I put a new page up about zen books that don’t suck. It’ll be a permanent link on this page. I did that for two reasons. One was that people keep asking me for recommendations on what to read. I don’t intend for this to be a comprehensive list of the good Zen books. There are a bunch I forgot that I’ll probably put up there someday, like Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: Love and Workand a few others.
I tend to avoid answering questions about what books to read because certain people think that Zen can be understood by reading about it. But it really can’t. And yet, good books can be an important part of practice. Which is the second reason I put that page up there.
I remember early on in my study of Zen I read some book — maybe it was Buddha is the Center of Gravity by Joshu Sasaki, maybe it was someone else — anyway, this Zen teacher recommended his students to read a lot of good books. “What books are good?” his students asked. He said something like, “books that have stood the test of time.” That’s a pretty good answer. You can’t go too wrong with stuff like Shobogenzo or the Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra or the recorded talks of Buddha. Books like that have been around long enough that they’ve garnered a certain degree of trust. In some cases the original words themselves have been changed by later copyists and, in many cases, significantly improved in the process.
Modern books are trickier. Trends come and go. Some writers are very good at hooking into the mindset of the times and making something that sounds pretty “spiritual” when it’s really just trash.
I’ve told this story before. But once a few years ago someone wrote me and recommended some modern spiritual master’s books, which he said were “so stilling, so present.” I read some of the stuff and, indeed, I did feel the quality this guy had described as “stilling.” But I also found myself becoming kind of envious of that teacher’s amazing experiences and feeling that I was somehow inadequate because I wasn’t as “high” as this teacher wanted me to think he, the teacher, was. There was something very wrong. There are lots of “stilling” books out there. But many of them are also trying to sell you something.
I started thinking hard about books and how they fit into practice when I recently took a job as a freelance copy editor for a Japanese publisher of New Age books. I know. It sounds pretty much like selling out. But all they wanted was someone who could fix up these books so that the rough English translations matched the original Japanese. What I found, though, was that the authors could be very persuasive and that some of their often rather warped worldview began creeping into mine. One of these authors said that the Heart Sutra was full of evil Taoist spells and that chanting it could be dangerous. For about 2.7 seconds I found myself wondering if he could be right. Uh oh, I said…
Then when I was driving back from San Francisco I heard this radio show all about the first and second performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Apparently at the first performance the audience rioted. The guy who talked about this theorized that the piece was so dissonant and atonal that it screwed with people’s brains. Their brains were trying so hard to deal with sound that to them sounded disorganized that they just went temporarily crazy. A year later the piece was performed again. But this time the audience was prepared for it and they just sat peacefully and applauded at the end. Twenty odd years later the same piece of music appeared in Disney’s Fantasia , a family film for children. Kind of reminded me of what’s happened to punk rock over the past twenty years.
This got me thinking about how these kinds of stimuli can affect us. Certainly reading a book like Shobogenzo can actually alter a person’s perception of reality. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick talked about this and even experimented with it in his own books. Reading something like his books Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritchor Time Out of Jointwas as jolting to me as a teenager as any acid trip. Maybe more so. Later on Shobogenzo affected me in a very profound way as well. Of course, Dick was a paranoid amphetamine addict and Dogen was not, which also makes a huge difference. Dick had insights, but didn’t really know what to make of them.
Dogen warned against romanticizing old Zen stories where people suddenly burn all their books and devote themselves just to zazen. To Dogen these examples might have been right for those people, but that approach couldn’t be applied universally. Reading and listening to teachers does have a place in practice. It’s only when things get out of balance that there’s a problem, like when you get too into reading and listening to teachers or, conversely, too into practice alone. People who get into a teacherless Zen practice often get way too full of themselves because the ego will grab hold of absolutely anything to enrich its position, including glimpses of its own unreality. Ironic, but true.
Anyway, all of this bullshit is just to say that good books can be good for Zen practice.