4 – The illusion of the ego

This episode explores the topic of the ego. What is ego? What part of me is really me? When we view ourselves and others as independent and permanent, we tend to view ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress. The reality is that the sense of self is an illusion, we are impermanent and interdependent.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 4. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the illusion of the ego. So let’s get started.

So today we’re going to be talking about the ego, specifically the illusion of the ego. But to understand this a little bit better, we need to talk about what the ego is. Poor ego gets a bad wrap or we often talk about the word ego attach to meanings like megalomania or vanity. When you talk about someone who has an ego, it’s usually with a negative connotation. But strictly speaking, it is only a psychological term that was popularized by Freud meaning the consciousness as opposed to the unconscious mind. So, it’s the awareness of one’s own identity and existence. So, your ego is your conscious mind. It’s the part of your identity that you consider yourself. With that definition in mind, what we’re going to be talking about today then is essentially the sense of self. What is the sense of self? What am I? That’s a question you can be asking yourself throughout this entire podcast episode. What am I? What is the self? That’s what we’re going to be exploring today.

Our natural tendency is to view, not just ourselves but others as well as permanent things. In the last podcast episode, we talked about the reality of impermanence and interdependence. And yet when we’re thinking of the self, the sense of ego, generally we see ourselves as permanent fixed things. So, taking what we learned or talked about on the last episode, if everything is interdependent and everything is interconnected, then what are the implications for the sense of self that we feel?

On the last podcast episode, I talked about interdependence and impermanence seen through the eyes of wisdom. So, understanding that everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent is vital for having a proper understanding of the sense of self. Because when it comes to the self, the sense of the ego that we feel, the tendency is to think backwards. We think of ourselves as independent of everything else, their self and other, and we tend to think of ourselves as permanent rather than impermanent. I am an entity that exist independent of anything else and I would go on and on. When the reality is as we saw on the last episode, everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent. So what does that mean for the self of self? What is the ego? Well, as the title of this podcast episode implies, there is the illusion of the ego. When we think of ourselves and others as independent and permanent things, the tendency is to view ourselves and others as finished products continually viewing ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress.

In Buddhism, we talked about the concept of no self. The idea that things have no intrinsic existence of their own. Take a moment and look down at your hands right now. They’re probably holding your phone or on the keyboard or perhaps on the mouse or holding something. But look at them and ask yourself, “Are these hands really me?” What if you lost your hands in an accident, would you still be you? Of course, right? Now, look at your legs and ask the same questions. If I didn’t have these legs, would I still be me? Then ask yourself what part of you is really you. I mean, what part of your if removed, would make it so that you are no longer you? Take a minute to think about that. Is there any part of your body that if it was gone, you would know what the certainty that you are no longer you? Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, it’s my brain. My brain is what makes me who I am.” Well, what specifically in your brain makes you you? Is it your personality, your memories, your abilities and skills?

Look at those for a second. Look at your personality. Does personality change overtime? Can a traumatic brain injury change your personality? It sure can. If your personality would’ve change due to a traumatic brain injury, would you still be you? Well, the answer is absolutely. It might be you with a different personality than the you from before. It doesn’t even have to be that drastic, though. Just think back to the you from 10 to 15 years ago and ask yourself if you’re the same person. Compare the you from middle school versus the you from high school versus the you from college, the married you, the parent version of you. If you’re like me, you’re going to notice that all of those are different people and yet they’re all me. Think of it like this, that’s who I was back then, this is who I am now. So if your personality isn’t you, then what is you. Maybe memories. What about memories? What if you lost all your memories, would you still be you?

My grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years of life, when I’d go visit her, I had to remind her who I was, and often I had to remind her of who she was, her own name and where she was and where she was from. But even without her memory, she was still my grandma. Your memories are precious part of you but they’re not you. See, we often believe that our abilities and skills are what make us who we are. I consider myself a techy or a computer nerd, yet if I was stranded on an island for the rest of my life without any technology, I would still be me. I wouldn’t be a techy or a computer nerd because I wouldn’t have those things. Or consider as singer who loses their voice, or an artist who loses the ability to paint because they’ve lost their limbs or something, or a dancer or an athlete who becomes paralyzed. You see where this is going?

The things that you think make who you are end up only being parts of who you are but none of these things alone is you. It’s like we talked about in the last podcast episode like the car. You can take the car apart, take it and separate all of it’s components. You can take out the engine and ask what is the car and the answer is that you take several parts of this together and you start forming the idea of car, but none of these parts alone by itself can constitute the car. For it to be a car, all it needs is one or more of those parts and the same applies to us, the individual self. There is no part of you that is you without all of the parts of you that make you you. So you are who you are because of everything that makes you who you are, and yet none of those things alone can be called you.

