Friday, November 19, 2010

Buddhism plain and simple

I recently finished reading a book called Buddhism plain & simple by Steve Hagen. The author is a Zen priest who teaches Buddhism.  Hagen says:

“Buddhism is not a belief system. It’s not about accepting certain tenets or believing a set of claims or principles. It’s about examining the world carefully and about testing every idea. Buddhism is about seeing” (8).

Hagen tells the story of a man who came to the Buddha complaining of his problems. The Buddha listened patiently and then said, “I can’t help you.” The man became indignant so the Buddha explained that everyone has eighty-three problems that no one could do anything about. When the man asked what good the Buddha’s teaching was, the Buddha said that his teaching might help him with the eighty-fourth problem which is that “You want to not have any problems” (17). 

The reality, Hagen insists, is that life is about problems, and Buddhism is about seeing life as it is. In fact, it is “Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us” (19). This dissatisfaction comes from within us.

The way forward, says Hagen, is to see the three truths that 1) “life is fleeting,” 2) that “you are already complete, worthy, whole” and 3) that you are your own refuge and salvation (19). Indeed, Hagen insists that “You are the final authority. Not me, not the Buddha. Not the Bible. Not the government. Not the president. Not mom or Dad. You” (22, cf. 90).

From a Christian perspective this would seem to eliminate the inconvenient truth of sin. Sin is rebellion against God. But if there is no God and I am the final authority, I cannot sin—no matter what I do. Whatever I decide is right or true is, by definition, right and true—because I am the final authority. Of course, if someone decides to rob, harm or kill me or my loved ones, they are their own final authority so whatever they decide to do is right and true also.

It should be noted that from a Christian perspective, this idea that each of us is our own final authority is practically the essence of the fallen sin nature. The essence of sin is rebellion against God which almost always manifests itself in self-centeredness rather than a God-centeredness.

But there is, says Hagen, a fourth truth. This truth is really an eight-fold path (23). The eight-fold path involves seeing what the problem is and resolving to deal with it. Once you "see," “Wise speech, action, and livelihood then follow naturally.” They “provide the foundation for a morality that actually works” (23). This morality “is not a goody-goody code of behavior” in which we are, or pretend to be, good in order to claim some future reward (23).

If the Zen master is referring to Christianity here, he demonstrates his ignorance of Christianity. St. Paul was adamant that Christianity is not about being good in order to “claim a reward as some later date.” Biblical Christianity is about seeing the reality that we have all sinned and fall short of the demands of a holy God, that there is nothing we can do to make this situation right, and that the only way out is turning in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ.

“The first of the four truths is called duhkha (doo-ka). “Duhkha is often translated ‘suffering” but it also includes dissatisfaction. Hagen likens it to a wheel that is out-of kilter. “With each turn of the wheel, each passing day, we experience pain” (25-26).

One form of duhkha involves physical and mental pain (29-30). Another form is change. Hagen insists that until we realize the inevitability of change we will “honestly believe” that by manipulation and control we can “make the world better” for everyone. This however, just creates more havoc, pain and distress, i.e. duhkah (31).

Hagen is right that sometimes efforts to make the world better backfire. Take for example the liberals who got DDT banned in Africa. That has cost literally millions of lives! But the idea that trying to make the world better always brings about havoc is pure nonsense. Try convincing most African-Americans that the world would have been a better place if William Wilberforce (a Christian) had not fought for the elimination of slavery! Try convincing most Jews that the world would have been a better place if America and Britain had not stopped Hitler!

Although Hagen insists that he is not calling for “complacency or inaction” (38) one cannot help wondering if perhaps this Buddhist view that trying to help can just make matters worse is why Buddhists have not done more to provide food, clothing, housing, education, orphanages, medicines, clinics and hospitals around the world. Ideas have consequences.

