Buddhism

47 – Buddhism and Christianity

I’m often asked whether or not Buddhism and Christianity are compatible. Can you be a Christian and a Buddhist? In this podcast episode, I will address some of the main differences between these two spiritual paths and I will highlight some of the key differences in the Buddhist path that allow it to be so compatible with other traditions.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 47. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Buddhism and Christianity. In this podcast episode, I want to talk a bit about Buddhism and Christianity with regards to similarities and differences. When I teach workshops about Buddhism, it’s almost inevitable that someone will come up to me after and ask me about what the major differences or similarities are between these two traditions.

This is a question that really can’t be answered accurately in that setting or in that moment because there are a lot of things to address. So I’ve decided to address this question in this specific podcast episode. I hope this will to clarify a few things. This is a topic I’m excited to address because I, myself, live in a community that’s very Christian, and with a family dynamic where we have a mixed-faith marriage and a mix-faith family. So this is a dynamic that I think is important to understand, for anyone interested in following the Buddhist path, or the contemplative path, to understand how that works, in comparison with Christianity.

Before I jump into that I do want to clarify three important things, three notes or clarifications about this topic. The first one is, this not a presentation about which tradition is right, or which one is better, because remember the quote I share all the time by the Dalai Lama, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is especially relevant in this podcast episode. We’re talking about paths, and in what ways are these paths similar or perhaps different, but we’re not saying which path is right, which one is better, which one will get you there faster. It doesn’t work that way and I’ll explain that as I address these things.

The second note is regarding apples and pears. In many ways, this topic is like a comparison of apples and pears. They’re both fruit, but they’re not the same thing. And to further complicate it, there’s not one single app. There’s not one single pear. For apples, you have Gala apples and Fiji, and Honeycrisp, and some are red, some are green. You’ve got Granny Smith apples, etc. it’s the same with pears. You’ve got the Anjou pear, the Bartlett pear, the Concorde pear, different kinds of pears.

And likewise, there’s not one Christianity, and there’s not one Buddhism. So I’m not too concerned with trying to address any specific doctrinal differences, or similarities, because you’re already gonna have that just in between the various forms of the same overarching topic. So just within Christianity, just like you have the Gala apple, the Fiji apple, the Honeycrisp apple, you’re gonna have these differences of Mormonism versus Catholicism, versus Protestant. You’re gonna have that already, and this happens on the Buddhism side as well, with the various forms or schools of Buddhism.

In a general, overall sense, I will address some of the differences that I think makes sense to be discussed. The third note here, that I’m not an authority on Buddhism or on Christianity. I certainly have a background with both, my background with Christianity as Mormonism, and Catholicism. I attended middle school and high school private Catholic schools where religion classes were mandatory. I attended Mass often, as it was required. Half of my family, one side of the family is Catholic. And the other side is a mix of a lot of things. But my family converted to Mormonism when I was young. I was about three years old.

I grew up attending the LDS church and attended what we call seminary, which is a four-year religious program. And then served a full-time two-year religious mission in Ecuador, preaching and sharing the Mormon message. After that, I attended weekly institute of religion courses in college for another three years, until I got married. On the Buddhist side, I started studying Buddhism on my own about seven years ago. One of the first encounters I had with Buddhism was [inaudible 00:04:49] series by Jay Garfield, called the Meaning of Life: Perspective From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions.

It offered a wide exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions, from both East and West, have contributed to that big question of, what is the meaning of life. The Buddhism answer to that question was turned around and said, “Well who wants to know?” And that really fascinated me. That was one of my first experiences with Buddhism. The answer wasn’t about the answer, it was about looking at the question. At that point, I was hooked, and started learning more about the specific tradition on my own. I devoured dozens of books in order to understand everything I could about Buddhism philosophy.

Eventually decided to take my studies a step further. I enrolled in a two-year Buddhist ministry program. Graduated from that earlier this year. With that, I feel I have a suitable understanding of the topic, and yet I do want to be very clear that I do not officially represent any specific tradition. My experience with these topics comes from years of practicing on both of these paths, while I feel that my understanding is experiential in nature, these are simply my opinions, and they may differ from what others will say about this topic.

I’m gonna focus mostly on explaining the Buddhism perspective, as that is the tradition that I currently teach and practice. Having said that, let’s just into this topic. You can say that an apple and a pear, while being very different, they’re still both the same thing, they’re a fruit. That’s about the similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that I see, is that they’re both a spiritual path. But as far as types of paths, as far as spiritual paths go, there are some differences.

The first one is thinking about this in terms of questions and answers. This is what I alluded to a second ago with my original encounter with Buddhism. One path focuses more on the answers. I think many spiritual paths focus more on the answers, while Buddhism is a path that focuses on the question. So that makes it so that these are not paths that are fundamentally opposed. When you have two paths that are focused on answers, then you have conflict, if the answers aren’t the same. If this path says, “The meaning of life is A,” and the other path says, “The meaning of life is B,” those are two answers. So the answers may be conflicting. And if they are, then you have to address that.

Buddhism doesn’t necessarily conflict with Christianity on this point, because Buddhism doesn’t have an answer for a lot of the existential questions. They’re irrelevant. So in my opinion, both traditions can work hand-in-hand when it comes to this, because of that very reason that one focuses more on the question, and the other one focuses more on the answer. Applying that in my own experience, in my own life, it hasn’t necessarily been a big issue with interacting with family members, in my immediate family, or members of the community, with regards to these two traditions, because my approach doesn’t necessarily threaten their answer. If they have an answer, I don’t have an answer that conflicts or counters it, that says, “Wait. No. This is the right answer.”

The Buddhist approach allows me to just be introspective and say with the question, “Is there a God?”

“Who wants to know?” That’s the part I’m concerned with. Who wants to know, and why do I even feel the need to know the answer to that question? That’s where I’ll stay. That’s where Buddhism typically hovers on that side of the question, and it doesn’t get to the other side where the answer is, where you’re gonna have conflict if the answers are different. Again, that’s in my experience. That leads us to the second way that these paths are kind of different, is the type of path.

A path, typically, the point of a path is to get from point A to point B, that’s why you’re on the path. Spiritual traditions are similar, typical spiritual journey is about getting from point A to point B. A, maybe you’re in the world and you’re trying to get to heaven, that’s point B. Arriving at heaven or paradise, or some place similar. You could say that the goal is to arrive at a specific place, and that’s why the path is there, the path is the tradition.

From the Buddhist perspective it’s also about getting from point A to point B. We refer to point A being a place of suffering, and point B, being a place where there is no suffering. We would say Samsara and Nirvana. Nirvana is that place where you want to go, where you no longer experience suffering.

However, these are not physical places, these are mental states. They exist in the here and now, therefore it makes it so that the path itself is the goal. Because if these are mental states, we realize that if we’re at point A, and we want to be at point B, what we have is this situation where we want life to be other than it is. I’m here, and I don’t want to be here, I want to be there, some experience suffering.

What we practice in Buddhism is this form of acceptance. You could say, radical acceptance, Tara Brach calls this radical acceptance. What if I was okay with being where I am? This is where I am, and I’m okay with that. I no longer feel this need to arrive at point B. This is one of the great Buddhism paradoxes, is that paradox [inaudible 00:10:52] the very moment of acceptance, I no longer want life to be other than it is. I accept that this is how it is, this is where I am. In that moment, I arrive at the very place that I wanted to be that originally, but I get there because I no longer want to get there. That’s the paradox of Buddhism.

With that, these paths, they’re not conflicting, because if the point on the Christian path is to get from point A to point B, and the point of the path on the Buddhist path is to learn to find joy and contentment with wherever you are on the path, then there’s no conflict.

Again, because the approach is just different. Again, that’s in my opinion, that’s been my experience with understanding these two traditions. So another overall topic in which they differ is that one tends to be an internal process, and the other tends to be an external process.

For example, Christianity is a theistic tradition. There is an external source, a deity, that’s at the helm of everything. From the Buddhist perspective, it’s a non-theistic tradition, because it’s internal, the force that we’re contending with is internal. It’s our own mind. The essence of what Buddhism teaches is that, instead of running away from suffering and from discomfort, we can learn to face it. We can look deeply into the nature of our own suffering, and begin to recognize its cause.

Suffering arises, any time we want life to be other than it is. The scale and the intensity may vary according to the situation, for example, the loss of a loved one, versus being stuck at a red light when you’re late for work. Those are very different situations, but at its core, we have a resistance to accepting that moment the way that it is. That’s what causes us to suffer.

The overall feeling in any circumstance where we experience suffering is gonna be similar. We experience discomfort with the reality that we’re faced with, and we suffer because that reality does not conform to the desired or expected reality that we’ve projected in our minds. So a proper recognition of the causes of our suffering will allow us to understand that there is indeed a path that allows us to transform our suffering. This process is introspective in nature, like I mentioned.

I can learn to look inward at my own mind, my ideas, my beliefs, my opinions, my concepts, that I hold about reality. And I’ll discover that I am the key to it all. This is another big difference with the two traditions. It’s not the there’s an external source, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s an internal source. It’s my own mind. It can be my best friend, but it can also be my worst enemy.

You’ve probably heard that parable of the two wolves that we all have inside of us. One represents things like kindness and bravery, and love. The other one represents negative things like hatred, and greed. The Buddhist spoke about suffering in a similar way. The idea is that the things that we feed will grow, while the things that we don’t feed will die.

We have the tendency to look for happiness, peace, contentment, as if these were the things outside ourselves. We think once I have this, or once I finally get that, or if I get the raise at work, if I can convince my spouse to be more like me, to think like me, or if my family finally accepts me. Whatever it is, whatever external circumstance it is that we’re trying to change, we experience suffering because we’re wanting life to be other than it is.

What if we could practice acceptance? What if we could accept the moment just as it is? Accept ourselves just as we are, and start to do away with the duality of who I am, and who I think I should be, or flipping this towards others. Imagine extending that to someone else, allowing someone to just be who they are, rather than who I think they should be, who we think they should be.

I want to clarify that acceptance in this sense is not the same thing as resignation. This is not resigning to the fact that, “Oh life is this way, and oh well. I can’t do anything about it.” No, what we’re accepting is that this is what is, and I realize there’s a lot I can do with that. The moment I realize this is what it is, I can learn to work with reality, instead of against it.

I can minimize the suffering that I, and others, experience on this journey, because I’m working with the reality the way that it is. That’s one of the differences again, of the two traditions. One focuses on an external source of goodness, there’s good an evil, viewed as embodied in these symbols of God on one side, and the devil on the other. But these are external.

From the Buddhist perspective it’s all internal. It’s like the analogy of the wolves, right? They’re both inside of you. That’s another difference. In one of his final teachings the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” He taught that our greatest teacher, and a monk actually asked him. He said, “Buddha what if we meet you on the path?” And the Buddha replied, “Well don’t accept anyone you meet on the path towards liberation, even if you meet me.”

The essence of the spiritual journey from a Buddhist perspective is to realize that you are it. You are your greatest teacher. You are also your worst enemy. In fact in the Dhammapada, we read that whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, an Ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.”

This verse is saying that it’s our own mind that can do us worst harm for us than even an enemy, an external enemy. This is saying the internal enemy is far more dangerous than the external enemy. While one path may focus a bit more on the external approach, and the other one focuses on the internal approach, again I don’t see that as being an area where they necessarily conflict, because they’re just different approaches. It’s like apples and pears, or apples and oranges. They’re just entirely different approaches to the spiritual path.

I hope that you can find in yourselves, the ability to practice compassion and acceptance for who you are, for who others are, and for where you are, where others are on their individual paths. Rather than thinking, “Hey this path is working for me. You should also be on that path,” we should recognize that if the path is the goal, then there’s really no wrong place to be on that path. There’s no wrong path to be on either.

Wherever you go, there you are. You’re on the path. You can find that peace, joy, and contentment on your path, and I hope that we can learn to see the uniqueness of every step we take along the way, of whatever path it is that we’re on, whatever unique path.

Often times someone will say to me, “Well isn’t it fair to at least recognize that one path maybe better than the other, or more suitable to the other?” I would say, yes, the answer to that is yes, but it’s circumstantial. Think of a normal path, an actual path in the forest. There may be a paved path, and there may be a path that’s rocky and it’s pretty steep. Now, you could say, “Well is one path easier to walk than the other?” Maybe, yeah. Is one path easier to roller blade than the other? Sure.

I may be on the path that’s rocky and steep, and find that it’s working better for me because it’s gonna get me to my desired destination faster, but I’m wearing hiking boots, and I’ve got a pole, and I’ve got a backpack, and I’m ready for this off road trail. And you’re standing there next to me in flip-flops and you’re saying, “Hey is that the right path for me?” It may be a matter of saying, “No, with how you are right now, this is not the right path for you. Stay on that path. Stay on the pavement.”

I think it becomes really healthy for us when we start to look at these traditions, these paths within these traditions, and recognize that, that I’m on the path that seems to be working for me. How do I know that? I think it’s pretty easy. If you are on a path that brings you joy, and contentment, and peace, then you’re on a good path. There’s no need to change it.

Now, the moment you realize you’re not experiencing these things, you’re experiencing anguish, or discomfort, or it’s just not working for you, then why not just pause and say, “Well maybe this isn’t the right path for me. Maybe I should be on, maybe I should try another path, see if this is easier, better for me.”

That’s how I like to view that. These traditions can support each other, they can influence each other. It’s sad to me when I encounter people from either one of the traditions saying, “You can’t make these work together. They’re fundamentally opposed.” I get where that’s coming from, because on some levels it does seem like there are views that are incompatible with each other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when you understand that you can’t compare them side-by-side in that way.

In the same way that, again, using the fruit analogy, it’s not really fair to compare an apple and an orange, it’s just not, because they’re not the same thing. That’s what we face with this, in my opinion. Now I mentioned before, many of us live in communities where we don’t necessarily share the same beliefs. I am in a mixed faith family, a mixed faith marriage. I know what it’s like firsthand, to be walking a path, while simultaneously making it work with someone else who’s walking on another path.

I know that it can work, because it’s working for us. I see it working for a lot of people who are on different paths. An important part of it is recognizing that all paths are valid. Now, i get that I can be on a path, someone else might be on another path, and that path does not validate my path. I get that. But it shouldn’t bother me to know that they don’t think I’m on the right path.

It’s like, “Okay, well then you don’t think I’m on the right path.” Why would that disrupt the peace and contentment and joy that I have on my own path? If I truly view my path as unique, and everyone’s path is unique, then it shouldn’t bother me that someone else is gonna look and say, “Hey you’re on the wrong path.” Because of course, they’re gonna think that. If they’re on a path that indicates that there’s only one path, then of course they’re going to think you’re on the wrong path. But why should that be problematic? Why should it be problematic for you, whatever path you’re on?

Now it may be problematic for them because by the very fact of thinking that they’re on the right on and you’re on the wrong one, they’re the ones experiencing suffering, because they think, “Oh no. This person I care for is on the wrong path.” But that’s them. You are on your path, and you can find that contentment and joy with knowing that this is the path that’s working for you, even if others don’t approve it, or understand, or validate it.

