During the early years acquainting myself with Zen Buddhism, I thought I was fortunate to live in the United States where I had easy access to a vast array of the reading material and resources that was having an important impact on my life. As time passed, I came to realize that my seemingly lucky circumstance in many ways impeded my quest for awareness.
I'll explain. In this country, where we cherish the idea of "being number one," extol self esteem as a great virtue, and are taught, beginning as infants, that happiness comes from the acquisition of things, ego-centeredness is bound to be a big problem for each of us. By "things," I mean not just physical assets -- property, toys, impressive cars, etc. -- but also relationships, status, personal power, and, for some, the escapist pleasures that come from drug use or promiscuity. All of these things are supposed to bring us joy. "For God's sake," we cry out, "give me something, anything, to quickly distract me from the moment at hand." These distractions are plentiful -- abundant beyond count ... and in the long run THEY DON'T WORK!
If the core task of Buddhism is to rip away the mask of illusory ego, by having us not be creatures enslaved by covetousness and yearning, this is the opposite of what we are taught to do to enhance our happiness and to advance our social and economic status. From this standpoint, Buddhism seems unAmerican, doesn't it? But Steve Hagen, in his well-titled book Buddhism, Plain and Simple, widens our viewpoint, as he transcends any supposed conflict between Buddhism and the American Way. In a few short words, I would say that its main theme is that THERE IS NOTHING TO DO, ONLY SOMETHING TO SEE.
Those of us who are familiar with Buddhism are already very cognizant of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, yet in his book Hagen goes into each in such a way that he answered questions I had about a few of them. While the book might be difficult for readers who have no knowledge of what Buddhism is about, it would be a good beginning for them. And it is likely to help many advanced Buddhists to see their religion in a new light.
Early on in the book, Hagen writes "You are already enlightened. All you've got to do is stop blocking yourself and get serious about attending to what's going on. You are not lacking a thing. You need only to stop blocking or interpreting your vision." How easy it is to get caught up in our thoughts, to let that override the direct perception of what is at hand. One of the things I used to glibly do when some friend would ask me what Buddhism was about, was to answer that it was about living in the now. I stopped doing that when a friend asked me, "I don't understand what you mean, but okay, so how many nows are in an hour?" It is to this moment -- the moment right now, while you're reading words in this sentence -- the only moment there is, that the book is directed.
Hagen writes that "right intention is simply the intention to come back to this moment -- to just be present with no idea of gaining whatsoever."
One of the criticisms of Buddhism, particularly by Westerners, is that it is nihilistic. The book offers good answers to that charge. Nihilism is a product of belief, and Hagen continually prods us to move away from any form of belief toward the function of perception.
Through the years I have wrestled with the paradox of desiring to be desire-less. It's a silly struggle, perhaps, but one that was difficult for me to contend with, much less overcome. Hagen addresses this problem quite well when he writes: "If we're not expecting to get anything from being awake, what reason do we have to awaken? There isn't any reason. You already know what not being awake is. It's confusion. It's pain. It's suffering. It's dukkha. If you're getting tired of that, why don't you stop?" Well, why don't we?
When I read the words of the ancient Ch'an Masters -- such as Hui Hai, Huang Po, and Bodhidharma -- I came to realize that conceptual thinking was the greatest impediment to awareness. However, I also know that to live in the culture and society in which I do, to lead the existence that I have, even to type words on my computer for this review, I have to think conceptually. Hagen addresses this dilemma: "The problem is not so much that we [conceptualize]. In fact, we can hardly help but [do it]. ... The real problem is that we are caught by our concepts. We don't have to grant them power or accuracy or validity that they don't have. We simply need to recognize that our concepts are not Reality."
My one big frustration with the book was, that as hard and often as I tried, I could not "see" the test picture on page 28. I know the difficulty is with me, even though those I asked to look at it failed to "see" it, too. It may be my mention of this will pique the interest of readers of this review and get them to rush out to a library or bookstore to flip through Hagen's book, and possibly borrow it or buy it. I think that would be a good thing!
In publishing circles, "How To" books have been great sellers, with titles like How To Be A Success, How to Meet the Right Mate, How to Be Happy, etc. So is Buddhism Plain and Simple a "How to Be a Buddhist" book? Not really. But in a paradoxical way it does show us how to strip off the mask of ego and be who we really are.
The bottomline is I liked Hagen's book very much -- from its clear and precise explanations of the noble truths and eightfold path, to the very direct way he explained the purpose of the religion and how we should think of it. Years ago, Ram Dass titled one of his books Be Here Now -- which most times is tough to do! It is nice that we now have Steve Hagen's Buddhism, Plain and Simple to point us in the right direction ... it's the finger directing us toward awareness.
Review written by Taft Lowell