Month: March 2016

12 – Master Meditation by Not Meditating


In this episode, I will explore the idea of learning to meditate by not meditating. I share the poem “Dust if You Must” by Rose Milligan that went viral on the Secular Buddhism. It was viewed by over 10 million people in just a matter of days. I also discuss the idea of being vs doing. I hope you enjoy this episode!

Dust If You Must

by Rose Milligan

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.

 

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello you are listening to the secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 12. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about meditation through non-meditation. I’m also sharing the poem Dust if you Must, by Rose Milligan. So thank you for joining.

I like to say this every time before I start. This quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. And hopefully this will provide you with some information to provide you be a better whatever you already are.

Now let’s jump into this weeks topic. I am excited to be back with you for another podcast episode this week. And I wanted to start out with sharing another milestone. This has been an exciting week for me. I was out of town over the weekend on a family trip, and when I came back in the morning I was checking our Facebook page. I was really surprised to see that one of the posts that I had shared had gone viral.

This was really meaningful to me. Earlier in the year, I guess it was at the end of last year, I came across a post from Jason Silva, who’s the host of Brain Games on National Geographic. And he has a web series called Shots of Awe, where he posts these small tidbits of philosophical of information for, I forget what he calls it, but it’s essentially a three to five minute feast of philosophical thought. And it’s really fascinating, and it’s something that inspired me to want to share what I’m passionate about, which is secular buddhism.

And something he shared that really resonated with me was the concept of really finding what it means to be a billionaire. And the way he explains is that what if we took this, rather than being a monetary value that we strive for, strive to have money in the sense of being a billionaire, what if we redefine that to say a billionaire is someone who can influence the lives of a billion people. And influencing their lives for the positive.

And when I heard that, I just loved that idea. I thought we go through life chasing after things, right? And money is a big one. And I know that there’s so much more to life than earning money, paying bills, and then dying. And everything that I had studied, was studying at the time and learning about Buddhism, drove me to this one emphasis of, “How do we learn to live life to the fullest? And live in the present moment?”

And when I heard that idea that he taught about redefining what it means to be a billionaire, I knew right then and there that that’s something I wanted to aspire to. To be able to provide a set of tools or information, or some form of platform that can inspire people to want to be better. To have a more positive existence, a more positive way of living.

It was literally January 1st where I decided, “Well, okay. I’m going to start a podcast.” And I started working on this. I developed the Facebook page, and a blog, and a website. All around this concept of sharing Buddhism through a secular lens, the lens that made the most sense to me. And it’s been fascinating to watch this grow and watch it become what it’s becoming. I think in a very Buddhist way it’s exciting to see that there’s no goal in mind. I’m just allowing it to be what it is. I don’t know what that is yet because it’s constantly changing and evolving, which is the very nature of existence, right? The nature of impermanence, the nature of interdependence.

But this weekend the exciting milestone I got to experience was seeing one of my posts go viral. Up until this point anything I tend to share online, whether it be in the form of a podcast, or a blog post, or a Facebook post, or anything like that, it’s grown to the point where it gets seen by thousands of people. And that’s been exciting. But what happened this weekend took it to a whole new level.

When I checked, at first I couldn’t believe these numbers were true. Because what happened over the weekend was one of the posts I shared, which was a poem called Dust if you Must, had gone viral. And it had been seen by over ten million people over the course of the weekend. And I thought, “How is that possible?” And out of that there were just over one million interactions with this post, which caused all of the other posts and everything else I had been posting online to just explode. Suddenly hundreds and thousands of new people were subscribing to the seven day introduction to Buddhism post that’s available on secularbuddhism.com. And over night I was waking up, finding out that there were 8,000 new subscribers, or 8,000 new followers.

It’s just fascinating. It’s still … I had a similar experience last October. Some of you may not know this about me, but I develop products. I have a company, we manufacture photography accessories. And I’ve been doing this for five years. That’s what I do for work, I manufacture photography accessories. And I remember having this really profound experience visiting Hong Kong and meeting with businesses. I’m walking through the mall and I come across the photography store. I’m standing there, and there on the back wall are five or six of the products that I developed. Just hanging in the store. As I’m staring at them the sales person from the store comes up to me, and she’s like, “oh, would you like to buy one of these tripods?” And I got teary-eyed because this was the culmination of years of work for me designing and developing a brand of products. Putting in a lot of hard work and countless sleepless nights, stressful deals, loans, and everything that entails building a business and manufacturing products.

Here I was almost literally on the other side of the world, standing in a store, looking at something that I had created. It was a very moving and humbling experience to me because it felt like all of this had started as an idea. And here I was, sharing something that meant something to me. Creating products that I was passionate about with photography. And there they were, in this random store in a mall in Hong Kong. It was really moving for me. It was the first time that made me realize that we can take something and work on it, and it can become something.

I had that similar experience with Jason Silva’s invitation to redefine what it means to be a billionaire, to be able to share, or influence in a positive way, the lives of a billion people. When I first heard that I thought, “I want to really find what that means to be a millionaire.” Because I thought, “I don’t know how to do that with a billion people.”

This weekend alone, the ideas that I’ve been sharing through this platform have been seen by over ten million people. And over one million people actually interacting with my posts. It’s really humbling. And it’s humbling from the sense that this started as an idea. I genuinely believe that with the right perspective, and with the proper understanding of impermanence and interdependence, it can change your life to see the world in this light.

I believe that the dharma the way that it was taught, and is taught through the lens of Buddhism, can be life changing. And I believe that changing the world is changing ourselves. By providing the teachings of the Dharma, and teachings through secular Buddhism, people who are secular-minded like me can make sense of these fantastic philosophical teaching that inspire to be a better person. To have a more positive light. And it’s been fun to see that this weekend in numbers that exceeded my dreams. Especially this soon in the process, it’s only been four months since this podcast started. So that’s been really exciting for me, and I wanted to share that milestone with you. So again, thank you for sharing and spreading the messages that are shared through this platform. Through the Facebook page, through the study group. It’s really rewarding for me to receive emails from people who are saying, “Thank you for sharing this new concept, or this new approach that I haven’t explored before has literally changed my life.” It’s very rewarding, and that’s why I’m doing this. Because first it changed my life, and now it’s exciting to see how this is improving in a positive way the lives of others.

So I want to share with you the poem that I shared, the poem that went viral. And I think this touches on something that resonates with people. Obviously, that’s why it went viral. The title of this poem is called Dust if you Must. And it goes like this:

Dust if you Must. Dust if you Must, but wouldn’t it be better to paint the picture, or write a letter? Bake a cake, or plant a seed. Ponder the difference between want and need. Dust if you must, but there’s not much time. With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb. Music to hear, and books to read. Friends to cherish, and life to lead. Dust if you must, but the world’s out there. With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair. A flutter of snow, a shower of rain. This day will not come back around again. Dust if you must, but bear in mind, old age will come and it’s not kind. And when you go, and go you must, you yourself will make more dust.

That poem is by Rose Milligan. When I found that and shared that on the secular Buddhism Facebook page, I noticed right away that the messaging really resonates with people. This isn’t an attack on dusting or on cleaning. I think that’s obvious. The key to this message is that we go through life doing, and in the process of doing, we sometimes forget to just be.

My understanding of this, the way it makes sense to me, is the process of doing versus being. And it makes me want to share the concept of meditation from a different perspective. We spend a lot of time meditating. I think when I teach meditation, one of the first things that happens is we get really exciting about meditating. Because we want something out of it. We want to be calm, we want to have more peace in life. There’s an objective. And then over time as it becomes a consistent practice, it’s common to hear from people who say, “Okay, I’ve been doing this for several months now. Yeah, it made me a lot more calm, but now what?” Or people will say, “Now I’m realizing things I hadn’t realized before. I tend to get mad easily, or I tend to have a temper.”

So I wanted to discuss meditation a little bit, from the perspective of the key to meditation being non-meditation. Or this idea of doing versus being. When I teach meditation to someone, mindfulness meditation, I usually explain to imagine a pond. And there’s a pond that has muddy water, and what would have to happen for that muddy water to become clear? Alan Watt says, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” And you can picture this with a muddy pond. If you were to leave it and let it sit still … or take a jar and put dirt in the water in that jar and shake it up, and the water is going to be really muddy. But if you put it down and leave it alone, give it time, all of that mud settles to the bottom, and what you have is clear water again.

This is the first, I guess, level of meditation, which is calm and inviting meditation. It’s learning to still the waters, the muddy waters. What happens as a consequence of learning to still those waters is that then the water is clear, and now we learn to this phase of insight meditation. You’re able to look into that pond and see what’s actually there. This is looking into the nature of awareness, the nature of the mind, and see what’s really there.

And I think something that happens when you learn about meditation, you say, “Okay, I want to start meditating,” is we start to develop expectations about what meditation is, what it’s going to do for me, how I’m going to benefit from it. And that becomes the very thing that Buddhism is trying to eliminate from us. Is that nature tendency, the reactivity that we have, to create meaning around thing. So there’s this concept that there is what is, and there’s the story that we create around what is. I think this is really common when it comes to meditation, or when it comes to life in general. We create meaning around it. And that’s not a bad thing because creating meaning around life is part of life. But with meditation it can be detrimental to create meaning around what meditation is.

A lot of teachers will talk about this concept of the key to meditating is to not meditate. The moment I’m saying I’m going to meditate, that’s a concept in my mind. That means something. Whatever that means to me, that’s the meaning you give to meditation. It is this, or that, or it causes this, or it causes that. Whatever concept you hold about what meditation is can be useful to the point of helping you to be calm. To gain this calm clarity that you need. And then insight meditation you start to be able to see the nature and awareness. But when this is done properly, and the mind and thoughts have been calm enough for the mud settle, so to speak, and for the water to become clear to the point where you can start to see the nature of the mind, the way the mind works, then the concept that you have about what meditation is actually becomes a hindrance to progressing to the full purpose of meditation.

Which is with that insight, when you can finally see what’s really there, what you’re going to gain out of this is the one thing that Buddhism is trying to get you to see, which is seeing things as they are. Again, to clarify, the concept of non-meditation, or the key to meditation being non-meditation, is that we want to let go of what the concept of meditation is.

I think this becomes very relevant with what I shared last week in the podcast with the parable of the raft. What the Buddha taught is the raft is something that you need. Let’s say in this case he taught it specifically was the Dharma, the teachings, which in this case we can equate to meditation. It’s this tool that you use and you’re life depends on it to be able to accomplish what you’re trying to get. But at some point, you have to learn to let go. The concept of letting go, from the sense of meditation, is that if you really want to get what meditation is all about, then you’ll learn that what it’s all about is about not meditation. That’s the difference between doing, it’s not something that you do, it’s about how you are, it’s about being. Doing versus being.