That’s a whole different topic I think, that I don’t really want to go into in this specific podcast episode, but it’s something worth looking at if you’re experiencing that thinking, “Why do I feel that I can’t be validated on my path, until someone else validates me?” That’s something worth looking at, because what you’ll find within introspection, again, this is looking at the question. It’s not about the answer, it’s looking at the question. Why do I need you to validate me, for me to feel comfortable on my path?

Look at that. Explore that in yourself, and you may find that that also becomes irrelevant. So again, these traditions can support each other. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone who’s on one path, who uses elements of another path to benefit them on whatever path they’re on. Looking for the good that other paths have, using the ideas and concepts that others have, as tools to help us alleviate the suffering in ourselves and others on our own path, I think is a noble thing. That’s something that we can do when we start to view our own path as our own path.

It’s one thing to think I’m on the right path, but it’s another one to think that mine is the only right path. See, it can be right for me, and wrong for you. That’s very different than thinking if it’s right for me, then it must be also right for you. I think that can be very powerful to have that view of paths.

That’s all I have for this topic. I know that there’s so much that can be covered here. We could go into specific differences in doctrinal views of reality and the world, but I don’t think that that’s necessary. You can study all that on your own, read books about whatever path that you’re on, study it. Learn it. Be familiar with it. But you would invite you to explore it at a level where you ask yourself, “Is this path working for me?” Because if it is, don’t disrupt it. Just stay on that path.

That’s all I have, so if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, then please visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

39 – What is Enlightenment?


What is enlightenment and how do we attain it? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of enlightenment from the perspective of a Secular Buddhist teacher. The attainment of enlightenment/awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism, however, many people see it as a distant goal. Perhaps our concept of enlightenment is blinding us from experiencing it in the present moment, here and now.

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Transcription of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 39. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about enlightenment.
From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?

From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?
A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.

A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.
I’m not sure you can. St. Augustine was once asked about his understanding of time. When asked what is time? He said, “I know but when you ask me I don’t.” I believe I know what love is but the moment I try to define it it becomes fixed and permanent and when you get down to it, concepts, like love, or time, are not fixed nor are the permanent. I believe we run into the same problem when we try defining enlightenment.

Before I jump into that topic I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This is my non-profit and I want to say thank you to everyone who has started becoming monthly donors or who’s made one time monthly donations since the last podcast episode.

I mentioned how I was reaching this crucial point with the podcast where I needed more support and a lot of you responded to that so I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for that because I couldn’t do this without your support. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just $2 a month can make a big difference and any one time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Let’s jump back into this week’s topic, enlightenment. I posted on the Facebook study group, in fact if you’re not part of that group and you listen to the podcast regularly you may find that it’s beneficial to join the group because we try to continue the discussions after the topic is presented in the podcast, I try to make this so that you can carry on this discussion with me on Facebook. I know some of you aren’t on Facebook, eventually I will probably create another portal or platform. For now is just Facebook. If you go to secularbuddhism.com/Facebook you’ll see the link to be able to join that group.

On this topic of enlightenment I want to be clear about something … So what I was saying is that I posted on that group, “What are some of the topics that you would be interested in learning about on this podcast?” and I received a lot of responses, one of which was a request to discuss enlightenment from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s what I want to talk about today, enlightenment. It’s a big word, it’s a common word in contemplative practices, especially in Buddhism. We say the Buddha attained enlightenment, but what does that mean? What does enlightenment mean?

I want to be clear that there’s enlightenment, whatever that is, and then there’s enlightenment what we think it is. In other words the concept of enlightenment. Those are two very different things. I think a lot of the problems we run into with words like enlightenment has to do with the concept that you hold of it. If you have an issue with this word I think you should ask yourself what do you think enlightenment is because that’s where you’ll find what the problem is. It’s a lot like love, you know, I mentioned earlier. You can think you know what love is but until you experience the feeling of love, it’s just a concept. I think enlightenment can never be understood conceptually it can only be understood experientially. In other words enlightenment is something that you want to seek to experience. Not to understand, not to have a conceptualization of it, but it’s something that you want to experience. That’s what I want to talk about today because it’s something that is experienced often in Buddhism and contemplative practices through meditation.

I think the conceptual understanding of enlightenment is like it’s this lofty thing and one day if you live in a cave for 20 years of your life and you’re meditating you might get enlightened. I don’t see it like that at all. I think it’s something that in your day to day practice, you know, it’s like a light bulb. It can turn on and suddenly you’re enlightened or you’re awakened.

Let’s look at this a little bit and explain what this means. I want to explain, first of all, the origin of a couple of words. In Pali, or Sanskrit, in both of these languages, these are the ancient languages of Buddhism, there’s this word budh, which means to awake to become aware or to understand. As you can imagine, this word budh is the route for the word Buddha, the awakened one, Buddha. It’s the root for the word bodhi and of course the root of the word Buddhism. Bodhi, in Buddhism, is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, someone who is awakened, regarding the true nature of things, which is that they are impermanent and interdependent. If you break this down it’s actually pretty simple.

It’s Bodhi, or enlightenment, Bodhi is the understanding that is possessed by somebody who is awakened regarding the true nature of things. Bodhi is commonly translated to enlightenment, but it’s also the word that’s translated to awakening. I think because of the root word, budh, meaning to awaken or to become aware, I think it’s more appropriately for us to use the word awakening when we’re discussing this concept of enlightenment. I’m going to use the words interchangeably.

The goal of awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism. It’s at the heart of what we study and practice. We’re trying to awaken to the fact that reality, as we perceive it, is not the same as reality as it is. I discuss this over and over throughout the podcast and any time I teach a workshop is that there’s reality as it is and then there’s reality as I think it should be. Those are two different things. One of the main areas where this happens is that we have the tendency to see things and ourselves as permanent and independent from all other things. I perceive that there’s me and there’s you, there’s self and then there’s other, you know, as separate entities.

What happens is, much like a wave perceiving itself as a wave, it fails to understand that while it is indeed a wave it is also the ocean. This was eloquently explained by Alan Watts when he says that, “You are something that the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” In other words, you cannot separate the way from the ocean and you cannot separate yourself from the universe. This idea of independence that I exist separate of everything else is a flawed sense of understanding. This is one of the core ways that we interact with life, with everything around us, as if we were separate from it all.

This is the fundamental shift that happens in our perception when we become awakened. We awaken to the reality that we are one with everything. It can be as simple as a shift in this perspective of, “Here I am, I came into this world,” versus, “Here I am I came out of this world.” You simply don’t exist without everything that allows you to exist. That’s what we start to wake up to.

When we talk about enlightenment, or awakening, in the Buddhist sense, we need to understand that it is very easy to make the mistake of confusing the concept of these words for the real thing. That’s what we need to be very careful of. In this sense, the real question of what is enlightenment I would say what is enlightenment for you? Because I have my idea of what I think it is. I have my experiential understanding of what it feels like to be awakened to the reality of things being interdependent and things being impermanent, but the real question here is what do you think it is? What do you think would happen if you dropped your concept of it? What if you just let that idea fall away? Whatever you think enlightenment is let it go, drop it. Then you’re left with the opportunity to just experience it without being blinded by the concept of what you think it is.

A lot like the story I tell over and over about meeting Chris and I thought Chris was a guy, so there was Chris the girl and I didn’t see her because I thought she was … I was expecting to see a guy named Chris. That’s kind of what happens with everything, right? That’s certainly what happens with a concept like enlightenment. You think it’s something, so that’s what you look for, and then you’ll never experience the actual thing even though it may have been right there in front of you all along. That’s something you want to be careful of. The way that you work with that, to be careful to not be trapped by the conceptual understanding of enlightenment, is ask yourself what is enlightenment to me? How do I define it? Because whatever you define it as, drop that. Try to drop that and just say, “I don’t know what it is. What if it isn’t anything? What if there’s no such thing?” Just drop the idea of it, because that, ironically, is when you experience it.

I’m gonna explain that a little bit more. Another thing I want to clarify about this concept of enlightenment or awareness is that no one can wake up or enlighten another. You experience it yourself by practicing mindfulness. It’s like you could try your hardest to explain to someone what it feels like to be in love. If they’ve never been in love all you’re doing is creating a concept for them. Now, that concept isn’t necessarily harmful because it could be a concept that points them in the right direction, but it may be that it blinds them, too. This is why in Buddhism we have the analogy of the finger that points at the moon is not the same thing as the moon. In Buddhism, we’re always reminding ourselves of this fact, that these things that we teach all point to one thing, to the experiential understanding of awakening. If you get caught up in the finger you’re not going to see the moon. It’s the same with all of these practices, with all of these concepts.

In Buddhism the path that’s known as the eightfold path is the path to enlightenment. This comprises of eight different aspects of your life in which you’re aspiring to practice having wise views, wise intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. I think at some point I’ll probably spend a whole podcast episode, or maybe several parts, dedicated to explaining this concept of the eightfold path with a little bit more detail.

It’s a path that one must walk oneself. I can’t push someone down this path, I can only practice it myself. That’s why we say that the Buddha taught the way or the path, but we have to walk the path on our own. This is where that Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open doors but you must enter by yourself.” I love that because that’s exactly how it is with these contemplative practices, with Buddhism specifically. You can work with a teacher and they point, they’re like the finger, they’re pointing at these things that you have to practice but then you see that you’re the one who sees it through an experiential understanding and then it starts to change the way that you see things.

I’m going to jump into this a little bit more. There’s this wonderful teaching in Buddhism called the Gateless Gate and I really like this. The idea is that you can enter this state of awareness, or this enlightenment, but you can only do that by entering through the Gateless Gate. You start to study Buddhism and you feel like, “Okay, I’m on the outside but then I learned that there’s this concept there was this thing enlightenment, so here I am and I’m trying to obtain it and it’s there. I don’t know where it is but it’s there somewhere.” Here I go and I’m on this journey and I try all these things. I try to start doing things, stop doing things. I’m seeking, after this state of awareness, this state of enlightenment. All along I view this as we’re separate, right? There’s me and then there’s it and I’m trying to get to it. Then when you finally attain it you realize that you’re inside it and there was never a gate. This is why it’s called the Gateless Gate. There is no outside or inside, there is just what is.
Reality is everything and it’s everywhere, so there is no gate to go through because you’re already in it and you have been all along. That’s what it means to enter the Gateless Gate. This teaching is trying to wake you up to the reality that there is nowhere to go, you’re already there. There is no one to be, you’re already you, and you’re already in it. You just don’t know it or you just don’t realize it and that’s the truth that you awaken to.

This is kind of the paradox with enlightenment is that you never attain enlightenment because you can’t attain something you already have. You just wake up to the realization that you’ve been in it all along. Not just you, but everyone else.
I’d like to explain this. I think we’ve all felt this feeling of looking for something like your keys or your sunglasses or your wallet and there you are frantically looking for them, running around, digging under things, moving stuff, and then somewhere in that process suddenly you realize, “Oh my wallet’s in my pocket, or my keys were in my pocket, or my sunglasses were on my head the whole time.” I’m sure you felt that at some point. What does that feel like? It’s almost comical because you think, “Well, here I’ve been like a fool searching for something that wasn’t there. I had it all along.” That is a lot like this process of awakening in Buddhism. You start learning Buddhism and you start seeking after something and then the more you study and the more you practice one day you realize there is nothing to seek and it’s like the sunglasses have been on my head all along. It’s almost comical how this happens.

This is the reality of life, right? That enlightenment is everyday life. It’s all of it. It’s the chaotic and the peaceful, it’s the beautiful and the ugly, it’s the happy and the sad, it’s all of it. It really depends on our own minds, our own minds are the ones making meaning of things. It’s understanding that our own reality is the reflection of our own minds. The key to being awakened is to see and understand things just as they are without the stories that we attach to them. Two of the biggest stories that we attach to things is that things are interdependent, and that things are permanent. We attach a sense of permanence to things, to ourselves, to situations we’re going through in life. And we treat things as separate. We don’t recognize that the true nature of things is that all things are impermanent, they are always changing, and all things are interdependent.

This is because that is and you cannot have this without that. You can look at this and you explore this with concepts and you realize how true that is. We can’t have winning without losing, so you would say then then it’s both. It’s not about winning, it cannot be about winning unless it’s also about losing because you cannot have both. You cannot be about life and death, one without the other, because you cannot have life and death separate from themselves. You cannot have black and white. What makes something black is that it’s not white. This is the duality of the conceptual way that we see the world and that’s exactly what we are trying to break out of is that dualistic way of viewing things. Thinking that I can have winning without losing. It’s like, “Well, there you go. You just set yourself up for all of the problems.” If you’re seeking to win and never lose then you don’t understand what winning means.

When they talk about the Buddha’s enlightenment … The story of the Buddha in a very small nutshell is that there was this there was a man named Siddhartha Gautama and he went out on this journey because it felt like something was missing. He did not like that by experiencing sickness, old age, and death … Why do we suffer? That was kind of at the root of his quest is why do we suffer and how can we end suffering? So he goes on this long journey and spends years meditating and trying all these different methods, but at the end of it all he was looking for ways to end suffering and he was looking outside himself to do that. “If I could just do this or if I could just avoid doing that.” That is the great transition in his spiritual journey is that the great transition of seeking something outside himself, to the discovery that the root of his suffering was within himself. The discovery that he was it, there was no separation from it. This was his great enlightenment. At that point that duality was transcended. There’s no more looking for anything external at that point. He was the root of his problems. He was also the solution to them.

This is the essence of what Buddhism teaches. It’s to realize that we are it, it’s just us. We have this concept of an angel and a demon on our shoulders and one’s telling us to be nice and the other one saying don’t be nice go do whatever you want. In cartoons, you always see this, in western thinking this is a popular way of kind of understanding that there’s this external force. One compels me to do kind and nice and good things and the other one compels me to do mean or evil things. We’ve bought into that, thinking that there is an inherent goodness or an inherent badness out there and here we are stuck in this position where it controls us. I’m seeking one and trying to avoid the other.

What Buddhism is saying is, “No, that that sense of those voices on your shoulder those are voices in your head. It’s you. It’s just you. If you view something one way, or justify one action over another, it has to do with you. With either how you were raised or a belief that you have or it’s something that, at its root, is found inside of you.” I think that’s really powerful. These are the things that we awaken to.

First there’s that you awaken to the reality that you are it. It’s all you. There’s no angel or demon on your shoulders tempting you to be mean or pushing you, compelling you to be kind. That’s you. It’s just you.

The other thing we awaken to is the uniqueness of each moment. We play this game in life where we’re always comparing. I think this kind of goes from that dualistic way of thinking in terms of good and bad. There’s this moment, this is a good moment. Then there’s that moment, no that one’s a bad moment because the other one was better. Now there we are comparing. What we fail to see when we’re in that mindset is the uniqueness of each moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pleasant or unpleasant moment, it’s unique. It’s a moment that has never existed the way it exists right now and it will never exist again the way that it exists right now in the present moment. That uniqueness can make it beautiful and for it to be beautiful doesn’t mean you have to like it. It doesn’t mean anything other than its beauty comes from its uniqueness. That’s the only moment. This is kind of that understanding of its always now, right? This is impermanence, which is the other big thing we awakened to. The nature of reality is that all things are impermanent and all things are interdependent. This is another really powerful thing to wake up to.

