132 – Nowhere to Hide Nothing to Hold

In this podcast episode, I will discuss the koan about the great meaning of the Buddha’s teaching. I will also discuss some thoughts about the Buddhist approach of theism vs non-theism and how leaves us with nowhere to hide and nothing to hold.

Koan Discussed: Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”
Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”
At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.

Koan Shared: When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?

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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is Episode number 132. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about vulnerability. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be better whatever you already are. As a friendly reminder, if you are new to the podcast, episodes one through five are a really good place to start to get a general understanding of basic Buddhist concepts and teachings.

You can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the start here link to find access, quick access to those first five episodes. If you are looking for an online community to practice with, to interact with, consider becoming a supporter of the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com, and clicking on the top link that says, join our online community on Patreon. With that, let’s jump into the discussion around the Zen Koan that was shared in the last podcast episode. It goes like this, Elder Ting asked Lin-Chi, “Master, what is the great meaning of the Buddhist teaching?”

Lin-Chi came down from his seat, slapped ting and pushed him away. Ting was stunned and stood motionless, a monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?” At that moment, Ting attained great enlightenment. So, I want to share a couple of thoughts around this specific koan, because I think it has a deeper meaning, at least for me, it carries a couple of deep lessons. I want to share some of the thoughts from the Patreon podcast community and share some of the insight that I gained from reading other people’s thoughts around this.

So, Ramona said, “To me, when Lin-Chi came down from his seat slapping and pushing Ting, he was answering his question of the great meaning of Buddhist teachings, which is enduring suffering. When the monk nearby assumed he got slapped because he did not bow, Ting became enlightened because in that moment, he realized he should invite and bow to the suffering, to welcome it and give it respect. Perhaps that’s the great meaning of Buddhist teaching.” I like Ramona’s thoughts on this, especially the correlation between the answer to the question, the great meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.

We know that the Buddha taught about suffering, we know that. He taught the four noble truths, the truth of unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, which is often translated to suffering. The truth of the cause of unsatisfactoriness, the truth about the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and the truth about the path that leads to the cessation of this unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha as it was called. So, in a nutshell, yes, if you were to ask someone, what is the meaning of the Buddhist teachings? It certainly centers around this sense of unsatisfactoriness. We could call it suffering at times.

I do think that when we think about it that way, it is kind of interesting that this master would come down and give the answer to what is the great meaning by slapping Ting and pushing him away, essentially causing Ting to experience, in that moment, probably some unsatisfactoriness or some suffering. That’s fun to think about. [Anushka 00:03:49] says, “As others have said, I too felt that the being slapped and pushed away is a representation of what we do when we face suffering. It works on two levels for me. Suffering slaps us in the face and we push it away. But also suffering does the pushing away by interrupting us and separating us from our experience.

I was also taken by the last piece. Why do you not bow? I interpreted that as meaning that Ting didn’t bow to the teacher, not that he should have, and that in this act he didn’t give reverence to the suffering. I sometimes wonder about how much time and effort we give to feeling suffering. Is it excessive, and what is the right effort we need to put in to truly move past it.” I like what Anushka is sharing here as well, and the correlation that she brings out with the concept of bowing to the suffering. That’s something I want to discuss a little bit later with my thoughts around this koan. Really quick I’ll share Matthew’s thoughts.

He says, “My first reaction to this koan was to think of how I very often ask questions, knowing what I want the answer to be. That is I’m not hoping to get an answer, but just validation of what I already think the answer is, much like the student whose cup is too full of tea to get any tea from the master. Ting, I think, did not get the answer he was expecting, and the other monk was saying, ‘Ting, you asked a question and you got the answer. Why are you not bowing to thank the master.’ It reminded me that I need to be more open to the answers to questions, and also that maybe I do already know the answer deep down inside.”

I enjoy Matthew’s thoughts a lot on this topic, the correlation between the story of the tea cup being full, and certainly, the concept of asking questions sometimes just to get validation about the answer we think that we already have or that we’re going to get. I think we all do that from time to time. This is a whole different approach, right? That he certainly didn’t get the answer he was expecting, and ironically, that’s what led to his enlightenment, at least in this koan, right? So, I think there’s something to be learned there, that often the thing that we’re looking for, it won’t get us the thing that we want.

But sometimes getting the thing that we weren’t expecting can get us the thing that we were actually after in the first place, that’s kind of a fun mental correlation. Last, I want to share Nancy’s thoughts who says, “I see this koan as a role play of the first noble truth. Life at times will slap you in the face and push you away. Instead of bowing and walking away, which seems to have been his common reaction, Ting paused, stood motionless, saw suffering and pain for what it was. A slap and a push, nothing more.” I like those thoughts as well, to see pain and suffering for what it is, a simple slap and a push and nothing more.

That’s a profound thought. Thank you to everyone who shared these concepts in the Patreon group. I always appreciate hearing everyone’s thoughts. I want to share a couple of my thoughts around this koan. The Buddhist teachings are all about the truth of unsatisfactoriness. I think sometimes we suffer because we’re caught in our views, our stories. As soon as we release those views and we become non-attached to our stories, the unsatisfactoriness ceases. I think perhaps this may have been the case in this story with Ting, Ting asks a question. I think he gets an answer he’s not expecting.