To take meditation to that next level, at some point you have to understand that the whole purpose of meditation is that you don’t meditate. You’re learning to just be with what is. That’s why when I teach meditation, mindfulness meditation, what I try to convey is this concept that there’s nothing magical happening. Nothing happens. All you’re doing is learning to be with what is. It’s kind of the exercise with learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That can be confusing to people, because then it’s like, “Well, what’s the point of all this then?” Think about this, how often do we really spend time with just being with something. Not doing anything, just being with what is. I think one of the sources of all of our problems is the minute that we start meditating or the minute we’re doing anything, we’re creating meaning. And then we can’t allow things to just be as they are. So meditation can be this practice. This is a technique that used in different Buddhist traditions. There’s the Tibetan [inaudible 00:19:10] meditation that instills this … you go through different phases. And the ultimate phase is this phase of non-meditation.

How does that work? How does this apply to a daily practitioner of meditation in the secular Buddhist lens? If you’re new to this and you want to start meditating, how does that help to knowing this now, especially early on in the game? And I think the key is by grasping this intellectually, as some point in your meditation, the only way you’re going to be able to progress with gaining wisdom to the nature of reality is to let go of whatever that concept you have of what the nature of reality is. Hopefully that makes sense.

Alan Watts talks about this in terms of the attitude of faith. He says, “The attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” I think this is very relevant with this concept of meditation. Because what you’re doing is letting go of whatever you think meditation is, or what it’s supposed to do, or how it’s going to benefit you. You let go of that. Because there is nothing, it’s not supposed to do anything, or benefit you in any way. And yet, when you grasp that that’s when it benefits you, because that’s when you’ve let go.

Again, it’s like this paradox. I love this, Buddhism is general is like this paradox. There’s a teaching that says when you first start to study or learn Buddhism, before, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are just streams. And then you start to learn a little bit about Buddhism. And it’s exciting. And the more you start to learn suddenly it’s like there’s this awe in everything you see. Mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers anymore, and streams aren’t just streams. The more time that you spend with it, the more that you start to learn the philosophical understandings, and the teachings of Buddhism. Then when you’re done and you really get it, then you realize, “Oh, mountains are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams.” And yet, that’s what makes them so beautiful.

I like to think about this with the teaching of a rose. A rose is beautiful because a rose is just a rose. It doesn’t bloom and then wait for someone to come along, pick it up, and say, “Wow, you are a beautiful rose.” Because it doesn’t care. That’s not the reason why a rose exists. It does not exist so someone can pick it up and tell it it’s beautiful. And yet, that’s what makes it beautiful. Because it just is what it is.

It’s no different with us and our existence, and the way that we try to see things the way that they are. When you learn to see something the way that it is, then it becomes beautiful, and almost magical, simply because it is just what it is. You’ve detached all the meaning you had behind it. Remember, it’s inside of these concepts, meanings and ideas, that we attach to things, that things get muddy. And muddy water is best cleared by leaving is alone, as Alan Watt says. We leave things alone, meaning we let go of the meaning that we’ve attached to things, and the things just are what they are. When we can allow things to just be what they are, then we can see them as they really are.

Meditation is that tool. Meditation itself can become a hindrance if we have meaning, or ideas, or concepts, attached to what meditation is. What this is supposed to be doing for me. I think the biggest mistake around this is spending time thinking, “meditation is working. Meditation is not working. It’s doing this, it’s doing that.” All of this resides inside of the sphere of the meaning that we have around what meditation is. Or what it’s supposed to do. The whole point is that there is nothing that it’s supposed to do, there’s nothing that it’s supposed to mean. It’s the exercise of just being with what is. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s sitting and observing the thoughts, in the same way that you would sit outside and observe the clouds. You notice that the nature of watching clouds in the sky is that they arise, they appear, they linger, and then they go away. That’s the nature of observing clouds. That’s also the nature of meditation, and observing our thoughts.

The nature of things as they are is that things arise, they linger for a while, then they’re gone. Isn’t that the very nature of life itself? Things arise, they exist for a short time, then they’re gone. And when we can allow ourselves to start to see things the way that they are, without attaching meaning to things, then we become that much closer to being enlightened.

This is another concept, the idea of enlightenment, carries so much connotation around the meaning that we have about enlightenment. If I were to ask you, “What does it mean to be enlightened?” Everyone has an interpretation of what that means. Enlightenment in it’s purest form is nothing more than what I explain earlier about mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are streams. Then when we think we start to know what it means to be enlightened, that’s when we think, “Oh, mountains aren’t just mountains. Rivers aren’t just rivers. Streams aren’t just streams. It’s something more.” But then true enlightenment happens and you realize, “oh, they are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams. Life is just life. Happiness is just happiness, sadness is just sadness.” It’s in allowing these things to be what they are, this attitude of faith, to let go, to become open to reality whatever it may be, that is the nature of awakening. That is the nature of enlightenment in the secular Buddhist understanding.

This is what makes it all so beautiful. It’s inside of that space of allowing things to just be what they are that everything becomes beautiful. The concept of the rose. What makes the rose so beautiful is that it’s just a rose. There’s nothing more to it. There’s nothing that you add to it. A rose is a rose, and that’s what makes it beautiful. A human being is a human being, and that’s what makes us beautiful.

If we could see all things like that, with that lens of allowing things to be what they are, it would change everything. Meditation is the tool to do that. That’s the concept of meditation through non-meditation.

I hope that resonates with you, and I think that’s what touches the heart of the concept of Dust if you Must. We go through life, and we’re busy, and we’re doing things that we think we need to be doing, and these things are meaningful. And yet at the end, we’re just dust. We go back to being the one thing that we’re trying to clean up, or trying to avoid all along. That’s the one thing we are. I think it’s a powerful message, and it’s at the heart of why I want to share the things that I share, as I study and learn and teach the concept of Buddhism. I want to spread the message, and the idea of enlightenment being the idea of learning to see life just the way that it is. Learning that there is what is, and then there’s the story that we create about what it. We tend to live and go through our entire life inside of the story of what is, and never actually see what is.

Imagine if you were to taste a food one day you had never tasted before, because your whole life, you’ve only seen the menu. And you’ve been in love with the menu, and the pictures on the menu, and the words that describe the dish. And the price attached to it. Everything around the concept of what is, but you never actually experienced what is, which would be to taste the food. It may seem silly, but that’s what we do in life. There’s what is, the experiential version of living, you’re tasting the food, and then there’s the intellectual or conceptual of what is. That’s like being in love with the menu, thinking that this whole time what you loved on the menu is actually the meal. And it’s not. They’re two completely different things.

I think we do this a lot with meditation. There’s my idea of what meditation is, what it’s supposed to do. I know everything from a conceptual understanding of what meditation is. That’s the menu. And then one day you experience what meditation actually is, it’s learning to see things as they are, that’s like tasting the food. And it’s a whole different thing. That cannot be conveyed. You cannot convey that in words to someone else. You can only experience it.

Using that menu as an example, I can taste all the food and enjoy the flavors, everything, and try to convey it to you. And maybe all you’ve ever experienced is what I’m telling you on a menu, and you think, “Yeah, yeah, I got it. Yeah, I see what this is. I see the ingredients, I get it.” But we can’t. Until you taste it yourself, you’re not going to know what that really is. That’s the difference between meditation and learning that they key to meditation is actually non-meditation. Let go of the concept that you have about meditation, and learn to just meditate. Which is, learn to just be with what is. Learn to clear that muddy water by leaving it alone, by not trying, by just being.

Next time you practice your meditation, don’t have any expectations about what it is, what it’s supposed to do. Just practice sitting there and being with what is. Whatever it turns out to be. Think about this attitude of faith that Alan Watts talks about. The attitude of faith, of letting go. Becoming completely open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be. Learning to be with what is, whatever that might turn out to be.

Let me know how that goes for you. I’d love to hear about it. We have the secular Buddhism Facebook page, which as I mentioned before, is exploring. There’s the secular Buddhism study group, which is also a Facebook group. There’s a secularbuddhism.com website, where you can comment and post. Where I post the podcast, you can comment on that page. Or feel free to reach out to me. A lot of people have been reaching out to me directly, and I respond to every email. I interact. At some point that becomes something that I cannot manage, then I’ll stop saying to do that. But for now, feel free to reach out to me directly at Noah, N-O-A-H, at secularbuddhism.com. I’d love to discuss this concept with you, and see what you think about it. Hopefully this is useful and helpful information to help you have a more positive life.

I send you guys my regards, and thank you once again for turning in. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me. I look forward to seeing where this goes from here. Thank you, and until next time.

11 – Parable of the Raft

In this episode, I will discuss one of the Buddha’s most famous teachings: The Parable of the Raft. The general concept to be learned by this parable is the importance of letting go of the things that we no longer need on our journey. It would be wise to take a moment to reflect on what rafts we continue to cling to even after they are no longer necessary for us.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 11. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about the Parable of the Raft. Before we jump into the topic, I want to remind you that this podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and Secular Humanism and the episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to Secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts. So if you’re new to the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. After that all other episodes are just meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Something I like to mention before starting is that, a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Just keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast, or to any of the topics discussed within the podcast series. There is no intent here to convert anyone to anything. I’m just sharing what’s meaningful to me as I’ve studied Buddhism in the last many years, and trying to share it in a way that inspire you to be a better whatever you already are. So remember if you enjoy this podcast please feel free to share it, write a review, give it a rating, all that really helps. Now lets’ jump into this week’s topic.

Hi guys. I’m excited to talk to you today about a parable called, “The raft parable.” This is a well-known teaching in Buddhism, that I think is quite popular because it has a great message. This comes from the Alagaddupama Sutta and this is also called, “The water-snake simile,” sutta, or teaching. The idea here … It’s two different stories and the first part of the story is about a water-snake and the second part of the story is about a raft, and they go hand in hand and there are various interpretations of what this parable means and what the moral of the story is, but just to give you a background really quick on the actual story.

The first part of the story is about a man who approaches a water-snake and he picks it up from the wrong end. He grabs the tail end. The snake turns around and bites him, and it’s a poisonous bite. He regrets that he picked it up the wrong way. The moral of that story is about when you’re learning the teachings of the Buddha, or the Dharma, if you grasp them in the wrong way it’s going to have consequences. It will put us in danger. So the idea is that as we’re studying, learning the teachings of the Buddha, that they need to be understood correctly because to understand them the wrong way is very much like picking up a snake from the wrong direction.

This understanding in the water-snake part of the story is probably what Nagarjuna had in mind when he said, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Then the raft story immediately follows the snake story. The idea of the Parable of the Raft, if there is a person who comes to a large body of water and he’s trying to get to the other side and this can be a river, can be an ocean, and I think it’s told differently in different translations, or in various interpretations, but again the idea is that he’s there, he needs to cross to the other side. There’s no way to do it, at least safely. So he starts to assemble all of the components that he needs to build a raft. The twigs and the branches and the rope and he spends all this effort and time building a small raft, and once it’s put together he relies on this raft to keep himself afloat and he makes his way across the body of water to reach the other side.

