Books on Zen Buddhism

Best books on Zen Buddhism, to learn Zen Buddhist meditation, Zazen and Koan explanation from Zen masters as well as books about history of Zen Buddhism 

Buddhism is often not easily understood in the West, for its stark difference from the Mediterranean idea of Monotheistic Religions. Nonetheless, some of its branches spread to the West as early as the late 19th century through painstaking efforts, and Japanese Zen Buddhism is the most successful one.

Many think Zen Buddhism is Japanese, but its deepest roots are Indian and China is where it evolved independently for centuries before reaching anywhere else.

The main reason for the success of Zen Buddhism lies in its organizational structures (especially true for the 3 main Japanese Zen schools) and its focus on effective meditation practices.

In fact, the word Zen itself eventually comes from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, meaning meditation. Another signature characteristic of Zen is resorting to Koan, debate-provoking stories or dialogues with a certain deal of nonsense or obscurity.

This article on best books on Zen Buddhism practice is made of 3 sections: the first one is Zen Buddhism history books, the second one is on Zen practice, the third one is a selection of Koan collections.    

Disclosure: Some of our items contain affiliate links (as an Amazon affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases).

History books

Books on Zen Buddhism

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings

by Andy Ferguson, 2011

The purpose of this ambitious book by a prominent translator from the San Francisco Zen Center is to introduce the most important masters of Zen throughout its 15 centuries of existence.

Their biographies are accompanied by core concepts of their teachings as well as beautiful poetry and Koan.

With more than 560 pages, it can be considered an encyclopedia of Zen masters, perfect to look up famous authors or to skim through lesser-known ones.

China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen

by David Hinton, 2020

As we anticipated in the introduction, Zen Buddhism originated in ancient China, where it was called Chan.

David Hinton views Chinese Chan as a blend of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. He articulates that Indian dhyāna practices were integrated into Taoist views on existence, tracking back a centuries-old history of ideas.

Before you feel lost, please note Hinton translated literally some of the Zen masters’ names (eg Huineng becomes Prana-Able).

Practice of Zen Buddhism

Books on Zen Buddhism for beginners

The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment

by Philip Kapleau Roshi, 1989

If you ever feel curious about Zen, this work is one of the best books on Zen practice. What you won’t find in the book is historical details or geographic whereabouts, as it is more focused on the practical aspects of Zen.

It includes detailed pictured posture instructions and a great deal of information about Shikantaza, the practice of Silent Illumination which does not require focused attention on a specific object.

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Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

by Shunryu Suzuki, 2006

As the title implies, Suzuki’s work is a collection of informal lessons on Zen, with valuable insight on the concept of Time, and the urge to drop our judgments on the reality surrounding us.

Some of the teachings will seem harsh at first, like the inevitability of the zazen position, but the way it synthesizes many complex topics is simply priceless. It is meant to be a guide to everyday Zen practice and way of life.

The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks 1600-1925

By Stephen Addiss, 2019

Sitting meditation is only one of the ways to achieve enlightenment. Painting and calligraphy are two lesser-known methods, but they left us a wide collection of art treasures.

In this book, Dr. Addiss presents the different styles of Japanese monk-artists, commenting on their techniques.

The idea behind Japanese Zen art is to express visually self-consciousness and enlightenment and we believe through this beautifully illustrated book you will also awaken your inner Buddha.

The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice

by Meido Moore, 2018

Rinzai is one of the 3 main schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism. To discover the true nature of oneself and the universe is one of its main goals and Koan are an essential part of its daily practices.

Meido Moore’s book is made of 2 parts. The first one explains the history and the purpose of Rinzai Zen, while the second instructs about the practical aspects of mindfulness and meditation.

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Koan and other Zen writings

Books on Zen Buddhism

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

by Bodhidharma

The Indian master Bodhidharma is the most important early Zen Master, as he is the one who brought Zen to China.

Zen practice is not simply a purification of the mind, but rather an accessible Buddhahood of everyday life in his teachings.

Hence contemplation of nature is very important, as he stresses while pointing at flying cranes, floating reeds, and rock walls.  The book includes the original Chinese text from a Qing dynasty edition.  

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind

Translated by John Blofeld

Huang Po, a Chinese Tang dynasty author, is considered the master of paradoxes in Zen Buddhism.

Through his writings, organized as often witty dialogues, you will be able to experience the tension between Zen and other branches of Buddhism.

Footnotes by John Blofeld make this book fine even among people who know nothing about Buddhism. Many consider it a Zen Buddhism classic of the same importance as Bodhidharma’s work.

Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

by Kazuaki Tanahashi, 2013

Master Dogen is the founder of the World famous Sōtō Zen School. His monumental book, the Shōbōgenzō, was transmitted personally from master to master up to a lineage that goes back to Buddha himself.

It is meant to include all the most important teachings of Buddhism, like the concept of time, life and death, religious practice, the nature of reality, and the law of cause and effect.

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

by Seung Sahn

Aside from China and Japan, Zen Buddhism had a long-lasting impact on Korean culture too.

This book is a collection of dialogues between Korean master Seung Sahn and his students, like the one, referred to in the title: “a student blows smoke on Buddha’s face and drops ashes on him, what would you do?”

Such questions are not meant to be answered correctly, but to incite astonishment and understand the ultimate reality.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life

by John Tarrant, 2008

This is one of the best books on Zen practice through Koans and will open your eyes to new realities.

Each Koan is first presented in the simplest possible way (some of them are only a few lines long).

Then the author introduces its main concepts, to then further elaborate, providing some background.

At the end of each chapter, you will start to understand how to “work with the koan”, meditating on it in your everyday life.

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