Perhaps he had a story in his mind, the story of what he thought the answer should be, or perhaps more importantly, the story of what he thought the answer shouldn’t be. In this case, the answer shouldn’t be a slap and a push. He stood there motionless probably because he’s trying to figure out what on earth was that? When the monk nearby reminds him, “Ting, why do you not bow?” Perhaps in that moment he realized, “Oh, that is the answer.” His willingness to open his mind to let go of whatever story he had in his mind of what that answer should be or what kind of answer would be a right or a wrong answer, perhaps he let go of that story.

Perhaps in that moment of releasing himself from the views that he had, perhaps, that’s why he attained that enlightenment. I like to think about it that way. I don’t know if that’s how it went down, but it makes sense to me in my head. Again, we’re not trying solve these stories and get really in depth about what it means. All we’re trying to do is to invite introspection. What does this say about me? It was fun for me as I re-listened or re-read this koan, thinking what would I do if I were Ting and I was the one who was slapped or pushed? Or, what would I do if I was the master being asked the question, how would I answer that

Then I thought, what would I do if I was the monk nearby watching all this unfold, would it have occurred to me to also say, “Hey, why did you not bow? So, it was kind of fun to place myself in all three of those roles. Again, this is just an introspective thing. The topic that I wanted to discuss today, the topic of this podcast, the title, nowhere to hide, nothing to hold, I want to correlate this a little bit with this koan and just share some of the thoughts that have been on my mind over the last few days. These are thoughts that are inspired by Pema Chodron’s book when Things Fall Apart.

I was reading this recently, or I am still reading it with the book club in the Patreon community, and we have discussions around the specific reading assignment, that we read one of the chapters that addresses the concept of hope and hopelessness. I have read this before, but it was fun to kind of correlate all of this again. One thing that’s fun about doing this podcast and about having a study group and reading with people is that I get to keep myself fully immersed in these concepts, and in these teachings, and in these ideas because I’m encountering them all the time, right? I’m trying to keep up with reading assignments.

I’m always thinking about what to talk about in the next podcast episode. At the same time, I’m busy living my life, doing the things that I do. Right now I’m in the middle of an eight-day training course. I’m home now from having been in Mexico for a year. Now, I’m right back into the routine of scheduling new students to learn to fly paramotors. I’m on day three or four, four now of this training, so my mind gets very immersed in what I’m doing in my normal day to day life, which right now is teaching people how to fly, and teaching them how to control the paraglider wing, and to control it in the wind, and teaching them how these motors work and how to assemble them, and ultimately how to fly.

That’s the goal. But it’s fun that I get to correlate everything that I’m doing in my normal day to day with these thoughts, and these concepts, and these teachings that are centered around Buddhism. That’s one thing I really enjoy about this podcast, is that it keeps me immersed in this way of thinking. So, anyway, in this book, it has some really interesting concepts and topics, and I’ve been thinking about them this week. So, one of the ideas that came up in Pema’s book, she talks about the definition of theism versus non-theism.

This is a question that I receive often because people ask, people who are new to studying Buddhism know or perhaps have heard that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, but wonder what that means. I think people want to know what exactly does that mean. I think Pema does a good job of talking about this in chapter seven of this book, where she defines the concept of theism as having something to hold, having a hand to hold as we go through life. We put our sense of hope in this notion that at the end of the day, when all else fails, there’s someone there who’s going to hold our hand and is going to make things better.

That may or may not happen in this lifetime, or it may happen in the next lifetime. But the point is that that’s where our sense of hope comes from. Then, Buddhism as a non-theistic tradition is kind of saying, there is no hand to hold. There’s nowhere to hide from the rawness that is life. Life, again, using the analogy of Tetris, life is a series of pieces that show up, some that we like, and some that we don’t like, some that are pleasant, some that are unpleasant. Some that just have so much tremendous joy and others that invoke pain and sadness beyond what words can describe.

In the midst of all that, we realize that perhaps there is no hand to hold, and it’s just me here figuring this out. I want to share a correlation that I’ve had with these thoughts of Buddhism as a non-theistic tradition. In the past, I’ve talked about the analogy of comparing ourselves to kites or birds. When I use this analogy the first time, a friend of mine was interviewing me on his podcast and he was asking in the context of religion and how some ideologies provide us with essentially the hand to hold, right? The thing that gives us hope.

It may be following this set of rules, or these commandments, or something. A sense of structure that if you comply with this structure, then there’s hope on the other end of it. He asked me, what would you say to someone who says, “Well, I have this ideology that I follow and it essentially acts as my string, and the string holds me up. I’m the kite. When the wind blows, the kite is able to fly safely because it is attached. That attachment to the string, which represents, it could represent like an obedience to the commandments, or it could represent faith or belief in a specific belief, right?

Like belief in God or something. This kind of acts like the string that holds us in the air.” I agreed, and I said, “Well, I would say that that is correct. The mistake would be to assume that we’re all kites.” I went on to say that, “From my perspective, I think that there are kites and there are birds, and there’s nothing more sad than to see a kite flying so well and to come along and just sever that string, what a sad sight. The kite will fall, and it can’t fly well without the string, but it’s also a similar sad sight to see a bird tethered with a string.

The poor bird may not know that it’s capable of flight on its own.” But when I first made this correlation, I obviously viewed myself as the bird and feel that by untethering or cutting that string, there was the discovery that I could fly on my own and that my own wings were essentially the hand to hold. I think Buddhism kind of works that way. But what I didn’t like about this comparison is I think some people might hear it and think that there’s a connotation here that the kite is inferior to the bird, or that the bird is somehow better than the kite.