Then once he reaches the other side the idea is now that he’s there, is he supposed to leave the raft or is he supposed to drag it along with him or carry it on his back? What the Buddha taught is that he should leave it and he explained that the Dharma, or the teachings are like this raft. They can be useful for crossing over but not useful for grasping or holding on to. It’s a short and simple story and it’s been interpreted in many ways, and one of the understandings is that as you’re studying the teachings in Buddhism and you become awakened to what the meaning is of the teachings, are you supposed to continue hanging on to these teachings? Or do you let go?

Some argue that that is the interpretation as you become awakened or enlightened, then you let go of Buddhism entirely and others argue that that’s not the right interpretation, that it has more to do with the way that you grasp, or cling to these. What you’re supposed to do is let go of clinging and that the raft isn’t necessarily the teachings. The raft is letting go of or clinging to the teachings. Again there are several ways, several arguments. My intention isn’t to explain one of the arguments. I like the parable for other reasons. What I really like about the Parable of the Raft is the concept of something at one point being really meaningful in your life, maybe a lot of energy and effort went into it. This can be a relationship, or specific belief system, a job, something that was very meaningful to you and a lot of time and effort went into building that and then at some point in your journey, or on your path, it’s no longer relevant or important.

Well, it may be important, but it’s no longer necessary because you’ve reached the other side. So you let go of it and to continue to carry it would be taking this as an example, in a relationship it would be like being in a relationship with someone. All the time and effort that went into making that relationship important and meaningful and successful is like building that raft and then at some point the relationship ends. You’ve reached the shore, a new shore where it was no longer necessary to continue to carry the aspects of that relationship. Now that you’re not with that person, would be like carrying the raft. It’s unnecessary and it’s actually just hindering your progress at that point. One of the typical things that we do, assuming you are able to let go of the raft, or leave that raft behind. I think it’s also detrimental to look back on that specific [phase of your life and think that it was a waste of time.

So for example, again using the Parable of the Raft, at one point the raft meant everything of your time and energy went into building it. Once you’re on the raft and you’re over the water, or you’re floating on the water, the raft is a matter of life and death. That’s how meaningful that raft is to you, and once you reach the other side, it’s no longer necessary and let’s say somewhere down the road, even if you did … Either you’re carrying the raft, or you left the raft behind. It would be silly to look back on that phase and say, “Man, I wish I would have never wasted time building that raft. That was stupid,” because you’re saying this from the perspective of the person who’s already at the point of the journey where the raft is no longer necessary, but it’s like we forget that at one point it was and when you were on the water, that meant everything.

So if you were to apply this a relationship, or where I see this a lot is people who are transitioning in their faith journey and maybe at one point they belonged to a specific religion or they understood life through the lens of a specific school of thought, or a specific set of ideas, and then later at some point in their life they don’t and they look back on that and think, “Why did I ever believe that? How could I have been so silly?” Or something to that affect, but the concept is the same as the raft. It’s once you’re at a point in your life where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you, I think it’s detrimental to look back and regret the time or energy that was wasted on building the raft because you’re thinking, “I didn’t need that.” But you’re saying that from the perspective of a place where you are now where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s not necessary because maybe now you’re walking around on dry land.

We forget that at the time where we were in that part of our journey, the raft did mean everything to us. Even if it doesn’t mean anything to us now. So I kind of wanted to address this concept from the perspective of how in our journey, our faith journey, or our relationship journey, just the journey of life in general, we come across bodies of water and at times it’s important to build the raft and to spend all the time and energy on everything that we need to build a raft to cross that body of water. During that time the raft means everything to you and if you pause for a minute and think about the various stages in your life when you were building rafts, these rafts are very important to you. They mean everything to you.

It’s different things, right? It can be if you’re on a faith journey, it can be your beliefs or your convictions. If you’re thinking about relationships, it can be a specific person or there’s so many things that I think apply to this concept of the raft. If you were in a career, it could be the time and energy you spent studying for the Bar exam when you were trying to be … Learn to become an attorney, or again this is kind of endless. It can apply to so many things across so many different spectrums, but these are our rafts. In life, we’re constantly building rafts. Wherever you are right now in your life, you’re probably either building a raft, or you’re on the raft paddling to the other side of something.

One of the things … The two big mistakes that we make, is one when we get there, we just put the raft on our back and keep on going. This is the concept of not being able to let go. The second, assuming you are able to let go, is that you actually haven’t let go because now you are angry at the phase of life that you feel was wasted for spending time on the raft, that now you feel, “Well that’s a waste, that raft isn’t necessary,” but we forget that at the time, where we were in that place mentally, or emotionally, it was necessary. The raft was everything. It was a matter of life and death.

So from this lens the Parable of the Raft to me, for me personally is the story of understanding what it means to let go. I think there’s another story that helps illustrate the teaching of letting go and this is the Zen story of the two monks and a woman. The way this story goes, there were two monks. A senior monk and a junior monk and they’re traveling together and at some point in their travels they come to a river that has a strong current. It’s kind of a big river. The monks are getting ready to cross the river and at that point one of them sees a young and beautiful woman who’s trying to cross this river and the young woman asks them for help and the two monks kind of glance at each other, because they realize they have taken vows not to touch a woman. Without word, the older monk, the senior monk doesn’t say anything. He just picks up the woman, carries her across the river and gently places her on the other side. Then they continue their journey.

As they continue their journey, the younger monk just can’t believe what happened and this is festering and he’s thinking and thinking and at some point he finally speaks up and he’s like, “Hey, I don’t get it. We’ve taken vows to not touch a woman and how are you able to just pick her up and carry her on your shoulders and ut her on the other side? I don’t get it. You’ve broken your vow.” The older monk looks at him and just says, “I put the woman down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?” I think it’s a simple Zen story, like all Zen stories. It carries a simple, beautiful message about the concept of letting go and how often we carry something and we hold on to it and it’s there and it’s festering and it’s on our mind because we were not capable of letting go.

Again this Zen story, don’t read into any of the moral or ethics of the vows they had taken. None of that matters. The point of the story, the moral of that story is when you do something, you do something and then when you’re done you let it go. Applying this to the other Parable of the Raft, it’s very similar. There’s a raft that at the time, it makes sense to have a raft or build a raft or be on a raft, the raft can mean everything and then at moment that the raft no longer means anything to us, or it’s no longer necessary, you have the two options. You carry it with you, or you let it go. I think the letting go also has two options. Once you’ve let it go, you either let it go completely, or you let it go and let it fester on your mind that you’re mad that you ever carried it in the first place and that would be silly when you think about the concept. Just the story of the raft, you know?

It would be silly to look back and say, “Well I can’t believe I ever wasted time building that raft,” only because you’ve forgotten that there was a time when the raft did mean everything to you. So that’s what I wanted to discuss a little bit in this brief podcast, is the Parable of the Raft, and I would hope that you can spend some time looking in to your own life and think, “What are the rafts that I’ve built in my life? What are the bodies of water that I needed to cross and in order to do so safely, I had to rely on a raft? How did I build that raft? What was that raft to me?” Then, “In what ways am I still carrying the raft with me?” Again this might apply to relationships, to faith transitions or journeys, to career transitions, parenting transitions, so many different applications here, but in what way do you continue to carry the raft with you?

If you have let it go, or at least you think you’ve let it go, in what way are you actually still carrying it with you because you continually think of it? It’s still there on your mind or you resent the fact that you ever had to carry the raft on your back or you ever had to be on the raft in the first place, or that you wasted time and effort building a raft. I think there are so many levels that you can apply this to in day to day life and I think it’s a worthy mental exercise to spend time thinking about the Parable of the Raft and the teaching that the Buddha taught specific to the raft, was the importance of learning to let go of something that can be as meaningful and as important as a raft is. When your life depends on it, the raft means everything to you, but at some point when it doesn’t it’s okay to let it go and it can be detrimental to not let go.

I know in my own life I can think of several instances where things were as important to me, these were my rafts. They meant everything to me, and I thought I had let these things go. At some point, I’m like the younger of those two monks who realizes I haven’t let it go. It’s been festering and I’m thinking and at that moment you kind of unleash the question. Like, “Why? I don’t get it. You were supposed to …” you know it’s like you’re talking to that senior monk saying, “Why were you carrying her?” And that was hours ago. Or days ago, or months ago, or years ago. The wise monk will say, “I let that person down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying them?” That’s like I let go of the raft when I no longer needed it. Why are you still carrying it? This is a matter of wisdom, right? It’s not right, or wrong. I’m not saying you’re wrong for doing this, it’s just not wise. It’s not wise to be carrying a raft when you don’t need it.

At some point when you encounter a new body of water, then you’re going to spend the time an energy building a new raft to cross that body of water, but we don’t just carry these with us. So that’s the concept of the raft I’d love to hear what you think of the parable and specifically what this parable means to you. The various aspects, the water-snake and how we grasp things and how dangerous it is to grasp things from the wrong end, or improperly. Also the concept of the raft. What does it mean to you? What are some of your rafts? Let’s talk about these. You can email me or post it on our Secular Buddhism Facebook group, or on the blog post. Anywhere you want, I’d love to discuss these things. See if you can get to the root of what some of your personal rafts are, and what ways you can let go of these things.

So if you have any other questions or comments about this, please feel free to get a hold of me. Again like in all podcasts, if you enjoyed this, please feel free to write a review through iTunes or give it a rating and share this with someone who you think might enjoy the things that I’m sharing and teaching in these podcasts. Thank you for your time and I look forward to sharing another podcast with you next week. Thank you.

10 – True Selflessness


What does it mean to be selfless? In Gyomay Kubose’s essay on selflessness he mentions that “Buddhism is the way of selflessness”, but what does that really mean? In this episode, I will explore the topic of selflessness and how our sense of self is always relative. Understanding relative existence and interdependence is the key to living life in a state of selflessness. When you put your whole life into something…that is the essence of being selfless.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This episode number 10. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about selflessness.

Hey guys, I’m excited to talk to about the topic of selflessness today. And before jumping into the topic I wanted to take a minute, first and foremost to thank you for listening to this podcast. This is a fun milestone for me to be able to announce that as of today we have over 25,000 downloads of the podcast. And this is in a relatively short amount of time because this podcast has only been around two months now. This is really exciting for me. My intention when I started the podcast was really just to share the knowledge that I have been studying and learning as I was on this path studying Buddhism myself. And I’m in a Buddhist Lay Ministry program right now. And in the summer of 2017 when I graduate I’ll be an actual Lay Minister teaching this regularly. And in the process of studying it’s been very important for me to learn how to teach the Dharma effectively. In other words how to teach Buddhism.

