Although I'm kind of fascinated by religion, it's never really worked for me. I'm too practical and honest with myself to pretend I believe the stories--even in a metaphorical way. I can see the community and support that can come from church, but I also see the hypocrisy and judgment that often comes along with it and it turns me off. But I've never looked into Buddhism before. I don't remember what first prodded my interest, but it seemed like a philosophy that would fit better with my personality. So, I picked up Buddhism Plain & Simple (1997) by Steve Hagen after reading some reviews on Amazon. And now I am intrigued and confused.
The introduction sucked me in, stating that a lot of us feel that we are intelligent creatures living in a meaningless world; that we try to gain security through money, power, education etc., but that real security is impossible. However, Hagen states that it's our minds that are causing all this fear and uncertainty, and we can change that through enlightenment. He goes on to say that Buddhism is not about making up stories as explanations, but it's about people finding the Truth for themselves. I appreciated that Buddhism didn't include another creation myth, and I liked the idea of people finding things out for themselves rather than being told how and what to think.
But then I got to the picture on page 28. Hagen was saying that we know Truth when we see it. That it's like this picture (see obscure black and white photo). Just look at it for a bit and once you know, you'll be sure. And it's that feeling you're looking for. Well, I stared at the picture for awhile and all I got was frustrated. Then I went to the back of the book to get the hint--where the author tells you what it is--and I still couldn't see it. I had to go on the internet and find someone who had actually described where the various parts were in the photo. And then I finally saw it. An inauspicious beginning in my study of Buddhism, to be sure.
I was already a little frustrated with Hagen after that picture, and it continued as I read. He seemed very vague, discussing Truth and seeing, but not really explaining how or why or what. Every time I saw that italicized see, I'd lose a little more understanding. Now don't get me wrong, on the whole, there were some fascinating insights and thoughts about not attaching yourself to transient things (which is everything), not labeling yourself or others, and not preoccupying yourself with want. But now that I've read the whole book, I still do not feel like I have a good understanding.
I have a hard time understanding a world without want and without people striving for something more. Isn't that how we've gotten some of the best human accomplishments? Olympic athletes? Master musicians? Where does passion fit into Buddhism? What about poetry? I think of poetry as being all about passion and suffering. I guess it's often true that people who push themselves to the limit (like athletes) are often not happy, using athletic success to fulfill something that's missing in their life. I also didn't really understand Hagen's take on suffering and death. If I have to do too much mental wrangling for me to accept it, it's not going to work for me. I understand the idea that life is always changing and we're going to suffer and be happy whether we try to keep unhappiness at bay or not. In fact, most of our stress and unhappiness comes when we try to manipulate or control our lives to keep the bad things at bay. I guess that makes sense, but you're still going to feel pain when someone you loves dies, or if you're horribly injured in an accident. Accepting it doesn't make it not matter.
Anyway, I'm intrigued enough to do some follow-up reading as well as follow some of Hagen's suggestions. Fortunately, another Cannonballer just read Buddha's Brain, which I'm hoping will be more up my alley.