“That is Martine just before I shaved her head,” the monk exclaimed. He pointed to the inside of a souvenir book featuring photographs of past residents at Songgwangsa, a Zen temple in southwestern Korea. Everyone else recognized the woman in the photograph. I did not. The woman, of course, was me.
I had never seen the picture. It captured a young lady with glasses and long dark hair, about 22 years old. I took a photo of the photo for my record.
Whenever I look at the image, I have the same strange feeling of non-identification. I don’t feel that I know who this person is: What was she like? What were her hopes and aspirations?
The photograph hails from May 1975, when I decided to become a nun in Korea. I have other photos of myself from before and after this time—photos that generate a feeling of familiarity and identity. Yet, for some strange reason, this particular image does not. Perhaps our feeling of identity resides only in the pictures and stories that we revisit, and recedes from the images and memories that we neglect.
When my niece was younger, she loved to peruse her personal photo albums. Over time, I had compiled three albums in which she went from being ten months to 8 years old. She enjoyed seeing herself grow and seeing herself within groups. It was as if by going through these albums, she reaffirmed her sense of identity and the certainty of her existence, embedded in a family structure.
Meanwhile, Penelope Lively’s novel The Photograph turns such affirmation on its head. One of the most powerful novels I have ever read, it imperils this feeling of identity and certainty. After his wife kills herself, a husband goes through her possessions and finds an envelope marked, “Don’t open, destroy.” Despite the warning, he opens it to find a group photograph he has never seen. His wife is holding the hand of another man. Shocked, he seeks to understand the where, when, and why of the photograph. In the process he discovers the person his wife had been, a person he did not know and did not want to.
What is true and what is false? What do we remember as true or false? How are we certain of the truth about ourselves, and others? Many years ago, traveling by train to teach a weekend seminar about Buddhist ethics, I sat next to someone headed to the same seminar. For the two‑hour journey, we talked about ethics and precepts and how important they are on the Buddhist path. I thought that we were on the same page, sharing the same experience. Many years later, however, I learned that at the time of our conversation, the other attendee was in an adulterous relationship and was taking heavy drugs. Knowing that now, whenever I revisit the memories of sitting on the train and having that discussion, I have a strange feeling about the unstated truth of that person’s identity, and am left with a deep sense of uncertainty and unknowing.
In On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Robert A. Burton shows that certainty does not emerge from intellectual rational logic or objective truth, but from a feeling of certainty. We need this feeling of certainty about ourselves and others to navigate the world, but we should beware the contingency of its premises. What are the conditions that lead us to feel a certain sense of identity, and upon what is this sense of identity based?
Perhaps the basis for identity lies in our internal chatter, accompanying us wherever we go. Ironically, when we start to sit quietly in meditation, there seem to be even more thoughts. The act of not doing anything special—just focusing on the breath—seems to engender a constant monologue. Actually, meditation just shows us what happens most of the time: in the back of our mind a constant running commentary chirps judgement, expectations, worries, plans, and fantasies. We often define ourselves through this commentary, like Descartes’s famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.”
When we develop awareness through meditation, though, we see different strands of thinking: some operative and some unnecessary additions. We do not need the latter to prove that we exist or to feel that we exist. Sometimes we seem to believe that the more we think, the more we exist. Actually, the more we think unnecessarily, the more tired and frayed at the edges we become.
When we meditate, we develop a creative awareness that enables us to see that we are a flow of inner conditions meeting outer conditions. We begin to discover the fallacy in reducing our identity to any one of the conditions that forms us. Rather, the meditative path is an exploration of the multifaceted conditions that constitute us at any given moment.
So the woman in the photo is at once very much me, yet only partially so. I may not recognize her appearance—the shape of her face, the length of her hair, the glasses. But her intentions and actions endure—perhaps in altered form—as part of what, each and every moment, I’m becoming.