141 – Smarter Not Harder

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “work smarter, not harder”. In this episode, I will share my throughs regarding Skillful Effort of the Eightfold Path and how it pertains to not only mindfulness practice but to everything we do in life.


Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 141. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m going to talk about skillful effort. 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 learned to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast and you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism in general, check out my book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, available on Amazon. Or you can start out by listening to the first five episodes of this podcast. Also, check out my new online workshop called Mindfulness For Everyday Life, available on Himalaya, a new educational audio platform. You can find information about that by visiting himalaya.com/mindfulness and give it a try with the promo code mindfulness for a 14-day trial to listen to not only my workshop but hundreds of other workshops that are available there as well. If you’re looking for a community to practice with and to interact with, consider becoming a patron by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking the link to join our online community.

In this podcast episode, I wanted to share some of my thoughts regarding the topic of effort. In Buddhism, we follow what’s called the eightfold path, these are eight specific areas that you focus on to live a more mindful life. The eight areas are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. I’ve talked about these in general. I’ve talked about the eightfold path in general on the podcast before. I’ve mentioned it, of course, in my book. I wanted to discuss some thoughts that I have regarding one specific aspect, which is effort. If you visualize real quick, the symbol of Buddhism is a wheel with 8 spokes. These eight spokes represent these specific areas, these eight areas. Some people have divided these into three general groups, the group of pertaining to wisdom, which would be understanding and intent, the group related to ethical conduct, which would be speech, action, and livelihood.

Then the group pertaining to mental discipline, which would be effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Again, I’ve mentioned these before but I’ve never taken the time to share thoughts regarding one specific spoke of the wheel. Today I wanted to do that with regards to effort. Now, anytime you encounter the eightfold path, you’ll typically hear it described as right this and right that. Right understanding, right intent and so on. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer the term skillful because skillful means being such a prevalent concept in Buddhism. It’s not right versus wrong. It’s more of skillful versus unskillful. I would like to talk about effort in terms of skillful effort versus unskillful effort. This conjures up the expression that I’m sure you’ve heard, which is that we can work smarter, not harder. This is the first time I’ve correlated all of this in terms of Buddhist practice, and that’s because over the past few weeks I’ve been busy doing a lot of flying.

I had an eight day workshop where I was teaching four new pilots how to fly, followed by an eight day flying which is a gathering. You have vendors there and they’re showcasing their equipment. Then all of the attendees were spending all of our time doing as much flying as possible, just for the fun of flying. It was a really fun event, but I’d been gone from my family and from my home for the past two weeks on the road doing all this work. During the first week working with four new students, I had this thought of skillful effort because of an experience that I had. I had four new students and one student really stood out to me. He joined the class several months ago. He signed up for training and he expressed his concern first due to his age, 67 years old. As you start reaching, I would say your mid 60s, it’s common for some people to lose a little bit of their strength.

But to complicate things further for him, he has Parkinson’s disease. He was a little bit worried about how those complications would factor into doing all this physical effort that it takes to learn to fly a paramotor. For those of you who don’t know the process of learning to fly one of these entails, strapping a motor to your back that’s usually 60 to 70 pounds, and then running with that. Running to the point where you’re going fast enough to take off. We don’t have wheels in powered paragliding, at least not in foot-launch powered paragliding, which is what I do. Our wheels are our feet. You have to be able to run up to a certain speed to be able to take off just like an airplane has to get up to a certain amount of speed before it lifts off the ground. It’s the same for us, but we don’t have wheels, so it has to be our feet. My student was a little bit concerned as was I.

I told him, if you’re determined to learn, we’ll spend all the time that it takes. If it goes beyond the eight days, if it takes weeks or months, I will continue to spend that time with you and teach you as long as you put in the effort that it’s going to take to do it. That was how we left things. Then the day came for training to start. He was a little nervous. I was certainly a little nervous. He did remarkably well. This is where I started to see and experience firsthand what skillful effort looks like. He knew himself so well. He knew at what time he needed to take his medication. He knew how long it would take before the medication started to kick in. He knew when the window was open for him to go out and start practicing and doing all the effort and the work it was going to take to learn. Perhaps more importantly, he knew when that window was closing and he would be the first to shut it down and say, okay, I’m done. I can’t keep practicing because he knew that as the medication wore off and his Parkinson’s kicked in stronger.

Those were not skillful times to continue practicing and continue trying to push himself. As I observed this over the course of several days, I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he was learning because of the effort he was putting in. It wasn’t that he was trying really hard, he was trying in a very smart way. He knew when to be trying and when not to be trying. That to me was the correlation with this concept of skillful effort. I’m pleased to say he ended up being in the top of the class. He accomplished his goal. He learned to fly. He had six or seven flights throughout training that he did all on his own and he nailed it every time he took off. He was a textbook student. I was very pleased to see his progress because it is common in this environment for me to train students who come in with the mindset of wanting to be really gung-ho and just worked really hard and they’re tired but they keep going, and then they’re really tired and they still keep going. Then sometimes they get hurt.

They can sprain an ankle or they get heat exhaustion or things like that. It’s happened enough times to where I’ve had to structure in breaks into the curriculum because the students won’t take the breaks themselves. They’re just so determined to continue. I’ve had to build into the program the training style where people have breaks that they have to take and to hydrate, but also to take turns in a buddy system so that they can’t both be going hard 100% at the same time. That’s been very helpful. But this student didn’t need any of that. What I saw playing out in front of me was skillful effort. It was really neat to experience it, to see it unfolding, and to think the reason he’s doing so well is because he knows when to try, when he’s trying too hard, when he’s not trying hard enough. He found the balance somewhere right in the middle.

This reminds me a little bit of the discussion of the instrument with the strings, which comes again from the Buddhist teaching, that the instrument with the strings if tightened too tight sounds bad. If it’s not tight enough, that also sounds bad. But somewhere in the middle is the proper tension on the string and then that’s what makes the music play right. Picture a guitar, a guitar that’s not tuned properly doesn’t sound very good, but when it’s tuned properly, it sounds great. That’s how it works a lot of times with effort. There are times that we try too hard and there are times that we don’t try hard enough. Somewhere in the middle is skillful effort. Just the right amount of effort that you could almost say is smart effort.

That’s why I liked this expression of skillful effort. Now I see this in meditation practice, mindfulness practice when somebody decides, you know what, I want to start living more mindfully. They approach this practice and they say, you know what, I’m going to start meditating one hour every day and they’re determined. Then they get burned out after two or three days because that’s actually really hard to set aside a whole hour every day. I see that happen all the time. Again, this notion of maybe you’re trying too hard. Maybe it would be more beneficial to approach this with, what is the skillful amount of effort? Because that is very personal, right? The amount of effort that it takes for you to do something may be very different than the amount of effort that it takes me to do something or someone else.

In context of time as well, the amount of effort it takes me right now to be able to launch and fly a paraglider wing is minimal compared to the effort that it took many years ago when I was still new and learning. That’s how a lot of things are in life. The amount of effort that it takes with parenting, with school, with our kids, with the way we handle coworkers at work. I mean, you name it. Effort is something that affects everything that we do, every single aspect of our lives. I really like drawing this correlation between skillful effort and the invitation to look inward, to be more introspective. Like my student knew himself when it’s time to take medicine, when the medicine is wearing off, when he should be out on the field practicing, when he should be sitting down resting. All of that was introspection. He knew himself pretty well.

That has inspired me to want to do the same with regards to parenting or with regards to doing work. Any aspect of my life, I want to have a skillful amount of effort that I put into the things that I do. Now it’s funny, this episode I had already recorded this once and I didn’t realize till I was done recording that the microphone had been set on mute. I recorded the whole episode only to discover it hadn’t recorded at all and I had to rerecord it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to have to rerecord it because it’s like why I don’t remember what all I said the first time, because I don’t write any of this down. I just wing it as I go. This is round two on the topic of skillful effort.

I thought in between the two sessions, I didn’t immediately sit down and start recording. Once I realized what I had done, I realized, well, now is not the time to continue to sit here and just push through. I want to think this through and I want to be skillful in the effort that I put into when I’m going to rerecord. I took a little break. I stepped away from the computer. I went and ate a bowl of cereal. Went outside and worked on a couple other projects that are on my plate, got those done. Then I came back in and I said, all right, let’s try this again. I made sure the microphone was not muted this time. That’s where this specific podcast episode is coming from now, this is a round two. I don’t remember what things I said in the first version that didn’t make it into this one, and some things that I probably mentioned in this one that I didn’t have in the first version. That’s just how it goes.

For me, that is all about skillful effort. I could have decided right then, you know what? I’m just going to push through and get this done because I’ve already been sitting here for 15 to 20 minutes and just rerecord it. But maybe it wouldn’t have come across in the best way that it could because I would have been rushing to get it done because I’d be feeling in the back of my head I’ve already said all this. It’s fun to see it even in little things, this idea of skillful effort. It’s always arising, it’s always there. I always have the ability to ask myself, could I be more skillful with the effort that I’m putting into this or that? Whatever the thing is that I’m working on.

Whether that’s sitting to meditate, mindfulness as a practice, the effort I put into maintaining healthy relationships with the people that I love and care about, or recording a podcast, or packing my gear to go flying. Whatever it is, there’s effort involved. I am now entertaining this from the perspective of what kind of skillful effort can I be putting in, rather than just working hard for the sake of working hard. Again, I don’t want to discount the idea of working hard. I think hard work goes a very long way. I would say that’s the invitation at the end of this, that hopefully you’ll be able to take this concept and think about it in the context of work, or parenting, or going to school, or going out and walking your dog, or whatever. Whatever it is, or especially mindfulness, right?

Mindfulness as a practice. To be able to sit and recognize as you look inward, do I know myself well enough to be able to be more skillful with regards to the effort that I’m putting into this thing that I’m trying to do? To attack it from that angle of skillful effort versus unskillful effort. See if you can improve in any of those areas just based on the understanding that like my student, someone who knew himself pretty well was able to put in just the right amount of effort to excel and to accomplish the goal he had set out to do. As an update, he finished the course. He had seven solo flights by the end of everything. He did really well. Every single one of them was a successful takeoff and a landing. I was so proud of him and so impressed with the effort that he put in because he knew, I knew, and the other students in the class knew how hard it was for him to get through the training.

It was a very emotional and bonding experience when he landed from his first flight. We were all so proud of him and we were all hugging him and just so excited for what he had accomplished. Here with someone who is 67 years old and was finally living the dream of flying through the air with your feet dangling under you. It wasn’t easy, but he had just the right amount of effort to make that dream a reality. That’s at the heart of what I think we’re trying to understand when it comes to skillful effort in terms of mindfulness as a practice. Hopefully, some of that makes sense, and that’s all I have that I wanted to share in this podcast episode. I’m excited to be back home and getting caught up on my routine and to start recording other podcast episodes. Hopefully, not doing it while on mute. That’s all I have for this one. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

139 – Mindfulness Interview with Dr. Sarah Shaw

I recently had the opportunity of interviewing Dr Sarah Shaw about her new book “Mindfulness: Where it comes from and what it means”. I hope you enjoy the conversation. To learn more about her book, visit: www.shambhala.com/buddhist-mindfulness.html

138 – Sticky Hair Monster

In this podcast episode, I will talk about the Buddhist story of Sticky Hair Monster and the prince who tried to battle him. This story points to the battle that often takes place in our minds against our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Koan Discussed: Joshu’s Mu

Koan Shared: Bodhidharma’s Beard


Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is Episode Number 138, I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about Sticky Hair Monster and the battle against our thoughts and emotions. 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 a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, episodes one through five are a good place to start to get an intro to all of the key concepts, ideas, and teachings, or you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here.

