Society tends to want to put labels on people, are you a this or a that? Are you one of us or one of them? These labels can be useful to describe how we are but not who we are. I’ve felt pressure recently to define what I am or what I’m not. This has made me think about why I do what I do. Why do I practice and teach Buddhism? Ultimately, it’s because I’m trying to be a better version of me. I hope you enjoy this update and explanation. I will do my best to keep up with regular podcast episodes from here on out.
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Transcript of the podcast episode:
Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this episode number 30. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about why I practice and teach Buddhism.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. Remember, “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 one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama. Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode.
If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating on iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.
Hi guys, it’s good to be back with you. It’s been several weeks since I recorded the last podcast episode. I know this is intended to be a weekly podcast, and I’m trying to do my best to make sure this a weekly podcast, but every now and then other things get in the way and it’s difficult for me to find the time to keep this updated. This is a return episode, where I’m trying to return to my commitment to making this a weekly podcast for you.
Several of you have reached out to me to tell me how much these podcasts mean to you and how beneficial they are, and that definitely helps me to have the determination to do this. It does help having people supporting me for the podcast because I do this on the side, and I have about 10 regular monthly supporters. That definitely helps, it helps to maintain the cost of hosting for the audio files and the website hosting. More importantly, it gives me access to resources to be able to travel and to the workshops that I’m trying to do.
Keeping all that in mind, I wanted to address a topic that has come up for me recently, that has made me really think about why I’m doing this. Why do I teach Buddhism? Why do I practice Buddhism? This has to do with, I think society tends to want to put labels on people. I felt the pressure with this in recent months with me from the standpoint of, are you a this, or are you a that? Are you an us, or are a them?
This is a concept that I’ve wrestled with because something I enjoy so much about Buddhism is how it doesn’t really have the us versus them mentality, at least from the standpoint of the way I’ve been teaching it and presenting it, the way I’ve learned. I wanted to address this a little bit and this starts with the emphasis of explaining what am I, and why do I teach what I teach?
I want to start with a quote that I’ve shared before, which is, Dr Mark Epstein was asked, what is the difference between a Buddhist and non-Buddhist? His response was that the non-Buddhist thinks there’s a difference. I’ve always liked that because I feel like the perspective that I’ve gained from Buddhist teachings, is the understanding of oneness. When we truly understand that, we start to erase these lines between us and them.
I’ve thought about this a little bit more, and I like thinking that the difference between someone who’s enlightened and someone who’s not enlightened is that the non-enlightened, or the non-awake person thinks that there’s a difference. In reality, there’s not difference, there’s really no difference. The enlightened person understands that we’re all the same. This is something that really speaks to me when it comes to why I teach and practice Buddhism.
I understand that we’re all hardwired from an evolutionary standpoint to be social creatures, and for millions of years, our survival literally depended on our ability to have those strong social bonds with others. This comes in the form of our bonds with families, with our communities, and with society as a whole. It depends on individuals who are committed and connected for the well-being of the group, and I understand that.
One of the positive aspects of this hardwiring is that kindness and compassion, these can feel natural towards those that we perceive as members of our in-group. We seem to feel a natural bond or a natural sense of connection with people who are like us. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more we understand, the more we love, and the more we love, the more we understand.” Perhaps it’s because we feel like we understand those who are like us that we feel more inclined to love those who are in our ingroup.
Unfortunately, the other aspect of this social hardwiring is that we tend to classify people into these two overall groups of us and them, ingroup and outgroup. Those who share our views, whether these be political views, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, or even as simple as who we share a sports team with, we tend to create these lines of the people that we see as us, our in-group, and those that we think we understand and, therefore, we feel it’s easier to be closer to or to have compassion for, or to love. Anyone who doesn’t fit into that perceived in-group becomes “them”, so this problem of us versus them.
It’s a lot more difficult for us to love them because we don’t understand them. I think we tell ourselves, how could they possibly not be like me or not be like us, whoever “us” is? We all know them. For some, “them” is the liberals; for some, “them” is the conservatives, the independents. On the beliefs spectrum it could be, us is the believers; them, the non-believers, or it could be the us is the non-believers and them is the believers. This breaks down into specific groups. Us could be the Catholics; them, the Protestants or backwards, or the Muslims or racial groups.
We’re very good at creating these lines of us and them across all kinds of different spectrums, but these ultimately end up being labels. I really like what Neil deGrasse Tyson says about labels. He says, “A label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do.” This goes back to that idea of understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The more we understand, the more we love, and the more we love, the more we understand.”