And I of course, have chosen to teach this through a Secular lens, and I know sometimes that can be a little disconcerting for Orthodox or Traditional Buddhists who see the word Secular Buddhism and think, “What is that, what are you taking away from what the Buddha taught?” And I wanted to clarify that for a minute. And be clear that I only see the teachings of the Buddha as there’s just this one set of teachings. There’s what the Buddha taught. And then to interpret that and to express the Dharma, I think there are various ways to be able to do that.

I read a book a couple years ago called The Five Love Languages. And the premise, I’m sure many of you have heard of this is that we communicate love through different languages. For some it’s touch, for some it’s affection, for some it’s receiving gifts. There are different ways to communicate affection and love. These are known as the five love languages. Well, I think that way of thinking extends to almost everything. And when you take something as broad as what the Buddha taught, I think it can be distilled down to a couple of key points. The world is impermanent. That all things are interdependent. But the way that you learn and express what is collectively known as the Dharma, what the Buddha taught. I think there are love languages that are more effective.

We talk about the love languages in terms of how we communicate with each other in relationships. I think the love languages that would apply to teaching kindness and compassion, or wisdom and compassion, there’s the language of Zen, there’s the language of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s the language of the Japanese schools of Buddhism, Jodo Shin, et cetera. And I think there’s a valid argument that one of these languages would be Secular Buddhism which is a language that’s communicated clearly to people who are Secular-minded. And in the West, I think there is a tendency to understand things more through a Secular lens.

But what’s being communicated throughout any of these schools of thought is really the same thing. All of it boils down to trying to communicate in the best language possible what the Buddha taught. Which for me, for my personal understanding is that all things are interdependent and all this are impermanent. And then along with that there’s several other key teachings on the four noble truths, the eight fold path, how all this relates to us in our day to day life I think can be communicated effectively in a language that makes sense to you. And for some people and their personality that might be Zen. And for some people and their personality it might be Jodo Shin, and on and on.

And for me, as I was learning all this it made a lot of sense to learn this through a Secular understanding. And that’s why I teach a Secular Buddhism. That’s why I’m interested in explaining the Dharma in the Secular Vernacular because that’s how it makes sense to me. And I know that there are other Secular minded people who are interested in learning about Buddhist philosophy. And that’s why I explain it through this very same lens.

I wanted to communicate that mostly to be clear that I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as Zen Buddhism, and that that’s any different than Secular Buddhism, or that that’s any different then Jodo Shin Buddhism. I think that what’s being communicated is the same thing expressed through different languages much like the love languages. When in relationships when somebody, when one couple, one individual in the couple communicates their love for their spouse, or for their partner by consistently taking out the trash, and keeping the house clean. That’s really not that different from the person in the relationship who expresses it through touch and affection. It’s just two different love languages. But they can both love each other. And I think this is similar. What’s being communicated is wisdom and compassion, but it can be expressed in a language that makes more sense to someone else who also happens to speak that specific love language.

I wanted to clarify that. I’m not at odds, at least from my perspective I don’t see myself at odds in teaching Secular Buddhism with any of the other schools of Buddhism. I happen to really enjoy Tibetan Buddhism. I happen to have a lot of close friends who are in the Jodo Shin Buddhist tradition. And I think I’ve learned a lot from them and being able to communicate certain things in ways that hadn’t occurred to me before. Because the way that it’s taught in that tradition doesn’t necessarily speak to me naturally. And it’s just a fascinating thing to realize but we’re all communicating the same thing, we just express ourselves a little differently. I wanted to be clear about that. I don’t see this as being completely separate from any of the other schools of Buddhism. They’re all just expressed slightly differently in different languages, like love languages.

And I like the idea of love languages because I think Buddhism is about wisdom and compassion, and love, love and kindness. It’s like Buddhism is a love language or Secular Buddhism is one of the love languages. That’s how I view it. I wanted to clarify that.

The next thing I wanted to clarify, I’ve been asked before why do I do this? Why do I do these podcasts? I have three different businesses and I have three children right now. I’m in a very busy stage of my life. And it takes time to record these podcasts. It takes time to prepare. I teach lessons almost every Saturday at my office and people come to those and it takes time to prepare those. And the reason I do it is because this is a topic that to me is incredibly rewarding. It’s very fascinating to be able to teach something that helps to inspire people to be better people. And ultimately, in my view, it makes the world a better place.

About four years ago I found myself in a very dark difficult part of my life. I was going through a marriage crisis and I was going through a faith crisis. Going through these things and trying to figure things out I was caught up in this way of thinking, I thought, “How did I mess up? Where did I mess up in life?” Something was wrong and I think naturally we have the tendency to view ourselves sometimes as finished products. We’re constantly evaluating ourselves and others as finished products thinking, “Well, you did this wrong, or this right, or you turned out good, you turned out bad.” As if we’re finished products. When the reality is that we’re continually works in progress. And I wasn’t able to see myself as a work in progress. I had messed up in life. Something went wrong, I got it wrong, and that way of thinking was very detrimental. It was a difficult time in my life.

That’s when I came across Buddhism and Buddhist studies and it was so refreshing and liberating to understand that all things are impermanent, and that we’re constantly becoming. There is no way to say, “Oh where did I mess up in life?” It’s like you haven’t messed up because you’re alive. And I came across this teaching that I really enjoyed ever since. It’s about a rose and limitations, and the idea here is that the only limitation of the rose is that the rose is not a daisy, but it doesn’t care, so it doesn’t matter. And that resonated with me because here I was in a specific phase of life where I was thinking, “I didn’t get this right. My marriage isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Or my way of having faith isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Somewhere I messed up in this process.” And I couldn’t figure out why, nothing made sense.

And then, what made the most sense was realizing because there is nothing to … There is no milestone like this is it, and there you got it, you did it right. And there is no, well you did this, so there you got it wrong. There is just, what is. And what was at that specific phase of my life is what it was at that specific time in my life. That’s all it was. Buddhism was able to really convey that in a way that made sense to me. And I remember that experience one day where I had that moment of letting it go, and realizing oh, there’s all the stress, all the weight was off my shoulders, there was only the experience of being. And I thought, “This is something that makes a lot of sense to me. And this is something that I want to teach.” And that’s where the motivation came from.

I think ever since then, and this is almost four years now, I feel like I’ve been in this continual state of almost bliss thinking, “I’m just excited to be alive now. There is not way to mess up life. Because you’re just going through it.” In the Dhammapada there’s a section that says, “Just as a farmer irrigates a field, and arrow smith fashions an arrow, and a carpenter shapes a piece of wood. And so the sage tames himself.” And I remember when I read that thinking that’s what Buddhism should be for me. It’s the process by which I can shape myself. I can take my own mind and find a way to live peacefully and happily. And it had nothing to do with how you need to convince others to be. It’s a very personal process. That it’s all about being the best version of you that you can be.

I once saw this little meme or little cartoon. And it shows a man who’s head is a Rubix cube and it’s all twisted out of its pattern, and he’s hiking up this tall, tall mountain. At the top of the mountain you see another stick figure sitting in meditation and his head is also a Rubix cube, but it’s all assembled in the right pattern with all of the sides have their one solid color. I thought that was really funny and I think that’s how … The intention of the Dharma is that you can take yourself and realize like the Rubix cube that with the right moves, and the right spins and twists, your own mind becomes settled and becomes organized, and becomes at peace.

And that’s what this process has been like for me. And the only reason I like to share it is because I want others to have that same kind of peace. It’s not about converting anyone to anything, because there’s nothing to covert to. There’s nothing to convert away from. Buddhism isn’t necessarily a philosophy or religion of belief. It’s a philosophy or religion that’s a way of life. And if anything, I would argue that it’s about unbelief. It’s about taking the concepts that we’ve been given since the moment we’re born, and we’re children, and we start acquiring meanings, and concepts, and labels, and beliefs. What Buddhism’s trying to do is strip us of those things and realize those can blind us from seeing life as it is.

I think in a nutshell there’s what is, and then there’s the story we create about what is. And this applies in the present, past, and future. There’s whatever happened in life, and then there’s the story that we create around what happened in life. And a lot of the suffering, pain and suffering can be found within the story we create about what ever happened. Or if we’re talking in the present there’s what is, and then there’s the story we create about what is. And a lot of our pain and suffering comes from the story we’ve created about what is. And Buddhism is trying to help us strip ourselves of the stories, the labels, the meanings, and the beliefs around what we think is. And when we can do that, then you’re only left with what is. And it’s a fascinating process to be able to do that and just train the mind to be with what is. And not be caught up in the meanings like the Dhammapada says. The sage tames himself. It’s a very introspective process. It’s a contemplative process that involves you and you only, and what you find out is you are your greatest teacher. It’s not necessarily about anything other then that.

With that, I wanted to talk about this concept of selflessness. Selflessness as explained through the Buddhist lens. Typically when we’re talking about selflessness what we think of the standard way of viewing selflessness. It’s about thinking less about yourself and more about others. It’s typically associated to be generous and kind, or to be an altruistic, it’s the opposite of being selfish. And that’s how we typically view selflessness. And I want to present this in a slightly different light. Because through the Buddhist lens I think there’s a little bit more to this concept of being selfless.

I want to start with a quote from the Tibetan poet Shantideva. He says, “Whatever joy there is in the world arises from wishing for others happiness. Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness.” And I think this still falls in line with the typical concept of selflessness and it’s opposite selfishness that we understand. But what I really want to share in this podcast episode, there’s an essay by Reverend Gyomay Kubose in his book Everyday Suchness. These are Buddhist essays on everyday living. He has an essay on selflessness. And I want to read most of it, or quote most of it because it’s a fascinating essay where he talks about this concept of selflessness. And he talks about how in our present day, in this society, we live in a very … A society that’s very engulfed in the idea of self. And I think if any of us were to look at ourselves honestly, we’ll realize it’s all about the self, right? We live in a time of self-education, self-development, self-improvement. Everything revolves around the idea of there being a self.

And what he mentions is that when we stop and think about what self is, we’ll see a whole different picture of the self. Because we’ll realize there is no self really without the other. It’s the understanding that self exists because there is other, then self is a relative thing. The real self outside of relativity, the real self exists in a selflessness state. A state of selflessness. What does that mean?

The Buddha taught that the essence of all things is selfless. And what we usually think of as the self is actually temporary and it’s an illusion. Again, in this essay Reverend Kubose says, “Most people think I is the most important thing. I believe this, I believe that, I have the right, et cetera. But I is the sum total of all other people and things.” Think about that for a minute. This is really fascinating. He goes on to say, “My body is given to me by my parents. All the food that I eat to maintain myself, my growth. The food is produced and provided by others. All the clothing that I wear to protect myself, these are the product of other people. Our shelter and our belongings, these are not of our own making. The language that I speak, I’ve learned this. This has been given to me. The way that I think, this has been learned. This has been given to us by our society, by our culture, by the specific time that we live in. Our parents, our teachers, all the other people who have taught me. All this makes me what I am. So all that I am is the sum total of others.” This is something I highlighted in the essay because I think it’s fascinating. The concept that all that I am is the sum total of others.