That was not my intention. My intention was to express that a kite is not a bird and a bird is not a kite, and we’re not all birds and we’re not all kites, and that there’s a level of skillfulness required to know the difference of one versus the other. In this specific analogy, I view myself more as the bird than as the kite. So, then my thoughts have changed since then, if I think of two other examples. I’m going to give you the examples of paragliding versus paramotoring, because when you go paragliding, you just have the paragliding wing over your head, no motor.

You have to launch from the top of the hill, or a cliff, or somewhere where you already start out high. Then, you glide out and you look for thermal activity to climb back up and continue to stay up high. Then, there’s paramotoring, which is essentially paragliding, but now you strap a motor to your back and it changes the dynamic of the experience that you’re having because now, you don’t need a hill. You don’t need a mountain. You just take off from wherever you want. You have that something to rely on, which in this case is the motor on your back.

So, in this example, it’s similar rather than a kite versus a bird, I’m talking about paragliding versus paramotoring. But in this analogy, I identify more with the paramotor than with the paragliding. So, the paraglider, you could say, requires more faith in their own skillset, right? They have no hand to hold. There’s nowhere to hide. You’re exposed out in the open. If you don’t do this right, you’re just going to come down and land. But if you want to keep flying, you’ve got to hunt and find the thermal activities, the warm air that’s rising, find it, spiral up in it, gain altitude.

Then, climb out and then shoot out of that and go find another one. As long as you keep doing that, you get to stay up and you get to keep flying. Now, I’ve spent time doing this and I’ve had some scary experiences doing it because you’re in air that’s more rough and more violent, and it takes a lot of skill and it can be a little unnerving. Then, there’s the easy way. We’ll put a motor on your back, go fly when it’s smooth and calm, and then you don’t have to be … it doesn’t require as much skill in terms of hunting for rising air.

You don’t need rising air. You just turn on your motor and let it push you up as high as you want to go. It’s funny because now with this analogy, I view myself as the one that does prefer having the hand to hold, the motor to rely on. So, I have those two analogies, right? The kite and the bird where I think I’m more of the bird than the kite. I don’t like to be tethered. At the same time, if I use this other analogy, someone might say, “Wow, the more pure way is to be untethered from the motor and you just rely on the winds.”

I’m saying, “Well, in that case, I actually do prefer the motor. Give me that tether, that something to rely on.” So, I wanted to bring that up because I don’t want anyone to think that the bird is superior to the kite. So, with the analogy of paragliding and paramotoring, I think the connotation could be, “Well, the more pure form, the superior way of doing this is to not rely on the motor.” Now, here I am admitting I do prefer the motor. I want the easy way. So, the reason I wanted to bring this up is because I do think that Buddhism in a lot of ways fits this description of not having anywhere to hide.

not having anything to depend on, not having a hand to hold, that is indeed kind of the Buddhist way. The essence of the first noble truth is to understand that there’s nothing wrong with suffering. There’s nothing wrong with this unsatisfactoriness. We suffer and we think something is wrong because we’re suffering, and that’s what kicks in this instinct to want to do something about it. But Buddhism comes along and it’s saying the nature of unsatisfactoriness is that we all experience it. Sometimes, perhaps the reason we experience it is because we have, or we’re caught up in our views.

We have the stories. The moment we’re able to understand that about ourselves and understand that these are just stories, we can let go, and we can start to experience the cessation of the unsatisfactoriness, and it’s based on the story. One of the main stories is the story that says, “Hey, you shouldn’t be experiencing suffering. If you are, that means something’s wrong.” This is at the heart of what I was trying to convey in the last podcast episode, especially around the topic of parenting, right? Where parenting is hard. There’s no way around the fact that there’s going to be unsatisfactoriness with being a parent.

But I think that’s also true about life. That’s exactly what the Buddha was saying. The very fact that we are experiencing life means we will experience unsatisfactoriness, because it’s hard and difficulties arise, and Tetris pieces show up that didn’t fit and that we don’t want in the moment. We realize, “Oh, I don’t want that.” Or, “I want things to be other than how they are.” We experience this unsatisfactoriness. I think this manifests quite commonly in terms of our views, our stories, “Here’s what just happened.

I don’t think this should have happened, and now I’m experiencing that dukkha, or that unsatisfactoriness. That is essentially what I feel because things aren’t the way I want them to be.” So, what I want to correlate this with a little bit further is we talk about Buddhism, again, as this non-theistic tradition, meaning there’s no hand to hold, there’s nowhere to hide. Yet, at the same time, one of the first things that you learn about Buddhism and embarking on this path is this concept of taking refuge.

Now, the whole thing about taking refuge seems to contradict the notion that there’s nowhere to hide, there’s nothing to hold, because on one side of the coin, we seem to be saying that, “Yes, Buddhism is saying there’s nowhere to hide. There’s nothing to hold. There’s no firm foundation to stand on.” I’ve talked about groundlessness, I’ve talked about all these ideas, the becoming comfortable with discomfort. Yet, at the same time, we’re saying, “But you can take refuge or find comfort in, or seek a form of safetiness in what is commonly called the three jewels, right?

I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma, and I take refuge in the Sangha. Well, I wanted to share my personal understanding of what it means to take refuge, and explain this with the perspective that I also believe there’s nothing, nowhere to hide, that there’s nothing to hold. So, the concept of taking refuge, for me, and I actually wrote these down in my journal, I don’t know, a year, two, three years ago. I don’t remember when I did this. But in my little journal where I keep a lot of my thoughts, I wrote these down as kind of my core values that are inspired by the teaching of taking refuge.

