Most books on Buddhist and Zen meditation stress that even though they try to detail and explain the meditation practice as best they can, you really do need a qualified teacher: a person who you, by searching, investigating and comparing, feel comfortable about or are convinced is the right teacher for you.
Nothing, they say, can take the place of a good (sometimes they add the word accredited) teacher.
This, of course, is all well and good for those who live in urban parts of the country where teachers might be available to find, investigate and compare. But for those of us who live in more rural areas, far away from Buddhist or Zen centers and their teachers, the books themselves have to shoulder the mantle of Teacher, and lead us toward the light.
Books, therefore, and possibly for a large majority (think the Earth Population/Meditation Teacher ratio—a scary number that), will be the Teachers we turn to and trust to help us.
I live in a small California town on the Pacific Coast just south of the Oregon border. To my knowledge there is only one other Buddhist in this little town of less than ten thousand souls—of the Tibetan persuasion. There are no centers, no groups, no teachers.
So, for me there are only books—and, yes, the occasional YouTube video, but in the main, books. While videos of Dharma talks or guided meditation can be helpful, I find such talks (mainly improvised, as they are) less thought-through and carefully explicated than those given in books, which normally have undergone much scrutiny, editing, criticism, and more editing before arriving at the final, published state—and so, I assume, say exactly what the author wants them to say.
I believe this holds true even when the book is a printed collection of Dharma talks, for they have also been scrutinized and edited before publication.
So, for me—as for, I believe, many others: Books are my teachers.
That said, what books have taught me what, and what books do I recommend? This is what I aim to share. Be warned, though, it is quite a path (list) for I have read and consulted many books in search of true teachers.
But before I embark upon the list, I should say that I believe the search, the acquisition of Path, is a very personal thing. Books that have spoken, and keep speaking to me, may or may not speak to others. Ultimately, yes, I believe that some books are so universally true and helpful that they will speak to everyone, but many books may be more acquired taste than universal teacher.
I briefly encountered Buddhism in the 1960s, but not in depth and not for long. By the end of that decade I had embarked upon a different path, one I was to pursue for the next forty odd years.
Finally convinced that that long-time path would, in fact, not lead me all the way, I disembarked and began casting about for another path, which made me (re)turn to Buddhism, my first love so to speak.
The first book I now read (late 2007) was the Buddha’s Dhammapada as translated and introduced by Eknath Easwaran. In his introduction he discussed the four Dhyanas (Jhanas in Pali) in some detail and this is what turned the light on for me, for I realized, as he described the phenomena accompanying especially the second Dhyana, that I had experienced these very phenomena in the fall of 1968, when I had a significant spiritual insight, an experience of pure light—an experience I then chased (as in trying to recapture or explain), unsuccessfully, for the next forty years.
My first (and lasting) thought, as I read this Easwaran introduction, was: “Oh, my God. These guys have known about this all along.”
Scales and falling from eyes come to mind as I realized that Buddhism, the very Buddhism I had encountered but discarded back in the 1960s, this was indeed my Path. It had been my Path all along.
So, it is fair to say that Easwaran’s Dhammapada was the book that changed my course, and is the first book I truly recommend. To me, it is a very accessible version of the Dhammapada, and the Dhammapada is a book that holds universal benefit.
Since then, I’ve acquired and read other versions of the Dhammapada, and I highly recommend Gil Fronsdal’s translation; while my favorite Dhammapada is, and to this day remains, Thomas Byrom’s simple and beautifully rendered translation.
Once I had decided that Buddhism, and Buddhist meditation, was it, was indeed my Path, I began looking for good books about just that—Buddhist meditation.
My first find, and still a favorite, was Larry Rosenberg’s Breath by Breath, a great introduction to and manual of Anapanasati, awareness of the breath meditation.
I believe my second book on Anapanasati was Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Mindfulness with Breathing, a Manual for Serious Beginners, which I also found very, very helpful—still do.
By this time, I had settled on Anapanasati as the perfect meditation vehicle, the breath being so available, so near, and so portable, so here followed other books on Anapanasati and now with a Jhana slant.
I believe I nnext read a string of books by Ayya Khema, the truly brilliant German Theravada nun. Being Nobody, Going Nowhere; Be an Island: Come See for Yourself; and Who Is Myself? among others. I also read her very moving autobiography I Give You My Life.
Ayya Khema, with her almost brusque but very clear and straightforward approach to both being a Buddhist and a Meditator was a strong hand that led me further on my path. Can’t say enough about her.
While she may not be everybody’s cup of tea, she certainly was very much to my taste.
At this time, I also read several books by Henepola Gunaratana: Mindfulness in Plain English; The Four Foundations of Mindfulness; Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English; and others. I found Gunaratana very accessible and a great help as well.
Of course, I also read Nyanaponika Thera’s The Heart of Buddhist Meditation; along with his The Vision of Dhamma, which truly spoke to me.
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation is considered one of the classics and I believe no Buddhist library will, as they say, be complete without it.
And now we come to the Pali Canon itself.
Once I had decided that Buddhism and Buddhist meditation was indeed my path, I also wanted to get as close as I could to the words of the actual, historical Buddha himself—some refer to it as the Original Buddhism, others call it Theravada. This in turn led me to Wisdom Publications’ fantastic Teachings of the Buddha series, which includes the four main books of the Sutta Nikaya:
Digha Nikaya — The Long Discourses of the Buddha
Majjhima Nikaya — The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
Samyutta Nikaya — The Connected Discourses of the Buddha
Anguttara Nikaya — The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha
This wonderful series also includes:
The Suttanipata — An Ancient Collection of the Buddha Discourses
In the Buddhas Words — A Pali Canon Anthology
Great Disciples of the Buddha — Lives, Works, Legacy
I have read the four main books (on Kindle, which made it so much easier to access the many footnotes) and found them both educational and very inspiring.
