Steve Hagen’s ‘mysterious figure’: cheap parlour trick or a glimpse of enlightenment?

"Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple

Many people say the American Zen priest Steve Hagen’s primer Buddhism Plain and Simple is excellent, and I drifted through its early pages thinking the same. He has a clear, direct style that avoids a lot of the clunky dharma translations that often serve only to confuse.

However, just as he is settling in to his discourse, Hagen feels the need to demonstrate what enlightenment feels like. He offers a picture of a “mysterious figure” (above), which he says is an almost photo-realistic rendition of something everyone will recognise. At first, he suggests, it might look like chaos, but eventually the picture leaps unmissably out at you, and this is kind of what enlightenment is like.

Enticing idea, but, well, I sat there staring at this thing for an hour on the train to work, getting absolutely nowhere. The best I could do was turn it into an interesting meditation on my reactions: one minute feeling like an inadequate fool for seeing nothing of substance, the next a raging head case.

Hagen urges readers to persevere, so illuminating will the big moment be, but kindly gives a page number where the answer can be found. Unfortunately, in an e-book, page numbers are meaningless.

To Google, then, which led me to various sites that revealed the picture was of a cow. Sadly, even having been told this, I still could not see it. Eventually, I stumbled upon a photo online that had been digitally enhanced to emphasise said beast. At last, enlightenment! (I have painted a rather sloppy rendition of a cow on top the picture below; once you know the rough shape of what you’re looking at, return to the unsullied image above.)

Having had to go to so much effort for a glimpse of this cow – which, as Hagen notes, is indeed unmissable once you have seen it – I felt not so much enlightened as duped. At best, the exercise was like one of those weird psychology tests where you get shown a blot and are expected to see a vagina. At worst, it was a cheap parlour trick. It put me off the book, and I got no further with it.

Could this be the intention? Perhaps a meeting with Hagen’s cow is like being hit over the head with a monk’s stick when you’re dozing off while meditating. Perhaps what he is really saying is: stop reading, stop thinking; or, as the first Zen patriarch Bodhidharma put it: “Using the mind to look for reality is delusion.”

Altered image to reveal hidden cow in "Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple
  • This post was originally published on my former blog Cosmic Donkey on July 27, 2014