So, the first one I wrote, I value the wisdom, knowledge, and experience that I am capable of achieving through my own practice. I recognize that when it comes to understanding my own mind, I am my greatest teacher. To me, this is the essence of what it means to take refuge in the Buddha. That’s essentially what the Buddha did. Right? We talk about this in terms of enlightenment, what does enlightenment mean? I’ve talked about this, I’ve done podcast episodes about this topic. Where to me, the core understanding of the Buddha’s awakening or enlightenment was his realization that he was it.

He was the source of his suffering and he was the source of his joy, and it was all him. It was him. So, to me, that’s what this first value is about. It’s recognizing it’s just me. I’m my own teacher. I am my own best friend. I am my own worst enemy. I am the captive one in the jail of my own mind, but I’m also the jailer who holds the key to unlock the prison cell. That to me is a really profound understanding that is empowering, and at the same time confirms to me that there’s nowhere to hide because it’s just me and there’s no hand to hold because it’s just me. So, that’s the first one.

The second one is that I value all teachings that helped me to understand the nature of suffering, the impermanence of all things and the interdependent nature of all things. I recognize that wise teachings can help me to live in alignment with my values now. So, this goes hand in hand with the second refuge, which is I take refuge in the Dharma, which is commonly translated to the teachings. What I enjoy about this one is it reminds me that there are powerful teachings everywhere, right? A lot of these for me are found in Buddhism, Buddhist teachings, and Buddhist concepts, and Buddhist stories on each of these koans that we read.

There are so many sources for these, and I find value in these things because they help me to perceive reality in a more skillful way. So, that’s the second one. The third one goes hand in hand with the teaching of, I take refuge in the Sangha, which is the community. This one alluded me for a while. I don’t have a group that I get to practice with. I live in a home with people who are not interested in Buddhism. I live in a community with people who are generally not interested in Buddhism, and these concepts and ideas and topics, I don’t really talk to them with many people, even the people closest to me.

So, I don’t have that sense of community. So, the way I worded this is that I value the friendship, the guidance and support of others who are on this path. I recognize that I can offer my friendship, guidance, and support to others. To me, this is where the podcast comes in. It may not be in a one on one setting that I have a closeness with you as the listener, but in a way I’m extending my friendship to you by sharing my thoughts. I’m allowing you as the listener. I’m allowing myself to be open and vulnerable to express my views and my thoughts.

Some of these are my inner deep thoughts, and I don’t know you, I don’t know who’s listening. That to me is part of the sense of community. It may feel at times like it’s a one-way thing, and I’ve received emails from podcast listeners like you who might be listening now, who feel like you have a little peek into the window of my mind. You’ve gotten to know me throughout the years because I share a lot of my story and where I am and what I’m doing. It feels like you have a friend in me, and it may feel like it’s a one way street, because it’s just you listening to me, and I don’t have that back.

I don’t get to hear your story. With some of you, I do, because you’ll email me. Now, especially, I do because of the Patreon community that has opened up this new venue to be able to share in real time video messages and emails, and just live interaction with podcast listeners. It’s been a really fun transition from going at this totally alone to now having some people that I get to share this with. But at the same time, really whether you’re in that Patreon community or not, if you’re just a listener of the podcast, you’re in that circle. Even though it may be, like I said, one way, but that’s okay.

It’s okay that it’s that way, and I find value in offering my friendship, my guidance, and support to others. That to me is part of the personal values and personal version of my understanding of the taking refuge. So, it’s a fun correlation, again, these two notions of, we go through life and we understand that there’s nowhere to hide. We hide often behind our stories, and I may have a story about myself that I find myself hiding behind. If someone comes and pokes and prods at that, it reminds me, “Oh, wow, why does this feel this way?”

Because I’m protecting this story, and then I pop out of there and decide, “Okay, all right, I’m not going to hide behind that.” That’s, little by little, over the years has allowed me to be more and more comfortable with just being vulnerable and just being me, and not hiding behind any stories anymore, and not hiding behind any of my views, my ideas that I clung to so tightly. Recognizing that there’s nothing to hold, and that as I go through this whole experience, and this is far from over, right?

I have so many stages that I anticipate going through while at the same time with the uncertainty, who knows, when this journey ends. But for now, I anticipate there’s a lot more, hope that there’s a lot more. I’m going through it with no hand to hold, it’s me. In a strange, yet profound way, again, going back to the bird, right? I’ve realized I don’t need a hand to hold because I have my own wings and I am learning to advance with my own footing. It’s me, it’s me figuring this out. There’s a sense of faith in my ability to figure things out.

I’m not saying that means it’s going to be easy, or that it’s going to be pleasant, or that it’s going to be an enjoyable thing. I recognize that there are going to be difficult days ahead. I know that I’m going to experience days of sorrow, of pain, of, I don’t know if discontent is the right word, but certainly sorrow and sadness and heartache because that’s the nature of life. I think the big difference from before was I thought that there was hope in the sense that I know I can get over these things and the rainy days, one day the sun will shine.

Hopelessness for me doesn’t carry a negative connotation. For me, it gets to the heart of what I think Buddhism has done for me, is that I’m no longer afraid to feel. I’m not afraid to feel the sadness that’s going to hit me when I lose a loved one. I’m not afraid of the anxiety that I might feel if I find myself in a position where I’m struggling to provide for my family. I’m not afraid of the discomfort that I’m going to feel when I’m late to be somewhere, and that’s when I get a flat tire. I’m not afraid of the frustrations. I’m not afraid of any of the emotions that can arise.

