Two Gems: A review of Stephen Hagen's Buddhism is Not What You Think, and Buddhism Plain and Simple
by Judith Johnson
Buddhism is not what you think is a series of dharma talks tidied up a bit for written presentation. As in a live dharma talk by an experienced teacher, this material sweeps along and will transform you if you let it. There are now many collections of dharma talks. This collection, written by a western teacher for western students, is simply the most bluntly straightforward buddhist book I have ever read. It helps to have some background, especially experience with longer sesshin or retreats, but it is more immediately accessible than other classics like Shunryu Suzuki's dharma talks. For beginners I recommend reading this book every few months. A real gem, and the double meaning of the title is very enjoyable, by the end of the book you will really get the point: no matter what you think, Buddhism is not what you think, it is beyond thought.
Buddhism plain and simple is another, earlier, masterpiece of plain language. Buddhism is not a belief system and does not require belief in teachers, god, Gotama as "the Buddha", or reincarnation; nor does it require adoption of eastern culture. Buddhism is about direct knowing, about investigating our own experience and taking responsibility for ourselves right now. Hagen makes these points in a way that would be difficult to misunderstand. This is a very practical book for beginners. I recommend reading it more than once, with a period of Buddhist practice between readings.
The landmarks of Buddhism's journey to the west include books by Shunryu Suzuki, Jack Kornfield, Goldstein, Charlotte Joko Beck and Pema Chodron. I have no hesitation about placing Hagen's work in the same category. There is nothing to argue with, just read and internalise as much as possible.