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Friday, March 19, 2010


This is kind of a weird thing to post about, and I hope I don't come off as proselytizing, but I'm oftentimes asked from readers for a list of recommendations for books on Buddhism.  If you're not interested in such a thing, please feel free to ignore this post!

Of course, there are hundreds upon hundreds of books in print on Zen, but these are some of my favorites, titles that I always recommend to people starting out:

Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken Roshi.  Aitken Roshi was one of the first westerners to bring back to the US an authentic practice experience from Japan.  His writing is warm and clear, avoiding jargon, and very inspiring.  He's written many books, all of which I recommend, but this one was specifically made for beginners.

The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaren.  The Dhammapada is a collection of the earliest Buddhist teachings, and Easwaren has provided a vivid and lyrical, yet simple, translation. But the real gift to beginners is that his lengthy introduction provides the most accessible description of the Buddhist worldview that I've ever read.

Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  Uchiyama Roshi was a Soto Zen iconoclast, and these teachings for modern practitioners are direct and no-bullshit.  This book contains down-to-earth discussions about and instructions for zazen, Zen meditation.  Thoroughly contemporary and rock solid.

Other recommended titles:

The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi.  The first book written by a westerner that presented Zen as a practice and way of life, rather than a philosophy, this classic work presents talks and commentaries by Kapleau's teacher Yasutani Roshi; a selection of first person accounts of practice; and supporting texts, sutras, and teachings.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  You really can't go wrong with any writings by this modern day master, but this is his famous book for "beginners."  Another fascinating and beautiful book is Crooked Cucumber, a biography of Suzuki Roshi, by David Chadwick.

The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, edited by Jack Shoemaker and Nelson Foster.  An exhilarating, chronological anthology of Zen Buddhist stories, teachings, and poetry.

Flowers Fall:  Commentaries on Zen Master Dogen's Genjokoan, by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi.  Dogen Zenji is the main figure in Japanese Soto Zen, who brought the practice from China to Japan in the 13th century, and Genjokoan is perhaps his best loved and most studied work.

The Wholehearted Way: Commentaries on Dogen Zenji's Bendowa, by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  A beautiful book with rich, fascinating commentary by one of my favorite writers, Bendowa contains a Q+A format section, in which Dogen Zenji answers questions from a beginning student.

I should of course point out that the whole purpose of Zen is to go beyond limited notions.  Books and words are, as they say, a "finger pointing to the moon," not the moon itself.  To get a real sense of Zen practice you have to do it.  Simple online instructions for Zen meditation can be found here.

For Dogen Zenji's own instructions, Google "Fukanzazengi.".


  1. Have you read any of Brad Warner's books? I would think you'd appreciate his approach, coming from a music/punk type background.

  2. Hi Derik, yes, I've really enjoyed his books-- especially the second one, "Sit Down and Shut Up."


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