10 Best Books About Zen Buddhism

10 Best Books About Zen Buddhism (4 min read)

By Ma Dingding

The best books about meditation and Zen Buddhism are hard to choose. 

As there is no “Holy Book” in Zen Buddhism, we decided to make a list of the 10 best book to understand Zen Buddhism. 

We could recommend you 100 books but we believe that it would be overwhelming. Of course, we will introduce you to more books in separate articles, but for this specific article, we kept the list to 10. 

-You are Here

-The Beginner’s Mind

-3 Pillars of Zen

-Hardcore Zen

-The Way of Zen Alan Watts

-Zen Keys

-Zen Training

-Compass of Zen

-Everyday Zen


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Recommended Zen Buddhism Books

You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

by Thich Nhat Hanh, 160 pages

Written by a Vietnamese Zen Monk who was friend with Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-) introduces us to a simple concept that we often forget in our busy hectic daily lives: the present moment. It is a small book that you can read in a few hours. It is easy to read and does not require a lot of cognitive power and its content is life-changing.

Zen Master Nhat Hanh is 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. The book was initially published in French under the name “Toucher la vie” (To Touch Life.)

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

by Shunryu Suzuki Paperback: 176 pages

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.

I bought this book in Japanese while on vacation in Japan… only to realize that the book was originally published in English! I usually prefer to read books in the original language and as I did part of my university studies in Japan, Japanese language is no mystery to me. The book is a great introduction to Zen and and Zen meditation, chapters are short, interesting and straight to the point. Zen Min is probably the best reference for any beginner in Zen practice. The book is a series of talks that the Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki gave in a garage in the 1960s, so you can expect a clear and concise experience. 

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and published this book almost 45 years ago. 

The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment 

by Philp Kapleau Paperback: 480 pages

Spoilers alert: The Three Pillars of Zen are practice, teaching and enlightenment. The book is delightful to read for people who already practice Zen meditation and mindfulness, but who want to know more details about Zen Buddhism. I found the book to be very well-written both in terms of content and literary acuity. The book also includes precise practice insights regarding meditation. 

Philip Kapleau (1912-2004) who was ordained in Japan after 13 years of practice, was the founder of the Rochester Zen Center in the USA. Kapleau Roshi (Roshi means Zen Master,) was a teacher in the relatively new Sanbo Kyodan tradition that mixes both mainstream traditions of Zen in Japan, Rinzai and Sōtō.

Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality

 by Brad Warner Paperback: 232 pages

Zen, plain and simple, with no BS.

Hardcore Zen is a great book about a profound subject: Why Zen Buddhism? You should read Hardcode 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 Sōtō school of Zen and was a student of late Gudo Wafu 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. His books are fun to read and are definitively different that the more standard “serious and scholastic” books about Zen. He also talks about Zen in his weekly vlog and blog

The Way of Zen

by Alan W. Watts Paperback: 256 pages

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. Watts uses words to explain the unexplainable. 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. Probably not a book for beginners, but if you already have a bit of knowledge about Zen Buddhism The Way of Zen is a great book to deepen your knowledge. 

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British-American theologian, writer, Zen practitioner and interpreter of Eastern philosophy for Westerners. You can find a lot of his lectures on Youtube. 

Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice

by Thich Nhat Hanh Paperback: 198 pages

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 book also contains anecdotes about the Zen Master’s entry into the Zen world. Zen Master Nhat Hanh also introduces a great amount of Zen riddles that are explained in a manner easy to understand even for the beginner. The introduction was written by Philip Kapleau (the author of the “Three Pillars of Zen”) which means this book should definitively on your  “To Read” list. This is one of my favorite books about Zen. 

Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy 

by Katsuki Sekida Paperback: 264 pages

Shambhala 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 Sekida. The book is often tagged as a “handbook for zazen sitting meditation” and how to live and train as a Zen practitioner. Zen Training also discusses the emphasis that is put on enlightenment, which Sekida 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 similitudes 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. 

Katsuki Sekida (1893-1987) was an English teacher until he retired in 1945. His Zen journey brought him to Kyoto and Mishima and eventually, to Honolulu for 7 years and in London for 2 years. 

The Compass of Zen

by Seugn Sahn Paperback: 394 pages

The Compass of Zen is another treasure published by Shambhala publications. The book is probably one of the best book that talks about Buddhism in general as well as of Zen. 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. It is a great book for people who want to gain knowledge about the bigger picture of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism from both historical and conceptual perspectives. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) was born in Korea and was part of the Korean lineage of Zen. After fighting in the Korean war, he eventually settled in America where he spend a few decades building the Kwan Um School of Zen, which is active all around the world.

Everyday Zen

By Charlotte Joko Beck Paperback: 240 pages

Described as “an American approach to Zen” to deal with the issues of daily life, Everyday Zen as its title suggets, is about how Zen can help us deal with issues, emotions and challenges. 

Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) founded a school of Zen after cutting ties with a famous Zen Master in the US who went down with accusations of misconduct. 

Shōbōgenzō (or The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye)

The Shōbōgenzō was written by Japanese Zen Master Dōgen (1200-1253,) one of the most important representative of the Sōtō school of Zen. Although the Sōtō school of Zen was originally founded in China, as we speak pretty much all the Sōtō schools follow the teachers of Zen Master Dogen. Sōtō Zen is very popular in the West, especially in the US. 

Without getting into too much explanations here about the concepts, we can say that the Shōbōgenzō is a compilation of fascicules by Zen Master Dōgen that were rediscovered in the 18 century after centuries being known only by a selected few. Shōbōgenzō explains what is Zen, how Zen is practiced and theories about Zen in a language that requires great skills in translation. This is why there are multiple translations and interpretations of the Shōbōgenzō that are available. 

You should look for the translations made by Kazuaki Tanahashi or Gudo Nishijima. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe also made a translation together. Shashta Abbey offers a free translation here

This is a book for advanced practitioners.

If you read amazing books about focus, Zen Buddhism, Stoicism, Buddhism, mindfulness, personal growth, productivity… feel free to share with us!

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