If you’re looking for an online community to practice with and 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.” And something new to the community, we are now using Discord. And the Discord app and platform allows us to engage in a much more efficient way. We have chats around different topics, podcast episodes and all things related to Buddhism life in general. If you’re looking for a community, join us there.

Now let’s get started with the podcast episode. In the last podcast episode, the Zen koan I shared is called Joshu’s Mu and I want to share a couple of thoughts about this. The koan itself goes like this. “Joshu was a famous Chinese Zen master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day, a troubled monk approached him intending to ask the master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted, “Mu.”

I want to share some thoughts. And these thoughts come from the book Zen Koans, and this is a book written by Gyomay Kubose. Of all the koans, Joshu’s Mu is the most famous. It’s extremely popular with Zen masters who frequently assign it to novices. If the student tends properly to business, Mu comes to resemble a hot iron ball stuck in his throat. He can either swallow it nor spit it out. The importance of Joshu’s Mu is it’s succinct, one syllable revelation of Buddhism.

A little background here, and again, all of these thoughts are coming from the book Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose. He says, “Mu is the negative symbol in Chinese meaning not, or no thing. Mu is also a basic concept in oriental philosophy. There is a relative Mu and an absolute Mu. The relative Mu in Chinese characters is the opposite of U, the letter U which means is the absolute Mu of Zen Buddhism transcends is, and is not.”

In order to understand this koan it is necessary to be aware of this distinction. When the monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” He was asking not only from the standpoint of his own troubled mind, but from the basic Buddhist teaching that all beings have Buddha nature. Joshu realized this, his Mu as an answer was a blow aimed at breaking or untying the monk’s attachment to that teaching. The essence of Buddha’s teaching is non-attachment.

All human troubles and sufferings without exception are due to attachment, even attachment to the idea of non-attachment is attachment. Joshu wanted the monk to transcend the relative world, transcend the teachings, transcend Mu, transcend Buddhism and gain the free and independent world of enlightenment. Satori or enlightenment is this new dimension or perspective in life. Ordinary human life is always attached to the relative, the is and the is not, good and bad, right and wrong.

But life itself is constantly changing. The condition of society changes, right and wrong often changes, every situation is different according to time and place. Static concepts are not appropriate to life. Thus Mu is crucial, it offers no surface upon which the intellect can fasten. The word Mu must be experienced as the world of Mu.

Those are the thoughts from the book Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose regarding the specific koan, Joshu’s Mu. And I wanted to share this koan because as the book mentions it’s one of the most popular, perhaps the most famous of the koans. But to have a little bit of background you need to understand the answer. Essentially what’s happening here is you have a teacher who’s being asked a question by a student, by a novice monk. And the question is so out of place because the Buddhist teaching of Buddha nature is that all beings have Buddha nature.

It’s like someone coming along and asking a very obvious question which he should know the answer to. According to the teaching that all beings have Buddha nature, the answer to the question does a dog have Buddha nature is obviously yes. But Joshu knew that he was asking this question that should be obvious. Instead of giving the obvious answer he gave the answer that the monk was not expecting by shouting, “Mu,” or, “No,” or, “No thing.” And in the tradition of koans and in the tradition of Zen, this is the shock and all approach. The shock and awe is that that’s not what I was expecting.

Here you have this novice monk asking a question, getting an answer that he’s not expecting and it leaves him confused. And that’s the exact state that koans and oftentimes Zen in general want to leave you in because it’s trying to break you free of the conceptualizations that you’re making in your own mind. If I know the obvious answer is yes and I’m immediately hearing shouting that the answer is no, what that does is it leaves me thinking, “Wait a second. But I thought…” I’m guessing that that’s exactly what the monk did right away. He was like, “Wait, but, but,” and trying to recall, “But this teaching says this.”

And that’s exactly what the master would want, is to leave you very confused for a moment because in that confusion you transcend the world of is, or isn’t. To me it’s almost a way of saying, “Let’s entertain the question again. Was that even an appropriate question, was it a relevant question? Because if it’s not, what benefit does it give you if I were to answer the question for you?” And I think that’s what the master is hoping to do here. He’s not answering the question… Well, he is answering the question with what you’re not expecting which is the only thing you can do to make someone really start to think.

And I would suppose that maybe this monk with time could walk away and realize, “Okay, well, that was dumb to ask him that because his answer doesn’t matter. What if the answer is no? What if the answer is yes. Well, what does that say about you and your Buddha nature?” I think that’s along the lines that this koan was trying to go about. At least that’s how it makes sense to me.

I like to think of this one and apply it to my day to day life. The answers that we often seek to find about life are, you could almost say it’s silly questions. And I’ve experienced this firsthand, right? Going through a faith crisis and then becoming a seeker and looking for another worldview that might make more sense. When you’re on that path of seeking and you’re looking for answers to life’s big questions, Buddhism comes along and it does this, it gives you the answer Mu which is to say, you’re not going to get the answer that you wanted and in not having the answer that you wanted you’re only left with one option, let’s entertain the question. Where did the question come from? Does that question even matter? What would happen if you did answer question, then what?

And I think that’s what this koan does, it immediately brings you back to, “Wait, let me think about that question a little bit more.” That is the koan, Joshu’s Mu. Hopefully this is a koan that made you think and you’ll remember this and future instances where questions come to mind. You can assign a little bit more value to the question and a little bit less value to the answer and that to me is Buddhism in a nutshell. It’s all about the questions not so much about the answers.

Okay, with that said, I do want to share a couple of thoughts about a story, an old Buddhist story and I’m going to call this Sticky Hair Monster. I think the original story is called Prince Five-Weapons. And I might be wrong but I think this comes from the Jataka… Stories or tales, I can’t remember. I came across it a long time ago. But I came across it again in a book called Buddha at Bedtime.

In the book, let me make sure… Yeah, Buddha at Bedtime, it has a lot of little stories and I’ve been reading these stories for years now to my kids at night. I went through a phase where every night we would read one, it’s been a while since I’ve read one. But one of the stories that really stuck to me is the story of Sticky Hair, Sticky Hair Monster. And it’s become a fun story that I revisit and play the game often with my youngest daughter who’s four.

And we play this game and I’m Sticky Monster and she’s trying to escape from Sticky Monster. But I think there’s a really valuable lesson in the story. I want to share this story with you. And this comes directly from the book Buddha at Bedtime. And the story goes like this. “It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when a boat carrying Prince Hector came from overseas into the harbor. And before the young prince left the vessel, the captain warned him, ‘Your Highness, while you have been away training to be a warrior, an evil monster called Sticky Hair has come to live in the forest. So I advise you not to take that route to the palace. Instead go the long way home around the mountains.’

“‘Thank you for your advice,’ replied Hector. ‘But I’ll be fine, I want to get home before sunset and I have all my weapons if I need them.’ ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘I’m a trained warrior. I’m not afraid of a silly old monster.’ And the young prince strode boldly on into the woods. Just as Prince Hector was beginning to think that the monster didn’t exist, he reached a clearing in the forest and there stood the most gigantic, ugly creature he had ever seen.

“The monster was as big as a house and completely covered in matted hair. He looked like a living, breathing, but very horrible haystack. The creature had a huge head and he stared at the prince with eyes as big as dinner plates. Two big orange tusks stuck out of his enormous mouth and his teeth were green and revolting. His belly was big and round like a beach ball and covered in large pale orange spots.

“‘Grrr,’ roared Sticky Hair, ‘What do you think you are doing in my wood little man? You look like a tasty morsel and I’m going to eat you for dinner. ‘I’m not afraid of you, you horrible old monster,’ replied Hector. ‘I’m a warrior. I can easily defeat you with my sword, I dare you to fight me.’ Swiftly as the wind, the prince leapt forward and thrust his sword at the monster. But to his surprise, it just stuck to the creature sticky hair.

“The prince left his sword there, quickly rolled out of the way, got to his feet and grabbed his bow. He shot arrow after arrow at the monster but like the sword each one just became tangled in his sticky hair. The prince was astonished. ‘Ha-ha-ha,’ boomed, Sticky Hair. ‘You’re a very funny little man, you’ll never beat me.’ Then he shook himself from his ugly head down to his big smelly toes and all the prince’s arrows dropped down to the ground.

“Hector now had only his club left for protection, so he swung it at Sticky Hair with all his might. But it too became caught in the monster’s hair and was pulled from the prince’s strong grip. ‘I’m not defeated yet,’ he shouted. ‘My weapons may be useless but I’m young and strong and I’ll fight you with my fists.’ He cried as he ran and leapt on the monster and got firmly stuck. Even now as Prince Hector dangled from the creature’s sticky hair, he continued to act fearlessly, so much so that the monster started to wonder exactly what gave him such courage. ‘Why are you not afraid of me little man? I could gobble you up in a snap and a crack,’ he threatened fiercely.

“Still hanging from the monster’s tangled hair, Hector was busy thinking about what to do next. All of a sudden it came to him. He realized that he would have to use his brains to outwit the creature instead of his weapons. He shouted up to Sticky Hair, “I’ll tell you why I’m not afraid of you. My skin is coated in poison so if you eat me you’ll die. I dare you to eat me.’ Sticky Hair didn’t believe Hector at first, but the more the prince insisted, the more worried the monster became. ‘I’d like to eat him but I can’t risk getting poisoned,’ he muttered.

“Reluctantly, he pulled the prince from his matted coat and set him on the ground unharmed. ‘Well, fearless little man, you’ve convinced me. You’re telling the truth and I don’t want to die so I suppose I’ll have to let you go,’ he said grudgingly. Hector was delighted. Not only had he outwitted the monster and saved his own life but he had also learned an important lesson, that the most powerful defense had been inside him all along, his own intelligence, not his strength and not his weapons.

“Looking up into the monster’s big eyes, the young prince said, ‘I’m very grateful to you Sticky Hair, not just for releasing me but also for teaching me that I don’t have to fight to be brave, strong and clever. Would you like to know my secret? If you promise not to eat me I’ll tell you as a reward for sparing my life.’ Surprised Sticky Hair agreed. Although the monster had never been defeated until that day, he had always been frightened of people. In fact, he had only attacked people to stop them from attacking him. But now the creature was eager to learn to be fearless like Hector, so he let the young prince become his teacher and friend.

“And the strangest thing happened. The more Sticky Hair learned how to use his brain, the less he felt the need to harm others. Using his intelligence brought the creature great happiness and gradually he was transformed from a scary, lonely monster into a friendly forest giant. Prince Hector let all the local people know that the monster had completely changed, and gradually they became his trusted friends, bringing him food and living with him in peace and harmony. And the new eager-to-please Sticky Hair repaid their kindness by protecting them and guiding travelers safely through the forest.”

