Monday, March 10, 2014

Steve Hagen's "Buddhism Is Not What You Think": Book Review

"This is not a feel-good book about how to become more spiritual." So starts the prologue. While these lessons for those used to inspirational or comforting takes on Zen may unsettle, if you've read its predecessor, "Buddhism Plain and Simple", this sustains Hagen's no-nonsense tone. Many on Amazon appear to have been unsettled by his detached, analytical stance. Yet, it's common to others; consider similarly phrased versions by Stephen Batchelor (for counterculture's veterans) or Noah Levine and Brad Warner (for the post-punk era's seekers), or Glenn Wallis (for intellectuals aligning the arc of Buddhism with theoretical speculation).

Like many guides following up an initial success (compare Levine and Warner), this bogs down somewhat from going over what's been covered already--and from a sequel that might have been shorter.. Organized loosely in three sections, it tries to replicate the mind's entry into dharma (it's not for beginners--try its predecessor.) It starts with "Muddy Water," as Hagen argues against any reality that's permanent. He constantly returns to "just that" as the heart of Zen: the immersion in now. He repeats how confusion grounds itself in an elusive reality. This should be familiar for readers of more basic Buddhist treatments; it runs the risk of repetition.

But many Zen books do this. It can cut through illusion, as when Hagen cites Rinzai on freedom: "There are Zen students in chains when they go to a teacher, and the teacher adds another chain. The students are delighted, unable to discern one thing from another. This is called a guest looking at a guest." (qtd. 88)

The dharma itself's self-referential, and Hagen demonstrates how it must "ultimately erase itself" (130) as the left hand erases what the right hand writes on a chalkboard. It's difficult to read over a couple of hundred pages on this (even with large font and a small book format), without pausing and reflecting.

"Pure Mind" shifts to the mental freedom and spiritual confrontation of letting go of any clinging.
The gist eludes articulation, but nonetheless, here we are reading Hagen's words, for how else can we learn? "Dharma teaching is not about what cannot be put into words, what cannot be grasped, what cannot be conceptualized--but what can only be pointed out, can only be directly seen." (165) Words, often in Zen primers, may exhaust what non-verbal contemplation may reveal. And, in such books, authors tend to hammer home the same points, with different taps, over and over. Some may get it. Some may give up.

"Purely Mind" stresses "seeing" in a non-conceptual manner the impermanent. Mental constructions need to be dismantled: time, space, extension, and duration. "These--and all the material world--derive from consciousness, which ladles out time and space from a timeless, spaceless sea." (242) Great scene, but how does this fit? He elides over how the subject-object division within consciousness is created by consciousness itself; this book skims across weighty subjects without pausing to dig deeper into these assertions. He nods to Nagarjuna's argument that "There's only flux."

True, Ch's. 41-2 edge into quantum physics but this merits a whole book, not a few pages. The idea of a two-dimensional space and time projected rising up (or down!) as a third dimension as on an elevator into conscious awareness on pp. 236-7 is fascinating, but this needs more time and space to unfold to do justice to Hagen's affirmation or denial. The "transactional interpretation of quantum physics" (240) as collapsing the universe's size as time runs back and forth and therefore eliminating its intrinsic duration deserves elaboration. Earlier, he makes a memorable analogy of a bodhisattva to a pedestrian--one is there and then is not--but again, this metaphor passes by too rapidly.

A careful look at the acknowledgements shows what no earlier reviewers have noted: 16/43 of "Buddhism Is Not What You Think" is nearly all adapted from in Hagen's Dharma Field newsletter. Therefore, its ability to delve deeply into topics is dispersed, compared to his topically oriented first book. However, the brevity forces Hagen to teach in a compressed method akin to a Zen instructor. Over and over, he simply repeats to "just see," to stop looking around as if perpetuating ignorance. (Amazon US 3-21-13)

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