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The Best Zen Book Reviews Ever

Updated on February 17, 2014

On The Zen Reading Path

If you're not lucky enough to live near a Zen center or can't seem to find a Zen sitting group associated with a teacher or at least someone with loads of experience in Zen then you will have to turn to reading about the practice. It sets up a paradox, Zen while not anti intellectual does emphasize experience over thinking and it is important from the beginning that you don't attach to words in books, no matter who wrote them.

Buddha was very clear when he said "be a lamp unto yourself." He frequently talked to his followers about not believing anything they had not experienced for themselves. How can we know a reality we have not experienced?

There are plenty of teachings and thoughts to be read within Zen, yet the pivot focuses on reality of right here, right now not on a book or lecture. To a practice Zen is to realize there is nothing remotely concrete in existence. Many turn away from Zen when confronted by this thought and in turn many are liberated by the same thought.

The Top Five Reasons To Practice Zen

  • You can eat peas
  • You can dance
  • No dandruff
  • It's really boring
  • What else do you have to do

Experience It For Yourself

I raised my hand and asked the teacher, "if I'm already enlightened why do I need to practice Zazen?" "Show me your enlightenment" was all he said, then he lit a candle. Without the experience how can we recognize something staring us in the face, how can we feel the wind on our face if we are locked within the confines of our mind. Show me your enlightenment, he said....

Ask yourself what it is you want and you are "bound" to find it, but finding what is happening at this moment is not found in what you want or desire, not found in fear, joy, anxiety and not found in words. Still words can be a place to start on our quest to know reality, after all is said and done we do need to put some time and effort into experiencing enlightenment for ourselves, how else will we know?

1) Zen Mind Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind Beginner's Mind may be the easiest and the hardest book on the path to understanding I have ever read. The book is taken from a series of lectures given by Suzuki Roshi over a number of years in and around San Francisco in the 1960's. The simplest way to read the book is like a novel from start to finish, but then go back and take each lecture one at a time, you'll be surprised by what you didn't see the first time around. For more of my review visit Zen Mind Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (Shambhala Library)
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (Shambhala Library)

A respected Zen master in Japan and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki has blazed a path in American Buddhism like few others.

 

2) Dharma Road - finding Zen in the front seat of a cab

Zen can seems like an other worldly path to many so when a book about someone living life according to the tenets of Zen becomes available I have to pick it up and read it. The author of this book shares with us the ins and outs of integrating Zen into his life as a taxi driver in Austin Texas. It is not often that Zen practice is portrayed in the life and works of a blue collar worker, mostly the Zen life plays out in books about monks and academics which surely leads to it being viewed as elitist by many. The elitist tag certainly is deserved in many ways and for this reason alone it's great to see this book hit the store shelf's. Read more of my review: Dharma Road

Dharma Road: A Short Cab Ride to Self Discovery
Dharma Road: A Short Cab Ride to Self Discovery

Brain Haycock was a cabdriver--who happened to be a Buddhist. During the course of his career as a cabdriver, he learned that each fare provided an opportunity to learn the life lessons of the Buddha.

 

3) The Three Pillars of Zen

It may be that the urge to sell or give away everything we own and move to some mountain top where a deeply secret monastery resides is part of our unconscious, or maybe it is just wanderlust created from loneliness. One person who did give it all up and move to a place where he didn't speak the language or even have a room to sleep in was Philip Kapleau, a successful American business man who in 1953 sold his possessions and sailed for Japan to study Zen. Read more of my review The Three Pillars of Zen

The Three Pillars of Zen, 25th Anniversary Updated and Revised Edition
The Three Pillars of Zen, 25th Anniversary Updated and Revised Edition

"The Three Pillars of Zen heralded the end of armchair Buddhism. With this practical guide to Zen meditation, Roshi Kapleau ushered in the first wave of American zazen practitioners.

 

4) The Iron Flute - 100 Zen Koans

The Iron Flute is a book to read over a lifetime, as it contains one hundred Zen Koans with each requiring attention by itself. This collection of stories, some over a 1000 years old is meant to shake the readers sense of what reality is. More of my review is here The Iron Flute

The Iron Flute: 100 Zen Koans
The Iron Flute: 100 Zen Koans

Koans are the intellectually unsolvable problem-riddles at the core of the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism, perhaps the most well-known one being "what is the sound of one hand clapping."

 

5) Each Moment Is The Universe

I came to this book after listening to a number of books on tape from the writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg, she was a student of the books author Katagiri Roshi and it was her sometimes emotional and always clear words that propelled me further into Zen studies.Katagiri Roshi writes in a deeply personal way where you can almost feel him in the room caring that you understand. Read more of my review here Each Moment Is The Universe

Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time
Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time

Move over, Martin Heidegger. The late Japanese Zen master Katagiri Roshi offers a Zen interpretation of being and time.

 

Bodhidharma's Three Answers

no merit - vast emptiness

I don't know

6) No Beginning, No End

Jokusho Kwong came back to the Zen center, came back to study with the little Japanese monk whose thick accent made understanding all the harder and, he did start the journey that led him to many different insights he could not have possibly foreseen at the start. Starting is really what the book is about, a reflection of his journey as told from within his many lectures that make up the book. Read more of my review here: No Beginning, No End

No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen
No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen

The "Big Mind" that Zen Buddhist master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi so poetically described in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind shines throughout this collection of talks by Kwong, a disciple and authorized successor of Suzuki's.

 

7) Wonderland - The Zen of Alice

Wonderland: The Zen of Alice
Wonderland: The Zen of Alice

In this short book Silberberg weaves snippets from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with personal anecdotes, classic Buddhist sutras, koans and popular culture to illustrate Zen approaches to the true nature of enlightenment:.

 

8) Buddhism Plain & Simple

It's A Simple Path that many find complicated. In the 21st century to navigating a spiritual path seems like an impossible endeavor. But Buddhism opens one up to seeing reality without complicated doctrine and additions. Read more of my review: Buddhism Plain & Simple

Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day
Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day

You might want to digest this book slowly, a few pages at a time. Although Zen teacher Steve Hagen has a knack for putting the philosophy of Buddhism in a "plain and simple" package, it may take a while to sink in.

 

9) Bring Me The Rhinoceros

Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life

Bring Me the Rhinoceros is an unusual guide to happiness and a can opener for your thinking.

 

10) Straight To The Heart of Zen

Straight to the Heart of Zen: Eleven Classic Koans and Their Innner Meanings
Straight to the Heart of Zen: Eleven Classic Koans and Their Innner Meanings

One of the greatest aids to spiritual advancement was invented in China over a thousand years ago. We know it by its Japanese name, the koan, which Zen master Philip Kapleau describes as a direct and profound presentation of the truth. Koans, by design, are difficult to understand but can afford giant leaps toward enlightenment. As such, they are best taken one at a time and in limited quantity,

 

11) On Zen - practice

On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, and Mind
On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, and Mind

Zen Buddhism is renowned for its emphasis on the lineage of its teachers. This solid handbook, edited by the noted Bernie Glassman Roshi, pays tribute to his Zen master, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, who assisted in assembling the materials. Maezumi (Appreciate Your Life) was the founding abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) and the successor to three major lines of Zen thought.

 

Zen Reading Room...

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Unfolding of Zen in my life can be glimpsed at Zen Automat - A blockheads attempt to understand Zen but who most certainly doesn't understand Zen. Where's the door out of this place anyways?

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Looks like a nice collection to start off with!

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      RinchenChodron 6 years ago

      A nice start to the literature on Zen! If only more people would read them and apply them.