And then the book goes on to say, “Sometimes it feels like there’s no option but to fight our way out of the difficult situation. A wise person knows that it’s their intelligence not their physical strength that will help them to win in the end.” That’s the version from the children’s book, Buddha at Bedtime. The original story the way it’s been shared and passed down, the story of Prince Five-Weapons is essentially stating that of all the weapons you can possess, the one that is more powerful than all the others is the mind. And that’s the old story of how Prince Five-Weapons didn’t kill Sticky Hair, but instead taught him the ways of peace and enlightenment.

And there are other little minor variations of the story. All in all, the story of Sticky Monster for me has been a fun way to convey this concept to my kids that the moral of the story is that often the only way to win a fight is by not fighting, it’s by using your brain, your intelligence. And to me this somewhat echoes a little bit from the last podcast, the episode, the idea of nothing being something oftentimes by doing nothing we are doing something.

I think that in our culture, we’re generally of the mindset of conquering, of overcoming and sometimes we approach Buddhism in this very same way. It’s like we’re going to overcome the ego and we’re going to conquer our selfishness or conquer our negative attributes. My thoughts and feelings and emotions that I don’t like I’m going to force them out and away from me, I’m going to win over them. And when we do that we’re setting ourselves up for the same mistake that the prince and Sticky Monster had, which is Sticky Monster can’t be beat.

You can approach Sticky Monster with all the weapons you have and the result is going to be the same, they’re going to get stuck and it doesn’t do anything to this big monster. The harder that you try, the harder that you fight, it doesn’t do anything. You’re still going to fail. But what happens when we approach the situation from rather than overcoming with the attitude of trying to understand and trying to be friend? And this reminds me of the quote, Pema Chodron says, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we already are.”

And I encounter this quite a bit in my interactions with podcast listeners and supporters who reach out and want to discuss specific situations or circumstances that they’re going through in their lives. And I encounter this concept quite a bit with anger, for example, where somebody is experiencing a set of circumstances, causes and conditions that they’re experiencing anger in their life. And often they’re angry at the fact that they’re angry. Or if you’re upset, you might be upset that you’re not at peace. And it’s just this interesting place to be because the only real piece that we can have comes when we’re at peace with the fact that we’re not at peace.

And the reason that works is because life is always changing. Again, like the Tetris game analogy, there’s a new piece on the horizon. And every time the new piece shows up it’s a whole new game, you’re always playing the new game. And that’s exactly how life works. Life is always changing, you’re always dealing with something new. Today it might be the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one, or the flat tire on the road, or the coworker that is annoying you. Or you might be dealing with a really good job and you’re happy with this. Or you’re dealing with a worldwide pandemic or whatever it is, right? It’s always changing.

And the fact that it’s always changing means you always get to revisit this and say, “Okay, now how do I play the game?” And you can literally do this minute by minute because every minute life has changed and all it takes is awareness to see that. When we’re angry at the fact that we’re angry, we’re compounding the situation. Anger is natural and if I’m experiencing anger and I’m okay with the fact that I’m experiencing anger, then there’s no problem.

Sure, I’m angry but there’s no problem with being angry so life is good. I’m at peace. And before I know it the causes and conditions of the anger might be gone and then anger is gone and I’m okay that I’m not angry. Again, I’m a peace, I’m at peace when I’m angry, I’m at peace when I’m not angry. And that to me is at the heart of what this story of Sticky Monster is trying to get at. The twist, I think in the story is that we are Sticky Monster or Sticky Monster is us, right?

I think Robert Wright talks about this in his book Why Buddhism is True. He talks about the modules of the mind. And the concept of the modules of the mind is the understanding that I have many different aspects of me that make me me. There’s the me that is in the role of a parent, of a dad, of a brother, of a son, of a podcaster. Of all the things that I do that make me me, these are the various modules of the mind. And within these modules there are the thoughts and the feelings and the emotions and the memories.

These are what in Buddhism we would call the five skandhas, the different things that make you, you, and yet you’re not any of them. But when I understand that about myself, if I realized that I’m experiencing anger, it’s something that I’m experiencing but I’m also the observer of the experience. And I’m also the one that feels, “I like this or I don’t like this.”

And all of that’s okay if I just observe it. And what it leaves me with is this important understanding that just like with Sticky Monster, the monster is the monster, I can’t change the fact that it’s ugly, that it stinks, that it’s hair is sticky or all the things that are unpleasant about it. But what I can change is when I understand that this thing isn’t going away and I can’t fight it away I’m left with one option, I can befriend and try to understand it. And all of this happens by using the weapon of the mind not the traditional weapons that you would think of as weapons. And that’s what happens in that story.

To me the moral of the story is that I am the prince but I am also Sticky Monster. Certain parts of my mind when I’m experiencing anger, there it is, that’s the big Sticky Monster. I’m angry and I don’t that I’m angry. Well, there I am, I’m fighting the thing that I cannot win now. But if I’m okay that I’m angry now I’m at peace again. And there’s the two things, there’s the prince and the Sticky Monster. There’s the observer of the anger I’m experiencing and there’s the anger I’m experiencing.

And those are the two things they can sit there side-by-side, perfectly at peace and content because there’s nothing wrong with being angry. There’s nothing wrong with sitting next to the monster. It’s fighting the monster that creates the problem and I think it’s the same with our thoughts and feelings and emotions. It’s fighting my emotions, being angry that I’m angry that aggravates the problem.

That’s the key takeaway for me with this specific lesson with the story of Sticky Hair, Sticky Hair Monster. And I’ve been working on this story for months now with, like I said, with my own kids and we play this game called Sticky Monster and I’m Sticky Monster and they’re all trying to fight me. Well, they can never beat me and I always trap them and then I hold them. And they’ve learned that the trick is they have to start asking me questions, “Where are you from Sticky Monster? How old are you Sticky Monster? How do you feel today?”

And as they talk to me, then I start answering their questions and I loosen the grip. And then at the end of the game we’re sitting next to each other and they keep talking to me and that’s when they can slowly… They have to slowly walk away. But in the game that we play if they try to run or they try to escape me, or they try to fight me they don’t win. I’m hoping that with time this little game and this little story will transition into a deep understanding of the nature of life with them and the relationship they have with their own thoughts and feelings and emotions.

And I think that’s the final thought that I would want to share here, is that we’re not trying to change our thoughts and feelings and emotions as we’re experiencing them, all we’re trying to do is change the relationship we have with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as we experience them. Because to me that’s the key, that’s it, that’s the difference of running and fighting Sticky Monster and just exerting all your energy, that’s pointless because you’re never going to win versus sitting and talking to Sticky Monster using your mind and understanding and befriending. And again, to me the twist is the recognition that I’m actually both. I’m the prince and I’m Sticky Monster and I’ve been fighting myself this whole time, which makes the fight that much more ridiculous when I think about it that way.

That’s all I have to share about that concept of Sticky Monster and the relationship we have to our thoughts and feelings and emotions. Before ending this podcast episode I want to leave you with another Zen koan to think about. And this is one that I think I’ve mentioned before, I can’t remember. I’m reaching that stage where I can’t remember what things I’ve said before and what things I haven’t, but I guess it never hurts to mention things more than once. The Zen koan I’d like to leave with you at the end of this podcast episode to think about is called No Beard. And it goes like this. “Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma. ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?'” And that’s it, that’s the end of that koan. All right, I’ll share my thoughts on that one in the next podcast episode. As always thank you for listening, until next time.

137 – The Beauty of Nothing

Is nothing something? What happens when we do nothing? In this podcast episode, I will share my thoughts on the concept of nothingness and the beauty of nothing. I will also discuss the koan “every day is a good day”.

Koan Discussed: Every Day is A Good Day

Koan Shared: Joshu’s Mu


Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 137. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about the beauty of nothing. As always, 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 a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, check out episodes one through five or visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here, which will give you access to those episodes one through five, where they’re easy to find. If you’re looking for an online community to practice with and 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.”

In the last podcast episode, I shared a koan that goes like this. Unman said, “I do not ask you about 15 days ago, but what about 15 days hence? Come, say a word about this”. Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them, “Every day is a good day.” The “every day is a good day” koan is a koan that I’ve enjoyed. In fact, I have it written in Japanese on a poster board on my wall, “every day is a good day,” and this has been a way of thinking, a concept if we want to call it that, that I like to keep at the forefront of my mind. When I’m experiencing what I would consider to be a good day, maybe a bad day for someone else or what I consider to be a bad day for me, is certainly a good day for someone else.

And the idea that every day is a good day, because it’s always based on perspective and place and time, has been helpful for me to I think have a more skillful view of what good means and the idea of what a day is. So I wanted to share some of the thoughts that came from the Patreon community. Duchenne says, “I can’t escape thinking that hope is at the center of this koan as well as the irrelevance of the past and the future. However, I don’t commonly see hope as a big part of Buddhism in general. Hope seems judgmental and perhaps leads to dissatisfaction about the way things are.” I want to share a couple thoughts about this in terms of the notion of hope.

In Buddhism, I like to remind people that the Buddhist view is always pertaining to the present moment. So when we approach concepts like hope, like hopelessness specifically, it’s always pertaining to the present moment. So the idea isn’t that I shouldn’t have hope for things in the future. The idea is that if I can experience hopelessness in the present moment, what I’m experiencing is a moment of not needing things to be any different than how they are, which, if you think about it, when we talk about the definition of suffering, the moment we want things to be other than how they are, we experience suffering. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to experience suffering. It’s unavoidable, in fact. We’re going to experience this feeling in times the moment we want things to be other than how they are.

So what we can do in the present moment, if I realize that for this one single moment, I don’t need anything to be other than how it is, I’m experiencing hopelessness. But I know hopelessness has a bad rap, a bad connotation in our way of thinking in our society, and it’s a little strange to tell someone that you’re aspiring for hopelessness. But remember, it’s not in the future. You see this even in Buddhist thought like in the Metta prayer, where you say, “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace.” That expression implies a wish that I have for you in the future, but as far as the practice goes, what I’m doing when I’m trying to experience hopelessness, it’s right now in this present moment, it’s the radical acceptance of how things are.

I’ll elaborate on that just a little bit more, but first I want to share Robert’s thoughts. He says, “Thanks for the episode. The koan makes me think of two things. One, there’s no such thing as a bad day, because even if you’re having a bad day, billions of others might be having a good one. And two, time is a concept. Its existence relies on humans believing in it. There are no good or bad days because, beyond our perception, there are no days.” Now, I like that he brings awareness to this idea of time. If I say, “Every day is a good day,” yeah, the idea of a day is something that is a concept. We distinguish what a day is based on the rotation of the sun. We’ve decided that’s it. But where do you draw that line? What if it was 25 hours in the day and on the 25th hour there’s this great thing that happened? How do you define what makes a day good and what makes a day bad?

