Buddhism is a topic which from a young age has always arouse my curiosity. “Buddhism Plain and Simple” by Steve Hagen has proved to be the finger I needed to point me in the right direction on my journey through Buddhism. This post is a collection of my thoughts and summaries which I jotted down throughout reading the book. For those of you interested in reading, I recommend you give this book a go. For those of you not-so-bookworms who want a quick fix to Buddhism, this post highlights the key aspects of the book and the practise itself.
Without further adieu, please enjoy this trip inside my brain (and the wonderful Steve Hagen’s)
– To see.
That’s literally it. Buddhism is nothing more or less than seeing. There’s no magical spells or potions involved, no crazy sacrifices needed, no amounts of praying.. it’s just simply seeing. It’s opening your eyes to reality and SEEING. That is what enlightenment is- to see.
But aren’t we seeing already? Of course- I see the sky is blue, I see the grass is green, the sun is yellow and so on. But this isn’t truly seeing. We are seeing these things with our eyes but more often than not, not with our minds. For example, I’m in the South of France right now surrounded by so much beautiful landscape and scenery. When I’m walking around my eyes recognise my surroundings- I know there’s a tree there so I’m not going to walk that way or don’t step in that pothole, there’s a poppy – I see these things but my mind does not. At these very moments, often my mind is elsewhere. In my head I’m thinking what am I gonna eat for dinner, what will I wear to that event. My mind isn’t seeing reality. My mind is blind to the beauty of the poppies scattered before me or the iridescent colours painting the top of the clouds. My body may be in the present moment but my mind is not. Furthermore, it’s about seeing situations, people and feelings just as much as literal reality itself.
The thing about Buddhism is since it’s all about seeing, there’s no real set of rules or doctrine accompanying it because well, if there was, it would kind of defeat the purpose. In order to fully master Buddhism – the art of seeing- one must experience it themselves, one must see for themselves. Therefore, a set of doctrines and beliefs are pointless because reading a set of guidelines in a book is the opposite to seeing it in reality which is the purpose of this religion. Truthfully Buddhism may not even be considered a religion nor an “ism” at all. It is rather a tool to help guide you in life. Many prefer to refer to it as “buddha-dharma” meaning teaching of the awakened as this is a better description of what this practice stands for. The teachings of the Buddha (the awakened) are not to be taken word for word but rather to be used as an example. Buddhism is simply a guide to push you in the right direction. As Hagen refers to it in his book, think of Buddhism as a life raft. The purpose of the life raft is to get you from one shore to the next but once you reach your destination it is no longer useful. The problem arises when people become attached to this raft and reluctant to let it go. The important thing to recognise is no matter how nice the raft was, it now serves no purpose. You are now on land, a raft is unnecessary, to hold onto it would simply hinder the rest of your journey on land. This same principle applies to buddhism. Buddhist teachings and words can help bring you closer to a place of seeing but they cannot see for you. Their purpose is to teach you how to see, not to see for you. You must do that for yourself.
We cannot hold Truth with words. We can only see it, experience it, for ourselves.
Since Buddhism is about seeing, it essentially is all about Reality. This first truth refers to the simple fact the to live is to suffer. Humanity inevitably entails suffering.
An interesting yet obvious point about humanism which Hagen makes in this book is that all human dissatisfaction stems from a desire to change reality. “I wish I’d nicer clothes” .. “Why can’t I travel there” .. “Why are so many people being killed”.. Believe me I’ve tested this theory, every single dissatisfaction I can come up with is in some way linked to a desire to alter reality. This concept is the first of the four truths, entitled duhka (doo-ka). A common mistake people make is considering duhka as a term for dissatisfaction, opposing the word suhka which means satisfaction in Sanskrit. Although this is a good guess, it’s not entirely accurate as duhka can refer to elements of pleasure as well as dissatisfaction. Duhka actually comes from a Sanskrit word that refers to a wheel out of kilter. If you’re anything like me you’re on your way to google what the f*ck that means but hold up, let me save you the bother. A wheel out of kilter refers to a wheel, on a truck for example, out of rhythm with the other wheels. The first truth of the buddha-dharma likens human life to this out-of-kilter wheel. Although a wheel out of rhythm is, in the bigger picture, a small issue, it’s daily inconvenience can consume you and be built up into something bigger. This is what it means to be human. We internalise this often minor inconvenience and allow it to affect our overall feelings. We allow it to make us unhappy.
