Best Zen Buddhism Books

Zen Buddhism is perhaps one of the least understood forms of Buddhism, precisely because it’s so well known. On the other hand – perhaps it’s the type of Buddhism best suited to the west, because of it’s anti-everything rhetoric. There’s more to Zen than just sitting still. There’s more to Zen than merely stylish Japanese gardens. Zen is a form of Buddhism – the religion. It’s a way of life. The books on this page will help you discover that way of life.

I have started this list with best selling Zen Buddhist books. At the bottom I have also shared those books that my readers have recommended on a previous version of this page. 

Because this is also a list of the most popular books, I’ve included books the popular Vietnamese author Thich Nhat Hanh. which are perhaps a bit more general than specifically Zen. However, he IS the most popular Zen teacher today, so I think there’s ample justification.

Best selling Zen Books ever

1) The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
In this book Thich Nhat Hanh covers the basic themes common to all types of Buddhism from a truly human and Zen perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh manages to turn these classic lists, common to all types of Buddhism, into a readable book. Quite an accomplishment. 

2) Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing is deceptive in its subtlety. He’ll go on and on with stories about tree-hugging or metaphors involving raw potatoes; he’ll tell you how to eat mindfully, even how to breathe and walk; he’ll suggest looking closely at a flower and to see the sun as your heart.

3) Buddhism Plain and Simple
This book by Steve Hagen is perhaps responsible for much of today’s popularity of Buddhism. As 5 star ratings by readers testify: it’s sure to inspire you and help you live a calmer life. As the description on Amazon suggests, the book ignores the ritual side of Buddhism completely and as such fits with the modern Western style of Buddhism as a philosophy, the essence of which is meditation. 

4) True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart
A poetic booklet to help you look at your relationships in a fresh light. I find the practice of loving kindness a surprisingly deep source of happiness in daily life. 

5) The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
One of the best available introductions to the wisdom and beauty of meditation practice.
A very good primer on Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of mindfulness. Grounded in the Buddhist tradition of Vietnam.

6) Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
Encouraging readers to be intelligent and skillful in their practice, this new collection by Thich Nhat Hanh outlines the essential steps by which we can all obtain real and lasting happiness. Each day, we perform the tasks of everyday life without thought or awareness — walking, sitting, working, eating, driving, and much more. But Hanh points out that if we remain truly aware of our actions, no matter the task we’re performing, we can stay engaged in our lives and better our outlook through mindfulness. This key practice is the foundation for this accessible, easy-to-understand volume, and an invaluable tool for change for both seasoned Buddhist practitioners and lay readers interested in bettering their lives through full awareness.

7) The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment
It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when ‘Zen’ wasn’t associated with meditation in the Western mind at all. This book was the first to change that in the popular imagination. It helped transform our ideas about Buddhism as a whole: no longer merely a rational philosophy, but also a practical approach to changing your life and the way your mind works. 

This is the first specifically ZEN books on the list. 

8) Call Me By My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh
While Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice as an author is always poetic, in this book you’ll find his actual poetry. Well worth the read and the ponder.

9) Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha – Buddha’s life story retold

Drawn from original sources, Old Path White Clouds is the beautiful classic recounting of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha over the course of eighty years. It is retold alternately through the eyes of Svasti, the buffalo boy who provided kusa grass for the Buddha’s enlightenment cushion, and the Buddha himself.
Thich Nhat Hanh on the life of Buddha himself.

10) You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment
Based on a retreat that Thich Nhat Hanh led for Westerners, this book offers a range of simple, effective practices for cultivating mindfulness, including awareness of breathing and walking, deep listening, and skillful speech. You Are Here also offers guidance on healing emotional pain and manifesting real love and compassion in our relationships with others.

My reviews of classic and recent Zen Books: 

Reader recommendations

Zen Buddhism is one of the three most popular styles of Buddhism to have migrated West. It’s probably also the style of Buddhism that has moved away from it’s ‘Buddhist’ roots the most. This is true geographically: it moved all the way East to Japan first, after all – as well. In the process it had to adapt first to the Chinese mindset. The Chinese had a literary culture before Buddhism ever came there, after all. While they tried to import Buddhism without distortion, and translated numerous texts, they could not but give Buddhism it’s own flavor.

This happened everywhere to be sure, however Chinese and Japanese versions of Buddhism sometimes went so far as to deny the validity of the path altogether. This is tantamount to denying the Buddha himself a place.

