10 Best Zen Books You Cannot Miss

Throughout my many years of teaching meditation, there have been certain books that I always recommend my students read when they want to learn about Zen. Many authors have penned mastpieces about the philosophy of this form of Buddhism. And honestly, readers are spoilt for choice. Take a look at my favorite books below, and also see my guide to Zen meditation.

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Zen Books List

1: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (Get it here)

Arguably the best book on Zen ever written, packed full of wisdom and insights.

First published in 1970 this is one of the most highly regarded spiritual publications in the world. It is a must-read that I often recommend to my students in my lessons when they express interest in Chan Buddhism and Japanese philosophy. I appreciate that it’s written with such simplicity and elegance, by Soto Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center.

2: The Way by Alan Watts (Get it here)

Alan Watts is a master of Buddhist interpretation as well aa aesthetics,  metaphysics and mysticism, and teacher at the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco.

In this book, Alan Watts 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 trace the history of Buddhism to today and see how Chan Buddhism has grown over the years. Oh yeah, and I totally dig the cool section about Buddhist symbolism in Japanese art.  

3: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (Get it here)

In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert M Pirsig, a teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 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 Pirsig’s story, we come to understand many of the deepest philosophical questions.

4: The Three Pillars (Get it here)

If you’re looking for spiritual guidance, read The Three Pillars. In it, Roshi Philip Kapleau [founder of Rochester Zen Center] presents an examination of the three core pillars of Chan Buddhism. That is, teaching, practice, and enlightenment.

I think this is a good Zen book for beginners because of the way Kapleau merges his personal story with Buddhist teachings.

Kapleau’s jouney from student to master helps inspire our own 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.

5: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Get it here)

Compiled by haiku poet Paul Reps, Zen Flesh Zen Bones was originally published in 1957, and immediately won the hearts of Western Buddhists.

The book Includes 101 Zen Stories, a collection of real-life stories of Buddhist teachers across 5 centuries, including the classic tale The Gateless Gate and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra.

6: An Introduction To Zen Buddhism (Get it here)

D.T Suzuki is one of the most well-known Buddhist authors, a winner of the National Medal of Culture . Author of more than a hundred books, he is best known for An Introduction To Zen Buddhism.

First published in Japan by the Eastern Buddhist Society, it has become an indispensible manual to Busshism. 

7: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir  

In Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home, practitioner Natalie Goldberg shares a personal and inspiring story of how she overcame the trauma of cancer by practicing Chan Buddhism.

Natalie is a highly regarded meditation teacher whose words are captivating and enlightening. I was tingling when I read this memoir because I find it so utterly inspiring.

8: Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t

This is a fun book written by Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz, cofounders of The Well Daily.

I will say that this is a much simpler read than most of the other books I put in this list. It’s a straightforward, no-nonsense book on Zen with playful illustrations. Packed full of meditation tips and insights, I recommend it for novices.

9: Zen For Everyday Life by Buddhaimonia (Matt Valentine) 

Zen For Everyday Life is an easy-to-read book on the philosophy and application of Chan Buddhism.  It’s straightforward and easy to follow.

10: The Daily Zen Journal

The official book of the blog Daily Zen, this is a playful, illustrated journal for learning all about Chan Buddhism. I smiled while reading this because I find it playful and curiosity provoking, which the author, Charlie Ambler, states is the key to being a happy person. I particularly enjoyed the illustrations by Brooklyn artist Iris Gottllieb. 

More recommended reading:

  • Zen Mind Zen Life by Paul Harrison
  • 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
  • Psychotherapy
  • 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 

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations.

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