SINGLE BOOK ZEN: Zen Teachers Recommend a Single Book on Zen

SINGLE BOOK ZEN: Zen Teachers Recommend a Single Book on Zen May 16, 2021




Recently I posted a request for recommendations of a single book on Zen. I put it on a couple of lists to which I belong that are limited to Zen teachers. I added for this query some direct emails to a couple of old hands who don’t have formal titles but are particularly knowledgable about the Zen literature.

A few of my friends made fun of the project. One, maybe two suggested the pillow (if you’re not a Zen practitioner, “pillow’ means a zafu, the pillow upon which one sits to do Zen meditation.) Two suggested, tongue in cheek, I assume, that perhaps one of theirs might do the trick. While another friend suggested “maybe your lovely little book,” without saying which that might be.

At this writing I have collected twenty five suggested titles. Knowing my friends, I suspect a few more will straggle in, and I will try to add them when they do…

Most of the books might be considered introductory, or for early in one’s practice. But, not all of them. And, with most of these titles, I believe they’re well worth a second visit. Some, could profitably be re-read every couple of years.

First. Nine Zen teachers recommended Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

If you’re not familiar with it, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is probably the first genuine American Zen classic. It started as a series of talks by the venerable founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki, that were captured by his student Marion Derby. The talks were then edited and polished by Richard Baker, and it would appear, principally, Trudy Dixon.

And something wonderful birthed out of this project.

I am providing links for all of these books, mostly to their publishers. I don’t have my act together enough to create a bookstore allowing me to capture a few bucks for this. On the other hand that frees me up to say many of these books have been in print for a very long time and it should be easy to pick up as a used copy. There are many good online bookstores to check out.

I don’t think Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind fully works as an introduction to Zen. But as a second book on Zen, absolutely. And, I think it works as a book about the intimate way for anyone walking an authentic spiritual path.

An absolutely wonderful book. And it is probably obvious to everyone on this list how it might be the sweepstakes winner.

Three teachers recommended Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen.

Not long ago I mused that it was time for a new introduction to Zen, its teaching and its practices. A friend who is an old hand asked, why not Taking the Path of Zen? I said, its great. But, its dated. She asked, and how is that? And, I was unable to answer her. Because it has a timeless quality. It is direct, clear, and touches pretty much all the bases.

And, while there is some stiff competition, several of those books appear on this list, it remains arguably the best all around single volume introduction to Zen.

Two teachers recommended Kosho Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought.

This is, flat out, an amazing book. If y0u want a read from the inside of the tradition, by someone who can plunge the depths, touch the heart, and open the way; well, here you go.

Two teachers recommended the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor.

There are only two traditional texts included in this list. I consider the Platform Sutra the foundational document of the Zen way. Our tradition names the misty Bodhidharma as our founder, another Indian prince, who comes from the magical West to deliver the intimate way. And, really, who knows? And the documentary evidence supporting the story is scant. The Platform Sutra is considered by scholars as something of a political screed, an attempt to establish one of the successors to the renowned Daman Hongren as the only true, the Sixth ancestor in a line from Bodhidharma. Whatever may have been the case, in fact the entire line of Zen that comes to us comes through that monk, Dajian Huineng.

This book introduces us to the all the principal themes of our way. And, it is just a great read.

I started with a link the the Philip Yampolski translation. It remains the standard scholarly text. But, I have to admit I have a soft spot for Red Pine, Bill Porter’s enormous readable versions.

I find the rest of the books, while they stand alone, are really, really wonderful, and, again, specifically what a Zen teacher thought of when I asked them to recommend a single book.

Being Upright by Reb Anderson.

The subtitle reads “Zen meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts.” The Zen way rests upon a tripod. One is awakening, another are the practices (yes, our master Dogen did say enlightenment and practice are one. Cut me some slack here.), and the third are the precepts. There are in fact only a handful of books in English on the subject. This is a good one.

Bring me the Rhinocerous by John Tarrant

Personally, I’m most touched by his first book, the Light Inside the Dark. And some people have criticized this introduction to koan practice for its seductive simplicity. Me, I think that’s just fine. You want a taste of the koan way, a spiritual discipline unique to the Zen traditions? Well, this is a good book to touch the matter.

Ch’an & Zen Teaching: First Series by Lu Koan Yu (Charles Luk)

An older volume in this collection. It is another good read, and it, and its two successor volumes introduces us to the Zen way within its Chinese context. Interestingly this is said to be the book that Carl Jung was reading when he died. You probably won’t die reading this book, but it might introduce you to the deathless…

It is available in reprint, and it is nice to have an actual book in your hand, but I’ve linked to a PDF.

Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien

The subtitle says it all, “a concise history of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World.” The author is an old Zen hand as well as a trained journalist. She brings both of these things to a really wonderful read.

Compass of Zen Seung Sahn

The remarkable Korean Zen master and founder of the Kwan Um School, offers what is described as “a simple, exhaustive, and often hilarious, presentation of the essence of Zen.” Highly recommended.

Ending the Pursuit of Happiness Barry Magid

Barry Magid is a practicing psychiatrist as well as a dharma successor to the late Charlotte Joko Beck. Barry Magid brings a penetrating eye to the questions of our contemporary quest for “happiness,” and offers Zen’s unique alternative take.

Encouraging Words Robert Aitken

A collection of essays on aspects of the Zen way by someone who was called the dean of American Zen, one of the first Western born Zen teachers, widely respected. Much loved.

