I've finished reading Steve Hagen's book, Buddhism Plain and Simple. As noted before, I found it much more agreeable than his previous book, Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense.
Yes, Hagen's conclusion is the same in both books. It's just that I like how he got to that conclusion better in Buddhism Plain and Simple.
Basically, Hagen takes the very Buddhist'y position that nothing stands by itself.
Everything is interrelated, interconnected, interwoven. So when we abstract out some particular thing -- like our own self -- if we see that thing as separate and distinct, naturally it won't make sense, because we fail to see the larger whole in which that thing is an integral aspect.
So what we are looking for isn't distant, supernatural, mystical, or to be sought for. It is right here, right now, directly in front of us. That's reality -- the MacBook Pro screen I'm looking at as I type these words, along with the sound of the dishwasher running that I can hear, and Hagen's book that is lying on the table next to my laptop.
When we drink in reality in a single big gulp, rather than a series of small conceptual sips, that's when we see things rightly. Zen 101.
Here's some passages about concepts from Buddhism Plain and Simple. By and large, I agree with what Hagen is saying here. We need to hold concepts lightly, not clutch them tightly. If we're not changing our mind regularly, our mind is frozen, even though the world is an ever-flowing stream.
By their very nature, all our ideas and beliefs are frozen views -- fragments of Reality, separated from the Whole. In other words, because we rely on what we think (conception), rather than on what we see (perception), there's unrest in our mind. Underneath it all, we're uneasy -- and furthermore, we know it.
The fact is, we are already enlightened, even now. We know Truth. We just habitually overlay our direct experience of Truth with thoughts -- with beliefs and opinions and ideas. We pile them all into our conceptual frame, not recognizing the consequences of what we're doing.
The problem is not so much that we do this. In fact, we can hardly help but conceptualize. I couldn't write this book, and you couldn't read it, if we didn't conceptualize.
The real problem is that we are caught by our concepts. We don't have to grant them power or accuracy or validity that they don't have. We simply need to recognize that our concepts are not Reality.
The mistake we make, over and over again, is to automatically posit something in our thoughts, without realizing what we've done. And then we run away with our idea, thinking we've captured some aspect of Reality.
What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of a vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they're solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.
Any ideas or beliefs we hold in our minds are necessarily set against other ideas and beliefs. Thus we cannot help but experience doubt.
...When buddhas conceptualize (and they do), they realize what they're doing and aren't taken in by it. After all, it's not conceptualization itself that's the problem, but getting caught up in it, mistaking our concepts for Reality.
The awakened may have thoughts and concepts just like anyone else. The difference is that they're aware that what they actually see differs from what they think.
The Buddha called this awareness right wisdom.
...Relative truths are the concepts we use to get an easy handle on the world. They help us in our everyday lives with a huge variety of practical matters. But the more closely we look at them, the less Real they show themselves to be.
Nevertheless, relative truths aren't to be avoided. They're not necessarily evil, or harmful, or wrong. Indeed, they're essential. In order to get through the day, we need to know things -- telephone numbers, store hours, potatoes, growing seasons, fractions, love, speed limits, how to fasten shoes.
We get into trouble when we forget that all these things, thoughts, and feelings are relative -- that they are not Real, independent entities at all. They exist only in relation to other things, thoughts, and feelings.
...Ultimate Truth, on the other hand, is direct perception. And what is directly perceived (as opposed to conceived) is that no separate, individual things exist as such. There's nothing to be experienced but this seamless, thoroughgoing relativity and flux.