Is it 10 good things and two bad things? Is it 12 bad things and one good thing? What would make it good or bad? And then you have to break it down from there. Well, then, is it by hour? What would make every hour as a good hour or every minute is a good minute, every second as a good second, right? Where do we draw that line? Because, again, the emphasis from the Buddhist perspective is always pertaining to the present moment and any moment can be a good moment if I just bring awareness to it and mindfulness to the moment. Because, if you’ll recall, the very definition of mindfulness is the non-judgmental observation of the present moment. So if I’m observing the present moment with non-judgment, it’s not good or bad, it’s just the moment that is and in doing so, yeah, I could say every moment is a good moment, but that’s the koan, right? Because who says what’s good? Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad?

Which brings me to Heather’s thoughts, who says, “This koan about good days and bad days brought a few interesting things to my thoughts today. First, it made me think of the parable about the two neighbors who, whenever something happened to his neighbor, such as the horse running away, or his son being pardoned from joining the army because of breaking his leg, the neighbor simply replied, ‘Who knows what is good and what is bad?’ It is through this story that we realize that not everything is as it seems at first so it’s not wise to label things as good or bad. Also, we should take into consideration of what is good for one person may be bad for another. Finally, most of what I’ve been learning about Buddhism,” and she says, “I’m fairly new to the practice, emphasizes being present in the moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. So perhaps this question, isn’t really a question at all. It’s a reminder that we should be here in the present moment, fully awakened.”

And I wanted to share my thoughts on building on Heather’s thoughts here, the concept of the present moment, because yes, from the Buddhist perspective, again, it’s always anchored in the present moment. So if that’s the case and I’m anchored in the present moment, a concept like “every day is a good day,” again, I’d have to go to, what about this moment? And if this moment is good or bad, well, what about the next moment? And if that moment is good or bad, well, what about the next moment? And because we can’t pause time, we’re stuck with this constant observation that the meaning I’m giving to a moment is just that, it’s the meaning I’m giving to it and the moment I’ve done that it’s gone and I’m onto the next moment and onto the next moment. So when I start to see it in light of trying to be in the present moment, suddenly all of these other concepts that you’ll encounter in Buddhism, make more sense.

Again, going back to the concept of hopelessness, well, sure, if I’m hopeless in this moment, what about the next moment? Oh well, that one I’m hopeful. Well, then what about the next one? Oh, maybe that one I’m hopeless. What if you’re switching back and forth literally moment to moment in half a second increments or something? So, because there’s no fixed time, everything’s always changing, notions like this start to make more sense in terms of the present moment. So those were just some of the thoughts I wanted to share regarding the “every day is a good day” koan.

And I want to tie this into the topic that I wanted to share today, the beauty of nothing. Now, this is just a stream of thoughts that I wanted to share with you, but the concept of nothingness in Buddhism is that, first, you would have to entertain the question, is nothing something? Because if you have an answer to that question and you tell me what nothing is, well, then now nothing is something, right? The idea that you have about what nothing is that is something. It’s a concept and it’s an idea. So the idea of nothingness from the Buddhist perspective is quite fascinating because it puts you in this world of non-duality again, which is, is nothing something? And I would argue that it is. So then there’s no such thing as nothingness. Nothingness is somethingness. And that’s pretty interesting to think about.

So one thing I wanted to share, where this starts to apply a little bit more in our day to day experience is the practice of trying to do nothing. I just got off the phone not long ago with a podcast listener who’s a patron and wanted to discuss this concept of nothingness. And we had a really fun conversation around this and talked about some of the ways that this concept of nothingness can be beneficial in day to day life. So I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you. And the first was, the question, well, how do we even practice nothingness? Because if I’m thinking I’m trying to make time for nothing and there was a podcast episode about this, Making Time For Nothing, that’s why I wanted to bring this up.

But if I go into the practice of wanting to do nothing, I’m going to struggle if I really think that nothing is devoid of something. So what that means to me, if I sit here and I think, “Okay, I’m going to do nothing,” what am I actually doing? I’m doing something, I’m thinking of doing nothing, which is something. It’s a lot like the catch-22 that you’re in if you think, “Well, what is the sound of silence?” Well, listen to silence and you’re going to hear something, whether it’s the ringing in your ears or the faraway sounds of cars honking, the idea that there’s always some kind of sound taking place. Even if you just say, “Okay, well, what is the sound or the frequency of the sound of the radiation that comes from the sun and just shoots right through the earth?” We’re experiencing that at any given moment and there’s a sound associated to that.

Whether I can perceive it or not doesn’t matter, but the idea is that there is no such thing as silence, at least for us here in this world. There’s always some form of sound penetrating the earth from the sun or something. And I think this concept with nothingness is the same. So to want to experience nothingness is to experience somethingness. I’m going to experience something by trying to do nothing. And this could be as simple as, okay, I’m going to sit here and do nothing and then I get distracted watching a little ant on the ground and I follow along and watch and realize that in this moment of nothingness, there’s a whole lot of somethingness taking place, where I can hear the rustling of the leaves on the trees outside the window. And in my moment of doing nothing, I observed that there’s a whole lot of something.

And that to me is where this becomes powerful. In my external observation of nothingness, what I observe is a lot of somethingness, but now take this a step further and go inward. In my intent to observe nothingness taking place in me, what I will observe is a whole lot of somethingness. I may be able to observe my heartbeat or the rumbling sounds in my stomach or the sound of breathing or the observation of thoughts that don’t stop. The thoughts are always going, always racing. Even if I have the thought that I’m not having thoughts, that’s a thought. I had the thought of not having thoughts. And that is the dilemma with the concept of nothingness, which is, what makes the idea of nothingness so beautiful is that nothing is actually something, quite a bit of something.

So I was having all these thoughts with the notion of nothing and then I thought I would like to correlate this with a bigger topic in Buddhism, which is the concept of no self or non-self. And I think if I can conclude that nothing is something, and I take that line of thought and apply it to something like the sense of self, now I’m actually onto something pretty fascinating, which is the idea of non-self. Self is nothing from the Buddhist way of thought, which means that self is something. If anything, it’s a concept, it’s an idea, and it’s always changing and it’s always evolving. And one way that I like to think of this is the way that I perceive a rainbow. The other day, my daughter, who’s four, we saw a rainbow and she said, “Can we go to it?” And I had to explain to her, “Well, the rainbow is something that we see, but it’s not actually there. You don’t get to go touch it. The closer you get to it, it disappears because you only see a rainbow, not because it’s there, but it’s based on how we see.”

And now, of course, to a four year old this whole notion is like, “Okay.” That was too much. But it got me thinking. When I perceive a rainbow, the causes and conditions arise and suddenly I perceive the rainbow. I don’t think it’s much different when I perceive the sense of self. The causes and conditions arise, which is that I exist, I’m born, my brain processes thoughts, experiences, feelings, and emotions, and this whole combination of experience that I’m having gives rise to the sensation of a sense of self, very similar to the sensation of, “Oh, there’s a rainbow, something that I can perceive.” Now, I go chasing after it and I’ll never find it. And I think that’s the same dilemma that we’re in with a sense of self, which is what the Buddhist view of non-self is trying to get at.

It’s not that there is no self. It’s that the perception that we have of self is off from what we think that it is. In other words, the sense, myself, is not what I might think that it is. It’s not a permanent thing and it’s not an independent thing. It’s an interdependent, transitory thing that’s always changing the sense of self. And this to me is a fascinating way to look at it. I might think, well, there are aspects of me that seem fixed like my personality, for example. But it’s not that fixed. Many people will encounter some kind of big experience that can change their personality. Just yesterday I was hearing about someone who was saying that a really good friend who had a certain personality and way about him, and he went to rehab because he was dealing with a strong addiction to drinking and smoking and went through this whole program and came out of it and was a different person. His personality had changed.

Now, some of us may not go through something that changes our personality. A big crisis can do it. People who endure some kind of trauma may have a different personality. Most of us will have the same personality that we’ve always had and it will seem like, well, what about that? That’s kind of a permanent thing. But it’s not because, what was your personality before the day you were born? Or the day before you were conceived, or the day after you die? There’s no permanence in there in the same way that, that koan evokes when it says, “What was your face before you were born?” But what I’m trying to get at, I guess, with this line of thought is that even things that may seem fixed and permanent, they aren’t fixed or permanent when it comes to this concept of the sense of self.

And as long as the causes and conditions are there to see the rainbow, you’re going to see the rainbow. So there’s no need to deny what I’m perceiving. I can say, “Well, yeah. I see that rainbow. I totally see it. But I know that it’s not what I would think that it is.” And that to me is where the value comes in this as I think about the sense of self. I have a strong perception of a sense of self, but that doesn’t mean that it’s what I might think it could be. I start to see through that illusion and recognize it’s what I’m seeing that matters, not what’s actually there that matters. It’s because of how I see that I perceive what I’m perceiving.

So another way I wanted to share some thoughts about this idea of hopelessness or really any concept in Buddhism is, if we apply it to the present moment and along the lines of skillful versus unskillful then we have something actually beneficial and useful to work with in our day to day life. And the analogy that I had that popped into my mind was, if I am out on the ocean in a boat and suddenly I realize I’m caught up in a storm and a hurricane, a sense of hopelessness, one would say, “Oh, that means, okay, I’m not going to do anything because I guess I’m just going to die out here.” Well, that’s pretty grim. But the Buddhist view of hopelessness would be, “Okay, I’m recognizing I’m out here in a storm and there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot wish this storm away. I cannot pray it away. I’m caught up in the storm. There’s no denying that.” That’s where acceptance kicks in.

“Okay, if I’m caught in a storm, what can I do?” The moment I accept that I am caught in the storm I can start to be more skillful. “Okay, well, I better bring the sails down.” Or, “I better call an SOS on the radio.” Or, “I better strap myself to the railings of the boat so a wave doesn’t knock me over.” There are a whole bunch of things that you can do, but those things are only going to happen once I recognize this is indeed the situation that I’m in. So the idea of hopelessness in Buddhism is more along those lines. And someone in the Patroon community said she likes the expression wishlist-ness, which I agree. I like that. It’s a moment where I’m experiencing wishlist-ness. I don’t need to spend time wishing that it was any other than how it is.

I’m going to just say, “This is how it is in the present moment and if I’m caught in a storm, in a boat in the ocean, then I’m going to do the things that I know are skillful to do in that moment rather than sit there wishing I wasn’t in the storm,” because no amount of wishing is going to make that storm go away. So that’s along the lines of what I wanted to share in terms of this concept of the beauty of nothing. To me, the beauty of nothing is the recognition that the beauty of nothing is, in fact, the beauty of something. There’s always something. So those were some of the thoughts that I wanted to share. This podcast episode was inspired by a recent phone call conversation like I’d mentioned before and I wanted to just share a bunch of those thoughts.

So I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. I want to it with another koan that you can think about between now and the next podcast episode. And this is one of those big koans. I would say, perhaps of all the koans, this one is the most famous, at least in Zen circles. And this is the koan called Joshu Mu. So Joshu was a famous Chinese Zen master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day, a troubled monk approached him intending to ask the master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted, Mu!” That’s the koan. I will explain more about it and share some of my thoughts about it in the next podcast episode. Thanks again for listening. And until next time.