The second truth of the “Buddha-dharma” is the arising of duhkha which come from craving “to get the object of desire into our hands” (33). This takes three forms, 1) sensual desire, 2) a thirst for existence and 3) a thirst for non-existence (33).  Hagen says that “virtually all the woes of humankind stem from these three forms of craving and, therefore, our pain is self-inflicted” (34). To eliminate the pain, we need to “see” and no longer feed it (37).

Duhka is also related to intention. Hagen tells the story of a time when he was camping and woke up the next day to find that the roof of his Austin Healey Sprite convertible had been ripped. He was furious until he found that it was not done intentionally by some person, but by a raccoon. He suddenly “no longer felt any great suffering (41).

Hagen insists that there are no absolutes. There is no “unchanging ‘good’ and ‘bad.” These are just value judgments and beliefs (42). Instead, we need to act out of “Wholeness” (42). 

“Act out of Wholeness”? Hagen’s point here is interesting because elsewhere in the book he insisted that the problem with traditional morality is precisely that we can never see the whole. Our efforts at being good fail because we can never anticipate all the possible unintended consequences.

There is a story about a discussion Francis Schaeffer had with a Buddhist on this issue of absolutes. The Buddhist was apparently claiming that there were no absolutes and that suffering was all an illusion. Francis Schaeffer walked over to the stove, picked up a steaming hot pot of boiling water and held it over the shocked and frightened Buddhist’s head. The point Schaeffer made was that the Buddhist could talk until he was blue in the face about how there was no good or evil and how suffering was an illusion, but the Buddhist was apparently quite convinced that if someone were to pour boiling hot water on his head that would cause him to suffer and that would be evil!

The fact however, is that from a Buddhist perspective, Hagen is right. If there is no God, there is no one to tell anyone what constitutes good and evil. So when terrorists fly plans into buildings and kill nearly 3,000 innocent fathers and mothers, Buddhists would presumably say there is no such thing as good or bad. This is the recipe for an even more frightening world than the one we already have!

But back to the problem of desires—The solution, says Hagen, is to extinguish our sensual desires, to stop feeding the flame so it goes out (49).

But what kind of world would it be when loved ones could be raped, robbed, or murdered and we do not suffer because we no longer have any desire for their well-being? What kind of world would we have if everyone responded to oppression and injustice by extinguishing all desire to get involved and make things better? Does a religion like this truly deserve to be called one of the world’s “great religions?”

The eight aspects of the fourth truth are “right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation” (53).  Hagen insists, this does not mean right as opposed to wrong, bad or evil. That would imply dualism (and apparently dualism is “wrong”). Right is better understood as “appropriate,” as “seeing verses not seeing,” “Reality as opposed to being deluded by our own prejudices, thoughts and beliefs.” It is “Wholeness rather than fragmentation” (54).

Try as he might, however, Hagen cannot seem to explain his way out of the fact that although he insists that Buddhism is not about beliefs (4), he presents his Buddhist beliefs as "right" and all opposing beliefs as "wrong."

Although Hagen insists that there are no absolutes, no rights and wrongs; to say that these eight aspects are “right” or “appropriate” implies that that other things are “not right” or “not appropriate” or just plain wrong.  It implies that these eight “truths” are absolutes and that those who do not “see” or follow them are on the “wrong” path.  Certainly when Hagen speaks of “our own prejudices, thoughts and beliefs” he is speaking pejoratively of any prejudices, thoughts and beliefs that do not align with the “right” teaching of Buddhism.

“The first aspect of the eightfold path is right view.” This means “not being caught by a particular view” or by “by ideas, concepts, beliefs or opinions.”  Hagen insists that the view of a buddha is of how things actually are” (54).

When Hagen writes this, however, it is hard to understand how he cannot see outside of his own little Buddhist box. To say that the “right view” is to see things as they actually are, is to imply that the way atheists, or Muslims or Christians, or even Hindus who see reality differently, are wrong!  To say that “the view of a buddha is of how things actually are” really means, how a buddha believes they are in accordance with particular Buddhist “ideas, concepts, beliefs [and] opinions.”