So how do we deal with it? The first crucial part is to see the problem for what it is. You need to look at reality and see it for how it truly is rather than what you want it to be.
There are 3 types of duhka:
1). Pain- Physical and Mental
The first thing to acknowledge is that no matter how much you learn you will never entirely be able to avoid pain. It is part of the human experience- you cannot cheat it.
As with all elements of buddhism the first step to enlightenment is to see reality. Whether it’s physical pain of a tooth ache or mental pain of a break up, you need to acknowledge the pain. You need to see the pain for what it truly is before you can assess a means of dealing with it.
Change is inevitable. The only constant in life is change. Unfortunately many people are in denial of this. People cling to things praying they won’t change when inevitably they have to. We magnify this problem by longing for a desired outcome, trying to change or manipulate reality. In the words of Hagen “we attempt this externally through force, control and manipulation. And we attempt it internally as well by conceptualising the world”. Often people do succeed in maintaining a constancy in life but this relief is only temporary. Soon this moment will change and the uncomfortable feeling of change will return.
This dissatisfaction with change that drives us to try and somehow change our faith is nothing more than humanities attempt at escaping reality. Our way out of this trap is simply through seeing.
Hagen warned that this is the hardest form of duhka to comprehend and I must say I agree with this. The art of being a human means that not only do we live but we also die. This principle applies to everyone. We are all aware that death is inevitable yet we still fear it. Furthermore than death there are so many questions surrounding life itself like why are we here? Who put us here? When did the world begin? When will it end? Although all this questions are valid, they’re also unanswerable. Not one person- no scientist, priest, monk.. nobody can tell us the answers. So then why do we bother troubling ourselves with such questions?
Just simply see the world for what it is. See that there is no answers and accept it for what it is instead of uselessly searching for answers that can ultimately never be found.
The Arising of Duhka
This is the second truth of the buddha which refers to the arising of duhka within us- a thirst or desire within us for a particular outcome. Firstly there is sensual desire which contrary to popular belief, not only refers to physical desires such as comfort, food etc, we also have mental desires such as stimulating conversations and emotional needs. Then comes our thirst for existence– our desire to last forever. On the other hand the third is quite the opposite- a thirst for non existence, a desire to escape the pains and troubles of the world once and for all.
An interesting point Hagen referred to is how our sensual desires as humans are seemingly never ending. And with desire comes duhka. He said: “Consider how, even in getting the wonderful things we long for, we tend to live in want of something more”. This has stuck with me because it’s entirely true. We are never satisfied. Once we have the best thing, our desire switches to the next best thing. The cycle never ends so we are constantly in a state of wanting more. If you take a minute to reflect on your life and all the different desires you’ve had over the years, this theory makes perfect sense. I can’t think of a time where there’s never been anything on my mind that I have been pining for. That’s kind of bizarre to think about- in all nearly 20 years of my life I can’t think of one time where I’ve been totally content in my life and not seeking more.
It also arose my interest, the way in which Hagen referred to the solution to this as simply seeing. That’s probably the wrong way to phrase it as it’s not a solution- the problem still exists but it is a way of relieving the duhka it places on you.
“Dont squelch your desire or try to stop it. You’ll only feed and intensify it. The point is not to kill the desire. The point is to see”.
The inclination of mind is a topic I am still coming to grips with. This refers to how the human state leans in certain directions depending on what we want. We define what it is we want and don’t want as if it’s separate from us. This concept of separation puzzles me. Are these desires separate from us? Originally I would have thought so. I mean for example, if I desire a car then obviously the car is not a part of me so then doesn’t that mean we are two separate entities: the car and me? Or is the buddha referring to me and the concept of desire rather than the desired object itself? The desire is a part of me and my mind hence we are one.
Intention is also linked to duhka in another interesting form. Hagen refers to an incident where he and his friend were broken into whilst camping but all that was taken was a packet of cookies. Originally on discovering his damaged car Hagen was angry and disappointed that someone would have needlessly damaged it. But later on finding the packet of cookies in forestry, it all began to add up- it had been a raccoon and suddenly Hagen no longer felt angry or disappointed but rather laughed about it. The point is what makes the fact it was a raccoon change his emotions than if it were a person? The damage is still the same amount, it’s the exact same situation but different effect on emotions, why is that? It’s literally nothing more than intention.
The bit that’s bothering me is that a buddha is said to not act with intent. That is to say they neither act for good nor bad, they simply act.