I talk about Thích Nhất Hạnh saying, “If you’ve ever seen a flower and all you’ve seen as the flower then you’ve never actually seen the flower.” What that means is that the deeper way of seeing things, through this lens of interdependence, is that you cannot see, truly see a flower, without also seeing the sun and the clouds and the rain and the soil and the temperature changes, all the things that it takes for that flower to exist.

When you really start to see something like that it changes, forever, the way that you see something. Suddenly it’s not just a flower, it’s everything. Everything in the universe exists, allows that flower to exist the way that it does and that’s incredible. That’s interdependence.

That’s one thing, right? You start to see things as interdependent. You can try this right now. You can look around you and pick something. Pick your shoe, or a watch, or the desk you’re sitting at, or a chair and try to deconstruct that into its parts. What all did it take for that thing to exist the way it exists.

If I am looking at my looking at my phone here on my desk it’s got plastic on it, it’s got glass, we know inside it’s got all kinds of other components, it’s got metal. You start to think of these things and think, “What did it take for that glass to exist?” Glass comes from is it like a sand or stone that’s superheated? Okay, now I’ve got … You start to scale this back into all of these elements that exist so that my phone isn’t just my phone, my phone is also part of a rock, and part of a mountain, and part of a metal that came from the depths of the earth and all these elements that allow my phone to exist the way that it does. That’s not even to say all the technology behind it, the towers that allow me to communicate, the websites that my phone connects to when I’m just turning it on and checking the weather, or checking Facebook. The different servers, and the electricity. I mean, really quickly it becomes incredibly complex and layered to where it takes everything for this to be exactly what it is right now.

That can be a really profound experience that you awaken to. This realization of the interdependence of things. I’ve done this exercise with something as simple as a table, a little coffee table made of wood. We’re talking about the glue and the nails and the wood itself and what it took to cut the wood and the chainsaw and the truck that moved the wood and the tires on that truck. You never end that game. Suddenly, what was once just this simple little wooden table in the room now comes alive because you realize it’s taken everything for that to exist the way that it does, right here in this one room, this one little wooden table.

Like I said, this is really powerful but if you want to take it to a whole new level you turn that towards yourself and you start to see yourself in that same light. The lens of impermanence and the lens of interdependence and that’s when you start to awaken to this sense of non-duality. Thích Nhất Hạnh says enlightenment is when the wave realizes that it’s the ocean. It’s that simple. Sure the wave exists, there’s such a thing as wave and waves are different. Some are tall, some are shorter, some are fast, some are slow. You’ve got all these different kinds of waves but the moment that wave realizes it’s the ocean, that’s what it is.

That’s what we’re trying to do. You’re not who you think you are. Seeing you, as a separate self, as a permanent self, that is the illusion. In this sense, enlightenment becomes this concept that is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s that dualistic view that there’s a you and a me that’s preventing me from the realization of enlightenment in the first place. You are everything. You’re it. You’re all of it. That flower that we talked about, that flower’s not what you think it is. That flower is one with everything, but by that same token, you are not who you think you are. You’re not who what others think you are, or who others think you are. You’re the totality of all of it. You’re the sum total of everything, everything just to be you.

To me, that’s a fascinating thing. You can grasp that intellectually, you can grasp that theoretically, but at some point, when you’re really sitting there you connect the dots and you have this tremendous aha moment when you realize your oneness with everything. It’s a really powerful thing.

This is the irony of all of this is that while the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, it’s only when we drop the idea of attaining it that it can naturally occur. It’s like you’re out in this field frantically chasing this butterfly and it just eludes you and it eludes you and you keep grasping at it to try to catch it and it’s when you’re so exhausted that you finally just quit trying to catch it that you collapse in the field it comes and land softly on your nose. This is what it’s like to seek enlightenment. I talked about that zen story of the monk who goes to his teacher and he says, “I want to attain enlightenment,” and the teacher says, “Oh you do?” “Yeah, yeah I do. What do I have to do?” He’s like, “Okay, I want you to hike to the top of that hill every day and you bring a rock and the day you bring me the right rock that’s the day you become enlightened.” This monk is really excited because that’s what he wants more than anything, anything. He wants to be enlightened, he wants to be awakened.

He starts bringing rocks. Every day he brings a rock and he climbs up the hill and this process goes on for days and weeks and years and at some point, the way the story goes, this monk is just getting fed up and he picks a really big heavy rock this day and he makes his way to the top of the hill and there’s his teacher and like every other day for years he just says, “Nope. That’s not the right rock.” At this point I can imagine the frustration this monk, who’s trying his hardest, gives up and he says, “This is ridiculous, this is stupid, there’s no such thing as the right rock.” And he just throws the rock off the hill. He gives up and that’s when the teacher turns to him and says, “And there you have it. You’ve attained enlightenment.”

I love hearing that story. I know it can sound like, “Oh no.” But there’s beauty in that, in that letting go. The problem with Enlightenment is that we want it. Why do we want it? Why are we seeking after it? That’s the moment that it can arise naturally is when I look at that and say, “Why do I feel that I even need it in the first place.” When I realize I don’t need it, that’s when I get it, that’s what I’m enlightened. That’s the beautiful irony of all of this. This is the paradox of Buddhism.

We can look at enlightenment as the opposite of ignorance. Our tendency, like I said earlier, is to look outside ourselves. We see what others are saying or what others are doing. What we’re trying to do is learn to look inward, look at ourselves. That’s when we can see, clearly, what we are, interdependent and impermanent, that we begin to understand ourselves and others very clearly. Enlightenment is not a concept, it can’t be conceptualized. It’s not something other than our daily lives. It’s the experience that we have of everything and we end up finding ourselves in it rather than it being something out there somewhere that we need to find. That’s when we awaken or enlighten.

Seeking enlightenment is seeking a life of awareness. Rather than thinking, “There’s this thing, enlightenment, and I want to find it, I want to attain it.” What we should think is, “I want to live a life that’s fully aware. I want to live a life where I see things that I didn’t see, where I experience what I didn’t know I have an experience, where I learn about the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” That’s the attitude and that takes a sense of curiosity, and it also takes a sense of doubt, right, of skepticism. I can’t think, “Oh I figured it out.” Because the moment I think I figured it out it’s like seeing Chris, right? Oh there’s Chris, Chris the guy, now I can’t see Chris, the real Chris, who was the girl. That’s where this healthy dose of curiosity or a healthy dose of skepticism really comes into play because I start to think, “Maybe it isn’t something that’s there to have in the first place.” There you go. There you’re on the right track.

It’s like these teachings, right? There are so many teachings in Buddhism around this concept. There’s the one of the monk sitting, meditating, on the river and there’s a traveler on the other side and he cannot figure out how to get to the other side so he finally yells out and he says, “Hey. How do I get to the other side?” And the monk just looks around and then replies, “You are on the other side.” That’s the essence of what Buddhism is teaching is these are concepts. You hold a concept, the concept of the other side. Well, guess what you are on the other side according to the other perspective, right.

This is another teaching of a zen koan that says, “Showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall.” This is another powerful teaching. It’s that when a leaf falls, you can picture this in your head, it kind of just floats, right? It floats like it’s showing one side and then it kind of floats showing the other side as it slowly makes its way down to the ground. It doesn’t just fall showing one side. The natural way of being is that it kind of flips and flops and shows there’s nothing to hide. That’s the teaching here.
We’re not like that. Naturally, we are the opposite of maple leaves falling. We’re saying, “Here’s the front, I’m going to show you this, and then there’s what’s in the back, I don’t want anyone to see that. That’s the me that only I know about, nobody else knows about.” This is saying … That’s dualistic, again. This goes back to it’s just me. What you see is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. I want to be like the maple leaf, right? Showing front, showing back.

Or this kind of goes to the Japanese teaching that the reverse side also has a reverse side. I love that because it’s true. It’s like you are on the other side, same concept, right? You look at something and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Then you look at the reverse side and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Well, the reverse side also has a reverse side. You’re left with this idea of oneness. This idea of the way that we see things, our tendency is to conceptualize things. Concepts get us into trouble because concepts are always relative.

For example, we all know the famous question of looking at a cup, half water in there, and then the question is is this cup half full or is it half empty? There are entire presentations done around this. About the negativity of saying that it’s half empty versus half full, yeah. You get it.

Well, the Buddhist perspective on this question is the cup is always empty and it’s always full. It doesn’t matter what’s in there. If it’s half water well guess what, it’s still full, it’s half water half air. If it’s all empty, there’s no water, that’s still relative. The cup is empty relative to water, but the cup is full relative to air. This is why these concepts are always relative.
I like to say when someone says here you cup half empty or a cup half full type of person, to me the cup is always empty and it’s always full. That’s a non-dualistic way of viewing it. You can start to look in what other ways in your life do you see things through the relative conceptualizations. Empty of what? Full of what? You can’t answer that question just the way that it’s framed that way. We need to be careful of the danger of conceptualizations. We do this with concepts like perfection. What is perfection? Happiness. What is happiness? Like my friend’s post, love. What is love? There’s being in love and then there’s loving the idea of being in love, but those aren’t the same thing. We do this with everything, right?

This is where we want to obtain that freedom from the tyranny of our own concepts, of our ideas. The moment I attach to a conceptualization that I have created in my own mind, I’m a slave to it. I’m a slave to my concepts and my ideas. One of the big ones, a really really big one, is this idea of enlightenment. I seek after it as if it’s this thing out there that I can seek in the first place, but I can even define it much less attain it. How do I even define it? What is it? In the same way that something so common, like love, how do you actually define that? It can be very difficult.

That’s what we start to wake up to is the nature of reality that all things are impermanent, all things are interdependent, and what does that imply about me? What does this imply about you? This sense of self that you experience yourself as a permanent independent thing from everything else in the universe. What happens when you look and realize that, when it comes down to it, there is no independent you, there’s the interdependent you that exists as the sum total of all of the things that allow you to exist. The parts and the processes.

I remember my experience, I’ll call it my experience of this awakening, this awareness, was several years into my Buddhist studies. I was attending a presentation on the concept of emptiness and I had my notebook and I was taking notes and I was like, “I’m going to figure this out. This concept of emptiness. Things are inherently empty of meaning. I’m the one that assigns meaning.” Well what does that mean? And I’m taking notes and I felt like that person who is looking for his glasses. I’m like, “I know I left them here somewhere. They’re here.” Somewhere in the middle of that presentation it clicked for me. It clicked and I realized that I was trying to get it and there was nothing to get. It’s this incredible feeling and I remember I started to laugh. I remember putting down my notebook and putting down the pen and sitting back in the chair and it was just this incredible feeling of liberation like there’s nothing to figure out, there’s nothing to get. At that point, like, oh, I just get to live that’s it? I just get to experience this incredible phenomenon of being alive? That’s it? That was the point?

It was so liberating to arrive at that and that’s the irony of awakening. It’s like the moment you let it go is the moment that it arises naturally. It’s like now you’re awakened to the reality of things, which is that all things are impermanent, always changing, and all things are interdependent. I cannot say that enough, that’s what it is, over and over and over.

The Buddhist word of bodhi, which is you know what is commonly referred to as enlightenment or awareness, like I mentioned before, bodhi is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, which is someone who is awakened. It’s the understanding of an awakened person regarding the true nature of things. That they are impermanent and interdependent. When you really grasp the implication of what that means, specifically pointed towards you, the sense of self that you have, boom. Just like that a light bulb goes off and then you become aware or awakened. That’s it. I mean it’s not, like I mentioned, it’s not something out of the realm of the everyday or the ordinary.

In fact, there’s even a teaching, another zen teaching, where someone’s asking a monk, like, “How will I know when I come across someone who’s enlightened?” And the monk just says, “Oh, you’ll know because when they eat they eat, when they walk they walk, and when they sleep they sleep.” The person says “Well, anybody does that. Heck, I even do that.” He says, “No. But when they walk they just walk, when they eat they just eat, when they sleep they just sleep.” That’s the teaching he gives.

The idea behind that is this understanding that it’s that simple. They’re not walking and thinking, “I’m walking here but I really wish I was there,” or, “Here I am in my ordinary day to day life and I wish I was awakened.” They’re not playing that game of duality. They are perfectly content with where they are, doing what they’re doing, being who they are because at that point there’s nothing to chase after, right? There’s nothing there’s nothing to get so they drop the game of trying to get anything in the first place. There’s nothing to get. That’s the idea of enlightenment.

I hope that this presentation on enlightenment makes sense. I know it’s a difficult concept and there are books and books and books about this and talks and videos. I mean, you could research this all day long, but at the end of the day, if you really want to experience it, think of the analogy of the person carrying the rocks up the hill. It’s like, “Okay pick the right rock. Eventually you’ll get the right rock and then you’ll be awakened.” You’re gonna try and you’re going to try and you’re going to try and the moment you finally give up and realize, “You know what, this is stupid I’m never going to get this awareness enlightenment stuff,” so you give up, that’s the moment that it arises naturally. That’s the moment you become awake. It’s like with my notebook, the moment I realized, “Oh crap, there’s nothing to get.” It’s like ha ha ha, drop the notebook, this is silly. Here I was thinking I was going to figure it out there’s nothing to figure out and that’s when I figured it out. That’s what you figure out.

It’s a really neat feeling. It’s that sense of liberation that we always talk about in Buddhism. You become free from the trap of trying to be aware, trying to be enlightened. You become free from that. Happiness is the same, right? There’s a whole book and a whole psychological field called acceptance and commitment therapy that talks about this idea of happiness as the trap, the happiness trap. There was a book called that, The Happiness Trap. The idea is that happiness is something that you seek after and as long as you seek after it, you’re trapped by it. You’ll never actually get it because it’s like you’re in a hamster wheel chasing something that you cannot get. The moment you get out of the hamster wheel, you become free from the happiness trap and that’s when you experience happiness. It’s like the difference of the pursuit of happiness versus freedom from the pursuit of happiness. It’s like, why do you have to chase it? You get to experience it when you have it, because the causes and conditions are there, and when it’s not you don’t and it’s not a problem anymore. The problem was thinking that you should only have happiness and never have sadness, that’s the problem.

Awareness is similar, it’s very similar. I hope that with time, as you continue to study and read and become acquainted with these concepts, I really hope that everyone listening to this will experience that one day. That you’ll drop the game, that you’ll quit looking for it as if it’s this thing that’s out there, enlightenment. Drop the concept of enlightenment and then hope to experience the feeling of what it is to be enlightened in the same way that one day you experience what it is to fall in love. That’s the only time you’ll know what it is is when you experience it. Anything prior to that experiential understanding is just a concept and the concept can make things muddy.

I think this happens with love all the time, right? We’ve got these ideas of, “Here’s what love is.” Then it causes problems with relationships, because you’re living in this world of a conceptualization. Drop the concept. Drop the concept and see what happens. What is love if you don’t have a concept of what love is? What is enlightenment when you no longer have a concept of an enlightenment is? Try that with a lot of different things and what you’ll gain is this sense of freedom to experience something just the way that it is.

There’s a wonderful little poem that kind of sums this all up. It’s found in the book The Magic of Awareness by Anam Thubten and the poem says, “Wonder. Who has the magic to make the sun appear every morning? Who makes the bird on the elegant tree chirp? Breath, pulse, music, dew, sunset, the burning ambers of the fall. There is unfathomable joy in all that. Life is a stream. It flows on its own. No one knows why we are here. Stop trying to figure out the great mystery. The tea in front of you is getting cold. Drink it. Enjoy every drop of it and dance. Dance until there is no more dancer. It is the dance without dancer, this is how great mystics dance.”

