112 – The Importance of Community

In this podcast episode, I will discuss the Buddhist teaching of “taking refuge” and talk about the teaching of the three jewels. I will discuss in greater detail how I hope to build an online community where we can practice together and continue our discussions about each podcast episode.

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Transcript:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 112. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m going to talk about the importance of community. As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are.

So let’s get things started with a discussion about the Zen kōan that I shared in the last podcast episode. So this Zen kōan was titled, Nothing Exists. “Yamaoka Tesshū, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shikoku desiring to show his attainment. He said, ‘The mind, Buddha and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.’ Dokuon, who was smoking quietly said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. ‘If nothing exists’, inquired Dokuon, ‘where did this anger come from?'”

Now, this is a fun one to visualize that story. Here comes this student really trying to show off to this new Zen master he found, how smart he is and how much he understands the concept of emptiness. So he lays it all out and gives him the answer, and the master hits him, smacks him with a bamboo pipe. And then notices the anger that arises from this and then asks him, well then, where did that anger come from? For me, this kōan is a reminder of the importance of understanding that nothing exists is in the context of inter-dependence and constant change. I think it’s a common mistake in the early stages of studying Buddhist teachings that this misunderstanding arises. The idea of nothing exists and it’s like, okay, everything’s just an illusion. I don’t exist. This doesn’t exist. I think that’s one interpretation of it, that this Zen master in the story immediately points out by making him feel anger and then saying, well then, what’s that? Where does that come from?

So I like to correlate the view of nothing exists with the concept of no-self. And, I guess emphasize that when these teachings are referring to these concepts like no-self or no existence, it’s only in the context of an independent self, of have no permanent self. In other words, there is no me that exists without all the things that are not me. I use the example of the flower that Thich Nhat Hanh talks about. Where if you’ve seen a flower and all you saw was the flower, then you haven’t really seen the flower. That is at the heart of the understanding of nothing exists. It means nothing exists in and of itself without all of its causes and conditions that allow that thing to exist. And that’s very different than just saying, nothing exists.

I think this is especially relevant once we start talking about the view that we have of ourselves. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s that we might not be what we think we are, a solid self that exists from moment to moment without changing. The reality is, we are constantly changing and the me of now is not the same me of a week ago or a year ago and so on. Right? And same with the future. But also in terms of interdependence. The me that’s me is not me without all these other things that are not me. The food that I ate today is now part of me. It’s in my muscles. And the air that I breathe is now in my bloodstream. Oxygen is being carried to the muscles that support me right now as I’m talking.

In that way, there are all these elements of me that are not me. So the illusion is that there’s not a me that exists the way that I might tend to think I exist as an independent permanent itself. To me, that’s at the heart of this kōan, and that’s how I understand it. Now, it may mean something different to you but that’s a fun one to work with. It’s like, okay, well, where did this anger come from if anger isn’t real? If I’m not real, then what is this experience I’m having a being here and existing? So hopefully, that makes sense. That to me is at the heart of this Zen kōan. So now to get into the topic that I want to discuss today.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about community. But to understand the importance of community, you need to remember that one of the core Buddhist teachings found in all schools of Buddhism is the teaching of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. Buddhist practitioners take refuge in three different things. The example to follow, the teachings to follow and the community to practice with. And these are typically expressed as the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And most schools of Buddhism have a formal ceremony, where one essentially becomes a Buddhist or enters the path by reciting, “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.” And I spoke a little bit about this back in episode number 41, Life on the Buddhist Path, but I want to elaborate on it just a little bit more here in this episode.

So in a literal sense, taking refuge means finding shelter or protection from danger, and the ceremony that one takes to enter the path of to become a Buddhist is called taking refuge. And as I mentioned just now it’s, I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. To take refuge is to find a safe place. Like you would take refuge under a bridge in a hailstorm or in a basement during a tornado. And everyone takes refuge in something. If you want to know what you take refuge in, just ask yourself, where do I look for happiness? Where do I seek safety and comfort? And often, it’s in relationships. It could be in certain locations like a church building. It could be certain activities like being busy at work. But it can also be in other things like manufacturing the image that we put out on social media about ourselves. It could be in working on our social status or the amount of money we have in the bank.