I think that’s very profound. Therefore there is no I that exists apart from others. I thought it was interesting as I was reading this and I was trying to process this understanding of the self in relation to others. And how we exist in relative terms. I thought, “This is just fantastic. The understanding that there is no self without other, and that real self exists in the state of selflessness, makes a lot of sense to me.” And because what this is communicating to me is the understanding of interdependence right? That we think of ourselves as something that exists as an independent thing of all others. There’s self and then there’s all other. But the reality is that everything’s interdependent. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for someone else.

There’s not one single person alive today who said, “I want to exist, I want to exist now.” Every single one of us suddenly exists because somebody else, somebody else’s actions. And that, the way that you look, the way that you think, everything about you, everything that becomes this very strong sense of self really, what does it have to do with yourself? You didn’t choose any of this. You didn’t choose to exist. You didn’t choose to look the way that you do. I didn’t choose the color of my hair. This is … I suddenly came into existence because of causes and conditions that were completely out of my control. And now here I am. And I exist. And yet, I have this tendency to associate myself with all these things that for me are so personal. But none of these things were of my choosing. This is just how I suddenly exist. We can see all things as interdependent, the idea of an independent self becomes easier to let go of. And I love the description of I as the total sum of all other people and things. I think this understanding of selflessness is really refreshing.

And it falls in line with this reoccurring theme that I come across in Buddhism, is that things are simple and profound. If you pause for a minute, I think it’s incredible to think that you are listening to this podcast, and I am recording this podcast on a technological platform that didn’t exist 50 years ago. And I am sitting in my office in a country, this country didn’t exist 250 years ago, and yet it’s an integral part of my identity. I am an American. And this is something that didn’t exist 250 years ago. I’m communicating to you in a language, English, that did not exist about 1,000 years ago. And we’re discussing topic that didn’t exist 3,000 years ago. And yet, all of these things are very important parts of how I identify myself, my sense of self. And I think that’s fascinating.

These are all parts of how I identify myself in the world. And all of this comes form sources that have nothing to do with me. I’ve inherited all of these things. I’ve inherited my genetics. I’ve inherited the way that I think. I am the sum total of all others. How fascinating is that?

The Buddha, going back to this essay, the Buddha did not consider the I, or self to be an eternal independent categorical entity. You have the Atman, or the soul in Hinduism or Christianity. He presented the concept of life as a form of continuous becoming. A form of continuously changing. Therefore, the state of I, the sense of self is always changing. And you think about this, for example in my own life, I am a father because I have children. I am a husband because I have a wife. I am a teacher because I have students. One day I will be old because I will be compared to young. What you find is that it’s all relative existence. All relative existence. And pause for a minute and think about the sense of self that you have now. The things that you identify with that are integral part of your self identity. Think about how these have changed over time, and go back and think to how you were 10 years ago, five years ago. It might be a month ago, two months ago, I don’t know. At any point in the past look at what meant the sense of self to you and look at how they are now, and see how they’ve changed. And what you’ll discover is what Reverend Kubose talks about in this essay is that is it all relative existence.

And then the essence or nature of life is actually selfless. You see, it’s only when we’re in this selflessness, this state of selflessness that we start to have real peace, we can see real beauty, and have real happiness. And it’s this sense of selflessness that is the true self. The true self is selfless, because there is no such thing as a self that’s completely independent of everything else. Because, as I’ve mentioned before in other podcasts it’s that we’re completely interdependent with everything else.

Think about the relationship between a mother and her child or maybe between a parent and their child. And what you’ll find is, and this is in my own experience with my kids. There’s this sense of self, there’s me and sometimes we have this tendency to think well, what’s most important in life is first me, and my survival and how I am, and then how I relate to everything else. This, like in the sense of self in others is ingrained in us. But then when you have kids, at least in me experience, all of a sudden it’s like there’s an extension of the self. And my kids are just as important to me, if not more, then I am to me. And I see this with my wife, the bond, the motherly bond between mother and child I think is the ultimate expression of selflessness in the sense that to her, and to me our kids are an extension of who we are. And they become the fulfillment of our life. It’s not that there’s self in other, it’s they become just as important as the sense of self is, because it’s a continuation of the self.

Imagine that way of thinking extending beyond just your kids. And you can start to see this with people who are very passionate about whatever it is that they do. And this is common I think among artists. When you think of the painter who paints, or the musician who composes, or a singer who sings. They do this not because, it’s typically not just oh, I want to go paint because this will be fun. This is a part of who they are that the action of painting, or the action of singing, or the action of performing is they do it in the state of selflessness because it’s they’ve moved beyond their self doing something. And they become one with the process. I think that’s the notion of selflessness that’s explained in this essay is that when we’re doing something with everything that we have, we become one with that process. Just like when you have love for your children, and this can happen with your partner or your spouse as well, but when that love transcends the sense of self, the sense of self grows. And it’s not just self, there’s us. There’s we. And that’s how I feel with my family. It’s well there’s me, but then there’s we, and we is more important then me. That’s that sense of selflessness. It’s no longer just the self. There’s my family, and my family to me is more important then me.

It’s an interesting and fascinating thing to experience. And it can happen with hobbies and careers too. What you do is greater then yourself. You become one with that process. That’s the sense of selflessness that I think is being conveyed in this essay. And that’s the sense of self that I think is taught typically in Buddhism.

When we put our whole self into whatever it is that we do. Into how we love, how we live, how we work, whatever it is that you do there can be a sense of selflessness. And I want to finish this with reading the final chapter in this essay on selflessness, in the book Everyday Suchness.

He says, “Flowers bloom selflessly. Wind blows selflessly. Water flows selflessly. And children are selfless in their words and acts and that’s what makes these things beautiful. The Buddha taught selflessness as one of his basic teachings and it’s our mistake and ego, selfishness the opposite that causes human troubles and suffering.” And this goes back to Shantideva’s quote. It’s, “Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness.” And I want to flip that, it’s when we think that there’s a sense of self that’s independent of other, there’s going to be suffering. But when we understand that the sense of self that we experience is actually interdependent with other, it only exists because of other, then you realize what there is is oneness. And it’s in this sense of oneness or in selflessness that we can have joy. That’s where joy and happiness arise from.

He says, “We do not realize that we are literally able to live and enjoy life only because of other people and things. And when one really understands this truth we cannot help but to become humble and to appreciate others.” And that’s, Buddhism is the way of selflessness. That’s how I view Buddhism in general. Secular Buddhism of course, the way I teach it. And specifically the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha are about selflessness. It’s about this understanding that in life, there’s the sense of self that we experience, but it’s an illusion because we don’t exist independently of other people and other things. We exist interdependent with all other people, and all other things.

And I hope you can take a minute to pause and really reflect on this. And think about the aspects of yourself that you identify with very greatly. Maybe it’s I am an entrepreneur, or I am a parent, I am a dad, I am whatever it is. Ask yourself, I am a, and then fill in the blank and see what do you identify with in a really, really strong way. And then try to break that down and realize how illusory that can be because it’s relative. This is relative existence we’re talking about. And the way that you exist now is relative. And when that really connects with you and when you understand that, all of a sudden what’s left is this strong sense of love towards other people, and other things. Because you realize wow, I’m completely interdependent with all these things.

In my own experience I always thought it was interesting the sense of pride that we get from patriotism. And a few weeks ago we were at an assembly at my son’s school and the flag was being brought into the room by the boy scouts. And there’s song playing in the background. And I thought, “How fascinating that I sense such pride for my citizenship to this country.” And this for me is a unique thing because I am citizen of two countries. I am a Mexican citizen and I am also an American citizen. I have two passports and I get that sense of allegiance to both. And I thought, “One doesn’t take away from the other.” Because I’ve had this same experience before growing up in school in Mexico. And we have an assembly and the flag’s being raised and we’re singing the National Anthem. And it’s this sense of pride for belonging and having citizenship to this country. And I felt that for both. And I thought, when I’m in the US and I feel that for being an American citizen, it doesn’t take away from what I feel as Mexican citizen. I just happen to feel it twice now.

I think the only other place where that can really be experienced is with kids. And you have your first child, and you’re like, “Wow, I thought I knew what it was like to love. But now I know what it’s like to love because I have this child and they mean everything in the world to me. And it’s not possible to love anyone more then I can love my child.” And that’s how you think it is until you have another child, and you realize oh my gosh, I love the second child just as much as I love the first child. But it didn’t take away at all from the amount of love I had for the first child. I just feel it twice. I didn’t know it could be multiplied. And then you do that with a third and I only have three, but there are people who have several kids and I assume the process just goes on and on.

I think this eludes to what the Buddha taught as love as one of the immeasurable. It’s something that can’t be measured because there is no end to it. What you think is the most you could ever love someone, you find out oh, it doesn’t end. It can actually double in the blink of an eye by having another child. It doubles and now you feel it towards two people. And Buddhism, as I mentioned before, it’s this path of selflessness. It’s taking that kindness, that love, that compassion and learning that it’s in the state of interdependence, the state of selflessness that can grow and it’s immeasurable. It’s not finite. It’s not this finite thing that I better not love you too much because I need to save enough of that love that I have for my own family, or for my own in group, my tribe so to speak. What it’s trying to convey here is that with the proper understanding, that’s where wisdom comes in. With the proper perspective, all of a sudden what we’re left with is true kindness and compassion, which is immeasurable. And this can be extended out to everyone when we truly understand interdependence.

And that’s how I wanted to talk about selflessness in this podcast. I think the understanding of what it means to live a selfless life, it’s not focusing more on others then I do on myself, it goes beyond that. It’s realizing that there is no sense of self without other. All there really can be is the sense of oneness. It’s realizing yeah, I’m experiencing life through the lens of me. But what that really means is that there’s only we. I’m experiencing life in the state of we, through the lens of me, if that makes sense. That’s what I wanted to share with you, that’s the topic of selflessness. And this has been a very meaningful thing for me in my own life. And I hope that this makes a difference for you in your life. Thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to presenting another topic to you next week. Thank you.

9 – Carrots & Sticks


In this episode, I’ll discuss how our evolutionary hardwiring causes us to chase after carrots and avoid getting hit with sticks. This constant seeking and avoiding can make it difficult to live authentic lives. We tend to focus on showing a good front and hiding any aspect of ourselves that we deem unworthy. The Japanese haiku “showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall” teaches us to be vulnerable and authentic. I hope you enjoy this episode.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the secular buddhism podcast. This is episode number nine, I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about carrots and sticks, specifically the fact that we chase carrots and we avoid sticks. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, let’s get started.

Now before we jump into the topic, this is a friendly reminder that the secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular Humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism, so if you’re new I recommend listening to the first five episode in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order. And remember, the Dalai Lama says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.”

