In this guide: All the best Zen books for beginners to read in 2021.
Buddhism has become highly popular in the past 50 years thanks to the likes of Jack Kornfield and D. T. Suzuki. Today, there are hundreds of books about Zen and the philosophies therein. Picking the best Zen books for beginners is not an easy feat.
As a meditation teacher and author, I am often reading publications on Zen, spirituality, meditation and related topics. I’ll be honest. Some of them suck. Then you get those titles that are okay, maybe worth a read but not worth buying. And then you get the very best Zen books, the ones you need to own and put on your bookshelf with pride.
Incidentally, these are the books from which I took my list of the best zen proverbs, which you might like to read for fun and inspiration.
There’s a wide variety of zen books beginners will like. Some are personal stories, some are educative and contain tutorials, some are in-depth essay style publications, and some are novellas.
Encapsulating the entirety of Zen Buddhism is no mean feat because Zen means different things to different people. Sure, Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. That’s the technical term. But “Zen” is also an adjective. We say Zen when we mean chill or relaxing. Some people enjoy the Zen philosophy, others enjoy the self-help aspects like mindfulness and meditation. In the list below, I’ve shared different works that together encompass a broad range of Zen teaching.
Ready to put your reading glasses on? Then let’s get into the list. And don’t forget to read my own guide to Zazen meditation and its benefits.
The Very Best Zen Books For Beginners
As well as the publications below, I’ve written lists of the best titles on specific topics.
Take a look at my books lists for:
- The Best Mindfulness reads
- The Best Mantra reads
- The Best Mudra reads
- Top spiritual books for 2018
1: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (Get it on Amazon)
This is arguably the best book on Zen ever written. It’s only a small title, but oh my goodness is it packed full of wisdom and insights.
Published more than 40 years ago, it has become one of the most highly regarded spiritual publications in the world. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in learning the philosophy of Buddhism.
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.
But what makes this publication so exceptional is the clarity with which it is written. Remarkable.
2: The Way by Alan Watts (get it on Amazon) (Get it on Amazon)
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. For beginners who want to learn about Buddhist philosophy. A must-read.
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 Buddhism 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 Watts explains the core concepts for a Western audience.
As insightful as it is inspiring,
3: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (Get it on Amazon)
Yes, this read has the best title of any Zen book ever written.
In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert M Pirsig shares the transformational story of a journey across America with his son. The journey becomes a story of personal growth and transformation as Pirsig delves into the most fundamental questions of modern-day living. Through it all, he answers many of the deepest philosophical questions we all struggle with.
As personal as it is universal. You will be absolutely inspired to change your lifestyle and challenge your perceptions. This is also one of the most unique reads in this list and is absolutely unforgettable.
4: The Three Pillars (Get it on Amazon)
For those seeking spiritual guidance, let me suggest this: The Three Pillars. In it, Roshi Philip Kapleau [founder of Rochester Zen Center] presents an examination of the three core pillars of Chan Buddhism: teaching, practice and enlightenment.
What makes this one of the best Zen books for beginners is Kapleau’s ability to merge his personal story with technical teachings on the practices and techniques. As we journey through Kapleau’s time from student to master, we are led along our own path of spiritual development. The author’s story serves as inspiration, and the insights serve as guides.
Revised to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the current edition features beautiful illustrations and photographs that are really just the icing on the cake.
5: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Get it on Amazon)
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. Included in this collection are 101 Zen Stories, a collection of real-life stories of teachers across 5 centuries, including The Gateless Gate, and Ten Bulls.
Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir
In 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 practising Zen.
Natalie is a highly regarded Zen teacher whose words are captivating and enlightening. Her ability to simultaneously be so open and honest is inspiring. It makes for a truly insightful book.
This is one of the most moving books on Zen and meditation that I have ever read. And I am certain it will be elucidating for anyone battling through illness.
Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t
This is a really fun and engaging read by Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz, cofounders of The Well Daily. It’s one of the most straightforward, no-nonsense books on Zen. The illustrations are fun and playful, and the writing is so easy to read you will breeze through it.
The book targets people who know they should meditate but don’t. It provides effortless ways to start meditating and answers most of the common questions about the practice.
This is definitely one of the best Zen books for beginners. It’s so fun that even sceptics will be motivated to start meditating.
The authors state that it is a meditation book, but I added it to this Zen books list because I find the ethos and energy of the book to be very Zen.
6: An Introduction To Zen Buddhism (Get it on Amazon)
D.T Suzuki is one of the prominent names in the world of Zen books, having written more than a hundred publications and being read by hundreds of millions of readers.
Arguably David Suzuki’s best book is An Introduction To Zen Buddhism (the content of the book is far more compelling than its uninspired title).
What makes this one of the best Chan books of all time is that Suzuki makes Buddhism accessible for all. There’s depth and insight for the most ardent Zen Buddhist, and there are clear instructions and advice for newcomers.
Zen For Everyday Life by Buddhaimonia (Matt Valentine)
Zen For Everyday Life is an easy-to-read book about using Zen to cultivate inner peace, happiness, and spirituality. 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. This book reminded me that I don’t need anything more than what I have. I can enjoy life precisely as it is.
The Daily Zen Journal
The Daily Zen Journal—the official book of the blog Daily Zen—is a playful, illustrated journal for learning all about Zen.
The book focuses on playfulness and curiosity, which the author, Charlie Ambler, states is the key to being a happy person. The book shares tips and advice for cultivating “beginner’s mind”.
What I love about this book is how much fun it is. 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 Gottllieb).
If you’ve been looking for a more playful book to help you get into Zen, I highly recommend Charlie Ambler’s read.
More of the Best Zen Books
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
- The Art of Happiness , Dalai Lama
- The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
- Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Gyurme Dorje
- The Connected Discourses by Bhikkhu Bodhi
- Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki
- Everyday Zen: Love & Worky Charlotte Joko 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 byDale S. Wright
- Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up by Koshin 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 Kapleau Roshi
- Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen
- Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
- A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of by the His Holiness the Dalai Lama
- Practicing Mindfulness: 75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Mental Health, and Find Peace in the Everyday
- by Matthew Sockolov
- Zurchungpa’s Testament with commentary by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
- Buddhism for Beginners by Thubten Chodron
- Awareness by Anthony DeMello
- Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women by Ellison Banks Findly
- Awakening Compassion by Pema Chödrön
- One Teacher, Many Traditions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron
- Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön
- Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das
- The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda
- 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 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
- Zen Training by Philip Kapleau Roshi
- Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism by Kittisaro and Thanisara
- A Still Forest Pool by Ajaan Chah
- In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi
How many of the books on this list have you read? Which was your favourite? And which will you read next?