by D. J. McAdam
Zen is a notoriously difficult subject about which to write, for the simple and oft-cited reason that "true" Zen cannot be put into words. Why, then, are there so many books about Zen, and which are worth reading?
From a reader's perspective, many of us have an interest in Zen teachings and philosophy, and few of us have the money or time to visit a Zen monastery. Even for those of us who do intend to join some form of Zen group, we feel it would be helpful to know - to the extent that we can know - what we are getting ourselves into. Thus, there is a market for books about Zen.
From a writer's or teacher's perspective, producing a book on Zen is a means of sharing with others something that the writer himself, or herself, has found to be of benefit. Thus, there is a continuous production of books about Zen. But even if all writers on Zen are motivated by such a noble ideal, this does not mean that all Zen books are equally good.
I am not a Zen master, do not read Japanese, and have not read all books in English written on the subject. My recommendations are limited by these circumstances. With these considerations in mind, let me offer the following list of books as a guide to where one might start.
Zen Training, by Katsuki Sekida. This would be the first book I would read, even though it is not by any means an easy book to read. The reason for such a recommendation is that, firstly, Mr. Sekida is extremely knowledgeable of Zen, and secondly, that this book emphasizes what many others leave out or take for granted; zazen, or sitting meditation, as the foundation of Zen. All the Zen philosophy in the world won't get you anywhere until you quiet and eventually take control of your mind and body. This book comes as close to telling you how to do so as any book can. The author is also very helpful in explaining what the twin "goals" of Zen training are, i.e., absolute samadhi and practical samadhi. (Please don't e-mail me on this - I know there are no goals in Zen.)
The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau. Most Americans with an interest in Zen read this book at some point in their lives, because it is a very good book on Zen written by a Westerner. What the author describes are things an American seeker can relate to, and the work is not only interesting but practical.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. The concept of "beginner's mind" is helpful not only in Zen practice, but in daily life in general.
Buddha's Brain, by Rick Hanson. The subtitle of this book is The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and the work is not specifically about Zen Buddhism per se. Having said that, it is an interesting book, especially when read in close proximity to Mr. Sekida's book, since it further elucidates, from a neurological perspective, how something like Zen meditation can impact the workings of the brain.
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki, with a Foreword by Carl Jung. This is a work that dwells more on the philosophy of Zen than on its practical aspects, which is perhaps a way of damning the work with faint praise, since Zen really isn't about philosophical conceptualization. On the other hand, Suzuki was, more than anyone else, the person responsible for igniting interest in Zen in the West, and the work is at times fascinating. By all means, read the book, and read other books not on this list as well - but don't fool yourself into thinking you're getting somewhere if you read Zen philosophy without practicing zazen.
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