The Ceasing of Duhka
This is the third truth of the buddha-dharma which goes hand in hand with the previous one. This refers to the power of duhka not only arising but also ceasing to exist. Quite simply this step states that we can, in fact, overcome this suffering.
The trick is to simply accept life for how it is- to see. I know how irritating it is repeatedly hearing the words: to see, I felt the same way reading this book but really listen to the words, really see, really look and listen around you because that is the trick.
It is the institution of desires causing us this duhka not the desire itself. For example if you’re craving a pizza, it’s not the pizza causing you this discomfort, its your mental state telling you you’re craving it. A lot of people think the solution to ending your desires is to tell yourself the opposite ie. if you want pizza, tell yourself you don’t. However this is totally counter-active to your desired result. You’re just adding fuel to the fire, you’re adding to your desires. Not only are you desiring a pizza but you’re now desiring to not desire it. The easiest and most effective solution is to simply observe your hunger for pizza. Accept that this desire is there, don’t try to extinguish it, just allow it.
This won’t make a pizza magically appear in front of you but remember the problem isn’t the pizza, the cause of your suffering is your helpless desire for pizza.
I know how crazy this sounds of a solution like if it was as simple as just seeing the problem then how come more people haven’t figured this out? Honestly I don’t know the answer to that, quite frankly I’ve no idea how this trick even works but the point is it does. I’ve tried it and it’s true, by seeing your problems for what they are and nothing more or less, it brings a sort of relief to you. For example, without giving away too much, in my own life I have been in situations where I’ve found myself agonising over reality not living up to my wishes. I would spend hours reliving past events in my head trying to figure out where things went wrong and torturing myself imagining how things could have been. This suffering, this “duhka” I was experiencing wasn’t as a result of my immediate situation but rather because of all my own conceptions surrounding it. I was suffering because I was refusing to accept reality for what it is. Once you eliminate these “shoulda, coulda, woulda” notions a weight is lifted off your shoulders. It’s hard to put into words the sensation it brings about within you but one word that comes to mind is peace. This is all very conceptual- it’s hard to understand fully what I am talking about without having experienced it, as there are no amount of words to express feelings. This is another thing I have learned from reading this book: We cannot hold Truth with words. We can only see it, experience it, for ourselves. Words are just words, nothing more. They’re letters grouped together on a page or noises rolled off someone’s tongue. Think about different emotions we all feel- happiness, sadness, anger, joy- describe these emotions in words to me. You’re probably inclined to describe happiness as sunshine, a fuzzy feeling in your stomach etc but are these really pinpointing the exact feeling happiness brings you? These are just words describing a feeling, they are not the same as feeling. No amount of words can perfectly describe an emotion, the only way to know is to feel. The point in telling you this is that the only way to truly understand the freedom of accepting reality is through experience. No amount of words or examples will help you see this. The only way is through experience so take my word, try letting go of these shoulda, coulda, woulda thoughts and just see reality for what it is. That’s all there is to it. Just see. Simply observe the situation and how it makes you feel and cap it at that, don’t let your mind wander afar just see it for how it is and you will feel your mind at ease.
To make this process easier the Buddha came up with a so-called “path” which in actual fact is not a path neither a journey as it has no beginning nor end, nevertheless this “path” is known as The Eightfold Path. The aim of this Eightfold Path is to provide a solution to escape duhka. Although some people refer to each element of the eightfold path as a step giving the impression they’re to be done in a specific order, I want to highlight that this is not at all the case. In fact, ideally, you are to achieve all of these elements at once. For the purpose of explaining each element of the eightfold path I will number them but I would like you to bear in mind throughout reading this that the order is irrelevant.
1.) Right View
Right view is all about seeing reality as a whole.
I know that sentence probably means nothing to you, it meant nothing to me either- there’s gonna be a lot of that throughout this post but stick with it I promise it’ll all come together.
Basically the gist I gather from this right view is to “see the bigger picture”- to see reality as a whole. Now in many ways I feel this is quite contradictory of the whole concept of only seeing the reality before you, as, if you’re seeing reality as a whole you’re attention is switching to elements which exist outside that very moment therefore the reality before you is not gaining your whole attention. On the other hand it makes perfect sense, in fact, this principle verbalises thoughts I have had regarding the world. One thing I have always noticed is the way in which us humans seem to love dividing the world- not literally but rather conceptually: left and right, good and evil, wrong and right. We want everything to fit perfectly into black or white when truthfully everything is grey. There is always two sides to every story, there’s no buts about it and to deny this statement is just plain ignorance.
