2 – The Nature of Human Suffering

This episode explores the nature of human suffering or the nature of the human condition. The first main discourse of the Buddha was concerning the nature of suffering, taught in a format commonly known as “The 4 Noble Truths”. Understanding the nature of suffering will allow us to explore how we can minimize suffering for ourselves and for others.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number two. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today we are talking about the nature of human suffering. Let’s get started. Hey guys, welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. If this is your first time listening, thank you for joining us. Secularbuddhism.com is my website and blog, and this is the podcast that goes along with it.

The Secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week and covers all the major philosophical topics within Buddhism. I also plan on interviewing other guests, authors, teachers and really anyone who’s interested in philosophy, secularism, humanism and of course Buddhism. I like to remind my listeners of a quote, a wonderful piece of advice from Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” That’s the attitude I’d like you to take when you approach listening to these podcasts.

Please come back often and feel free to share the podcast to your favorite RSS Feed, or through iTunes. You can also follow me on Twitter, or Facebook, my user name is @noahrasheta, or you can visit us on secularbuddhism.com. Any links mentioned in the show will be available in the show notes. Now, let’s jump into this week topic.

Today we’re going to talk about the nature of human suffering. We could also say this is the nature of the human condition. When the Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park, this was the topic that he discussed. The core teachings of Buddhism can really be summed up in the understanding of the nature of human suffering. The Buddha talked about four specific aspects of it. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

The Buddha was searching for insight into the nature of experience, the nature of the human condition. It was during this introspection that he was awakened to the truth of the reality of life. The principles that he outlines in his teachings are commonly referred to as the Four Noble Truths, or you could say the four truths for those who would be noble.

These consist of a simple, direct analysis of the challenges and possibilities of the human condition. The Four Noble Truths end up forming the core of all Buddhist paths and traditions. The Buddha structured his teaching in terms of a medical practice. First, he diagnosed that there was a problem, and second, identified the underlying causes of that problem, then determined the prognosis and ultimately prescribed a course of treatment. Those are the four aspects of the understanding of the nature of human suffering.

We’re going to start with the first one, which would be, diagnosing the problem. The problem is that in life, there is suffering, and that’s it, that’s how simple that is. In life there is suffering. Life has a way of interrupting. This could be the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, finding out you have cancer, all the way down to small surprises, you’re driving down the highway and your tire pops. These surprises along with subtler, less noticeable experiences, you know, the aches and pains that come with age, or sickness, the frustration of waiting in a long line, or simply running late, then getting stuck at a red light. These can all be understood as manifestations of suffering.

Simply acknowledging the fact that at any given moment, we may face some type of uneasy, or uncomfortable experience, constitutes the essential lesson of the First Noble Truth. Life is frustrating and painful. Suffering is a part of life, and no matter how expertly we manage our lives, we still don’t get what we want, and we still get stuck with the things that we don’t want. What the Buddha was trying to teach with the First Noble Truth is that life is going to be easier for us when we understand, when we truly understand that suffering is simply a part of life. There’s just no way around it. No matter what we do, we can’t avoid the sudden and unexpected surprises that will inevitably come our way.

I think it’s important to understand the universality of suffering, because it helps us to not take things personally when these surprises in life jump up. I think a typical reaction when something happens is, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?” Or, “I’ve been doing everything right, this shouldn’t be happening to me.” I think that these emotions come up because we have this tendency to think that things aren’t going to happen to us.

Imagine that you are going to go for a walk on a path through the forest at night. Suddenly someone jumps out at you, dressed in a bear costume. There’s no doubt you would be frightened and surprised. Probably even scared to death, right? But, imagine that before you started on that path, a friend comes up to you and warns you, and says, “Hey, somebody’s hiding in the forest, he’s dressed as a bear, and he’s trying to scare people, so, just so you know, at some point, that guy might jump out and scare you.” Well, now you know it’s going to happen, you just don’t know when. When it finally does, you’ll still be startled, but not nearly as much as you would if you didn’t expect it.

The same thing happens in life. We go through it without ever expecting to encounter any surprises. Then when they surprises come out, you lose your job, you find out a loved one has cancer, whatever it is, something pops out at you, and the First Noble Truth is about understanding that these surprises are going to certainly come. We just don’t know when.

