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Buddhism: Vague and Hollow
on 30 March 2010
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.