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Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan – A Summary

This post is simply a summary of (aspects of) Steve Hagen’s ‘Buddhism Plain and Simple’

This book aims to present The Buddha’s teaching in an accessible and uncluttered way. To my mind it succeeds, and here’s my summary.

Introduction (pp1-5)

As the millennium draws to a close we have lost faith with our storybook versions of the world. The advances of science mean we see the universe as vast, beyond comprehension and perhaps meaningless. We tend to cope with this in two ways (two wretched extremes) – we either blind ourselves to our predicament by escaping via such things as drugs/ careers/ faith, in which case we tend to think ‘if only I had enough of that particular thing then I’d be happy’, or we face the woeful prospect of a meaningless (anomic) existence, in which case nothing really matters.

There is a way to move beyond this ignorance, pessimism and confusion, and to experience rather than comprehend reality as a whole. This experience is direct perception itself, seeing before the signs appear, before ideas sprout, before falling into thought. This experience is called Enlightenment and it is nothing more or less than seeing things as they are rather than as we wish or believe them to be.

The Journey into Now (pp 6-11)

2500 years ago a man named Gautama awakened from the crippling ignorance that kept him from knowing what was actually going on and became known as the Buddha,  and when asked to sum up his teachings in a single word the Buddha said ‘awareness’ – not of anything in particular, just awareness of what is going on.

This book leaves behind the cultural trappings that have enveloped Buddhist teachings in the last 2500 years and returns to the Buddha’s thought plain and simple.

Hagan now spends two pages outlining Gautama’s personal journey from prince to ascetic to his two month vigil which lead to his awakening into Enlightenment. This story provides a lesson in some of the core principles Buddhism:

1. Ultimately, The Buddha realised Enlightenment through his own efforts – and thus it is down to each individual to ‘walk the path’. Do not put blind faith in other people’s teachings, the point is to see (know) for yourself that something is wholesome or unwholesome.

2. Buddhism is the process of an open spirit of enquiry. It is about examining every aspect of life carefully, it is about seeing. It is about not being afraid to examine anything, (including the Buddha’s own teachings and our own agendas). We cannot approach Buddhism or begin any real enquiry into truth with any assumptions or belief whatsoever.

3. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than being awake, pure awareness. The Buddha Dharma has no creation story, no beginning. It does not try to or ask you to explain anything, truth is simply to be seen, that is all. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than awareness. –

Hagan now outlines the well-known raft analogy – In this quest for liberation, The Buddha’s teachings are but a raft – useful for getting you across to the other shore, but afterwards useless. The trouble is we tend to fall in love with the raft and we must remember that even The Buddha’s words are not truth, they merely help us get to the other side, and even these must be abandoned in the end. –

Finally, Hagan illustrates the Buddhist journey through an analogy which asks us to imagine that we have just been shot by an arrow: Being shot with the arrow is the human condition (suffering), and Buddhism involves us in attending to the arrow, the cause of our suffering, which is necessarily painful, but the only way to eliminate our suffering.   In contrast, says Hagan, what we actually do in life, is to leave the arrow in, and instead of confronting the arrow directly, we skirt around the issue by asking silly questions about who shot it, and from what kind of bow. (I’m guessing this is a critique of mainly intellectualism, but also, of the human tendancy to look for causes to our problems outside of our selves.)

Shortly after his awakening, The Buddha was asked by a Brahman named Dona, who had noticed the Buddha’s unsurpassed tranquillity, whether he was a God, to which The Buddha replied ‘no, I am awake’.


Chapter One – The Human Situation (pp15-24)

Hagan starts the chapter with a ‘banquet analogy’ – the human condition is like starving people sitting at a banquet but not eating because they fail to realise that the release from their hunger is right in front of them.

Most of us sense there is something amiss with our lives but don’t have any idea what to do about this. We long for something, we feel pain and loss etc. but we don’t realise that everything we need to resolve this suffering is right here before us.

The truth is that all of the misery we bring to ourself and others is of our own doing. It stems from our own ignorance our own inability to see things as they really are.

Buddhism does not offer a life free of problems – as outlined in the The 84th problem story:

A man came to the Buddha and explained all of his many problems. The Buddha told the man that everyone has problems, 83 problems to be exact, and that he could not help him to solve any of them, but he could help him with the 84th problem… the fact that he wanted to have no problems.