So how does the Buddhist concept of no-self apply in your everyday life? Why is this concept even useful? Well, consider this next time you’re offended by something that someone says or does. Ask yourself, what part of me has really been offended? Analysis it like we did in the previous podcast taken its parts. It’s causes and conditions, and you’re soon going to discover that this concept of no-self can actually be an incredible tool for letting go of the ego because you’ll discover that the ego is an illusion, because the ego isn’t you. The sense of self that makes you think you are who you are is only a part of you, but that’s not you.

I think this concept is illustrated beautifully in a letter I received from a friend of mine and I want to read this letter to you because this is about dementia. And my friend writes this letter and this is what he says. He says,

“My mother-in-law works at a dementia unit at a rest home in Australia. Today, we visited her at work and met some of the residence each with a vary in degree of this difficult, at times tragic condition. The visit gave me much to reflect on between the challenges of getting old, the final phases of life and mortality itself. But one tiny thing in particular stuck with me. At the dinning room, each member has a seat at a table. They use the same one everyday, a routine crucial to a suffering memory. Still, they often forget which seat is theirs. To help them remember, each person’s place at the table has a laminated page stuck to it. The page has their name and a set of pictures and photos that are meaningful to them.

For example, I met Patricia who told me guided by the pictures that she’d been traveling around Australia. I could also see from the pictures that she loved scones with jam and cream, and had some recent grand children. Each person’s laminated placeholder was the same, 10 to 15 photos that reminded them of who they were. It was beautiful and somehow deeply sad. The thought that someday your life, however long and prosperous, might be the still down to 10 photos that will define you.

I can’t help but notice the kinds of things these pictures were, too. Patricia had 90 something years to her name. Ninety years of stuff that might have been on that page, all the accomplishments and the memories, the people and places, friends who came and went, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, love and hate, and boredom and anticipation, anxiety and calm, fear and peace. And at the end of it all, there were scones with jam and cream. Ten percent of her photos were dedicated to that. Ten percent of who she is. It struck me that with the brevity of life, the constant coming and going of things, what remained in the end for these men and women was what they had loved. Sitting their past 90 years of age, suffering from dementia, most of what you ever though was important is gone. The arguments and the hurts and the conversations and the judgements and the regrets, they’re all faded or forgotten. Your friends might be gone, your bank balance definitely isn’t going to be on that page and even the business you built doesn’t photograph well, and it probably isn’t that interesting anyway.

And there is a view of what you loved and you don’t score more points if that thing is world peace when Patricia’s thing is scones. If there are any points, you only score more by the intensity of your love, not by the object of it. What do you love? What pictures will tell your story in the end? Have a great day.”

This letter was very moving and very touching. My own grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years and months continued to deteriorate to the point where she didn’t recognize who I was when I would come to visit her. Sometimes she thought I was her son, my dad. Sometimes she would remember that I was one of her grandkids. And what’s interesting is you take this concept of the mind and you think, “Well, my memories, that’s who I am, the things that I remember and know or my personality. And what you’ll find like this example with Patricia, even the things that we think are solid in terms of defining who we are, our memories, can be gone and yet that doesn’t change who you are. Now, you’re just you without the memories that you had. So again, I ask you to ponder on this question, what part of me is really me? What part of me is the essential self that I feel so connected to the sense of ego. Because the conclusion should be that if you spent enough time pondering on this, what you’ll discover is that the ego is an illusion.

Much like this idea of a car. A car is real and it exist and at the same time it’s an illusion because it doesn’t exist independent of all the parts that allow it to exist. Well, the self is the same. We exist and we’re experiencing life the way we’re experiencing it, but we are a part of everything that allows us to exist. I like the way Alan Watts talks about this concept. He says, “You are something that the universe is doing in the same way that the wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” Now, the implications here of understanding that the ego is an illusion to self of sense or the sense of self is an illusion is actually really powerful because what is the conclusion of realizing I am not independent of everything else. I am not a permanent thing than what you realize is you are interdependent with everything and impermanent just like everything on earth. So, what we essentially realizes that we are one with everything. The sense of self can become really strong when we’re talking about things like religion, politics, sports, anything where we identify really strongly with the things that we like or don’t like, the things we believe or don’t believe, which reminds me of an experience I had while traveling to the Middle East.

