Thursday, October 25, 2012

Steve Hagen's "Buddhism Plain and Simple": Book Review

No gilded statues on pedestals, no gongs, bells, or chants. This Zen teacher relays "uncluttered, original insights and observations" from the Buddha, gleaned from Hagen's three decades of practice and study. He refreshingly dismisses, when instructing one in beginning meditation, to stay with the basic breath-awareness, for instance, free of "visual object, sound, or thought." He insists throughout to "'see' Reality" as that which Zen masters define as One Mind, the unchanging seamless Whole behind a parade of passing moments.

He coats his approach with a light but sturdy veneer of Dogen's "just thusness," with a touch of Nagajuna, and a dab of Shunryu Suzuki. As in that teacher's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my review), this is not an historical survey. Like Suzuki's book, this brief account uses parables to teach, but Steve Hagen adds his own lessons from our own Western lifestyles in more American prose, in an unassuming style which sounds like a good friend's side of a conversation.

Unlike most popular books aimed at fundamentals of the buddha-dharma (Hagen wisely prefers this term to "Buddhism" with its institutional accretions and cultural obfuscations), this author stresses a streamlined approach. Hagen constantly repeats the message of the dharma of the awakened one: to "'see' Reality." He, as with the more advanced recent works of Stephen Batchelor (great follow-ups are "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," both reviewed by me), advocates the eventual possibility of "leaving the raft behind" once the teaching's succeeded.

That is, not to confuse as so many practitioners do the "territory for the map," as if one tries to cling to a particular practice or hold on the dharma, as if to "box it up and cart it away." He cautions about "the deep end of 'duhkha'-- existential angst," (111) and he resists the temptations of settling into a smug routine. "Final job of teacher: free student of teacher" (82) remains wise advice he passes along. The dharma is none other than things as they are, filtered via our senses. "It hurts to defy Reality." (127)

While accessible for beginners, this book does skip about, and it does not always convey its structure as clearly as it might have. (One paragraph as a précis on pg. 4 is very general.) Hagen follows the typical outline of introducing the Buddha (two pages to cover the supposed facts of his life--this book eschews legends and claptrap) and the four truths before extending its reach into the eightfold path for two-thirds of the narrative, concluding too hastily in a compression of the twelvefold chain. Hagen keeps the enumerations (which some writers use to weigh down their expositions) to a blessed minimum, but he needed more pages to elaborate this final section; the chart's too pithy and the appendix too truncated.

Hagen also jumps past his initial treatment of inherently good or bad people as categories impeding "right speech." He criticizes "judgment or discriminate thinking" but he doesn't return to this until more than forty pages later, when decoding (well) what the Buddha called "frozen views" of conceptions. Hagen muddles his interpretation of a classic "Gestapo ask where the innocent family is hiding--do you lie?" case study, and this inclusion and related eightfold sections needed tightening.

But, even if an index and suggested reading list are absent and the organization of this narrative can slacken as well as tauten, the no-nonsense direction generally favored by Hagen may appeal to many seeking a discussion of buddha-dharma scoured of incense smoke and guru dust. He prefers straight-talk to platitudes. "The buddha-dharma doesn't ask us to give up control. Instead, it acknowledges we never had it in the first place." (51) (Amazon US 2-25-12; cf. his sequel reviewed 3-21-13, "Buddhism Is Not What You Believe")

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