Simply knowing that suffering is universal, it’s not something that’s personal, there’s not some form of cosmic justice that’s taking place, it can ease a tremendous amount of suffering, because we don’t have to take personally. When things come up, and these surprises will come up, you’ve been warned, it’s going to happen at some point. The guy in the bear costume’s going to jump out and scare you. We’ve all been warned. It’s going to happen.

But when it does, we don’t have to stop and pause and think, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?” None of those things have to come up because you can address these things as they happen, and think, “Okay, well this is what is,” rather than experiencing unnecessary suffering, because we’re playing with the idea of, “Oh no, what did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening? What could I have done?”

At that point, it’s what’s happening, it’s what is. You just tackle it the way that it is. The amount of suffering can be diminished, simply by understanding that suffering is universal. It’s important to understand that there are different types of suffering, right? My favorite way to explain this, is to illustrate them in a story. Most Buddhist traditions talk about three types of suffering. To explain this, I’m going to tell you a story, and maybe this will make more sense to you.

Try to imagine yourself in high school, or in college, and maybe you are in high school or college, just imagine at some point in your life, you decided … You don’t have a vehicle, and you’ve decided you’re going to save up to buy a new car or a new motorcycle, which ever one seems more appealing to you. Up until this moment, you’ve been hitching rides with friends and with your parents and you’re really eager to be able to get around on your own.

After working all summer, you finally saved up enough money to go buy this car or motorcycle. Now that you have it, you’re really happy and you feel like life is finally good. You don’t have to bug people, you don’t have to be that guy who doesn’t have a way to get around. Now that you’ve got your new vehicle, you decide you’re going to show your friends.

You’re driving down the road, you’re really excited, and you’re not really paying attention and at the red light, you didn’t realize it was red, and you accidentally run into the back of a car that was stopped at the red light. Suddenly, you’re going to be experiencing the first type of pain. This first type of suffering, which is really physical pain. Maybe it’s the airbag and it breaks your nose, or you feel bruised around your chest where the seatbelt stopped you. If you’re on a motorcycle, maybe it’s that you fell off and it’s the road rash that you’re feeling on your arms. This is what we would call the suffering of suffering. The first type of suffering. This is essentially the suffering of pain.

The next thing that’s going to happen, you’re going to stand up and you’re looking at your car or your motorcycle, you realize it’s totaled, and now you’re experiencing the second type of suffering, which is the suffering of change, or the suffering of loss. This is also a type of suffering that you really can’t avoid. It’s this third type that we’re really concerned with, which is called pervasive suffering. This one’s really difficult to understand, because it’s the hardest one to detect in ourselves.

This is the suffering of looking at the whole incident with your motorcycle, or your car and now you’re thinking, “Oh man, my friends are going to think I’m such an idiot. I crashed my car on the first day. I’m such an idiot.” Those are the type of thoughts that enter the mind and cause suffering and yet, this is self inflicted suffering. It’s what we call pervasive suffering.

Again, it’s the hardest to understand and it’s also the most dangerous, because it’s very difficult to detect in ourselves. It’s the suffering that we experience that what we think is caused by others, when in reality it’s completely self created. Understanding the three different types of suffering will help us as we move forward, because it’s the third type that we’re really focused on ending.

When we talk about ending suffering, I think a misconception sometimes in Buddhist studies is, “Oh well, you know, we’re trying to end suffering.” People are thinking, “But, how? You know, I’m going to suffer when I experience loss if I lose a family member, or if my pet gets run over by a car, like, are you saying that I just sit there and I don’t experience any pain?” No, that’s not the idea of ending suffering. What we’re talking about specifically is this third type of suffering.

The first two you can’t avoid, and it’s important to know that. The truth of the cause of suffering is the second aspect, or second component of the nature of human suffering that the Buddha taught. This is essentially understanding that the cause of suffering doesn’t necessarily lie in the events or the circumstances, but in the way that we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. That’s really important to know. I’m going to repeat that, because the definition of suffering from the Buddhist understanding, is that when we crave for life to be other than it is, we’re going to experience suffering. Life is impermanent, change is constant. We grow frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way that we think it should, and our lives don’t conform to our expectations.