My wife and I were doing the Mediterranean cruise and we had a tour guide in Israel that was showing us all of the key attractions and sites in and outside of Jerusalem. And we had spent hours with him. He was telling us the Jewish perspective of the various sites we were visiting. And something that happened that I thought was interesting, it really stuck with me was when we crossed over to Bethlehem to see the sites in Bethlehem, we had to switch tour guides because this was territory now controlled by Palestine and our Jewish tour guide couldn’t go in there with us.

So we switched to a new bus and a new tour guide and as soon as we got in the bus and now we’re in Bethlehem driving, the first thing we wanted to know because everything we had just been experiencing was very clearly from the Jewish perspective, the assumption was, okay, you must be Muslim maybe or you’re probably not Jewish. So we wanted to find that our really quick. So we were just asking our tour guide as soon as he introduced himself and we all introduced ourselves, and I remember asking, “So, what are you?” And he kind of looked with a surprised look and said, “What do you mean what am I?” And we said, “Yeah, our tour guide on the first part of the tour was Jewish and it was interesting to get his perspective. So I was wondering what you are.”

And he kind of laugh and he said, “Well, I am a human being. A human being who lives in Bethlehem.” And that immediately realized, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s the topic we’re not going to go into then.” At the same time, it seemed just so wise. Well, of course, what else could you be. And it made me realize in the months and years after that experience, we do tend to view each other through the labels that we use as if those were nouns. It doesn’t matter what he believes. What he believes isn’t who he is and what I was asking is who are you.

And yet, I treat that question of who are you with, in terms of whatever you respond, you know your beliefs or the ideas that you have, the … You know, all of these things that describe you, I would tend to treat as, well [inaudible 00:16:04] as you. And that was a powerful lesson to me to realize, well of course, all you are is a human being and nothing else. Anything that we add to that, we should add to it as an adjective and that’s fine because that’s a description but not as a noun, because the noun has already established your a human being.

So it was a neat experience that stuck with me. And then to develop on that, I realized, well, then courage, what is the concept of courage with the understanding that the illusion of the ego. Courage ends up being the courage to be as we are, right here right now. The courage to be free from attaching ourselves or chasing after other’s acceptance and avoiding their rejection. The things that we think make us who we are prevent us from having the courage to just be what we are, to be what we are right now and recognizing that what we are right now as I mentioned before is that we are works in progress. We tend to take snapshots of ourselves or snapshots of others like a Polaroid that’s printed and once I’ve interacted with you once, I’ve created this mental Polaroid an image of who you are and the problem is that’s not who you are. First of all, a snapshot just like imagine a picture, it’s a fixed thing. And as soon as I have it there, I’ve decided who you are without realizing that who you are is constantly changing.

So, an image certainly isn’t going to allow me to see the you that’s constantly moving. So if I was able to see you without putting that permanent image of who you are, then I would recognize that who you are is constantly changing and I would hope that you recognize that who I am is constantly changing. And then this gets more complex because there’s who you are and there’s who I am, but what makes this even more complicated is that there is who you think that I am and then there is who I think that you think that I am, and both of those layers of the complexity and how we perceive each other are blinding us from what we really are. Think about that. We do this all the time with the people that we interact with. We give ourselves labels and then as soon as we do that, as Kierkegaard says, once you label me, you negate me. You don’t give me the opportunity to see who I really am because there is already who you think that I am.

Consider the way that we use labels on our society. We use these labels all the time. I’m a republican. I’m a democrat. I’m a Christian. I’m a Buddhist. I am dumb. I am smart. You know, we use these labels as if these were permanent things that make us who we are. But we, like everything else, exist because of causes and conditions. We are who we are because of the countless things that make us who we are. Like the cake, like the car. We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and these things are part of how we are, but they are not what we are. The problem with our labels is how we use them because as I mentioned before, we tend to use these as nouns instead of adjectives.

So when I use a label like I am a Buddhist as a noun, then it separates me from everything that is not a Buddhist. It divides and separates. But now consider the label I am a Buddhist as an adjective. It becomes a description of how I am, the noun me which is human. I am a human being. That’s all I really am, and I tend to view things through the Buddhist lens. That’s different than trying to separate myself by using that as a noun to describe who I am because the reality is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t be a Buddhist or a Christian or an anything. Because those things aren’t things to be. We already are something. We’re human.

So, when we learn to view our own labels and perhaps more importantly the labels that we assigned to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be more like talking to someone and realizing, “Okay, I’m wearing a blue shirt and you’re wearing a read shirt.” But the color of the shirts that we wear doesn’t make up who we are. It’s just part of how we are at this specific moment in time, at this specific moment of being human. Try to start viewing labels. Yours and others as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others.