I’m not afraid to just feel it all, and that’s the difference. To me, that’s in a nutshell, the having no hand to hold, that is the concept of hopelessness, which is strangely for me, or groundlessness, I think I like thinking about this more in terms of groundlessness, which is that there’s nowhere to stand. There’s just experiencing life and whatever life’s going to throw our way, I feel like I’ve become good at feeling. I’ve shifted away from thinking that the whole point was to feel good. I realize now that, no, it’s much more skillful to just be good at feeling.

That is a profound shift for me, and I think that is what I’m trying to convey in this podcast episode. Sometimes, I feel like my thoughts just ramble and I try to tie it all together to connect the dots. Maybe sometimes I do, maybe sometimes I don’t, but again, I think it’s cool that I get to just share all this. I don’t have a close person that I can call and share all these things with at times, but I get to sit here at my computer and talk into a microphone. I know that when I post this, there will be real people on the other side listening, and these ideas carry weight.

I get messages, real messages from real people who talk about how meaningful these concepts and ideas are, and how life changing they are for you listening. It makes me feel very connected to you, even though I don’t know you. It’s just a really profound experience. I get a little emotional thinking about that, but again, it just makes me feel gratitude. I want to say thank you to all of you who listened, who take the time to listen to these podcast episodes. I’m grateful for the messages that I receive, and I try to respond to all of them.

But I apologize that I’m so behind and don’t get to, because the podcast has grown quite a bit, but thank you for being a part of this journey. That’s all I have that I wanted to share in this specific podcast episode. I want to thank you for listening, and as always, if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a Patreon and joining the online community, where we have live discussions about these koans and these podcast episodes. We do live Q&A sessions on Sundays and live community discussions on Sundays.

As I said, there’s even a study group/book club. You can learn more about this by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed the podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. But before I go, I want to leave you with another Zen koan to think about and to work with from now until the next podcast episode. The koan goes like this, when the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced? That’s all I have. Until next time.

131 – The Truth Of Unsatisfactoriness

The nature of reality is that difficulties will arise, and we’ll experience suffering. We can begin to embrace that fact by recognizing that suffering, in general, is not personal. It’s simply part of the experience of existence. And we will experience suffering, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. In this episode, I will discuss the pervasive suffering that sometimes affects how we see our relationships, jobs, and parenting.

Koan Discussed: What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?

Koan Shared: Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”
Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”
At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.

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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 131, I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m going to talk about the truth of unsatisfactoriness. As always keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are. Furthermore, if you are new to the podcast, listening perhaps for the first time or you’ve jumped in on these podcast episodes recently, I want to remind you that episodes one through five have a summary of the basics of Buddhism, and you can find these by scrolling all the way back to the original first five, or you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here.

Also, another request I’ve received quite regularly is a request for suggestions for reading material and books. If you’re interested in learning more about these concepts and ideas, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com/books and there you will see my recommended books that I’ve read and that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone interested in exploring more about Buddhism or about any of these general topics and concepts that I discuss in the podcast.

So quick update on my own life, I recently, as you may have noticed, I didn’t record the podcast episode last week because I’ve been on the road. Many of you know that I moved to Mexico for a year with my family to help my kids learn to speak Spanish and to identify with the culture since that’s where I’m from. But in light of the recent worldwide events and the potential social unrest and economic changes that are happening all over the world, including for me, much of my work related to online advertising, which I can do remotely, has dried up. So I had to make a decision and rather than waiting till June to move home, we decided last week that we should go ahead and make the move.

Now flying home was not the tricky part, we knew that would be easy. The tricky part or the scary part was how to get all of our possessions home, because we knew that that would require me packing them all up into the car and driving all of the possessions back home and that’s exactly what I did. So I’ve been off the radar a little bit for the last seven days. It took me seven days from last Wednesday. I left early in the morning, made my way through driving from essentially the Southern part of Mexico all the way to the North, crossed into Texas, made my way up to Dallas, visited my parents and then made the journey westward from there and recently made my way back to Utah. So that’s what I’ve been up to in the last seven days. And that’s why I was not able to record a podcast episode last week. So here I am catching up.

Okay, jumping right in I want to talk a little bit about the koan that says, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Now this is a koan that I wanted to bring up because it’s one of the classics. It’s one of the main ones that you’re going to hear when you start studying or reading about zen koans. I want to share some of the thoughts that come from the Patreon community and I’ll start with David Spots who says, “For me, the answer to this week’s koan is, whatever is perceived by the listener.” Nina from the community says, “This koan brings up the emptiness of things, as well as intervene. A clap is made up of non-clap elements, which dismantling it would be the fingers, the hand, the skin, the bones, the brain, the cells, et cetera. So ultimately the sound of one hand clapping is empty of sound because a clap is relative to what is perceived to be a clap.” I like those thoughts by Nina.

And then Matthew says, “Whenever I hear this koan, I remember when they had it on the Simpsons and it opened Lisa’s mind. I agree with a lot of what others said, which is interesting because before I used to try to solve the puzzle, but it is much like if no one is around and the tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise? It is about perception. I think it is also about things not having an intrinsic meaning. What is a clap? Is it two hands hitting each other? If so, how hard? What if I touch them ever so softly? Can one hand clap? Maybe. You can hit your palm with the fingers of the same hand. And what if you slap your thigh with your palm, like you often do at a sports event, or if you have a drink in one hand, that is one hand clapping and I know the noise that it makes.” And that’s the end of Matthew’s thoughts.