That’s what I have that I want to share with you for this topic of what is enlightenment. I’m gonna be going through all the rest of the podcast topics that have been suggested and I’m going to continue doing this every week. Thanks to your support, for sharing, for listening. It really makes a difference with all of this. Your donations, of course, make a big difference.
If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, that really helps. It’s been, consistently, the number two podcast on iTunes, worldwide now, for Buddhism, which is a really exciting thing for me.
If you’re listening to this and you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, start with the first five episodes of the podcast in order, one through five. Those are a summary of some of these key concepts taught in Buddhism.
Of course, you can always check out my book Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links you can visit secularbuddhism.com.
That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

29 – What Happens When We Die?

What happens when we die? This is a common question I hear when I’m teaching workshops or seminars. The short answer is “change”. Change is what happens when we die. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist perspective of death and the thoughts behind it.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 29. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about what happens when we die.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. Remember do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. That’s one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. A common question I get when teaching workshops about Buddhism is the question what happens when we die? It’s a big question. It’s a very big question. The short answer is change. Change is what happens when we die. To understand the Buddhist view of death you have to understand the Buddhist perspective of impermanence and interdependence. The Buddhist world view is that all things are constantly changing. This is impermanence so nothing is permanent. Everything is changing. Everything is interdependent. All things are connected to each other.

In the time and space continuum, in terms of time all things are impermanent. In terms of space, all things are interdependent. Things are constantly changing. One moment dies and gives birth to the next moment and this is an ongoing process. In this sense, death and birth are constant. Death is always happening and birth is always happening. Look at the very cells that make up our physical composition. Right now in this very moment, you have cells that are dying and new cells that are generating or being born. They’re continually growing, dying, and being replaced by new cells. In this sense, birth and death is already a constant part of what makes you who you are. Or what makes you, you. What makes me, me.

This is the understanding of impermanence. All things are constantly changing. You can look at this in terms of moment. The moment to moment experience of life. As soon as one moment ends, a new moment begins. Birth and death is a constant cycle that’s going on in the process of life. Now with interdependence, all things are interdependent. Everything has it’s causes and conditions and nothing exists in and of itself without it’s causes and conditions. Your very existence is dependent on causes and conditions. None of us suddenly came into existence of our own free will. We are the result of the actions of others. In that sense, everything depends on everything that allows it to exist.

We have the tendency to view things through the dualistic lens of left and right, wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing, birth death. This dualistic way of understanding the world makes it seem so that death is something that we consider end. Birth was beginning. Death is end. In the non-dualistic view, all of these things are always one and the same because you can’t have one without the other. The minute that we come up with the concept of left, that is the moment that right manifests itself. Same with wrong and right, good and bad, winning losing. I think about this often with the term father and son. You know the moment that I became a father is the very moment that my son became a son. You can’t have one without the other. These things manifest at the same time.

The understanding here, the implication I guess I should say is that all things are one. In Buddhism, we call this oneness or suchness. It’s everything just as it is. We get caught up in the dichotomy of creating the view of this and that, me and you, now and then. You know, we create that dualistic way of understanding the world. What does it mean to be able to see things with the lens of understanding that all things are interdependent. Well, for example, when we look at a flower, we see just the flower. What Buddhism is trying to teach is that when you see the world that way, you’re missing what the world is. We need to see everything that makes the flower a flower. You know, when we look at a flower, we should see the flower. We should also see all of the elements that are not that flower that make the flower. For example, the sun, the rain, the soil, the bees that pollinate. All the aspects that are not flower that make the flower a flower.

When you can see that, then you start to understand this idea of interdependence. It’s also sometimes referred to as interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about interbeing, but the concept is this. That if I can only see the flower as a flower then I haven’t actually seen the flower. It’s when I can see things as they are, interdependent with everything that allows that thing to be, then I can start to see the thing as it is. Unless we see it all, we don’t really see it the way that it is. With birth and death and the context of being a part of a much bigger picture, we need to understand that death isn’t the end and birth isn’t the beginning.

This applies to how we view ourselves too. We’re the same. We’re made of everything that makes us who or what we are. I like to say that I’m the sum total of everything that makes me me. Birth is not the start and death is not the end. Think about that for a second because this is a scientific thing. Scientifically, it’s generally understood that matter cannot be created or destroyed. According to the law of conservation of matter, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It just changes states. This is the first law of thermodynamics. It specifies that the total amount of energy in a closed system cannot be created nor destroyed though it can be changed from one form to another.

The short answer, again, to what happens when we die is the change is what happens. This is very difficult for us to comprehend because we have made the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. And that’s it. That’s the start. The end of me must be death. But the reality is that birth wasn’t the start of me. Physically I existed before I was born. I existed in my mom and in my dad. I’m not talking about anything metaphysical here. I’m talking about in a very literal, physical way I existed in both of my parents. If that’s true, where did I start? Did I start when I was in the DNA of my mom or in my dad? Once they combined, then do I start? Well, you know you can argue the start of you is when you’re conceived and the sperm and the egg come together, life starts to create. You know, cells start to split and then there you are as the embryo and the whole start of your journey as a life form. That’s your start.

What Buddhism is saying is, “Well, no. That’s the start of that specific phase of what you are, but you’ve never not been.” You know, at one point, I was sperm and I was egg. I was both. Before that I was, you know, protein or DNA or however you want to think about this scientifically. The reality is you’ve never not existed. You’ve existed in different states and in different things. But we make the mistake of thinking that the start of me is birth. Think about this for a minute with a cloud because when we look at the clouds in the sky we see a cloud. The reality is that cloud came into existence because the right temperature or the winds were causing the temperature to rapidly change or the moisture levels to change. Something causes a cloud to form. But you can’t look at the cloud once it’s formed and say, “Well, that cloud didn’t exist before.”

Because it did exist. It existed in other forms. Right? The cloud could have been part of the water in the ocean. It could have been part of the oxygen. A cloud is a lot of things. When we see something form, we view that as the beginning of that thing. When a cloud dissipates, whether that be through rain or it disperses back into just being air, we see that as the end of the cloud. But it’s not the end of the things that made the cloud the cloud. This is kind of the difference. This is where if you look at the cloud as a thing that is not interdependent with other things, then you could say, “Well, how sad. The cloud is gone.” But the cloud isn’t gone. It’s just changed into a new form. Now the cloud may be part of the ocean or now the cloud may have, if it rained, it’s part of the forest or whatever it turns into.

All of the matter that was part of the cloud is still there. I love visualizing the clouds because the cloud from the moment it comes into existence. When you look at a cloud, it’s constantly changing. It’s not a static thing. The shape of the cloud is continually shifting and evolving and morphing. At some point, the cloud is gone. There’s no more cloud. Then that process happens over and over and over again. There are always clouds somewhere. They’re never the same cloud. The clouds have never not existed. When they cease to exist, it doesn’t’ mean that those elements are gone. They become something else. It makes sense when you look at this and you see this in nature. This applies to a tree. A tree has never not existed because before it was a tree, it was the seed of another tree. Before it was a seed, it was just a part of the tree. When a tree dies, the tree is no longer there, but the essence of what makes the tree the tree, the matter, continues in that cycle of becoming something else.

What you see in nature is change. We see constant change. Why should it be any different with us? I like to think about that. Alan Watts used to say, “Have you ever seen a misshapen cloud?” I love applying that way of thinking to how we see ourselves and how we see others. Have you seen a misshapen cloud is the teaching that’s saying have you ever seen somebody who’s wrong? Who isn’t who they’re supposed to be? This is a powerful teaching because when we see this in nature we understand. Apply this to a tree. Have you ever see a misshapen tree? No. Some trees are straight. Some have bends. I mentioned this in a previous podcast. It could have an entire like horseshoe bend in it and we don’t look at that and think, “Oh, that tree is wrong. That’s not the right kind of a tree.” Because there’s no such thing as a right kind of a tree.
A tree is just a tree. A flower is just a flower. We don’t look at a flower and say, “Oh, the red flower that’s wrong. It’s supposed to be blue.” There’s no way that a flower is supposed to be. There’s no way that a tree is supposed to be. Apply this to animals. We don’t do this to animals. You know, we don’t look at a certain species of animal and say, “Oh, those are wrong. The fox is supposed to be a wolf.” We don’t say the wolf is supposed to be a bobcat because everything just is what it is. This is what Buddhism is trying to convey to us is the understanding that we’re no different. I am who I am. You are who you are. This idea of suchness is the understanding that there’s no way that you’re supposed to be. There’s no you that you’re supposed to be. There’s only the you that you are.

We’re the ones that make the mistakes of going around through our dualistic thinking and creating concepts. There’s the concept of who you are. Now I have this concept of who I think you should be. You have a concept of who you think you should be and one who you think I should be. This is where we get caught up in all these problems and this dualistic thinking. In the middle of all that, there’s this fear of death. Because death is the end of everything that we know. Everything that’s familiar to us. We create stories and narratives to try to intellectually get around the fear that we have of death. I think death is one of the biggest catalysts of religious narratives because we’re trying to find a way to make sense of the fact that at some point, like a cloud, a cloud ceases to exist and so do we.

That’s only problematic if you think that’s truly the end. It can’t be the end because birth wasn’t the beginning. I like to think about this when I think of music, too. With music life is like music. Think of a song. A song is composed of notes. It’s different notes. They’re constantly changing. A song’s not a song if it’s just one same note that never ends. Nobody would enjoy listening to that. What makes a song beautiful it’s a collection of notes. High notes, low notes, gaps and pauses in between notes. As you listen to a song, you don’t single out the note and say, “Oh, I can’t wait to hit that D sharp again and then never leave that note.” The beauty of the song goes away when you try to fix a part of that song to make that part permanent. That’s the whole point of the song is that none of the song is impermanent.

It’s all these different notes. Even if you hold one note longer, that’s fine, but none of it’s permanent. It’s the fact that it’s impermanent that makes it so beautiful. That’s how we enjoy it. And at some point the song does end. You know a song has a beginning note and it has an ending note. Every note matters. We don’t listen to a song thinking, “I never want to hear that last note.” We may want a song to not end because we’re enjoying it. But again, if it never ended, it’s no longer an enjoyable song. That’s part of the beauty of the song is that a song ends. Every note, including that final note, which in our case we could say is death, it’s a note that’s beautiful and it matters just as much as that first note which would be birth. It’s important to distinguish that there’s a very big difference in understanding that a song may end, but the music never dies.
Music goes on and another song with come. More notes will be played. Then when that song ends the music goes on. At some point, another song starts. That’s the beauty of music. Music goes on and on and on, but songs are not permanent. They’re impermanent. I like thinking about life and associating it to music. Notes and songs and then music as a whole. I think it’s a beautiful way to think about and understand this concept of life and death.

Again, the question what happens when we die? Well, the answer is change is what happens. It’s the same thing that’s happening throughout this whole process. Change is what’s constant. Now it gets difficult when we try to understand what will happen at one of these stages that we haven’t reached. I’ve alluded to this before. Trying to understand what happens when we die is very similar to trying to understand … You know somebody who’s never been in love, trying to understand what it is to be in love. How do you convey that? You know, life is so experiential. As much as you would try to convey to someone or to yourself what a specific phase is like when you reach it, you don’t know until you reach it.

You know, I did not know what it was to be a father until I became a father. I didn’t know what it was like to be married until I was married. I didn’t know what it was like to lose a job until I lost a job. You know, all these experiences in life are experiential. Death is the same. I think it’s in some way silly for us, the living, to assume we know what it’s like to be dead because a caterpillar doesn’t know what it’s like to be a butterfly until it’s a butterfly. The death of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. What we see there is change.

I think about this with seasons. Summer cannot know what it’s like to be winter. Imagine if summer were capable of being introspective and thinking, having consciousness the way we do. It would be entertaining I think to hear summer speculate of what it must be like when I end. When I end, this is probably what will happen. It might paint this crazy picture that’s absolutely nothing like reality. When summer ends, what we experience is change. A new season starts. The death of summer is the birth of fall. The death of fall is the birth of winter. But one cannot experience or know what the other is like because they’re just not same thing. One is one and one is the other.

For us, I think, it’s the same. For the living to know what it’s like to not be living, how can we do that? It’s impossible. I feel it’s unnecessary to even try to speculate or waste time trying to logically understand what it is to not exist because I only exist. To know what it’s like to not be alive is impossible for me because I’m alive. I think with this understanding then there’s no need to fear death because we start to understand that birth wasn’t the beginning and therefore death is not the end. Change is what’s coming. The song may be over, but the music goes on. I love thinking about Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. If you’ve heard this song … I heard it recently when I was in Germany. There are always street musicians playing in Europe and I assume in other large cities in the US as well in subways or in random places.

There was a group there playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Summer. Spring. Fall. And winter. All of the songs are very different, one from another. This is when I was thinking, “This part of the song cannot know what it is like to be this other part of the song because they’re different. They’re just not the same.” Different notes. Different melody. The entire style changes very much like our actual seasons change for those of you who live somewhere where there are four seasons. We have four seasons here where I live and it’s a very clear change when you shift from one season to another. I love thinking about that in life. I think it’s easy to compare the seasons to our seasons in life as well, but even greater than that I like to consider the seasons as the seasons of change in general.

The change of being life to being not life or to being something else. I don’t know what it was like to be what I was before I became what I am. We can’t know that. I don’t know what that was like. At the same time, just because consciousness changes doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think about the very simple change that happens from being awake to being asleep. We don’t go to sleep and you start having some dream. You’re not dreading or lamenting the fact that you’re not awake because you don’t even know that you’re not awake. What happened was change and it’s a total shift in consciousness. I don’t think you look back and think, “Man, if I could just be awake again. I’m so sad now that I’m asleep.” We don’t do that. You just shift into what’s next and that’s the new normal.

With dreams, it can be crazy. You can be dreaming that you’re on the back of a dragon flying over and attacking a castle and you never question any of it because it’s just reality is what it is. Anyway, I guess that’s kind of a tangent on this whole thing. What I want to get at is when we think about death and we think about it as the end. It’s not the end. It maybe the end of what we hold to be familiar, of what we understand, and perhaps it’s our fear of the unfamiliar that makes death so scary. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if anything happens. That’s something that I love about Buddhism, because Buddhism rather than try to answer these existential questions and say, “Well, here’s the answer.” It’s trying to say, “Well, hang on a second. Why is that question so important to you? Why do you feel you need to know? Could you ever arrive at a place where you don’t need to know?” Because that’s where peace is.

That’s where contentment and joy can be found. In this state of mind of, “This is something that I don’t know and that’s okay. I don’t need to know. Because when happens, it’ll happen. Until then, here’s what I do know. It’s here and it’s now and this is what I’m experiencing in life.” Buddhism anchors itself in that present moment, in the here and in the now. Again, the answer to question what happens when we die, change. Change is what happens when we die. It’s been happening all along. Change has never not been happening. It’s really hard to answer that in a simple question answer type setting without giving an entire background of the Buddhist understanding of interdependence and impermanence.