And this doesn’t just happen with people. It happens with everything. From the moment we’re born, we acquire labels and concepts and stories and beliefs, and these things can tent the way that we view things. It’s removing this tent that allows us to see things as they really are, to see ourselves for who we really are. In Buddhism, this is taught as Buddha nature. Being able to understand who you are is in your true nature. And we do this with reality as well, you know, when you can see things as they really are beyond the stories, and the meanings, and the concepts, and the labels that we attached things, then that is awakening, that is enlightenment. It’s learning to see things as they really area.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about Plato’s allegory of the cave, and this concept has seen shadows and thinking that that shadow is the real thing when the shadow of the thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. But we wouldn’t know that because we exist in a world where what we’re seeing are the shadows.

So the important lesson here is that we need to start learning to see things as they really are and to see ourselves as we really are and understanding that the sense of ego that we experience is an illusion because what I am is constantly changing whether that be the physical form, you know, in the physical way my … The cells of my body are constantly changing or growing and dying, and physically we’re constantly changing. But every other aspect of me is changing as well throughout my experience of being alive, my belief changed, my personality can change, my memories are changing. We’re constantly adding new ones, we’re forgetting old ones. We’re constantly changing and involving. So that sense of self can really be examined and what you’ll realize is that just like the car, the self is the creation of everything that allows the self to exist but none of those things are independent of the causes and conditions that allow it to be that way.

Several months ago, I was hiking in Park City close to where I live with some friends who were visiting from Mexico, and about half way into the hike, I noticed this curious tree with an odd bend in it. I took a picture of it to remind me of how I felt when I saw this crooked tree. When we look at trees, we see all sorts of trees. It doesn’t matter if they’re bend or straight, it they’re oaks or pines, if they have bark or no bark. In most cases, what we see is just a tree being a tree. And we might even think, “How unique. I love that bend or that curve.” We can start to imagine that maybe it wasn’t getting enough light so it turned this way or it turned that way. Perhaps the strong wind or the weight of too much snow may have caused it to bend. Either way, we don’t get caught up in the emotions of judgment. We simply appreciate the tree. Yet when we look at humans, we lose all that. It’s easy to judge and say you’re too this or you’re too that. We judge the shape of the leaves and the color of the bark or whether or not it has bark and everything else about it. But what if we look at people the way we look at trees? What if we could appreciate people just the way they are without any judgment?

Understanding that this sense of self, this ego is an illusion that helps us to remove the meanings that we attach to people, that people are supposed to be this or supposed to be that, then we can start to appreciate ourselves and others simply for being where human beings being human. And when we can learn to see ourselves and others that way, it will be like when we look at trees. We simply appreciate the tree for just being a tree. There is no distinction of, well this one is a bad tree because it’s crooked and this one is a good tree because it’s straight or silly things like that.

Beyond asking ourselves who apart of me is really me, you can start to ask yourself this in various situations or circumstances in life. You know, next time you’re offended by somebody who cut you off on the road, ask yourself … Because you’re going to have that sense of anger, but then observe that for a minute and think, “What part of me is really mad? Why am I even mad about that?” Look for the causes and conditions of things. Because what you’ll find is there is no independent permanent thing even if that thing is a sensation like anger, an emotion like anger. You can see it naturally arise, analyze it and then it’s gone just like everything else in life. It’s interdependent with the circumstances that allowed it to arise and it’s impermanent because it finally goes. And when you can view it that way, suddenly it doesn’t grip you quite as tight as it used to. Explore this with your various emotions. Explore this concept of interdependence and impermanence with all the things that you think are part of who you are, your memories, your emotions, your personality, your skills and abilities. Explore all this things and see where that takes you. See how that makes you change they way you perceive the sense of self, and as you realize that the illusion of the ego is simply that an illusion.

Try to notice what aspects of you life change and how simple change in perspective of the sense of self is enough to alter the way that you experience the various events that you go through in life. And perhaps one of the conclusions you can draw is this sense of [interbeing 00:26:40], the sense of being connected with everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this in the teaching he give where he’s talking about his left hand and his right hand. He says, Imagine you have a hammer in your right hand and your left hand is holding a nail. You put in the nail in the piece of wood and the hammer slips and it hits your thumb, you’re first reaction is to drop the hammer. The right hand is going to take the thumb of the left hand and hold it and comfort it because it’s experiencing pain. And as it does this, the left hand is thinking, “As soon as this stops hurting, I’m going to pick up that hammer and I’m going to hit the right hand back.” It doesn’t think that way because it understands that it is one and the same, and it doesn’t benefit the left hand to retaliate on the right hand and make it experience the same type of pain that the left hand is feeling. And this seems so simple when you’re thinking about your hands, these are two separate things and yet because of the understanding that it’s all part of being the same, you don’t experience those types of thoughts.