Keep this in mind as you listen to and learn about the topics and concepts we discuss in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

Hey guys, I wanted to talk a little bit today about, well, several things. But starting out, I watch a show called brain games on National Geographic and the first episode of this season talks about the brain, the wiring of the brain and it compares the way our brain works to a city, and specifically to London. It kind of shows, as a city grows, there’s the downtown or the center of a city and then as the city grows it expands and then you add highways or bridges or there are suburbs or neighborhoods. And the idea here was that, no matter how big the city gets, the downtown is still the same. That’s the old part of the city. The buildings are generally older, the streets are laid out in a way where, that’s just how they are, they’re not gonna change.

And it talks about how our brain is very similar in the sense that as our brains have evolved, there are aspects of how our brain works that are hard wired and they’re very, very old, it’s the ancient workings of the brain. For example, the habitual or instinctual habits that we have to seek reward or to avoid punishment, this concept of chasing carrots or avoiding sticks. And it’s hard wired in us in a very old part of the brain that comes from an evolutionary standpoint, this is like the reptilian part of our brain.

That’s why, at one point in the evolution of our species, there was a time when getting the right reward, finding the right food or accomplishing the hunt, our life depended on it. And then on the flip side of that, the avoiding the stick. There was a time when, if you were to be driven from your group, from your “in” group, that meant life or death. The hard wiring that exists in our brain that is old, as old as human beings are and even older because it goes into how we were wired that way from an evolutionary standpoint before we were even human, you can start to see the remnants of that way of thinking in our day to day life.

If can be that if someone cuts you off on the road, the habitual reactivity is to treat that like a life and death thing. You’re suddenly full of rage and you’re angry, almost like you would be if someone was trying to kill you or somebody were to say something to you, if a stranger came up on the sidewalk and insulted you, wow that’s like life or death. The reactive part of our brain treats that like life and death no different than it evolved to treat certain scenarios that way, and it can activate the fight or flight mode. It’s just important to know that that’s how the brain works. By knowing that we’re hard-wired that way, very much like a city has downtown and that’s just how it is, our brain is similar. Our brain is wired in a way where there’s a part of it that still functions that way and it treats everything life or death, it treats everything like we’re chasing the carrot as if our life depends on it or we’re avoiding the stick as if our life depends on it.

And I think it’s interesting to be able to take some time and just pause and think, “What are the carrots that I chase in life? Or what are the sticks that I try to avoid in life?” And I treat these things as if my life depends on it. It can be comical to analyze these scenarios and think, “Wow, I make such a big deal about this, and really I shouldn’t,” and then to recognize, “But I can’t help it, that’s just what happens when I react.”

When we go into that reactive mode, we have a very old part of the brain that’s taking control of your emotions and your actions. And that’s why it’s, first of all, important to know that that’s how the brain works, second of all it’s important to learn how to throttle that or to control it. That’s where meditation comes in, and in past podcast episodes I’ve talked about the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exercise that gives us the ability to observe things as they arise and to simply observe them without having to react. The reactive mind would be like, monkey mind or the reptilian mind. That’s the instinctual part of us that treats everything wrongly as if it were a matter of life and death.

But we can train our mind because it’s grown, just like the city. There are new highways, there are new parts of the city where commerce works, our brain is the same. There are other parts of the brain that work pretty well that can throttle and control and say, “Hey wait a second, don’t, you don’t need to react about this.” Meditation is a form of exercising those parts of the brain so that when something does come up, rather than reacting we can pause and just observe and recognize, “Oh wow, that’s what’s happening, okay.”

And going back to the example of driving in your car, if somebody were to cut you off, the instinct is there. Immediately you’re gonna feel anger or aggression, but you can pause for a second and then smile and think, “Oh how funny, who would have ever guessed that you could get so mad because somebody cut in front of you. So what? Now I’m 10 seconds behind the schedule that I was on.” What difference does that make? If we know that that’s how the mind works we can look at that reactivity and say, “Oh, there went the reptilian mind kicking in. Okay, I’m good now, he’s fine, his cutting in front of me is not ending my life so I’m not gonna treat this like a life or death situation.”

It sounds comical to even have to talk about it that way, but notice next time you’re in that situation, or any other similar situation, how we really do treat things like life or death. If somebody were to insult you, that’s a matter of life and death. Somebody cuts in front of you, that’s a matter of life and death. I might be losing my job, that’s a matter of life and death. Everything is treated like it’s just such a big deal. Well, that’s because we’re hard-wired to think that way.

Maybe take some time and think about, “What are the carrots that I chase in life and what are the sticks that I’m avoiding in life?” When we recognize that our hard wiring is what makes us be that way, we can have more compassion towards ourselves and recognize, that’s just how we are. I don’t have to treat that like that’s wrong and say, “That’s something I need to change,” it’s just recognizing, you don’t change out, that’s like downtown in an old city, that’s just how it is. That’s how human beings are, that’s how our brain works. But we can have compassion and then in that moment, what you try to do it, you catch yourself.

This would be the analogy of the two arrows. The first one happens, you can’t control that. You’ve been struck by an arrow and you cannot do anything about it. The second one you do control, and that’s what you do with the moment that you’re struck with the arrow, what are you gonna do with that? And going back to the example of the car, somebody all of a sudden cuts you off, boom there’s the first arrow. And you might have an emotional reaction, whatever happens with the reaction of the first arrow. Now if I decide to make that personal and say, “How dare this guy cut me off? Doesn’t he know who I am?” Or anything they start to add to that story, there’s just … What happened is one thing, the story I’m gonna add to it determines if I’m gonna get that second, third, fourth or however many arrows of suffering I’m gonna compile on top of the first arrow, those are all self-inflicted.

Because there’s what happened, and yeah it made me upset and that’s it, they can end right there and you go on, or you can start to feed that and then you start getting hit with that second, third, fourth, however many arrows that are completely self-inflicted. “Now I’m mad because I’ve been personally offended,” or, “Doesn’t he know I needed to be at that meeting? Now I’m gonna be late.” And you start compiling all these new layers of suffering on top of the first one, and the first one was the one that you can’t control, it’s just what happened, it’s just everything that you add to that that you can control.

So in what other ways do we go through life reacting to the arrows that we’re stuck with, and unfortunately reacting in a way that it causes more arrows of suffering to hit us. One of the big misconceptions, I think, as people learn or study Buddhism is that the intention of Buddhism is to prevent or stop all suffering. And that’s not the case at all; Buddhism is saying suffering is universal, everyone is going to experience it and there is no way to end that. That’s because it’s part of life. When you recognize that, then what’s the point if I’m just gonna suffer?

What Buddhism is trying to teach is this concept of the multiple arrows. That first arrow you cannot help it, life is gonna throw arrows at you. In one of my earlier podcasts I talk about the concept of walking on a trail at night and somebody comes out dressed as a bear and they’re gonna scare you. If you know that’s what’s going to happen, then as soon as it happens you can recognize it. You’ll still be startled, but you’ll recognize, “Oh, okay I knew this was going to happen at some point.”

Now the aftermath of that initial scare is significantly reduced and you recover from it much quicker. Well applying this to this concept of the multiple arrows, it’s similar. You know that the first arrow’s gonna get you, you’re gonna be hit by arrows at various stages in life and you cannot do anything about it. But now you immediately know the follow-up arrow of suffering, if you’re gonna experience that, that’s on your own because of your lack of perspective and understanding what’s happening. When we personalize things, when we make meaning of things, add to the story, that’s when we start to experience the second level of suffering, the second arrow.

And for some of us it’s beyond second, it goes third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and all these layers of arrows and suffering, and all of them are self-inflicted after the first one, the first one we couldn’t help. I would invite you to think about that for a little bit and imagine in what ways do I add multiple layers of arrows after having been struck by the first arrow. Remember, the first one we can’t help, it’s the ones that come after that we can help.

When we understand the way we’re hard-wired, we start to get a glimpse into the nature of how we are. Remember that Buddha’s very first lesson, his key teaching was understanding the nature of who you are. This would be an example of understanding the nature of how we are. We’re hard-wired in a certain way. When we know that and when we can start to see that that’s how we are then we can start to work with it. This takes me to the next part of this conversation I want to have is that there is a haiku, a Japanese haiku which is a 17 syllable Japanese poem that says,

“Showing front, showing back maple leaves fall.”

And that’s it, that’s the lesson. And you might think, “Well what the heck does that mean?” Well let me tell you. The natural way of things, when a leaf has fallen from a tree, in this case it’s a maple leaf and it’s falling. Picture this in your mind; does it just fall straight? Or is it kind of drifting, showing the front, showing the back as it naturally falls? The idea here is that we should be as maple leaves, that when we fall we show front and we show back. But for us, in reality, we try to put up a front, right? And we only want to show the front and there’s no need to show what’s going on in the back.

If we were to live like maple leaves, we would understand that there is no front and there is no back, there’s just the totality of what we are, there’s nothing to hide. And in his book Everyday Suchness, [inaudible 00:14:29] talks about this and he says, “If we were able to live as the maple leaves, showing the front as front and back, and showing the front as front and back as back, there would be no falseness, no pretense, no secrets to hide; we just show ourselves to the world, we live our life.” We live a life of front and back.

I like Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, and this ties in perfectly with that concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability, she says, is about having the courage to show up and be seen. She goes on to say that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. It takes considerable courage to show up and be seen because our tendency, again, is because we’re chasing carrots and avoiding sticks, this causes us to live a life where we treat everything as if our life depends on it. Something as simple as, “I want to liked by this group, I want to make sure this group doesn’t dislike me. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and we get caught up in a way of living where it’s not vulnerable and it’s not authentic. It’s putting up fronts and hidings backs.

The Buddhist life is a life of awareness, it’s learning to be aware of how things are and specifically how we are, and an important part of that is having the courage to just be exactly how we are; showing front, showing back. In his book, [inaudible 00:16:08] talks about how what we’re concerned with in terms of living like a maple leaf is to live with no shamefulness. We just live with straightforward honesty and sincerity in life. We don’t have to be caught up in this way of thinking where it’s like, “Is this side better to show the public? Should this side of me be hidden from the public?”

The Buddhist life is a life of honesty, it’s a life of ‘there is no front and there is no back.’ A true life is a life of complete oneness and totality. We want to live life like a maple leaf, showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall. When we understand these facts of life, how we’re hard-wired, what our reactive, instinctual way of living is, then we can start to live life in a new way. A whole new way of life begins the moment that you learn what you are and what life is. And what life is is always different than what we think life is, and what we are is always different than what we think we are; that’s why I brought up the concept of the wiring of our mind. That’s part of what we are, that’s part of how we are.

Like I mentioned before, the very first teaching of the Buddha was to know yourself. He taught that the most important thing in solving your problems is to know yourself first, and that means knowing what you are. Hopefully this week you can have that in mind, the hard wiring of the brain, the downtown part of my brain is, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s what reptiles have. It’s what the donkey has that’s chasing the carrot, it’s what the donkey has that’s trying to avoid being hit by the stick. We’re no different, that part of our brain is no different.

