Best Zen Novels

Maria Johnson
• Tuesday, 08 December, 2020
• 7 min read

Some are personal stories, some are educative and contain tutorials, some are in-depth essay style publications, and some are novellas. In the list below, I’ve shared different works that together encompass a broad range of Zen teaching.

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Published more than 40 years ago, this read has grown to be one of the most highly regarded spiritual publications in the world. If you are a beginner, you will learn everything you need to know to get started, including posture and breathing techniques, as well as the most important practices.

Alan Watts is one of the true masters of Buddhist interpretation, and oh boy does he show it in this, one of the best Zen books ever written. In this title, Alan Watts takes us back to basics as he reveals the true interpretation of Buddhist philosophy.

He journeys all the way back to the birth of Buddhism as it rose from the concepts of Hinduism. From there we journey towards today and see how Chan has grown over the years, right up to the modern-day and a look at the symbolical representation of Buddhism in Japanese art.

What makes this one of the best Zen books of all time is the way in which Watt’s explains the core concepts for a Western audience. In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert M Persia shares the transformational story of a journey across America with his son.

The journey becomes a story of personal growth and transformation as Persia delves into the most fundamental questions of modern-day living. In it, Joshi Philip Tableau presents an examination of the three core pillars of Chan Buddhism: teaching, practice and enlightenment.

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What makes this one of the best Zen books ever is Tableau’s ability to merge his personal story in technical teachings on the practices and techniques. As we journey through Tableau’s time from student to master, we are led along our own path of spiritual development.

Revised to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the current edition features beautiful illustrations and photographs that are really just the icing on the cake. Originally published in 1957, this title immediately won the hearts of readers who were just beginning to learn about Chan Buddhism.

Subsequently, it has become one of the most influential publications on the subject, inspiring students and teachers alike. This title presents texts and challenges readers to make their own interpretations of the core philosophies of Chan Buddhism.

Let the whole thundering world come home booking Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home, Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg shares a personal and inspiring story of how she overcame the trauma of cancer by practicing Zen. Natalie is a highly regarded Zen teacher whose words are captivating and enlightening.

It provides easy ways to start meditating and answers most of the common questions about the practice. Suzuki is one of the most prominent luminaries in the field, inspiring millions of people around the world.

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There’s depth and insight for the most ardent Chan Buddhist, and there are clear instructions and advice for newcomers. The best thing about this book is that it is very straightforward and offers clear guidance on various aspects of Zen.

The book covers the basics of Zen and shows you how to apply the concepts to your own life to create feelings of peace and happiness. The book focuses on playfulness and curiosity, which the author, Charlie Ambler, states is the key to being a happy person.

It’s a more light-hearted read compared to the other books in this list, and the illustrations are really cool (done by Brooklyn artist Iris Gottlieb). If you’ve been looking for a more playful book to help you get into Zen, I highly recommend Charlie Ambler’s read.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Branch The Art of Happiness, Dalai Lama The Power of Now, Eckhart Toll Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Persia Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Bachelor The Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Gourmet More The Connected Discourses by Shikoku Bod hi Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and PRE- Zen Writings by Paul Reps and Neogene Sendai Everyday Zen : Love & Work Charlotte Joke Beck Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide by Christmas Humphreys How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald The Buddha, Geoff, and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas Buddhism: What Everyone Needs to Know by Dale S. Wright Psychotherapy Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up by Kosher Paley Ellison Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein Zen as F×ck (Zen as F×ck Journals) by Monica Sweeney The Dude and the Zen Master, by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman The Three Pillars of Zen : Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment by Philip Tableau Joshi Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Change Denebola Narayana Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of by the Holiness the Dalai Lama Practicing Mindfulness: 75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Mental Health, and Find Peace in the Every day by Matthew Sociology Zurchungpa’s Testament with commentary by Diego Hyenas Roche Buddhism for Beginners by Tauten Chevron Awareness by Anthony Demerol Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women by Ellison Banks Finely Awakening Compassion by Pea Chevron One Teacher, Many Traditions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tauten Chevron Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pea Chevron Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Was The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Angara Dorinda Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac Buddhism: An Introduction to the Buddha’s Life, Teachings, and Practices by Joan Duncan Oliver One Breath at a Time by Kevin Edward Griffin Eight Steps to Happiness by Ge she Kelsey Goats Zen Training by Philip Tableau Joshi Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism by Kittisaro and Honiara A Still Forest Pool by Again Chat In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pale Canon by Shikoku Bod hi When we first start practicing Zen meditation, there is this voracious curiosity to learn more about this fascinating philosophy.

Luckily, there are several books that explore this vast subject in great detail. The book contains mindfulness advice from one of the greatest authorities on Zen, Which That Hand.

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It is full of useful guidelines and principles for leading a mindful, peaceful life and helping those around you do the same. What’s truly wonderful about this book is that the author has lived by these guidelines and principles all his life.

