Buddhism Is Not What You Think

Steve Hagen's collection of short essays, Buddhism Is Not What You Think, is both thoughtful and thoughtless, fun and frustrating. To start with, Hagen belongs to the annoying italicization and Capitalization school of lecturing. In the Prologue he announces:

When we see a relative truth—as in "I see the book before me"—we employ the conventional use of the term "to see." The seeing of ultimate Reality, however, is quite another matter. When such objectless Awareness—seeing, knowing, etc.—is referred to in this book, the word will be italicized. This should not be mistaken for merely emphasizing those words.

Similarly, initial capital letters will be used in words that reflect the Absolute aspect of experience—i.e., Truth, Awareness, Reality, etc.

Hmmph! Not only is it off-putting and pretentious, this "Look at Me!" approach leads to silliness and fuzzy thinking. Chapter 1 ("Paradox and Confusion") almost made me toss the book aside, with its dismissive attitude toward science, philosophy, and mathematics versus what Hagen intuits as Truth and Reality. Italics and capital letters don't make a solid argument. Likewise Chapter 4 ("We've Got It All Backward") and its discussion of religion and science.

But on the other hand: in many later chapters Hagen drops the capitalics and makes excellent points, in provocative prose. He returns again and again to the interconnectedness of everything, to the need to drop the ego, to the vital importance of the present moment. He also writes well. In Chapter 24 ("Before We Say"), for instance, he begins:

Before the fact, wise people often look like fools. In contrast, experts often look like fools afterward.

His technical examples unfortunately weaken his case—he's no scientist—but once past them Hagen returns to his strong suit. As he explains:

Once we had leaders who sought the advice of wise people; today our leaders rely primarily on experts. This is understandable for two reasons: (1) experts are easier to identify and certify, and (2) wise people don't advertise themselves as such.

Nicely put, and reminiscent of John Cleese's sharp observation (cf. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind): "Sadly, most of us today believe that a computer is of more use to us than a wise person."

^z - 2010-11-06