Often we find ourselves unhappily headed towards happiness. Thinking that once we arrive, we will suddenly not be how we’ve been all along. In this podcast episode, I will talk about Bodhidharma’s beard and the koan that invites us to look closer at ourselves and others.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 110. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m talking about headed unhappily towards happiness.
Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. Last week, I talked about a Zen koan called Bodhidharma’s Beard. And as a reminder, Bodhidharma is the founder of Zen. He is the person who took Buddhist teachings from India and introduced them to China, and he was known for having a large beard. So the riddle, or the koan, is that when Wakuan saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma, he exclaimed, “Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?” Any normal person would think, “What are you talking about? You’re looking at a picture of a guy with a beard, a guy known for having a beard. Everyone knows about the beard. And here you’re saying why doesn’t that have a beard.”
So to look at him and to hear someone ask, “Why doesn’t he have a beard?” is an odd question to say the least. To ask why has Bodhidharma no beard is actually an absurd question. The practitioner can go and they can meditate on that question all day long and puzzle over it. How do you answer that question? Why doesn’t he have a beard? It’s so obvious that he does when there’s clearly a large beard there in the picture. So if you try to answer the question by saying, “But he does have a beard,” you’ll be told to go back and look again and keep meditating. And if you’re lucky, with time, the realization will come that the master was right all along. Bodhidharma doesn’t have a beard.
So who is Bodhidharma and what does he actually possess? Like the previous koan that talked about having a temper, who really has the temper? Is the temper yours? Is the beard really his or does it belong to his body. Is Bodhidharma a body or is he a name? Is he a concept? And upon pondering these things and contemplating this new perspective of what actually is Bodhidharma, who actually is Bodhidharma, perhaps then you’ll go back to that Zen master and you’ll agree and you’ll say, “You’re right. Bodhidharma doesn’t have a beard. Now let’s get on with life.” And that is the key to a lot of these Zen teachings. It’s okay. So what? Now let’s get back to life. Let’s get back to the basics. Zen is kind of famous for that.
So I wanted to talk about a couple of things that have happened over the past few weeks. I’ve been traveling. I went to my cousin’s wedding in Texas. And on my flight back home to Cancun, I noticed a couple things that gave me an idea to talk about in this podcast. So the title, Unhappily Headed Towards Happiness, it’s pointing to an experience I had while I was waiting for the flight from Dallas back to Cancun. And as you can imagine, Cancun is a destination that most people are really excited to head to. It’s kind of known as a popular tourist place, a vacation place, but it also has a party crowd that comes here and celebrates.
So as we’re waiting for the flight in Dallas, we received notification that the flight was delayed, and then an hour or two later that it was delayed again, and it kept getting delayed. So by the third time that it was delayed we were several hours behind the scheduled time of departure now and people were upset. There was one lady specifically who was very vocal in her being upset. What I thought was funny is how she kept vocalizing that she needed to get to Cancun. She’s got people waiting for her. They were supposed to go out and get partying. She had started her drinking early on in the process before even boarding the plane, which was making this an even more unpleasant experience for her to deal with the emotions that she was experiencing.
But I had this thought of here we have someone who is eager to head to the place that’s going to fix everything, right? There’s probably a reason why she was headed down there and she was really excited to get there. But whatever she was hoping this trip would do, she was already bringing with her the unhappiness of … When things aren’t going right and you’re unhappy, it doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re in paradise or not, you’re going to bring this with you. That reminds me of the Zen koan of the gates of heaven and hell where we learned that the gates of heaven and hell are right here. We’re the ones who open them and close them based on the experiences that we’re going through and how we experienced those things.
So it got me thinking along these lines of different areas in my life where I’ve experienced this sensation of being unhappily headed towards happiness and not knowing that I’m carrying with me all the seeds of unhappiness and that getting there isn’t going to fix the problem because I’m only going to get there and realize there is no there there. I think I see this a lot in people that I know who are unhappily headed towards what they believe is going to be eternal happiness. What happens when we die? We go to this place where we’re going to be eternally happy. I know a lot of people who believe that, and it seems like they’re very unhappily headed towards this eternal happiness without realizing that they’re not happy right now, and I’ve experienced that myself.
So what I wanted to talk about is the idea of wanting to be happy. Could it be that wanting to be happy is what makes us unhappy? My experience with this is limited to a couple of very specific experiences that I’ve worked with in my own life, and one of them was going through a faith transition. When I started to evaluate the views and the beliefs that I had, it was a very difficult experience for me to feel like I was perceiving the judgment of others, so my struggle came with this idea of not wanting to be judged. And when you leave an ideology that is rooted in the belief of being the only correct path, when you’re leaving that path, people who are on that path are going to look at you like, “What on earth are you doing? Why would you leave the one true path?” And that’s what I was experiencing. Maybe it wasn’t judgment, but it was perceived on my part as judgment. But what it was is like, “What the heck are you doing? What are you thinking?”
What I started to notice is that in the people that I know, like family members specifically, this was more harsh for me. The problem wasn’t that I was being judged. As it turns out, being judged wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I didn’t want to be judged. So I had two things going on. One is perhaps being judged by people, but the other was my aversion to being judged by people. And it was the aversion that I had to the judgment that was actually causing all of the discomfort and the unhappiness in me.
Once I understood that, that it was my aversion to judgment that was the real problem, not the judgment itself, I was able to start to sit with that and to work on my part of it. Why do I feel aversion to judgment rather than trying to avoid judgment? Which is what I did for quite some time, trying to talk to people, or trying to explain myself, or trying to find a way to make the people that I cared about feel like they could understand me so that I would feel validated on the path that I was on.