With a label, it creates an artificial understand. I think I understand them, what I really know is that “them” is not us and then I know more about them than I actually do. That false sense of understanding could be the very thing that blinds me or prevents me from being able to have love or kindness or compassion towards anyone in my outgroup who’s not a part of my in-group. The lack of proper understanding is dangerous because we think we understand people, and in reality we don’t. I think following this logic, it seems we can safely assume that any group that we don’t feel fond of is a group that we simply don’t understand.
Think about that for minute. Think of your own in and outgroups. What groups are in, and what groups are considered out? Who’s us, and who’s them, and why? Why would someone be us, and why would someone be them? Think about that in your own life. The goal isn’t to make everybody the same, we know that’s impossible, in fact, I think that would be sad. There was a time in my life when I believed that the key to peace on earth was for all people to believe the same thing. I spent years of my life dedicated to this object of converting people to my way of thinking.
On a trip in Japan many years ago, I took a day in Tokyo to do a tour of the city with a tour guide, a bicycle tour. One of the things that we did is, we stopped at the various Shinto shrines, where the fishermen would go do their morning routine before going out and going fishing. It was fascinating to watch them doing their rituals and their routine. It was a beautiful thing to see a cultural practice that was very different from my cultural norm.
I remember thinking at that moment how sad it would be if all cultural or ritual practices in the world were the same, if we didn’t have that diversity. I remember thinking how sad that there was a time when I would’ve felt like it was okay to eliminate those cultural practices in favor of everyone believing what I believe. Now I view that and think how sad, how bland. It would be like encountering a good meal, a good dish, and then deciding I want everyone in the world to taste this. I don’t think anyone should eat anything else because this is the best.
With food, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to do that. What makes food so good is that there are so many different choices and so many different tastes and styles, we wouldn’t want to impose one on someone else. We’re perfectly content with knowing that your favorite dish can be your favorite dish, and my favorite dish can be mine. Your love for your dish does not take away from the love that I have for my favorite dish. That seems to be very logical, it makes sense with food, but when it comes to ideas and ideologies, it’s a lot more difficult.
I understand some ideas are harmful to others, and I think that’s where a line needs to be drawn, and ideas need to be called out as bad ideas because they’re causing harm on others. I understand that, but overall, what I’m saying is typically we treat our ideas as …
If we were to compare these things to food, it’s like saying, “I’ve discovered this certain dish and I want you to experience what I experience when I taste this, when I eat this. The reality is, you may not. You may taste it and say, “Well, I don’t like that.” For me to feel offended or to think you’ve got to taste it again, you’ve got to get to the point where with is as tasteful to you as it to me, sounds silly when we’re talking about food.
I don’t know why we have such a hard time with dealing with our ideas and with our beliefs in that same sense, we want others to experience our ideas the way we do. We want them to be meaningful to others the way they are meaningful to us. The truth is that, an idea, no matter how good it is, or a belief, not matter how good it is to me, doesn’t mean anything to you if it’s not meaningful to you the way it is to me, and that can’t be imposed or forced.
Going back to the overall topic here, we all have differences. The problem isn’t that we’re different, the problem is that we’re not okay with the fact that we’re different. Those are two very different things. It’s okay that we’re all different, but it’s not okay if I feel that it’s not okay that we’re different, that’s where the problems start. How do we start to understand them, whoever them is?
Again, going back to this us versus them mentality. Think of them, whoever pops into your mind as them. Buddhism is a contemplative tradition that teaches us to look inward. In the process of discovering who I am by asking who am I? And, therefore, understanding who are we? We begin to discover a sense of unity in our differences. In fact it’s the very fact that we are different that makes us the same because what you’ll start to understand is, I am one of them to someone else. That means we are also them to someone else, so this whole idea of us and them is, in a way, what makes us all the same because we’re all actually them.
I might be them to someone, you are certainly them to someone, so if I’m them to someone and they’re them to me, then now we’ve got something in common because we’re both them to someone. If we’re all them, then we’re also all us, because we’re all part of a group that is that is them to someone else. I know that might sound a little wonky, but in reality, if you think about that, that is what makes us all the same, it’s that we’re all different.
I think this a key teaching in Buddhism, it’s the discovery of the nature of self. The self is not separate form other, but we’re one with other, we’re the same. The labels that we give ourselves and that we give others are simply that, they’re just labels, and the reality is that we are not our labels.
I’ve talked about this before, I think, in a podcast episode, but I like to think of labels as items of clothing because we all wear different items of clothing, or think of color, the color of a shirt. The fact that I might be wearing a blue shirt doesn’t speak to who I am, it speaks to how I am. I’m the guy in the blue shirt, and you might be the guy in the red shirt or the orange shirt. It would be silly to confuse that and to say, “That is a red shirt person, I am a blue shirt person,” because these labels can change. Most of these labels change over time.