Yet we do that with ourselves, the sense of self being separate from other allows me to want to retaliate on someone else if they do something that makes me hurt or upset. But you can study that and realize the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence allows me to get past those emotions and realize it does mean no benefit to turn around and inflict harm on someone else who inflicted harm on me. This is that very foundation for starting to understand compassion and love and kindness which is going to be the topic of a future podcast episode.

So I hope you enjoyed the topic of today, the illusion of the ego. And I would love to here what you think about this topic either on the podcast comments or on the secularbuddhism.com website. The specific post on this podcast topic, I would love to get your feedback there. But I hope that this has been a good podcast and I look forward to the next one. Thank you.

3 – Seeing with I’s of Wisdom

This episode explores the topics of Interdependence and Impermanence as well as the 8 fold path. Understanding these topics along with Emptiness, will help us to develop “wise view”, the most important part of the 8 fold path. Poem shared: “Autobiography In Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode three, and I am you’re host Noah Rasheta, and today we’re talking about “Seeing Through the I’s of Wisdom,” 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 covers major philosophical topics within Buddhism. I also plan on interviewing other guests, authors, teachers, and really anyone who is interested in philosophy, secularism, humanism, and buddhism. I’d like to start this podcast with a piece of advice from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali 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.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. Come back often, and feel free to add the podcast to your favorite RSS feed or iTunes. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook the username is Noah Rasheta. Or visit my website at www.SecularBuddhism.com. Any links mentioned in the show will be available in the show notes.

Now lets just into this weeks topic. In the last podcast episode, we talked about the nature of suffering. Specifically, the Four Noble Truths that were taught by the Buddha at Deer Park. This was his first major sermon. And in this sermon he discussed what is commonly known as the Four Noble Truths. In essence, number one the truth of suffering that there is suffering or in live there is suffering. Number two, the truth of the cause of suffering. Number three, the truth of the end of suffering. And the fourth one is the truth of the path that frees us from suffering. That’s what we’re gonna be talking about today. I gave this episode the title of, “Seeing Through the I’s of Wisdom,” this is the letter I, not the two eyes we see. But that’s a play on words.

The reason this episode is called, “Seeing Through the I’s of Wisdom,” as you’ll see throughout the episode. It’s because of the importance of interdependence and impermanence. So we exist in the plane of space and time, right? So when it comes to space, we say that things are interdependent, everything is connected to everything. Everything that exists has causes and conditions that allow it to exist. And on the plane of time, we say things are impermanent because everything is constantly changing and nothing remains permanent or stays the same. So understanding these two concepts interdependence and impermanence is the key to the right perspective or the wise perspective of how we should be living.

So I want to start talking on the topic of emptiness. This is a central teaching in buddhism and yet its often misunderstood. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. The proper understanding of emptiness is so important the great Buddhist philosopher and poet, Nagarjuna wrote, “Emptiness wrongly grasped, is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” And that’s why I want to make sure that this is very clearly understood. According to Buddhist teachings, things, and that means all things, have no intrinsic existence of their own. Everything comes into being because of causes and conditions and some Buddhists traditions this was called dependent origination. So things have no existence of their own and are empty of a permanent self. So when we’re talking about emptiness here, we are talking about things being empty of an intrinsic identity, or a meaning on their own. What we’re saying … What I’m saying is things only exist because of their interdependence on other things.

So let me give you a few examples. You can take a look at anything and break it down to its causes and conditions. For example, the table in your kitchen, it exists because of the materials and processes that make it a table. Those would be the causes and conditions. It wouldn’t be a table without wood, nails, glue, the hands of a carpenter, a hammer, staples, the person who invented a hammer, and so on and on and on. And then you can break each of those down and you’ll realize the glue is a combination of ingredients. A person who invented glue, the people who made the person who invented the glue, the mission that forged the shape of the head of the hammer, or the staples. And then you can break each of those down and what you’ll find is that there is a virtually infinite combination of causes and conditions that allow your table to exist as a table. And yet you’re table cannot exist without the causes and conditions that allow it to exist.

So another example. Imagine a cake, you know when we think of a cake, its just this thing, there’s a cake, it’s on the table, I’m gonna eat it. The cake is a real thing, and yet the cake does not exist as an intrinsic thing. It only exists as the culmination of all things that make it a cake. Eggs, flour, sugar, heat, oven, a baker, etc. You can analyze anything and you can come to the same conclusion that things only come into being as the result of their causes and conditions and its the causes and conditions that have their own causes and conditions and that goes on and on and on.

