2016-06-30
Steve HagenSteve Hagen is a Zen priest, head teacher at Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, and the author of the international bestseller "Buddhism Plain and Simple." He spoke with Beliefnet about his latest book, "Buddhism Is Not What You Think."

Your book seems to say Buddhism isn't what you think but what you see. What exactly does that mean?

I teach Buddhism not as a belief system - of course there are beliefs tied in with it, as human beings we have all kinds of thoughts and ideas and notions. It isn't that Buddhism is without such things.

But in the end if we rely on what we think, what it is that we conceptualize and how we reconstruct the world in our minds -- so often this gets mixed in with our own egoistic desires and that kind of shades our understandings.

Buddhism as I understand it is about cutting through this and getting in touch with our actual, immediate, direct experience. The truth, reality, is not something that forms in the mind as an idea; it is immediate, fresh, every-changing, now. The moment we freeze it out as an idea or a thought or a belief, immediately we're out of touch with the actual experience of the moment.

I'm interested in your emphasis on seeing. I was used to thinking of Buddhist practice in terms of being, and I think that seeing implies a subject and an object, which by extension seems to imply a dualistic understanding of reality...

Well with ordinary seeing -- well like right now I see the telephone that I'm using here or I'm looking at a radio across the room. So I am here as a subject, I see the object over there. That's an ordinary kind of seeing.

The Buddha talked of what our actual experience is as that of not-self. While a sense of self forms in the mind, if we go looking for just what we think this is, we never find it, we never find that subject. For this reason then, I mark "seeing" in italics whenever I put it in to print. I'm not talking about an ordinary physical seeing; I'm talking about an objectless awareness, a realization that is without subject or object, without that dualist split.

Huang Po, the Chinese Zen master, said that the foolish reject what they see -- they reject their immediate direct experience -- and go with what they think, what they believe. This is pretty normal for human beings to do this. Because what we think and believe is so dominant, that's what we're holding to, that's what we form our identity out of. So he says that the foolish reject what they see, not what they think; while the wise reject what they think, not what they see.

Whatever notions, ideas, beliefs, opinions, prejudices that are forming in our mind, we learn to just handle very lightly. These things are all very useful, very handy; we certainly can't live without them to any large degree as we move throughout the world. Yet if we hang onto what we think very tightly, sooner or later we're up against others who are thinking something differently. The next thing you know we have people flying planes into buildings and causing all kinds of havoc and trouble and pain and suffering.

One of the beliefs you reject is reincarnation.

Reincarnation implies the persistence of a self. And this goes to the very heart of the Buddhist insight. There isn't any persistence of any kind whatsoever. Everything is fresh, new in each moment. Already you're not the person who called me a few moments ago. Already your mind is different, new thoughts have entered into it. Your feelings and emotions have changed.

Within a few months virtually all the material of our bodies will be exchanged with other material that's now disbursed in the environment. This is a continuous ongoing flow. Even the electrons, the electrical exchanges between the materials in our bodies and the cabinet, the floor, or anything else that's around you is in continuous flow and flux and change. Nothing is holding still.

So within this kind of world of total impermanence, where do we find permanence? We don't find it anywhere. But that's what would be required for the standard understanding of reincarnation: that there's something called me, an "I" that will persist.

Well we can believe this and of course this would be one of those form things: something that we think, something that we believe. But as I understand the Buddhist teachings, the awakened wouldn't buy this. They would go with what is actually experienced directly. What is experienced directly? Total flux and change, impermanence. So impermanent that we actually don't find a thing there to be impermanent, such as a self.

But isn't there something about me that makes me me, and something about you that makes you you -- and never someone else? It's not that you're a static being but that you're always the same, albeit indefinable person.

Well it's hard to say just what that would be. I mean, granted, when I encounter someone who I saw yesterday, they would probably recognize me and I would recognize them. We don't need to be foolish here, and pretend this is someone totally different. It's not. But what we're seeing today is conditional, it's been conditioned upon what has appeared in the past and what is ongoing in the future, but there's no permanence about it. And that's the part that we overlook, that's the part that we miss.

We see permanence where there isn't any. And as a result of that we suffer. The very fact that we're seeing permanence is a kind of grasping that's going on within our mind. This is dukka, as the Buddha would describe it.

Speaking of grasping, one thing I can never grasp is this fundamental paradox of Zen: It's not about striving, following a path, or getting from here to there. But how can a person escape from striving? In other words, why do anything, why read your book, or why meditate? It seems that inherently the practice is taking you somewhere.

Yeah. We could say it that way, it kind of looks that way. When we start on this path, no doubt we are going for something. Maybe we think it's enlightenment -- we have these formed ideas. Eventually we realize that we're actually operating with a very dissatisfied mind, a greedy mind, a hungry mind, that it's reaching for something.

What is it reaching for? Well, something imagined. Something projected out there. It's feeling an inadequacy, that somehow we're missing something. But were we to just settle into what's actually occurring now in this very moment, there isn't any straining, or striving, or struggle that's taking place. It is simply a slowly opening up, awakening to just what is occurring here.

You say, "To seek enlightenment as though we expect some kind of payback is only to frustrate ourselves. If you really want to wake up then just wake up." But.

Of course in saying that it might seem like kind of a cheap shot there, a little frustrating - "Well just wake up" -- as if it were that simple.

But in a way, it really is that simple. It is a matter of just catching yourself now, realize right now in this moment, what are you doing? You're looking out there, you're not looking here. And waking up has to occur right here, right now, right in this moment. You can't continuously be projecting out there, looking out there. If you do that you'll just endlessly frustrate yourself. At some point we have to catch ourself in the act -- just catch yourself right here, just bring yourself right here.

So would you say the way we do this is by "taking up the activity of the moment" whether that's doing dishes or driving or eating. that Buddhism is not about practice, or meditation necessarily, or striving on an arduous path, but just paying attention to whatever it is that's in front of you?

Yeah, just being totally engaged in the activity of the moment -- that's arduous enough! I've known a number of students over the years who feel like they have to do something spectacular, something more difficult than that. It is plenty difficult, just to continuously bring yourself back to this moment.

Even while driving a car we can space out and drive for miles on the freeway and still make all the right turns. It's amazing how tuned out we can be, and yet still seem to be functioning -- not functioning full well but nevertheless we're getting by. But we're spinning in our own thoughts, we're not really here. So it's arduous enough to just bring ourselves back to this moment. That's practice enough for anyone.

And we shouldn't think there are some special moments for it, such as the times that we spend on a meditation cushion. Of course there are those moments, but if we split up our life that way - "Here's my special moment when I go off to sit in meditation" -- well does that make any sense? The rest of your life now, what are you doing, just not paying attention? [laughs] There doesn't need to be that kind of a break. And gradually with some maturity of practice some people start to catch on to that and just learn to be here.