Best Zen Books for Enlightened Practice


It happened to me one day early in my Zen training. I was bursting to talk about my newfound interest in Zen Buddhism. It was fascinating to me, this strange and wonderful new world, this new dimension into perceiving the universe.

But others were not as interested as I.

I was in the zendo with my sangha, my group of fellow Zen compatriots. I think I wanted to talk about all of the wonderful books I’d been reading on Zen. And then came the put-down:

“We’ve all done a lot of reading!” came the tired and bored response from another Zen practitioner. That was the end of the conversation. Almost. He explained that he’d been practicing Zen for about two years and had gone through his reading phase.

Heck, I was just beginning. And in truth, my reading phase went on a lot longer than his.

Seven years later I was still perusing bookshelves in bookstores, looking for hidden classics that might shed further light on my practice.

I’ve since come to the conclusion that the tired and bored Zen practitioner I encountered was tired of life. Or else he was something of a phony. For how could you treat reading about Zen as just a short-term phase?

Well, I do understand in a way. You are not supposed to read about Zen. You are supposed to practice. This is what the Zen masters tell you. “Stop reading and talking about it!” to paraphrase one of the mantras Zen students have to recite every time they sit down with the sangha.

And practice involves sitting, sitting, sitting.

But there is a life off the cushion. A very vibrant life. A life in which you engage the mind not just in the moment, but in your thoughts, your reactions to the world, and via analysis of your feelings, perhaps, but also by exploration of the intellectual content of life. This, I think, is just as important.

Otherwise we’re all just sitting around the campfire after the long cattle drive, swatting at mosquitoes and trying to occupy ourselves between the hours of twilight and dawn. Fancy trying to do that with nothing but the “emptiness” to keep you entertained!

So let me share with you some of the books on the subject of Zen I think are well worth reading and rereading. I’ll give you just two and my thoughts on each. They can serve as bookends in your Zen reading career, a starter and an ender, two books vastly different in the level of sophistication they offer. Two books that are each as profound as the other.

Here it goes:

“Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind,” by Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran.

I read this gem of a Zen starter while I was on a sailing cruise. My fellow shipmates wondered what had happened to me. I disappeared below decks and did not surface until I had finished the last page.

O’Halloran died after writing this. She went off across Asia on a tour and the driver of the bus she happened to be riding in fell asleep and went off the road. Halloran died in the crash.

But before she did, she gave us the rundown on what it was like to discover the sweet existence of life inside a Japanese temple, where she lived and practiced and attained the highest seal of enlightenment from the resident master.

O’Halloran was an unusual practitioner. She had tremendous ability. Some Zen practitioners do. Enlightenment experiences come easily for them. O’Halloran was even studied by researchers for her ability to descend easily into the deepest of Zen states.

Read this book and discover for yourself who she was and what intrigued her about Zen, but also discover the poetry of her marvelous existence, which this book, in diary format, manages to convey to the utmost.

And here’s my second choice: “Zen and Japanese Culture,” by Daisetz T. Suzuki.

This is a thorough analysis of Zen from Japanese tea ceremony to swordsmanship. It is not dull, intellectual stuff. Quite the contrary, you’ll be riveted as you flip through the pages, gaining insights that years on the cushion would never divulge.

Zen in the zendo tends to be taught from the simple perspective of settling and appreciating, which is not completely wrong. Even so, you do want to know something of the theory, something of the practical understanding that, say, the Japanese samurai warrior employed in his pursuit of excellence and survival in battle.

This book will open your eyes, but perhaps you should wait until you have progressed a long way in your sitting practice – and your reading acquisition – before you give it a try.

So that’s it, read for fun, read for understanding, but also read for enlightenment. And for further enlightenment, read my blog:


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