Christians, Muslims, and non-Buddhist atheists would say that it is Buddhists who need to see reality as it really is. Although Hagen advocates relativism and denies absolutes, his “right view” is presented as an absolute. It assumes that Buddhists have the right view and others do not.

“The second aspect of the Path is right intention” also called, “right resolve, right motive, or right thought” (55). Right intention involves a passion for truth—which is code for “truth as seen by Buddhists. But, Hagen insists, “You cannot actually learn Truth from anyone.”

If, however, no one can “actually learn Truth from anyone one wonders why Hagen bothered to write the book. For Hagen, truth is “seen only through your own resolve. If you do not resolve to awaken, there is nothing a teacher can do for you” (55). So in other words, seeing the world the way Buddhists see it is not a matter of being convinced by evidence and rational arguments, it is about resolving to see the world as Buddhists see it. If you simply cannot see things that way, it is because you have not resolved to awaken to the Buddhist “truth.”

Let’s call nonsense by its name. I could propose a new religion which insists that frogs are gods and that everyone’s secret desire is to become a frog-god. You might insist that you don’t want to be a frog-god but I would insist that you really need to see reality as it is and acknowledge that deep down inside you really do want to be a frog-god but you just don’t know it because you are not enlightened. You might demand evidence for my preposterous view, but I will simply say that “there is nothing a teacher can do for you” because it is not about being convinced by evidence and rational arguments.” It is about resolving to see Reality. If you would just awaken to the Reality of frog-gods you will become enlightened and may one day—after death—become a frog-god yourself!

“Right speech is the next aspect of the eightfold path” (56). Hagen says that “The most obvious form of right speech is avoiding lying.” Other forms of right speech are “not speaking crudely” and “not speaking ill of others and refraining from gossip and idle talk” (56).

Avoid lying?  Refrain from crude speaking? Why? Who is to say I should avoid lying or refrain from gossip if I am my own final authority? Notice how Hagen writes that right speech involves avoiding these things. He deliberately will not write that these are "wrong" speech. But if right speech involves avoiding these kinds of speech, doesn’t that imply that lying, gossip, and idle talk are wrong forms of speech? Doesn’t that imply the very dualism that Hagen rejected?

Hagen goes on: “Are you using speech because you’re trying to manipulate the world and other people? Or are you speaking in order to help yourself and others wake up? (79).

Apparently, according to Hagen, if you are using speech to “manipulate the world,” that is wrong but if you are using speech to help people see the “truth” of Buddhism, that is right. By this way of thinking, I guess it was wrong for William Wilberforce to use speech to try to manipulate his government to stand against slavery. What he should have been doing is to convince his government that slave traders are not inherently evil and slaves are not inherently good. Perhaps if Wilberforce had been a good Buddhist he could have eased his own personal suffering by not feeding his personal desire to see the slaves freed.

“The forth aspect of the eightfold path is right action. This is action that proceeds from an unfettered mind, a mind not embalmed in rigid thought constructs” (56). Hagen, however, doesn’t mind adherence to rigid thought constructs like the four truths and an eightfold path. It is just non-Buddhist thought constructs that are “rigid.”

Hagen says that the basis for right action is “to refrain from all that is divisive and contentious, to do what promotes harmony and unity. In short, it’s to act out of seeing the Whole. It is to live as a failing leaf—as the steaming wind itself” (91).

Hagen seems blissfully unaware—strange for a Buddhist whose expertise is awareness—that much of this book is divisive and contentious! If there is no basis for morality, who is to say that the basis for right action should be to refrain from all that is divisive and contentious? Perhaps the basis for right action is to see what is best for me and to follow that seeing in my actions.

The fifth aspect “of the eightfold path is right livelihood” (56). This is not a list of approved occupations, but rather guidance to earning a living in “openness, insight, honesty, and harmony” (56-57). But if I am my own final authority, why should I submit to anyone’s view of what constitutes a right livelihood?

