The best zen books

13 authors have picked their favorite books about zen and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings

By Paul Reps, Nyogen Senzaki,

Why this book?

This was my second foray into fascination with what I knew I didn’t understand but desperately sought to. The way this book is written is the method to the understanding it represents. It invites a practitioner to stay with it to receive its gifts and makes for an enduring companion. This book has traveled with me through decades. Each time I read it, it mirrors for me the depth of understanding that is current and what there is to look forward to.

From the list:

The best books about Zen awareness practice

Book cover of On Having No Head

On Having No Head

By Douglas Edison Harding,

Why this book?

One person I was lucky enough to meet and study with, though, was a very English Englishman called Douglas Harding: an ex British army officer who has some transformative experiences whist serving in India and spent the rest of his life devising smart, simple and profound ways to induce the same experiences in others. For example: point with your right index finger at the tip of your nose, and pay close attention to your actual experience of what the finger (which you can see) is pointing at (which you can’t). If you are lucky, you’ll be quite disconcerted! It was…

From the list:

The best books on Buddhism that get to the heart of the matter

Book cover of What Is Zen?

What Is Zen?

By D.T. Suzuki,

Why this book?

As I began my search to make some kind of sense of my life, I started with philosophy and moved to religion. When I came across this book, I intuitively sensed that the author knew what I wanted to know. I had no idea what he was talking about but my heart sang with every page. This was my first experience of being taken to the “place” from which the author wrote. Reading it was like sitting at the feet of the Master, aware of a lack of comprehension while witnessing a living example of what the heart intuitively knows.

From the list:

The best books about Zen awareness practice

Book cover of Self-Awareness Practice Instructions

Self-Awareness Practice Instructions

By Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Sankara, Annamalai Swami, Muruganar, Sadhu Om, Anonymous Awareness

Why this book?

If Japanese Zen is best expressed through haiku, Bhagwan Shri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings are the Vedantic equivalent. Simple, direct, straightforward – just the bare minimum a person needs to practice to awaken. This little book distills his teachings and takes the practitioner into a process designed to, as D.T. Suzuki might say it, “grasp the ungraspable nature of the ungraspable.”

From the list:

The best books about Zen awareness practice

Book cover of The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen

The Complete Illustrated Guide to Zen

By Seigaku Amato,

Why 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?

From the list:

The best books on Zen from a Zen teacher

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

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

By Barbara O'Brien,

Why 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. 

From the list:

The best books on Zen from a Zen teacher

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

The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics

By Robert Aitken,

Why 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. 

From the list:

The best books on Zen from a Zen teacher

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

Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen

By Eihei Dogen,

Why 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. 

From the list:

The best books on Zen from a Zen teacher

Book cover of The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master

The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master

By Peter Levitt, Kazuaki Tanahashi,

Why this book?

Dogen is one of the great original minds from all of Japanese history and human history. This book contains an ocean of Dogen’s profound writing. One can return time after time to delve into new layers of wisdom. 

From the list:

The best books for those interested in Zen Buddhism

Book cover of Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

By Taigen Dan Leighton,

Why this book?

Penetrating into the original Chinese texts, Leighton brings us close to the incomprehensible teaching of suchness, also called thusness, a positive approach to emptiness. Buddha is the Tathagata, the thus come. Suchness reminds us that the world, our lives, and emptiness are identical.

From the list:

The best books for those interested in Zen Buddhism

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