136 – Mountains and Rivers

In this podcast episode, I will share some of my thoughts regarding the Mountains and Rivers Sutra by Zen master Dogen. This teaching reminds me of the simple yet complex nature of reality.

Rikyū’s Poem “Only This”
First you heat the water.
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.

Koan Discussed: Unmon said: “I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But what about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this!” Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them: “Every day is a good day.”


Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 136. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m going to share some thoughts regarding the Mountains and Rivers Sutra. 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 a better whatever you already are.

If you’re new to the podcast, check out episodes one through five or visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here so you can get an introduction to the basic concepts and teachings and why I’m even talking about secular Buddhism in the first place. If you’re looking for an online community to practice with and to interact with, consider becoming a supporter of the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the link that says “Join our online community on Patreon.”

In the last podcast episode, I shared a poem called Only This. This is by Rikyū. The poem goes like this, First you heat the water. Then you make the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know. That’s the poem. I wanted to share some of the thoughts that were discussed in the online community forum on Patreon just to expand a little bit on the idea that’s shared in this poem.

So, the first one comes from Marella who says “The poem makes me think about how difficult it is to relax in the present moment and just be or do one thing at a time. The way that poem lists the actions makes me think about multitasking or our failed attempts at it since it’s not actually possible to multitask. It also reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh story in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ when the Buddha was asked, “Sir, what do you and your monks practice?” He replied, “We sit, we walk and we eat.” The questionnaire continued, “But Sir, everyone sits, walks and eats.” The Buddha replied, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

Those are some thoughts from Marella, and Sophie goes on to say it immediately makes me think of wholehearted presence and the need to only ever do what we’re doing in the present moment. So often we jump ahead and live in the future or dwell on the past, but really all we need to know is what we are experiencing moment to moment, because that’s all there ever is. Also, when we do each thing with intention and we don’t rush, life becomes poetic. Even something as simple as making a cup of tea can become art. I like Sophie’s thoughts here, especially this comment that life become poetic and that something as simple as making a cup of tea can become art. That’s a fun way of thinking about this.

Mike says, “The poem feels peaceful to me. I feel like the feeling of a warm cup of tea in my hands.” Oh no. He says, “I like the feeling of a warm cup of tea in my hands. I enjoy blowing on it and feeling the warmth coming off of it. I love just waiting for it to cool down and having a friendly conversation with a loved one. This poem reminds me of all those things without even mentioning most of them. That makes me feel peaceful. I quite like it.”

So, these are some of the thoughts that were shared regarding this poem that I left in place of a kōan and when I think about this poem, Only This, I really like the simplicity of it. It alludes to interdependence, the nature of interdependence that things have causes and conditions before arriving at the moment of drinking the tea, you have to make it, and in order to make it, you have to heat the water. I love that it ends with that is all you need to know. For me, this is a poem that invites me to think of the interdependent nature of things and what are the steps required to arrive at whatever the final thing is that I’m trying to do, in this case, enjoying drinking the cup of tea.

Now of course you could read into this quite a bit because in Japanese culture drinking tea is a big thing, right? There’s even the tea ceremony. So, I do think there’s something to read into this line when he says, “then you drink it properly.” What does that mean to drink the tea properly? Well, I don’t know. I’m not an expert on that, but for me, this poem is quite simple and quite profound, which leads me to the topic that I wanted to talk about in the podcast episode for this week.

So, the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, this is a teaching that was written by Dogen. Dogen, he lived in Japan in the 1200s. He’s the founder of the Sōtō Zen school of Buddhism, which is the largest of the three major forms of Zen Buddhism. He founded a monastery in the mountains. For Dogen, the practice of sitting meditation and the experience of enlightenment were essentially one and the same. So, knowing that the path that leads to enlightenment is enlightenment is a very simple and a very profound teaching for me. In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra the teaching after a long teaching about mountains and about water, Dogen teaches that in the end mountains are just mountains and waters are just waters, but I think in that statement, it’s very simple and very profound. I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this.

So, there’s a book called Pointing at the Moon and the authors are Jay Garfield and Graham Priest. In chapter six of the book, it opens up with the statement that goes like this says “Before I studied Zen, mountains were mountains and water was water. After studying Zen for some time, mountains were no longer mountains and water was no longer water, but now after studying Zen longer, mountains are just mountains and water is just water.” This is an expression that has stuck with me since I first heard it several years ago. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in the podcast before, but the expression or the concept or the idea that mountains are mountains, water is water and then mountains aren’t just mountains and waters not just water and then after even more time, mountains are just mountains and water is just water is an expression that really resonates with me. I want to share a couple of reasons why.

Dogen taught that when we know something intimately, it ceases to exist and so do we. He alludes to a concept in this Sutra that really speaks to me. In the teaching, he says, “Water’s freedom depends only on water.” Now, the first time I heard that, I thought, “What does that mean water’s freedom depends only on water?” Well, if we think about this, what we perceive always depends on us as one doing the perceiving. This is something that echoes in a lot of Buddhist teachings is that what I perceive has more to do with how I perceive than what the thing is that I’m perceiving. Now, water, again, as the example, when we perceive water, it gets attached to a story that has meaning. For example, a farmer praying for rain perceives water once it starts to rain and might think, “Okay, I’m being blessed. I needed this rain.”

Meanwhile, another farmer who was trying to dry out there, hey, might be praying for the rain to stop or for there to not be rain. When he receives the water or sees the rain may be thinking, “Oh, I’m being cursed.” or I am trying to think of the word that’s the equivalent of curse, but not quite that strong. Maybe I did something wrong and that’s why it’s raining on me or again, a storm or I guess anything that we perceive will be interpreted through the lens of us as the one doing the perceiving. So, in this expression that water’s freedom depends only on water, to me is to say that water is free to just be what it is. When it allows itself to just be what it is, it depends only on itself.

So, this expression is quite profound to me when I think of it in the context of myself, my freedom depends only on myself. Now, that’s a concept and a teaching that’s certainly echoed in a lot of Buddhist teachings or to say your freedom depends only on you. So for me, this is a very powerful thing. I think that perhaps the Mountains and Rivers Sutra is not about mountains and rivers at all, but perhaps the mountains and rivers themselves are a teaching.

Now, earlier this week, I went to fly my paramotor so a paraglider here in the valleys where I live. I often go somewhere far to fly an hour and a half and that’s where I teach people where there are really big fields, but a couple of days ago, I took off here in my own little valley and flew through the valley. My valley is surrounded by mountains and it has rivers that flow through it. I had been reading or at least pondering on this topic of the mountains and rivers for several weeks now. I knew I wanted to do a podcast episode on it, but I was kind of trying to wrap my head around what are my actual thoughts about this whole teaching and this whole concept and especially this notion of mountains being mountains and water being water, and then not being that and then being that again.

So, I was flying among the mountains looking down at the river, and it was just a really neat experience to think here I am dangling from these cords attached to a piece of fabric that allows me to fly through the air. I thought this simple contraption is so simple and yet it’s not simple at all. It’s extremely complex. The detail and the intricacies of how the design unfolded for a paraglider wing. I mean, think about the years and years of progress that have gone into making this piece of fabric a safe thing to fly with. That’s where it kind of clicked for me, this concept of mountains being mountains, mountains aren’t just mountains and then mountains are just mountains.

For me, what this hints at is the direct correlation between how incredibly complex something is and at the same time how simple that is. Then there’s the middle way. Now, I’m going to use the mountain as an example. When I look at a mountain, if I just see the mountain, I’m missing a lot, right? I’m missing the relationship that the mountain has to the tectonic plates. Let’s just take the Himalayas as an example. You have two tectonic plates, and one of them is ramming into the other and it’s pushing up the earth. So, you have this whole chain of mountains that we look at as that’s a mountain, but what we don’t see is that is the spot where two continents or two landmasses are crashing into each other. So, in that case, yeah, the mountain is not just a mountain.

Same with the river, right? A river is just a river, but when I really look deeply, the river is not just a river. The river is also the rain, the clouds, everything that that path of water has ever gone through to be in that specific moment in time. It’s the river. It’s what we would call the river. So sure, from one lens, I could look at it and it’s accurate to see just the river. From another lens, I could look at it with its causes and conditions and its interdependencies, and wow, this thing, isn’t just a river, it’s so many other things.

Then I can scale back again and say, “But yeah, it is just a river.” That to me is a fascinating way of trying to perceive life. We’re always balancing this whether it’s looking at mountains or looking at rivers or analyzing where did this thought come from or what is this emotion I’m experiencing or what is this feeling that I’m experiencing. Yes, anger is just anger, but then I can look at anger and I might perceive something deeper. Anger attached to fear, fear attached to uncertainty. So then suddenly anger is not just anger, but then I can throttle back again and realize, but in the end, anger is just anger. It’s just an emotion.

This is what I love about Buddhism. The concept of the middle way, where somewhere between the incredibly simple thing, a mountain is a mountain, there is a web of extremely complex interdependencies. In that lens, a mountain is not just a mountain, and then I can study it a little bit more and I’m back to a mountain is just a mountain. This is very Buddhist, right? Is to say a mountain is just a mountain and a mountain is not just a mountain and a mountain is just a mountain. It’s the dichotomy of duality, right? The complexity of things and the simplicity of things at the same time. It’s fascinating for me to think of something like a river and a mountain being beyond what it is, but then also just being what it is.

But for me, that becomes even more powerful when I apply it to other things, a person, right? You’re just you and you are not just you and yet you are just you. I’m just me and I am really not me. I am just me. Somewhere right in between, the complexity of who I am and the simplicity of who I am and there we are. That’s somewhere in the middle of that. Depending on the day, I’m either that complexity. I guess I’m both, right? I’m always the complexity of everything that makes me, me and the simplicity of what makes me, me. I love holding both of those thoughts in that same space.

I like to think about the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. I know I reference that one a lot, but it’s true that when we perceive something, we are bound by space and time, and the ability that we have to perceive. I can only perceive things the way that I can perceive. Now, I may be able to take another creature that can perceive something on the infrared spectrum, as an example. I can’t, I’m not capable of it. So, who’s to say that my perception is whole, it’s certainly not whole, I can only perceive in the way that I can perceive and yet this other animal next to me may be perceiving something that I can’t, because it sees on an infrared spectrum and I don’t.

That, again, it reminds me that I’m the blind man and I’m perceiving the elephant, which is reality and a limited scope, and everyone else will perceive it from their vantage point and their reality seems real and my reality seems real. Both of those realities are completely simple and at the same time incredibly complex, and they’re incomplete, right? Because I can only perceive the way that I can perceive, and I can’t even perceive … I don’t even know what I don’t know. That is a very, very, very big world, much bigger than the world of the things that I know that I don’t know. That’s even bigger than the things that I know that I do know.

I love thinking about that and holding all of that, holding space for all of that in my mind. I think that this kind of gets at the heart of Dogen’s teaching in this Mountains and Rivers Sutra. I think when he says thoroughly study the mountains, I think he means for us to take these mountains and rivers as the kōan of our lives. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to accomplish in this podcast. I’m always talking about these concepts, these ideas, these ways of thinking, because at the end of the day, I agree with Dogen that the path is the goal. That the mountains and rivers of our lives, the very simple things that we perceive are not simple at all and at the same time are just very simple things.