The only certainty in life is that it will end. In the face of a changing world, such cravings seek consolation in something permanent and reliable and a self that is in control of things and a greater meaning or a destiny. The irony of this strategy is that it turns out to be the very cause of what it seeks to dispel.

In yearning for suffering to be alleviated in such ways, we reinforce what creates suffering in the first place. We’re craving for life to be other than it is. We find ourselves spinning in this vicious circle. The more acute the suffering, the more we want to get rid of it, but the more we want to get rid of it, the more acute the suffering gets.

Collectively this ignorance, desire and aversion are referred to in Buddhist writings as the three poisons. These are habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted, that they cloud or poison the mind. I want to talk about this idea of the three poisons for a minute. To really understand the truth of the cause of suffering, it’s important to understand what’s happening in our mind when we don’t want to suffer.

The three poisons, as I mentioned are ignorance, desire and aversion, or you could say, delusion, greed and anger. But the idea here is this … So let’s start with greed, these are things that we want. Then there is anger or aversion, these are the things that we don’t want. What I’m talking about here are the things that we want, or the things that we think, “If I could just have this,” whatever this is, “then life is going to be good.”

Think about that for a minute and ask yourself, “What are the things in life that I tend to think are things that if I had, things would be good?” Examples of this would be, “Well, if I had more money, if i had a better job, if I had more power, if I had fame.” Fame, money and power are big ones there, but it can also be smaller things. “If I just had a spouse who was willing to listen to me.” Or, “If I had a spouse who believed the way I believe.” Whatever it is that you think that you want, and if you could just have it, then life would be good, all of those things fall under this category of desire or greed.

The second category, aversion or anger, now these are things that we don’t want. Think about this for a second and ask yourself, “What are things in life that I tend to think, well if I could just avoid that, life’s going to be good.” For example, “If I could avoid losing my job, if I could avoid getting sick, if I can just ensure that I never get cancer, like my grandpa did,” or, whatever line of thinking that you’re on where you’re trying to avoid something. Aversion, you’re trying to avoid getting something, and if you can, life is going to be good.

Now you have this list, the things that you want, and the things that you don’t want. We live life in a way where we genuinely think, “If I can just get anything on that list of the things that I want, life is going to be good.” Or, “If I can just avoid the things on this list of things that I don’t want, life is going to be good.” That’s what takes us to the third poison, ignorance, or delusion.

It’s the inability to see the truth about things. The inability to see things as they really are. Ignorance is thinking that there actually are things that if could have, life would be good, and if you can avoid, life will be good. It’s important to understand that we’re not alone in our suffering. Everyone experiences this and no one’s immune to it. This is a universal way of being.

The essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth is acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change. We can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence. We can relax into it, rather than resist it, or being overwhelmed by it. We have the potential to look at each experience as it’s happening and say to ourselves, “Okay, this is what’s happening now at this moment.” The next moment will bring another experience, and the next moment will bring another experience, and on and on.

It’s when we get caught up and wanting things to be other than they are that we start to experience suffering. Sometimes when we’re talking about this idea of suffering emerging from craving for life to be other than it is, a common thought could be, “Well, but isn’t it nice that we want things to be other than they are? That’s what creates change in the universe. That’s what creates in society and in our families.” Yeah, that’s true, but it’s important to understand that there’s a difference with thinking, “I want things to be other than they are, because that’s the key to my happiness,” verses understanding that me wanting things to be different than how they are to make the world a better place, those are two very different approaches.

One of them can bring happiness and change. The other one is a delusion, or like the three poisons we talk about, it’s ignorance, or it’s delusion, the idea of thinking, “This is what I need that’s going to make me happy.” Just change that and think, “What are the things that can make the world better?” That makes all the difference in this approach, this specific approach of suffering.

This idea reminds me of something that Shantideva said, he says, “All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world, arises from wishing others to be happy.” Now we’re going to talk about the third aspect. The truth of the end of suffering, or determining the prognosis as we mentioned at the beginning.

The idea here is understanding that the cause of suffering can be ended. Understanding that all things are impermanent and ending, the chase after satisfaction, that is enlightenment. It’s not that suffering ceases, it’s that craving can cease. We don’t end suffering, we end the fixation on what brings us suffering. We do that through mindfulness, which is something we’re going to discuss in a separate podcast.

