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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jeffrey K. Mann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Buddhists Attack as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncover the historical truth about Buddhist warrior monks with this informative and enlightening book.

Film, television and popular fiction have long exploited the image of the serene Buddhist monk who is master of the deadly craft of hand-to-hand combat. While these media overly romanticize the relationship between a philosophy of non-violence and the art of fighting, When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts shows this link to be nevertheless real, even natural.

Exploring the origins of Buddhism and the ethos of the Japanese samurai, university professor and martial arts practitioner Jeffrey Mann traces the close…

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

By Red Pine, Bodhidharma,

Book cover of The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

Why did I love 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.

By Red Pine, Bodhidharma,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fifth-century Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen to China. Although the tradition that traces its ancestry back to him did not flourish until nearly two hundred years after his death, today millions of Zen Buddhists and students of kung fu claim him as their spiritual father.

While others viewed Zen practice as a purification of the mind or a stage on the way to perfect enlightenment, Bodhidharma equated Zen with buddhahood and believed that it had a place in everyday life. Instead of telling his disciples to purify their minds, he pointed them to rock walls,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Steve Hagen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Buddhism Plain and Simple as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This is the clearest and most precise exposition of Buddhism I have ever read. If you're looking for enlightenment rather than just scholarly knowledge, you'd better read this."
-Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen priest and longtime teacher Steve Hagen presents the heart of Buddhist teachings, pared down to its essence and explained in simple, everyday language. This best-selling book is the perfect guide to Buddhism for beginners; the text has served international readers at all levels of study and practice since it was originally published over a decade…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Matt Jardine,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On the Japanese island of Shikoku, amidst mountains, coasts, and bamboo forests, lies one of the world's most sacred trails--the eighty-eight-temple pilgrimage.
Inspired by Paulo Coelho (author of the Alchemist) and driven by dissatisfaction with the day-to-day grind, Matt Jardine embarks on a journey in search of answers to life's great questions, mysteries that confound us all.
Heartfelt, accessible, humorous, and profound, what he discovers is that the hardest path is rarely the one we walk outside, but the one we walk within.

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

Why did I love 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:

By Brad Warner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hardcore Zen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Zen, plain and simple, with no BS.

This is not your typical Zen book. Brad Warner, a young punk who grew up to be a Zen master, spares no one. This bold new approach to the "Why?" of Zen Buddhism is as strongly grounded in the tradition of Zen as it is utterly revolutionary. Warner's voice is hilarious, and he calls on the wisdom of everyone from punk and pop culture icons to the Buddha himself to make sure his points come through loud and clear. As it prods readers to question everything, Hardcore Zen is both an approach and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in zen, Buddhism, and martial arts?

9,000+ 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 83 books about zen
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Martial Arts Explore 22 books about martial arts