So, this is a fun thing to entertain in my mind, that, again, going back to Dogen that when we know something intimately, it ceases to exist and so do we. There’s like the merge of what’s being perceived and the one that’s doing the perceiving, and again, this echoes the teachings in Buddhism in the expression that what we are seeking for is who is seeking. It’s like the thing that you’re looking out to find at the end is the one that’s doing the searching in the first place, it’s you. That everything that we’re looking for out there is not the beautiful thing at the end that you are going to find. What you’re going to find, that’s the beautiful thing is the one that was doing the searching in the first place.

Again, I’m just trying to share some of my thoughts and about this Sutra. It can be a little confusing, because I don’t have all of these things written down. I’m just spewing out my thoughts at this moment, which are incredibly simple and at the same time, incredibly complex. I’m very grateful for that, the ability to remain there in the middle, the middle way.

So more than anything, I guess I wanted to express some of these thoughts with a little bit of my gratitude and appreciation for Buddhist teachings, for people like Dogen, who can take a concept, expand on it and thousands of years later, I guess not thousands, from the 1200s until now. Okay, hundreds of years later or we can go back further thousands of years, teachings that come from the times of the Buddha.

I just think it’s really cool that here all this time later, someone can be sitting under a paraglider wing literally flying over mountains and rivers, thinking about the Mountains and Rivers Sutra that was written in Japan so far away from where I am and at a time so much longer than where I am and feeling connected to that teaching with a sense of gratitude, like, “Wow, thank you for giving these thoughts, putting them out there and they’ve made their way to me. I’ve somehow found them and I get to ponder some of these same questions. I want to echo that yes, mountains are just mountains and waters are just waters. At the same time, mountains are not just mountains and waters are not just waters. Also, at the same time, mountains are just mountains and waters are just waters.”

Those are the thoughts I wanted to share with you today. Thank you again for taking the time to listen. I want to leave you with another Zen kōan to ponder on between now and the next podcast episode. This one is called Every day is a good day. I know I’ve talked it before, but this is the official kōan the way that it goes. One man said, “I do not ask you about 15 days ago, but what about 15 days hence. Come, say a word about this.” Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them, “Every day is a good day.” That’s all I have for today. Thank you for listening. Until next time.


135 – Weathering The Storm

One of my favorite Pema quotes is the one where she says, “You are the sky, everything else is the weather”. In this podcast episode, I will discuss the concept of mental weather patterns and the way I correlate weather forecasting with understanding my own mental patterns and tendencies.

Koan Discussed: As the roof was leaking, a Zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.

Koan Shared:

Rikyū’s Poem “Only This”

First you heat the water.
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.


Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 135. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about the weather of the mind. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better, whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, check out episodes one through five for an introduction to the main concepts and teachings of Buddhism, or visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here. If you’re looking for an online community to practice with and 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.”

Before jumping into the topic that I have for today, I wanted to discuss the koan that was shared in the last podcast episode. It goes like this. As the roof was leaking, a Zen master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought the tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded. The second highly praised. I want to share some of the thoughts that were discussed in our Patreon community, because there are always good perspectives shared there. And this first one comes from Darlene who says, “This koan makes me think of the emotional enlightenment you discussed in the episode. We think that happiness comes from cleaning to pleasant emotions, but that actually causes suffering. In the same way if the roof is leaking, except that it is leaking and water will get on the floor because that’s what happens when the roof leaks.

If we catch the water in a tub, it will eventually overflow. In the end, we can’t deny our emotions because they will find us somehow. We can find peace by accepting them wholeheartedly close.” Tani says, “I wonder if this koan speaks to our tendency to try to control our emotions. If the roof is leaking, we must wait until the rain is over and fix the roof. Work on the source of the anger or pain. Bringing a tub will only result in a harder time removing it, or it will overflow later causing a bigger mess. The basket, I’m imagining one of those meant to carry water from the well to the house. So it holds the water, but not as much as the tub may require more trips outside to dump the water, but it doesn’t let us ignore it for too long. We still have to pay attention to the basket and water.

In this way, instead of trying to stop emotions from happening, we need to weather the storm as best we can. And then work on the source of the pain and emotions when things are clear, if possible.” And then Mike shares this, he says, “Maybe I’m doing this wrong, but I seem to be interpreting each of the most recent koan’s the same way. And most of them, I see it as a reminder to not look for wisdom in others, but to look for it in yourself instead. In this case, the answer of the tub was clearly the more appropriate tool for catching water, but the student who chose that severely reprimanded. There’s no reason to reprimand this student. He chose an appropriate tool for achieving the particular goal. Perhaps the student’s only error was in believing the Zen master to be more of a master than himself.”

I really liked the ideas that were shared. These are only three of the several thoughts that were shared in our Patreon community, but I particularly liked Mike’s thoughts here at the end. And I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this koan, one, I think that we tend to make meaning of things and we make assumptions and we don’t know all the details. So we fill in the gaps. I think it’s what we do. It’s a human thing. So with a story like this, we immediately make the assumption, if there’s a hole in the roof and water is coming in, we paint a whole picture around that. That water must be leaking on the floor, we need to bring something to catch the water so that it stops leaking on the floor, a tub in this case, what does it mean, a tub?

Is it a bathtub? Because if it we’re a bathtub on one hand and a basket on another, it very much could be that the tub was the wrong answer because it was too big. And the thing is, we don’t know. So we paint the story, we fill in the details and then we make the assumption based on all of these details that we just don’t know. So we’re really good at making meaning of things and because of our discomfort with not knowing the details we fill in the gaps. And that’s what this story kind of reminded me of, the fact that I don’t know the details. I mean, first of all, why do we even assume that just because the master reprimanded one and didn’t reprimand the other, that, that means one was wrong and one was right. What if the one who brought the basket has been struggling in class and has been getting everything wrong and was feeling really down and the Zen master decided to praise him this time, so he wouldn’t feel so bad and reprimanded the one who brought the tub.

Who always gets things right, and maybe needed to feel a little more humbled. The point is we don’t know, who knows. We don’t know the details. We get so little information out of this story and then we fill in the gaps. And sometimes we do that in life, taking very little information about an overall story we make meaning. And as soon as we make meaning, we fill in the gaps and we might just be making wrong assumptions. That’s what I thought about as I was listening to this one. It does seem like the obvious answer is the tub, unless you gave me more details. Again, is this a bath tub we’re talking about? Is it a little tub? Is it a basket that has holes in it or is it a basket that’s capable of carrying water?

I don’t know any of the details. I just know that I immediately made an assumption and that the point of this, of the koan is to make me stop in my tracks and say, “Hmm, I don’t know about this.” And that’s kind of what it does, especially when you hear that the basket was praised and the tub was not. So what does the koan make you think of? What does it cause you to think about? Again with all koans really what matters is, what does the story tell you? What does it help you think about? Or what does it make you feel? The topic I had in mind for today’s podcast episode has to do with weather. Weather during the storm, the weather of the mind, and this kind of comes from an experience that I’ve had in the past couple of days, while I’m out here training a couple of new students who are learning how to pair motor.

So there’s an expression that pay my users that I really enjoy. She says, “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” Now in the training program that we do to learn to paraglide or learn to pair motor, there’s a lot of ground schoolwork where you learn about weather, how to forecast the weather, how to make proper decisions about when and where to fly. And I always tell students that perhaps the most important decision that you’ll ever make as a pilot is the decision to not fly. There are certain circumstances and weather phenomena where you’re not going to want to be flying because you do not want to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground. And this is a very important decision to make as a pilot, especially for the very light or ultra light aircraft that we fly. Paragliders.

Now, I kind of pride myself in my ability to be very good at forecasting the weather. So for me, I have a threshold and I know that if the conditions are beyond my threshold, I will not fly. When I got into the sport and decided I wanted to fly. I knew that the reason I was getting into this is because I wanted to have fun. So the litmus test that I use before every flight is I decide, “Is this going to be fun?” And if the answer is yes, then I proceed. If the answer is no, then I don’t do it because that’s the whole reason I got into this was to have fun. So when the weather reaches a point where I know it’s going to be bumpy, or the wind might be too strong, I don’t even attempt it. And I’ve never gotten into any trouble because I never pushed myself. And this ability to forecast the weather has saved me from a lot of situations where I could have been in the air, wishing I was on the ground.

So I mentioned, I’m out here teaching this course. And today we had forecasted the weather. And today I knew that there was going to be a storm passing through and we’ve had very strong gusts of wind. And right now it’s actually raining. I don’t know if you can pick up that sound in the microphone, but it’s been raining and very gusty for the last several hours. And I had this mental correlation as I’ve been sitting here, weathering the storm, thinking, “I could have been out there. I could have been caught. Even if it wasn’t flying, I could have been caught unaware of the storm and then dealing with inconveniences that would have to do simply because I was not aware.” For example, all of my equipment was outside. I have totes with paraglider wings.

We have several pair of motors, all the gas cans, the just lots and lots of gear. And it’s all been sitting outside because we’re doing this course. Well, in observing the weather, which I check several times a day, I knew that rain was in the forecast and that it was coming. And as soon as I knew that I made all the decisions of the things that needed to be done to make sure that when that storm came, it wouldn’t be a much more than an inconvenience of time, because we’ve been out here for days now, working on this training and sure enough, that’s exactly how it unfolded. By the time the storm came, the tents were down. All the gear was safely stored inside of the trailer. And it’s been nothing more than an inconvenience of time that we could have been practicing or flying, but we can’t because of the weather.

But this got me thinking about the parallels with this specific situation and how we approach life. I think people who are capable of forecasting the weather of the mind can take preemptive steps and precautions to avoid any inconveniences for the moment when that proverbial storm hits. And I’m sure all of us have experienced that feeling of being caught in the storm. The emotional storm that is suddenly there. And a lot of times it’s there because we’re not very good at forecasting it, or we’re not very skillful with understanding our mental weather patterns and all of us experience this.

But imagine being able to be more skillful with forecasting our own mental weather. And I thought as I was preparing for all this, with the actual weather, how cool would it be to be able to forecast the emotional storms that we have coming up in our lives. And I think to a certain degree, we can. If we know ourselves well, we may know for example, that if I haven’t had breakfast today, I’m much more susceptible to that emotional storm that could hit when a car cuts me off. But I know that about myself. So perhaps I’m going to drive with a little bit more caution and not be in such a hurry, or the big clear example would be if I understand myself and my emotional weather patterns, I may know when is the most appropriate, or perhaps the least appropriate times to have a discussion with a spouse. Or with a parent or with a child about a difficult topic.

Because it’s going to be much harder to navigate that when the conditions are not ideal. In the same way that for me and for my students, as paraglider pilots, it’s much more difficult to navigate the skies under the wrong conditions. So part of what makes that experience so pleasurable and enjoyable is that we do it during the right conditions. And I think in a way it could be that simple to think about things like, “Oh, if I have to have a discussion with my spouse about this sensitive topic, well, let’s do it when the conditions are more favorable and not when there’s a gus front coming in.” It’s kind of a fun way to make that mental analogy. It works for me and my mind.