We think we need to exterminate our problems – eradicate them – but the simple truth is problems will always be with us, dissatisfaction will always be with us – weeds will grow though we hate them and flowers will fall though we love them – we need to accept this and not live our lives as if we can change this.

  • The first truth of the buddha-dharma is that human life is characterised by dissatisfaction and we need to accept this.
  • The second truth is that this dissatisfaction arises within us.
  • The third truth is that we can realise the origins of this dissatisfaction and put an end to it
  • The fourth truth is the way to end this suffering – the noble eightfold path – the way to Nirvana, or freedom of mind.

In Buddhism our journey is into here and now, but how do we do this?

In order to experience the answer to this questions there needs to be three realisations –

  1. That life is truly fleeting
  2. That you are already complete or whole
  3. That you are your own refuge, your own salvation.

Pick up a flower – it is beautiful and yet it dies. How can we deal with this, do we substitute a plastic rose? No – we want the real rose precisely because it is fleeting, precious.

Thus it is with human life – each one of us is a living thing that dies. Your body and mind are always changing. You are nothing but change itself.

Examine the body and mind – everything about it is fleeting. Every aspect of our experience is also fleeting – our wants, needs, relationships are all subject to death.

Vitality consists of this birth and death. Our lives are vibrant because of change and yet we often want to keep things the same – and it is this (clinging) that is the greatest source of woe in our lives.

You are already in reality whether you see it or not… you are already enlightened – all you have to do is attend to the moment to realise this – and stop blocking your interpretation of the moment.

In the Buddha’s final talk he said that each of you must be a light unto yourselves. No one else is the final authority – this means you have the power to wake up in the here and now – you are responsible for finding your own way.

In other words we are already prepared for anything that might come along. All we need to do is to be aware in this moment – we are already supported and sustained within this moment – there is nothing out there to get – we just need to realise this! Everything in this moment is whole, complete.

Seeing this truth is the Buddha’s noble eightfold path – it is seeing what our problem is and then resolving to do something about it. All Aspects of the path are about this moment! Morality is about this moment and meditation is about this moment.

You are already right where you need to be to start out on this path into the moment.

Chapter Two – A wheel out of kilter (pp 25 – 32)

Duhkha is the first of the four noble truths – often described as suffering but this is not a good description because duhkha also incorporates pleasure.

In sanskrit duhkha is often paired with sukha which means satisfactory, but unsatisfactoriness doesn’t quite hit the mark as a translation either.

Duhkha actually comes from a word meaning a wheel out of kilter – imagine this – if a potter’s wheel is out of kilter we make unnecessary hardship for ourselves every time we wish to make a pot. Or imagine riding on a cart with a dodgy wheel – the bumps as we go along becoming increasingly irritating.

Ordinary human life is like this – something basic and important isn’t right and with each turn of the wheel each passing day this bothers us and causes us pain.

Of course there are moments of pleasure but at the end of the day this wheel out of kilter will always. Bring us back to our pain.

What can we do about this? We can begin by seeing clearly what the nature of the problem is.

(P26) We’ve all heard the expression ‘seeing is believing’ but the fact is, seeing and believing are opposites – belief is at best informed conjecture about reality but seeing is direct, unadulterated experience – it is the direct perception of reality itself.

Once you see reality, belief becomes unnecessary. Indeed belief can stand in the way of clear, direct perception.

Truth and reality are there for you to see, only independent of you putting labels on it. We can only have truth by seeing it, not naming it or holding onto it.

Truth or reality is not something vague or mysterious. You don’t have to go to someone else to find it, and you won’t find it in a book. Truth comes through seeing and it requires no further verification.

Hagan now uses the example of an unclear picture (on p28) which looks like a man lying down, but it’s not clear – attached to this is some confusion, or uncertainty about what the picture is – this is how most of us go through life – he now asks us to look again at the picture which is actually a cow – he says that once we realise this we have an ‘aha’ moment of clarity – which is like waking up (personally the picture still doesn’t look like a cow to me, but I get the point he’s making – who cares what the picture looks like anyway!).

Seeing is absolute clarity, whereas simply having an idea involves some confusion. Enlightenment is just a profound waking up, profound realisation about the here and now!

Seeing means waking up, having a profound ‘aha’ moment, it is about the here and now. When you clearly see the situation you are in, things clear up. This waking up is called Enlightenment and it is available to everyone in every moment without exception.