And I agree with all the sentiments that were shared in the group, it was as always it’s a fun experience to hear other people’s perspectives and their thoughts regarding one single topic, in this case, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Now for me, I feel like trying to answer is the problem, because I could equally ask other questions, like, what is the sound of anger? And if I were to ask, what is the sound of anger? You can give me an answer, you can say it’s yelling or it’s grinding your teeth, or it’s punching the wall with your hand. All of which could be correct, but all of which are also incomplete because perhaps there isn’t an actual sound to anger, there’s events that can arise with anger as its cause or its condition. And I think with the sound of one hand clapping, you can run into similar issues because you’d have to define what is clapping.

I remember in school sometimes when you had to be quiet in class but they wanted you to clap, you could lift your hands in the air and kind of rotate them back and forth like air clapping, but there’s no sound taking place and that counts as a clap. So then it forces you to have to define is clapping an act of celebration, where I want you to know that I’m celebrating with you and that counts as a clap? Is it specifically the two hands that come together? If so, what about at a sporting event where I take those two long sticks, the clapping sticks and I hit those together to make my clap louder, does that not count because my hands aren’t touching?

And it can become problematic because I have to define what is a clap, so then I’m left with this idea with one, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Well, the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping. However, I define it I may be missing the point, but I will always be correct by saying that the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping. And now I leave it up to you to imagine what that means to interpret the meaning of that. That’s how I like to think about this specific koan. It’s an invitation as always to go inward and ask myself, “Well, what does clapping mean to me? What does the sound of one hand clapping mean to me?”

So jumping into the topic that I have for this podcast episode, The Truth of Unsatisfactoriness, I’m going to echo some of the sentiments I shared in episode 122, We Don’t Eliminate Suffering and episode 57, Discovering All Pervasive Suffering. The truth of unsatisfactoriness is a title that we could use to talk about the first of the noble truths. So in Buddhism, if you were to ask almost any Buddhist, what the core basic Buddhist teachings are, they would probably summarize the four noble truths. And the first of the truths is the truth of suffering or the truth of unsatisfactoriness. And I like the word unsatisfactoriness more than suffering, but it’s the same general idea.

And here what we’re trying to understand is that the nature of reality is that difficulties will arise and we will experience suffering or unsatisfactoriness. We can begin to embrace that fact by recognizing that suffering in general is not personal, it’s simply part of the experience of existence. And we will experience suffering no matter how hard we try to avoid it, whether we search for a magic formula to remove it, or we chase after money to buy it off or seek fame to drown it out or whatever. If we pray, meditate, perform rituals, to try to shield ourselves from it suffering in some form will find us. It is the central problem of human existence. The diagnosis is universal. It’s not just you, it’s all of us, the rich, the famous, the powerful, the pious, everyone. If you think you’re alone with your difficulties, just spend some time talking to others and ask them about their problems. And if they’re open and they’re honest, you’ll soon discover that everyone has struggles and pain and unsatisfactoriness to contend with.

What we learned from the Buddha about embracing suffering is that life is going to be easier for us when we truly accept the suffering is a part of life for everyone, there’s simply no way around it. Now I wanted to bring this topic up because in recent weeks, I had a discussion with a friend of mine, Matt, who brought up this concept, this idea of acute suffering versus chronic suffering. And what he wanted to elaborate on was that sometimes when we approach Buddhism and we approached these big concepts or topics around suffering, it seems easy to apply these to some form of acute suffering, like some big change. Like you lose your job or you lose a loved one, or you realize that you’re sick, things of that nature.

But what happens when we experience this level of unsatisfactoriness in a chronic sense? It’s a lower magnitude of unsatisfactoriness yet it’s there and we just kind of deal with it day in and day out and often for months or years or even our whole lives. And in that discussion, it made me think about this Buddhist concept of all pervasive suffering. So if you’ve read some of my books that talk about the topic of suffering, I mentioned the various types of suffering, and I think it’s important to recognize and highlight that there are indeed various forms or ways to suffer. One of them is what we call all pervasive suffering. Keep in mind for a second, this notion of all pervasive suffering, which is essentially that there’s always at any given moment, some underlying unsatisfactoriness that’s there. And what we want to identify is where does that come from?

So just as an example, on my drive here, I spent seven days sitting in the car driving. My shortest days were 10 hour drives, and my longest days were 14 hour drives. So doing this day in and day out, I had a lot of thoughts about discomfort and unsatisfactoriness, and it stemmed from things like, my foot is going numb, to my legs are really uncomfortable, my lower back is hurting, all of the discomforts that come with sitting in a car for that long. But it got me thinking, “What if I went back in time?” At some point I would say, “Transporting my possessions is really hard on this sled.” So I invent wheels. Oh, well, that made it a lot easier. And for a split moment, I’d be grateful that it’s so much easier to pull this wagon with my possessions, rather than pushing it or dragging it on a sled. And then I might realize, “Oh, it was way easier when I tethered this wagon with wheels to an animal and I let it pull me. Oh, I’m so grateful for that now.”