I think when you have a good grasp of interdependence and impermanence then suddenly death doesn’t seem so scary because it’s the one inevitable thing that is certain for us. Is that death will come. And with it comes change. Change is the only thing that will happen. When that times comes, change will happen and whatever it’s going to be like is what it’s going to be like. There’s no need to try to speculate. Maybe some could argue they have hope and the idea of lasting forever or thinking I have a soul and that goes on and that goes to heaven or whatever … It can be comforting to have a narrative that you can believe in, but remember that can become problematic because it’s our beliefs that can blind us from experiencing and seeing reality as it is.

Just think about that for a minute and ask yourself, “What do I think about death? Do I need to have an answer? Do I need to have a narrative that comforts me? Do I need to have that hope?” Or can I get to the root of why I feel the need to know? That’s kind of where Buddhism goes with all of this. It becomes an introspective process of understanding the nature of the mind. Why do I feel I need to know these things rather than saying here are the answers to these things. That’s what I wanted to discuss in this podcast episode.

Now, next time you hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, this whole topic is going to come into mind. Or next time you look up at the clouds in the sky, this topic might come to mind. Or maybe any music, any song, any note will evoke the memories of this specific podcast episode and the Buddhist understanding of impermanence, interdependence, and the implication that has for life, birth, and death.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please consider writing a review on iTunes or giving it a rating. If you’re in a position to be able to donate, please consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast. Every donation helps. Thank you for your support and taking the time to listen to this. I look forward to another podcast episode. Until next time.

28 – Stuck between a rock and a hard place?

Have you ever felt stuck between a rock and a hard place? It’s difficult to be aware while we’re experiencing difficulties and yet that is the very moment that awareness can change everything for us. In this short episode, I will share the zen story of the strawberry and explain how I view this story to be a powerful lesson about awareness.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. And this is episode number 28. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings. Presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast, by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. Have you ever felt like you were stuck between a rock and a hard place? I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. And I think this is something that we all experience from time to time. It’s typically the feeling that we get when it seems like we have no good way out of a situation. And the situation can be all kinds of different things.

I recently experienced this, or have been experiencing this for a while with running my own company. And sometimes the decisions that have to made owning a business and deciding, for example, what to do with excess inventory. Or deciding if I should negotiate a deal with a specific chain of stores. From time to time I’ve had this feeling of feeling like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And recently I was in Germany, attending the world’s largest photography expo, called Photokina, for my work. And I’ve been working on this deal with my suppliers, the owners of the factory who manufacture all of my products. And I’ve been starting to feel more and more this feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Specifically in terms of how I negotiate a deal that I’ve been working on, with regards to: the ownership of the company, how to manufacture the products, who gets to decide who’s selling them to which distributor or which retailer.

And at times this can be a really stressful process for me. It’s probably one of the few areas right now, in my life right now, where I tend to feel a considerable amount of stress. So I’ve been anticipating this meeting with the owners of the factory for months now. And last week, while I was in Germany attending the trade show, we had the meeting scheduled. And I arrived there on a Monday and the meeting wasn’t until Thursday. So I was noticing how the level of anxiety was rising throughout the week, as I approached Thursday.

And it was kind of a fascinating process to experience this. And to notice it as I’m experiencing it. And it reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. That really means more to me now, than it ever has. And I think it’s a story that I want to share with you. And I think the basic lesson that’s generally taught with this story is one thing. But I see another level of meaning with this story. And I want to share that with you.

So this is called, the story of the strawberry. It’s a parable and it’s a Zen story. So the story goes like this: that there was a Zen master who was out walking one day. And he’s confronted by a ferocious tiger. So he slowly backs away from the tiger. Only to find out that he’s trapped by the edge of a high cliff. And the tiger snarls with hunger. And it goes after him. And his only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss of the cliff. Holding onto a vine that’s growing out of the edge of the cliff. So as he climbs down the vine and he’s dangling there. He notices that there’s danger at the bottom as well. There’s another tiger at the bottom.

So he looks up. He can’t climb up because the tiger is there. If he climbs down, he can’t go down because there’s a tiger down there. So he’s kind of stuck. And then in the middle of all that, as if that wasn’t bad enough. Two mice show up and they start gnawing at the vine. And now he knows it’s just a matter of time before the vine breaks. And then he’s going to fall. So as he’s hanging there, dangling by the vine. Death seems imminent. And just then, he looks over and notices a ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. And he plucks the strawberry. And puts it in his mouth. And supposedly, the way the story goes, he says, “What a lovely strawberry this is.” Or this is the sweetest strawberry he’s ever tasted. And in that moment, he was enlightened.

And it’s a simple story. I’ve heard it many times. And it’s so simple, it’s almost silly. And I was thinking more about this specific story, something stood out to me. That I don’t think I had really noticed before. And it’s this idea of experiencing this and having the strawberry isn’t what makes him enlightened. It’s the fact that in the midst of being between the rock and the hard place, the metaphorical experience. In his case, the literal experience of being between the tiger and the tiger and death imminent because the mice are gnawing on the vine. He was capable of doing something that most people are not capable of. He was capable of noticing something.

To me this was a parable about awareness, more than anything. It’s the fact that in that moment, the average person would look and not even notice there’s a strawberry there. Because we’re focused on the situation at hand. Right? The fact that there’s a tiger, there’s a tiger, there are mice, the vine is being chewed on. The last thing that’s going to cross my mind is, “What should I be aware of here? What am I not noticing?”

And in Buddhism, we talk about this awareness all the time. And specifically what we’re trying to be aware of is the fact that there are things that we don’t know, that we don’t know. So it’s not even an awareness of, “I need to be looking for strawberries,” in this case. Because you can’t know, in this story, that he didn’t know what he was going to encounter. But what he was capable of, is being in a moment like that and noticing something. Having that sense of awareness.
So I was thinking about this story in the days leading up to my appointment, my meeting with the factory owners. And I thought a lot about this story. And like I said, the idea of what this story means has shifted over time for me. And I feel it’s become a more meaningful and in-depth story for me. As I realize that the whole point of the story is about awareness. It’s not about the conclusion. And we don’t know what happens. That’s not the point, is to know what will happen. Did he climb up? Did he climb down? Did the vine break? You know, you can draw all these metaphors, but that’s not the point. The point is that in that moment he experienced something because of his awareness.

So on Thursday, the day of the meeting, I had been thinking about this. And I was trying to tell myself, you know, there’s no need to be too stressed. Worst case scenario is that this business deal doesn’t happen the way that I thought that it did. And the best case scenario is that it does happen the way that I thought that it would. And in a way, both of them seemed like the rock and the hard place. Because if it does work the way that I wanted it to work, then I’m bound by these new terms that we’re committing to. And if it doesn’t work, then none of it’s going to work. And I’m free to start doing something else. But that also brings its own bag of new things to worry about.

So as we’re walking out there, I’m thinking of the story of the strawberry. And thinking, okay, for me this is completely metaphorical because there’s really no tiger and there’s no tiger. But it can feel like that. Life can feel like that at times. And I thought, if I were the person hanging on the vine right now. And I’m nervous about what’s going to happen. Am I going to climb up, am I going to climb down? Is the tiger going to get me? Are the mice going to gnaw through the vine? You know, when you’re in that situation. And I was thinking what am I, what could I look around and see that I didn’t notice that I wasn’t noticing?

And again, I’m in Germany. I’m experiencing a really cool vacation, tied in with work. Because it’s a new place I’ve never been. And as we’re walking to where we were going to have the meeting, I paused. And I thought, “What have I not noticed here?” And I just looked around. And as I looked around, this flock of birds flew right over my head. Probably 30 or 40 birds. And it was just a really powerful moment to pause for a second.

And to realize, here are all these birds who are just flying. And they’re completely oblivious to my stresses. The things going on in my life. The fact that I’m walking to a meeting that’s stressing me out. And they just do what they do. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds and thousands of years. In this same little city. Where people are walking to and from the town square. Probably with stresses and moments of failure, moments of success, with all kinds of things. But to them, it doesn’t matter. They’re going about doing their thing. And for some reason that experience for me, really clicked with the story of the strawberry.

And I took out my phone and I started filming. On the iPhone, you can do slow motion video. And I was filming them fly. And I filmed it in slow motion. And then I sat down and I watched the birds flying in slow motion. With their wings flapping and all of it in slow motion. And it just, it hit me with such a strong sense of awareness I think, in that moment. To realize there’s so much that I’m not aware of in a moment like that. When I can feel stress or anxiety, that feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place can limit my ability to be aware of all the amazing beauty that’s happening all around. And in that moment, it happened to be birds.

And I know that there are other things that I’m not aware of. You know? Maybe there were also ants crawling around. Or aside from the animals, just the other people in that same space. You know, somebody was probably walking with excitement in their step, because they had just gotten engaged or they just got a new job or they just bought a new car. At the same time, someone else was walking through that plaza, disappointed because they just lost a job, or they just crashed their car or they’re going through marital problems. I don’t know. And I think that’s kind of the point is, like with the Zen story.
It’s not about the conclusion because we don’t know the conclusion. We don’t know what happened. But it was never about what happened. It’s about what can we notice in the process of just being. And this was really powerful for me because from that moment on, I kind of felt like it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. But what can I notice in this one moment. What can be my strawberry. And my strawberry was seeing those birds. And watching them fly. And I think a part of the reason that stood out to me so much is because I have a fascination for flying.
Flying is a big part of what I enjoy in life. And flying, ironically, was also a big part of why I was there in that moment, having that meeting. Because at one point in my life, I thought I was going to be a pilot, a helicopter pilot. And I spent a considerable amount of time and money to pursue that career. And it just turned out that, that wasn’t the career that worked out for me. Life events changed my plans. And instead of graduating from the school I was going to, and becoming a helicopter pilot. The school closed and went bankrupt. And stole my student loans for my flight money. And propelled me down this whole new path that was unplanned, unanticipated. And here I was in that present moment, the culmination of my desire to be a pilot. Had me standing in a square, in Germany, watching birds in slow motion. And it was just kind of a cool experience.

To me that’s the essence of this story. The story of the Zen master who was capable, in the moment of being between a rock and a hard place, of noticing something. And having a sense of awareness. So that’s what I wanted to share with you this week. Is the topic of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I know you’ve all felt that. I’ve felt that. And if you haven’t or you’re not right now. You will at some point again. It’s part of the experience of being alive. And when that happens, I would invite you to think of this story. Think of the guy dangling by a vine. And looking and realizing, oh there’s a strawberry. And tasting it. And like I’ve said before, this sounds like such a simple silly, almost, story. But it carries a very powerful message.

And it’s the message of our ability to be aware. And I think it’s this person’s ability to be aware in a moment like that. Is what makes that person enlightened. It’s not the fact that he ate a strawberry and that made him enlightened. That would be silly. So think about that. And if you’re going through a situation like this in your life, pause for a moment. And just ask yourself, continually ask yourself, “What am I not aware of not being aware of?” Or “What am I not noticing that I’m not noticing?” And pause for a minute. And look around. And try to capture something going on around you. That can get you out of that sense of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Because there’s always something else. And I’d love to hear your story or your interpretation of this. What this parable means to you. And the comments on the blog or on the Facebook page or in the Facebook group, Secular Buddhism. So, SecularBuddhism.com or Secular Buddhism on Facebook. You can find the study group and the Facebook page. So that’s the story I wanted to share with you this week, the story of the strawberry, being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And remember, awareness is one of the key teachings in Buddhism. And there’s a big reason why. Because wisdom is what we’re after. And the only way to obtain wisdom, in this sense, in the spiritual sense, is learning or becoming aware of the things that we’re not aware of. And it’s with awareness that we can have acceptance. And with awareness and acceptance that we can experience change. Or enact change in our lives. And that’s why awareness is a key part here. And this is why this story, to me, is such a powerful story when you think about it and relate it to a teaching about awareness. So, ask yourself, “What am I not noticing?”

And again, I want to thank you for listening and being a part of this podcast. I’ve mentioned this before, but the podcast is growing at a rate that is quite incredible for me. And is still hard to believe. And I want to thank you all for that. Because it’s because of you that the podcast gets shared and continues to grow. And if any of you are interested in doing any humanitarian work. I’m going to remind you again, of the humanitarian trip we’re doing to Uganda, January 26 through February 4th of next year, 2017. And you can learn all about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

So that’s all I have for this week. Thank you again for listening. And if you have time, please write a review or give the podcast a rating in iTunes, that really helps. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can be reached on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Facebook page. And thanks again, for your continued support. And, until next time.

27 – Understanding Non-Attachment

What does it mean to practice non-attachment? Rather than thinking of non-attachment as not attaching to things, think of it as not allowing things to own you. What things own you? Those are the things you’re attached to. In this episode, I will discuss the concept of non-attachment and I will attempt to make this idea more accessible and easy to understand.

Transcript of the podcast

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 27. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about understanding non-attachment.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings, presented for a secular-minded audience.

The Dalai Lama has said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I like to emphasize that at the beginning of every podcast episode, so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode, and remember if you enjoy the podcast please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Or if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would really appreciate it if you could make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

So let’s jump into this weeks’ topic “Understanding Non-attachment”. This is a topic I wanted to discuss because it’s come up a few times in recent workshops that I’ve done where the understanding of non-attachment is, I think, a little bit misconstrued. Typically, there’s the response, or asking for clarification, on whether or not it’s okay to be attached. Specifically, usually, referring to loved ones like a spouse, or children, or parents. So I want to clarify this topic a little bit more because non-attachment is a very important part of understanding Buddhist philosophical thought, but I want to be clear about what exactly non-attachment is. Or perhaps more specifically, what it’s not. Because I think when we think of the word attached, and if I were to think I’m attached to my kids or to my wife, we don’t necessarily view that as a negative connotation. And I don’t think we should.

The type of non-attachment that’s being talked about in Buddhist thought has less to do with what you own, or with what you hold on to, versus how that holds onto you. So, for instance, I heard a recent quote that said “Non-attachment doesn’t mean we don’t own things. It means we don’t allow things to own us.” That, in a nutshell, is the type of non-attachment that we’re talking about. A Zen Master put it pretty simply, he said “Everything breaks. Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.”

So, I think, non-attachment really stems from misunderstanding of things being impermanent. When we attach to something we suffer, and others suffer, because we’re holding onto things that are past their time. You remember the raft, the parable of the raft, where the Buddha was with his monks and he asks if somebody were to build a raft and they are crossing the river with it, at the time that they finally make it to the other side, is it wise or unwise to continue that raft with them. And I think this lesson really is talking about the understanding of non-attachment. Letting go of the raft, whatever the raft may be, is a lesson of letting go of things that are past their time. That is essentially the understanding of non-attachment.

This can apply to relationships, friends, experiences. Even our moment to moment experience of living, if we’re attached to it, can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. By excepting the true nature of things as being impermanent we ease our fears and we open our hearts. Then this understanding of impermanence will not only benefit ourselves but will benefit others as well. So don’t think of non-attachment as a form of indifference or a form of self-denial. Think of non-attachment as a way of not allowing things in your life to own you. Giving up the attachment to the permanence of things is the key understanding here.