Which leads us to the major concept that we know of as interdependence. Comprehending and understanding emptiness will not lead us to something beyond this reality, it’s what takes us right to the heart of what this reality is. So interdependence because of what we just discussed, the idea that everything is interconnected, we can conclude that nothing that exists including you, including me, exists in and of itself without dependencies, these are the causes and conditions. Everything about us is in constant change, from the trillions of cells that make up our body to the multitude of processes that create thought, emotions, reactions, opinions, and beliefs. We are not static objects, we are works in progress, and we have mind boggling complex processes that all depend on each other. So remember this, change is the only constant.

Another way of understanding interdependence or emptiness, would be studying Plato’s allegory of the cave. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we learn about some prisoners who have been trapped in a cave their whole lives. They’ve never seen the world outside of the cave, they are chained in such a way that they are facing the wall and their backs are turned towards the entrance of the cave. Due to their positioning, they can occasionally see shadows on the cave wall of the things that are passing by the cave. They occasionally hear noises and they associate the sounds with the shadows they see. They only know the world through the shadows that they see on the cave wall.

One day, one of the prisoners escapes and he leaves the cave. At first he can’t see anything because it’s too bright and he’s blinded by the brightness. But over time his eyes adjust and he can see things with much more clarity than before. For the first time, he seeing things as they really are. From that moment on, he understands the shadow of a thing is not the same as the thing itself. Elated with his new understanding of the world he returns to the cave to tell his friends all about what he’s seen. But to his surprise, they don’t believe him. It’s not that they don’t want to believe, but they literally can’t believe him. You see, they only know the world through the shadows and they’ve never experienced life in any other way. Enlightenment is seeing the world the way it really is. It can’t be fully grasped by explanation. It has to be experienced, and only then can it truly be understood.

Another example to help us understand interdependence and its logical conclusion of emptiness, would be to think of something like a car. If you were to take your car outside right now and disassemble it into every piece that you can fully disassemble it to. And its there in the driveway and you’re looking at it, and if I were to ask you, “Well, what is the car?” Which of those pieces would you pick out and say, “this right here, this is the car.” You’ll notice that there’s an engine, there’s a hood, there’s a steering wheel, there’s a wheel, all of the individual parts, you wouldn’t be able to pick a single one and say, “This here is the car.” Because the car is a concept. It’s a thing that only exists because of all the things that make the car a car. And what’s interesting is you can’t take a car and remove one item, you know remove the engine, and say, “Now it’s not a car,” it’s still a car. It’s a car without an engine. You can’t point at the engine. You can’t point to the engine and say, “The engine is the car,” no that’s the engine.

So then what is the car. This becomes very interesting because you can do this with anything. And what you’ll realize is anything that exists only exists as a culmination of all the causes and conditions that make thing exist. This includes us, this includes anything. So back to the car, furthermore you can take the engine and you can say, “Well then what is the engine?” Well, here is it, here’s this block. But now take the engine apart. And you’ll see that you have a cylinder block, you have cables, you have a belt, you have all these things that went into making the engine but none of them is the engine. So then you realize engine is also empty, it’s not a thing that exists in and of itself. It exists because of all the parts that make it exist.

Continue to break things down, every single part of the car you can break down again and again and again. And you’ll realize everything is made up of causes and conditions that allow that thing to be. But nothing exists in and of itself completely interdependent of everything that makes it exist.

Another way to explain the concept of emptiness comes from a Zen Story commonly told in Marshall Arts and it’s called, “Empty Your Cup.” And the story goes that there was a master trying to explain something to a student. The student wasn’t brand new, he was senior student, probably already knew many things, he had knowledge and experience to draw upon as he’s listening to this teaching of the master. But every time the master tried to explain something new to the student, the student would hold it up against his own notions and knowledge that he had and how things ought to be, so he wasn’t able to see the lessons that the master was trying to teach him. So finally the master poured a full serving of tea into his cup, and a full serving into the students cup, and he told the student that he wanted to give him some of the tea from his cup to the students. So he starts pouring it from his cup into the students, which was already full, and the tea from the masters cup just starts spilling and spilling all over the surface, all over the table. And the student finally says, “Master, you can’t pour anything into my cup because it’s full. I need to empty it to make room for what you’re trying to give me.”

