her major work is Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (1993).


Photo: Josh Kenzer/Flickr

Editor: Dana Gornall