Essence of Zen Sekkei Harada

This is one of those wonderful and insightful explorations of the Zen way. I found it enriching my own reflections, and provided pointers for me on my continuing exploration of the inner life.

Infinite Circle Bernie Glassman

The renowned Bernie Glassman takes a “back to the basics” approach to this simple and clear exposition of the Zen way.

Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara is a Mahayana Sutra, generally believed to have been composed somewhere between the fourth and fifth century of our common era. Parts may be of later composition. It is largely framed as a conversation between the Buddha and a bodhisattva named Great Wisdom. It has been associated with the Zen school just about forever.

I linked the very readable version by Red Pine. The early scholar of Zen into European languages, D. T. Suzuki, also offered a translation.

Living by Vow Shohaku Okumura

This is really good book. Shohaku Okumura has become one of the most widely respected Zen teachers in North America. Here he explores eight central texts in the Soto school, inviting us into the mysteries.

Mirror of Zen So Sahn

A classic of the Korean Son tradition. (It has been noted that I don’t appear to have read this book. True. But, its now on my list.)

Record of the Empty Hall translated and with commentaries by Dosho Port

I was surprised to see a single koan collection among the recommended books. I really would have liked to see Guo Gu’s wonderful contemporary commentary Passing Through the Gateless Barrier. Or, perhaps The Hidden Lamp collected by Florence Renshin Caplow and Susan Reigetsu Moon, or The Book of Householder Koans by Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao  (Okay, so I slipped them in. Editor’s privilege…)

But, if there is only going to be one, I’m glad it was Dosho Port’s Record of the Empty Hall. Dosho Port translates the one hundred cases of the Thirteenth century cases gathered by Xutang Zhiyu. These are worth reading, but what makes it so compelling are the commentaries by a contemporary master of koan Zen.

Story of Zen Richard Bryan McDaniel

The Story of Zen explores the history and teachings of the Zen tradition based on interviews with teachers and old hands. Richard McDaniel weaves a narrative that is inviting and informative.

Three Pillars of Zen edited by Philip Kapleau

Three Pillars of Zen was the first book in English to explore the actual practice of the tradition. It consists principally of teachings from the Sanbozen school (at the time, Sanbo Kyodan), derived from the Soto school, but emphasizing a complete koan curriculum adapted from the Takuju line of the Rinzai school. In recent years it has been criticized for its forceful emphasis on kensho, Zen’s awakening encounter. Perhaps this is true. But, I know the selection featuring first person accounts of modern Zen students encountering the fundamental matter proved an invitation to me, and a goad to my own practice. An important book.

Upside-Down Zen Susan Murphy

Susan Murphy is an Australian Zen teacher. It seems many of John Tarrant’s dharma successors are just plain good writers. This book covers much the same territory as many of the other titles here, but in such an evocative and personal way, that it makes all of it new.

Way of Tenderness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

In recent years we have begun to see offerings from the African American Zen experience. Jules Shezen Harris, angel Kyodo Williams and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel all lleap immediately to mind. I was particularly impressed that it was the Way of Tenderness that was offered to this list.

In the Way of Tenderness Zenju Earthlyn Manuel offers a deeply intimate exploration of race, gender, and sexuality, revealing the transformation within and of Zen as it roots here in North America.

What is Zen? Norman Fischer & Susan Moon

Using a question and answer format, Zen teachers Susan Moon and Norman Fischer provide an informative and inviting introduction to the Soto school of Zen as adapted in North America. This book is often used in Zen groups as a study read.

Zen Keys Thich Nhat Hanh

In Zen Keys, the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers his introduction to the Zen tradition. For me, the most interesting part is his translation of a collection of koans gathered originally by the 13th century Vietnamese Zen master Tran Thai Tong.

Zen Master Who? by James Ishmael Ford

I was embarrassed and pleased to see one of my books recommended (beyond the unnamed “lovely little book,” of course). This was the fruit of years of research and is an attempt to capture the history of the establishment of the Zen tradition in North America. There are a couple of glaring errors that haunt me. Two worth noting. The first that the Korean teacher Samu Sunim, despite my saying otherwise, did receive dharma transmission from Weolha Sunim in 1983. The other was that the Rinzai line brought to North America by Sogen Omori had died out. It has not.

Which brings me to a last title for your consideration. Due perhaps to the nature of the lists that I belong to, perhaps just because there are so many fewer practitioners of Rinzai Zen in North America compared to Soto and Harada Yasutani lineages, but the glaring gap among the titles is one unambiguously connected to the contemporary Rinzai school. One author I was mildly shocked to not see appear on this list was Shodo Harada, a wonderful and wise teacher.

But, for my recommendation here, and the last of our titles, I offer for your consideration

The Rinzai Zen Way by Meido Moore. He offers a clear outline of practice within the Rinzai school, and for me of particular interest is his emphasis on body and breath. Well worth a read.

(And a footnote. Shortly after publishing this, I received a small batch of additional suggestions from teachers. I incorporated them. Then after that I’ve now received two more small batches of suggested books. Mostly these were not single titles, but suggestions for several books with qualifications about whether the reader was a beginner or more advanced. Honestly, I think we’re done with this project. I would only add that out of these that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind picked up a tenth endorsement, and that Circle of the Way, and Compass of Zen each earned another recommendation…)




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