My Review: Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen

As the admittedly guiltiest of reacting to the world based on vast assumption and sweeping generalization, man do I have a long journey to enlightenment.


In Buddhism Plain and Simple (which I read twice in short succession—would Hagen say I’m “holding on to the raft”?), Hagen excels at repeating his main message in a million different ways throughout the text to get his readers to really start understanding.


And here is what I’ve understood:


Have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing.


Perception over conception. Fluidity over crystallization. Don’t chase anything. Don’t get attached to particular outcomes. Just allow yourself to be open to take things in.


Reality is just this moment, without ideas or explanations. Base your actions on what you see rather than on what you think. Beliefs and ideas lead to dukha (discomfort, pain and discontent), while seeing leads to peace. What you believe actually doesn’t matter, only what is happening in this moment does.


Don’t improve, just be. We’ve improved ourselves right into a disconnected, war-torn world headed into a climate apocalypse.


Forget the self. We don’t have control and we never really did. The impacts of our actions don’t stop where it looks like they stop—they never stop. What we say about someone says more about us than the person we’re talking about. Buddhism is not nihilistic.  


Stop desiring an end to desire (oh, soooo familiar).


For the purposes of an introduction to Buddhism (buddha-dharma), Hagen could have finished the book after Part Two. Part Three kind of lost me in the nihilism of self and the twelve-link chain to enlightenment.


My favourite quote

“The Buddha said that the human condition is like that of a person shot with an arrow. It is both painful and urgent. But instead of getting immediate help for our affliction, we ask for detail about the bow from which the arrow was shot. We ask who made the arrow. We want to know about the appearance and background of the person who strung the bow. We ask about many things—inconsequential things—while overlooking our immediate problem. We ask about origins and ends, but we leave this moment forgotten. We leave it forgotten even though we live in it.”



Quotes on: What is Buddhism (buddha-dharma)?

·             “The point of Buddhism is just to see.”

·             “The practice of Buddhism is about awareness.”

·             Buddhism is “nothing more or less than seeing things as they are rather than as we wish or believe them to be”.

·             “Authentic Buddhism, therefore, begins with fact. It starts with perception—direct experience.”

·             “When you actually see that putting your hand in a flame is painful, you don’t need to strain to keep yourself from doing it.”

·             “Attend to immediate experience.”


Quotes on: Reality

·             “Belief may serve as a useful stopgap measure in the absence of actual experience, but once you see Reality, belief becomes unnecessary.”

·             “Reality doesn’t need to be explained.”

·             “Reality is simply thus—immediate, direct experience, prior to any ideas or explanations at all.”

·             “To make matters worse, we often identify with our thoughts, as if substantiality could somehow be found in what we think or believe.”

·              “The real problem is that we are caught by our concepts. We don’t have to grant them power or accuracy or validity that they don’t have.”

·             “Learn to take note of our actual experience, and see just how it differs from our thoughts and concepts about it.”

·             “What we have to do is see what’s happening in each moment, and base our actions on what we see, not on what we think.”


Quotes on: Dissatisfaction (dhukha)

·             “Human life is characterized by dissatisfaction.”

·             “Our ignorance is such that most of us don’t realize we’re thirsty.”

·             “It’s imperative to recognize that our dissatisfaction originates within us. It arises out of our own ignorance, out of our blindness to what our situation actually is, out of our wanting Reality to be something other than what it is. Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us.”

·             “The first truth of the buddha-dharma likens human life to [an] out-of-kilter wheel. Something basic and important isn’t right. It bothers us, makes us unhappy, time after time. With each turn of the wheel, each passing day, we experience pain. Of course there are moments of pleasure. But no matter how hard we try to cultivate pleasure and keep it coming our way, eventually the pleasure recedes and the disturbance and vexation return.”

·             “Consider how, even in getting the wonderful things we long for, we tend to live in want of something more, of whatever might come to us next.”

·             “When petty choices occupy the mind necessity is forgotten, and wanting and craving, picking and choosing take over. The mind is ill at ease and dissatisfied for want of the next petty thing.”

·             “This is the deep end of duhkha—existential angst.”


Quotes on: Effort

·             “Usually we make an effort to control, or be different, or try something new, or improve the situation, or improve ourselves. Human history is filled with this kind of effort. And here we are with our improved human world that we’ve spent a great deal of time and energy working on. We’ve improved the rivers and the lakes and the land and our society and our ways of living to the point where we wonder if the human race will survive.”

·             “There’s absolutely nothing to go after.”


Quotes on: Impact

·             “My point is that the energy, or action, doesn’t stop at all. Ever. Through innumerable transformations, it just continues on and on.”


Quotes on: Change

·             “We long for something permanent, something that doesn’t change. Yet our actual experience provides nothing but change…. If we’d only relax, we’d notice that, because of change, what we love continues to appear, and what we hate never lasts forever.”

·             “You are nothing but change itself.”

·             “This desire to hold on, to somehow stop change in its tracks, is the greatest source of woe and horror and trouble in our lives.”

·             “All aspects of our experience, both physical and mental, are in constant flux and change.”

·             “Normally, a view of the world is nothing more than a set of beliefs, a way to freeze the world in our minds.”

·             “Right view is fluid and flexible, constantly in motion.”

·             “By our very attempt to grasp an explanation, we leave things out. In just such a manner, to take any frozen view is to leave out a piece of Reality.”

·             “If only we’d stop embalming life, freezing it into a view, we’d experience life as it is, and at its fullest.”


Quotes on: How to wake up

·             “First, you must truly realize that life is fleeting. Next, you must understand that you are complete, worthy, whole. Finally, you muse see that you are your own refuge, your own sanctuary, your own salvation.”

·             “You are already enlightened. All you’ve got to do is stop blocking yourself and get serious about attending to what’s going on. You are not lacking a thing. You only need to stop blocking or interpreting your vision.”

·             “You wake up right here. In fact, you can only wake up right here.”


Quotes on: Being Present

·             “Life is only lived in this moment, which is fleeting, changing constantly.”

·             “Just put your effort into being awake in this moment.”


Quotes on: Being Centred

·             “Look not for refuge to anyone beside yourself.”

·             “Nothing’s lacking; nothing’s missing.”


Quotes on: Attachment

·             “This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set things up for the future. It does mean that we would do well not to become attached to particular outcomes. We’d do better focusing our effort on being present rather than on insisting on what the future must be.”


Quotes on: Speech

·             “Whatever someone says to you about another person is skewed from the start. It comes through their filter, their likes and dislikes, their education, their ambition, and the leanings of their own mind.”

·             “Furthermore, when we speak about people based on what we think, feel, or hope rather than on what we observe and experience, we deprive them of their humanity. We have replaced what they are, in all their fluid vitality, with our own crystallized ideas, opinions and beliefs.”