In the Buddha’s Words is a great anthology created (and translated) by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a great Pali scholar and Theravada monk. It works like a primer to the Pali Canon itself.
For those interested in the roots of Buddhism, this Wisdom Publication series is nothing short of a gold mine.
While studying the Pali Canon I also read the works of another Pali scholar, the German Theravada monk Analayo. He has written several outstanding scholarly works, including: Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization; Excursions into the Thought-world of the Pali Discourses; Perspectives on Satipatthana; and several others. They are all highly recommended for those who want to delve into not only a great analysis of the Pali Canon itself but also the historical comparisons between the Pali Canon and its Chinese (mainly) and Tibetan counterparts.
Another fantastic writer is Shaila Catherine and at this time I read her Focused and Fearless: A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity as well as portions of her sequel (so to speak) Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana. I found Focused and Fearless more accessible and that Wisdom Wide and Deep left me a little stranded—like a post-grad thesis on the subject, when I was looking for a conversational hand. Still, that does not detract from Shaila Catherine’s brilliance, and I still keep Focused and Fearless close at hand.
Two subjects that held my fascination and interest, and still do, are Samadhi and Emptiness. Before we continue, it is worth mentioning some books that deal directly with these matters.
Richard Shankman does an amazing job investigating and describing Samadhi, and his two books, The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation, and The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation: Mindfulness, Concentration, and Insight are very much worth reading and highly recommended.
As for Emptiness, Analayo treats the subject with his usual clarity in Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, and Rob Burbea does an amazing job of analyzing emptiness in his book Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. I also admire and highly recommend Guy Armstrong’s brilliant book, Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators.
At this point I came across B. Alan Wallace, a Tibetan Buddhism scholar and prolific writer (and lecturer). He is fascinatingly well-educated (and well-grounded in both science and religion, as well as philosophy) and has written several captivating and informative books on Buddhism versus Science (and other religions), including: The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind; Balancing the Mind; Choosing Reality; Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge; and, literally, a host of other fine books.
The Attention Revolution is probably the most accessible of Wallace’s writings and would be my recommended entry-book into the Wallace universe—a universe well-worth exploring.
Wallace’s writings pointed me to Tibetan Buddhism and I now read several books by Tibetan monks and also by the Dalai Lama, all of which served me well, while in turn pointing more and more to my final Buddhist destination, which was Zen.
Possibly the finest introduction to Zen is Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which is a delight to read and opens the door, and your mind, to Zen itself.
For me, while Theravada grounded me in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, it eventually (partially due to my own curiosity and also due to B. Alan Wallace’s brilliant books) led me to the Tibetan masters and their intricate discourses on Emptiness and Shamata meditation. In the end, however, as informative and inspiring as I found their views, I found Tibetan Buddhism a little “too thinky” for my taste; I thirsted for something simpler, more direct—and you will not find anything simpler or more direct than Zen and Zazen’s “Just Sitting” meditation.
And as you approach Zazen you will invariably also run into Dogen, the 13th Century Japanese Soto Zen founder.
Dogen’s masterpiece is Treasury of the True Dharma Eye—Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. The version edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi is probably today’s definitive edition and is published by Shambhala, both on paper and Kindle.
Whether you enter Dogen’s universe via Shobo Genzo or some other way, you will most likely end up with him one way or another.
That said, there are more gradual approaches to Dogen, including: The Essential Dogen—Writings of the Great Zen Master, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt; as well as Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation, Zen Master Dogen, also edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Both are highly recommended.
A more scholarly book about Dogen, his life and writings, is written by the Korean Buddhist monk and scholar Hee-Jin Kim: Eihei Dogen—Mystical Realist. This is an amazingly well-written and insightful investigation of Dogen, his times and life.
Which leads me to my final destination: Zazen, just sitting.
I highly recommend the following five books on Zazen, and I believe that between them you will have covered all important Zazen ground and will never need another manual or inspirational discussion of Zen meditation:
The Method of No-Method, Chan Master Sheng Yen;
Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, Taigen Dan Leighton;
Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, Kosho Uchiyama;
Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry, Taigen Dan Leighton; and
The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza, edited by John Daido Loori; this is my “Desert Island” book, the book to end all books on Zazen (in my opinion):
To this library I will add only one more book, one that amazingly, for me, correlated and merged the Theravada Jhanas with Zazen: and note here that Zazen literally means “Sitting Zen” and that Zen is the Japanese word for Chan which is the Chinese word for Dhyana, which, of course, is Sanskrit for the Pali Jhana.
So, Zazen actually means, “Sitting Jhana” and Keren Arbel’s Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) merges, for me, the two practices of Jhana meditation and Zazen into one beautiful, logical and workable whole.
I am home.
I have pursued the Buddhist path in earnest since 2007 and the above are the majority of the works I have at one time or another considered my teacher.
Today, as I mentioned above, I have settled in Zen and Zazen, and I believe I have come to rest here. I meditate four times a day, two long sittings, morning and evening, and two shorter sittings during the day.
Should you want to cut to the chase, and only read two of the above books, I would say Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and Loori’s The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza.
Yes, you will eventually end up with Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, but take your time. No need to rush it.
P.S. Not directly on topic, but one truly amazing book that you should read, if for no other reason than to gain greater insight into the spiritual life of the Hindu (i.e., Vedas, Upanishads), is Edwin F. Bryant’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The book, in my view, is a masterpiece.