Because we understand that all things are constantly changing, that all things are impermanent, and because all things are constantly changing, when you hold onto something, and attach to it, it’s detrimental because that thing changes. It evolves and changes over time. Like that quote “Everything breaks.” Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality and you can apply that thinking to almost anything.

In terms of relationship, because that one’s brought up quite often, what does non-attachment mean in terms of how I love my spouse, or my partner, or my children, or my parents, or siblings? Thich Nhat Hanh has a really good quote that I like, he says “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” I think this goes hand in hand with the understanding of non-attachment. Loving in a non-attached way is loving in a way that the person that you love feels free, and to be loved in way that you feel free is a way of being loved without attachment. So it’s not that there isn’t love, or that you don’t want to be with someone, it’s that you don’t allow that person, or that thing, to own you, because that’s attachment. So letting go of attachment is the secret to really enjoying life and to loving others. It’s a way of freedom.

Think about that with relationships like with your children. If you love your children in a way that they feel free, that’s genuine non-attachment. You’re allowing someone to be completely authentic and free as they are. I think this is very pertinent with relationships but it applies to other things too.

I’ve been asked specifically about goals. Is non-attachment meaning I go through life and I don’t have milestones or goals that I’m going to work towards or aspire to? The goals or milestones are not the problems. It’s when we allow those things to own us that it becomes unhealthy so that same form of thinking applies here. I think it’s completely appropriate to have goals, to have milestones, that you set in life, or in your career, or in various phases of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when we become trapped because those things own us.

Jack Kornfield had a quote he put on Twitter not too long ago that said “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” I think, again, that’s a wonderful understanding of the concept of impermanence. So apply that to something like a goal. Having goals can be fine when you understand that goals are impermanent. You work towards it and you either accomplish it and move on, or something changes and it doesn’t work out, and that’s where the wisdom of adaptability comes into play because the moment life presents something new you can adapt and create a new goal. Because that goal didn’t own you, you used it as a tool for you, not an anchor or not something that makes it more difficult for you.

The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. That all meeting ends in parting. Again, I think, in all these examples what stands out to me is the understanding of non-attachment in terms of our understanding of impermanence because the mistake that we make is seeing life as permanent.

One of my teachers, Koyo Kubose, would say “Don’t put a period on it.” He always says “Just keep going.” Our tendency in life is to freeze it and make permanent things, like we do sentences. Then when this sentence is over there’s the period. That thought is done. It’s locked and now I move onto the next one. I think that makes a lot of sense in some ways, especially with writing, but what if life wasn’t about putting periods on things? What if it was always a comma and then you keep going? Then you add another comma and you keep going, like one infinitely long run-on sentence, which I know is really going to bother some of you who are into grammar, but think about that in terms of life.

I’ve compared life to a river. There’s no aspect of the river that’s permanent. The water that’s flowing is continually changing. The very edges and banks of the river are constantly eroding and sand is being carried away. If a big storm comes, and the water rises, the shape of the river can change. The water finds a new path and that becomes the new path of the river. So there’s not aspect of a river that’s permanent. Life is a lot like that. There’s no aspect of life that’s permanent. It’s when we get caught up in those moments of making things in life seem permanent that we run the risk of becoming attached. So when we attach to the permanence of things, then those things start to own us.

Non-attachment could be said that it’s really about not comparing. When you think about this in terms of time, this could be really powerful because think of the present moment. What if we allowed the present moment to be free as it is? Without comparing the present moment to a previous moment, or to a future moment, we just allow the present moment to be completely free to be what it is. Right here and right now. We’re not very good at that. Our tendency is to compare the present moment to a past moment or to a future moment that we anticipate. In doing that we’re not allowing that to be free and it’s without that sense of freedom that we become slaves to these concepts.

That’s the idea of attachment. Not that we’re attaching but they way we understand it, it attaches and binds us almost like shackles or like chains. So think of non-attachment as a form of freedom. The opposite of non-attachment is … Well, I guess, non-attachment could be synonymous with freedom. So think of it that way and the opposite of non-attachment would be a form of being bound or chained to whatever it is. It could be ideas, relationships, the present moment, there’s several things in life that can come up that non-attachment would be a much healthier way to approach it than the path of attachment, which I think in a lot of cases is more common.

The idea of non-attachment and, as I mentioned earlier, what one of my teachers always talks about “just keep going”. I had the experience last weekend, last Saturday, to get together with some friends and try to do a walk, a 50 mile walk. Fifty miles is 80.46 kilometers for those of you who use the metric system, so just to give an idea of how far of a distance that is. We walked that in one day. We started at five in the morning in one city, and walked to another city, from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. It took me just over 19 hours. So I started at 5:00 am and I arrived just after midnight, around 12:30. It was just a long day of non-stop walking and the reason I did it, I was excited to this when I found out that my friend was putting this together, because I knew that at some point I would want to stop. I would want to quit.

I had been studying this concept of “keep going” with my teacher and the idea that sometimes we do things just to do them. Our tendency, I’ve mentioned this in earlier podcasts, is that our utilitarian view of the world is “Well, what’s in it for me? If I’m going to do this there’s got to be a reason why.” Either I get a trophy, or I get even just to be able to say that I did it is still a reason to do it. I thought “What if I did it just to do it?” That’s a long enough walk to where, at some point, you just … Well, I guess you don’t why you’re doing it, but you forget the fact that you’re measuring how long it’s going to be because it’s still so long that you’re not really thinking about that.

I thought it might be a fun exercise to get into the mind set of thinking “I’m just taking one more step. And then one more step. I’m just going to keep going. Practicing this form of understanding and permanence. This moment, this step I’m taking, ends. It ends the moment I take the next step. Then that moment is also impermanent. It ends the moment I take the next step.” Overall, that’s how the entire walk turned out to be for me. This form of walking meditation of just taking one step at a time, having in my mind the attitude of “just keep going”. At times I thought about Dory. I’d gone to see Dory with my kids, from Finding Nemo, and she’s always singing that song Just Keep Swimming. Just Keep Swimming. I had that popping into my mind on multiple occasions during the walk. To just keep going. Just keep swimming.

I finally completed that and for me it was a form of being unattached to the permanence of the situation, of walking. I think it’s easy to think “Okay, here’s the start of the walk and then there’s the end of the walk.” I knew it was going to be about 20 hours was my goal. I think sometimes there’s this attitude, I know that I was certainly thinking this, of enduring. I’m going to endure this. Enduring things in life is one way to view things but I like to think of it as understanding that what I’m going through in the moment is not permanent. This too shall pass. I’ve talked about that. And that ring. The king who was looking for a way to be cheered up when he was down and he was given a ring with the inscription “This too shall pass.” But that also reminded him, when things were good this too shall pass, and it kind of became his curse.

While I was doing the 50 mile walk I thought about that a lot. Especially towards the end when I was starting to feel really sore, and my muscles were really tight, and I was starting to limp, and I was thinking “this too shall pass”. At the first of the walk “this too shall pass” was my comfort level. I was feeling very comfortable, my legs were fine, and I was telling myself, “well this too shall pass”. At some point in this walk this is going to hurt. Then when it was hurting I was telling myself “this too shall pass” and that was to remind me that once the walk was over, at some point my muscles wouldn’t be sore again. That actually took a full week after the walk, so from Saturday, from the moment I was done, the next day I could barely walk. Then it took almost a full week before I could walk without limping. But throughout this whole ordeal it was fun to try to practice the mindset of not allowing any of it to feel permanent. Every day, I was reminding myself, even after the walk, I’m still sore, thinking “well this too shall pass”.

That’s essentially the attitude of non-attachment. It’s recognizing that everything that I’m experiencing is impermanent. I’m trying to face the reality that everything ends. Every start has an ending. I thought about the parable that I’ve shared before about the two monks who where crossing the river because I think that is a wonderful depiction of detachment. So the two monks arrive at the edge of the river and there’s the young girl in the wedding gown. The senior monk picks her up without even thinking. They cross the river. He puts her down and then at some point on their journey, the young monk is just going nuts trying to figure out what he had just seen. He finally tells the senior monk “Hey, what are you doing? We’ve taken vows to not touch a female and you just picked her up like nothing and carried her across the river.” The senior monk pauses and just tells him “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why do you continue to carry her?”

To me that another wonderful example of attachment. When something has gone beyond its time, it’s past its time, we have a hard time letting go because we’re attached. Non-attachment is being able to do what you need to do in the moment, like the monk putting the girl on his back, and then when it was done it was done and he let her go.

I would invite you to think about this topic and ask yourself “What are you attached to?” Maybe an even stronger way to word this, to make it more clear what I’m trying to get at, is “What are the things that currently own you?” What are the things that control and currently own you? This could be emotions, if you’re still angry at something that happened in the past, or at someone. Take a look at your life and ask yourself “What is it that currently owns me?” Because if you feel a sense of something that owns you there’s attachment there. That’s a great place to start with practicing non-attachment. What can I try to detach from? Well, try to detach from the things that you feel that own you. This doesn’t just have to be the negative things, it can be anything that you feel owns you. With relationships, this is incredibly powerful.

If you are able to have a non-attached loving relationship with your spouse, or with your parents, or with your children, what would that look like to love someone in such a way that the person that you love feels free? What would that look like? What would it look like if you felt like you were loved in a way that you felt free? Start by offering that to someone else. Offering that sense of freedom to the person that you love. That’s a form of non-attachment.

I hope that kind of clarifies the topic a little bit about non-attachment. Rather than thinking of non-attachment as “I don’t own anything.” Or “I’m not going to have anything in my life. I’m going to give everything up.” Consider that non-attachment has more to do with not allowing the things that you do have in your life to possess you, or to own you. Think of it that way and then look for what areas, or things, in your life right now feel like they have a sense of attachment for you.
I’d love to hear about this in the comments and see how it goes for you as you discuss this, or as you explore this a little bit. Then I want to remind everyone, only because we’re getting closer to the date of this humanitarian trip that I’m doing next January. January 26th through February 4th. If you’re interested in learning about that, please reach out to me. You can learn about it on mindfulhumanitarian.org or you can reach out to me, I’ve mentioned this a few times but, you can find me on Facebook. My username is Noah Rasheta, so facebook.com/noahrasheta, or on Twitter, or on Instagram. I have the same username in all those places. Or you can always reach out to me by email, a lot of you do and I really appreciate communicating with you. My email address is [email protected] So you can find me on secularbuddhism.com, of course.

As always, thank you so much for taking the time to listen. I really believe that this podcast is making a difference and many of you have reached out to tell me that it’s making a difference to you. It’s wonderful to hear that. It really motivates me to continue recording new podcast episodes.

I do this because I enjoy it. I do this because I’m trying to make myself a better whatever I already am. I have no intent of converting or changing anyone. I’m just sharing these topics because they’re meaningful to me and I enjoy them. In a way they’re written for me as I go through my journey. I’m trying to be more mindful and I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools to help myself and others to be more mindful. So you can play a part in that if you’re in a position to be able to help, your donations allow me continue producing that weekly content and creating these tools for the workshops and retreats and seminars and of course the podcast. So, if you’re in a position to be able to help please visit secularbuddhism.com to make a one-time donation or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast.

Thanks again for taking the time to listen and please feel free to share the podcast, to write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Please reach out to me and let me know what you think of this podcast episode.
Good luck with trying to explore in what areas of your life you feel that you could practice non-attachment. I’d love to hear what it does for you to think about it like this and to see if you can start to practice non-attachment in different areas of your life.

I wish you all the best. Have a great week. Until next time.

26 – Want to be happy? Practice gratitude


Gratitude is the key to happiness but gratitude requires practice. In this episode, I will discuss how we can develop a practice of gratitude. “The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” ― David Steindl-Rast

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 26. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about gratitude.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am recording this episode from a room in the Seattle airport while I’m waiting to catch a flight, so I want to apologize in advance if you hear any background sounds that you don’t typically hear when I record these podcasts.

This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” So please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. And as always, if you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. And if you’re in the position to be able to help, I would greatly appreciate if you were able to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com.

Now, let’s jump into this week’s topic. So in the past, I did a podcast episode that was called “Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” and it was a podcast about happiness and reframing the way that we approach our pursuit of happiness, and kind of shifting our mindset from the pursuit of happiness to the happiness of the pursuit. And it was a very popular podcast episode and I wanted to expand a little bit on that idea. So in the past several days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of gratitude and how gratitude plays into happiness.

So before we can talk about gratitude, I wanted to talk about happiness for a minute, because typically, you know, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish in life? If you were to ask somebody that question, including yourself, most of us are probably going to say that what we’re trying to accomplish is more happiness. We’re trying to experience the joy of happiness and trying to minimize everything else that doesn’t make us happy. That’s typically the path.

That’s why you’ve heard the expression, “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s like this thing that you can pursue and catch it, and we treat it almost like we do the other word “meaning” as if it was something that was out there that you can go and find, and you dig under a rock and there it is. There’s happiness, and now I got it, and it’s mine. When the reality is that happiness doesn’t work that way because happiness is just an emotion. And like all of our emotions, whether that’d be happiness, sadness, anger, you know … These are impermanent emotions, and when the causes and conditions are right, you experience and emotion, and then when the causes and conditions are gone, it’s no longer there. That’s the nature of our emotions.
So that trap that we fall into is thinking that happiness is thing that we can get, and we can’t. But the irony in this is that there is a way to experience it, but it doesn’t have to do with chasing after happiness. So the Buddha taught that we are what we think, and all that we are arises with our thoughts. And it’s with our thoughts that we make our world. So the way that we think will influence the way that we are, and when we think … When we are pursuing happiness or we think that happiness is the goal, we can get trapped in this hamster wheel, so to speak, that we’re running and running, and never get in there because we’ve misunderstood what happiness is.

So what I wanted to focus on in this podcast episode is something different. Rather than pursuing happiness, what if we develop or practice gratitude? And the irony in this is that it’s by practicing gratitude, it’s by developing a sense or an attitude of gratefulness that we experience happiness. Because remember, happiness isn’t something that you can’t catch and get. It’s not a thing that’s … There it is, there’s happiness, and I got it. You experience it, and you experience it by being grateful.
So what if instead of focusing on the pursuit of happiness, we focused on the practice of gratitude? That’s what I really wanted to discuss in this podcast. And practicing gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It seems that we’re not really hardwired to be grateful, and I have no doubt that you know somebody who tends to be more naturally grateful. And isn’t it pleasant to be around people who tend to be grateful? I know, I have several people in my life that I look up too, who are people who tend to be very grateful. And the thing about gratitude is that it’s like any skill. It’s a skill that requires practice, and we can develop an attitude of gratefulness or gratitude by practicing it.

Dr. Robert Emmons, who’s the author of a book called Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier … He talks about the three stages of gratitude, and says that, “First, you recognize what you’re grateful for. Then, you acknowledge it and appreciate it.” So recognition, then acknowledgement, then it’s the actual act of appreciating it. And that sounds simple, but the benefits of practicing gratitude can really be life-altering.

So I want to talk about this a little bit more because we tend to see gratitude as something that, when the circumstances are right, then we’ll be grateful. But gratitude isn’t about the circumstances, and you can look at this because you can put yourself in any set of circumstances and just change the scenario, and you’ll see in one circumstance you’ll be grateful, and the other one, you’re not, and the circumstances are the same. So it’s not about the circumstances.