The “sixth aspect of the eightfold path, is a conscious and ongoing engagement with each moment” (57). The seventh aspect is right mindfulness which involves “not forgetting what our real problem is: duhkha” (57).  The eighth aspect is right meditation which “is collecting the mind so that it becomes focused, centered, and aware” (57).

All of these “right” attitudes, thoughts or actions implies “wrong” attitudes, thoughts or actions.” As much as Hagen wants to deny dualism, his own dualism comes through at every turn.

Apparently anticipating the objections of people like me, Hagen says that some have compared this eight-fold path with the Ten Commandments. He insists, however, that the eight-fold path does not consist of commandments at all. Hagen gives the example of Nazi’s coming to the home of those hiding Jews, demanding to know if they are hiding Jews. Hagan says that Christians would have to be honest betray the Jews (Is Hagen really unaware of how many Christians risked their lives--and yes, lied--protecting Jews from the Nazis)? Hagen says that from a Buddhist perspective they could lie because “There’s no rule in the end, but only the situation and the inclination of your own mind” (59).

If there is no rule “but only the situation and inclination of your own mind” there is no reason why you would be risking your family’s lives to hide Jews in the first place! In fact, if there is only in “situation and inclination” of one’s own mind, the one who is arresting Jews is not any more or less moral than the one hiding Jews. If the ultimate aim in Buddhism s to eliminate personal suffering, it would seem that the goal would be to eliminate all desire for Jews to live in safety and peace. Without such a desire, you would not be troubled by rumors that Jews were being slaughtered by the millions and you would certainly not put your life in danger by standing up for them.

But what kind of religion is that?

Hagen asks “What would make human existence meaningful or correct” (64). We know that money, fame, sex, learning, power or luxury will not ultimately satisfy (64).

This is actually a very good observation. The writer of Ecclesiastes taught that none of these things would satisfy and that the answer could be found only in loving God and keeping his commandments. Buddhists have a different answer: “The only thing that truly satisfies is seeing Reality—seeing what’s really going on—in ourselves, others, and the world” (65).

Unfortunately, if people are being robbed, raped, molested, or enslaved, it is hard to understand how just seeing the Reality of the situation is going to help much.

Truth and Reality, says Hagen, are self-evident (70).

Really? To many Christians the “Reality” that there is a God is self-evident. To the atheist, the “Truth” that there is no God s self-evident. Hagen’s assertion that Truth and Reality are self-evident appears to be remarkably naive.

Reality, says Hagen is not something you can conceive, but something you can see or perceive. He warns against our conceptions of reality. He says that “Whenever we conceptionalize we create contradictions (72). For example, he says we can conceive of the book we are reading as a book only because we “conceive of it as separate from other things” when in fact “it is the sun as well,” since “if not for the sun, trees would not grow to produce the pulp for paper” (72).

I guess by the same “logic” since my mother gave birth to me that means I am my mother! If my Freshman students used this kind of “logic” in an essay, they would fail the essay.

Hagen writes that you assume that there is something “out there” and you want it, or don’t want it, or like it or try to get it or try to avoid it, etc. This, says Hagen, is the leaning of the mind. The mind does not just lean toward things like sex and money— even wanting enlightenment is leaning. If you determine not to allow your mind to lean anymore, your mind is leaning. The more you try to stop leaning the more you are leaning. “You cannot make your mind not lean—at least, not directly. But when you observe what actually takes place from moment to moment, the mind, of its own accord, straightens up” (75-76).

The whole point seems to be to come to a place where your mind is no longer leaning, no longer wanting. But why should we want to come to a place where we are no longer wanting? The answer appears to be that it will break the chain of confusion and suffering.

