Though there are many features in the dusty world, and in the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only as far as the eye of your practice can reach.
— Eihei Dogen
Bearing in mind Dogen’s advice, we provide here a listing of English-language sources that one or more LZC sangha-members have found personally helpful.
In the West many students of Zen have been inspired by Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki belonged to the Soto School of Japanese Zen and was the founder of the influential San Francisco Zen Center. (Suzuki was a fascinating character who inspired his students to attempt some great things. See David Chadwick’s biography Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, which includes an account of the early years of San Francisco Zen Center that conveys the innocence and high energy of American Zen in the 1960’s. Chadwick’s Thank You and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan, a hilarious memoir of his practice in Japan and a poignant tribute as well to his own teacher Katagiri Roshi, is well worth reading.)
Another immensely popular introduction to Zen—and still recommended by more than one Sangha member—is the late Roshi Phillip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment. Kapleau was trained in a lineage that combined the approaches of the Japanese Rinzai and Soto schools. The Rinzai emphasis on sudden and distinct enlightenment experiences shows through in a number of places in the book, especially in the collection of first-hand accounts by lay practitioners of their own “kensho” experiences.
A less well-known, but very practical, introduction to Zen is An Invitation to Practice Zen by Albert Low, a prominent teacher in the Kapleau lineage.
It is difficult to draw up a list of beginner books without including Charlotte Joko Beck’s classic Everyday Zen: Love and Work. This was in fact the Zen book that was recommended to me by my first mentor in meditation. Eschewing the poetry and paradox of classical Zen literary style, Joko Beck’s approach is truly “everyday.”
Although both students and teachers at the Lexington Zen Center have studied in several different Zen traditions, our formal lineage runs through Korean Zen, where for many centuries a quiet, slow-burning and rather monastic approach was cultivated. For a glimpse of Zen monastic practice, read Martine Batchelor’s The Way of Korean Zen, a collection of talks and writings by the Korean Master Kusan Sunim, who guided many Westerners in Korean monasteries. Another highly-recommended book by Ms. Batchelor is Women in Korean Zen: Lives and Practices, which consists of her personal memoir of monastic practice in Korea and her transcription of the life-story of the remarkable Korean nun Son’gyong Sunim.
In the United States there a was period—roughly 1950 through the mid 1960’s—of intense interest in Zen on the part of culture leaders, but not a lot of opportunity for formal Zen practice. For many Westerners during this time Daisetz Tetaro Suzuki was the most important source for information about Zen, and his interpretation of Zen continues to influence the Western perception of it to this day. Have a look at his Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings. The Roman Catholic monk and author Thoma Merton was a collaborator of Suszuki who did a lot to give Zen a good name among Catholics and contemplatively-inclined Christians: see his Zen and the Birds of Appetite. A illustrative collection of writings from this “pre-practice” period of Western interest was provided by Nancy Wilson Ross in The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology.
European scholars working in Asia contributed significantly to the Western understanding of Zen. The Jesuit priest and Buddhologist Heinrich Dumoulin produced what is still probably the most comprehensive and useful general history of Zen, in two volumes: Zen Buddhism: A History, India & China and Zen Buddhism: A History (Japan). Although Dumoulin’s account of Zen in China has been fiercely criticized by a new generation of scholars, his books remain a handy resource. Volume I is especially useful for understanding how Zen practitioners, both Asian and Westerners, view their own tradition.
Since 1983 American Zen has been rocked by a series of scandals, mostly involving the sexual affairs of prominent teachers. The “Zen Center mess” surrounding Richard Baker, Dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, is recounted at length by Michael Downing in Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. The far more troubling career of Eido Shimano is covered in Mark Oppenheimer’s The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side.
Over the same time-period, and especially in this century, Zen practitioners have been made aware of the somewhat mythical character of Zen’s traditional account of its own development. John R. McRae’s Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism challenges traditional Zen teacher-genealogies, traditional accounts of Zen monastic organization in the Tang Dynasty, and so on. McRae thinks that much of the crystallization of Zen actually occurred in the later Sung dynasty.
Institutional Zen’s support of Japanese militarism in the 20th century is studied in Brian Daizen Vicotoria’s Zen at War. The book gave rise to much soul-searching among the students of Japanese masters whose teachers and/or schools gave tacit support to Japan’s Asian militaristic turn that contributed to the Pacific War.
