I’ve been thinking about reality a lot, or more specifically illusion. The Buddhist idea of self is not that there is no-self, but that the self is not all. Anatta means (not) self. Just as (not) Steve doesn’t deny the existence of Steven, An-atman doesn’t deny the existence of atman. It just asserts that atman is not the end-all and be-all.
To stick to names, this reality is somewhat obvious in Asian cultures, where people have many names, most of the relative. I have five names that I go by on a regular basis—Appa (father), Patiya (child), Jit (nickname), Indi (nickname), or Indrajit. I have a dozen more names I go by infrequently, and these only increase as more children are born. In this context, it is somewhat obvious that there is no fixed self because, I mean, which one?
With the standardization of colonialism we got first and last names, and we still have to use them or we get beaten, exiled, or tortured. So a melange of identities get brutally shoehorned into a government form. I notice this in Kerala where relatives have one name which is exclusively for government use, and is often something random someone wrote down when they were five or six. Someone’s name is Mathew Mathews because, fuck it, I just call him Appachan.
You can see elements of this in African-American culture. As Lloyd Banks says in the song Wanna Get To Know You, “to make her feel special I let her call me by my government name.” White people don’t do this so much. People here in the UK get offended when the kids call them Auntie. But everybody’s auntie or uncle in Sri Lanka, or Asia, or Africa, or most of the world outside of the central White Empire.
I notice this when I try to fill out forms here and I’m like ‘I don’t know my aunt’s name.’ Why would I? To me, she’s Loku Amma (literally Big Mama), my mother’s older sister. I’ve never had occasion to use her first name and, indeed, I shouldn’t. She is defined by her loving relationship with me, not our creepy relationship with the government.
I’ve noticed this with my children because A) they don’t have a name for the first month and B) we would constantly make up pet names for them. Squabby, Pablo Escabablo, Baba, Kutti, Kunji, Panri Kutti, the names go on and on. They are all expressions of love, not punitive things that some asshole border guard checks before deciding whether to cage you or not. What’s in a name? In many names, there is love. There is a web of human relationships.In just one name, there is coercion and power. There is one relationship to the state, and the state is a jealous god.
I have fallen into the self-colonized trap of shortening my own name, for other’s convenience. For white people’s convenience. We frequently apologize for our ‘long’ names like there’s something wrong. For my time in America, I went by the name Jit. Then in Canada, I went by Indi. I’ve only started using my longer name now, at age 40. I just tell people my name is Indrajit but I don’t even know how to pronounce it. Luckily my wife is studying Sanskrit. It’s actually Indrajita, with the tongue just behind the teeth for the ‘dra’, which is neither d nor t at all.
As we live abroad or just become ‘modern’ we stop using the family names so much. Asian family names are very specific. Mother’s older sister, younger sister, and father’s siblings all have different names. Now we shorten all that to ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ Age gradients, respectfulness, and worship (of elders) are lost. We become names on visas, permanent addresses, and the fundamentally relational nature of being is lost. We become birth certificates, obituaries, filed and encoded so the inhuman super-intelligences we call corporations or governments can understand us. But at the cost of not understanding our selves.
The Buddhist idea of self is often translated as ‘no-self’ and the idea that there is no self at all. But that’s not really it. The idea is not so dualistic. The idea is that there are many selves, a father, a mother, a brother, a son, and yes, a name on a government form. The word Anatta more accurately means not-self, ie that your government name, your soul, is not who you are. You are both less and more than that. It’s a non-binary concept. It’s that psychological singularity where zero equals infinity. I understand this very clearly but struggle to explain it because it’s fundamentally a concept above words or even numbers at all.
The Buddha didn’t just become ‘no-self’ and escape the wheel of reincarnation. He became every self, every self that ever was, and simultaneously became none of them. It’s like seeing ‘All Of The Above’ and ‘None’ on a form and checking both of them. It’s a contradiction, but life is a contradiction. That is its fundamental nature.
You can, and do, have layers and layers of self. You alone in your dreams, you and your wife (a legal category), you and your family (again a legal category), part of a corporation (also a legal category), a citizen, and so on. As you can see, we already have a clear legal sense of multiple selves. People are legally able to group into meta-selves that are called corporations and have legal personhood. This has been established legally for centuries, but psychologically we simply block it out.
Hence even in the ‘modern’, hyper-individualist world, we have layers of self and even referential names (Dr., by affiliation with some university, Director, by affiliation with a corporation, Your Excellency, by affiliation with a nation). Through the legal system we are able to act as groups, and have hierarchical relationships with each other. This is a web of relationships, but without love. It’s all literally transactional. It is the commodification of community. Government names are the shipping containers of modern capitalism, and we’re all trapped inside them; worrying about our bank accounts, banging on the walls.
The young Juliet of Romeo and Juliet had it right, when she bemoaned on that balcon. Names were something keeping her and her beloved apart, keeping them apart from love. Indeed, that is what any dominant name does. It shatters the web of relationships that, fundamentally, we are. We are nothing alone but lonely. It is our relationships that make us who we are.
As Juliet said:
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
So what’s in a name? Nothing but trouble. It is only by many and no names that we can really know each other, and know love.