An interesting example Hagen gives in this book is of a puma hunting a deer. He discusses the way in which humans empathy goes out to the deer as the puma pounces on it. In an attempt to prevent what we deem a horrible act by the puma, we try to protect future deer by putting bells on the puma to alarm future deer. As a result the puma will catch less deer, starve and die. The deer population will increase, overgraze the land and eventually die too. If we had taken a moment in that initial situation to see reality as a whole aka see the bigger picture and let nature run it’s course, this situation could have been prevented.
Unfortunately, it’s not too often we do this. Instead we label people as deer and puma’s, good and bad and so on, failing to see both sides of the story. Realistically both are needed to fit together to create this seamless Whole known as Reality. The reason we fail to acknowledge this grey area is because there is comfort in knowing. As humans we long for security and are under the allusion that we can gain this through “knowing” by boxing everything off in categories. I must admit there is a sense of security in knowing this is wrong and this is right, that’s this and this is that. it’s all very simple and accurate, no room for error, it makes sense and what makes sense brings comfort. It eliminates that fear of the unknown. However, this isn’t reality. It’s a false sense of security. In reality things are constantly fluid, no one rule can cover all situations. That is why buddhism is based around seeing- seeing the present moment. Right View, therefore, refers to the ability to assess each moment as separate from the last. You must be able to see the moment for what it is without being influenced by other factors.
2.) Right Intention
Right intention is like no intention at all. Crazy talk- I know.
Let me break it down for you. This aspect of the eightfold path is all about the mind leaning. Picture three roads ahead of you- one is straight, one leans to the left and one to the right. As we previously established duhka is inevitable for human beings and arises from a desire to recreate reality. Let’s take a brand new car for example. When you really want the car your mind is leaning to the right, when you try to change your mindset to “I don’t want the car” your mind leans to the left. This proves theres no way to extinguish the desire without adding fuel to the fire! The ideal state is to neither lean left nor right but rather stay straight and the way to do this is by doing nothing! Just attend to each moment as they come, keep your energy and attention focused on the present and your mind will straighten up naturally.
“You cannot make your mind not lean- at least, not directly. But when you observe whats actually taking place from moment to moment, the mind, of its own accord straightens up”
3.) Right Speech
In Hagens book he puts the question to us: “What is the point of right speech? It is to remind ourselves to constantly bring ourselves back to this moment- not only for ourselves, but for others as well. It’s to do whatever leads us out of confusion and bondage. It’s to see what’s really going on”.
Basically right speech refers to the time-old saying “think before you speak”. We’ve all heard this saying but have we ever thought about what it really means? I think many us couple this phrase up with the other one “if you’ve nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all”, thinking it’s a case of naughty versus nice. But what if I was tell you right speech has as little to do with good and evil as it does up and down? Considering we’re on the 3rd step now you can nearly guess what’s coming- Right speech is all about seeing. It’s about directly seeing truth in all its dimensions and then speaking it.
The first thing to establish about right speech is THERE ARE NO RULES. Since Truth depends on actual experience and foreseeing future events is impossible (unless you’re a psychic), then it is useless abiding by predetermined rules. How can a rule set 200 years ago apply to a situation that’s about to take place tomorrow? Every situation, every moment is different from the last so one rule simply cannot fit all .. you must assess each situation as it comes and decide based on the moment.
Right speech works closely with right intention- to what/ who’s intent are we speaking in line with? Remember the ideal state of Right intention is to have no intention at all, to be free of a leaning mind- this same principle applies to Right Speech. When we are speaking we must aim to speak and hear the wholesome reality before us (no leaning!!). For example if John tells you something about Mary. What did you just hear as a listener? Remember to see. We have to pay attention to our actual circumstances- the situation we’re actually in. And what we’ve been presented with is John, not Mary. All we know about Mary is what we have heard whereas we have seen John, therefore all we can decide on is John because that is what we have seen for ourself.
“Right speech always involves right listening- which means observing things as they are, rather than accepting some prepackaged, easy-to-swallow story”.
Observe your mind, heart and situation before speaking.