For example, if you were driving down the road on your way to a job interview and you got a flat tire, you would pull over, and you know, the last thing you’re gonna do is be grateful for your flat tire, because you don’t want to have a flat tire. You want to be at the job interview. Now, if you were in a prison transport vehicle on your way to jail for something that you didn’t do and you’re really terrified to go to jail, and the transport vehicle gets a flat tire, well now you’re gonna be very grateful for the flat tire, and you’re gonna hope that it takes them a hundred years to change the tire. So if you were looking at the circumstance, the circumstance is you got a flat tire, that’s not the problem. It’s only a problem if you don’t want a flat tire.

So with gratitude, it’s never about the circumstances, or the event, I should say, and maybe not circumstances, but the event. It’s not about the event. It’s about everything around that. So I think to understand gratitude a little bit more, we should talk about: Why is it that we don’t feel gratitude? What is it that’s preventing gratitude?

And I think a big part of this is what we call dualistic thinking. It’s the idea that there’s life as it is and then there’s life as I think it should be. And that’s the dualistic part of it. I’m creating two realities. There’s reality as it is, and the reality that I want. And that separation puts us in a position where when I’m looking for something that isn’t how it is, it’s hard to experience gratitude. The sense of expectation or the sense of comparison, we don’t what is. We only see what we … You know, the woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios of life. And the thing is, gratitude is just there. It’s a part of the reality as it is, and it doesn’t know any of the stories that we’ve created about how things should be. So we … It’s important to understand that it’s resentment and bitterness that can blind us from being grateful. Well, blind us … We simply just cannot experience it because we’re experiencing resentment and bitterness.

So it’s important, I think, to look at your life and to analyze in what way, or in what areas of my life am I experiencing any kind of resentment or bitterness. And this will typically have to do with, you know, woulda, coulda, shoulda. Because resentment and bitterness typically from dashed expectations. There’s … How the way life is different from how we want it to be because we think it should’ve been differently had this … This or that changed. And when we’re in that mindset, what is there to be grateful for? You can’t be grateful.

When the world doesn’t fit our stories, there’s tension from, you know, how things are and how I expected things to be. And in that world, you’re just not going to experience any form of gratitude. So then we need to look at that a little bit more, and if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, then maybe you can ask, “Why am I not feeling grateful? Why am I not experiencing gratitude?” And then follow that up with, “Am I experiencing some kind of resentment or some kind of bitterness?” Because typically, we go through life experiencing these things, but we don’t pause and give ourselves the time of day to actually be with those emotions and to analyze them a little bit.

This is where practicing gratitude really comes in. And I want to talk about this because I think there are five steps that we can take to start to develop gratitude, and consider this a form of practice because by practicing this we get better at it just like going to the gym makes you stronger or practicing meditation makes you more mindful. So developing gratitude, we could say, is something that can be practiced and we’re gonna go through these five steps to develop gratitude.

So the first one is about … Is centered around awareness. You want to become aware. So step one is become aware, and this is asking yourself, “What am I not noticing here? What should I be grateful for?” Because if you’re not experiencing gratitude naturally, that’s okay. But at least you can notice, “Hey, I’m not experiencing gratitude. Why aren’t I grateful?” And you’ll be amazed if you were to … To become aware, you would be amazed at all the goodness that we take for granted, all the things that we should be grateful that we don’t typically or naturally experience. And there’s a good video, a TED Talk called “A Good Day” that you could check out and that’ll help get you in the right frame of mind. So just developing a sense of awareness, and this could be the awareness that … Of things that you’ve realized, “Oh, I’m grateful for this.” But it also entails the awareness of realizing, “Oh, I’m not grateful.” The fact that you’re aware that you’re not grateful is a good start.

The next step is writing it down. You’ve probably heard of the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. But really, all it takes is writing down one or a few things that you’re grateful for on a daily basis and developing a habit out of that. And you don’t have to have a fancy notebook for that. There are apps that will do this that you can put on your phone and they’ll remind you every morning, and say, now what are the one or two or three things that you’re grateful for? There are many ways you can develop this as a daily habit, and just write it down because when you’re forced to ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?”, you’re going to … You have to pause and you have to think about it. So it’s a really good way to start developing the practice of gratitude.
The third step is learning to identify the negative. So if you identify something or someone with a negative trait, you know, for example, some people have the tendency to approach things from the negative point first. For example, you walk into the office and the first thing you notice is it’s cold, or … I don’t know. There are a lot scenarios here, but what if you could practice switching it in your mind to see what is the positive aspect of this? You know, for example, you walk into a room and it feels cold, then think, well, okay … Try to extract out of this something that’s positive. You look out the window and realize, “Oh, but this room has a good view.” And so now you’ve practiced switching that, identifying the negative so that you can switch to the positive. And this is just, again, a practice. The more you do this, the more habitual it become to see positive things simultaneously as you see the negative things, and then eventually, seeing less negative things.

The fourth step is gonna be practicing, and we’re not gonna fake it. You don’t have to fake being grateful. You don’t have to pretend to be grateful, or say, you know, to someone, “Oh, thank you,” just because you’re faking it. Consider this practicing it. So try to give at least one compliment everyday, and the reason this is helpful is because if you know, “Today, I’m supposed to give a compliment to something or to someone,” it forces you to look for the positive because you’re not gonna want to just compliment and be inauthentic. So you will start to practice being authentically looking for something to be grateful for so you can share that. So, you know, this could be very easy. Smiling and saying thank you to someone for something is a wonderful way to practice gratitude. So find something to be grateful for and then express it. I think we go through a significant portion of our lives feeling gratitude but never expressing. And gratitude feels good for us but you who else it feels incredible for? The person who’s receiving it, on the receiving end of gratitude.

Practicing … I guess what we’re really practicing here is practicing the expression of gratitude. So when you feel gratitude, feel free to express it. Share it with the people, especially people that you know and care for and love, it’s very meaningful to feel appreciated. So practice expressing gratitude and it can be for anything, you know, the waiter who brings you your food, someone who opens the door at the gas station. It can be to your spouse or significant other who did something kind for you, or … There’s just so many ways, so many moments to be able to feel and then more importantly express your gratitude. So we’re practicing the expression of gratitude.

And then there’s the fifth step which I kind of like. I think this might be a challenge for the podcast listeners to go in on this challenge of making a vow. So this is kind of a complement to the practice, it’s making a vow to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip for a set amount of time. Maybe let’s say, 10 days. A 10-day vow or a 10-day gratitude challenge, and rather than focusing it around the positive aspect of it, of being grateful, because we’re already practicing that. Remember, you’re gonna do it everyday, you’re gonna compliment someone … At least one compliment everyday.

This is focusing on the negative side, “How do I eliminate the negative side?” Well, what if you take a vow to not complain, criticize or gossip for 10 days? And if you catch yourself messing up, you don’t have to do this, but maybe if you catch yourself slipping, you know, maybe you can have some form of punishment where you put a dollar into a jar every time you mess up, and at the end, take that money and maybe donate to someone or to something. I don’t know. That just might be a fun way to do it, but you don’t have to do that. But I would love to see if you’re willing to take a vow to … For 10 days to not complain, to not criticize or to gossip. I remember gossiping is just speaking of someone when they’re not there in a negative way. There’s never a need to do that.

So those are the five steps. Number one, become aware. Developing an awareness of the things that we’re grateful for, or at least an awareness that we’re not grateful. It can start with that. Step two, write it down. Step three, identify the negative approach. If you have negative approach, identify when and where and how you do that, and try to counter it with one positive. So as soon as you identify the negative, counter it with a positive, and just practice that. Step four is practicing the expression of gratitude. You know, try for 10 days to at least give one compliment daily, and you know, keep going past the 10 days. This is a great one to do. Maybe it’s a daily thing that you do for the rest of your life, that would be awesome. So practice expressing gratitude especially to the people who you’re close to. It would mean everything to them. And make a vow, 10-day challenge. No complaining, criticizing or gossiping for 10 days. I’d love to hear in the comments on SecularBuddhism.com or on the Secular Buddhism study group on Facebook or just the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, but I’d love to hear you tell me about it if you make that vow, if you take that commitment, or you can email me: [email protected] Tell me all about it, I’d love to hear that.

But that’s kind of what I had in mind for this topic on gratitude. So how we can shift our mindset from the mindless pursuit of happiness? Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that. It can be mindful. But what if we focused our attention away from chasing after happiness to just practicing gratitude? And the irony, like I said before, the irony in this is that, experiencing gratitude is what helps us … It’s what makes you feel happy. So if you want to chase after happiness, don’t chase after it. Practice gratitude. There’s no greater gift than the gift of gratitude, of feeling grateful for our lives, for the fact of being alive, for so many little things. And I think we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all the things we can be grateful for.

One of my teachers [inaudible 00:20:02] was talking about the little things in life that we typically don’t even think about, we don’t think to be grateful for, and he specifically mentioned his shoes and how at the end of everyday, he takes off his shoes and says, “Thank you, shoes, for protecting my stinky feet.” And it was so interesting for me to hear that and to think not once in my entire life have I ever thanked my shoes because you wouldn’t think to have to do that. You know, these are inanimate objects and they don’t have feelings, so why do I need to thank them? But it’s not about them. It’s about my disposition and my attitude, and I thought, “Well, how interesting.”

It’s just never occurred to me to be thankful for something so simple as, you know, what protects my feet all day long. So I spent a week after that trying to think of all the little things to be thankful for. And throughout that week, it was fascinating, you know, at work, a check came in and a signed it and I deposited it on my phone, taking a picture, and again, I had experience where I was like I’ve never thought to be thankful to my pen for being able to sign my name, to my phone for being able to take a picture and have that go right into my account, I didn’t have to drive to the bank, so I was like, “Thank you, smartphone. Thank you, pen.” And then, “Thank you, check.” Because it was able to just come in the mail, and then I was like, “Oh, well, thank you to the post office who does all these delivery and getting things from here to there.” And it just went on and on and on, that one single action brought up hundreds of things to be thankful for. And it’s just so interesting how so many of those things had never once crossed my mind ever to be thankful for. You can imagine that whole week was an intense week of being grateful for all the little things.

You know, even the drive home, I was thinking, “How can I be grateful for things I’ve never thought of being grateful for before?” For example, the red light. You’re stuck at the red light. You don’t ever thank the red light. But I looked at the red light and said, “Thank you, red light.” Because if it wasn’t for this red light organizing us all, it would be chaotic here. And while my light is red, someone else’s light is green, and they get to go. And then when theirs is red, mine is green, and you know, I was thinking I should thank the red light because thanks to their red light, I get to drive through this intersection when it’s green, and typically not have to worry about someone else running through the intersection and hitting me.

It just kind of reframes the way you view a lot of things if you practice gratitude. So I think it would be a fun experience this week, or whenever you listen to this podcast, to give yourself a 10-day challenge. Take a vow for 10 days to not complain, to not gossip, to not criticize, and during those 10 days, practice expressing gratitude, at least one compliment, one authentic compliment everyday to someone for something. And see how that changes you, see if it starts to change your mindset. And more importantly, what you should notice is the more you practice gratitude, the more you should experience happiness. And this is the best part of all of it, is that the goal isn’t to be happy. We’re not chasing after happiness. We’re practicing gratitude, but the effect of that, what you’ll notice is that you experience and feel more happiness.

And quickly before I wrap up this podcast, I do want to remind you that next year, in January … From January 26th through February 4th, I’ve been invited to teach mindfulness retreat in conjunction with a humanitarian trip that we’re doing in Uganda in Africa. And this is gonna be a really awesome opportunity to do humanitarian work, while at the same time focusing on the contemplate of practice of mindfulness. So if you are interested in learning about that, visit MindfulHumanitarian.org. This is going to be a wonderful and unique experience going to Uganda, experiencing mindfulness, humanitarian work and adventure. We’re doing a safari. If you’re interested in learning more about that, visit the website or reach out to me, and ask me any questions that you might have.

And as always, I want to thank you for taking the time to listen. When I started this podcast, my intention was to just make content and tools available for people to learn the philosophical concepts that are taught from the contemplate of tradition of Buddhism that ultimately enable us to live more mindfully. And I’ve been surprised to see how much demand there is for this presentation, this style of presentation for Buddhism, and it’s been an incredible journey and I’m very happy to be doing this and to be on this journey with you.

And I’ve said this before, but I believe that the key to contributing to making society or the world a better place really is about making ourselves better versions of ourselves, and that’s why I do these podcasts. I’m determined to continue producing content and creating tools that will help us to be more mindful, and ultimately, this is … I do this for myself. This is my practice. This is me trying to be the best me that I can be. And you know, at times, it feels like, well, it’d be great to do this for everyone else out there to listen to this, but ultimately, I don’t feel like I’m trying to sell anything. I don’t feel like I’m trying to push anything on anyone. I record all this, in a way for, myself. This is me being able to express myself in a way that my own children will be able to listen to this at some point in the future and know how I felt about these topics.

And if you listened to this and you enjoy it, well then, that’s all for the better. If we can be more mindful as individuals, we end up having more mindful families and ultimately more mindful societies, and we can end up having a better world and it’s not because we were trying to change the world. It’s ultimately because we were trying to change ourselves, and I really believe that.

So if you’re able to contribute in any way, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for this podcast, along with content for the workshops and the retreats and seminars that I do. And if you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit SecularBuddhism.com to make a one-time donation, or sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast.

And as always, thank you for your continued support, and I’ll be happy to record another podcast episode next week. So have a great week, and until next time.

25 – Is Buddhism a Religion?

One of the most common questions I hear when I’m teaching is “Is Buddhism a Religion?” People are typically expecting a simple “yes” or “no” but I’ve found that the answer is a bit more complex than that. In this episode, I will share my view of why I see Buddhism as an applied psychology or a philosophical way of life more than a religion.

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Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 25. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m answering the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?”
Welcome back the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Welcome back to the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

I think it’s very fitting for the answer to this specific question to be the answer is yes and now. It’s yes and it’s no and it’s yes and no and it’s neither yes or no. How’s that for a Buddhist answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. Here’s my thinking behind this answer for me specifically. Of course it’s a religion. It’s a religion that’s practiced by over 300 million people in the world who consider themselves to be Buddhist and they practice Buddhism as a religion. There are also, I don’t know the numbers, but there are also a lot of people who would say Buddhism is not a religion. I think this is more prevalent in the west, for western mindset. We tend to see it more like a psychology. The definition of psychology is a study of the mind and its functions, particularly those affecting behavior given in a specific context. Buddhism fits in very well, very nicely with the definition of psychology.

Now, the definition of religion, it depends on who’s defining it. There are so many definitions. Every dictionary I’ve checked has a slightly different definition for what religion is. Let’s just look at a couple of these and see how Buddhism would apply. One definition is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. This one could be problematic in Buddhism because Buddhism is a non theistic tradition. There isn’t a deity that’s kind of at the head of everything, controlling it like we would typically think in the west or in the Judeo-Christian mindset. There’s a monotheistic god who is the creator and has power to control everything, an all powerful, all knowing deity.