So the idea would be that knowing yourself and knowing the weather patterns of your own mind, that’s kind of at the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish with a lot of these practices. The whole notion of what we’re doing is that we’re learning to understand ourselves a little bit more so that we can do what, we can be more skillful, skillful with how we navigate life. Skillful with how we navigate the small day to day decisions, whether it’s talking to the teacher, your kid’s teacher at school. Talking to your spouse, talking to your boss, having to bring something up to a co-worker or things of that nature. We can do things more skillfully and very much like the decision of knowing when not to fly.

I think it’s important to know when not to bring up a certain topic or when not to bring up a certain emotional conversation that needs to be had because maybe the conditions aren’t favorable. And that was a fun mental correlation. And the funny thing is, I’ve been saying all of this while sitting here in my camp trailer in the middle of a storm, and the winds have been gusting to 30, to even 35 miles an hour at times. And at one moment I decided to leave the trailer and go sit in my truck because it felt a little more stable and safe in there. Because this thing is just rocking back and forth. And as I was sitting here, I had this thought that, I can look out the window and I can see the storm and I can see everything happening around me. Some of the tin from one of the roofs of the hangar about 100 feet away from me.

I saw it come off the roof and that was kind of scary to watch. And the whole time I was thinking there’s stormy craziness outside, but I am somewhat finding refuge here inside. And then I had this mental correlation of that’s kind of how my mind is, that my mind can be the refuge that I go to, to observe the weather patterns. And this is why I like that quote by [inaudible 00:16:20] who says, “You are the sky, everything else is just the weather. And that was a fun correlation to think, “Here I am observing a storm and finding somewhat of a refuge inside a safe place.” And in my real life, it can kind of be that way at times, finding myself in the storms of emotional discomfort or whatever it is I’m weathering. Weathering that storm by being in the safety of my own mind as the observer. The one that’s just watching, watching it all unfold and watching the mind as the sky and everything else as the weather.

So that was the correlation that I wanted to make. That was kind of the topic that I came up with because like I said, I’m literally sitting here in a trailer, weathering the storm, and I thought it would be a fun correlation to make with everything else. That’s actually all I have for this podcast episode. And as always, I want to thank you for listening. I hope that these concepts and ideas can give you pause and give you a way of thinking of things slightly differently. And of course, if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can consider becoming a Patreon and joining the online community where we discuss the koans in these podcast episodes and much more. And there’s even a weekly study group there. You can learn more about all that on secularbuddhism.com.

And I’ve enjoyed sharing these koans. I have another one I want to share today. And the koan is called Rikyu’s Poem. It’s called Only This, and this is how it goes, first, you heat the water, then you make the tea, then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know. And that is his poem, Only This. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the poem and discussing my thoughts about it in the next podcast episode. Thanks again for listening until next time.

134 – Emotional Enlightenment

In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of Emotional Enlightenment and what that means for me. We often find ourselves seeking certain emotions and avoiding other emotions. I’ve found that by giving all my emotions a sense of equanimity, I’ve found a tremendous sense of peace.

Koan Discussed: Once Ma-tsu and Pai-chang were walking along and they saw some wild ducks fly by.
“What is that?” the Master asked.
“Wild ducks,” Pai-chang replied.
“Where have they gone?”
“They’ve flown away,” Pai-chang said.
The Master then twisted Pai-chang’s nose, and when Pai-chang cried out in pain, Ma-tsu said, “When have they ever flown away?”

Koan Shared: As the roof was leaking, a Zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.


Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 134. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about emotional enlightenment.

As always, 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 a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, feel free to listen to episodes one through five, or visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here, that will give you a good introduction to a lot of these basic teachings and concepts that I talk about in the podcast. And if you are looking for an online community to practice with and 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.

So before we jump into the podcast episode for today, I want to share a few thoughts about the Zen koan that I shared at the end of the last podcast episode. So the Zen koan I shared goes like this. Once Matsu and Pi Chang were walking along and they saw some wild ducks fly by. “What is that?” the master asked. “Wild ducks,” Pi Chang replied. “Where have they gone?” “They’ve flown away,” Pi Chang said. The master then twisted Pi Chang’s nose and when Pi Chang cried out in pain, Matsu said, “When have they ever flown away?”

Now, this is another fun Zen koan in that it does the same thing most Zen koans do it presents you with a little story and leaves you thinking, Huh, what is that all about? So I wanted to share some of the thoughts that were shared in our Patreon community. We discuss the Zen koan there anytime that I share a koan in the podcast episode. So this first thought comes from Denise, who says, “Pi Chang says the ducks have flown away, but if you could ask the ducks, they probably don’t think they’ve flown away. They might think they were on their way to finally arrive somewhere. This koan is, to me, a reminder that it is important not to hold our views too strong. My view might be very different from another person’s view on the exact same matter and we might very well be equally right or equally wrong, just like Pi Chang thinking the ducks are flying away and the ducks thinking they’re actually on their way to arrive.”

Mo kind of expands a little on this too. Mo says, “This koan made me wonder what we mean when we say gone. When is something here and when is something gone? In actuality, there is no clear line between the two and nothing is ever truly gone, in the same way that it is never truly here, because of the nature of interdependence. The ducks may seem to be gone, but if you ask yourself, what is a duck, you start to realize there is no such thing as an individual duck that is independent and separate from the rest of the world. It is, by nature, dependent on the causes and conditions of everything around it. Now that I think of it, this koan leads me to the becoming nobody episode. I am nobody, the duck is also nothing, and it has never gone because from one point of view, it was never here and from another, it is always here.”

I enjoyed those thoughts by Mo. Anushka says, “When I first heard this koan, I imagined a state where the ducks are flying but not going anywhere. I then started thinking what is flying? Then, if it’s not going, for example, transitioning to another place, in my mind I could still see ducks flying, but not necessarily going anywhere. A state of flying or a state of movement, but not gone yet and not away yet. I then landed on a final thought, well, who is doing the going? And I wondered if it was Pi Chang, because he was the one projecting the idea of their going, their departure. All of this reminds me of how we impose our interpretation on events that happen and how we get so caught up in things that haven’t happened yet, or will happen at all.”

And then the final thoughts I want to share with you come from Robert, who says, “Ducks fly south for the winter and fly north in the summer. So, Pi Chang may have assumed that they were flying away somewhere, as they do, depending on the season. The master may have been trying to get Pi Chang to relate duck migration with our thought migration. When we sit to meditate, our thoughts come and go away, depending on the season of our life, that day, or moment, our thoughts may be with us or away from us. In winter, our thoughts are away and we know not where. In summer, we have our thoughts focused on our breathing.”

I really enjoyed everyone’s thoughts, their interpretation and analysis of this specific Zen koan. This is a fun one for me because I, like the ducks, enjoy flying, and often when I find myself flying, I think similar thoughts, that when I’ll pass someone on the ground and wave at them and they wave back as I fly past, and I often wonder if they have a similar thought. I wonder where this person is going? Or they watch us fly away saying, “Oh, they flew away.”

And just like the koan invokes that deeper thought of, when have we ever flown away? From my perspective as the flyer, I’m always just right there where I am. I’m not flying away or I’m not flying away from anywhere, or I might be, and I might be coming towards somewhere. Going and coming is just the perspective thing. But from my perspective, wherever I am in that moment, I’m just flying. That’s what I’m doing. And I think, like the ducks, so many good thoughts were shared here, that the nature of interdependence, the nature of impermanence, the nature of seeing things from a certain perspective, these are all great thoughts that I think are really relevant to this specific koan.

And of course the most important one is, what does this make you think of? What does it invite you to ponder about? And I wanted to share some of my thoughts regarding this koan as they link into the overall concept that I wanted to discuss in this podcast episode, which is the notion of emotional enlightenment. But before I dig into what that means to me, I want to update you on a couple of things just to explain how I even started thinking about this concept.

As many of you know, I’ve kind of maintained you, updated. In the past few weeks, I’ve been missing in action, and I had to go to Texas because my dad was having a procedure done and I wanted to be there with my family to provide support and to be there with my dad and to help my mom while being there, she can run errands and do things that she needs to do, which she can’t normally do because she’s with my dad. And in a nutshell we’re going through a transition phase with my dad with his health and advancing in his age. We celebrated his 80th birthday while I was there.

I was spending time with my family, and during the course of this time, I decided to spend a little bit of time revisiting some of my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Texas and it was fun to go drive to the old neighborhood where I grew up, the first house that I remember. And this is a house that’s at the end of a cul-de-sac and my memories of the neighborhood, of all of our neighbors, all the other kids that I used to play with out there, I have very fond memories of this specific stage of my life.

And across the street from the house there’s a creek. I remember going down to the creek and there was a pipe we used to walk across. There was a bridge where we would play under the bridge in the water, overturning rocks there looking for crawdads. Just lots of fun memories growing up in this specific neighborhood and this specific home. And it was fun to go back there.

When I pulled up to the house, I parked at the, it’s a cul-de-sac, so I just parked in one of the available spots and it happened to be right in front of one of the neighbor’s homes, and as I got out of the car, I saw the lady who lives in that house outside doing some yard work. So I walked up and said hi to her. And this specific house has two giant stone eagles greeting as just statues there at the entrance to the house.

As I was talking to this lady, I told her, “I remember when those eagles were set up here.” And she was shocked, she was like, “Whoa, we’ve lived here five or six years,” or whatever it was, “and I’ve never known the story of these eagles.” And I said, “Yeah, the lady who used to live here was obsessed with eagles and she had all things eagles inside her home, and I remember when she put these statues out here. They were actually painted gold at the time. They looked like golden Eagles.” And she was fascinated to hear some of this story.

All of this was done, I don’t know, 30 years ago or so, when I lived there. Maybe 35 years ago. As I related more of the memories I had of the neighborhood at the time, we started chatting and another neighbor came out, she was getting ready to walk her dogs, walked past, this neighbor introduced us, and then that neighbor stayed. And then a third neighbor came out and before we knew it, the four of us, three neighbors and myself, were just out there talking, and they were asking me all kinds of questions about this specific neighborhood and what things were like 30 or 35 years ago when I lived there. And I was sharing a lot of my memories, talking about who lived in this house, who lived in that house, certain stories I had that reminded me of this area and this phase of my life.

It was a really fun experience to speak with these total strangers who, for this one moment, we were all bonded by the unique attachment that we each have to this specific cul-de-sac, this little neighborhood and these specific homes. And in this case, I felt like it was unique because the home that I lived in and all the homes right around it, were built by a family friend of ours from Mexico. That’s how we ended up buying that house. Our friends built these several homes. They moved up from Mexico, built several homes, and we ended up buying one of them, and we knew everyone who lived in all of the other ones.