Personally I find D.T Suzuki’s account of the nature of Enlightenment clearer than this. See Zen for Beginners by D.T. Suzuki for more details. (NB this other book is not as easy going as this one).

(P29) As long as we remain in our state of confusion, our minds are characterised by Dukha. In fact there are three kinds of Dukha –

  1. Straightforward pain, both physical and mental. Pain is a fact of life, the only way we can deal with it is to face it squarely.
  2. The second form of Dukkha is change. Wherever we look everything is characterised by change and if we exist in a state of confusion change is experienced as dissatisfaction. We deal with change by longing to keep things the same or by conceptualising – trying to pin things down to give things meaning. Basically any attempt to create something as I want it to be is a manifestation of Dukkha (the way out of this is simply to see reality).
  3. The third form of Dukkha is harder to see than the other two, it is the Dukkha of being. As long as you see yourself as a distinct being then you must die and this realisation carries with it Dukkha. This is also to be found in the simple realisation that I do not know the answers to some of the most basic questions such as ‘what is the purpose of life’, for example.

We cannot ourselves find answers to these questions, but we can through direct experience know the answers and thus end our suffering.

Chapter Three (pp33 – 43) Coming

The second truth of the buddha-dharma is the arising of dukha – DukKha arises from thirst – craving, wanting, trying to get the object of our desires. This craving takes one of these three forms…

  1. Physical and mental desire
  2. The desire to not die
  3. The desire for release from this life.

Name your affliction, and you will find that it is your desire, your craving, your wanting.

However, we tend not to notice this, we are ignorant that it is our desires for this or that which are the cause of our suffering. Instead, we go through life thinking ‘if I only I could get that, then I would be happy’. This is delusion, confusion, ignorance.

We are confused about what we really want, all we really want is to be awake!

If only we could deal with this 84th problem our other problems would seem less and we would be less caught up in the silly ups and downs associated with easing suffering through attachment to this or that. The ups and downs wouldn’t disappear, the 83 problems would still be there, but they would have less hold over us.

(P34) In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said. ‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’ The master said ‘O.K, then leave’ As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’ Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’ ‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’ Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’ ”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.

This means that we need to face our problems by paying attention to what is going on, face up to them rather than running away which is what most of us do.

I actually quite like this – you want to leave (your problems)  but there is no door to leave by – this is because you are the source of your problems. Our failure to realise this keeps us looking externally for solutions.

Our worst problems are not natural disasters – natural disasters actually bring us together.

Our worst problems (deep-rooted and subtle?) are created by us, as a result of our trying to create good times and avoid bad times, but these come and go of themselves.

Instead of trying to achieve this or that we should just be focussed on the present moment. Happiness is here, it isn’t there. Problems arise from our inability to see clearly the simple truth that good and bad times come and go by themselves irrespective of my desires (life is just flux). —-   Breaking the grip of ignorance rests with just seeing. You notice you want a Pizza, and you just note it, you don’t do anything about it. In this way, you stop feeding craving. (Easier said than done, I know!)

The problem is that it is hard to see see clearly. The mind has a tendency to lean – ‘I like this or that’ – craving or aversion. In the Enlightened mind there is no such leaning.

Dukkha – suffering, pain – is associated with choice. The more we fail to understand this, the more we’ll be caught up in Dukkha. And the more we’ll not see the subtlety of it.

We live in a culture where we’re taught to see freedom as the maximisation of choice. But this is not true freedom at all. In fact, it’s a form of bondage. True freedom doesn’t lie in the maximisation of choice, but ironically is most easily found in a life where there is little choice…. Consider this: often the more serious the choice, the easier it becomes to make it. _

When petty choices occupy the mind, necessity is forgotten, the mind is ill at ease for want of the petty thing. When we needlessly clutter our mind with inconsequential choices dissatisfaction is the result. (39)

(p40) Let’s consider the way intention is joined with Dukkha

The buddha-dharma is all about seeing when we act of intent, which is what most of us do most of the time by trying to bring about some desired end. Intent is important, very important!

Hagan illustrates this with a story about his going camping. He awoke to find that the roof of his car had been slashed and thought it was vandals, this caused mental anguish. Later he realised it was a Racoon who had slashed the roof to get some cookies. His anguish disappeared because there was no longer any bad intent behind the action.

