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Noah Rasheta: Secular Buddhism #8

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

True Selflessness

I've been asked why I do this. I have three different businesses and I have three children. I'm in a very busy stage of my life. It takes time to record these podcasts and it takes time to prepare them. I teach lessons almost every Saturday at my office and people come to those and it takes time to prepare those. And the reason I do it is because this is a topic that to me is incredibly rewarding. It's fascinating to be able to teach something that helps to inspire people to be better people. And ultimately, in my view, it makes the world a better place.

About four years ago I found myself in a very dark difficult part of my life. I was going through a marriage crisis and crisis in faith. I thought, "How did I mess up? Where did I mess up in life?" Something was wrong and I think naturally we have the tendency to view ourselves sometimes as finished products. We're constantly evaluating ourselves and others, thinking, "Well, you did this wrong, or this right, or you turned out good, you turned out bad." When the reality is that we're always works in progress. But I wasn't able to see myself as a work in progress. I had messed up in life. Something went wrong, I got it wrong, and that way of thinking was very detrimental. It was a difficult time.

That's when I came across Buddhism and Buddhist studies and it was so refreshing and liberating to understand that all things are impermanent, and that we're constantly in a state of becoming. There is no point in saying, "Oh where did I mess up in life?" It's like you haven't messed up because you're alive. And I came across this teaching that I have really enjoyed ever since. It's about a rose and its limitations, and the idea here is that the only limitation of the rose is that the rose is not a daisy, but it doesn't care, so it doesn't matter. And that resonated with me because here I was in a specific phase of life where I was thinking, "I didn't get this right. My marriage isn't what it's supposed to be. Or my way of having faith isn't what it's supposed to be. Somewhere I messed up in this process." And I couldn't figure out why, and nothing made sense.

And then, what made the most sense was realising that there is no milestone that says "this is it and, there, you got it: you did it right". Or wrong. There is just what is, and what was at that specific phase of my life is what was at that specific time in my life. That's all it was. Buddhism was able to really convey that in a way that made sense to me. And I remember one day where I had that moment of letting it go, and realising "there's all the stress and all the weight off my shoulders" and what was left was only the experience of being. And I thought, "This is something that makes a lot of sense to me. And this is something that I want to teach." And that's where the motivation came from.

I think ever since then, and this is almost four years now, I've felt like I've been in this continual state almost of bliss thinking, "I'm just excited to be alive now. There is no way to mess up life. Because you're just going through it." In the Dhammapada there's a section that says, "Just as a farmer irrigates a field and an arrowsmith fashions an arrow and a carpenter shapes a piece of wood so the sage tames himself." And I remember when I read that thinking that's what Buddhism should be for me. It's the process by which I can shape myself. I can take my own mind and find a way to live peacefully and happily. And it had nothing to do with how you need to convince others to be. It's a very personal process. It's all about being the best version of you that you can be.

I once saw this little meme or cartoon. And it shows a man whose head is a Rubik's cube and it's all twisted out of its pattern, and he's hiking up this tall, tall mountain. At the top of the mountain you see another stick figure sitting in meditation and his head is also a Rubik's cube, but it's all assembled the right way with all of the sides having one solid colour. I thought that was really funny and I think that the intention of the Dharma is that you can take yourself and realise, like with the Rubik's cube, that with the right moves and the right spins and twists your own mind can become settled and organised, and at peace.

And that's what this process has been like for me. And the only reason I like to share it is because I want others to have that same kind of peace. It's not about converting anyone to anything, because there's nothing to covert to and there's nothing to convert away from. Buddhism isn't necessarily a philosophy or a religion of belief. It's a philosophy or religion that's a way of life. And, if anything, I would argue that it's about unbelief. It's about taking the concepts that we've been given since the moment we're born, and when we're children and we start acquiring meanings and concepts and labels and beliefs. What Buddhism's trying to do is strip us of those things and make us realise that those can prevent us from seeing life as it is.

I think in a nutshell there's what is, and then there's the story we create about what is. And this applies in the present, past and future. There's whatever happened in life, and then there's the story that we create around what happened in life. And a lot of the suffering, pain and suffering can be found within the story we create about what happened. Or if we're talking in the present there's what is, and then there's the story we create about what is. And a lot of our pain and suffering comes from the story we've created about what is. Buddhism is trying to help us strip ourselves of the stories, the labels, the meanings and the beliefs around what we think is. And when we can do that, then we're only left with what is. And it's a fascinating process to be able to do that and just train the mind to be with what is and not be caught up in the meanings like the Dhammapada says. The sage tames himself. It's a very introspective process. It's a contemplative process that involves you and you only, and what you find out is you are your greatest teacher. It's not necessarily about anything other than that.

Following on from that, I wanted to talk about this concept of selflessness. Selflessness as explained through the Buddhist lens. Typically, when we're talking about selflessness, what we think of is the standard way of viewing selflessness. It's about thinking less about yourself and more about others. It's typically associated with generosity and kindness, or with being altruistic; it's the opposite of being selfish. And that's how we typically view selflessness. And I want to present this in a slightly different light. Because through the Buddhist lens I think there's a little bit more to this concept of being selfless.

