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, Noah@SecularBuddhism.com, 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.