12 Best Zen Books To Read To Enhance Your Spiritual Journey

If you are interested in learning more about the Zen lifestyle and Buddhism, read our guide containing the best Zen books to explore.

Many people are looking for a path to enlightenment, which means learning more about themselves. One way to do precisely that is to explore Zen, which is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen meditation originated during the Tang Dynasty in China. At that time, it was known as the Chan School. It developed into numerous branches and subsets throughout the centuries, many of which are still practiced today. The central belief of Zen is that someone can free themselves from the construction of words and logic by exploring the nature of one’s being.

If someone can get to know themselves better, they can find the true path to freedom. There are many ways to learn about Zen Buddhism, including reading the best philosophy books.

1. The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 2009

If you are looking for a way to explore the concept of Zen, it may be helpful to listen to The Dali Lama. That is where The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, is helpful. This book is a series of interviews and meetings between Dr. Howard Cutler, one of the foremost authorities on the topic, and the Dalai Lama. This book focuses on everything one can imagine, ranging from money, loss, relationships, and religion to everyday life, family, and the future.

By covering just about everything that one could consider to be an asset or an obstacle, the Dalai Lama describes how someone can find happiness. Ultimately, happiness is determined by your state of mind instead of the conditions in which you find yourself, but in the modern world, it can be challenging to understand that. Therefore, this book will attempt to teach you how to get there.

“Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.”

Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness
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The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Hardcover Book
  • Lama, Dalai (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 352 Pages - 10/01/2009 (Publication Date) - Riverhead Books (Publisher)

2. The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, 1999

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, is considered one of the best books on Zen. This is a groundbreaking book designed to introduce the concept of Zen to the world outside of Asia. This book will cover not only the basics of Zen but also the history of Buddhism. The book discusses the relationship between Buddhism and Vedic philosophy while describing how the concept travels from China to Japan. This book covers the relationship between Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It even covers the Zen monastic tradition. This simple, straightforward book does not use any jargon, attempting to give everyone an overview of Zen that they can apply to their meditation sessions. 

“The centipede was happy, quite, Until a toad in fun Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?” This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run.”

Alan Wilson Watts, The Way of Zen
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The Way of Zen
  • Watts, Alan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 01/26/1999 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

3. An Introduction To Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki, 1934

Best Zen Books: An Introduction To Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki
Shigeru Tamura, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Suzuki is one of the biggest names in the world of Zen Buddhism, and An Introduction To Zen Buddhism is one of their most famous works. This is arguably his best title, making Zen accessible to everyone, regardless of background. For newcomers, there are plenty of instructions and advice, allowing you to maximize the benefits of the school. However, even if you are familiar with the school, you can still benefit from the teachings of an experienced professional like Suzuki. 

“The way to ascend unto God is to descend into one’s self”; — these are Hugo’s words. “If thou wishest to search out the deep things of God, search out the depths of thine own spirit”;”

D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
  • Suzuki, D. T. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 54 Pages - 01/28/2013 (Publication Date) - Important Books (Publisher)

4. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, 1970

The next book you may want to consider is called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. It is one of the most popular books on Zen, written by the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. He believes it is critically important to approach the subject with the open mind of a beginner every time you sit down for a meditation session. The book reads like a guide for someone who wants to get the most out of each meditation session. Following this book, you can learn more about your mind and your body, leading a more mindful life.

“The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes… Zen practice is to open up our small mind.”

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
  • Suzuki, Shunryu (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 176 Pages - 06/28/2011 (Publication Date) - Shambhala (Publisher)

5. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, by Natalie Golbert, 2018

Natalie Goldberg is an experienced Zen practitioner, and her book, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home is a memoir. It focuses on how she overcame a lot of the trauma created by her cancer diagnosis by following the teachings of Zen. The book is captivating, she is open and honest during her journey, and the book will move you in more ways than one. It contains a lot of emotion, but it can be beneficial for those struggling to overcome chronic illnesses. 

“Jump in, no excuses. Exert the force of your life. Persevere under all circumstances.”

Natalie Goldberg, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir
Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir
  • Goldberg, Natalie (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 208 Pages - 06/05/2018 (Publication Date) - Shambhala (Publisher)

6. Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t, by Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz, 2017

If you are someone who needs a simple, straightforward book to help you get going, you should check out Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t. This book is fun and playful, explaining exactly how to meditate correctly. Even if you feel like you don’t need to meditate, this is a book that will explain why it is beneficial. It can help you focus better, let go of stress, and learn how to spend more time with what is most important to you. It is perfect for beginners and will pique your curiosity about other parts of the school of Zen Buddhism. 

“Myth – Meditation is religious and cultish. Reality – Meditation is about you getting to know you, finding your inner peace and goodness, and falling in love with the whole world. There’s no need to go to the ashram or shave your head (unless you want to).”

Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz, Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t
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Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't
  • Hardcover Book
  • Novogratz, Sukey (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 12/26/2017 (Publication Date) - Harper Wave (Publisher)

7. Zen For Everyday Life by Matt Valentine, 2015

You should explore Zen For Everyday Life if you need a book that can clearly explain how you can find your inner peace and happiness in the hustle and bustle of modern life. It is a very straightforward read and will provide you with some helpful guidance on different aspects of Zen Buddhism. In addition, it will teach you how to apply the concepts to your life, helping you find peace and happiness in the world around you. You might not realize that you don’t need anything other than what you have right now, but this is a book that will help you understand that. 

“My breath became shallow. I didn’t know it then, but what I had just experienced was the effect of heavy stress and anxiety. Over the next few months I would slowly begin to become aware of what was causing it.”

Matt Valentine, Zen For Everyday Life
Zen for Everyday Life: How to Find Peace and Happiness in the Chaos of Everyday Life
  • Valentine, Matt (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 294 Pages - 02/15/2015 (Publication Date) - Matt Valentine (Publisher)

8. Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1992

Another one of the best books you should consider is called Peace is Every Step. It is widely considered one of the greatest Zen books of all time, and it was written by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the main authorities on the topic. This book contains various principles and guidelines you should follow if you want to live a peaceful life. Following this book, you can also help others learn more about the Zen mindset.

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam; however, he was exiled from Vietnam because of his beliefs, and he had to move to France, which colonized Vietnam during the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though he has a lot of misgivings about modern life, he believes it is still possible for someone to seek enlightenment by focusing on the present moment. This book will help you learn how to do precisely that. 

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
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Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
  • peace moment zen master spiritual leader positive true selves mindfulness present
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 134 Pages - 03/01/1992 (Publication Date) - Random House Publishing Group (Publisher)

9. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps, 1957

If you are a beginner in Zen Buddhism, you will want to read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It was published more than 60 years ago, but it will still force you to make your interpretations of Zen Buddhism. Hundreds of stories have been passed down from century to century, allowing you to learn more about Zen Buddhism just like people did hundreds of years ago. However, if you want a book that will truly get you to the roots of Zen Buddhism, this is the book to read. 

“It is too clear and so it is hard to see. A dunce once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, He could have cooked his rice much sooner.”

Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
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Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 211 Pages - 09/15/1998 (Publication Date) - Tuttle Publishing (Publisher)

10. The Daily Zen, by Charlie Ambler, 2016

Some people need a few quotes to help them get going. The Daily Zen, by Charlie Ambler, is a collection of quotes that helped him keep his studies going as he learned more about Zen. If you have a few quotes that you can continually run through your mind during your meditation session, you may find inner peace easier. You may not know which of these quotes will help you get over the hump, but it is helpful to look at what an experienced professional used to keep him going during some tougher days. 

“The desire to be right is nothing but another attachment, and it can ruin relationships. The ego is not real. Right and wrong are not real. All you have is yourself, the essential core of which cannot be communicated.”

Charlie Ambler, The Daily Zen Book of Wisdom
Daily Zen
  • Ambler, Charlie (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 289 Pages - 12/21/2016 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)

11. The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, 1965

Best Zen Books: The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau
Unknown, assumed Mind meal~commonswiki, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To reach a state of Zen, you need to learn the basics. That is where The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, can be helpful. While it was published back in 1965, it is still relevant to this day. However, because the book is a bit older, it looks at them from a slightly different perspective. It focuses on Zen as a way of life instead of philosophical teaching. It might not necessarily be as detailed as the other books above, but it can help you learn how to incorporate them into other areas of your life. Therefore, it is still an essential title for people interested in obtaining a state of Zen. 

“If you fall into poverty, live that way without grumbling – then your poverty will not burden you. Likewise, if you are rich, live with your riches. All this is the functioning of Buddha-nature. In short, Buddha-nature has the quality of infinite adaptability.”

Philip Kapleau Roshi, The Three Pillars of Zen
The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment
  • Philip Kapleau Roshi (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 02/27/1989 (Publication Date) - Anchor (Publisher)

12. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M Pirsig, 2006

If you are interested in reaching Zen, you must find a way to incorporate the practice into all areas of your life. That includes something as mundane as motorcycle maintenance, which is not necessarily the focus of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.  In reality, this book focuses on personal struggles involving daily tasks and relationships. It is a unique read, providing a deep exploration of some major philosophical questions that everyone struggles with. Regardless of where you are on your journey with Zen, you will find this book helpful. 

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
  • Pirsig, Robert M (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 540 Pages - 04/25/2006 (Publication Date) - Mariner Books (Publisher)

FAQs About the Best Zen Books

What is the purpose of Zen?

The purpose of Zen is to help you find inner peace, spirituality, and happiness. You can do so by learning how to regulate your attention through Zen. Some people described it as thinking about not thinking, which is tougher than many realize. You might even want to check out some of the best self-help books to learn more. 

What is the Zen way of life?

The Zen way of life is all about finding enlightenment, peace, and oneness. It is a term used to describe a specific type of Buddhism where people use meditation to live in the present moment without passing judgment on anything happening around them. People practicing Zen Buddhism find a way to look beyond materialism and value themselves instead of objects or attachments. 

Interested in learning more? Check out our guide on using meditation for creativity!

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