I want to start with a quote from the Tibetan poet Shantideva. He says, "Whatever joy there is in the world arises from wishing for others' happiness. Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness." And I think this still falls in line with the typical concept of selflessness and its opposite, selfishness, that we understand. But there's an essay by Reverend Gyomay Kubose in his book Everyday Suchness. These are Buddhist essays on everyday living. He has an essay on selflessness. And I want to read most of it, or quote most of it, because it's fascinating. He talks about how, in our present day, we live in a society that's engulfed in the idea of self. We live in a time of self-education; self-development; self-improvement. Everything revolves around the idea of there being a self.

And what he writes is that, when we stop and think about what self is, we'll see a whole different picture of the self. Because we'll realise there is no self really without the other. If we understand that self exists because there is other, then self is a relative thing. The real self exists in a state of selflessness. What does that mean?

The Buddha taught that the essence of all things is selfless. And what we usually think of as the self is actually temporary and it's an illusion. In this essay, Reverend Kubose says, "Most people think I is the most important thing. I believe this, I believe that, I have the right, etc. But I is the sum total of all other people and things." Think about that for a minute. This is really fascinating. He goes on to say, "My body is given to me by my parents. All the food that I eat to maintain myself, my growth... is produced and provided by others. All the clothing that I wear to protect myself, this is the product of other people. Our shelter and our belongings, these are not of our own making. The language that I speak, I've learned this. This has been given to me. The way that I think, this has been learned. This has been given to us by our society, by our culture, by the specific time that we live in. Our parents, our teachers, all the other people who have taught me. All this makes me what I am. So all that I am is the sum total of others." This is something I highlighted in the essay because I think it's fascinating. The concept that all that I am is the sum total of others.

I think that's very profound. There is no I that exists apart from others. As I was reading, I thought, "This is just fantastic. The understanding that there is no self without other, and that the real self exists in the state of selflessness, makes a lot of sense to me." What this is communicating to me is the understanding of interdependence. That we think of ourselves as existing independently of all other things. There's self and then there's other. But the reality is that everything's interdependent. We wouldn't exist if it wasn't for someone else.

There's not one single person alive today who said, "I want to exist. I want to exist now." Every single one of us exists because of somebody else and somebody else's actions. The way that you look, the way that you think, everything about you, everything that becomes this very strong sense of self, what does it have to do with you? You didn't choose any of this. You didn't choose to exist. You didn't choose to look the way that you do. I didn't choose the colour of my hair. I suddenly came into existence because of causes and conditions that were completely out of my control. And now here I am. And I exist. Yet I have this tendency to associate myself with all these things that for me are so personal. But none of these things were of my choosing.

And it falls in line with this recurring theme that I come across in Buddhism, that things are simple and profound. If you pause for a minute, I think it's incredible to think that you are listening to this podcast, and I am recording this podcast on a technological platform that didn't exist fifty years ago. And I am sitting in my office in a country that didn't exist 250 years ago, and yet it's an integral part of my identity. I am an American. And this is something that didn't exist 250 years ago. I'm communicating to you in a language, English, that did not exist about 1,000 years ago. And we're discussing topic that didn't exist 3,000 years ago. And yet all of these things are very important parts of how I identify myself in the world. And they all come from sources that have nothing to do with me. I've inherited all of these things. I've inherited my genetics. I've inherited the way that I think. I am the sum total of all others. How fascinating is that?

Going back to this essay, the Buddha did not consider the I or self to be an eternal independent categorical entity like the Atman, or the soul in Hinduism or Christianity. He presented the concept of life as a form of continuous becoming. A form of continuously changing. Therefore, the state of I, the sense of self, is always changing. In my own life, I am a father because I have children. I am a husband because I have a wife. I am a teacher because I have students. One day I will be old because I will be compared to when I was young. What you find is that it's all relative existence. Pause for a minute and think about the sense of self that you have now; the things that you identify with that are an integral part of your identity. Think about how these have changed over time, and go back and think how you were ten years ago or even five years ago. It might be a month ago or two months ago. At any point in the past look at what the sense of self meant to you then and look at it now, and see how it's changed. What you'll discover is what Reverend Kubose talks about in this essay: that it's all relative existence.

The essence or nature of life is actually selfless. It's only when we realise this state of selflessness that we start to have real peace, see real beauty and have real happiness. And it's this sense of selflessness that is the true self. The true self is selfless, because there is no such thing as a self that's completely independent of everything else. We are all completely interdependent with everything else.

Think about the relationship between a mother and her child or maybe between a parent and their child. When you have kids, at least in my experience, all of a sudden it's like there's an extension of the self. My kids are just as important to me, if not more, than I am. And I see this with my wife, the bond, the motherly bond between mother and child which I think is the ultimate expression of selflessness in the sense that, to her, and to me, our kids are an extension of who we are. They become the fulfilment of our life. It's not that there's self and other, it's that they become just as important as my sense of self is, because it's a continuation of the self.