The chapter ends with a reminder that walking the buddha-dharma is not about doing good because good and bad are relatives, tinged with duality (illustrated by the horse story)… The buddha-dharma is about seeing our craving (but not stopping it).

The horse story…

The horse of a wise Chinese farmer ran away. When his neighbour came to console him the farmer said ‘who knows what’s good or bad?’

When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbour came to congratulate him on his good fortune.

‘who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the famer.

Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbour came to console him again.

‘Who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the farmer.

When the army passed through, conscripting men for the army, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man again came to congratulate the farmer =, the farmer replied ‘Who know’s what’s good or bad’?

And so on….


Ideas of good and bad are dualistic, the point is to SEE in a way that is beyond these, not quelching your desire, just SEEing the way that mind leans.. it’s inclinations and it’s intents.

Chapter Four: Going (pp44 -52)

The Buddha’s third truth is that the cessation of suffering is possible, a state referred to by the Buddha as ‘unborn ungrown and unconditioned’, a state which we can see but which we cannot pin down.

The opposite of this, the born, grown and conditioned is everything you can conceive of, including yourself.

Nirvana is seeing completely that everything is just flux or change. Hagan uses the story of his friend dying of cancer who suddenly realises he is about to die to illustrate this. The author says to him ‘wherever we go, its always like this’ and his friend understood – meaning (I think) that his dying friend had seen that everything is change and accepted it, even his own death. (Note – that’s actually pretty hard core!)

Recall that everything is constant flux and change. Nothing endures. Yet we long for permanence and as a result we suffer, for we find none. There seems to be only this coming and going, coming and going. This is true of the physical universe, and it is true of our minds. Nirvana is seeing completely that this is so.

(P47) We do not see this – we tend to think of ourselves as distinct entities existing through time, but we cannot find a moment when we came into being – our conception is fundamentally linked to our parents, there is no ultimate separation. The truth is, you cannot find ‘coming into being’.

What we call a person the Buddha simply referred to as ‘stream’.

The same problem occurs with anything conceivable – with anything, beginnings and ends are inconceivable, there is just ceaseless flow and change, yet we perceive things to have a distinct beginning and end because we are foolish.

All three of our desires (*) arise because of our confusion (our inability to realise) that reality is just change.

Because of this ignorance we erroneously fixate on permanence, we think permance is possible – we think that if we only get this then ‘I will be happy’, but in reality, all states of happiness are impermanent (thus what is the point in fixating on them?)

Similarly, because we fixate on our own existence we desire to not die, but in reality if you are born then you will die.

Finally, because (in our ignorance) this is so unbearable, we long for non-existence. All three of these desires arise because of our confusion about change. NB This final one (I think) is the vauge sense of subtle dis-ease that resides at the back of our minds, it is the kind of dis-ease that we will only find exists if we try to sit quietly and realise that we cannot do so.

(*) 1. Physical and mental desire 2. The desire to not die 3. The desire for release from this life.

The Buddha talked of extinguishing these desires but how is this possible? There are two ways. The first the Buddha called less desire and the second forgetting the self.

We have the ability to see our situation our human condition for what it really is. A starting point would be to perceive that we overload our senses, we become addicted to all manner of sense- stimulators, we need to see this, we also need to see that we tend to overload our lives with thoughts.

A second way is to forget the self by doing things for or with others


We tend to live our lives with some idea of control… we do a task to achieve a desired end, and when we fail to do this we suffer. The buddhist solution to this is to acknowledge that we never had control in the first place.

At the centre of our desire for control is our sense of self… If we can realise that ‘I’ don’t really exist, there is profound liberation in this!

On this the Buddha said

‘Just as a man shudders with horror when he steps on a serpent, but laughs when he looks down and sees that it is only a rope, so I discovered one day that what I was calling ‘I’ cannot be found, and all fear and anxiety vanished with my mistake’.

The buddha-dharma points the way for each of us to wake up from this same basic mistake. And when we awaken, our fears and anxieties quite naturally vanish, as the night fades away at the rising of the sun.

Chapter Five – The Art of Seeing (pp53-59)

The fourth truth of the Buddha is the way to realise the end of suffering – the noble eightfold path. An odd thing about this path is that it is not a path from a to b – as soon as we step on it all aspects are realised at once.