Contemporary scholars argue that Asian religious traditions did not come “as they were” to the West but instead were brought by missionaries who themselves had been powerfully attracted to—and influenced by—Western ideals and modes of thought. David L. McMahon makes this argument in the case of Buddhism in The Making of Buddhist Modernism. The book includes a fascinating chapter on D.T. Suzuki, detailing how radical Suzuki’s understanding of Japanese Zen was, and how this understanding was shaped in part by his apprenticeship—in America, before he began to write about Zen for a Western audience—under Paul Carus, the philosopher and apostle for “The Religion of Science.”
Records and Collections
Chinese and Japanese
The single most influential classical collection of koans is The Blue Cliff Record, here translated by Thomas Cleary. There are one hundred koans, each one preceded by a pointer and followed by commentary and a verse. First complied in 1125 CE, it’s used in almost every school of Zen. Another famous 100-koan collection is The Book of Serenity, again translated by Cleary. A bit more mellow than the Blue Cliff, it is associated more with the “Silent Illumination” tendency in Chinese Zen that was carried forward in Japan as the Soto School. Another Chinese collection that is widely used in Japan is the Wu Men Kuan (the “No-Gate Passage”), a set of forty-two famous koans. An interesting translation is contained in Eloquent Silence, a collection of writings and teachings of Nyogen Senzaki. (Senzaki was a Dharma brother of D.T. Suzuki who settled in California and founded the Floating Zendo, training some important early American Zen practitioners.) A useful later Japanese collection is Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuhö Kirchner. The 272 cases in this collection are “bare”—no commentary or verses—but Kirchner adds some very helpful notes.
A most welcome new collection is The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, a collection of one hundred koans ans stories edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon. Following each story is a reflection by a prominent contemporary female Zen teacher. According to Norman Fisher, who wrote the Forward, the book exemplifies a method of teaching that was known in classical times as the “granting way”, the “kindly way of clear and helpful teaching, in which even your confusion and suffering is part of the path. Practice always takes place in the context of others, so awakening is not something you ‘get’ so much as the relief you experience when you recognize that your life is always right (even when it is difficult) and always shared.”
In modern times the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen Master and literary figure Eihei Dogen has come to be widely respected outside of the Silent Illumination/Soto School. Kazuaki Tanahashi has worked with a number of colleagues to produce very poetic translations of Dogen’s essays. Two good collections are: Moon in a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds.
Zen Master Keizan was a successor of Dogen and functionally the founder of the Soto School. The Record of Transmitting the Light, translated by Francis Dojun Cook and John Daido Loori, gives the enlightenment/transmission stories of every member of the lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha through Dogen and Koun Ejo, Keizan’s own teacher.
The life and teachings of the fourteenth-century Japanese master Bassui Tokushō are strongly reminiscent of the solitary and intense but informal style of Korean Zen. Consider reading Mud and Water, Arthur Braverman’s translation of the collected teachings of Bassui.
The seventeenth-century Japanese master Bankei is an outlier, a rebel and a salutary corrective to, well, just about everything that afflicts a person who takes up Zen. The relevant source is Peter Haskell’s Bankei Zen.
The spiritual founder of Korean Zen is Chinul. Consult Tracing Back the Radiance, a collection of excerpts from Chinul’s works edited and translated by Robert Buswell. Buswell is a Buddhist scholar with a background of monastic practice in Korea. Check out his The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea. Both books include good historical introductions to Korean Buddhism.
In terms of formal lineage, all modern Korean Zen masters descend from T’aego. John Cleary has translated a nice collection of T’aego’s teachings and poetry in A Buddha from Korea.
The sixteenth-century master So Sahn wrote what could be considered the “starting out” guide for Korean monks and nuns. See The Mirror of Zen, translated by Boep Joeng and Hyon Gak.
The most popular form of Korean Zen (among Western converts) was brought to the United States by Seung Sahn. Among his many books are:
- Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, Grove Press, 1994. Concerning this book one of our Sangha members says: “People will probably tell you that it isn’t a good book for beginners, but this book is what got me hooked on Zen. It was the third book I read about Zen. I didn’t understand anything it said, but I knew it said something profound. I still don’t understand anything it says, but I know it says something profound.”
- The Compass of Zen, Shambhala Publications, 1997.
Our Founding Teacher, Zen Master Dae Gak, is a Dharma heir of Seung Sahn and is the author of the following two books:
- Going Beyond Buddha: The Awakening Practice of Listening, Tuttle Press, 1997. Available from Furnace Mountain.
- Upright with Poise and Grace: Coming Forward as You Are, Gnomon Press, 2012.
Of the numerous Mahayana sutras, for modern Zen students the Perfect Wisdom literature takes pride of place. Edward Conze provides a solid translations of Sanskrit versions of two important short sutras in Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. Both works are accompanied by very helpful notes. The Heart Sutra also has the original Sanskrit (in Romanized type).