The Buddhist invitation to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha comes from the recognition that one of the biggest dangers we face is that of being controlled by our own habitual reactivity and our unskillful thoughts. So the idea is that by seeking a safe place in these three resources, we will minimize or perhaps even eliminate the suffering we cause to ourselves and others by being habitually reactive. I like to think of the process of taking refuge, similar to making a new year’s resolution, where we set an intention to be better than we’ve been in the past.

As a point of clarification here, we need to understand that this expression, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, it’s very ordinary in nature. It’s not like we’re summoning anything supernatural or spiritual in this expression. The power of the simple vow comes from our own sincerity and commitment to what we are saying. In the same sense that the power of a new year’s resolution doesn’t come from the expression itself, but from the action that we take started at the expression. So let’s take a closer look at what each of these expressions of refuge actually mean.

When I say, I take refuge in the Buddha, it’s like saying I take refuge in the example. To seek shelter in the Buddha means to recognize that the Buddha was capable of attaining enlightenment and therefore, so am I. It’s worth noting here that the Buddha is a good example because he was not a God. He was just a human like us, and his example shows that we too as ordinary humans can follow the path to enlightenment that he took. So taking refuge in the Buddha is simply an invitation to see ourselves in him and to strive to attain liberation from our own habitual reactivity, and the poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance in our own minds. And I think it’s also worth noting that in a broad sense, taking refuge in an example also applies to any example. Any teacher, any person who inspires us to follow the path towards liberation fits in this first expression of taking refuge.

So the second one, I take refuge in the Dharma. To me, this is like saying I take refuge in the teachings. To seek safety in Buddhist teachings is to recognize that they can give us a new perspective and a profound understanding of ourselves and the nature of reality. And it goes beyond just trusting or accepting the teachings. It’s about trusting that our practice of the teachings will indeed create a more peaceful and harmonious way of living. The teachings are found everywhere. You can find them in books and lecture series and podcasts, local meditation groups or visiting the local Buddhist temple, and even in ordinary everyday life.

Most of the things that we would look at and think are ordinary, can be profound teachings. Looking at the clouds, the nature of impermanence that we see in clouds or studying a flower, and seeing the interdependent nature of the flower with the bees and the sun and the rain. I think taking refuge in the Dharma, taking refuge in the teachings is a way of making an earnest intent to learn, to study, to read, and to try to see things differently.

And then there’s the final expression, I take refuge in the Sangha. To me, this is like saying, I take refuge in the community. And to seek refuge in the Buddhist community is to recognize that by practicing with others, we can find and we can offer support. And the importance of practicing with others cannot be overestimated. A good friend helps us to see the unskillful actions that we may not see in ourselves. Opening ourselves up to others and allowing them to support us, while we simultaneously support them, is a critical step in overcoming an ego-centered life. And when we take refuge in the community, we also become the refuge in the community for others. And many consider this final form of refuge to be the most important of the three because you can find the example and the teachings within the community.

Taking refuge doesn’t protect us from the problems that arise in the world. It doesn’t shield us from the inevitable difficulties that arise in life. But it does provide us with the skill set and the tools to relate to life and the difficulties that arise in life in a new way, and to change the relationship that we have with those difficulties. That’s what protects us from the anguish and the despair. From day-one with this podcast, my primary goal has been to share the stories of the Buddha and other great teachers that serve as an example, and to share all of these teachings that come from the Buddha as a form of inspiring each of us to become a better whatever we already are. And that fulfills two of those pledges, right? The taking refuge in the Buddha and in the Dharma, the teachings.

The one elusive part of this, this teaching is also known as the Three Jewels. But the third jewel, the third element of this has been kind of elusive. I’ve been trying to practice with communities on my own, visiting different ones and seeing where I fit in with a sense of community. I found a few from time to time, there’s one in about an hour away from where I live in Utah. But that’s a long way to go. And I didn’t go very often. I don’t have one here where I live now. I’ve tried a couple of online versions. I’ve had some small groups. The closest of which has been a really successful thing was I was leading some small groups, study groups in the past with the secular Buddhism teachers course that I did. These were like six-month programs with, let’s say, 10 people or so, and we were interacting with each other every week. And those were incredibly fulfilling. And we developed a strong sense of friendship in the group. And they were great.

