Whether through my own need to talk about it or the curiosity of friends and clients I am often asked if I have read this or that book about Buddhism or if there are particular books that I recommend. In my early days of meditation I voraciously consumed almost any book or magazine with the words “Zen” or “Buddhism” in the title, I do feel that it was a pretty good way to get a feel for the various flavors of Buddhism, but my first love was Soto style zazen focused Buddhism and after some early dabbling it remains, for me, the most direct and succinct form. This does not mean in any way that other forms are less worthy in my opinion any more than it would mean to say that sushi is better than tacos just because I like sushi better. An old Buddhist adage says “there are 84,000 doors into the dharma” which basically means that the Buddhist form which works for one person may not work at all for the next, we all find our own way. These recommendations are simply the ones I have found most conductive to a stable and reliable practice. While you can never “get” zazen from a book, I have found that they are a good way to remain motivated and to monitor my own evolving understanding, a passage which I read a certain way a year ago my turn out to mean something quite different the next time I read it with the only change being the year of zazen between readings.
Before I get to my favorite books a quick word about Buddhist magazines. The big three Buddhist mags (Shambala Sun, Tricycle, and Buddhadharma) are all put out primarily by groups which practice and promote Tibetan/dzongchen/shambala type Buddhism which is fine and dandy except that if you go looking for a lot of info on Zazen you will be lucky to find one small article per issue. I have given up reading them unless I see a specific article I like, once again I’m not saying “mine is better than yours” but the very nature of Zen Buddhism doesn’t lend itself to buying a lot of accoutrements and stuff which those magazines depend on in the form of advertising to pay the bills. Once I narrowed down my search to a practice which worked for me I found many of the articles simply muddied my mind with how I should be sitting and other things.
Anyhow here are some books I think have helped me understand a little more of this crazy Buddhist stuff.
First is Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner.
I had read a couple of books about Taoism and a great cartoon book of Zen classics before, but this was the first book about any type of “religion” which struck me as so fundamentally right for me that I was amazed. It is literally the “book that changed my life” and got me on the road of Zen Buddhism.
Brad was a former bass player in a hardcore band in the early 80’s, a questioner of reality, a guy who was as into Godzilla flicks as he was eastern spirituality. He almost inadvertently became a ‘zen master’ and was able to take his punk roots and find the common ground with zen. He goes into detail of his own journey and struggles coming to terms with zen, gives a brief but thorough description of how to do the practice, and debunks most of the silly nonsense that I and most folks believe makes up Zen buddhism while still being entertaining and not too serious.
Some folks I have recommended this to have mentioned that they found his writing juvenile or harsh. it never struck me this way possibly because I come from the same punk roots where zine writers simply wrote from the gut without pulling punches. There are no flowery bits about lotuses on serene ponds in Hardcore zen, it’s the straight facts presented in a ‘take it or leave it fashion” I found refreshing. Rather than try to proselytize Warner presents the case as he sees it and its up to you to agree to try it or not, if you want to be seduced into trying zazen this isn’t the book for you.
I have read this book a dozen or so times and it never fails to recharge my desire to keep on sitting day after day.
Second is “Buddhism: Plain and Simple” by Steve Hagen
Steve Hagen is the abbot of the Dharma Field Zen center in Minnesota and studied with some of the original Japanese soto zen guys to come to the US in the 60’s. This book pulls off an amazingly hard trick which is to give you the straight dope on what is (and is not) Zen without all the trappings of Japanese/Chinese/Indian culture which have become attached to the core teachings throughout the centuries. It’s not there is anything wrong with these additions, but they are not really Buddhism, they are decorations on buddhism and can easily distract. One analogy compares Zen to the tea in a cup and the cup is all the extra stuff, the chanting, the robes, the bells and incense. It’s fine to have a fancy cup as long as you don’t forget about the tea! This book does a great job of explaining why most of us feel the need to begin doing zazen and helps avoid the pitfalls along the way.
Maybe because his presentation is so “plain and simple” some folks will be left bored, but this is far from a boring book! Extravagant promises of “enlightenment” and lists of the awesome ‘benefits’ of zen are more exciting, but when it comes to zen, they are worse than useless, they are just more bullshit to have to try to see though. If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of zazen then this book is essential.
third is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s “What makes you not a Buddhist”
This book is not from a zen style perspective but it actually talks about the many fallacies people fall into when trying to “be Buddhist” and is a great primer on how to tell authentic Buddhist philosophy from the trappings and projections of a given society. He deals with the misconception that Buddhists must be vegetarian, believe in reincarnation, worship Buddha and more doctrinal things as well. But more importantly he deals with the fundamental aspects of Buddhist philosophy regarding impermanence, emotions, nirvana (or enlightenment), and the idea of a fixed “self”. These are core concepts and regardless of your path are truly useful to see expanded upon this way.
It is a great book for someone first getting into Buddhism and is written in an easy accessible style that feels like a letter from a wise friend instead of a textbook. There is nothing really about how to meditate and as I mentioned above this isn’t from a zen point of view, but it was an important book to clear away a lot of the misconceptions that I had when I began sitting.
My next post will be more books which I have found useful or entertaining about Buddhism, but these 3 are the ones I always recommend for folks who have not done the practice and want to get some idea of “what it’s about”. They all have in common a clear simple writing style without the annoying “I’m SO enlightened” writing style that many Buddhist writers adopt. They also get right to the point and are about as clear of an explanation as you will find in writing. If you wonder why I haven’t put “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” on this postings list it’s because despite the word “Beginner” in the title I do not think its a book for someone with no prior knowledge of Zen. It is a great book and definitely one of the must haves on your buddhist library shelf, but I found it confusing as all heck til I had been sitting a couple of years.
Which brings me to the point of actual sitting zazen. Unless you commit to try out the meditation portion of Zen Buddhism, even for a little bit, then these books are just useless descriptions. It is like reading about eating an apple but never bothering to try one. if you are interested in what Zen Buddhism really is just try it a few times as you read one of these books.