Buddhism doesn’t have that. There are some schools of Buddhism that incorporate cosmology with … A cosmology that does entail gods and realms and worlds, but these are not part of the doctrine of Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t really have a doctrine or a set of esoteric facts that you need to believe in. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s kind of saying, let’s study the way that you see and understand the world because when you take a look at the way that you see things, the way that you see things changes, so it’s by studying the mind. Rather than having something to believe in, it’s saying the things that you believe in affect how you see the world. If you’re comparing the two just off of those two definitions, Buddhism is much more of a psychology than it is a religion.

If you look at the definition of religion as a particular system of faith or worship, then you could start to say, well Buddhism could fit in that. If you take Buddhist rituals like meditation or in some schools of Buddhism where they have changing or reciting the mantra, or lighting incense, practices like that, it starts to look more like a system of faith and worship. It starts to look more like a religion. I think part of the problem is that we typically observe Buddhist practices or rituals from a western mindset. You see someone lighting an incense and you’re thinking he or she must be worshiping the Buddha or something along those lines. We associate the ritual practices with what we understand as religious behavior and that kind of make sit seem more like a religion. Again, I think from the eastern mindset it’s very different and it’s hard for us to know the eastern mindset because we’re not eastern. We don’t have an eastern mindset. We grew up with a western mindset that’s much more conditioned on the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion.

Another definition of Buddhism would be a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and the purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. You can start to pick out parts of this definition where you might say, “Well Buddhism kind of works there and there are others where it doesn’t.” The purpose of the universe, I think in western thinking, I’ve mentioned this before, but we tend to think if something exists, there must be a reason for it because if there wasn’t a reason, then it shouldn’t exist. In eastern thinking, it doesn’t work that way. There doesn’t need to be a reason for something. With a Buddhist mindset, it’s not about the reason, it’s about the cause. Buddhism teaches that all natural phenomenon have causes and conditions. That means everything that is has a cause for that thing to be.

From the Buddhist mindset, we’re looking for the causes and conditions of things and this applies to everything, whether that be a tree, the tree is there because the seed came from another tree, or internal things like, I’m experiencing anger, well there are causes and conditions for that. You can look and explore and find the causes and conditions for all things. I think this mimics a little bit more of the scientific approach to life where science is always looking for the causes of things and Buddhism does the same in this sense. It can be another one of those topics where it’s like, well in some ways it’s more like a science than it is like a religion, or more of a psychology than it is religion, so it gets kind of tricky.

That’s why, I think the most appropriate answer to that question is yes and no. It is a religion and it’s not a religion depending on who you’re asking and how they practice it. For me specifically, I practice Buddhism as a philosophical way of life and the advantage of this approach is you can fuse it with religious ideas. I know people who practice Buddhism and practice meditation and mindfulness and they are Christian or they have Christian beliefs. Certain aspects of their life, they find meaning through their religious system and then other aspects, their contemplative practice comes from an eastern tradition like Buddhism. It can be a combination as well. I like to think of Buddhism, like I mentioned before, as a philosophical way of life.

Here’s the main reason why, for me, if you ask me personally, I tend to think Buddhism is much less of a religion than it is a psychological practice or a philosophical practice. If you break down the core teachings of what the Buddha taught, you find that it mimics more of a medical diagnosis than it does any kind of a religious or esoteric set of facts. Typically a religion presents an answer to the question, what is the meaning of all of this? Then you are presented with some kind of a story, whether that be the story of the creation, or the story of what happens after you die. There’s some kind of a story that you can believe in and you can choose based on your own observation, whether that be through reading a set of scriptures of that religion or just taking it and analyzing it and deciding this resonates with me. Then it’s up to you to decide to believe it.
Now, you’re belief in that story, it can evolve over time, but for you to be a Christian, you have to believe the story that, first of all, you need to be saved, so you’d have to believe, oh, I’m not saved, then I need to be saved. Then the parts of the story start to make sense. This is why I need someone to come save me from my sins. Then involved with that whole story is if you do that and you are saved from your sins, then when you die you don’t have to go to hell. You get to go to a place called heaven. All of it starts to fit in, but it’s all contingent on your belief in that set of de esoteric facts, the esoteric stories that are presented as facts, and you have to believe those. It gets problematic if you don’t believe some of those things. It can become problematic because the whole system starts to fall apart.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not presenting a set of facts. It’s, like I mentioned before, it’s more of a medical process where you’re trying to figure out, what is the problem? The problem is this. It’s a solvable problem, here’s what you have to do about it. Then once it’s done and you’re treated, it’s all over. Just like going to a doctor, the doctor’s going to diagnose a problem. He’s going to identify the underlying causes or conditions. The doctor’s going to determine the prognosis, and then issue a prescription and you’re done. Then you leave and presumably you don’t have to come back because you treated the problem. This, to me, is … I don’t want to be down on any religions because I think religion can be a beautiful thing when practiced the right way, but I think, to me that’s the biggest difference here is that Buddhism will come and say, here’s what you need and once you figure that out you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore in your life.

A religion won’t do that. It tends to say the more you believe this, then the more attached you become to it. In fact, your whole hope of what to expect in the future, particularly in the afterlife, hinges on whether or not you believe the story that you’ve been told. Because Buddhism doesn’t have that component to it, it’s anchored in the present moment. It’s not anchored in the reward or punishment that you’re going to experience after this life. I think it makes it, if it is a religion, it’s very different than the Judeo-Christian type religions, or Islam. I think that’s one of the big differences.

Let’s look at that real quick. The Buddhist approach to the problem, the situation at hand, I talked about, if you’re sick, you’re going to go to the doctor and you want the doctor to treat the condition that you have. On the spiritual note, this is kind of what happens with Buddhism, the problem that’s diagnosed is that in life there is suffering. In life difficulties arise. It’s not personal. It’s a universal thing. Everybody experiences it. This is kind of what … Imagine you’re going to see Dr. Buddha, this is essentially what you’re going to be told. You go to the doctor with this problem saying, “I’m not happy. Something’s wrong in life. Life isn’t the way that I want it to be and I’m suffering because of that.” The very first thing the doctor’s going to say is that, “I need to diagnose the problem and the problem is this, in life there is suffering.” That’s the first noble truth in Buddhism.
Now, the second part of the medical prognosis or diagnosis is this, we need to identify the underlying causes. What the Buddha teaches here is that attachment or clinging is the cause of suffering. It’s wanting life to be other than it is, and because I want it to be other than it is, I’m going to experience suffering. That’s the definition of suffering in Buddhism is wanting life to be other than it is. If you look at this in all honesty, anytime you’re experiencing suffering in your life, you’ll find that it can be rooted in wanting it to be other than it is. This is a powerful thing. This goes from the big things to finding out … Losing a loved one, the reason that’s so painful is because you don’t want to lose a loved one. You want them to still be there. All the way down to what could be smaller, more mundane things like, I’m stuck at the red light. Why is that a problem? It’s only a problem because I don’t want to be stuck at the red light.

I always think about this, if you were driving somewhere, you just lost your job and you have an interview for a new job and you’re trying to get there early and on the way there you get a flat tire. That’s a problem. The only reason it’s a problem is because you don’t want the flat tire. You don’t want to risk being late to your interview. Wanting life to be other than it is is that form of suffering. The problem isn’t the flat tire. That really has nothing to do with it because all you have to do is change the circumstances and the event doesn’t matter.

Imagine that you’ve been accused of something you didn’t do and now you’re going to jail for it because they don’t have the evidence to prove your innocence and you’re resisting. You do not want to go to jail and on your way there, the bus gets a flat tire. Now you’re going to think “I hope it takes them forever to fix this flat tire,” because you don’t want to go to jail. The event is the same. A tire went flat and it has to be fixed. Suffering comes from wanting life to be other than it is. Look at that in your own life anytime you’re experiencing suffering and figure out, what is it that I want to be different than it is and you’ll find that’s the root of your suffering.

Then, the doctor needs to determine the prognosis. The prognosis is that, hey, this is a treatable condition. We can treat the cause of suffering. Here’s the catch. We cannot eliminate suffering because remember the diagnosis of the problem or the first noble truth is this, in life there is suffering and it’s universal. The fact that you want to get rid of suffering is only going to create more suffering because now you’re suffering, you want life to be other than it is and the way that it is is that in life there is suffering. What part of this is the treatable condition? That we can treat the cause of suffering, the attachment or the clinging. Remember, identifying the underlying causes, what the Buddha taught is that it’s attachment or clinging that’s causing the suffering. That part is the treatable condition, and we treat that with non-attachment.

The prescription is that there needs to be a change in perspective. This sense of non-attachment comes through obtaining wisdom and we do that … In Buddhism, this is the fourth noble truth, this is the eightfold path. There are eight areas in your life that you focus on, that you’re shifting your perspective and gaining wisdom and that’s helping to eliminate the non-attachment. Just discussing non-attachment by itself, it could be its own podcast with hundreds of episodes on non-attachment. I won’t even attempt to explain non-attachment here, but the key is non-attachment. I think that can be tricky for people to get because one of the misconceptions is, well if I’m going to be non-attached, then that means I’m numb and I don’t have any feelings and I have to be okay with whatever is. That’s not what non-attachment is.

The other thing that’s dangerous about non-attachment is when you decide, okay, I’m done playing this game. I do not want to be attached anymore, then you run the risk of becoming attached to non-attachment. Then you’re back in the same spiral. The definition of suffering is wanting life to be other than it is and you look at it and you say, okay, then I don’t want to experience attachment anymore. I don’t want to have any kind of craving. Now you’re wanting life to be other than it is because in life you’re going to crave things. It gets tricky and that’s essentially the entire situation at hand that Buddhism is trying to get at. It’s the idea that the key is non-attachment and it’s not just that easy. It’s not dropping everything. At the same time it is, it’s letting go. If you want to learn all about that whole process, then you study Buddhism.

That’s what Buddhism will teach you is that entire process summed up in these four things. We’re going to diagnose the problem, in life there is suffering. We’re going to identify the underlying causes. The causes of suffering are attachment and clinging, wanting life to be other than it is. We’re going to determine the prognosis, which is that this is a treatable condition. We can treat the causes of suffering, but we cannot eliminate suffering. The key to that is non-attachment. That’s the prescription. A change in perspective, wisdom, non-attachment, having a flexible attitude to adjust with life as it unfolds, and that’s it. That’s where it starts, so it’s very much like the process of going to visit a doctor.

The key, this is where I think it becomes very different from religion, if you take the prescription and you solve the problem, then you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore and the Buddha taught this in his Parable of the Raft, he asks the monks, if somebody’s trying to cross the river and they build a raft, they spend a considerable amount of time and effort to do that, they get on the raft. Eventually they cross. Now that they’re on this side, is it appropriate for this person to continue the journey with the raft or do they leave it behind? The monks deliberate and they decide it’s wise to leave it behind because you don’t need it anymore. He tells them specifically, this is how you are to view the teachings of the Dharma, so the teachings of Buddhism.

This is why my personal approach to Buddhism is to view it as a set of tools to develop mindfulness to solve the problem. The problem is that in life there is suffering and when you get past it, just as the Buddha taught, it’s something that you leave behind, and you need to because you don’t want to become attached to non-attachment. You don’t want to attach to Buddhism. You don’t want to attach to anything. You can become attached to your religion in a way that it becomes unhealthy. I’m sure everybody knows somebody who you would think probably fits that picture. In that sense and with that information, I personally thing that Buddhism is more of a philosophical way of life. It provides me with a set of tools that determine how I live, how I see the world. Because of that, I don’t view it as a religion because I don’t ascribe to a specific set of rituals or practices or anything that would even look like a religion in the way that I teach and practice Buddhism.

There you have it. That is my answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. I would say yes it is, and no it’s not, and yes and no it is, and it’s neither yes or no. That, my friends, is Buddhism for you. It’s a very paradoxical approach to the situation at hand, which is that in life there is suffering. You can practice it as a religion. You can adopt this as your religious practice and at the same time, you don’t have to and you can take these as tools and study the nature of the mind and how and why we think the way that we think. This concept of not knowing in Buddhism is very prevalent. It’s in Zen Buddhism, and every form of Buddhism that I’ve explored. At its root is this concept of not knowing. Rather than trying to give you answers to the deep questions of life, like most … This is where it differs from religion because religion is trying to answer the questions. The questions of who am I, why am I here, where do I go when I die? The big existential questions are answered by religions.
Buddhism doesn’t answer those questions. Buddhism isn’t concerned with answering the questions. Buddhism is focused on exploring, why do I feel I need to know these answers? That’s what Buddhism’s trying to get at. What is the root of the motivation behind asking these questions in the first place? If you can get at that, then the answers shouldn’t matter. The answers won’t matter. If I understand myself to know why those questions even matter, it doesn’t become about the answers, it becomes about the questions. Because Buddhism is about the questions and not about the answers, I don’t think it really fits the traditional bill of a religion, especially the religions that are just trying to answer the questions.

That’s a lot, having said that. If you have more questions about this or you want to contribute to the conversation, I hope this doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers because the people who will say the answer is yes get mad at the people who say the answer is no. The people who say no get mad at the people who say that it’s yes. Just to throw in the other mix, let’s add in the people who say yes and no, and let’s add in the people who say, “No, it’s not even yes or no,” because let’s just all be in there and talk about this together. If you want to add to the conversation, find the post where I put this on secularbuddhism.com, join in on the conversation, but that is the podcast episode I wanted to go over today. Is Buddhism a religion?

I hope that my answer makes enough sense that you can feel that you can choose the answer that makes the most sense to you, because again, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. If you ask me, is Buddhism religion, well that’s just my answer. The only answer that will ever answer is your answer. You get to choose. You get to study this and decide, is it a religion for you, is it not? Is it yes and no? You get to choose. Good luck on your journey finding the answer that makes the most sense to you. I know a lot of people who love practicing Buddhism as their preferred religious practice and they practice it as a religion and there’s nothing wrong with that. Find the answer that works for you, but what I shared today, that’s my view and my answer.

Before we stop this podcast episode, I want to remind you about these workshops that I’m doing. I’ve done one in Salt Lake City last weekend. It was very well received. I’m doing one coming up very soon in Seattle, so if you’re in the Seattle area, September third, there’s a workshop there. There’s one in London in the UK on September 18th. That’s a Sunday. You can get all this information on secularbuddhism.com. Then a reminder, next year, January 26th through February 4th, we’re doing a humanitarian trip to Uganda. We’ll be doing humanitarian work along with a mindfulness retreat, so if you’re in a position to be able to do that and that sounds interesting to you, consider coming with me and a small group of people to Uganda to do humanitarian work and learn more about mindfulness. It’ll be a lot of fun. You can learn more about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

Thank you for listening. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really believe that if we have the desire to contribute to making society or the world a better place, a more peaceful place, it starts by making our own lives more peaceful. We work on ourselves. We always have these grand desires to change the world and yet the only thing we can ever change is ourselves. It’s by changing ourselves, ironically, that we do change the world. That’s why I’m determined to produce podcast content and workshops and retreats and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals are the key to mindful families and mindful societies. That’s why I do what I do because I enjoy it. There’s nothing to convert to or convert away from. I’m just trying to present another perspective.

If you are in a position to be able to contribute, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism Podcast, along with the workshops, content for the workshops and retreats and seminars. If you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com to make a one-time donation or to sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast. Thank you again for listening and thank you for your continued support and I look forward to another podcast episode next week. Have a good week, and until next time.