This is an edited version of the first episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
1 What is Secular Buddhism?
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. 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 the 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, 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.
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 his 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 and 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 that my approach to all of this is that I genuinely believe there is no difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist. This is a topic that I'm going to dedicate a whole podcast to, the idea of labels and concepts. The idea here is that what we are, at the end of the day, is 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, 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 atheistic or non-theistic. All of it is driven by this underlying sense of spirituality that we all have. We're going to approach spirituality from the understanding of spirituality being 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 realising 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 to emphasise what things you find that give meaning to your 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 to 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 that it's those two things and nothing more. Another way that this is explained that I really like is by the Dalai Lama in his book Beyond Religion, where he talks about spiritual sustenance being 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 flavouring. A specific religion could be a flavor, and that flavor might work well for you. It's a flavour 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 flavour 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 are 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." 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 this, is early Buddhism, who said what, how it was said and in 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 travelling 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 fly in a spaceship near the speed of light for whatever amount of time and then 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 called 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, and we need to spend very little time looking 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 between algebra and al-Khwarizmi, the founder or the father of algebra, as between 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 as studying what the implications of the concepts are when applied to my everyday life. We're going to explore those concepts in further episodes, but we may not necessarily spend a lot of time on who the Buddha was and what was the historical aspect of his teachings. 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 distinction between facts and truth. What we're looking for in anything that we're listening to is always the truth, not necessarily the facts. 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 that 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 the truths are that you can learn through these stories and not to 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 for you to be able to extract a truth from it.
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 into 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. I believe it 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!
Keep 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 and so experienced life the way you did in the space of time that you experienced it. 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 can only be grasped 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's 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 with 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 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 to really contribute to the secular Buddhist conversation. 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.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.