top of page

Noah Rasheta: Secular Buddhism #3

This is an edited version of the third episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:

Seeing With I's of Wisdom

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 is the truth of suffering: that there is suffering or that in life there is suffering. Number two is the truth of the cause of suffering. Number three is 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 going to be talking about today. I gave this episode the title of "Seeing Through the I's of Wisdom" and this is the letter I, not the two eyes we see with.

The reason for this title is because of the importance of interdependence and impermanence. We exist in the plane of space and time. So, when it comes to space, we say that things are interdependent; that everything is connected to everything else. Everything that exists has causes and conditions that allow it to exist. And, on the plane of time, we say that things are impermanent because everything is constantly changing and nothing remains permanent or stays the same. So understanding these two concepts is the key to the right perspective or the wise perspective of how we should be living.

I want to talk about the topic of emptiness. This is a central teaching in Buddhism and yet it's often misunderstood. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. The proper understanding of emptiness is so important that 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, in some Buddhist traditions, this was called dependent origination. 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 of their own. What I'm saying is that things only exist because of their interdependence with 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 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 realise that the glue is a combination of ingredients: the 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 your table cannot exist without the causes and conditions that allow it to exist.

Imagine a cake. When we think of a cake, its just this thing, there's a cake, it's on the table and I'm going to 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 the things that make it a cake. Eggs, flour, sugar, heat, oven, a baker, etc. You can analyse anything and you can come to the same conclusion that things only come into being as the result of their causes and conditions and it's the causes and conditions that have their own causes and conditions and that goes on and on and on.

Which leads us to 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. Nothing that exists, including you and me, exists in and of itself without 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's 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 and it's 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 and and then say, "Now it's not a car". It's still a car. It's a car without an 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 realise 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. 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 realise that the 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.

You can break down every single part of the car again and again and again. And you'll realise everything is made up of causes and conditions that allow that thing to be. And nothing exists in and of itself completely independent of everything that makes it exist.

Another way to explain the concept of emptiness comes from a Zen story commonly told in martial arts and it's called "Empty Your Cup". The story goes that there was a master trying to explain something to a student. The student wasn't brand new, he was a senior student, he probably already knew many things, he had knowledge and experience to draw upon as he was 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, so he wasn't able to see the lessons that the master was trying to teach him. Finally the master poured a full serving of tea into his cup, and a full serving into the student's cup, and he told the student that he wanted to give him some of the tea from his own cup. So he starts pouring it from his cup into the student's, which is already full, and the tea from the master's 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 in your cup". And so then the master pauses for a brief moment and meets with the eyes of the student and calmly says, "If you truly seek understanding, then first empty your cup". 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 realising, okay there's how life is and then there's the story we create 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 the 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 beginner's mind, or learning to empty ourselves of the concepts that are already impeding us from seeing how it really is. Or, as in 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 to 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.

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.

Buddhists 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 that we see all around us in the big things. Things arise, they endure for a while, and then things pass away. The Buddha emphasises that this gross impermanence is supported by what he called subtle impermanence. So this is recognising 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 it's always just a river. Think of a candle's flame, it's continually flickering and therefore it's constantly a new flame, and yet we just see it and think: "Flame". From the time that we light it till the time that it's extinguished, we see it as this constant thing, it's just a flame. But, in reality, a flame exists because it's continually changing. Its a new and ever changing thing.

This concept of the river also applies when you're standing in the river because you're never standing in the same river twice. As the water 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 constantly changing phenomena. So what is the goal or the benefit of seeing the world through the eyes of wisdom?

Well, Steven Bachelor says in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening that, "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 behaviour and routines as a mean to secure the sense of self, we realise 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 Eight-fold Path is at the heart of Buddhist practice. The path is intended to be a guide for everyday life, and following 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 in a wheel with eight spokes, all eight spokes are equally important. And in a lot of Buddhist traditions you've probably 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 first of the eight points of the path is "wise view". Wise view means seeing the world as it is. What are your views of the world? What views do you cling to? 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 neighbour 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 neighbour 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 farmer's 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 farmer's son for the war. But they found him injured and left him with his father. The neighbour 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 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 it's a good thing or its a bad thing.

"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 likely to do harm with our thoughts, words and actions. A great way to practise is to start asking 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 it's 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 people's 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 enough of the intention behind the communication to decide if what we're going to say will do more good or more harm.

"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" 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 ourselves to be 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 and still environment of meditation, it will then extend to include mindfulness in everything in our daily lives.

"Wise concentration" (or "wise meditation") 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. It's a radical shift of how we view the world from viewing out to turning inward and viewing in and realising that everything that we're looking for is to be found within.

Steven Bachelor says, "To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are 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 an autobiography in five chapters by Portia Nelson: "Chapter One. I walk 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 is 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 this autobiography in 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 to avoid having bad experiences, it's about the experience of experiencing. Enjoy the journey because the journey is the goal.

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.

bottom of page