Imagine that way of thinking extending beyond just your kids. You can start to see this with people who are very passionate about whatever it is that they do. And this is common I think among artists. When you think of the painter who paints, or the musician who composes, or a singer who sings, they do this not because it's fun. It's a part of who they are. The action of painting or singing or performing is done in a state of selflessness because the person has moved beyond the self doing something to a state where they have become one with the process. Just like when you have love for your children, or for your partner or spouse, that love transcends the sense of self and the sense of self grows. There's me, but then there's we, and we is more important then me. It's no longer just the self. There's my family, and my family is more important than me.

It's an interesting and fascinating thing to experience. And it can happen with hobbies and careers too. What you do is greater then yourself. You become one with that process. That's the sense of selflessness that I think is being conveyed in this essay. And that's the sense of self that I think is taught typically in Buddhism.

I want to finish by reading again from Everyday Suchness:

"Flowers bloom selflessly. Wind blows selflessly. Water flows selflessly. And children are selfless in their words and acts and that's what makes these things beautiful. The Buddha taught selflessness as one of his basic teachings and it's our mistaken ego... that causes human troubles and suffering." This goes back to the Shantideva quote: "Whatever suffering there is in the world arises from wishing for your own happiness." When we think that there's a sense of self that's independent of other, there's going to be suffering. But when we understand that the sense of self that we experience is actually interdependent with other, it only exists because of other, then we realise what there is is oneness. And it's in this sense of oneness or in selflessness that we can have joy. That's where joy and happiness arise from.

Kubose says, "We do not realise that we are literally able to live and enjoy life only because of other people and things. And when one really understands this truth we cannot help but become humble and to appreciate others." Buddhism is the way of selflessness. That's how I view Buddhism in general. Secular Buddhism, the way I teach it, and specifically the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, are about selflessness. It's about this understanding that, in life, there's the sense of self that we experience, but it's an illusion because we don't exist independently of other people and other things. We are interdependent with all other people, and all other things.

And I hope you can take a minute to pause and really reflect on this. And think about the aspects of yourself that you identify with greatly. Maybe it's I am an entrepreneur, or I am a parent, I am a dad, I am whatever it is. Fill in the blank and see what you identify with in a really, really strong way. Then try to break that down and realise how illusory that can be because it's relative. The way that you exist is relative. And when that really connects with you and when you understand that, what's left is this strong sense of love towards other people and other things. Because you realise, wow, I'm completely interdependent with all these things.

In my own experience what I always thought was interesting was the sense of pride that we get from patriotism. A few weeks ago we were at an assembly at my son's school and the flag was being brought into the room by the boy scouts. There was a song playing in the background, and I thought, "How fascinating that I have such pride in my citizenship in this country." And this for me is a unique thing because I am a citizen of two countries. I am a Mexican citizen and I am also an American citizen. I have two passports and I get that sense of allegiance to both. And I thought, "One doesn't take away from the other." Because I've had this same experience growing up in school in Mexico. And we have an assembly and the flag's being raised and we're singing the National Anthem and it's the same sense of pride and citizenship that we're experiencing. I feel that for both. When I'm in the US and I feel pride in being an American citizen, it doesn't take away from what I feel as a Mexican citizen. I just happen to feel it twice.

I think the only other place where that can really be experienced is with kids. You have your first child, and you're like, "Wow, I thought I knew what it was like to love. But now I know what it's like to love because I have this child and they mean everything in the world to me. And it's not possible to love anyone more than I love my child." And that's how you think it is until you have another child, and you realise that you love the second child just as much as you do the first child. But it doesn't take away at all from the amount of love you have for the first child. You just feel it twice. I didn't know it could be multiplied. I have three, but there are people who have several kids and I assume the process just goes on and on.

I think this alludes to what the Buddha taught: that love is one of the immeasurables. It's something that can't be measured because there is no end to it. It can actually double in the blink of an eye when you have another child. Buddhism, as I mentioned before, is the path of selflessness. It's in the state of selflessness that love can grow and become immeasurable. It's not finite. You don't think, "I'd better not love you too much because I need to save enough of it for my own family, or for my own tribe". What it's trying to convey is that, with the proper understanding, that's where wisdom comes in. With the proper perspective, all we're left with is true kindness and compassion, which is immeasurable. And this can be extended out to everyone when we truly understand interdependence.

I think the understanding of what it means to live a selfless life isn't about just focusing more on others then you do on yourself; it goes beyond that. It's realising that there is no sense of self without other. All there really can be is the sense of oneness. It's realising that, yeah, I'm experiencing life through the lens of me. But what that really means is that there's only we. I'm experiencing life in the state of we, through the lens of me, if that makes sense. This has been a very meaningful thing for me in my own life, and I hope it makes a difference to you.

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.

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