The essential lesson of this Third Noble Truth is that the limiting ideas we hold about ourselves, others, and virtually every other experience can be unlearned. This is where I like to mention another quote that, “When we take the time to look at the way we see things, the way we see things changes.” That’s what we’re going to be exploring in further podcasts, but that’s kind of the idea of Buddhism, secular Buddhism in general is that we want to take the time to really understand how is it that we see things, because that’s the way that things change.

Things don’t change, it’s that when we take the time to look at the way we see things, then the way we see things changes. The Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the path the frees from suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth teaches us that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through the dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place. Not by fighting, or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them.

There’s a path, or there’s a way to end the cause of suffering, which we now know is craving, but we need to abandon our expectations about the way we think things should be, and we need to begin to develop an awareness about the way things are. This is an important concept in Buddhism, there’s this idea that there’s life, right? And there’s life the way that it is. Then, there’s the story about life that we create. The story about how things are and these aren’t the same.

What we’re trying to do, is get out of that mode where we’re creating stories about the way things are, and start to see things just the way they are. Proper perspective is the key here. Consider that perhaps the reason we keep getting tangled up in these things, it’s not because we fail to see things, but because we imagine ourselves to be configured other than we really are. For example, we think of ourselves as these round pegs trying to fit into these round holes, while completely unaware that in reality we are square pegs.

We believe that the way we see things is the way that things truly are, but again, when we take the time to look at the way we see things, the way we see things changes, and that’s why it’s so important to take the time to really look at how we see things. We do this through meditation and through mindfulness. These are things that we’re going to discuss and the specific path is something known as the eight fold path in Buddhism and that’s what we’re going to discuss a little bit in the next podcast.

In this podcast, the key thing I want you to take away from this entire discussion, is the understanding that suffering comes from wanting life to be other than it is. We’re going to explore this a little bit more in future podcasts, but I hope that this has made sense to you. These are the essential teachings of Buddhism known as the Four Noble Truths. This is where we start with the entire foundation of understanding how we can change our perception of reality.

It’s when we can do that, that we achieve Enlightenment or awakening. I think that’s another big misconception in Buddhism, this idea of awakening or enlightenment is seen as this mystical thing, but really it’s not. Enlightenment is when we come to learn to see things the way that they really are, and we’re no longer caught up in the story we’re creating about the way things really are, that’s how simple that is. I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast, I look forward to discussing a few more topics with you in the upcoming podcasts. Thank you.

1 – What is Secular Buddhism?

I’m happy to announce a new podcast called “Secular Buddhism”. A podcast for secular-minded people who are interested in learning more about Buddhist philosophy.

This episode is an introduction to the new Secular Buddhism podcast. I’ll talk about what it is and why I’m starting this podcast. I hope you enjoy the introduction and if you’re interested in learning more about Secular Buddhism, please follow the podcast. New episodes will be available weekly.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/

Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number one, and I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, we’re talking about what is secular Buddhism. This is intended to be an introduction to secular Buddhism and an introduction to the Secular Buddhism podcast, so let’s get started.

Hey, guys. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. If this is your first time listening, thank you for joining us. Secularbuddhism.com is my website and blog, and this is the podcast that goes along with it. The Secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week, and it covers all of the major philosophical topics within Buddhism and general Eastern philosophy. I also plan on interviewing other guests, authors, teachers, scientists, and really anyone who’s interested in philosophy, secularism, humanism, and Buddhism. Come back often, and feel free to add the podcast to your favorite RSS feed or through iTunes. And you can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook, username @NoahRasheta. That’s N-O-A-H R-A-S-H-E-T-A. Or visit us on secularbuddhism.com. Any links mentioned in the show will be available in the show notes. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

So this is episode number one of a brand-new podcast, the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am really excited to be involved with this. I’ve been running the secularbuddhism.com website and blog for quite some time now, and the community there has grown and I see that there is a lot of interest in understanding Buddhism, philosophical aspects of Buddhism, within the mindset or through the lens of secular understanding. That’s very interesting to me, because that’s the way I understood it and the way that it made sense to me. Buddhism itself being a non-theistic tradition, it makes sense for there to be a secular understanding of it that is completely disconnected from any of the dogma or from any of the world views within Buddhism that are connected to anything supernatural.

