Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs

By Steve Hagen
New York: HarperCollins, 2003, Hardback, 252 pages.

Buddhism is not what you think. It is about being awake to reality. And you cannot be awake to reality if you insist on thinking about it. Reality cannot be described or explained, for that would be to conceptualize. "Reality," Steve Hagen tells us in Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, "is what is immediately experienced."

In this deceptively simple book, Hagen offers simple but profound statements about many things: good and evil, mind, dualism, consciousness, space/time, freedom, and rebirth, to name a few. The first and longest of the three sections that make up the book is titled "Muddy Waters," and it takes up the many stumbling blocks we mistakenly erect in our search for truth or enlightenment. Zen teaches "no dualism," for example. If we conceptualize, we have dualism-you and me, good and bad, subject and object. The mistake we make is in calling that reality. So how do we apprehend reality? Hagen repeatedly offers the simple advice, "just see."

Another stumbling block has to do with rebirth, and this is one of the more challenging points he makes. He says that what Buddha taught was rebirth, not reincarnation, for nothing endures. Reincarnation cannot occur because there is nothing to reincarnate. Nagarjuna in the second century pointed out that nothing persists from moment to moment. "Nothing endures ... to be impermanent. He [Nagarjuna] calls this Emptiness. This is the true meaning of impermanence." This moment is born again and again. Seeing this, and not the "recycling of souls," is "the liberation the Buddha pointed to." The point is reinforced when Hagen speaks of enlightenment: "A teacher who is awake realizes that there's no particular person who's awake."

Buddha taught that everything is made of mind. A pure mind is one that sees but does not grasp, we learn in section two, which is titled "Pure Mind." In it and in the third section, titled "Purely Mind," Hagen repeats the same refrain running through the book: You are right here and right now, and there is no separateness; all you have to do is just see.

It is in the latter short section that he considers the subject of consciousness, which, he acknowledges, we don't know a great deal about although we are all intimately familiar with it. Matter, he contends, is abstract. When we get down to the subatomic level, for example, we can find either an electron's location or its momentum, but not both. "In other words, an electron doesn't seem to have properties that are separate from our awareness of those properties." This points to the conclusion that “physical reality cannot be fully accounted for apart from consciousness. "

It is difficult to write about this book without extensive quoting, for Hagen's felicitous style is spare, direct, and lucid. That is one of the book's pleasures, in fact, for the subject matter, profound as it is, could have been weighed down by verbosity in the hands of someone with less wisdom and understanding. Although the reader may want to explore further the rebirth/reincarnation conundrum, Hagen has presented here a clear view of Buddhism as he sees it. This book could be extremely useful, for not only does he demonstrate pitfalls the beginner encounters, he illuminates what it is to be awake.


September/October 2005