The eight aspects of the path are

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right meditation

Right does not mean right as opposed to wrong – but right as in ‘this works’ or as in ‘being in sync with reality’. It refers to being in touch with reality rather than being deluded by our own prejudices. ‘Right’ means conducive to awakening.

Right view

Normally when we take a view on some aspect of life we take a snap shot picture and hold onto it and people with different views peel off into separate camps and sometimes go after each other.   The view of a Buddha isn’t like this – it is not an ordinary frozen view. Right view means not being caught by ideas, concepts, beliefs or opinions.

The view of a Buddha is of how things are , or of constant change. If we know that all is change, then how can there be fixed views?

Right view is the dynamic view of the world as a whole. It cannot come into conflict with other views because it already encompasses everything else!

Right intention

There is a story of Socrates and a youth who comes to learn from him – when crossing a stream Socrates holds the youth’s head under water and he starts to fight for air. On letting him up, Socrates says ‘when you fight for truth as you fight for air then come back and see me’ – that is right intention.

You cannot learn truth from anyone, it is seen through your own resolve. It means getting on with the job of awakening.

Right speech

This basically involves not lying not speaking ill and not chatting idly.

There are many practical reasons for practising thus – basically to awaken you need to be here and now and lying, speaking ill and chatting distract you from the here and now and disturb the mind.

All that is said on right action is that it is action that stems from a clear and unfettered mind.

Right livelihood means choosing a profession that does not not do harm to others or the planet because how can this be conducive to peace of mind?

Right effort is a conscious and on-going engagement with each moment. It is the willing abandonment of our fragmented mentality and dualistic thought moment after moment and the encouragement of healthy and wholesome states of mind.

Right mindfulness means not forgetting what our real problem is – Dukkha. Right mindfulness means being mindful of how we react to states of mind in each moment.

Right meditation means collecting the mind so it becomes focussed centred and aware.

These eight aspects of the path should not be taken on faith but tested to see if they are conducive to awakening.

The chapter ends by mentioning the precepts and that these are guidelines rather than rules. Ultimately all that there is is the context you are in and your own mind – seeing things as they are moment to moment and acting accordingly is what there is. Hard and fast rules are not conducive to this.



Chapter Six – Wisdom (pp63-76)

Our prison is in us – it is in our own mind, our own thinking. We fail to see our situation for what it really is. As yang chu says – ‘we pass by the joys of life without realising we’ve missed anything’. The path to freeing the mind is not like an ordinary path. It does not lead anywhere it has no destination. As soon as you set foot on this path you have literally traversed it in its entirety.

First you have to set foot on the path, and this is right view – the idea that there is something askew or painful about human existence. What would satisfy the aching, the craving of the human heart? Nothing outside of us can do this because as soon as one craving is satisfied another arises.

So let us take a different approach and not try to define what it is we want. We do not know what we truly want because what we truly want is intangible. In fact true happiness simply involves seeing in the moment, but because we do not see this then we fixate on a search to find something to make us happy, while the only thing that can make us happy is what’s here and now – we just need to see what is going on in ourselves.

Right view is not a fixed idea it is simply awareness of how things come to be. Right view is seeing reality in its wholeness – think of a puma and a deer – we feel sorry that the deer will be eaten by the puma, so we put bells on the deer – the puma then starves so the deer population goes up which leads to overgrazing and deers dying.

Compassion alone is not enough, you need to see the whole. In life we tend to categorise and compartmentalise – we package complex events so we can understand them. But life is messier than this – in reality things are much more fluid and this is hard work to grasp and accept. In trying to understand the world we leave things out – we fail to realise that in reality there is not a clearly defined object to observe or for that matter a clearly defined observer.

Right view is beyond categories, beyond good and bad and the only way we can realise it is to be right here and right now.

( P69) – We tend to hold a static view of ourselves too – for example – ‘I’m a nervous type of person or I’m Norwegian… The truth is that I am not anything in-particular and neither is anyone else. When we lock onto an identity all we’re doing is locking onto a rigid world view, and making ourselves easier to offend. Another way we bind ourselves is through trying to explain things – ‘a means b’ and so on.

In fact, reality in the moment explains itself and so it doesn’t need explaining. How can we explain the truth without removing ourselves from it? Yet we do not see this, instead we go on seeking ever more refined or complicated explanations, and all we ever get is more and more contradictions, while Reality itself defies conceptualisation.

