This is a short list – five in total – of books that that have been essential to my education and practice, that I find myself recommending over and over again.
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha)
Wisdom Publications; 2005
Bhikku Bodhi is doing yeoman’s work in his translation of the Pali Canon and this selection from that epic task is both approachable and immensely valuable. Organized by topic, as opposed to the Pali Canon’s organization by category and length, and using the earliest suttas this really allows one to gain an understanding and appreciation of the early Buddhist Thoughts. Too often practitioners are disconnected from the original teachings thinking that because zen is “beyond words and letters” they can forgo study of the source material. As Dōgen reminds us
“However, those who talk about transmission outside the teaching do not understand this meaning. So, do not believe the wrong view of transmission outside the teaching and thereby misunderstand buddhas’ teaching.”- Shōbōgenzō, p. 278
The Sayings of Layman P’ang: A Zen Classic of China
translated by James Green
The first book I recommend to anyone who wants to begin to explore zen literature. As most practitioners are laity there are few more inspiring figures than Layman P’ang. He demonstrates ably how a layman can engage in Right Livelihood and be fully engaged in the path. It’s also down to earth, entertaining reading with wisdom for all practitioners, lay and ordained alike.
When the mind is at peace,
the world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding on to reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
you are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.
-Layman P’ang, translated by Stephen Mitchell
The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind
Translated by John Blofeld
Grove Press, 1994
Huang Po (Obaku in Japan) was the teacher of Linji which became the dominant school in China and one of the two main schools in Japan (as Rinzai). Reading Huang Po gives you the roots of Linji’s teaching and his style, which was if anything even more dynamic and more direct. Reading Huang Po you can see where much of that came from and with his elucidation on various topics you can get a glimpse at the depths involved. In my mind this is one of the clearest most direct expositions on the core of the path of zen and is as solid a foundation as you can find anywhere for practice and further study.
“Therefore, if you students of the Way seek to progress through seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing, when you are deprived of your perceptions, your way to Mind will be cut off and you will find nowhere to enter. Only realize that, though real Mind is expressed in these perceptions, it neither forms part of them nor is separate from them. You should not start REASONING from these perceptions, nor allow them to give rise to conceptual thought; yet nor should you seek the One Mind apart from them or abandon them in your pursuit of the Dharma. Do not keep them nor abandon them nor dwell in them nor cleave to them. Above, below and around you, all is spontaneously existing, for there is nowhere which is outside the Buddha-Mind.” – The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 36-37
Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
Bassui Tokusho, translated by Arthur Braverman
Wisdom Publications; 2002
There has been no more important teachings for me than Bassui. He was a fourteenth century Japanese monk who demonstrated total commitment to the way. He eschewed much of the dogma of his day concentrating purely on the practice. But contravening that concept of a radical or a rebel that seems to be so attractive to the western mind, once he began teaching to returned to the form and it’s myriad practices. Those seemingly rebellious practices, to me, just demonstrate how when one has aroused great aspiration you do what is necessary. What I love about Bassui is how it cuts it all to the quick, always bringing it back to the core: seeing directly into your own nature. Whenever he is asked about minutia of Buddhism or Zen he always brings it back to this.
“Fasting does not mean refraining from the formal eating of food. It means refraining from feeding on the roots of delusion. Fasting means looking into your own nature and illuminating your consciousness, cutting off deluded feelings arising from analytical thinking, remaining apart from external phenomena and unattached to the internal void, completely purifying yourself so that things with no more than a thread of meaning become nonexistent in your life. A good teacher of true rank relates to people as a farmer trains his ox, as though he were depriving a starving man of food. If you were mistakenly to take this fasting literally, it would be a case of heresy.” –Mud and Water p. 48
Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing
Hakuin, translation and commentary by Albert Low
Kensho (awakening) is the essential experience of a practitioner and yet there often is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding this topic. The great 17th Century Japanese Zen master Hakuin addressed numerous questions on this topic which was put together as the short text The Four Ways of Knowing. This book by Albert Low is drawn from his many teisho’s on this text and apart from presenting a translation of the text the bulk of the book is his line by line discussion of the text. Aimed directly at practitioners this is an incredibly valuable book for those on the path.
The four ways of knowing can be looked upon as four ways of working on the question, “Who am I?”
The first of these ways is to use the question as a hua t’ou. Hua t’ou is a Chinese word that literally means the “head of a sentence.” For example, instead of asking, “Who am I?” one simply asks the question, “Who?” The rest of the question is understood. By breathing “Who?” in and out, the question is held steadily, and one can continue to practice for very long periods. A variation of this same question is, “How do I know that I am?” The only worthwhile response to both of these questions is awakening. This awakening, as we shall see, is the first way of knowing.
Another way of working on “Who am I?” is to ask, “When a bird sings, where am I?” Or, “When it snows, where am I?” The resolution of these questions is to awaken into the second way of knowing.
The third way of working on “Who am I” is to take all experience, no matter what, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, and ask, “Who is experiencing this?” This will lead to the third way of knowing.
The fourth way of working on “Who am I” is to inquire, “Who walks?” “Who talks?” “Who eats?” “Who sits in zazen?” This leads to awakening to the fourth way of knowing. –Hakuin on Kensho, p. 24