And then there would be discomforts that arise from that. “Oh, I wish my animal didn’t need to rest so I could keep going. I wish it could go faster because this is taking forever.” Or, “I’m going numb sitting on the back of this horse.” Or something like that. And then motors are invented and they come along and, “Oh, well now this is easy. I get in this vehicle and I just go.” And again, “Well, but it’s slow.” And what I’m trying to get at is that over time this process has become better, and better, and better, and better, why? Because we generally don’t like discomfort so we’re constantly looking at ways to ease or minimize the discomfort.

And thanks to that, we’ve evolved to the point where here I am taking a seven day drive that traverses from one whole country to another, it’s pretty incredible that I can do that in a car. And sure there are difficulties that arise because that’s the nature of life is that there are always going to be difficulties and that’s what I wanted to highlight. Sure, I could make this better. What if I cut it from seven days down to three days, there would still be discomfort for sitting for three days or one hour. We do this when we’re on the airplane, right? We can be on an airplane, taking a flight that’s going to be an hour or two hours long that covers thousands of miles or something and we’re unsatisfied that the internet right now isn’t working and I can’t watch the movies, the screen in front of me is broken or something like that. And this is what I want to get at with the idea of all pervasive suffering or what Matt was talking about a more chronic form of suffering.

This is evident in things, not just because I was taking a drive, but let’s use another example, Matt and I talked about this and the example would be, let’s say you’re in a job and you’re not completely satisfied with your job. There’s an underlying level of unsatisfactoriness with your job. The problem that arises isn’t the unsatisfactoriness, I think the problem that arises is that we feel the unsatisfactoriness and we think that we shouldn’t feel it. t’s like we’ve believed for, I don’t know, from societal views or wherever these views came from that if we’re suffering, even a little bit, then we’re doing it wrong.

And I see this all the time when I receive emails that ask about tips or advice about parenting, for example in Buddhism, and the general vibe I get from these types of emails is that, “Hey, parenting is pretty hard, therefore, I must be doing it wrong. How can Buddhism help me to do it right, so that parenting isn’t hard anymore?” It’s almost like nobody told us that parenting is hard. Somehow we all bought into this lie, which is that if you do it right, parenting is easy. And that’s the problem. The problem isn’t that parenting is hard. The problem is that parenting is hard and we don’t want it to be hard. So here we are comparing, because of social media or whatever, what we think other people’s parenting experience is like, and we’re thinking, they must be doing something right and I must be doing something wrong because if it’s hard, I’m not doing it right.

And Buddhism kind of steps in and it’s saying, “No, all pervasive suffering is that parenting is hard.” There’s just no way around that, there’s no escaping it. Imagine that you have a restaurant that you really enjoy. And at that restaurant you have a specific dish, a meal that you really enjoy, so you always pick that. Now you may have this underlying unsatisfactoriness if you start to think, “I really like this, but man, what if there’s another meal at another restaurant that I might enjoy more?” If I think that, which absolutely could be true, then yes, it’s difficult to fully enjoy this meal because what if there’s another meal that I would enjoy more? So I want to go taste all of them. Now there’s no way around this because you cannot taste every dish at every restaurant in the world, it cannot happen. It’s physically impossible.

So when I recognize that, then I can learn to accept that there is going to be a level of all pervasive suffering every time I eat a meal, no matter how good it is, because somewhere in the back of my mind might be the thought, “What if there’s another meal somewhere else that I would have liked more?” Now take that same line of thinking and correlate that to other bigger things like relationships, I think this is a big deal in relationships. And we think, “Well, I’m in a relationship…” And some days I’m thinking, “Hmm, what if I had married this other person instead?” I don’t know someone you dated in college or high school and you start having those similar thoughts. What if there was a relationship out there that would be better than this one more compatible or whatever?

And the truth is, well, yeah, it very well could be, but here’s the catch you could be in that relationship and you’d be having the exact same thoughts, “What if I had married the other person?” And there’s no way around that because you can’t have the experience of being in a relationship with every single person in the world, it cannot happen. It’s physically impossible. So there’s always going to be that underlying all pervasive unsatisfactoriness in every relationship that is telling you, “What if, what if it would have been different?” Well, yeah, that’s fine. So what I want to get at with this, the idea here is that when these thoughts arise or when this general underlying form of all pervasive suffering arises, there’s nothing wrong with it.

The only time this becomes problematic is when that arises. And then we started thinking, “Oh, what does that mean? Oh no, maybe…” And don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying if you’re in a relationship, just stick with it, there’s no better relationship out there. That’s not true either, I know plenty of people who were in a miserable relationship and ended up getting divorced and ended up in a much happier and healthier relationship later. So I’m not saying stick with things, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, you’re never going to find the one that is perfect in the sense that I will no longer have any form of unsatisfactoriness, whether it’s the meal at your restaurant or the person that you’re married to, or the way that you’re parenting your children or the job that you have. And there’s always going to be that, what if. And I think it takes a lot of skillfulness to decide if, and when it reaches the point that you actually should do something about it.

I’ve done something about it in terms of my job. I wasn’t happy with a job once and I finally did something about it and I was much more happy in another job. And I’ve made career changes that even now I feel like I am really enjoying my job, I cannot imagine, the line of work that I do teaching people to paraglide, I cannot imagine something more fun. And yet there is the all-pervasive thought of, “Well, what if I had become a helicopter pilot? That was my dream as a youth.” Or, “What if I had become an air force pilot and I flew jets?” Or, “Ooh, what if I would have had the chance to become an astronaut?” And I can go down that path and sure, it’s true, what if one of those things would have been way more enjoyable that than what I do? And I don’t know, because I wouldn’t know unless I was in those shoes and I might be in those shoes thinking, “This is kind of stressful, I wonder what it would be like to just be a paraglider pilot or a paraglider instructor?”