Try to notice in what ways does that hard wiring show up in day to day life. When something pops up, how is this a stick or a carrot? And am I really, instinctually treating this as if my life depended on it? I think you’ll be surprised to find how easily we do that with everything. Being in line, getting stopped at a red light, somebody cutting in front of you, the risk of losing job or whatever it is, notice how the hard wiring part of, the natural part of you that’s hard-wired to think this way treats everything like it’s such a big deal. See if you can pause for a minute, take a break and recognize, let’s the newer part of that city, the newer more evolved part of the brain take over for a minute and just pause and not have to react.

There’s that gap between what happens and reacting, and it’s in that gap, before we react that the more evolved part of the human brain can take over and say, “Oh I don’t have to react this way, my life’s not in danger, this isn’t that big of a deal.” Try that this week and see, see if that’s something that you can work with, see if it’s something that you can notice and I think you might find, on certain occasions, how comical it can be to have instantly been carried into this place where we were reacting in a way as if our life was in danger.

And then you can look objectively back at what it is that happened and realize, “Wow, that’s incredible that something that minor and insignificant was causing me so much stress or so much anxiety, because my poor, reptilian mind was thinking that my life was in danger.” And then have that compassion for yourself, knowing this is how we are. This is part of being human, this is part of the evolutionary process of being human, and you can have compassion for the downtown part of your brain, the reptilian part of the mind and then try to extend that compassion out. When you do something, next time you accidentally cut someone off and then that person immediately pulls up next to you and flip you the bird you don’t have to react, you can know where they were coming from and smile and say, “Wow, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to activate the reptilian part of your mind that made you think your life was in danger, and I’m not gonna escalate that because I know, I probably would have done the same thing.”

It’s a really powerful thing to be able to know, even a tiny aspect like this of how we are and what makes us do the things that we do, and then you can have compassion for yourself and extend that compassion to others, because now a little bit … You have a little bit more of an understanding of the hard wiring of the brain and have compassion for the reptilian part of our mind, the reptilian part of the brain, the downtown part of the city. Those are the thoughts I wanted to share with you guys in this podcast episode. I hope you enjoyed that and I love catching myself activating the fight or flight mode in my own head for silly things and then realizing, “Oh wow, that’s just what we do,” and trying to pause in that gap between what happens and the reaction to what happens.

The whole key is finding a gap in between the two that allows you to stop and pause and then actively decide, rather than just reacting. It’s when we react that we get ourself in trouble, because that’s the older part of the brain that reacts. If you can catch yourself before the reaction, the majority of the time you’re going to be able to react in a way that’s significantly more helpful than allowing the other part of the mind to just react and be instinctual.

And I promise you, for the vast majority of these things, if not all of them, your life really isn’t in danger, it’s not a matter of life and death even though it can feel that way. Thank you guys, and I will catch up again next week with another podcast episode, thank you.

8 – Buddhist Terminology & Symbols

In this episode, I will explore the typical problems that people encounter when first learning or hearing about Buddhist terminology and symbols. Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than individual soul. But for many secular minded people, the terminology and the symbols encountered when learning about Buddhism can still be misunderstood. This episode aims at clarifying the meaning behind the terminology and the symbols that are so common in Buddhism. The book I reference in this podcast is called “American Buddhism” by Gyomay M. Kubose

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode eight. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about misunderstanding terminology and symbols within Buddhism. Let’s get started. Hey guys, welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This podcast is produced every week and covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts. If you’re new to the podcast, I recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Before starting again, the Dalai Lama says do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. If you enjoy this podcast, feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating. Let’s jump into this week’s topic. Hey guys, I want to talk to you today a little bit about Buddhist terminology and Buddhist symbols. Back in 1986, there was a book that was published and a pamphlet by a Japanese Buddhist named Gyomay Kubose. He talks about the idea of American Buddhism because Buddhism was finally spreading in the West and there was a lot of misunderstandings among Westerners about some of the standard Buddhist terminology and Buddhist symbols. I wanted to clarify a couple of the things that he talks about in his book, “American Buddhism,” and in his pamphlet, called “Buddhism: The Path of Enlightenment,” because these are completely relevant to the secular Buddhism approach that I like to teach.

He talks about Buddhism as a way of life. I’ve talked about this before whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a psychology or a philosophy, and in reality the answer’s yes to all of those things. From the approach, the secular Buddhist approach, and I want to clarify that. I’ll probably do a podcast specifically about secular Buddhism versus Buddhism, but the reality is that there isn’t a secular Buddhism that’s different from Buddhism. There’s just Buddhism. The various schools of thought for Buddhism, like Zen or the Jodo Shin, or in this case, secular Buddhism, they’re just schools of thought to understand specific ways of interpreting the teachings of Buddhism, but there’s really just Buddhism. They don’t compete with each other. Secular Buddhism isn’t an approach that says, “Hey, Zen Buddhism is wrong,” or “Hey, Tibetan Buddhism has too much of this or not enough of that.” It doesn’t really work that way.

Buddhism teaches one thing. The understanding of suffering in life. I like the way … I really like the way that Gyomay Kubose talks about the concept of the Four Noble Truths, because the way he describes it, he says, “Difficulties are facts of life, which cause emotions to arise. Emotions can be wisely harnessed and that’s what leads to the eightfold path.” His way of talking about the Four Noble Truths is essentially understanding that difficulties are facts of life. Buddhism revolves around this concept that in life there are difficulties and then there are things we can do to diminish or eliminate those difficulties. At least the self-induced difficulties. That’s it. That’s pretty universal across all schools of Buddhism. Then the approach I like to say is if you have a secular understanding or a secular-minded approach to life, then yeah, secular Buddhism’s going to work for you, but I would never say the secular Buddhist approach is the right approach. Don’t talk to the Tibetan Buddhist or don’t talk to the Zen Buddhist or don’t look at Jodo Shin.

In fact, I would encourage you if you have a more devotional aspect and you like ritual, then I would say, “Look at the Jodo Shin school of Buddhism. That might be appealing to you.” I would never … I don’t think any true Buddhist would ever want to pull someone to their way of interpreting it and say this other way is not valid. Having that in mind, talking about the secular Buddhist approach that I think resonates really well with the American Buddhism that Gyomay Kubose talks about, there are aspects here that I really like. He mentions something that really resonated with me just as a starter to this entire approach. He says, “Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than an individual soul.” Buddhism emphasizes the Buddha as a teacher, not deity. Furthermore, heaven and hell, these are just states of like that are created by us here and now. These aren’t places that one goes after death.

Having that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about the terminology and the symbols. I think when Westerners and especially secular-minded Westerners are first learning about Buddhism, it’s common to encounter symbology, for example, and say, “What does this mean?” Then there’s an aversion to any symbolism because we tend to think it means things. We give things meaning beyond what they really are. I want to explain the actual Buddhist understanding of some of these symbols or some of these symbols because it’ll help to clarify a lot of the misunderstandings around these things. Let’s start with a couple of the symbols. Statues of the Buddha that are seen in Buddhist temples. These aren’t idols that are to be worshiped. They’re just symbols of enlightenment. They usually represent specific ideals, like wisdom or compassion. Another common one incense and really it’s just a symbol of showing the transcending of ego to become one with all of life. Flowers symbolize impermanence because they’re there and then they whither away.

All things are in constant change and they need to be appreciated in the eternal now. Candles also symbolize wisdom and impermanence because the candle, the light of the candle enables us to understand truth through direct experience. If you’ve ever seen Buddhists with their hands together, this is called gassho in the Japanese schools, but the hands come together to symbolize unity between oneself and all of life. It’s a gesture of respect and deep gratitude and symbolizing the understanding of interdependence. That we’re not just individuals disconnected between all things. Beads. Buddhist beads are used to enhance rituals, and the beads are not prayer beads because there’s not really prayer in the way that Westerners typically understand prayer in Buddhism, but they’re symbols of unity and harmony. For example, you could look at the beads and understand one bead only by itself doesn’t make up a bracelet or a necklace, but combined with all the other beads, it becomes part of a whole that’s greater than the self. Again, it’s just symbolic.

The lotus flower is a common symbol in Buddhism and in many teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how no mud no lotus. The idea here is that the lotus emerges from within a murky pond and in the mud to become this beautiful flower, and it’s symbolic that we are the same, despite the murky or muddy waters that could represent how we live. The circumstances in which we live. The lotus can remain pure and beautiful despite that. I like that teaching, no mud no lotus. The idea of sin, it’s not a Buddhist concept. The Buddhist concept here is understanding that anger, greed, and ignorance can be overcome through wisdom. Those are some of the basics, and the reason all this is important is because as Kubose mentions in his book, he says, “The only real value of Buddhism for the individual is determined by how one understands and lives it.” I wanted to talk a little bit about the understanding of Buddhism.

For a typical Buddhist, Buddhism can be a religion as well as a philosophy, as a psychology, ethics, a form of art. It can be one of those or all of those, or none of those, but essentially, it’s what makes a person feel free and brings joy, harmony, and creativity into their life. For me specifically, I really enjoy seeing Buddhism as a way of life. As a secular-minded person, the idea of religion can be off-putting because then it carries these connotations of things that are supposed to be believed or understood, and in the Buddhist understanding of things, there really is nothing to believe. There are only things to observe, but the terminology has been hijacked over years of other religious groups and a lot of these words carry so many connotations. I want to talk a little bit about some of those terms. Some of the terminology.

Something that really helped me when my teacher talked to me about the concept of symbols, and he mentioned the American flag, and this should resonate for most of you, but just imagine the flag of your specific country. He talks about how the flag’s composed of stars and stripes, and this stands as a symbol of the nation. We’re taught to honor it, and we don’t have to have the flag in order to be fine and strong and an outstanding country, yet countries have flags because it’s a way to bring people together under the symbol of one thing. In Buddhism, it’s very similar. There are different kinds of symbols, like statues and flowers and beads, but they don’t inherently mean anything. It’s nothing. It’s just a thing.

Looking at things as symbols, what do the symbols mean? They can mean different things for different people, and they certainly mean different things for different schools, but that’s how they’re to be viewed, as simple symbols, like just you would view the flag. There’s honor and respect for your flag, but you don’t worship the flag and you don’t … you can understand that there’s no inherent meaning behind it other than what it symbolizes. That’s how these things are to be viewed. Let’s talk a little bit about the terminology now. Some of the problems with the terminology, it’s important to note that Buddhists think that all things are evolved rather than created. They’re not created by someone. Everything has its causes and conditions. I talked about this in a previous podcast episode. There’s no single primal, original cause. Instead there’s whatever exists is the result of many causes, and this goes on and on and on, all the way back to the Big Bang and then whatever caused the Big Bang. Science is what the tool that allows us to continue adding to that story, but for now, that’s as far as we can go.