And the master says, “Yes, I know and I can’t give you any new thoughts or ideas or perspectives or knowledge of any of life’s lessons until you clear out the thoughts that are already full in your cup.” And so then the master pauses for a brief moment and meets with the eyes of the student, with his own, and calmly says, “If you truly seek understanding, then first empty your cup.” And the student ponders on those for a moment, and then all of the sudden, he gets it. And with that look of enlightenment, he smiles and says, “Okay, I’m ready to start learning.” And the idea with this story is that we do the same thing. In life, we have our understanding of concepts, of the meanings of things, and we’re like this teacup that’s already full. And grasping the understanding of emptiness is realizing, okay there’s how life is and then there’s the story of created of how life is. And as long as the story is there, there’s no room to see how life is because its already being taken up by concept I have of what life is.

So seeing life through the eyes of wisdom could be compared to this concept of emptiness, or emptying your cup. It would be like saying, “Okay, I want to see everything from the fresh perspective of a beginner assuming there’s no preconceived concept or knowledge there that’s going to prevent me from seeing life as it really is.” So that’s emptiness. Learning to see with a beginners mind, or learning to empty ourselves of the concepts that already impeding us from seeing how it really is. Or as the example of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, you could say understanding emptiness is learning the shadow of the thing is not the same thing as the thing itself. You know what I’m looking at in life are mere shadows and how do I go from seeing the shadow of the thing to seeing what it really is. You might not know because you’ve only ever seen life through the shadows. So the aim and the goal of Buddhist philosophy again is to help us understand that we are seeing life as shadows and if you can just have that radical shift in perspective you can come to start seeing things as they really are. That is the essential goal of Buddhist philosophy. And that is this concept of seeing the world through the eyes of wisdom, the eye of impermanence, and the eye of interdependence. That is how we start to see things as they really are.

So to note any individual thing or person has any permanent fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter being. This term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person of wisdom. With a sense of connection, compassion, and love. Because all things are interdependent and in a constant state of change, all things must also be impermanent. So this is the second of the two “I’s” of wisdom, impermanence. Everything is impermanent, jobs, relationships, the good times, the hard times, our loved ones, our own life. The lives of everyone we know, everything. The problem is that we know this and yet we tend to cling to things as if they were permanent because we want things to last. When we truly understand impermanence, the less we cling to outcomes and expectations. Now that doesn’t mean its suddenly easy when we lose a job or loved one, it just means that the recovery from suffering will go more smoothly when we learn to see things as they really are, impermanent.

The Buddhist’s define impermanence in two main categories: gross impermanence and subtle impermanence. Gross impermanence is our understanding that things die, we die, countries change, political ideas change. You know this kind of impermanence we see all around us in the big things. Things arise, they endure for awhile, and then things pass away. The Buddha emphasize this that this gross impermanence is under guarded by what he called subtle impermanence. So this is recognizing that things are changing constantly. For example, as I say this and as you listen, we are both physically undergoing change. The cells in our bodies are regenerating. That means the you that listened to what I said five seconds ago, in a physical way, is different than the you that is listening in this specific moment, five seconds later.

Think of the water in a river, it’s continually flowing and yet its always just a river. Think of a fire from a candle, it’s continually flickering and therefore it’s constantly a new fire, and yet we just see it and think, “Fire.” From the time that we light it till the time that its extinguished, we see it as this constant thing, its just fire. But in reality, fire exists because it’s continually changing. Its a new and ever changing thing.

This concept of the river also applies when, you know, you’re standing in the river, you’re never standing in the same river twice. Because the water as it flows past you, you’re continually in a new river.

The Buddha taught that we should think of ourselves and everything around us as sequences of momentary events, not as solid things. From the Buddhists lens, there are no things, there are only continuations of constant changing phenomena. So what is the goal or the benefit of seeing the world through the eyes of wisdom?

Well, Steven Bachelor mentions in his book, “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,” he says, “As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a mean to secure the sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are, instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.”

The Eighth Fold Path is as the heart of Buddhist practice. The path is intended to be a guide for every day life, and follow in the path we learn to see life as it really is. So this path is depicted as a wheel with eight spokes, because the path isn’t linear and there’s not a specific part of it that’s more important than another, it’s equal. So just as a wheel with eight spokes, all eight spokes would be equally important. And a lot of Buddhist traditions, you’ve probably have seen the symbology of a wheel with spokes to represent buddhism and what that’s showing is the symbology of the eight fold path.

So the eight points of the path are first wise view. Wise view means seeing the world as it is. What are your views of the world? What do you … You know cling to your views? Wise view is probably the most important of all of the aspects of the path because with the proper view or with a wise view of the world, everything else will come naturally. All of the other aspects of the path come naturally.