Exiled from his native country Vietnam for his participation in the peace movement, Which That Hand has since lived in France. Though he has authored several books on Zen and on the life and teachings of the Buddha, Peace is Every Step deserves a special mention in this list because it presents mindfulness principles in the context of everyday life.

Which That Hand acknowledges the sorrows and challenges of modern life, but draws our attention back to the power of the present moment. While practicing Taken meditation, it’s important to approach the subject with a beginner’s mind.

And that is the idea Suzuki presents in an eloquent style while demystifying a complex subject like Zen. Suzuki provides helpful and thought-provoking truths about meditation for anyone who wants to lead a more mindful life.

Best quote from the book: “What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” If you’ve ever wanted to learn about the history of Buddhism and Zen, this is the book you should read.

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Watts effectively outlines the history of Buddhism, its roots in Vedic philosophy, and its travel through China to Japan. Like Zen itself, Alan Watts’ style is simple, straightforward, and devoid of unnecessary jargon.

Any Zen reading list would be incomplete without a book containing the teachings of the Dalai Lama. This book is a series of interviews and meetings between Dr. Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama, as His Holiness explores many facets of everyday life, including relationships, loss, and the pursuit of wealth, and illustrates how one can ride through life’s challenges and obstacles to lead a more peaceful, mindful life.

Though not as comprehensive and detailed as other books in this list, Tableau’s passion for the subject and his enthusiasm to share insights on Zen is remarkable. Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Dec 6, 2016 and has been updated regularly since then for relevance and comprehensiveness.

No Man Is an Island Written by a Vietnamese Zen Monk who was friend with Martin Luther King, Which That Hand (1926-) introduces us to a simple concept that we often forget in our busy hectic daily lives: the present moment.

It is easy to read and does not require a lot of cognitive power and its content is life-changing. Zen Master That Han his also the founder of Plum Village in France, a community of monks, nuns and laypersons who practice Zen Buddhism in a manner that reflects their founder’s attitude to life.

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The book was initially published in French under the name “Touched la vie” (To Touch Life.) The book is a series of talks that the Zen Master Henry Suzuki gave in a garage in the 1960s, so you can expect a clear and concise experience.

Spoilers alert: The Three Pillars of Zen are practice, teaching and enlightenment. Philip Tableau (1912-2004) who was ordained in Japan after 13 years of practice, was the founder of the Rochester Zen Center in the USA.

Tableau Joshi (Joshi means Zen Master, ) was a teacher in the relatively new San Kodak tradition that mixes both mainstream traditions of Zen in Japan, Sinai and Soto. You should read Hardcore Zen if you are looking for something that does not sound too scholastic, but nonetheless contains a lot of great insights and funny anecdotes.

Brad Warner (1964-) is an ordained monk in the Soto school of Zen and was a student of late Judo Weight Nishijima. Brad Warner spent more than a decade working in Japan before coming back to the US.

A Californian who is into rock n’ roll music, Japanese monster movies and blogging, Zen Master Warner writes books that go off the beaten tracks by including references to modern culture. The Way of Zen is beautifully written by a great communicator named Alan Watts that had the ability to simplify hard-to-understand concepts and explain them in a manner easy to understand for all.

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The book provides insights in the history and the concepts Zen Buddhism in the greater scheme of things: the different traditions of the Smaller (Hinayana) and the Great Vehicle (Mahayana), the influence of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism on Zen, Zen’s influence on Japanese and Chinese cultures, etc. Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British-American theologian, writer, Zen practitioner and interpreter of Eastern philosophy for Westerners.

Originally published in French, the English translation of Zen Keys is well-written and provides clear explanations about core concepts of Zen like awareness, impermanence, mindfulness, modernity and spirituality. The introduction was written by Philip Tableau (the author of the “Three Pillars of Zen ”) which means this book should definitively on your “To Read” list.

Shamble publications, probably the most famous publisher for works about Buddhism in the West, brings us Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, a book written by Zen Master Katsuki Skid. The book is often tagged as a “handbook for taken sitting meditation” and how to live and train as a Zen practitioner.

Zen Training also discusses the emphasis that is put on enlightenment, which Skid believes is overly represented in the practice of Zen, which goes beyond the enlightenment concept with a diverse and rich practice. The author also makes parallels with Western philosophy and psychology, comparing the similitude between each thinking systems.

This is a book that requires a bit more of intellectual willpower to read as well as an interest in scholarly topics. The book is based on his talks and provides anecdotes, historical explanations, concepts explorations and introductions to the different schools of Buddhism and their own particularities.

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After fighting in the Korean War, he eventually settled in America where he spends a few decades building the Kwan Um School of Zen, which is active all around the world. All images on this website follow Fair Use requirements and are used solely for commentary, criticism, research and teaching.

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