I ran across this cartoon I made over the summer. At the time, I was having a dialogue around the notion of dogma, whose definition is, “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” From an institutional perspective, dogma is easy to see: it’s the rules of whichever game you might be playing. At the time, I was grappling with institutional dogma around a Buddhist community I was involved in. This type of Buddhism was a very traditional Tibetan variant, filled with icons, pomp and ceremony. The procedural aspects—i.e. the dogma—of the religion were expressed, on a practical level, as incontrovertible truths. This way was the way, and other ways, insofar as they deviated from the letter of the Buddhist law, were, most likely not true.
In psychological study, societies are broadly defined as being collectivist or individualist. The former predominates in Asia and South America, where the emphasis tends to be on the relinquishment of personal satisfactions for the benefit of the collective good.
Individualistic societies, like the US and much of Europe, tend to emphasize, fittingly, individual achievement. We place great importance on personal liberty and the ability to exercise it, even sometimes when it is not necessarily the congruent with consensus opinion.
The form of Buddhism in question, like many religions, and especially many Eastern religions, was based on a guru-devotee relationship. This is not at all unusual, but for many individualistically inclined people, this can be a problematic one. One must do as the guru says. And inherent in that adherence, is abidance to the formal aspect of the religion, i.e. the dogma.
It’s not that I have an intrinsic problem with the spirit or the exercising of the dogmatic practices (often, they were quite useful things like meditation, loving kindness, etc.); it was the tacit prohibition on the exercise of critical consciousness. I couldn’t see room for the individual in the devotional practice.
Of course, this was one of the points: that the individual is the problem. It’s our self-cherishing mind, the mind that thinks we are so unique and special, deserving of special attention and accolades, that gets us in trouble in the first place. But, so does the adherence to collectivist mentality. Jamestown, Nazism, Rwandan genocide, and many other travesties flowed from collectivist cultural dictums. There was an ideology, expressed in varying states of formality, that, when carried out, were extremely destructive.
What’s more is that these movements, like Nazism, may not be wholesale bad. There might be some good filmmaking and exercise programs embedded in their DNA. This amalgam of positive and negative messages makes it difficult to disseminate the good from the bad when under the spell of the collective mentality.
So if we have decided we are going to eschew collectivist cultural constraints in favor of individualistic pursuits, we have another peril: identity. Identity, while ostensibly not as formally rigid as a dogmatic system like a religion or government, is pretty rigid. An individualist often fetters his mind with, “I am.” I am an open-minded person. I am an intellectual. I am conservative. I am a sensual person. Whenever we say I am, we are declaring our own dogma. And to a large extent we are as bound to that unwritten dogma as a zealot is his or her religion.
Identity is also not a fixed point. Oftentimes, there are many things that we believe about ourselves that are merely ideas planted in our minds by other individualists. We believe we are Apple people or Microsoft people. We are Republicans or Democrats. We are Southerners or Yankees….whatever. All of these cult-of-the-individual designations are impediments to free will. Whenever we say, “I am”, we become that more limited and prey to same sort of stranglehold that a religion or oppressive government imposes on its constituents.
In my case, I was dealing with issues surrounding my employment (or lack thereof) and my unstable living situation (I’d been moving around a lot). I was asking, “am I an unemployed person?” “Am I the result of my unstable living situations?” These would be academic questions if they weren’t causing me internal strife. I was bound to my personal dogma—that I should have my shit together, that I was a writer or some other valid profession—and it was being challenged by what was happening in my life. This rift between who I thought I was and what was happening was discomfiting.
But were my situations who I am? Was anything about my life some sort of hard-and-fast representation of who I am? Were, perhaps, all the circumstances in my life totally unrelated to who I was? What if I was all those things—unemployed, a vagabond, articulate, tall—and none of those things at the same time? What if I let go of the adherence to the dogma of identity and thought critically about the situation? Perhaps in that criticality I could find liberation—to realize that I was not bound to the conceptions of myself and could therefore find more extreme measures of acceptance. Maybe if dogma (including identity) was just a formal system, a guideline but not imposition of incontrovertible truths, I might have had nothing to adhere to, no formal missteps, nothing to be other than what I was.
And yet it would seem that we need to formal structures—be they governments or self-designating terms—to build something in the world. The trouble is when we confuse the forms and designations for the content. And what is the content? And who are we without a formal—i.e. linguistic—representation of ourselves? What is a religion without its dogma? How can one separate content from form? Where does one begin and the other end?
These are not questions to be answered easily, but hazards to be ever mindful of.