Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs

ISBN: 0060730579
ISBN 13: 9780060730574
By: Steve Hagen

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About this book

Bestselling author and renowned Zen teacher Steve Hagen penetrates the most essential and enduring questions at the heart of the Buddha's teachings: How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is? How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds? How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality? And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?Drawing on down-to-earth examples from everyday life and stories from Buddhist teachers past and present, Hagen tackles these fundamental inquiries with his trademark lucid, straightforward prose. The newcomer to Buddhism will be inspired by this accessible and provocative introduction, and those more familiar with Buddhism will welcome this much needed hands-on guide to understanding what it truly means to be awake. By being challenged to question what we take for granted, we come to see the world as it truly is. Buddhism Is Not What You Think offers a profound and clear path to a life of joy and freedom.

Reader's Thoughts


I picked up this book for a couple of reasons. General interest in "what is Buddhism", a few times my behavior has elicited a question from a friend if I was studying the subject because of a comment or action on my part. (e.g. not being upset at someone because I felt, how can it hurt me if I choose not to have an ego about it…)I have to laugh that this book tried to explain Buddhism and being “fully awake and aware of reality” without being able to state how one does it, or what it really is like for the one reaching that point… so how do I explain the book itself? I have a bit of the same issue as the author.To be fair, the author does a pretty good job and I’m not as talented as he is, so please don’t judge my review too harshly.This is the first book I’ve ever read on this subject. The author does (from my naïve viewpoint) a pretty good job on trying to describe what can’t be described in a step by step process. He spends most of the book telling us what it isn’t. It’s not a feeling of ecstasy or just hitting “the point” and disappearing into the astral plane. ;-) He does list many examples of past student’s questions and the somewhat cryptic answers given by their teachers. Much of this is an attempt to start knocking your mind to see and think differently. I did understand some of his simpler explanations as in his description that everything is in flux, in actuality all is flux, and nothing is concrete. At every moment you change. Your thoughts changes, your feelings, the blood in your body has moved along, atoms move about in you, cells are dying and new being born, and so on. So you are not the person you were a year, day, minute, even a second ago. (This applies to us and everything around us.)All this is set to prime you to see things differently. There is a lot of description on dropping all pre-conceptions and seeing reality for what it is. This is not easy as in just zoning out, humming and thinking “oh look, the birds are one with the trees and the tree reaches down into the ground to drink water… Ohmmm…” I get the sense that it’s more a case of, “you’ll know it when you get there.”My only frustration with the book was midway through when I felt I was reading for the umpteenth time that reality just is, we have no control, we can affect no change, etc… Please note, this was my impression, I may have been missing the whole point. I wondered could a society fully “Buddhist” get to the moon or eradicate a disease like Polio.The message seemed so focused on observing reality for what it is and coming to the realization that one is just part of the every changing flux with no ability to “force a change” that it just gave my Western-sculpted brain a headache. I do think after finishing the book that I was confusing observation and “true understanding” with an implied inability to still participate in the world and change it. This is the one subject I’d love to talk with the author about if I ever meet him. I’ll spring for the coffee…I see the author wasn’t allowed to teach until over 20 years of study. I’m sure he’d read my brief review and smile at my kindergarten level description. Overall I enjoyed the book. It does do a good job (I think) to get one’s toe wet in the subject if it interests you. But with any discussion on a subject/concept this large, one book can never sum it up. It’s just a first step in a longer journey.


Nicely presents concepts in everyday terms without advocating (or disparaging) any religious viewpoints. The discussion of reincarnation, which differs significantly from what might be found in a more "traditional" Buddhism text, is particularly interesting.

Rich Neal

Beautifully written - I'm learning a lot. A very detailed deposition of modern Buddhism that debunks the western-hemisphere initiated misunderstandings and biases towards the ONLY life philosophy that Albert Einstein mentioned as being worthy of further consideration.

Andy Hickmott

This is one of those popular books on Buddhism which seeks to come at its subject from an original angle, presumably so that wisdom that has survived millennia can be commercially viable. In this case, the angle is revealed by the ambiguous title: easily misinterpreted as meaning 'Buddhism is not what you think [it is]', but properly explained in the book as meaning 'Buddhism is not [about] what you think' (but actually about letting go of thought). Yes, it's a clever smart-ass title, but a very well-written book by a knowledgeable practitioner of the Zen school. Although written in a plain accessible style, Hagen has drawn on plenty of authorities both from the Zen school and from Pali scriptures. And whereas some popular books on Buddhism get drawn into mystical mumbo jumbo, Hagen avoids this entirely, presenting Buddhist ideas and practice in an intelligent way that steers clear of all supernatural speculation. He even clears up the misunderstanding that the Buddha taught, and his followers believed in, reincarnation of the soul - easily done once it is understood that all things are impermanent, and that for the Buddhist, there is nothing like a soul that might survive death to be reincarnated. An enjoyable book from a very wise teacher.


More of a book for those who are already practitioners. I don't think newcomers to Buddhism would actually understand what he is talking about. I would recommend to those who are already Buddhist practitioners.


Never finished it, but it's one of those books that I'm glad to have as a reference on my bookshelf in case I need a quick dose or a life lesson.

Courtney Rinker

Good read. Sometimes confusing. You need to be open to the reading for it to be worthwhile.


This is easily one of the best books about Zen - and life in general - that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Steve Hagen is able to write about these topics in a way that makes it clear and easy to absorb what he's talking about. This is a life altering book, read it!


Great book. Can seem a little redundant, but there's a valuable teaching in every chapter. Well worth the read.


Perhaps a slightly less metaphor-heavy alternative to Charlotte Joko Beck's books, this is probably a great introduction to zen. Some of the examples he uses verge on the gimmicky, and feel at odds with the rest of the work. I also wasn't convinced by the latter sections which call upon rather speculatory science - yes, it's really pretty interesting, but also mostly irrelevant, I would have thought, detracting from the major themes of the book.


He repeats himself so many times that it becomes a bit boring after a while. The choice of words should have been a bit more precise - this lack of care for the exact "name" is really a pity because the general ideas are quite interesting.


Some of the ideas put forth in this book, especially those concerning various Zen conceptions of life and reality, are pretty nice thoughts and have even been pleasant and helpful in everyday life. However, Hagen is unclear at best on a number of important philosophical ideas and claims. Often he falls back on the claim that if we could "just see" reality for what it is in this moment, we would know the truth of Zen teaching.As an overview of Buddhist teachings and beliefs, this book is useful If a little repetitive. I would now be interested in examining the philosophical presumptions of Buddhism in more depth in another book should I find one more focused on them.


This is a book that's half-and-half for me. Hagen explains many teachings of Buddhism, however, he does get repetitive, and his constant emphasis on concept of "reality", "truth" and "seeing" is difficult to comprehend. The book might be more suited for practitioners, rather than for someone just getting into understanding Buddhism.


A good basic intro book into Buddhism teaching how to get out of our thinking & overly analytical minds and how to just observe and be in the moment, be in the now.

Pieter Dubelaar

"Buddhism is not what you think" refers to the view of Zen Buddhists on how we all look at the world around us and ourselves in it. This flawed view of everything consists of seeing the world, and our minds immediately applying countless moulds - our concepts like "cat", "book" and "rain" - on this view. Steve Hagen goes to great lengths in his book to teach us that the reality does not consist of the concepts we use, but merely is the way it is. All we need to do is to just see the world, and not apply any concepts upon it.

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