Conze translated a great deal of Perfect Wisdom literature, including the central document: The Perfection of Wisdom In Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary. Don’t miss Chapter 30, the story of the very earnest Sadāprarudita (“Ever-Weeping”).
The massive Avatamsaka Sutra, extant mostly in Chinese, is the considered the root-scripture for the Hua-Yen (Flower-Ornament) School of Buddhist thought, from which Zen draws much inspiration. Thomas Cleary provides a complete translation in The Flower Ornament Scripture. The final portion, which describes the spiritual journey of the young seeker Sudhana to 52 enlightened teachers, is extant in Sanskrit as a separate sutra known as the Gaṇḍavyūha. For an overview of Hua-yen thought see Francis H. Cook’s Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra.
If you plan to read only one of the “longer” sutras, let it be the Lotus Sutra of the Perfect Law. Although it is not especially connected to Zen it is beloved in all of the schools of East Asian Buddhism. Savor the happy mood, the vigorous poetry, and the striking images and tales: the Burning House, the Phantom City, the Daughter of the Dragon King, the virtues of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva who hears the world’s cries, and many others that have worked their way into Asian culture. The best version is the Chinese translation by Kumarajiva; a very good recent English rendering of this is Burton Watson’s The FLotus Sutra.
For keeping track of the various Mahayana schools and texts you probably can’t do better than Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams.
Just a modest offering for now: may it grow with further reading and with the suggestions of Sangha members.
Chia Tao (779-843 CE) was a Chinese Zen monk who left monastic life at the age of thirty-one, probably to pursue poetry more exclusively. Although no longer a monk he kept up his Zen connections and Buddhism figures prominently in his poetry. Mike O’Connor translates selected poems of Chia Tao in When I Find You Again it Will be in Mountains. Although he was recognized in his lifetime as one of the leading poets of the age, he was less fortunate in his professional life as a mid-level civil servant, being caught up toward the end of his life in political intrigue and suffering banishment to a minor province. His translator says that he died with only two known possessions: “a donkey in bad health and a five-string zither.” A sample of his work:
A Farewell to T’ien Cho on Retreat on Hua Mountain
Deep and hidden, cicadas
fill the dusk;
startled, you awaken
from a stone bed.
Near your hut,
thousands of feet.
Pines near the altar
the mountain moon
shines in vast clear space
When a crane passes over,
you must see —
it should bear
Stonehouse (Shiwu, born 1272 CE) was a Chinese hermit who spent much of his life in huts that he built for himself near the peak of the Hsiamushan mountain near Houchou in Southern China. Among his many visitors was the Korean monk Tae’go, to whom Stonehouse transmitted the Dharma in 1347 CE. (Tae’go returned to Korean and established the Zen lineage there formally, making Stonehouse a Dharma ancestor of Furnace Mountain and the Lexington Zen Center.) Red Pine has translated a collection of Stonehouse’s poems as The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse. The volume concludes with an engaging account of Red Pine’s own journey to Hsiamushan and his rediscovery of Stonehouse’s hermitage-sites. One of his poems:
This body lasts as long as a bubble
may as well let it go
things don’t often go as we wish
who can step back doesn’t worry
we blossom and fade like flowers
we gather and part like clouds
I stopped thinking about the world a long time ago
relaxing all day in a teetering hut
Ryokan (1758-1831 CE) is one of the most popular Zen poet-monks. Kazuaki Tanahashi translates a number of his poems and provides an excellent biography and critical appraisal in Sky Above, Great Wind. The title is of this volume is a poem that Ryokan wrote on a kite at the request of a child. Another of his poems, inscribed on a portrait:
We meet and we part,
Coming and going — hearts like passing clouds.
Except for the marks of a frosty-hair brush
human traces are hard to find.
The Japanese nun Rengetsu (Lotus Moon, 1791-1875) was the daughter of a geisha. In life she was ass-kickingly accomplished: a professional-level player of the game of Go, a martial-arts master, an ordained Pure Land nun who also studied Zen and esoteric Buddhism, a patron of the arts and tireless fundraiser for victims of naturual disasters, she was also one of the most acclaimed calligraphers of her era — all of this while she raised two children as a widowed mother, making her living as a potter. She was also a highly-regarded poet. Although collections of her poetry were published while she was still alive, much of her work also survive as inscriptions on the pottery she produced. John Stevens translates a selection of her poems as Lotus Moon, which contains an Afterward by Bonnie Myotai Treace that encourages a multi-level approach to Rengetsu’s deceptively simple verse. Here is a sample:
Coming and going,
Without beginning or end,
Like ever changing
The heart of things.