Recommended Reading

There are now huge amounts of reading material about Zen available in print and online. Here you will just find information about a few books and other items that I find particularly useful on an ongoing basis, some books that are essential reading for serious long-term students, and some books that I just happen to like.

People tend to scan when reading online, rather that reading deeply, so while the internet is a good place to find out about reading material, please be aware that it not such a good place to read anything that requires your sustained attention.

Books to get you started 

Robert Aitken Taking the Path of Zen 1982 North Point Press

The first paragraph of this book, written by Robert Aitken reads: My purpose in this book is to provide a manual that may be used, chapter by chapter, as a program of instruction over the first few weeks of zen training. I hope it will also serve as a reference for advanced students.

This remains an excellent do-it-yourself manual for anyone wanting to practise zazen. It not only describes how to sit in zazen and the Buddhist underpinnings of the practice, but also includes information about the forms and rituals used in the Diamond Sangha zen tradition which Robert Aitken founded. Note that some of these practices have changed in the thirty or so years since the book was first published, for example many centres no longer use the kyosaku, except ritually. However, most of the information contained in this book is timeless.

Joko Beck Everyday Zen: Love and Work 1989 Harper Collins.

While I had learned to meditate following excellent instructions of the kind given in Aitken’s book, it was from Joko Beck that I first really understood zen as a way being in my life, not trying to float above or around it. There are now many, many excellent books about everyday life and zen, and other Buddhist paths, but at the time, that book was an eye-opener and remains so. The only danger with such books it that you sometimes feel as if you’ve got somewhere after reading them. You haven’t. That still takes sustained regular meditation practice of the kind outlined in Taking the Path of Zen.

Books to keep you going

Andy Ferguson Zen’s Chinese Heritage  2000 Wisdom Publications

This is an invaluable who’s who of zen (chan) in China, from Bodhidharma onwards. The paper versions include a lineage chart. It is particularly useful for anyone working on koans.

Robert Aitken The Gateless Barrier The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan) 1990 North Point Press

This includes Aitken Roshi’s very accessible commentaries on each case.

Thomas and J.C. Cleary (trans) The Blue Cliff Record 1992 Shambala

Thomas Cleary (trans) Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment by Zen Master Keizan 2002 Shambala

Thomas Cleary (trans) Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues 2005 Shambala

Ross Bolleter 2014 Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment 2014 Wisdom Publications.

Engaged Buddhism

My abiding interest is in realizing our interconnectedness, not only with other people and other beings, but with the sound of hammering across the street and the sticky afternoon air. There are many ways to talk about this web of life that we are part of; the universe, the environment, nature.  Now, at a time when the wellbeing of the entire earth is under threat, many zen, as well as other Buddhist teachers and practitioners, openly relate their practice to social and environmental engagement. Indeed, in the words of Robert Aitken, ‘The way the world is going, the Bodhisattva ideal [devotion to the welfare of others] holds our only hope for survival or indeed for the survival of any species.’

Susan Murphy Minding the Earth, Mending the World 2012 Picador

I love this book, and not just because Susan is a dear friend and dharma sister. Susan skillfully brings together the zen koans we use to deepen out practice with the stories that have helped shape our understanding of the world and uses these to explore the big question of our time: how can we change our relationship with the earth to make it healing rather than damaging?

Joanna Macy World as Lover, World as Self 2007 Parallax Press

Deep ecologist and Buddhist activist Joanna Macy’s book offers practical suggestions for acting positively from our knowledge that we are all part of an interrelated bio-system in trouble. Many of the scientists most knowledgeable about the damage that is being inflicted on the earth, as well as countless non-specialists, suffer sometimes-debilitating anguish about the current state of our planet. This book is aimed at helping us to reimagine our relationship with the earth so that we can act from love rather than despair.