So I decided to start this blog with the intention of sharing with you the things that I’m learning in my own personal studies and in my own journey of studying Buddhism. I started studying Buddhism about five years ago and became a teacher teaching Buddhism and meditation and mindfulness about two years ago. I have a local group in the Park City, Utah area. I live in a little town called Kamas in Utah with my family. I am married. I have three little kids, a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a newborn who’s three months old. It’s a really exciting time in my life. I’m also an entrepreneur. I own a couple of companies, manufacturing photography accessories for smartphones, tablets, professional tripods for professional photographers, and action camera accessories like for the GoPro. I love photography. I love the outdoors. I love adventure. I’m into paramotoring and paragliding. I’ve always been very adventurous by nature, and this is kind of a new area that I’m being adventurous with, secular Buddhism.

Something I learned early on in my studies from Mingyur Rinpoche when I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, he said, “When we take the time to look at the way we see things, the way we see things changes.” This is going to be the overarching theme throughout the podcast and the various series as well as on the website and on my blog. It’s that when we take the time to look at how we see things, that’s when we can understand how things really are. The whole purpose in Buddhism is to arrive at a place where you can see reality as it is. That’s kind of the purpose of this podcast. We’re going to explore various topics, discuss various teachings, interview authors, and just explore these concepts in depth but always through the secular lens.

Another quote that I want to share with you from the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever you already are.” So the secular approach to Buddhism, for me, really entails this one concept. It’s that it doesn’t matter what you are, if you’re a believer, if you’re a non-believer, or if you are a believer, what specific type of belief, whether you’re Christian or Hindu or Muslim. It doesn’t matter, because these concepts can help you become a better whatever you already are. The intention here is not to convert people to Buddhism or to secularism or to secular Buddhism. It’s to present philosophical concepts and ideas that can help you be a better human being. That’s really the intention behind this blog and behind this podcast.

There’s a famous teaching of a zen master who’s approached by a student, and the student asks the master, “How can I learn more? I want to understand enlightenment. I want to reach this point where I can be enlightened.” The master says, “Sit down. Let’s talk about this.” He says, “Let me pour you a cup of tea.” He starts pouring tea into this cup, and he continues to pour until the cup is overflowing. The student’s looking at it, and he’s not sure how to react. The master continues to pour, and the tea’s just overflowing and spilling everywhere. Finally, the student says, “Hey, this is full. Quit pouring tea into here.” The teacher stops and he looks at him and he says, “You are like this cup of tea. Once you are full, you can’t fit more tea, no matter how much is being poured in, and for you to approach me seeking to understand what enlightenment is, you already have a concept of what it is, so you’re not going to be able to accept any new information.” He says, “Go empty your cup, and come back once it’s empty.”

This is a great mentality to have when we’re approaching not just Buddhism but I think life in general, this idea of being an empty cup. The moment that we think that we know, then we can’t learn something new. This concept has always been really fascinating to me. It’s the idea that there are things that we know, and then there are things that we know that we don’t know. For example, I know English. Maybe not that well, but I know that I can speak English. I know that I cannot speak Russian. That’s something that I know that I don’t know. It’s something that’s there, and I know that I don’t know it. It’s this third realm that I think Buddhism really delves into. It’s the arena of things that we don’t know that we don’t know. This is really important, because any form of learning, any form of enlightenment or awakening comes from learning things that we didn’t know that we didn’t know. The only way to ever arrive at a place where you can start learning about the things that you don’t know that you don’t know is to be awake. It’s to be enlightened. It’s to have our eyes open to understanding things that we didn’t know that we didn’t understand.

Keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast, as you listen to these topics, if you end up going to the website and following the blog. Try to keep that teacup empty, and approach everything with the beginner’s mind, the idea that I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’m here willing to learn. I promise that I will have that same disposition in everything that I do as I present these things.

Mark Epstein says, “What is the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist? The non-Buddhist thinks that there’s a difference.” I want to be very clear with my approach with all of this is that I genuinely believe there is no difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist, between a human being and a non-human being. This is a topic that I’m going to dedicate a whole podcast just to this, the idea of labels and concepts. The idea here is that what we are, at the end of the day, is we are human beings. That’s all we are. If we’re a human being that tends to believe this or not believe that, that may contribute to how I am, but it’s not who I am. Everything we’re going to approach in the exploration of these topics is with the underlying understanding that we’re all the same. We are human beings. Anything that we’re going to add to that is a concept. It’s a concept or an idea or a belief. What we’re trying to do is see through all of those things and arrive at just the basic understanding, first, is that we are human beings.

