A sort-of review
The idea that one can describe Zen practice in a book is not really in the spirit of Zen: which is, after all, concerned with being so intimately engaged in the world that any act of mental abstraction probably takes ones out of the necessary state of consciousness. But to dismiss all books on Zen would be to deny that words and books are, currently, an integral part of human society: and that probably wouldn’t be in the spirit of Zen either!
Now this review gets particularly Zen-like: I had intended to include some quotes from one of my source texts to give you a flavour of what’s available. Last week I’d scribbled some notes down and took a photo of the relevant pages from which to extra the relevant lines. Now, as I come to write my piece, I cannot find those notes and, no matter how I try, I cannot transfer the pictures of the pages to my PC to use. Life, the Universe, the Tao, Zen has intervened to prevent me doing what I had intended. Zen 1: Plans 0.
Or maybe life is protecting me from infringing some copyright laws. In a Zen context, the reason is irrelevant; the timing of my loss of notes and technical problems probably says as much, if not more, about Zen, Tao and being in the flow as any number of quotes could.
So, I’ll content myself with sharing a few of the ways I have found these books helpful.
In most of the Zen texts I’ve looked at, I was pleasantly surprised to find a constant and constructive cross-referencing between Zen history and ideas and Taoist ones. Not surprising since they share much common ancestry, but how many books on Catholicism would offer insights on Anglicanism in a similarly positive way? Zen and Tao seek integration, mutual respect and harmonious flow of understanding. Thus, the better books will bring that out both in what’s written and in how its written. If the Zen books you’re looking at seek to highlight the differences and emphasises the distinction between Tao and Zen, you can tell that it’s been written by an academic, not a Zen practitioner!
Having said that, in one important area, these books all bring out one significant difference: between, on one hand, the Zen and Tao ideas that originated in the East and, on the other, conventional Western ways of thinking. To ‘understand’ Zen, first disengage your Western mind.
An example of this comes in the use, within Zen teaching, of koans, such as the famous one that most of your will have come across: what is the sound of one-hand clapping? Of course, the question is absurd and the (Western) rational mind cannot cope with that: surely there has to be an answer? Not to the Zen mind there doesn’t!
So, don’t expect to learn Zen from books: that can only come from years of personal practice. But what the best books about Zen can provide is some context, some stories, some explanations that can help our rational minds just begin to see where Zen comes from . . . and just how different from Western ways of thinking and engaging with the world it is.
As to which Zen book, that has to be a personal choice: or rather the decision of the highest mode of consciousness you can muster. And yes, if you had that transcendent, Zen-like state you wouldn’t need the book! Welcome to the paradoxical world of Zen.
Just for the record, the books I’ve recently been looking at (because I was intuitively drawn to them) are:
Brandon, D. (1976) Zen in the Art of Helping
Dumoulin, H. (1992) Zen Buddhism in the 20th Century
Herrigel, E. (1953) Zen in the Art of Archery
Preston, D.L. (1988) The Social Organization of Zen Practice
Watts, A.W. (1957) The Way of Zen
All of them provided, usually via random page choices, quotes that made me smile and ideas that called for some long reflection. Do not read a Zen book from cover to cover: that will, almost certainly, defeat its message.
Of the above, my preference would be Zen in the Art of Archery, if only because it’s by far the shortest and my eyes can’t cope with much reading these days. And, even if it isn’t a Zen saying, ‘short and sweet’ is probably in the spirit of Zen.