Identity is a funny thing. A person can believe themselves to be x, believe it so strongly that it consumes them and radically alters the way that they behave. They can change their appearance to reflect the being that they wish themselves to be, they can announce to the world that they simply ARE x, and they can even convince others that it is the case. Does this make it true?
If society is not willing to accept the identity, then it becomes a mere persona, a manifestation of wishful thinking brought about by equal parts displacement and cognitive dissonance. However with public acceptance, regardless of the claim's relative merit, comes legitimacy. One can profess to be immortal, or able to travel faster than the speed of light, or possessing any other impossible trait, and people will be only too happy to ignore you. It is a particular irony that you can claim to be the Son of God and be labelled insane, but that we are happy to take at face value the claims of a man who lived two thousand years ago based ENTIRELY on the reports contained within a book that shows all the signs of being repeatedly doctored to try to paper over glaring holes in logic, to confirm even more ancient prophesies and to allow a small group of men to justify their pursuit of earthly dominion using heavenly authority.
This week I met a King, His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje, an incarnation of a being that first inhabited flesh some 900 years ago. Or so some believe. He is a King because, somewhere down the line, his forefathers claimed a throne and used a divine mandate to justify that claim. Standard objections to monarchy come in two main flavours - the hypothetical and the functional - and although the majority of British people claim some form of more-or-less vague Christian religious belief, I would bet that most people do not see Prince Charles as the heir to the throne of Britain as a direct result of a deity decreeing it. The majority (again, just a wager) tend to view the monarchy as a functionally beneficial institution, bringing as it does a sense of national pride, a figurehead with undoubted poise in Queen Elizabeth, and, possibly most importantly, a vital influx of revenue through tourism.
Inevitably, the King himself was a funny and pleasant young man, only a year or so older than I. Self-deprecating and humble, his Buddhist faith displayed itself most clearly through his lack of conviction in matters of process and orthodoxy. Focusing his talk on concepts of self-improvement and displaying an almost complete disregard for dogma, I found his proclamations of love and oneness that much more appealing because he didn't profess it to be anything more than his personal opinion. As a student of (primarily American) Christianity, I found the complete absence of bombast distinctly refreshing. As many have commented when analysing large elements of Buddhism, it shares few traits with the Abrahamic religions, and this lack of surety sits far more comfortably with one used to scientific tip-toeing towards possible conclusions and requests for further research rather than ill-informed rhetoric based on scripture.
Inevitably though, there comes the 'leap of faith' that must always be present with any religious ideology - in this case the belief in a soul and reincarnation. For all of his fine words, the King had been inculcated from birth to believe that he had an immortal soul, and in less moral beings, this type of belief can exhibit itself as religious totalitarianism. Although wise and seemingly selfless for a young man, he was not preternaturally so, and nothing that he uttered gave any indication that his undoubted wisdom was anything other than earned through experience and training. An interesting and seemingly pleasant man yes, but, as it tends to accomplish so effortlessly, Occam's Razor cuts to the core of his argument to ask of the appeal to the supernatural, 'yes, but is that the simplest solution?'