Having said this, it is possible to see, to perceive reality even if we can’t conceive it.

Concepts cannot be reality because conceptualising involves putting boundaries around things that are all interconnected. Take the example of a book – in reality the book is fundamentally linked to the sun because trees require the sun.

In a famous zen story emperor Wu of China asked Bodhidharma ‘who are you’, Bodhidharma replied ‘not knowing’. There is no identity there. Bodhidharma sees reality, not a thing with a name. In other words right view isn’t in the eye of the beholder, there is no beholder there.

(P73) Right intention Is simply about being here in this moment. Being awake is actually the absence of intention, because you cannot both be here and hold any intent, any gaining thought. If we are not awake then right intention is simply to be awake – now, with no gaining thought.

Hagan now relays the story of the meditating zen student and the teacher polishing the tile – no amount of meditating will make you a Buddha. Meditation should be all the time, it does not begin or end with a bell, it begins with your intention, so start paying attention – now! Being awake is just being awake, there is no reason for being awake – other than it’s better than not being awake which consists of pain anger and delusion.

(So nb right intention is actually about being now and stopping habitual ways of action that lead to suffering)

Being awake is the mind not leaning, the mind not thinking ‘I like this or I dislike that’ – these leanings lead to greed and aversion, and gaining thoughts. How to stop the mind leaning? You simply have to pay attention to what you are doing and how your mind reacts, then the mind eventually will straighten up of its own accord, you cannot force it to stop leaning – if you try to do this it will simply lean all the more.

Chapter Seven – Morality (pp77-94)

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.

Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.   Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.   Right speech involves right listening which means seeing the whole picture including the speaker, be careful not to swallow pre packaged stories.   We need to be careful when speaking of others – whether we are downplaying or bigging them up we are leaning and not speaking the truth. In fact, putting people on a pedestal is probably the worst because this way we must create idols and to be free we need to be free of idols (nb celebrity).

Do not talk about people as if they are saints or monsters, to do so is to fail to recognise our common humanity. It is is within the capacity of human nature to act monstrously or saintly and we can do likewise. Really good or really evil people are not essentially different to us.

Sometimes it is necessary to say things people don’t want to hear for their long term good – eg a child running to a busy road or an addict.

It is impossible to give rules on how to speak that are hard and fast – much of what needs to be said, or not said, depends on the situation. What is important than when you speak to people you examine your intention – if your intention is to help them wake up then you should be speaking compassionately and the appropriate words and tone should follow in any given situation.

Where enlightenment is concerned it is beyond conceptualisation so in truth there is nothing to say.

Ryokan, a Japanese Zen poet, wrote this poem –

Maple leaf

Falling down

Showing front

Showing back

This action exemplifies right action – how different this kind of action is to the willed, goal-oriented action we are familiar with. The maple leaf’s action is natural and unwilled yet the way we act is different, if we were leaves we would either fall off in summer (running away), hang on until winter or we would wilfully try and be unleaf like and pile down rather than drift. These two types of action have two different results.

Usually discussions of morality are about rules – but there are no rules in Buddhism only guidelines- the dharma is not about rules and regulations that have been taught and accepted it is about seeing – rules are only useful when you do not see – in seeing we act naturally.

Shunryu Suzuki says that if we try to put dots on a page in a random fashion we will find this difficult as usually patterns will emerge because our minds unwittingly follow hidden rules. If we saw the whole we could arrange dots in a random fashion. Randomness involves us being with the whole, order stems from our deluded attempts to control the whole which leads to Dukkha.

When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. In reality there is only stream, change and flow. The recognition of this as our actual experience is utter release from Dukkha.

Seeing alone leads to greater levels of moral development (nb not all monks necessarily see) because through seeing we don’t lie because we see that lying leads to confusion. Hence this is not about rules – in fact morality is beyond rules – morality can be seen but not put into rules – even the do unto others rule is flawed because different people often need to be treated differently.

The golden rule of the awakened is in fact ‘do unto others as you would not have them do unto you’ – the problem with the usual positive formulation is that it carries prescriptions, or things that should be done and this set of rules is objectifying which takes us away from the moment – thus the awakened wants of others and wants for others no objectification, to allow for freedom in the moment and real seeing. Hence the negative prescription of this imperative. (NB in the meantime there are precepts…). This avoids the problems associated with doing good which can stem form positive formulations of morality which can breed arrogance and hostility.

Another way of looking at right action is action as free of self.

Now there’s a quick note on freedom – which is not freedom to choose – but freedom to be awake or not.

Right livelihood simply says do not judge others – look at your own situation and how you respond to it.

Finally – right action is fundamentally about examining your own life – remember the only real choice we have is whether or not we choose to wake up!

Chapter Eight – Practice (pp95-109)

This chapter deals with right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation

Sit for a moment, and try not to think of an elephant. Now try to picture a square circle You will notice that both of these exercises are impossible.

Often, though, we put our efforts into tasks very much like these – trying to achieve goals which are impossible, we think of effort as something that involves straining, forcing or pushing. But with what the Buddha called right effort, there is no straining or forcing, because right effort is cojoined with right view – when you see that putting your hand in the flame is painful, you don’t have to strain to keep yourself from doing it, it just follows naturally.

Right effort means simply being present. It means being here, staying here, and seeing what is happening in this moment. It’s not about trying to achieve or control something, which is like trying to not think of an elephant. Right effort is the naturalness of becoming this moment.

This is not normally how we understand effort – we usually understand it as to control, improve, change something – human history is full of such examples, and here we are in our improved society wondering if the earth will survive!

Right effort is cutting off the fragmented and fractured states of mind that have already arisen in us – for example we see ourselves as being separate from the world, and the world as consisting of separate things (rather than a more wholesome, holistic seeing). This leads our mind to be full of thoughts such as ‘I must do this’ or ‘avoid doing that’ – Right effort just means seeing this fragmented state, not feeding it by worrying about it or acting on it, or trying to stop it – if we just see it, it will come into full awareness of its own accord.

All you have to do in right effort is continually bring yourself back to seeing – to see is to heal.

Right effort is also bringing about and preserving aware, collected, wholesome and integrated states of mind. Hagan uses the metaphor of being able to take a horse to water but not being able to make that horse drink. If we are the horse in this analogy, being led to the Buddha Dharma, drinking is like making right effort. The problem is that, although we are all thirsty (remember that deep aching of the heart), we don’t realise it, and also, although we are standing at the water trough, we don’t realise that our water is easily in reach.

Normally, if something seems valuable to us, we feel we have to work hard to get it – in the case of awakening this doesn’t work. Hagan now relays the tale of the fellow and the Zen master…. how long will it take to become Enlightened…. 10/20/ 30 years.

Donning robes has nothing to do with being enlightened – these can actually detract you from right effort – all right effort is is being in this moment. You don’t need anything else to do this.

(p100) Now Hagan deals with the different types of mindfulness…

Mindfulness of the body is to do with how the body moves, and physical senses such as smell and taste. Thich Nat Hanh suggests we savour each sense as if we were a returned astronaut, having touched back down on earth for the first time in years.

We should also be mindful of our feelings – whether we are inclined to like or dislike things for example – over time we will be less compelled to act on these things if we become more mindful of them – feelings will have less of a hold over us.

We should also be aware of our minds – in doing so you will notice (probably) an internal monologue, often moronic, that chatters much of the time – the problem is we often identify with many of these thoughts, and this is the source of much of our suffering. In time, through mindfulness, we will realise that this internal monologue, our ideas are just as fleeting as our physical sensations.

Finally, there is awareness of Dukkha itself.

In mindfulness practise it is important not to chastise yourself – all you need to do is to see that this and that arises, and when you see that attachment to certain arisings leads to suffering, you will come to cease such attachment just naturally!

While right mindfulness is to return to actual experience right meditation is simply staying with our immediate experience, moment by moment. In sitting meditation (zazen in Japanese) the focus of our activity involves the bare minimum, just body, mind and breath. He now quotes a passage from Zen master Dogen’s ‘universal recommendation for sitting meditation’ on how to do formal breath meditation. Hagan then mentions that you can sit in a chair, or kneeling. After sorting our posture, Hagan then says… Place your focus on your breath – just follow it. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don’t be bothered by them. Don’t try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they’ll depart of their own accord. This is how to ‘cease all the movements of the conscious mind’. You cannot do it by direct application of will. Don’t strive for some special state of mind, there is no special state of mind. Striving will only disturb you.

Sitting meditation is just awareness of breath, that is all.

How long to spend in meditation? Hagan says he doesn’t know – more important is that you do it regularly. When its time to eat, eat, when its time to meditate, meditate.

