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71 of 83 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Buddhism: Vague and Hollow, 30 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Buddhism Plain and Simple (Arkana) (Paperback)
Steve Hagen is American. It's really unfair to turn this against him, but I want to use this fact to illustrate just one of the ways in which his approach to Buddhism seems quite suspect. At the core of this very unclear book is one, clear-cut message: that in order to truly "see" reality, the mind must let go of all pre-conceived ideas, beliefs and concepts. Supporting this core idea are numerous analogies and anecdotes... a great number of which are written from an American perspective. Baseball, the LA riots, Mount McKinley, "first grade" and "high school", Paul Bunyan, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, etc. All of these cultural examples are put forward by Hagen to illustrate his own conception of Universal Truth... and thereby his version of Truth is anything but universal. He uses the preconfigured ideas of his native land to "label" and "compartmentalise" the tenets of Buddhism, which is exactly what he spends 157 pages telling us not to do.

That's just one thing that made me wary of Hagen's take on Buddhism. Other examples would include his "self-help" tone of voice and the repeated notion that all of us can "see" but we're just not trying hard enough. I was unsure of his "belief" (he's not supposed to have belief in "frozen" objects or sequential thought processes of any kind) that simple optical illusions can illuminate the profoundest inner workings of the human mind. A blob of ink becoming a cow when you stare at it for long enough isn't quite good enough for me. That's what it will feel like to be enlightened? Seems like a weak way of explaining something so huge.

But above all else, what frustrates me is that I've come away from this book not understanding Buddhism at all. Steve Hagen claims to be breaking down the cultural trappings of this ancient religion and giving it to us "Plain and Simple". But he's stripped it down so far that his subject matter has become virtually meaningless. Reading his philosophy is like trying to hear a taste or smell a colour... words don't seem to serve his purpose very well and everything he says devolves into abstract terms like "Truth", "Reality" and "Wholeness". These words, on and of their own, don't mean anything unless they have some context. They can't be used like nouns: you can't walk to the end of the road, find Truth and put it in your pocket. But Hagen talks about these words like they're real, tangible "things" that we just can't "see".

There's a great part in the Bible when Jesus comes before Pontius Pilate and says: "All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice." To which Pilate simply says: "What is truth?". And Jesus has no answer. That's what I want Hagen - or any religious figurehead, for that matter - to explain in real, lucid words. What does the word "truth" used in this way actually mean? It basically means whatever you want it to mean... which makes it mean nothing.

I don't think Buddhism has been done justice in this book and I think I need to read a lot more to get a proper grip on it. Here's a quote from the back cover: "For those readers approaching Buddhism for the first time... this book offers invaluable, clear insights into the heart of Buddhism." If that was the primary aim of this work, then - for me at least - it's definitely failed.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Jul 2010 14:27:13 BDT
To be honest I simply can't understand why such a thoughtful reviewer can miss the point of Hagen's book.
Buddhism can be summed up in one word - mindfulness, every form of the Dharma operates from this premise. It's an exposition of what is called phenomenology in the Western tradition. The aim of Buddhism is to bring about a shift in perspective, to bring into focus a wholly different view of the world that is liberation itself. It's not concerned with debate, ideology or winning arcane metaphysical argument, it's focused on enabling you to actually do it.
I hope this goes some way to clarifying the issue, seen like this I think the reviewer will consider Hagen's Buddhism Plain and Simple as a book deserving a better review.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jul 2010 14:10:08 BDT
Rusty says:
Hi Bob,

To be equally honest, saying that Buddhism can be summed up in the word "mindfulness" doesn't help me at all. Nor does the idea that "liberation itself" will occur if I focus on consciousness. These sentiments are just words; they don't give me any context or substance to work with. I understand and believe that Buddhism can bring about a shift in perspective, however this shift seems to be something that can be experienced but not demonstrated. It's 100% internal and, as such, trying to discuss it with other human beings seems almost impossible. And that's how it felt reading Hagen's book - like he was trying to explain the unexplainable.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jul 2010 10:39:00 BDT
You didn't get much from Hagen's book perhaps you could try Walpola Rahula's WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT. This is something of a classic; it's not written by an American and it's neither vague nor hollow.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Oct 2010 23:23:55 BDT
S. McGrath says:
Correct. Mindfulness until experienced cannot be properly communicated. It's a bit like falling in love (not in feeling or experience but in context). Until you've experienced it you can't fully appreciate it, how it feels etc.

My advice would be to practice mindfulness meditation consistently and diligently. Hopefully after some time you will begin to 'feel' or be aware of it's effects. Then when you read the feeling or experienced explained you will identify and understand it. Initially at least it is virtually impossible to approach 'mindfulness' from a intellectual point of view. The only way is to practice.

I hope this helps,


Posted on 5 Mar 2011 17:36:11 GMT
Thanks for your very honest review. The amount of American references and historical examples would have annoyed me too. As you say, anything but universal. I think I'll keep looking.

Posted on 11 May 2011 11:54:04 BDT
A. Parsons says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 12 Jun 2011 13:06:10 BDT
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In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jun 2011 18:33:15 BDT
Rusty says:
Before leaving a comment like this, wouldn't you at least check if you're right? It appears in the Gospel of John.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Jul 2012 12:25:39 BDT
Try "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. You can find it free on the web - and it gets good reviews on amazon (and from me!). "Focus on consciousness" is an advanced Zen technique, which Gunaratana says is "very hard". Too hard for me, and looks like too hard for you, Rusty! He recommends focusing on the breath - as did the Buddha. Is that substantial enough for you? What can be more substantial than the feeling of the breath on your nostrils. I used to get a bit bored doing it at the beginning but, now, mostly, I get pretty calm and relaxed, all those anxious thoughts subside - isn't that what Buddhism is really about? I think Bob's recommendation of Rahula is a good one, I keep meaning to re-read that.

Posted on 3 Oct 2013 17:40:44 BDT
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