4.) Right Action
In short, right action is action based on each and every moment. It’s about seeing the whole- the consequences and repercussions, and then deciding whether or not to act. Think of it this way- we’ve all desired things we can’t afford. So why is it we don’t just steal these items? Yes morality comes into it- the concept of good vs bad, the fear of being caught- but more so what stops is the consequences we know we will face. We don’t steal because we see the situation in all it’s entirety- we see the deed and pre-empt the consequences and then choose not to act.
This is the essence of right action- It is quite simply to act out of seeing.
5.) Right Livelihood
Right livelihood involves earning your living in a manner that does not bring harm to yourself or others. Everyone is responsible for their own lives and actions therefore it is crucial to examine your own livelihood and see if you’re acting in a way that is harmful. If so maybe consider leaving that profession or finding a new job. If the issue lies within your social life maybe consider regrouping. Whatever the problem may be, try and re-aline your life to promote the right livelihood.
6.) Right Effort
Similarly to right intention, right effort basically means no effort. This is in consecution with right view. That is to say, when you actually see that putting your hand in a flame is painful, you don’t need to strain yourself from doing it.
This principle can be applied to all aspects of life once you learn where and when you should apply effort and when effort it s waste of time. We must first see what we can control and what we can’t.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”- this maxim which Hagen uses in the book, perfectly sums up the concept of right effort. The outcome we are hoping for is for the horse to drink, however we have absolutely no power in another’s actions hence our effort is ultimately futile. It is because of this we become frustrated because it’s literally not in our power to accomplish the task we have set out for ourselves.
We must put our effort towards things in our reach. We must see reality as it is and then decide where our effort is best put.
7.) Right Mindfulness
The purpose of right mindfulness is to neatly wrap up and apply all other 6 aspects of the eightfold path. Mindfulness is self explanatory- it’s all about being mindful of the present moment- of your feelings, surroundings and all other contributory factors to this moment.
A quote that stuck with me is “if its a gray day inside, then its a gray day outside as well”. My interpretation of this is that how we see the world heavily relies on our mindset. If we are sad on the inside, then automatically everything we see on the outside world will be viewed through sad eyes. Mindfulness is about observing our minds in order to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.
8.) Right Meditation
Right meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand. Through meditation we can learn how to experience each moment wholly and mindfully. The aim is to learn how to sit like a mountain. Though thoughts will arise, they are merely clouds passing by the mountain. The mountain need not be perturbed by clouds. The clouds pass on, the mountain continues to sit- observing all, grasping nothing.
A big question which has come to mind through my research into buddhism is the lifelong question of whether or not there is a self and if so: who and what is it? This question first entered my mind on reading the book entitled ‘Siddhartha’, which describes the journey and thought process of the first Buddha, and never quite left since.
Okay now, take a breath, open your mind and step into the zone- this is gonna require a lot of thinking. Who and what is this “self” we refer to? We all do it- myself, yourself, themselves.. but who is the self? Straight away your instinctive response is, me- myself is me, I am myself. But then who is I and me?
This is a powerful extract from Hagen’s book which describes this dilemma far better than I can:
“If we look up the word self in the dictionary, we find that it’s generally defined as “not other”. What is “other” then? “Not self”? This doesn’t get us anywhere.
We can see that the term “self” refers to the existence of a supposed entity that doesn’t change. When you say “When I was six years old, I was in first in first grade”, the “I” refers to something that must have been the same, then what in the world does “I” refer to? And if the entity is the same, what’s the same about it? It’s appearance? It’s memory? The cells that make up the body? All of these things have drastically changed over the years, and continue to change now. To assume the existence of a self, an “I” is to assume the existence of something that has not changed, that has remained itself through all these intervening years. And if the thing in question- the “I” has changed, in what manner can it still be itself?” (p126)
I know right? Crazy stuff. So then what’s the point of knowing this besides scaring the fxck outta you making you question your existence? Well firstly save the existential crisis meltdown, nothing has literally changed between now and the moments before you knew this, all that is different is now you are aware of this fact of self. However interesting that may be, that’s not the point. The point is NOTHING is the same. Nothing is constant except for change- not me, the rocks, the oceans- nothing. This is why it is so important to see, why truth can only be found from opening your eyes to every single moment and living in the now.
To conclude, Buddha-dharma is all about seeing- not about teachings, concepts, or anything premeditated or thought- simply just seeing the given moment and making all further actions based off of it. It is just to see. It is about the now.
This has greatly helped me to put perspective on my life and decisions. I hope you take this knowledge and incorporate it into your life, free of the hardships attached to duhka.
Live now, live free.
Link to the book below: