Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen is one of the most straightforward guides to Buddhism that you could ever hope for, and that’s because it focuses on just one thing – awareness. As the author writes in his Introduction: ‘When the Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said “awareness.” This is a book about awareness. Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself – being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening.’
Steve Hagen is a Zen priest who has been studying Buddhism since 1967, so he certainly knows a thing or two about the value of experience over theory and Buddhism Plain and Simple reflects that fact. Instead of trying to teach you material that only adds to your head-knowledge, this book takes you by the hand and explores the topic of awareness in an experiential way. In other words, this isn’t exactly a How-To book, but more of a Now-To book, and you will get the most from it only if you are willing to take your time and bring your attention to the present moment as and when the author guides you to do so.
Buddhism Plain and Simple is divided into three main parts. In Part One: The Perennial Problem, the author explains the Four Noble Truths in a way that everyone will be able to directly relate to. Here you come to understand the truth of ‘duhkha’ – that human life is like an ‘out-of-kilter wheel’ where things don’t feel quite right. Next, you learn about the thing that causes this duhkha to arise, namely your craving or wanting things to be different than they currently are, and the author talks about the three different forms of this craving or wanting. The third truth is that the cessation of duhkha is nirvana, and the fourth truth is the way to bring about that cessation, which is the eightfold path.
Part Two: The Way to Wake Up guides you along the eightfold path, which is likened to a raft that you use to get from one side of the shore to the other. On this side of the shore is duhkha and on the other side is the cessation of duhkha, or nirvana, so all you have to do is get on the raft and use it. Anyone who has been studying Buddhism for any length of time will be familiar with this metaphor, but in Buddhism Plain and Simple every aspect of the path is – quite rightly – explained in terms of present moment awareness. When we experience the present moment as it is then we leave conceptual thinking behind and taste genuine freedom, and there is plenty of practical instruction in this section of the book for everyone to understand that directly.
Part Three: Free Mind tackles some very big questions in a refreshingly direct manner – questions such as: What am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? What happens to me when I die? and so on. By the time you get to this section of the book you will understand that the author won’t be giving you any ‘pat answers’ to such questions (as if there were any!) but will instead help you to approach them in a way that probably hadn’t occurred to you at any time previously.
As you can gather, Buddhism Plain and Simple really is an experiential guidebook, and if you approach it in that manner – as if you were receiving instruction directly from the author – you will make a great deal of progress. And where exactly will you end up? Right where you are, right now.