We all have the tendency to make a picture of reality and of other people. It’s like we paint a portrait and then believe that this portrait is a 100% accurate depiction of the real person we painted and we don’t realize that they are not the same. In this episode, I will talk about the idea of people who don’t exist (the portraits in our minds).
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 116, I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about the people who don’t exist.
Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are.
Now before jumping into the topic, I want to talk about the zen koan that I left you in the last podcast episode. This is the koan of the Gateless Gate. So one day as Manjusri stood outside the gate the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri. Why do you not enter?” Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?” I’ve talked about this concept of the Gateless Gate before in previous podcast episodes, but I recently just got back from Nepal. Had an excellent time over there, and during one of the days that we were trekking out in the middle of a field, there was a gate. And I looked at it and I jokingly called it the Gateless Gate.
It looked like the gate had been built without a fence, and at some point maybe the fence would be installed. Or it could have also been the frame for what was going to become a swing set or something. But the gate was there. It looked like a gate without a door. It was the frame I guess, I should say the frame of a gate. So it looked like a doorframe with no door and nothing else around it. No fence, no wall. So it’s like there’s this random entrance in the middle of the field and if you were to walk through it, you’d be in the same field that you were before walking into it. And I called it the Gateless Gate.
And this is exactly what the mental picture that you should conjure in your mind with this concept of the Gateless Gate. Now in this koan, you have the Buddha himself calling out to Manjusri, “Hey, why don’t you enter?” So to me, this invokes the invitation of Buddhism saying, “Hey. Why don’t you become enlightened?” And someone wise looking at that and saying, “Well, I don’t see myself as unenlightened. Why do I need to be enlightened?” And that’s exactly the point that this is trying to hit home, according to my understanding of these concepts. We see separation where there is no separation. We see ourselves as not being enlightened because we have a concept of what enlightened is. And this is one of the discussions that came up at one point during the trek in Nepal. The idea of can people in our day and time also be enlightened? And I would say emphatically yes.
But there’s a catch there. It’s well, what do you think enlightened means? Because if it’s something that’s a concept or an idea then I think we’ve missed the point. In the same way that you could talk about something experiential like love, and you could talk about the theory of well, what does it mean to feel love? Or we would make the mistake of talking about it and you still wouldn’t know that you’re feeling in love until you feel like you’re in love. Right? I could try to explain it if I felt it, I could try to explain it to someone who hasn’t felt it, but there’s just no way to convey it. It’s just an idea, and it doesn’t make sense. It has to be experiential.
If I were to say, “Well, how do you feel about your mom?” That might conjure it, or about your grandma or about your pet dog or about your cat. Or there may be different things that could be said that would make you think, “Oh yeah, I know that feeling.” I think it’s similar with this concept of enlightenment. There’s a Zen expression that says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” And I love that expression because I think it really hits home with this whole idea of the Gateless Gate. It’s like, wait, you thought that walking through that something was going to happen? No, you’re in the same field. This is the gate that has no door, right? There’s no difference walking through it. You’re in the exact same place you’ve always been because there is no other side.
And that’s what Manjusri, is expressing in this koan. “I do not see myself as outside.” Well, this is only a problem to be solved by people who do see themselves as outside. Well, they’re going to try unsuccessfully every method possible to be on the inside. But when they realize that there is no inside, then you realize there was no problem to start with. And Manjusri realizes that from the get go, he doesn’t see himself as outside. So this isn’t a problem. There is no gate to enter. And I think this is the profound understanding of what enlightenment is and Buddhism. The more you study it, the more you come to understand that the more you realize that you don’t need to seek after it. It’s not something other than what we are already experiencing. And if my life consists of chopping wood and carrying water, well after enlightenment, that’s still my life. Chopping wood, carry water. And to me that’s a really profound understanding. So that’s how I understand this specific koan of the Gateless Gate.
So the topic that I picked for this podcast episode is, the people that don’t exist. Who are the people that don’t exist? Well this thought came to mind as we were in Nepal. So quick recap on that. There were 20 of us who went and did a mindful trekking in Nepal. And it was a really cool, really fun experience and I’m so glad that we did it. And I’m definitely going to do it again in November of 2020. I’ll post all the details and announcements of that later. But what we did is we covered roughly 70 miles of distance trekking over the course of… I think it was 11 or 12 days of trekking. With a few days at the front and at the end of it where we weren’t trekking, but we were in Kathmandu and in Pokhara. But we did a lot of stairs. We calculated at the end. It was the equivalent of climbing the empire state building nine times, just over nine times taking the steps up. And that’s a lot of stairs to do over the course of the trek, our legs were sore.
I was very pleased that it was a challenge. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it was doable and everybody completed it. We had a gentleman who was 72, turned 72 on our trek and we had a really wonderful birthday celebration for him. And our youngest I believe was 25, so that was kind of the range. We had a really good time, but every evening we would sit down and we would have these group discussions, kind of like a Dharma talk. Where we would talk about a specific concept and towards the end, we were developing a really nice sense of camaraderie in the group. Which I found to be quite fascinating because the group was very diverse. 50% of the group was from outside of the US, and 50% of the group was from within the US but different states. And we had a wide range of variety of people on different ends of the political spectrum. It was a diverse crowd that got along really, really well because we were all there with the purpose of trying to be more mindful. And it was just a really good experience, really good group.