This sounds like a very self-centered way of looking at the world. It sounds like the whole duty of man to avoid pain and suffering. And yet, many people find great fulfillment precisely in giving themselves in love and service to others. For example, loving and caring about my wife, children, grandchildren can be extraordinarily painful at times. And yet many of us can’t imagine a life in which our mind is apparently so cold, so calloused and so self-centered that it does not “lean” or want, or desire (and therefore actively seek) what is best for our loved ones or our neighbors!

When talking about the self, Hagen (and the Buddha) used the analogy of a cork floating down a constantly moving and changing stream—everything changes except the cork.

“While we generally admit to changes in our body, our mind, our thoughts, our feelings, our understandings, and our beliefs, we still believe, ‘I myself don’t change. I’m still me. I’m an unchanging cork in an ever-changing stream” (128). Hagen writes, “Our belief in non-existence arises only as a result of holding the notion of existence in the first place” (135).

So we shouldn’t believe in existence? And Hagen calls this seeing reality it is?

“The fact is,” Hagen insists, “that there are no corks in the stream. There is only stream” (128). If we’d only relax, we’d notice that there’s no abiding self to be either pleased or damaged. This is what we have to see—that all is flux and movement and flow. It’s because we believe there’s some static being in the midst of all this—an imagined permanence we call ‘I’—that we suffer dukha” (129). 

If there is no “I”, then who is it that is supposed to “see” in order to be enlightened?

As an example, Hagen points out that “the book you’re holding now doesn’t appear at all like the closed book you picked up a while ago to read.” It has changed. In fact, the “it” is “only a mental construction” (131).  Science teaches us that “this book’ is a collection of rapidly moving molecules” that are in constant flux. The book is only a mental construction (132). “When buddhas look at the world, they don’t see solidity. They don’t see selves. They see only flux. This is not to say that the awakened no longer see forms like the rest of us. They do. But they see forms—or rather, ‘formness’—as illusory” (145).

Hagan says that “Relative truths are why we fight wars, why we fear people who aren’t like us, and why we debate the abortion question but come no closer to a resolution of it. Ultimate Truth, on the other hand, is direct perception. And what is directly perceived (as opposed to conceived) is that no separate, individualized things exist as such (143).

But throughout history billions and billions of people look at the world and perceive that there is something out there besides themselves. Buddhists want to convince us that our perceptions are all wrong—they are really just conceptions or even deceptions. The Reality, says the Buddhist is that there is “nothing to be experienced by this seamless, thoroughgoing relativity and flux” (143).

Hagen’s Buddhism reminds me of the story about the emperor’s new clothes in which a tailor managed to convince the kingdom that the emperor had beautiful new clothes which only the truly wise could see. No one wanted to appear unwise so everyone pretended to see the clothes—everyone except a child who exclaimed, the emperor is naked! Suddenly everyone realized they had been duped. Similarly, Buddhists want to convince the world that what we all experience as reality—the world of books and things and suffering—is not real at all. They are all just constantly changing, flowing illusions. Buddhists want us to become enlightened and “see” Reality for what it is—just like the tailor in the story about the emperor’s new clothes wanted people to “see” the “reality” of the beautiful clothes. Just like the tailor's “reality” of the emperors beautiful clothes, it is the Buddhist “Reality” that is the illusion!

Hagen wrote that Buddhism is about “examining the world carefully and about testing every idea” (9). For over 50 years I have examined the world carefully. I have also tested Hagen’s Buddhist ideas and perceive them to be nonsense. I wonder if that makes me a Buddhist.


Afterthoughts: One of the nice things about blogs, as opposed to print articles, is that blogs can be updated. After further reflection I thought I should balance my negative assessment above with a positive observation which is that Buddhism as a whole seems to be one of the world's genuinely peaceful religions.

Although there are relatively isolated cases in which Buddhists (or professing Buddhists) have persecuted Christians (for example, see here, and here, and here and here), for the most part Buddhists seem to be peaceful. They are not violently trying to bring the world into submission to their religion, and for this, we can be grateful.

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