The only problem with that is, you’re limited to how many people can be in a group. And if you’re doing one group of 10 people for 6 months, that’s a lot of people that don’t get to participate in something like that. So I’ve been trying to find ways and thinking of ways to work with all of this in a larger scale to develop a sense of community. And after much thought and trying many different approaches, I’ve decided that it’s time to introduce a new way of having a sense of community for podcast listeners. This stems from the fact that the podcast has had podcasts supporters now for some time. People who are supporting the work that I’m doing with the podcast, and there are no perks for supporting the podcast.

I didn’t really like that, because it makes it feel like what they’re supporting is the time that I put into making the podcast. And I don’t want that to be supported because I do that because I enjoy it. So whether or not I ever collect anything in terms of a donation or support, I don’t like that feeling that I’m doing that for the podcast because the truth is, I’m doing the podcast because I like it. And if I didn’t have anyone ever paying, I’d still be doing it. Even if it was costing me money out of my own pocket to continue doing it, I would do it. That’s how I did it at first. But what I found over time that is time consuming is interacting with podcast listeners. Whether it’s answering emails that arrived with questions or wanting clarification, or when I attempt these online communities.

I’ve tried a couple with Facebook, with Facebook Groups. And Facebook Groups are really hard to manage. First of all, they grow really fast. So the first Secular Buddhism group I did grew to over 5,000 people. And it was really difficult to manage because the vast majority of people who were joining that group have nothing to do with the podcast. They’re just interested in Secular Buddhism as a general topic. So then it starts feeling like just kind of a crazy place. We have all these people proposing their understanding of this to that. And if you’ve been on Facebook long enough, you know that it’s not conducive to skillful communication. Then you’ve got trolls and things that are just unpleasant to experience in groups like that. And that’s what I was experiencing there.

So then I made a separate group called the Secular Buddhism Podcast Community, and that was better, but it was also very difficult for me to interact with the group because the way Facebook works, it doesn’t notify you always on your feed. If somebody posted something, it may be that I never saw it and I never commented. And if someone tagged me then yes, maybe I did, but it just felt like a very ineffective way to engage with and to interact with podcasts supporters. And then of course, as the whole question of a lot of people don’t even like being on Facebook. So this was a platform that was kind of exclusive to people who were on Facebook. And if you weren’t on Facebook, you had no community, so to speak, to work with. So I’ve decided to move away from Facebook entirely as a platform and I’m excited to announce that I’m launching my own online community using Patreon as the platform.

I want to address why we need community. Well, first, we’re hardwired to be social creatures. The truth is, we do better when we’re together with the right people. And when I say I take refuge in the community, it doesn’t mean that I want to express my devotion. No, it’s not a question about devotion, it’s a question of practice. And without having some sort of community, without being supported by a group of friends who are motivated by the same objectives that I have and the same style of practice that I have, it’s honestly more difficult to progress on the path. I recognize the community can be anyone, right? It can be your friends, it can be your family, at times, my community is my spouse and the things that we talk about. And it doesn’t have to be practitioners. My wife doesn’t practice Buddhism.

But it really is helpful to have a group of people who understand the same concepts and the same ideas that I do and that understand the world the way that I do. That has been invaluable to me. To have my friends online that I can communicate with who are putting into practice these very same things that I’m trying to do. And in that sense, I think a community it’s where we practice. The community also offers multiple perspectives. I mean, being able to present a teaching or a concept and then getting the perspective of people who are in different situations in life. You could have a single parent expressing their view, a widower, a parent, a child.

There’s just so many different situations that people can be in, in life and when we’re sharing in a community where there are people in different circumstances in life, you’re going to get different angles. Almost like the parable of the blind men describing the elephant, right? If I’m standing here at the front of the elephants and all I can feel is the trunk, it’s great to know that I can listen to someone who’s standing on the other end describing what the tail is like. It’s going to give me a more accurate picture of what I’m dealing with. So one of the things I wanted to do with this sense of community was to open it up to make sure that many people can be a part of it.