But during one of these discussions in the evening, it occurred to me that here we are, 20 of us sitting around this table and we’re all talking in a way to people who don’t exist, right? Everyone there has an idea of who I am based on their understanding of their mental image, the narrative they’ve created of who they think I am. And that’s probably not accurate if I were to compare it to who I think I am, or to who I think other people think I am, my parents or my siblings or my spouse or my kids. They all have different versions of me in their mind, and I likewise have a version of who these people are, these 19 others sitting there around the table with me. And it’s only based on the experience that I’ve had with them for the, I don’t know, the past five or six or seven or however many days at that point. And yet that’s enough for me to create a mental picture. Here’s who I think this person is, here’s who I think this other person is.
And it occurred to me then in that moment, the vast majority of our interactions with other people in a very real way, we’re interacting with people who don’t exist. They only exist that way in our mind. And this was a profound thought for me because there’s no line where it’s like, okay. Well, these strangers that I don’t know very well. Yeah, sure they don’t exist, but what about people close to me? I definitely know them. And the answer is still the same. No, we don’t. When I think about this in terms of myself, which me is me? Or which you is you? We understand that there are a whole lot of different versions of us, right? The me that’s me when I’m sick, versus when I’m tired, versus when I’m hungry, versus when I really have to use the restroom. Or there’s all these different versions of you.
And on this trek we had the same thing. Someone got sick a couple of days in and now we’re trekking with someone who’s fighting a cold. Well, we developed a sense of a relationship and friendship with that person in that context, and I couldn’t help but to think, “What would this person be like if they weren’t sick?” It’d be like dealing with a different person and I think that’s applicable to all the rest of us in the group. But you can take that same way of thinking and apply it to all of our closest circles. I think in closer circles, this is probably even more common and yet harder to see.
I have a picture in my mind of who my parents are and how they are, and yet they have a picture in their minds of each other that’s probably different than the one that I have of them. Probably different than the one that my siblings have of them, or that their neighbors have of them or that… That goes on and on and on, or that they have of themselves. And likewise backwards. My parents have an image of me based on how I was when I lived with them in high school, based on how I was when I lived with them growing up as a kid. And that me is not the same me that lives where I live now. And that has a family and has my own kids. And sure there are glimpses that help them to construct the overall picture and the overall narrative in their mind of who I am. But that picture is probably slightly different than the picture that my twin brother has of me. Or than the picture that my wife has of me, or that my son has of me.
Suddenly I realize there are all these different portraits out there that represent me. And then there’s the portrait that I have of myself that represents me. And those are all probably… Some are good approximations to the truth. But, which of those is truly 100% accurate? I would argue that none of them are. And that to me is pretty fascinating to think about. I see people based on how I see, not based on who they are. And that’s a limitation that we all have. We see the world the way that we see things. And when I see someone, they may not even know who they are, but my picture, the narrative that I’ve created for them, it’s real to me. And that paints a picture that’s not the same thing as reality. Now I like to imagine this as if we were all artists, all painters. And like a painter who does a portrait, the portraits never the real thing. It could be a lovely portrait, but it could be inaccurate.
Now if someone does a really good job with the portrait and you can see the portrait and the real person and be like, “Yeah, okay. I can see that’s a portrait of this person here.” But some people aren’t very good at painting and they may have a portrait that you would look at next to the real person and be like, “I don’t know who that is.” They’re like, “it’s this person right here.” And you’d be like, “What? I don’t see it at all.” But we do that in our minds all the time. We’re creating portraits that we have for people.
And I would suspect that like the painting and like our talents and abilities to actually paint, we probably have some people who are a little bit more skilled at creating the internal image of who they think someone is. And perhaps most of us are actually not very good at it. And yet we think that ours is accurate, that our portrayal of a person, our story, our picture or painting of whoever, is accurate and it may very well not be accurate. And I would dare to say that that’s probably more applicable with people who are very close to us. The portrait that you have of your sibling, of your spouse, of your parent, of a cousin, of your child. These are people who don’t exist. So what do we do with that?
Well, to me this makes me think of that quote by Thich Nhat Hanh. Where he says, “We should love people in a way that they feel free. That the person that we love feels free.” Well, what does that mean to feel free? In this context I think that’s actually really powerful, because it’s saying perhaps we must see others in a way that they are free, free to change, free to be whoever they are in that moment and not compared to who we think that they should be. Or who we knew them to be five minutes ago or who they were a year ago. It’s kind of like, Alan Watts talks about the concept of the do happening. And I really like that applied to this way of thinking where we have people including ourselves and we’re all caught up in the do happening.