You need to allow yourself the space to have thoughts and feelings, just let them be, don’t try and stop them, and they will calm down by themselves.

Breath is the perfect vehicle for meditation because it is the boundary between internal and external, place your attention there and you will see that there is no you, and no outside.

Do not approach meditation as business as usual, meditation is not business as usual. We are not doing it to achieve anything, it is not a useful activity, it is for its own sake…. do not expect anything from it. Dogen notes that when you practice meditation you… cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate yourself. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain thusness, you should practise thusness without delay.

If we taste reality, we must engage it directly. If you have the least gaining idea, you are not fully engaged.

Right meditation is where everything is alive, where we neither create nor manipulate, possess nor obsess, neither try nor fail.

Chapter Nine – Freedom (pp 110-)

There are two types of knowledge – One consists of beliefs, opinions and conjectures, an intellectual grasping of concepts – this is not true knowing and the result of relying on more conceptual knowledge is more fear, discomfort and confusion. We think our beliefs and ideas can be relied on to give us satisfaction, but if we examine them carefully, we realise that they only temporarily satisfy us…. in fact, they are our primary sources of anxiety and fear, because they are always subject to contradiction and doubt.

By their very nature, all our ideas are frozen views – fragments of reality, separated from the whole. Because what we rely on (conception) is different to what we see (perception) there is unrest in our minds. Underneath all, we are uneasy, and furthermore we know it.

The fact is, were already enlightened, even now. We know truth, we just habitually overlay our direct experience of truth with thoughts, our beliefs opinions and ideas, developing conceptual frameworks without knowing what it is we are doing.

(p111) The problem isn’t that we do this, we cant help but conceptualise…. the problem is that we do not realise we are doing this… and we run away with our thoughts, thinking we have captured some aspect of reality. What we overlook is that underneath our ideas, reality is shifting, and thus we cannot help but experience doubt. This is the deep end of dukkha – existential angst. In the very moment we overlay our direct experience with concepts doubt is attached to it. The biggest mistake we make in all this is by separating out self and other – this leads us to look for satisfaction out there – we even turn enlightenment into an object, but if we examine our direct experience, we realise that such dualities do not exist.

As we’ve seen, there’s a second type of view, right view – which is simply seeing reality for what it is. It’s relying on bare attention… true immediate, direct experience of the world in and of itself, it is seeing thus. Herein lies freedom of mind, and fearlessness.

With the two types of views there are two kinds of mind….. we all have what we could call ordinary minds – the mind you’ve always assumed you’ve had. It is a calculating, discriminating mind, a fragmented mind. It’s the mind of ordinary consciousness, what we call ‘my mind’.

But there is another kind of mind, unborn, ungrown and unconditioned – to this mind, there is no other mind. This mind is nothing other than the whole. This mind is there in every moment, always switched on, all we need to do is rest our frontal lobes in order to see it. This means letting our conscious mind die down, like ripples on a pond.

Another reminder – that you can’t get to seeing, you can only see.

At the close of our millennium, it’s getting harder and harder for us to find meaning in our lives. We’ve seen through too many of the old stories. Even though we no longer believe in God, we swing between cynicism and dogmatism to inject meaning into our lives. We don’t easily understand that we create this problem or that problem of meaninglessness ourselves through our deluded thinking. If we could just see this moment for what it is, meaninglessness would never arise in the first place. It is in our very trying to define and arrange things for ourselves – trying to identify and assign meanings to things – that we end up creating a world that is ultimately meaningless.

Liberation of mind is realising that we don’t need to buy any story at all. We just need to see reality.

The deep, hollow ache of the heart arises from a life in search of meaning. But its by our very desire to find meaning (I think he means in fixing the world through concepts) that we create meaninglessness (NB – If we live in a society where people are objectifying themselves and there appear to be multiple meanings to see through then surely this makes it more difficult to see that these efforts result in meaninglessness – because this mistaken quest for meaning is the norm… and now there are many meanings to choose between.)

Reality – if we see it – is where questions of meaning are transcended, it just is.

At least he finishes off by saying that the eightfold path is like a raft….

Also, NB – A lot of this stuff is I think really for monks maybe???? (A la Bikkhu Bodhi) – the rest of us are so mired, we need help a bit lower down the order of awareness maybe???