Sometimes I like to sum up the definition of wise view with an old parable. And this is the parable of the Horse. And it goes like this, “An old Chinese farmer lost his best stallion one day. And his neighbor came around to express his regrets. But the farmer just said, ‘Who knows what is good and what is bad?’ The next day, the stallion returned bringing with him three wild mares. The neighbor rushed back to celebrate with the farmer. But the old farmer simply said, ‘Who knows what is good and what is bad?’ The following day the farmers son fell from one of the wild mares while trying to break her in. The next day the army came to the farm to conscript the farmers son for the war. But they found him injured and left him with his father. The neighbor thought to himself, ‘Who knows what is good and what is bad?'”

What I love about this parable or this analogy is that we have two ways of viewing the world. One allows us to have a very open mind and accept things as they happen and work with them as they happen. The other one … The other scenario here is that the moment things happen we give them meaning. We assign meaning to things and the moment we do that and decide what is good or what is bad, then we start to experience suffering around these events because as we deal with them we have to make them fit into the understanding of whether or not its a good thing or its a bad thing.

Wise intention … Wise intention means understanding what the true intentions are behind our actions. Our thoughts, words, and actions are all driven by intentions. For example, when our intentions stem from anger, fear, resentment, or greed, we are more liking to do harm with our thoughts, words, and actions. A great way to practice is to start asking ourselves questions about intent. A great way to practice is to ask ourselves questions about intent. For example, why am I thinking this? Or what is it that made me angry enough to pick up the remote and throw it? Once we’re aware of our intentions its a lot easier to set new ones and replace old intentions.

The next one is wise action. Wise action means acting or behaving in a way that is not harmful to ourselves or to others. Because we understand the nature of interdependence. Wholesome intentions help lead to wholesome actions.

Wise speech or communication. Wise speech means communicating with others in a way that does not cause harm. Lying, gossiping, and hurting other peoples feelings is not wise speech. And this covers all forms of communication. Not just speaking, but in our day and age this would include texting, and emailing, and writing. It doesn’t mean withholding opinions or ideas. It just means we’re mindful of the intention behind the communication to decide if what we’re going to say will do more good or more harm.

Wise livelihood. Wise livelihood addresses how we earn a living. We need to determine for ourselves if what we are doing for a living is causing harm to others and ourselves or if it is neutral or if it is helping. Wise livelihood also includes how we interact with others while doing our jobs.

Wise effort is what it will take to be able to put into practice all of the other parts of the path. Without effort, there is no practice. So we must be determined to put into practice all the other points of the path if we want to experience any kind of positive change. Wise effort effects all of our interactions in the world.

Wise mindfulness. Wise mindfulness means paying attention to everything that we think, say, and do. It’s important that mindfulness should be anchored in the present. With proper intention, effort, and mindfulness we can train ourself to present in everything that we do. Wise mindfulness goes hand in hand with all the other points of the path. For example, wise speech will determine what I’m saying to someone when I’m talking to them. Wise mindfulness will prevent me from checking my phone and texting while trying to talk to someone in person. Meditation is the tool that we use to develop mindfulness. And as we develop mindfulness in the quiet still environment of meditation, it will then extend to include mindfulness into everything in our daily lives.

And the final one, wise concentration, or sometimes its referred to as wise meditation. Wise concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one thing. Like mindfulness, concentration is a tool to anchor us in the present. Concentration improves through meditation and it requires the use of wise effort, wise intention, and wise mindfulness. Once mindfulness and concentration are established, then you can develop greater insight overall because your mind is no longer cluttered with thoughts that inhibit wisdom.

The eight fold path is something we need to practice continually. You’ll notice how various segments of the path overlap and rely on each other. Walking the path, so to speak, is an ongoing life time effort that will bring many rewards and improve your overall quality of life.

So you’ll see that the goal of Buddhist philosophy isn’t to take us to a set of revealed truths or facts. What it’s trying to do is cause a radical shift in perspective. Its a radical shift of how we view the world from viewing out to turning inward and viewing in and realizing that everything that we’re looking for is to be found within.

Steven Bachelor in his book, “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,” says, “To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment, before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once again. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open, vulnerable.”

I want to share with you autobiography, and five chapters by Portia Nelson. “Chapter One, I walked down the street, there’s a deep hole in the sidewalk, I fall in, I am lost, I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out. Chapter two, I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out. Chapter three, I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it as there, I still fall in. It’s a habit. My eyes are open, I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately. Chapter four, I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it. Chapter five, I walk down another street.” Like the autobiography and Five Chapters, you too must be willing to walk down another street when that specific chapter of your life arrives.

As we go through life, we gain insight from every experience we have. It’s not about just trying to have good experiences, or avoid having bad experiences, its about the experience of experiencing. Enjoy the journey, because the journey is the goal.

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.