There’s something that’s being done to us, which causes us to… for there to be a happening. There’s the doing and there’s the happening, and the happening influences the doing and the doing influences the happening. And that’s how we are, right? As I go through life, I am interacting with life a certain way that’s kind of forging and shaping me into who I am. But I can’t separate myself from that. Life is happening to me, which is creating me. And the way that I interact with life has also affecting life. And that’s the do happening.
So when I keep that in mind and I think about other people, and I think of the other quote Alan Watts talks about where he says, “I’m under no obligation to be the same person I was five minutes ago.” I think, “Ah, now what if I extend this to other people?” And when I look at someone, I extend that sense of freedom. I love someone in a way that they are free and under no obligation to be who they were five minutes ago. Or under no obligation to be who I think that they are, right? We’re constantly comparing people and their actions and their words and their thoughts. To this mental portrait that we have of them and it’s like we’re holding up these two things side by side. Here’s my portrait of you, and then here’s who you are. And I keep comparing it and when I think, “Wait a second, this doesn’t match.” I trust my portrait more because that’s what I know best. That’s where I feel super competent is in my own thoughts and in my own feelings.
And how inaccurate is that? This is saying, “Wait, let’s compare the two,” and then say, “I’m a little surprised. My portrait may not be so accurate.” I don’t have to trust or I no longer have to believe that my portrait is infallible. The portrait that I’ve made of you is just that, it’s a portrait, but it’s not the real thing. And I think there’s a tremendous sense of freedom that we give others when we start to look at people in this lens of, you don’t exist the way that I thought that you did.
Well, what does that leave me with? It leaves me with the ability to be completely open and free to interact with you. And allow you to surprise me because I may be right or I may be may be wrong in my mental portrait of you. Now, how would that be? Imagine if we could extend that, especially to the people closest to us. And again, this reminds me of the concept of Zen mind, beginner’s mind, right? Where you try to see things as if they were new, as if you were seeing things for the very first time, every time. The way a child sees the world. That to me is what this whole concept and this whole topic of the people who don’t exist. It’s allowing myself to see people fresh as if it were for the first time.
And I want to state here, this is not an invitation to just overlook people who cause you harm, or people who take advantage of you. I think this requires an exercise in skillful means with how you approach this practice. But what I’m trying to get at is, imagine how liberating it would be for us and for the people that we interact with if we view them through this lens of recognizing that there’s who they are and then there’s the portrait we’ve created of who they are. And those two things will never ever be 100% accurate. They can’t. And the portrait that they have of themselves and who they are, that one can’t even be accurate, so much less is the one that I have of this person versus who they are. And just simply recognizing that, gives me enough freedom to allow myself to interact with this person with more of an open approach. Of I am allowing you to be under no obligation to be the person that you were five minutes ago. How liberating would that feel?
Now if people interacted with us in that way I think we would sense it, and I think we would feel a sense of freedom and liberation to allow ourselves to change. The one thing that’s happening and is inevitable is that we’re constantly changing. And if people gave us that freedom to change, imagine what would happen if we did the same back and we started interacting with people with that same context of giving a little bit of freedom and a little bit of flexibility. And all it takes… Again, for me, this whole exercise has been simply recognizing there’s reality and then there’s the painting that I have of reality. When it comes to people it’s no different than me recognizing that I am a fairly poor artist, who keeps creating portraits of people. And then I think that my portrait is more accurate than whoever they actually are. And that to me is highly unskillful.
Now all I have to do is recognize that that’s what I’m doing, and now I can stack my portrait up next to the person and say, “Okay. I am not sure I trust my portrait anymore.” Sure, it’s what we do, right? It gives us the ability to interact with people, to make assessments, which are very important parts of being social creatures as humans. But it doesn’t mean that they’re accurate. And by reminding ourselves of that, just because I have a picture of you that seems real to me, it doesn’t mean it’s 100% accurate. That alone gives me just enough flexibility to take my portrait and just kind of hold it there. Recognizing I may be wrong in how I painted this, this may not be accurate. I may be 50%, 70%, 90% accurate. I may be 10% accurate. I don’t know. And I think just recognizing, I’m not 100% accurate. That’s the goal, because we’re not. And I think we go through life thinking that we are 100% accurate in the portrayal that we have of people in these portraits that we make of them.
So that’s the topic I wanted to talk about. It’s something that came up in Nepal, and I think it’s a really fun way to interact with people, recognizing that the people who don’t exist. It’s just a fun mental picture.
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 want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast. Consider becoming a patron, and joining the online community where we discuss koans, podcast episodes, and more. There’s even a weekly study group there. You can learn more about that online community by visiting secularbuddhism.com. As always, if you enjoyed the podcast episode, feel free to share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.
But before I go, here is your Zen koan to work with this week. Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?” Xiushan said, “From the South.” Dizang said, “How has Buddhism in the South these days?” Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion.” Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?” Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?” Dizang said, “What do you call the world?” That is the Zen koan. I’ll discuss that in the next podcast episode. Thank you for listening. Until next time.