So they were kind of speaking to someone who represents the original building of the neighborhood, so to speak. And it was a really cool experience for them, it was a really cool experience for me. But it was fascinating to realize how different this neighborhood is now. There are no kids who live on that street. When I grew up there, almost every home there had kids and we were all friends and we all played outside. It had a very different feel and a very different dynamic than what the neighborhood has now. Now it’s a neighborhood where a few of the neighbors know each other, the three that I was with, and they were telling me that the other neighbors, specifically the ones who lived in my house, that they don’t interact with anyone else who lives there, that they just keep to themselves, that they’re a little unfriendly and unpleasant to be around. They don’t seem to enjoy anyone else’s company. And a few other neighbors are like that.

It was interesting to get a vibe, a feeling, for what this neighborhood is like and thinking how different this neighborhood is from the neighborhood I grew up in, and yet here it is, it’s the same neighborhood. Not one single family from my time growing up there remains. It’s all new families. And it got me thinking about just this concept of seeing through the lens of interdependence and through the lens of impermanence, that you can have something, we’ll call it a neighborhood, and in this case it was really our street, just the everyone who lived in the cul-de-sac, and it has its own energy, it has its own way of being, it has its own mood, its own feeling. And that was the neighborhood.

And then there’s the individual homes. Our home had a certain way of being that was determined by everyone who lived there, my twin brother and I, our older brother, my mom and my dad, our pet Labrador. We had a an energy that you could say was the energy of that home. In this case, it was a very vibrant home where we played games in the swimming pool and we were often found outside climbing our trees and playing in the front yard, playing with the other neighbors. And then each other home had its own little unique energy and way of being.

And none of that remains. All of these homes are completely different in terms of energy and vibe. I don’t even know how to say it. Just whatever that word is. That’s ambiance. I don’t know. But it’s not the same. It’s different in every home now. And the neighborhood, as a whole, is different than how it was when we were there.

And through this lens of impermanence, through this lens of interdependence, I was thinking so much of what made us who we were had to do with our neighbors being who they were. And so much of what made our neighbors be how they were, had to do with us being how we were. And so much of what made the neighborhood, as a whole, the way that it was, had entirely to do with the people who lived in the neighborhood at that time.

So here, through the lens of interdependence, we had a way of, if you could take a snapshot of how it was in that time, that’s how it was because of everyone who lived there, and now it’s a whole different picture.

The crazy thing is, the house is the same. It’s the same house. The colors may have changed. It’s the same original bricks. Same walls. It’s the same glass on the windows. The sidewalk is the same. Several of the trees and plants look different because they’ve changed over 30 years, but there were several elements that seem the same. And it got me thinking along the lines of non-self. If the house or the neighborhood has a way of feeling, that feeling is an illusion. There’s no, I guess you could call it the soul of the neighborhood or the soul of the house, and yet there actually isn’t one, it’s just that energy and that vibe that it has, which is real and feels very real, is not permanent.

And I thought in the same way, that sense of self is really no different. The DNA of my body may be the same as the one that was there when I lived in that neighborhood, but that was the 10 year old me who lived there. And that me is. In a lot of ways, very different than the me that lives where I live now.

It was fun to correlate this concept of the house being like my body and all the other dynamics of the neighbors who live there, the people who are in the house, are like my thoughts and my feelings and my emotions and my memories, all of that has changed and morphed and evolved in the same way that that neighborhood has changed and it’s morphed and it’s evolved. And now you essentially have two entirely different neighborhoods. They’re just completely different, one from the other. And there are elements that remain the same, the concrete, the sidewalks, things like that. And that’s how I feel about myself and the me that I am now versus the me that I was before, and the me that will be me when I’m 80 years old.

I had the same experience with my dad last week while I was there with him, and we had a lot of fun bonding moments and just reminiscing and nostalgia and talking about his life experience and what it was like growing up in an orphanage and what it was like… Different milestones of his life. And it was fun to realize, like that house, these are stages that have come and gone and they’ve changed.

Now in front of me, I had this 80 year old man who has lived a very full life full of all these cool chapters and cool milestones, but those are long gone, in the same way that the neighborhood of yesteryear, of 30 years ago, that’s just not the same neighborhood that’s there now.

And of course I was going through all of this, simultaneously experiencing all these intense emotions, because I’m visiting my old stomping grounds. I’m spending time with my dad. Who’s battling cancer and he’s dealing with health issues. He’s entered a new stage in his life that’s not the same stage that he’s been in in prior chapters. And we’re coming to the realization that this is just a new stage. Things are changing. And we all know the inevitable outcome of all of our lives is that eventually the book closes, the final chapter is done, and it’s all over.

And it got me thinking what a cool experience it is to see life as a whole, as the greatest journey, the greatest adventure. I thought of this because when I was there in the neighborhood and I walked down to the creek and I was replaying memories of going exploring in the creek with my brothers and just these little epic adventures that, as I remember them in my head, those were just little chapters. It was a little story within a chapter. And yet I’ve wanted at times to identify or single out a memory and say, this one here, that’s the big journey, but no, it’s the whole thing. The whole thing has been the big journey. To be alive is the greatest adventure story ever told.

I think it was really fun to have that feeling while I was there reliving some of these memories of my past. It was a really cool experience. And then as I navigated all of these things and these emotions, intense emotions at the time, and even now as a sit and think about it, it helped me realize that there’s this concept that I’ve been playing around with in my head called emotional enlightenment. And for me, this isn’t about achieving a certain state. It’s really the radical acceptance of whatever state it is that I’m currently experiencing, and it made me recognize, I’ve echoed this in the past in other podcast episodes, that there is a level of equanimity that can be spread out across all my thoughts, all my feelings, all my emotions. And for many years of life I’ve been chasing after one. I want this one and I want to avoid this other one.

And as I’ve studied Buddhism, as I’ve come to understand the nature of what Buddhism actually offers and brings to the table, it’s this fascinating realization of the equanimity of all my thoughts and feelings and emotions. And I like I’ve said before, it’s not about feeling good, it’s about being really good at feeling and feeling whatever it is you’re feeling in that moment. And I was experiencing this in Texas the last week as I’ve been there with my family and processing the emotions and the realizations of what’s to come and allowing myself to fully feel the full range of emotions.

When it was time to laugh, we were laughing hard, and when it was time to cry, we were crying hard, and when it was time to reminisce, we were reminiscing hard, and when it was time to try to feel optimistic and hopeful we were trying, that’s what we did. And what I felt all throughout all of it was just this equanimity across the full range of emotions, and it made me come across this notion of this is what I guess would be emotional enlightenment. It’s the recognition that all my emotions are completely valid and completely fine and the radical acceptance of whatever it is I’m experiencing in that moment offers me the peace that ironically I thought could only come by having this emotion and not having that other emotion. But no, the peace came from fully accepting whatever emotion is there, whatever emotion is present. And as I mentioned, there was a broad range of emotions while we were there.

And then that line of thought of emotional enlightenment, it’s like being able to fully accept any emotion that you’re experiencing and recognizing how it’s the chasing after one and the rejecting of another that puts us in this crazy game that we can’t win. And by recognizing all of them, they’re just thoughts and feelings and emotions that arise. A lot like the ducks in the Zen story. The ducks are just flying and our thoughts are just flying and our emotions are just flying, and I, as the observer, I’m the one that says, where did happiness go? And I think the Zen master would twist my nose and say, when has happiness ever gone? That’s just a perspective. And from one perspective, I might say it was here and now it left, so it’s gone, but it’s never been gone. It’s the same with sadness. It’s never been gone. Same with anger. It’s never been gone. They’re all there all the time, it’s just the shift of perspective and the shift of focus that helps us to see and pay attention to one a little bit stronger than the other.

And that to me is a really cool mental exercise and a mental correlation. It inspires me to want to spend time thinking about what things I’m grateful for. And this is what I did as I walked the neighborhood, I was just grateful for all the range of emotions and memories and experiences that I had while I was there. And not just the pleasant ones, there were unpleasant ones too, interactions with neighbors that may have been unpleasant or dealing with new experiences as I was growing up that were unpleasant moments and just being grateful that I was a part of this incredible adventure called being alive, and this is one chapter. I got to go back and revisit one of those chapters. It was a really fun experience.

It got me thinking a little bit about how, in a way, enlightenment is hopelessness. Hopelessness is something that we experience in the present moment. I’m not talking about hopelessness, meaning, Oh, no, things will never get better, or resigning to the fact that this is how things are. I’m talking about hopelessness in the present moment, which is the acceptance of I don’t hope to be feeling anything other than what I’m feeling now. I am just going to be fully aware of whatever it is I’m feeling now. So in that, there’s no hope of feeling anything different than what I’m feeling. This is just what I’m feeling.

And again, I got to practice this intensely last week because there were moments that were very difficult, reminiscing things with my dad as he’s losing his health, there were moments where we just sat there and we cried in each other’s arms, and I didn’t hope to feel anything other than what I was feeling in that moment. I welcomed the sadness. I welcomed the impending fear of loss. I welcomed the gratitude and I welcomed the humor in thinking of some of the fun stories. I welcomed all of it. And in that sense, I was experiencing total hopelessness and it was such a beautiful thing. I didn’t hope for anything to be other than how it was. I was fully accepting the broad range of emotions as they were arising just as they were in the present moment.

I think hopelessness gets such a bad rap, it has such a negative connotation in our typical Western way of thinking. And here I was experiencing truly utter hopelessness, and I was so at peace because I was just allowing myself to fully feel whatever it was that I was feeling in that moment. I didn’t hope to be experiencing anything else. I just was fully aware of whatever was there.

And I watched it change. We would feel this, and then that would lead to this thought and that would lead to this memory and boom, here we are now experiencing another emotion. And then you just watch that and that one morphs and that one changes and then boom, another emotion. And it was a really neat process. It was a really fun experience to spend some time with my family, my two brothers were there, my parents, it was the whole family gathered, spending some quality time with my dad, celebrating his 80th birthday and just trying to help him have strength to recover from this procedure he had just gone through and the upcoming and intense procedures that he’s facing with his cancer. It was a really cool experience.

But what came out of all of it was this notion in my mind of emotional enlightenment and the concept of hopelessness in the present moment being a beautiful thing. And that’s not to say that hopeless… I do think hopelessness towards the future, that that can seem really difficult. I’m not talking about the future, I’m only talking about the present. Hopelessness in the present moment allows me to fully accept whatever it is I’m experiencing now and to act skillfully on whatever is going to have to happen next, which ironically is what gives us hope about the future, that we’re going to handle it a little bit better than we thought we would, because we’re actually being more skillful about it than just sitting in the present moment, wishing that the present moment was something other than what it is. So again, I just want to get back to that, apply this concept of hopelessness specifically to the present moment.

Those were the thoughts I wanted to share with you. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. This was somewhat a way of me just trying to get back caught up with having a podcast episode out. As always, thank you for listening. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a patron and joining our online community where we discuss these koans and we discuss the podcast episodes. There’s even a book club study group in there. You can learn more about this by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. All of that helps. And that’s all I have for now, but as always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon and before I go, I want to share another Zen koan with you to work with between now and the next podcast episode. So this one goes like this. As the roof was leaking, a Zen master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.

That’s all I have for now. Thank you for listening. Until next time.