What I started to realize early on is you just can’t do that. There’s no way that they’re going to understand that path because they’re not on that path. In fact, the path that they’re on does not … It prevents them from having any kind of way of validating my path. Of course they’re going to think I’m on the wrong path because they believe that theirs is the only right path, so there’s no way around that. I couldn’t fix what I thought was the problem, which was feeling like they’re judging me for being on this path. But what I could fix was the aversion that I felt towards being judged, and that’s where I started to invest my time and my energy. Why does it bother me that others might be judging me?
The more I became comfortable with that process, the more peace I started to feel again, and that was kind of the irony. I don’t know if any of the perceived judgment that people have on me ever changed. I think that people who judge me, judge me. But what did change was my aversion to it. That went away, and that changed everything.
So taking this line of thinking back to this passenger, the passenger on the airplane, it’s not that we want these ideas, or these concepts, or these teachings to transform our lives so that we’re no longer angry or upset when our flight gets delayed. This person was very visibly upset and angry about not being able to get on the plane. In fact, when they finally called us and said we were about to board, I mean, she went right to the front of the line. And when they were saying families with kids come board now, she jumped in front of the families with kids and said, “I’m going to get on. I’ve been waiting for hours,” totally unaware that all of us have been waiting for hours. But like I said, she she was kind of a special case they were trying to handle, which is odd these days. It seems like they don’t put up with that kind of stuff, but they were. She had to wait her turn to get on.
But again, what I’m trying to get at is that we’re not … It’s not about not being upset when the flight gets delayed. It’s not that. It’s that when the flight gets delayed and we experience the unpleasant emotions that arise with that, because all of us there were feeling that, like, “Oh, man. Seriously, another delay?” And that’s fine. It’s that we don’t feel aversion to the emotions that arise. We’re okay with the emotions that are there. If we’re upset, we can just be upset. And we don’t have to be upset and also on top be upset about being upset.
To me, that is the magic in all of this, it’s becoming comfortable with the discomfort. I think the koan of Bodhidharma’s Beard helps us to do that because it helps us to look at this angry person who is ready to get on the plane and maybe pause for a moment and pull this Bodhidharma koan and look at this person and say, “Why is this person so content?” It’s the invitation to ask the question, who actually possesses the unpleasant attitude that I’m experiencing here? Is it the person that is being unpleasant or is it the person who’s watching this unfold? Is it me? Is it unpleasant because I don’t like how they’re acting or is it unpleasant because of the action itself? I don’t know. I suppose if I wanted them to act that way then it wouldn’t be an unpleasant experience at all for me to watch this. I’d be clapping thinking, “Oh, this is so entertaining.” That’s kind of the exercise that I worked with throughout this experience entertaining this whole Bodhidharma and the beard thing.
So in that moment, you can ask, “Is it the causes and conditions that gave rise to this person acting this way? Is that what possesses the beard or is it Bodhidharma himself who possesses the beard?” and so on, right? It’s an invitation. It’s a mental exercise that’s meant to invite us to think about things from a different perspective.
So if I were to take that and apply that to a challenge for the week, I think the challenge would be look at yourself in the same lens as someone looking at a picture or a painting of bearded Bodhidharma and asking why does this fellow have no beard. For me, what it may be is, what is something that I really identify with? Like I mentioned before, the irony with Bodhidharma is that he was known for his beard. So what is it that you’re known for? And if I’m known for being someone who does a certain thing, like in this case I like flying, right? I’m a paragliding pilot. I could say, “Why doesn’t Noah like to fly?” And that would be an invitation to explore that. What are you talking about? I love to fly. But who is it that loves to fly? Who is Noah? What part of me is it that loves to fly? Is it my brain? Is it in my hands? Is it my feet because they don’t have to be on the ground? Is it my eyes perceiving what I see when I’m up high? Or what exactly is it? Again, it’s an invitation to find me in all of this and discover there is no meet there.
I think when we do this with ourselves, if you’re known for driving a nice car, ask yourself, “Why don’t I have a nice car?” Or if you are known to identify with a certain trait or characteristic that you have, question it. And do this with others, too. You can really experience some neat emotions and experiences when you flip this on to other. The person who’s known for being angry or upset all the time, say, “Why is this person not angry,” or someone … You get the drift. You get the idea of what I’m inviting you to do here. And I think that’s the invitation of the koan. Take something that seems so obvious on the surface and then you flip it on its head by asking an absurd question like why does Bodhidharma have no beard. Practice this and see what it does to your sense of attachment to the concepts and the ideas that you have about yourself and about others. That would be my invitation to you for the week.
When we finally landed … Just taking the story of this lady, it’s funny now that I think about it. We landed. And you know the instant the plane lands, it takes a while before they taxi. And it’s not till the plane does that little ding sound that they’ve arrived at the gate that you can stand up and open the thing. Well, I mean, the instant we landed, the tires had touched but we were still on the runway rolling, she stood up and starts yelling, “Open that door!” Everyone on the plane at that point was just kind of laughing because it was quite entertaining and absurd. But she was very eagerly waiting to get to her happy place, whatever was waiting for her in Cancun. And I hope she found that joy and contentment when she finally arrived.
So that’s my invitation to you for the week, Bodhidharma’s Beard. What an absurd question. Ask a couple of absurd questions about things that would seem so obvious about yourself and others and see what that does to the relationship that you have with those ideas and concepts. That’s all I have for this week.
So I’m going to leave you with another Zen koan to think about throughout the week. This is a koan called The Real Miracle. The Real Miracle goes, “When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him. Benkei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise. ‘The founder of our sect,’ boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, and his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?’ Bankei replied lightly, ‘Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.'” That’s the end of that koan. I really like that one. I’ll talk about that one next week.
That’s all I have for the podcast episode. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Have a great week. Until next time.