While usually a Japanese or Chinese Buddhist who hears ‘kill the Buddha’ will have spent years in devotion to the Buddha, for Westerners who hear that phrase it’s not all that powerful. They will often just assume respect for the tradition isn’t necessary at all.

Some of this tension is present in the books chosen by my readers below.

Don’t get me wrong: much of Zen Buddhism is faithful to it’s Japanese and Buddhist background. I know Zen Buddhists online who delve deeply into Buddhist philosophy and for the academic study of Mahayana Buddhism it’s almost mandatory to know Japanese.

What I’m saying is that the word ‘Zen’ and the practice of Zen in the West – often have little enough to do with Buddhism. The reader will have to judge for herself whether that’s true for the below selection. I think an Albert Low fan came along at one point.

Do feel free to add your own favorite Buddhist Books in the comments.

Zen Meditation Plain and Simple

First published by Tuttle in 1989 as An Invitation to Practice Zen, it has gone on to sell nearly 20,000 copies. Now, with a new preface and updated instructional photographs, it’s perfect to help a new generation of readers looking to learn the basics of zazen, zen meditation. With a concise overview of the basics and clear photographs illustrating the proper positions and postures, this comprehensive guidebook demystifies the age-old practice of zazen and brings its numerous benefits into the daily lives of today’s Westerners.

Zen and the Sutras (Tuttle Library of Enlightenment)

In this book, Low provides insight into reading and practicing with sutras from the Prajnaparamita School and the Mahayana texts. His insights and conclusions about spirituality and humanity will both enlighten readers and inspire them, in the way of Zen, on their own spiritual search.

Iron Cow of Zen

Albert Low’s commentary on some classical Zen koans.

Zen: Talks, Stories and Commentaries, Albert Low

Albert Low, teacher and director at the Montreal Zen Center and dharma heir of Roshi Philip Kapleau, provides an engaging collection of talks, stories and commentaries on Zen. Though the entries range from dharma talks on koans to discussions on Buddhism and Christianity, they all address concrete concerns of our lives and reveal the author’s profound insights.

Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation

Dutch artist Frederick Franck offers his concept of seeing and drawing as a discipline by which the world may be rediscovered, a way of experiencing Zen.

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action

Franck, the author of Zen of Seeing, the classic guide, returns with more teachings and instructions.

Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records, by Katsuki Sekida

The strange verbal paradoxes called koans have been used traditionally in Zen training to help students attain a direct realization of truths inexpressible in words. The two works translated in this book, Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate ) and Hekiganroku (The Blue Cliff Record), both compiled during the Song dynasty in China, are the best known and most frequently studied koan collections, and are classics of Zen literature. They are still used today in a variety of practice lineages, from traditional zendos to modern Zen centers. In a completely new translation, together with original commentaries, the well-known Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida brings to these works the same fresh and pragmatic approach that made his Zen Training so successful. The insights of a lifetime of Zen practice and his familiarity with both Eastern and Western ways of thinking make him an ideal interpreter of these texts.

Zen Explained, Richard Hathaway

The title says it all. Accessibly written, Zen Explained describes the mystery that lies at the heart of Zen Buddhism. It clearly and concisely says what nirvana (enlightenment) actually is, then goes on to outline in plain English how the individual can attain nirvana. This is a radical departure. Most Zen books are faithful to the spirit of Zen as it was understood and written about in Japan centuries ago. As a consequence they often have to be deciphered more than read. Zen Explained is different. It speaks using concepts and ideas familiar to Westerners. Poetic language and culturally foreign allegory are avoided in favour of the more direct and down-to-Earth descriptive style of writing that is more usual in the West. Something is lost in terms of literary style because of this, but something is also gained by it: clarity.

Zen Unleashed: Everyday Buddhist Wisdom from Man’s Best Friend, Tim Macejak
Recommended by the author.
Sheila the Zen Dog encourages us — Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike — to find peace through letting go of attachments and learning to be in the moment. Whether pondering the merits of barking versus receiving tummy rubs, considering the similarities between police dogs and show dogs, or sharing secrets of doggie dreams, Sheila uses her natural dog wisdom, haiku poetry, and simple explanations to fetch and deliver a clear and useful summary of Zen Buddhist teachings. Often dubbed The Middle Path, Buddhism as explained by this Zen Dog offers guidance to anyone, regardless of breed.

See also the best Buddhist Books according to my readers