At one point, I was not a dad, and now I am a dad, that’s a label that I carry. A lot of our labels work this way, especially with religious or political ones. They can morph and evolve and change over time, I know they certainly have for me. What if we viewed our labels as descriptions of how we are, but not confuse those with who we are?
There’s a practice in Buddhism called analytical meditation, this is common in the Tibetan tradition. In fact, the Dalai Lama does a lot of this style of meditation, analytical meditation, where you are continually asking yourself, who am I? This sense of self that I have, what is it? Am I my thoughts? Am I my memories? You’re trying to pick apart the question of, who am I? If you do this analytically, what you’ll find is that there’s no part of you that is the you separate from everything else.
The you that you are is the sum total of everything that makes you you, and because you can’t single that out – and I’ve mentioned this before – just like with a car and all of its parts, you can not disassemble the car and say there is the car and go pick one of those parts, because the car is all of them. We’re the same way.
There’s no part of me that’s me without all of me that’s me, so it’s in that sense that I gain a proper understanding of the sense of self. This can extend on to, my understanding of who I am or what I am also influences my view of the group called us, anyone that’s like me because we’re none of those things. What you discover in this analytical process of meditation in terms of the sense of self is that what I am is, I am life, and that’s really all I am.
Having said that, there’s another aspect of Buddhism that really resonates with me, and this the two key things I wanted to address in this podcast. The reason that I’m doing this is, one, to dispel that sense of separation from self and other, to understand that there is not difference, to say I’m a Buddhist because I’m not a Buddhist. The understanding that there is no difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist, that’s really the goal.
I want to teach that because I think what the world needs right now, is that sense of unity. It’s always needed it, it’s especially evident now, but this idea that there’s us and them is an illusion. There is no us and them, there’s only them, which means there’s only us. The second aspect is the understanding that I am the source of it all. This introspection into trying to find the self, what you’ll discover in that process is that I am the source of it all.
Let me explain this a bit. What happened when Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, when he was sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he was seeking an understanding of the nature of reality. He was trying to discover this understanding of the nature of the mind, and where does this sense of self come from? He was asking, who am I? What am I? He asked, why does this sense of self prevent us from seeing our oneness with everything else.
It was in this state of contemplation and self analysis that he discovered that he was the source of his interpretation of reality, that he was the source of his positive and negative emotions, that he was he source of his temptations. It was just him. In that moment, he realized that we are all the source of it all.
We construct our own heaven or hell, and it happens in the here and now. He became aware of the nature of reality, which is, essentially, that there’s reality as it is, whatever it is, and we are the ones who add meaning and add stories to that reality. We construct layers upon layers of reality on reality and, therefore, it’s our individual perceptions of reality that are unique, so my reality is mine and yours is yours.
This self-awareness is what lead him to gain this title of Buddha. The title Buddha just means awakened one, or one who is awake or enlightened. That’s what he was, he was a teacher who taught the nature of reality. What came out of that is his understanding of the nature of suffering and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Coupled in that, was the understanding of all things are impermanent, meaning all things are continually changing and all things are interdependent, all things are connected. Constant change and constant connection are an integral part of understanding Buddhist thought. You combine all this, and this was that sense of awakening that he had, to be able to understand reality as it is.
The discovery that we are the source of it all, is actually incredibly liberating, and it really resonates with me. This is why Buddhism is called the path of liberation because he implication of this understanding, is that if I feel a sense of hatred, I am the source of it. It’s my perspective or my memories, my upbringing, my beliefs, and many other things go into that, but ultimately, it’s all on me. It’s me. There’s no way to scapegoat this, there’s no the devil made me do it or the devil made me think this because in this approach, there’s really just me and my mind, and I am the source of it all.
For me, this is a really powerful way to go about experiencing life, and understanding that I’m in control of it. I am the source of it all. My perceptions influence my reality, but it’s just me. For me, like I said, this understanding is very empowering because not only am I the source of my hatred or jealousy or discontent, but on the flip side of that, I’m also the source of my kindness and peace and joy and my happiness.
This knowledge, coupled with the understanding of impermanence, that all things change, and interdependence, that all things are connected, ultimately gives us freedom. The freedom that we gain is freedom from our habitual reactivity, this is freedom from ourselves. I think if you really explore the root of what we’re all trying to get is that ability to control your own emotions, our own reactivity.
