The best books on zen and martial arts

Who am I?

Goran Powell is an award-winning martial arts writer who holds a 5th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. His love affair with the martial arts began as a boy with Judo and he took up full-contact Karate in 1984. In 2002, he completed the grueling 30 Man Fight and documented his experience in his first book, Waking Dragons, before going on to write a string of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction titles. In 2015, he joined the Dogen Sangha Zen group in London and his latest book, Karate on a Cushion, examines the intriguing connection between Zen and martial arts. Goran won Writer of the Year at the prestigious British Martial Arts Awards In 2017.


I wrote...

Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

By Goran Powell,

Book cover of Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

What is my book about?

After thirty years of full-contact karate, it was time for Goran to sit down for a well-earned rest. And discover what sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall could reveal about the martial arts. And life. His journey led to a new dojo, a new sensei, and a Zen master who traced his origins all the way back to the first patriarch of Zen and martial arts, Bodhidharma. 

Soon he was studying beautiful writings that made no sense. And finding sitting on a cushion wasn’t nearly as relaxing as he’d hoped. But slowly, he was getting to grips with an ancient practice of body and mind that was less spiritual, and more real than anything he could have imagined.

The books I picked & why

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When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts

By Jeffrey K. Mann,

Book cover of When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts

Why this book?

Geoffrey Mann does a great job of laying out the history of Buddhism and Zen and its links to the martial arts. Thoroughly researched and widely referenced, it’s definitely the place to start, and the hardback edition makes a handsome addition to any martial arts library.


The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

By Red Pine, Bodhidharma,

Book cover of The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

Why this book?

A succinct insight into the Bodhidharma legend and some of the sutras he may have written or taught. Nothing much about martial arts, but a good insight into the man, and more importantly the thinking behind the study of the Way.


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

By Steve Hagen,

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

Why this book?

A great place to start to understand Zen. This book has been around for some time but on rereading it recently, I was struck again by how good it is. The essence of Buddhism is simplicity itself but all too often, books on Buddhism can be anything but. Steve Hagen writes succinctly with great verve and manages to make things really clear.


The Hardest Path: A Journey Outside to Answer the Questions Within

By Matt Jardine,

Book cover of The Hardest Path: A Journey Outside to Answer the Questions Within

Why this book?

Matt offers deeply personal insights into Buddhism, Eastern and Western philosophy, and life, inspired by his pilgrimage around the 88 temples of Shikoku, Japan.

The Hardest Path is a small book that punches well above its weight. It’s not really a travel guide for this famous pilgrimage but rather a series of insights derived from the author’s arduous journey. Matt is a talented writer and a well-read scholar and he delivers snippets of wisdom and astute observation at every turn.


Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth about Reality

By Brad Warner,

Book cover of Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth about Reality

Why this book?

Brad Warner is an interesting character, an American Zen master who’s also a punk guitarist and Godzilla fan. Brad studied with Gudo Nishijima Roshi for many years and received Dharma transmission from him. His books are written in a very accessible way that doesn’t take Zen too seriously and get their meaning across all the better for it. Below are the three books I’ve read – I imagine the rest are equally good:


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in zen, Buddhism, and martial arts?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about zen, Buddhism, and martial arts.

Zen Explore 62 books about zen
Buddhism Explore 157 books about Buddhism
Martial Arts Explore 11 books about martial arts

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World, What Is Zen?, and The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen if you like this list.