So the point I want to make is that when we identify this all-pervasive suffering, this underlying unsatisfactoriness that permeates everything we can learn to recognize that it’s perfectly okay to experience all pervasive suffering or all pervasive unsatisfactoriness. That it only becomes problematic when we experience it and we think we’re not supposed to be experiencing this because then we start buying into strange conceptualizations that have in our mind, which is, “Well, if I don’t like this job, I shouldn’t be here.” And again, I’m not saying stick with a job you don’t like, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s a difference between identifying the all-pervasive suffering, that’s there versus this is an acute form of suffering and I definitely need to do something about it. Like my boss is mean to me and I can’t stand my boss then yeah, do something about it. So please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to get at here, I’m not saying stick with a bad relationship or with a bad job.

Another way to think about this, a way that came up in our conversation this morning in our live Zoom call, the community call, we were talking about the concept of judgment and how one of the listeners, or one of the participants mentioned that he’s trying hard to not judge people. And I brought up the fact that judging people is a natural thing, we all do it and it’s because we’re hardwired to do it. We have to make quick assessments to decide, are we safe? Right? This is an evolutionary thing where we can almost instantly say, “Is this person on team us or on team them?” And we’re hardwired to do that. So what I wanted to make clear was there’s nothing wrong with judging, it’s the attachment we have to the assessment we made in our judgment, that can be what’s problematic.

So for me, I catch myself judging people all the time. And when I do, I just remind myself, “Well, that doesn’t mean that I’m right and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s true.” And I have reasons for why my judgment goes one way or the other and that’s based on my societal views, my upbringing, my all kinds of things, things that I cannot help. But when I realized that I’m doing it, I can remind myself that just because I thought that doesn’t mean that it’s true. And if I were to spend time getting to know this person, I may be pleasantly surprised at how wrong I was. And that has happened to me various times. It’s also happened where the more I get to know them, the more confident I am in my assessment that I had already made the judgment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced both of those things.

But the point here is that judgment isn’t the problem, the problem is attaching to the assessment we made in the judgment and saying, “I know that I’m right, and I am definitely not wrong.” That attachment can produce a lot of difficulties. Now it’s another thing to say, “I’ve judged this person, but now I’m open to see how they really are. And I’m going to spend time trying to get to know this person.” And it’s just a whole different thing. So the correlation here is that suffering a similar, we experienced suffering because the nature of life is that unsatisfactoriness arises, right, the moment we want things to be other than how they are.

So the problem isn’t that we suffer, the problem is that we attach ourselves to this idea that we can somehow through a magic formula, eliminate it. And I know it sounds tricky cause Buddhism proposes this as a formula, right? The four noble truths, the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering, the truth of cessation of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. So there it would seem very clear that what we’re implying here is if you practice Buddhism hard enough and in the right way you eliminate suffering.

And although that’s what it sounds like, there’s a huge caveat there, which is first, we’ve got to define what is suffering and distinguish between what is natural and what is self-inflicted and then realize what we’re talking about in terms of eliminating any kind of unsatisfactoriness is the self-inflicted unnecessary unsatisfactoriness. Because the all pervasive, there’s always going to be that underlying form of unsatisfactoriness because of the nature of reality, because of the nature of the fact that I cannot taste all the meals at all the restaurants of the world, I will always be left with the prospect that this meal that I enjoy, no matter how much I like it, there could be another one out there that I would enjoy much more and I’ll never know because I will never taste it. And that to me is powerful to know that is the truth of unsatisfactoriness.

So going back to parenting really quick, being a parent is hard, there’s no way around that. And the problem isn’t that being a parent is hard, the problem is that we don’t want to fully accept that it’s hard because we somehow still believe that if it’s done right, it should be easy. And that is the problem, that is the lie, that is the mental conditioning. Parenting is hard. Being alive is hard. Having to go to work every day is hard. There’s no way around that. And that is the truth of unsatisfactoriness. So I hope that these concepts and ideas help a little bit with the understanding that in life difficulties arise and that’s not a problem. What we want to do is we want to start understanding the causes and conditions of our unsatisfactoriness and getting to know ourselves and getting to the point where we understand ourselves better.

And that’s all I have for this podcast episode, as always, thank you for listening. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a Patreon and join our online community where we discuss these koans and we discuss the podcast episodes, and we have a weekly study group and live interactions with a Q&A, and the Zoom calls, every Sunday. You can learn more about the online community by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to another podcast episode soon.

Before I go here is your Zen koan to work with between now and the next podcast episode. Elder Ting asked Lin-chi, “Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?” Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away. Ting was stunned and stood motionless. A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?” At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment. That’s all I have for now until next time.

130 – Three Approaches for Doubt and Mistrust

In Buddhism, doubt is beneficial because it is the first step in weakening our wrong views. The wonderful thing about doubt is that it can propel us in the direction of more skillful views. There is a strong emphasis in Buddhism to avoid “believing in” Buddhist teachings, instead, we are encouraged to evaluate them and to understand them and ultimately, to test them against our own experience.

Koan Discussed: One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.

Koan Shared: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Book Mentioned: “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinbochay. Available at: amzn.to/3ezRfZa Read More

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128 – No Going Back

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127 – Becoming Nobody

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126 – Finding Peace Amidst Chaos

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