The idea behind habitual reactivity is that there is stimulus, and then there’s a reaction. This is talked about in a lot traditions, but the idea is that something happens and we react. Often, this happens so quickly and so powerfully that we don’t even realize that our reactions are separate from the stimulus that started them. We see them almost as this inseparable chain of events. Something happens to me, and I react to it, almost as if that was the next step in the chain. The reality is that there is space between the two events, the stimulus and the reaction. What we’re trying to learn, to develop, is the ability to increase that gap between the stimulus and the reaction.
The typical example I share about this is the example of being cut off. You’re driving, you get cut off, and you instantly react. That’s not problematic, we’re hardwired to work this way, but there’s no freedom in our inability to control how we react when things happen. This is habitual reactivity that I’m talking about, it’s something happens and boom, I react. What would it be like to go through life gaining mastery over the way that we respond to the events as they unfold? This is freedom, this is what Buddhism is ultimately trying to teach and help us to obtain, that freedom from our habitual reactivity.
Buddhist teachings give us power over ourselves. There’s a quote by Lao Tsu, who so wisely said, “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” I think of all of the things that we seek in life, we’re trying to obtain happiness, but we do that by thinking that we’ll get it by having more power or more wealth or more fame. Those are illusions.
Ultimately, the reward that’s taught through these contemplative practices isn’t about obtaining happiness, it’s about obtaining freedom. Thich Nhat Hanh says that freedom is the only condition required for happiness, so happiness is the result, but it’s not the goal. Freedom is the goal, freedom from our habitual reactivity.
If you think about that, apply it into day-to-day living in a very practical way, what this means is, imagine life being able to unfold for you in a way that you do not have to react instinctively. You would have the ability to determine and have freedom with how you react to the events as they unfold. That’s the freedom that we’re talking about with these practices.
For me, Buddhism is not about changing others, it’s about understanding myself, and thereby, understanding others, but I do that through understanding myself. It’s through understanding that we can learn to love. I mentioned earlier Thich Nhat Hanh says that the more we understand, the more we love, the more we love, the more we understand. It’s through that understanding that we gain love and compassion, compassion for others, and compassion for ourselves.
This idea of self compassion is that I need to understand who am I, and what am I? This is why we practice and we ask that question in the contemplative practice, the analytical meditation I talked about. The continual question that you’re asking is, who am I, or what am I? You’re looking for that sense of self to understand it.
Ultimately, this is why I teach and practice Buddhism, not to make the world a better place, but to make myself a better person in the world. The better we each are, the more kind, compassionate and loving we become individually. The irony is that is what makes the world a better place, not because we’re trying to change the world, but because we’re trying to change ourselves.
Ultimately, that’s my goal, and that’s something I wanted to clarify in this podcast, addressing that question of, why do I do this? Why do I teach this? Why do I practice this? Ultimately, it’s to gain that understanding that the sense of separation between us and them is simply an illusion, there is no difference, there’s just us. We’re all the same, we’re life. In Buddhism, this transcends even the human race, this is sentient beings we’re talking about, all sentient beings.
The second component, like I mentioned, is to gain that sense of empowerment and knowing that I am the source of it all. I am responsible for my positive emotions and also for my negative emotions, and I can’t pin negative emotions like hatred on external circumstances. The flip side to that is that I can also not pin on external circumstances positive emotions like joy and happiness. These things are found internally and not externally.
I think our society tends to function in a way as if these things were external, as if happiness is something that I find out there by changing certain circumstances, when the reality is that it doesn’t work that way. It’s internal. I’ve mentioned this quote before from Brother David Steindl-Rast, who says that gratitude is not what makes us happy, “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful, it’s gratefulness that makes us happy,” and I truly believe that.
Having a contemplative practice that helps focus our understanding of the nature of reality a bit is a form of wisdom that can generate compassion. These are the two things that we constantly strive for in Buddhist teachings, it’s wisdom and understanding. Ultimately, that’s why I do what I do, and that’s what I wanted to share with you in this podcast episode.
As I mentioned before, this is also my commitment to you. I’m determined to get better at recording these podcasts more regularly, trying to do a weekly podcast, so you guys can hold me to that. If a week to two goes by and I haven’t recorded a podcast, send me a message through Facebook, email, something, and remind me and say, “Hey, where’s the next podcast episode?”
I really appreciate your support. So many of you have reached out to me to share your thoughts and your gratitude for specific things you’ve heard in these podcast episodes, and I really appreciate that. That makes a big difference for me, so please continue to reach out to me. I feel this is a journey that we’re all on together, me recording these and getting to know you, the people who listen to these.
Thank you for your support, I really appreciate it, and I look forward to recording another podcast episode next week. Until next time.