So spirituality is a hot topic, and it’s kind of funny to be talking about spirituality from a secular standpoint. A lot of secular-minded individuals don’t want to have anything to do with spirituality or with religion or anything that sounds like that. Well, secular Buddhism is an interesting concept there. The spirituality that we’re talking about here, I want to present this in a way to help you understand, is that everybody is spiritual. All of us. It’s our spirituality that makes us tend to be religious. It’s our spirituality that also tends to make us be atheistic or non-theistic. All of it is driven by this underlying spirituality, sense of spirituality, that we all have. We’re going to approach spirituality from the understanding of spirituality being these two things.

Number one, it’s how we relate to anything that’s greater than ourselves. This could be, for some people, how do you relate to a creator or to a god? For others, it might be how do you relate to the cosmos, to the universe in which you reside? You can get this sense of realizing that there’s something greater than me, whatever that is. It can be science. It can be information. It can be the cosmos. It can be religion. It can be God. It’s our sense of spirituality and how we relate to something greater that connects us to those things. The second component of spirituality is how we find meaning in life. To be clear, what I’m not talking about here is the meaning of life. It’s how we’re finding meaning in life. Those are two separate things. The secular Buddhist approach here is going to emphasize on what things do you find that give you meaning in life? That naturally entails the understanding that they are different for different people. The sense of meaning and of life for you may be different than the meaning of life for me. Furthermore, it evolves and changes over time. The meaning that I get in life right now as the parent of three young kids is probably different than the meaning of life that I’ll have when I’m older and retired and my kids are all grown and out of the house.

So the meaning that I find in life and the connection that I feel to anything greater than myself, those are the two key components to spirituality. When we talk about spirituality in these podcasts or throughout the blog, it’s always with the understanding of it’s those two things and nothing more. Another way that this is explained that I really like, the Dalai Lama, in his book Beyond Religion, talks about spiritual sustenance is like water. Everyone has to have it. We die without water. The base is water, but people can add to that, and you can add tea or any form of flavoring. The flavoring would be a specific religion could be a flavor, and that flavor might work well for you. It’s a flavor you like. It makes sense to you. Ultimately, the sustenance comes from something deeper, which is that sense of spirituality, the connection to something greater than yourself and the meaning that you find in life. The implication with this understanding is that everybody is spiritual, and it’s our spirituality and the flavor that we add to it that could lead us to religion or lead us away from religion to understand things from a secular mindset, an atheistic mindset, or from a believing mindset or anything in-between.

Other concepts relevant here. We’re going to be talking about things like faith. Faith, in this context, is faith in life. It’s the uncertainty of certainty. I don’t know is the only true statement the mind can make. Alan Watts says, “Faith, above all, is openness, an act of trust in the unknown.” So when we’re talking about faith, and we’ll address all of these topics individually in future podcasts, but as an introduction to the podcast in general, these are topics that will be explored. Faith is faith in life, faith in the unknown, devotion. It’s devotion to life, devotion to living.

So one of the areas that we won’t necessarily go into, there are other podcasts that explore early Buddhism, who said what how was it said and under what context. This podcast is not really dedicated to that. This podcast is more about these specific topics. How do they apply to everyday life for someone who has a secular mindset or a secular view of the world? When you take a topic like algebra, for example, many of the central topics in Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity can only be understood using algebra. That’s how important algebra is. For example, if you’re traveling on a spaceship near the speed of light, time actually slows down for you relative to your friends, who would be back on Earth. In other words, if you’re to fly in a spaceship near the speed of light for whatever amount of time, then you return to Earth, you would find that you had aged very little while your friends on Earth would have aged a great deal. Albert Einstein coined this phenomenon time dilation, and it can easily be calculated using only algebra. So this effect, it’s not a theoretical effect. It can actually be measured.

