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Introductory books about Zen Buddhism

Learning about Zen Buddhism can feel like trying to talk a fish into your net. Just when you think you’ve come up with the most convincing argument, the fish swims away like it wasn’t even listening, and you’re left to ponder over ripples in the pond. For those looking to dip their toes into the pond, here’s a list of five books that helped me on my own journey and I often recommend. They’re all linked to Amazon with affiliate links because I find Amazon works well for sourcing books while traveling. But if you’re in a place where you have an independent bookstore, please visit them for a copy.

“PEACE IS EVERY STEP: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh

I recommend this to everybody as an introduction to Zen practices and philosophy. It’s an invitation to practice not just on the cushion but in every interaction and every breath. Having returned to the book over the years, I would also recommend a reread to anybody that’s been exploring Zen for awhile. Thich Nhat Hanh was a scholar of Buddhist sutras and as you broaden your own study of Zen, you’ll see how this book distills hundreds of years of teachings into precise, gentle points.

“ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND: Informal Talks on Zen meditation and practice” by Shunryu Suzuki

Suzuki Roshi presents the basics of Zen in a way that is accessible and profound. This classic is one of the first books I read on Zen, when I didn’t get it at all, but returned to after I’d had some time exploring my own mental health journey. The book is a collection of talks given by Suzuki to his students, filled with insights that can help you approach the stuff in your head differently (or at least consider that there are different ways to interact with the stuff in your head).

“Crow With No Mouth” by Ikkyu

Ikkyu, a 15th-century Japanese Zen monk, is renowned for his irreverent poetry that cuts to the heart of Zen experience. If the two books above are a bit like cooking textbooks, “Crow With No Mouth” is like a collection of poems about meals that Ikkyu cooked with those skills. His poems are an expression of the Zen path lived fully, embracing the sacred and the profane. This is a reminder that the path is not something you can understand by reading or watching videos, but must actually be lived.

“The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts

This is an opportunity to explore the history of Zen Buddhism, from somebody that also excels at translating its philosophy into a contemporary context. I would recommend reading this after you’ve started your own practice of meditation and mindfulness. If you’ve been exploring contemplative practices and gone through an evolution of your own with them, it can enrich your understanding of how these practices have evolved through the centuries.

“Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin” translated by Norman Waddell

Hakuin Ekaku has been one of the most influential figures in Zen Buddhism, known for revitalizing the Rinzai Zen tradition. You can find his writing and commentary captured in other foundational Zen texts, like the “Blue Cliff Record”. One of the reasons I often recommend Hakuin’s autobiography is because he discusses a period of time where he experienced “Zen sickness”. And if you read about what he describes as that Zen sickness, and you are familiar with my work on OCD recovery, you’ll notice that Hakuin is describing very common compulsions people do with meditation and mindfulness. 

But most importantly, remember: Zen is a practice. Saying you know about Zen from reading books is like saying you know about cooking from reading cookbooks. 

Don’t forget to cook and eat!

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