A read through of Buddhism Plain and Simple

I have been pursueing meditation for approximately two years at this point, though the road has been fairly rocky. Variously, my streaks have gone to around 20 days without interuption. I have never been able to make it a real part of my life and I would like to change this fact.

Recently I have been on one of these streaks, with currently 16 days in a row of 20 and 30 minute daily and bi-daily (twice a day) meditation sessions. I think that this time might be different, and I have been prompted by the different so-called “insight thoughts” while meditating to look further into the surrounding ideology – surely meditation is not simply a tool for over-worked millenials to be more productive.

This is the backdrop to this read through of Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen; I found the book on reddit and it seemed to be the easiest to digest for a complete novice. The following is my main take aways from the read-through and the lessons that I personally learned.

Summary and Major Take-aways

The book was divided into three sections with appendices, and I shall structure my summary similarly.

The Perennial Problem

Before I say anything else, I must add that Steve’s use of wonderfully calm Lily pad drawings were actually quite neat, and looked like pencil drawings on the Kindle. I don’t usually notice these things, but it was quite a nice touch.

Hagen opens by presenting a statement of why we – as a culture and as individuals – are so utterly dissatisfied with day-to-day life. Equating it to sitting a banquet, starving, and not knowing that stomach pangs mean hunger so we cannot eat. Therefore, he says, the solution is to see what we need to do to fix our problems – and by doing so, fixing them. This is a tad contradictory to the rest of the book, but I shall leave this critisism to later. Seeing is a huge topic in the book, and though it is a relatively common word, appears 322 times in only 170 pages of text. He presents several stories of people interacting with the Buddha and failing to see what their real problem is. For example, a summarized version of one of the more poignant stories:

A man came to the Buddha, knowing he was a great teacher, and presented him with his problems. His crops failed, his wife was uninteresting, and his kids were not respectful enough. The Buddha responded that he could not help the man, as everyone had 83 problems. The man was furious and asked what good the Buddha’s teachings were, and the Buddha said that they were to address the 84th problem – that the man wanted to not have any problems.

We try to deal with our problems by making them vanish but this is denying reality – we shall always have issues hanging over our heads. This leads Hagen into the major themes of this section: the four truths which characterize Buddhism (or Buddha-dharma, meaning the truth as purported by Buddha).

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the Origin of suffering
  3. The truth of the Cessation of Suffering
  4. The truth of the Path of the Cessation of Suffering.

The truths are all pretty simple – with the exeption of the fourth – and build on each other. The fourth assumes the third, the third assumes the second, and so on.

The first truth: I really enjoyed Hagen’s description of suffering as duhkha, which more accurately translated becomes “a wheel out of kilter”, as in a wheel trying to do what it meant to do but failing. This more aptly describes what Buddhism means by suffering – things which draw us away from being present and in tune with nature.

This is really very similar to the Stoic concept of “Virtue”, which is doing the thing which accords most with nature. This is often mis-translated also as the “right” thing, and ignores the nuance that Stoicism – as well as Buddhism – do not have an inherant value system. Things just are. Doing things against nature leads to suffering in both Stoicism and Buddhism.

Hagen says that living in our own delusions and straying from seeing things as they are leads to suffering and pain, and this is the first of the Buddhist truths. There is a second form of duhkah which arises from attempting to stop change – we attempt to manipulate things over which we have no power. We attempt to define the world and always fail. This defining of the world leads us to think things are a certain way, when in truth they are always changing and any possible label placed upon them will be incorrect. This extends out to things as simple and basic as our selves and the distinctions between objects. Refusing the admit that these conceptualizations are just that – labels – is another reason for duhkah. The way to escape this? You guessed it. Seeing. The third source of Duhka is being. As long as we see ourselves as distinct beings and not – as the Buddha does – as just one part of the whole, then we are subject to death, poverty, and existential dread. The only way out of this is to see beyond our existance and to witness the whole.

The second truth: Duhkha arises from desire. One, more obious, kind of desire is sensual (desire of the senses), such as being warm and comfortable, having intelligent conversation, good food, and other comforts. Another is a desire to persist forever and never die. The third is to die. Between these three, duhkha arises and forces us off the kilter of nature.

A nice point that Hagen makes in this section is that desiring to end desire is just another form of desire. The best solution is simply to note that you are desiring something, and let it disappear on its own. Chastising yourself is simply counterproductive.