In fact, all of the GPS systems of satellites that are in the sky that military and police use, these depend on and must take into account the effect of time dilation, otherwise the system wouldn’t work at all. Because satellites are moving in orbit around the Earth at speeds that are much smaller than the speed of light, the time dilation involved is very small, but it still needs to be accounted for or the system wouldn’t work. Algebra is a key component to understanding something that involves your everyday life. Satellites. Imagine life without satellites. It would be very different than it is now.

However, when we talk about algebra, how many of us actually know who the father of algebra was? His name was al-Khwarizmi. He was the father of algebra, and we spend very little time needing to look into his life. Who was he? What did he say about algebra? How did he say it? What he was able to present to the world is more important than who he was. I tend to view the same relationship with algebra and al-Khwarizmi, the founder or the father of algebra, with Buddhist philosophical concepts and the Buddha. I have a very big interest in the story of the Buddha, and I study and learn about that, but it’s not as important than studying what are the implications of the concepts applied to my everyday life. So we’re going to explore those concepts in further episodes, but we may not necessarily spend a lot of time on who was the Buddha and what was the historical aspect of his teachings or who he was. Those can be explored in other areas.

As you listen to and approach the topics found within this podcast, I want to be clear about the distinct between facts and truth. What we’re looking for in anything that we’re listening to is always the truth, not necessarily the fact. For example, when I listen to Aesop’s Fables and I listen to the story of the tortoise and the hare, the facts are completely irrelevant. Does it matter if there really was a tortoise and a hare and they raced? No. You can extract the truth, or the moral of the story, aside from the facts. In Buddhism, there are a lot of stories. There are a lot of things that can be learned if you’re looking for the truths, and I would say that this is relevant to life in general. Any story that you listen to has two separate things going on. One is the truth, and one is the fact. If you can understand that those two things can be separate, I would invite you to always search for what are the truths that I can learn through these stories and don’t get hung up on the facts. Most of the time, the facts are not true. They’re not factual, and that’s okay. Doesn’t need to be factual to still be able to extract a truth from a story.

An ancient parable relates the story of a king who gathers all of the blind men of the city, and he brings in an elephant and asks the men to approach it and to describe it. This parable was later converted to a poem in the 19th century by John Godfrey Sax, and it’s called The Blind Men and the Elephant. I really enjoy the poem version. I believe the poem does a wonderful job of illustrating the moral of the original parable.

So the poem goes like this:
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Keeping in mind this story, this wonderful poem, of what is truth from the perspective of six blind men trying to describe the elephant that they’re feeling. The secular Buddhist approach to understanding truth is very similar. Truth can be extracted from many stories, because we all grasp and understand things from a unique vantage point that no other person can comprehend. The vantage point from which I am experiencing life is completely unique to me. Nobody else will ever experience life the way I am experiencing it, but that also implies that I will never be able to understand the way that you are experiencing life, because your vantage point is unique to you. That applies to both time and space. No one will ever live in the exact same space that you have lived to experiencing life the way you did in the space of time that you experienced it. That applies to time and space, because where you live and when you live are both completely unique.

So, it’s really interesting to open your mind to try to understand that life experienced, as far as learning truths, can never be grasped by one. It can only be grasped by one through your unique perception and from your perspective, but never in its totality, just like the six blind men trying to explain to each other what an elephant is. It could never be grasped. Even if you took all six and combined it, well, that gets you closer, but that’s still not the whole thing, because that was only six different perspectives.

So the secular Buddhist approach to understanding truth in terms of this big capital-T Truth is very similar to this parable. The idea is that you can’t. So we’re going to understand what we can from our unique perspective and combine that with other perspectives that may be relevant, that add to it, but always under the assumption you’re never going to get to the point where you say, “Okay, now I have the truth in its totality. We finally got there,” because we can’t get there. That’s part of the whole point. Knowing that we can’t get there makes it great.

I’m really looking forward to doing this podcast and exploring these topics. I hope that you not only listen and enjoy but that you’ll be willing to reach out to me and contribute to the conversation, whether that be through the comments on the blog, comments on the podcast, or by emailing me. If you’re interested in ever being on the show, I’d love to call and have people on the show with me where we discuss these topics. I’m excited to develop this over time and see what it turns into and really contribute to the secular Buddhist conversation of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist wisdom that can be explained and looked at by people like me who are secular minded and trying to understand this from the secular point of view. So thank you for joining me today. I cannot wait to do the next episode, and we’re going to see where all this goes.