The best books on Zen from a Zen teacher

Who am I?

James Ford is a Zen teacher and the author or editor of five books on Zen history and spirituality. His history of Zen in the West, Zen Master Who? captured the personalities who formed our emerging Western schools, while the Book of Mu, which he compiled and edited with Melissa Myozen Blacker is considered essential for any contemporary student of koans, Zen’s arcane spiritual discipline.


I wrote...

Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons

By James Ishmael Ford,

Book cover of Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons

What is my book about?

An indispensable guide to koans, teaching the reader about the importance of lineage, the practice of “just sitting,” and koan practice as paths to awakening. The power of koans, these 'public cases' from China, has never ceased to enrich his own experience of Zen. They are a medium of exploration of the history, culture, and view of Zen, but most importantly are a medium of awakening.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen

James Ishmael Ford Why did I love this book?

A delightful introduction to traditional Zen practice in the West. Seigaku Amato introduces us to the intricacies of monastic practice adapted into Western communities with humor, insight, and pictures?

By Seigaku Amato,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An introduction to Zen unlike any you’ve seen before—inspired by manga and graphic novels.

The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen offers a comprehensive overview of Soto Zen Buddhism in a delightfully captivating way. Complete with dynamic, detailed illustrations, Soto Zen Priest Seigaku Amato uses a semi-narrative style to take you on a visual tour of Buddhism and, using specifics to illuminate universals, dives deep into the practices and forms of Soto Zen.

Whether you are just taking your first step or have been practicing Zen for years, this creative and profound book will be a constant companion and guide on…


Book cover of The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World

James Ishmael Ford Why did I love this book?

Journalist and long-time Zen student Barbara O'Brien offers the only readable, concise, and yet comprehensive survey of Zen's history, the development of its teachings from the beginnings of Buddhism to the dawn of the twenty-first century. She finds a genuine middle ground between an appreciation of the received tradition and the best of modern scholarship. A masterful accomplishment. 

By Barbara O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Circle of the Way as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A comprehensive, accessible guide to the fascinating history of Zen Buddhism--including important figures, schools, foundational texts, practices, and politics.

Zen Buddhism has a storied history--Bodhidharma sitting in meditation in a cave for nine years; a would-be disciple cutting off his own arm to get the master's attention; the proliferating schools and intense Dharma combat of the Tang and Song Dynasties; Zen nuns and laypeople holding their own against patriarchal lineages; the appearance of new masters in the Zen schools of Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and later the Western world. In The Circle of the Way, Zen practitioner and popular religion writer…


Book cover of The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics

James Ishmael Ford Why did I love this book?

Robert Aitken was the first American born Zen teacher to be ranked an equal among the first generation of Zen missionaries from East Asia. Several of his books count as classics, but Mind of Clover stands out for its clarity while introducing Zen's ethical precepts as an essential container of Zen practice. 

By Robert Aitken,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind of Clover as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken provided a concise guide to zazen (Zen meditation) and other aspects of the practice of Zen. In The Mind of Clover he addresses the world beyond the zazen cushions, illuminating issues of appropriate personal and social action through an exploration of the philosophical complexities of Zen ethics.

Aitken's approach is clear and sure as he shows how our minds can be as nurturing as clover, which enriches the soil and benefits the environment as it grows. The opening chapters discuss the Ten Grave Precepts of Zen, which, Aitken points out, are "not…


Book cover of Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen

James Ishmael Ford Why did I love this book?

Collecting and editing translations from a who's who of Zen scholarship, Kaz Tanahashi provides what has become the classic introduction to the writings of Eihei Dogen. The founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen is considered one of the signal figures in the distillation of Zen's teachings. 

By Eihei Dogen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moon in a Dewdrop as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), among the first to transmit Zen Buddhism from China to Japan and founder of the important Soto School, was not only a profoundly influential and provocative Zen philosopher but also one of the most stimulating figures in Japanese letters.

Kazuaki Tanahashi, collaborating with several other Zen authorities, has produced sensitive and accurate translations of Dogen's most important texts. Moon in a Dewdrop contains the key essays of the great master, as well as extensive background materials that will help Western readers to approach this significant work. There is also a selection of Dogen's poetry, most of which…


Book cover of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

James Ishmael Ford Why did I love this book?

D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts introduced Zen to a Western audience. Shunryu Suzuki, no relationship to the scholar, was one of the first to show Westerners how to live Zen. He founded the San Francisco Zen Center as one of the first centers dedicated to offering authentic practice to Westerners. This book has become a beloved classic, arguably the first classic of American Zen.

By Shunryu Suzuki,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named one of the 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century (Spirituality & Practice)

A 50th Anniversary edition of the bestselling Zen classic on meditation, maintaining a curious and open mind, and living with simplicity.

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

So begins this most beloved of all American Zen books. Seldom has such a small handful of words provided a teaching as rich as has this famous opening line. In a single stroke, the simple sentence cuts through the pervasive tendency students have of getting so close to Zen…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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