Therefore, everything just has its causes and conditions. Since things are evolved through natural processes, they just are. They have nothing to do with good or bad as far as an inherent goodness or an inherent badness. Things just are. This is a reoccurring teaching of Buddhism is to see things just as they are. Buddhists use the word ignorance instead of sin because ignorance is the cause of all the troubles that we have in life. I think that’s an important distinction because again, the word “sin” carries a lot of connotations for our society and our culture that’s very religious in its background. Ignorance would be the appropriate word, and if you ever hear the word “sin” in any Buddhist text or in any Buddhist context, what’s implied there is ignorance, not an inherent evil or an inherent good or bad thing. It’s ignorance.

Then we have enlightenment, which is the opposite of ignorance. Man is freed, mankind is freed or saved only through enlightenment or awakening. The concept here, again, it’s not like the Christian understanding of salvation. The Buddhist concept, rather than salvation, is freedom or liberation, and it’s freedom from ignorance. That is called awakening or enlightenment. To become awakened from the ignorance or from, yeah, from the ignorance of misunderstanding. No one can actually enlighten another or awaken another. The whole thing that we strive for in Buddhism is to become awakened or enlightened oneself, and that’s by walking the path or the way. The teachings of Buddhism are taught in a way to help somebody understand that you are your own prison guard. You can free yourself from your own prison and awaken to the fact that you are your greatest teacher. You can’t awaken someone else. There’s nothing that I can say to you that causes that. At most I could teach you that through meditation and through introspection and through a contemplative practice, you can come to understand that you are awakened.

That’s that concept. Furthermore, Kubose talks about how we become free and peaceful only through enlightenment or through awakening. Awakening is the opposite of ignorance and it’s the very purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. All Buddhist teachings have the purpose of awakening us to become free. I often talk about this in the classes that I teach, that the purpose of Buddhism isn’t to obtain happiness. It’s to obtain freedom. Yet freedom is the only condition required to have happiness. Another concept here is life. Life never dies. It’s like electricity. It’s something that’s there and it’s everywhere, and electricity flows through things, and you can look at the example of a light bulb. There’s electricity and then there are light bulbs, and the light bulbs turn on or exist because of the electricity. This is compared to life. We are like the light bulbs. The concept here is that there’s life, but nobody owns his or her life because nobody created themselves. Life is always manifested through individuals, and any differences between the life of various individuals has to do with just the makeup of the individuals.

This would apply to anything that’s living, any form of sentient being is the same thing in terms that it’s life. All of us may be different according to our physical, mental, emotional natures, and the nature of our culture, social, and family environments, but aside from that, we’re all the exact same thing. We are life. The concepts of heaven and hell in Buddhism, these are the contents of life right here on Earth. Rather than viewing these as places to which one goes after death, we make life heavenly or hellish all by ourselves, and we’re creating our own heaven and hell in the present moment. In some Buddhist texts, you’ll hear references to heaven or to hell, but this is the understanding of heaven and hell through the Buddhist lens. That’s how it should be viewed, not as actual states that one goes to.

Now I want to talk really quickly about the concept of prayer because the word prayer is used in Buddhism, but again, it’s not the same as what’s understood by the typical Western way of thinking what prayer is. There is no prayer so to speak in Buddhism because there’s no one to whom to pray to. We use the word meditation instead of prayer. There’s no form of praying to either Buddha or to a God because nothing can prevent the law of cause and effect. As soon as there is a cause, there will be an effect. We’re responsible for our own things. Meditation is what makes a person more serene and more quiet, and it’s that serenity and quietude that makes a person see things more clearly, and enables one to see things just as they are. Meditation is the word that replaces prayer, but if you ever hear the word prayer in the Buddhist context, what it’s really referring to is the meditation.

The word worship is also inappropriate in Buddhism because it connotes a prayer or a service or some form of rite showing reverence for a deity. In this sense, again, there’s no worship in Buddhism because there is no deity. The Buddha is not a deity, he’s a teacher. The understanding of worship doesn’t really apply. Even the word service isn’t quite suitable for Buddhist groups. A word that’s more common, Kubose mentions in his book, is the understanding or the word gathering. Gathering is better, I like that because people do gather, and they gather to meditate and we gather to study. To seek wisdom and to express compassion. People can gather around a teacher and listen to teachings, but the teacher doesn’t necessarily preach. It’s just a discussion and pointing out mistakes or misunderstandings in life or in perspective, or based on experiences and truths according to what that teacher has learned.

The word preach has this connotation of giving somebody something, like a set of instructions. Preacher, sermon, these things, again, don’t really apply in the Buddhist understanding. There may be an address or a discussion or a lecture or a discourse, but it’s not really a sermon or a preaching. It’s not the same. Buddhism really focuses on trying to stay away from anything that’s dualistic. Anything that divides man and God or us and them, created and creator, body and soul, life and death. Buddhism tries to stay away from anything that’s dualistic in nature because Buddhism understands that everything exists in one miss and in totality. There is no life without death. There is no death without life. It’s important to understand that in Buddhism, Buddhism is a way of life, while other religions may be focused on a specific set of beliefs or in a specific way of living that’s based on faith or beliefs.

Now one thing I want to end with, the concept of the Four Noble Truths, which are found in every major Buddhist tradition, and I’ve talked about this in a specific podcast episode early on in the podcast series, but I love the way that Gyomay Kubose talks about the Four Noble Truths in his book, “American Buddhism.” The way he states it is again, the Four Noble Truths state the universality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the overcoming of suffering and the ways in which suffering can be overcome. It’s very simple when it’s explained. The word suffering sometimes has this negative connotation, and people will hear it and they’ll say, “What do you mean suffering? I’ve never suffered. I don’t have any suffering. None of this Buddhist stuff doesn’t make sense to me or I don’t like it because it’s just pessimistic and negative. What do you mean suffering?” The way he words this in some of his other teachings I think makes a lot more sense. The way he words it, he says that in life, difficulties arise.

That’s something that I think can be understood by anyone because it doesn’t carry the connotation of the word suffering. Suffering is just the best word that comes closest, some people would disagree, but it’s the word that comes closest to the concept of the word “dukkha,” which is the way it’s taught in the original language that it’s taught. Some people may not like the word suffering, and they’ll say, “What? I’ve never suffered. I don’t like this concept of suffering.” Another way to reframe that would just be to understand that in life difficulties arise, and I think everybody would recognize that yeah, there are absolutely going to be difficulties in life. Of the difficulties in life, some of them arise naturally because we can’t do anything about it, and others arise out of our own fault. This is the area where Buddhism really focuses on. It’s the self-inflicted suffering.

In some teachings, this is called the two darts or the two arrows. The concept is if you’re struck with an arrow once, you can’t do anything about it. That’s just what happened. The second arrow that strikes in that spot, you’re going to experience suffering that was unnecessary. An example of this is somebody cuts you off when you’re driving. Your first instinct may be anger that may be habitual. It’s reactivity. That’s the first arrow. Then you experience it and then you can observe it for what it is, and then you can act on it. The moment that you feel that anger and now you start the second arrow, you’re thinking, “That idiot cut me off because,” and you’re playing up a story. Whatever that story is creates this second layer of suffering that’s completely unnecessary. We hold on to the anger because we personalize the action. That could be really dangerous, and we do this with everything.

Something as simple as being cut off while driving I think everyone’s experienced that, but it doesn’t even have to be. It could be you come home and the way that your spouse says something or alludes to the fact that you haven’t done the dishes or taken out the trash, that’s the first arrow, where you’re like, “Dang it.” Then the second arrow would be you start playing up the story around it and you personalize this, or you start remembering feelings of being rejected in your youth, and now because for this brief moment you felt rejected, now you’re experiencing the second layer of suffering because you’re adding on to the story. Buddhism’s trying to resolve this second layer of suffering. The second layer of pain that we experience. Not necessarily the first one. This is something I think I’m going to address separately in a podcast that goes in depth with that teaching of the two arrows or the two darts.

Today, I just wanted to bring that up because I do think it’s important to understand that the word suffering may not resonate with some people. May not resonate with you listening to this, but the word difficulties I think does make sense, and we can all acknowledge and recognize that in life, difficulties arise. Buddhism is all about looking at those difficulties, why did they arise, and what kind of suffering or emotions do we experience because of those difficulties? Then how do we minimize or eliminate those, the reactivity? Again, I wanted to bring all this up because I think for several listeners, Buddhism is a new concept. Listening to a podcast like this one where it’s presented in a very secular frame, what can happen is you’ll say, “This is really interesting. I like this. I like the way it’s explained,” and you go buy a book to learn more about Buddhism, and then in that book you’re starting to encounter terms like salvation or truth or sin. Then it’s a big turnoff again because “I don’t like those terms.” That’s what happened to me as I started studying Buddhism.

Then it all made sense when I understood the context behind the terms. The authors will pick words that make the most sense, but they’re not the words that make the most sense in terms of meaning sometimes because those words already carry a lot of meaning for our society. The word sin has all these connotations, especially if you come from a religious background. Same with the word salvation. Same with the symbols in general. Flowers and candles and incense, and it’s what is all this? I try to explain it again through the secular lens to make it more simple to understand, and at the same time I want to clarify that when the terminology is encountered or when the symbols are encountered, they don’t need to be rejected immediately because take a look at why does that symbol bother me or why does that word bother me? You’ll find that it’s because we have meaning attached to the word, whether it be the definition or a cultural or societal view of that word, connotation that we don’t enjoy.

I just want to be very clear that these words don’t carry those meanings in the Asian or Eastern culture where Buddhism comes from because the concept of sin has never existed there the way that Westerners and Judeo-Christian societies think of the word sin. Same with salvation. When you encounter these words, just recognize again the meaning behind what’s being implied in the description, and think of the terminology that I’ve explained in this podcast. It’ll make it all make more sense. The last thing I want to close with again is this concept in Kubose’s book, where he mentions how Buddhism emphasizes truth rather than God, meditation rather than prayer, enlightenment rather than salvation, and universal life rather than individual soul. I hope that this explanation clarifies a few things for you.

If you have any other questions about terminology or symbols used in Buddhism, reach out to me. I can be reached by email, [email protected], or you can communicate on our Facebook page. We also have a Facebook group, a secular Buddhism group on Facebook. Just reach out. Just ask questions because if there’s something that doesn’t make sense, it’s possible that there’s a misunderstanding attached to it, and that can be explained and clarified, and discussed. Again, the intention here isn’t to convert anything to anyone. I think if anything, Buddhism is trying to not add anything new to how you view the world. It’s trying to help you understand that it’s the layers of how you’re viewing the world that need to be stripped away before you can see things as they really are. That’s my goal with presenting these concepts and the terminology and the symbols of Buddhism because these things, when they have meaning and stories attached to them, because that’s what we do. That’s our nature, because of our society and our backgrounds, then it’s hard to understand what really is. What really is is very different than what we make of it sometimes.

Please reach out if you have any questions and I look forward to sharing more in a future podcast. Thank you guys.