One of the oldest Zen poems goes like this:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man:
Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.
And it is often said that reading about Zen to reach enlightenment is about as useful as reading about food to lose weight. Nevertheless it is for most people the only way to learn about Zen-Buddhism because you don’t find Zen masters on every corner of the street.
It can be a good starting point or just to satisfy your curiosity about what Zen is.
Buddhism Plain and Simple, by Steve Hagen
This is a very good introduction to (Zen-)Buddhism and I enjoyed reading it very much. In easy to understand words it explains what Zen is about and what it’s major ideas are. Without using mystical paradoxes it tells us how to understand the Four Noble Truths and walk the Eight-fold path. How to use it to help us in everyday life and learn to be more aware. Steve explains the importance of Awareness and how this helps us to get a better grip on our lives. In three parts he first explains what our trouble with life actually is and where our unrest comes from. The second part deals with how to become more awake and concentrated. The last part delves a little bit deeper into important Zen concepts like: the self, seeing the world as it is and the idea that all is one.
The reason why this book is very special to me is because of an exercise in this book that has made an ineradicable impression on me. Steve Hagen uses an image of an everyday object that has been altered in a way that at first you can’t understand the image. Steve encourages us to take note of the confusion inside us when we see an image but don’t understand what it is we’re looking at. I myself felt this very clearly and it helped me to understand how deep our inner urge is to label the things we see. It’s almost impossible for us to look at something and just take it for what it is. We have to give our experiences a meaning.
Understanding Zen, by Benjamin Radcliff
The book: ‘Understanding Zen’ is very good explanation of the concepts of Zen for those who struggle with a more analytic mind. It helps to understand Zen on a intellectual level. In the beginning of the book is a sentence that keeps popping up in my mind and it is something we should always remember when looking at the world: ‘There is a distinction, on the one hand between the ideas, concepts and symbols, and on the other hand, the actual things to which those ideas, concepts and symbols refer.’ I had to read it six times to understand it but I think it sums up the real cause of our problems with the world. All we know of the world is an interpretation and everybody’s interpretation is different. Not realising this will get you into trouble, mostly with other people.
It will force you to look at concepts and ideas in a totally different way and is therefore a bit harder to grasp than a more introductory book about Zen.
But if you persevere it can help you a lot on your Zen Path.
Buddhism for busy people
– finding happiness in an uncertain world, by David Michie
This book came highly recommended to me by my 6th Dan Taekwondo instructor, and Buddhist – Steve P. The book is a very user friendly explanation of the modern day applications of Tibetan Buddhism. It describes the journey the author takes starting from his busy materialistic life as a corporate communications consultant in London. It’s an ideal book for someone unfamiliar with Buddhism, since it explains the key concepts in plain English. It also tackles some of the more tricky ideas such as ‘false sense of I’ and ‘dependent arising’ in ways which enable the beginner to develop a basic understanding. The ten chapters are broken down to much shorter sub-sections which helps the reader to tackle it in bite-size chunks. I would highly recommend this book to any ‘busy’ people interested in ‘slowing down’, or indeed anyone interested in the basic ideas behind Buddhist philosophy.
Review by Giles R.