The podcast has grown. It continues to grow. It’s about to surpass 5 million downloads worldwide. And we have active listeners now in over 50 countries. I feel like the time has come to offer some kind of a perk to the people who are supporting the podcast. So that’s why I’ve made the switch over. Instead of a donation based system where you can donate to the podcast, now there’s an additional perk. The podcast isn’t going to change. The content of the podcast will continue to be published just as it always has. So if you’re just a listener of the podcast, nothing’s going to change. You won’t notice anything, you don’t lose out on anything because it’s the same as it’s always been.

But If you’re someone who supports the podcast, now there’s going to be an additional perk for you. There’s going to be the ability to join the online community, and inside of that online community, be able to interact with me and with other podcast listeners, to post questions and be able to do all the things that are beneficial to the community. So in there, patrons of the podcast will have access to posts with comments and interactions with me, weekly discussions centered around the podcast episodes. Live Q&A videos and ask me anything posts, and access to news and things that come out about the podcast, and maybe helping me pick what topics to talk about in future episodes. And one of the things is going to be access to a weekly study group. A book club, where if you really want to get into studying these concepts more in depth, you’ll have the possibility to do that with a small group of people who are all reading the same thing and discussing that just like you would at a book club.

So those are some of the things I’m very excited about with the launch of this new membership-based community on Patreon. And I’m sure there will be questions about this, like, how does this work? Why is this working this way? You’re free to email me any questions that you might have, but I’ll address some of them. The reason I selected Patreon is because of the way the platform works. I feel like it does require there to be some form of a membership base. I set it at a low price. It’s $3 a month. And the reason I selected that is because I want people to join this community who are intentionally wanting to be in it. I have thought about making it low so that price wasn’t an issue and making it $1 a month.

But my fear is that if you join something just for the sake of, donate give you $1 a month, but not engage with it, it’s really easy to forget that you’re even doing it. And the last thing I want is someone who’s just being dinged $1 a month and they forgot that they were even doing it. So I don’t want that because this doesn’t need to be a donation-based thing. I don’t want to be compensated for the time that I’m putting into the podcast. But I do want to be compensated for the time I’m putting into interacting with you on a weekly basis and answering questions and doing the things that actually take up my time during the week. So that’s why I set it at that.

And if you’re thinking $3 sounds like it’s too much, just consider this for one second. The average cost per fuel per mile in the US is about 20 cents per mile. And it’s higher in other countries. So if you were to drive to a local meditation group that’s two miles away from your house, and you go once per week, that’s about 80 cents for your round trip. So if you do that once a week, four times in a month, you’re spending $3.20 cents a month just to drive to your local meditation group. And that’s assuming you have one that’s within two miles. So I highlight that because for me, it’s 45 minutes to go to one. I’m spending considerably more to go find a local group when I could be engaging with an online group. So that’s part of why this is set up this way. Another thing to consider is that the average American spends $3 a day on coffee. So this is the equivalent of one day of coffee for your monthly interaction with the group.

So if you’re looking for a place to build a sense of community with me and with other podcast listeners, this is a new place where you can visit. And if you think that this is right for you, and you join it, I look forward to working with you and interacting with you and spending time with you in this new online community. And if you don’t, then don’t. I mean, this isn’t for … It’s not like, oh, no, now I need to join this. Please don’t feel that kind of pressure. This is just the podcast and the podcast isn’t going to change. If the podcast does everything you need, then keep listening to the podcast. That won’t change. But if you do want to engage further, this is that new thing.

And you can find all the info on this by visiting secularbuddhism.com. And then up on the top in the navigation, you’ll see support the podcast. And when you click on that, it gives you the option to, you could still make a one time donation if you wanted to, but it gives you the option to become a monthly contributing member by joining the Patreon community, and that’s where the link is. That’s where you’ll see how it works, what you can do and some of the posts that are on there because this is live now and it’s all functioning. So that’s what I wanted to share with you, the importance of community. And that’s all I have for the podcast episode. But of course before ending the podcast itself, I do want to look at another Zen kōan for this week.

So here is the Zen kōan for this week, The Short Staff. “Shuzan held out his short staff and said, ‘If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now, what do you wish to call this?'” I love that one. Think about it and we’ll talk about that one next week. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. But thank you for listening and being a part of this journey with me. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. And of course, if you would like to support the work that I’m doing with the podcast, consider joining the Secular Buddhism Podcast Community on Patreon. You can learn more by clicking secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the “support the podcast” button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife and three kids.

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