In 1999, research and enduring questions pulled me East in study and practice. The turn of the century was for me the turn of a leaf. I kept coming across terms and concepts from the East that better described my experiences. Authors, thinkers, and mentors introduced concepts such as suffering (beyond a diagnosis), unlearning, intention, awareness, nonduality, internal states, emptiness, impermanence, attachment, letting go, commitment, compassion, wisdom, being present, being versus doing — all ideas that motivated my journey East to Buddhism.
Opening to the East
Venturing East — in study and practice — opened me to a fuller understanding of the whole being that is the human condition. With each passing year, I’d read more, discover new practices, engage different parts of my humanity, and explore new sanghas and programs. Each exploration and encounter upended my Western worldview and expanded my mind.
Since the century mark, I’ve discovered how Eastern practices and philosophy can be most beneficial in business, leadership, education, and especially learning — given the fast pace of change, and increased anxiety and disruption. I addressed this dynamic as a need for Mental Hygiene.
I offer these six books, which have made a difference for me: four classics, and a couple of newly released titles that offer some fresh insights. I’ve organized these into three sections 1) three Zen books on practices and mindfulness; 2) two selections on Tibetan Wisdom and techniques, and 3) one selection that returns to Zen in today’s world.
As a note, I’ve included video links to most of these authors to extend your learning.
Three Books on Zen Buddhism
These first three sections offer a journey on Zen, a basic, elegant and practice-orientated aspect of Buddhism that includes mindfulness. Zen is not about knowing concepts or possessing knowledge; it’s about bringing forth a direct experience through practicing. I recall my time in the monastery when I mentioned to a teacher that I “was familiar” with Buddhism. He smiled and quietly asked, how often do you sit? Direct experience through practice is the journey to Zen mind and awareness.
1 – Buddhism Plain & Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day: Written by Zen teacher Steve Hagen. This aptly titled book delivers on its promise to deliver Buddhism in plain and straightforward terms. Whenever anyone asks me about a clear and accessible way to enter an inquiry into Buddhism, I suggest this book and have since 2000 when I stumbled onto it.
Hagen’s mission is to wake us up to Buddhism as a philosophy of awareness, giving us the basics without ritual, ceremony or metaphysics. He succeeds brilliantly.
This is the book to offer your clients, students or colleagues who wish to begin without requiring study, Eastern theory or beliefs. Take it from Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “This is the clearest and most precise exposition of Buddhism I have ever read. If you’re looking for enlightenment rather than just scholarly knowledge, you’d better read this.”
2 – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, this classic published by Shunryu Suzuki in 1970 is more valuable and relevant today as it has ever been. What is it to be a beginner? To approach life as if each situation was presented for the first time. At one level, each situation is newly encountered.
Sure, we know what shaving is, and we know how to shave, but at this moment, we have never experienced this encounter with shaving. And with a beginner’s mind, if we are mindful, we can see and experience something new.
We live as if we know life’s moments — as if we’ve been here before, and as if what is happening now is not original. Hardest for humans is to be a beginner; more specifically, to say “I don’t know,” and to proceed in life from “not knowing.”
Interestingly, I scare others most when I speak of “unlearning.” I mentioned this to a faculty colleague at Rutgers University; he froze and then stated, “don’t say that around here.” This is the challenge of Higher Ed. We train students to know but not to learn.
Learning requires unlearning.
Suzuki cultivates Zen mind to access a fresh perspective in each moment as if it was new. Beginner’s Mind presents the basics—from the details of posture and breathing in zazen to the perception of nonduality—in a way that is not only remarkably clear, but that also resonates with the joy of insight found in our natural childlike wonder.
This is the perfect gift for students, clients, and colleagues who wish to begin Buddhist practices or mindfulness, or anyone who believes it’s time become a beginner in life. I review this text yearly and discover new gems (see blog).
3 – The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now (2017) by Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (video with Oprah) is the latest of his many volumes on mindfulness.
Before mindfulness became Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh distinguished the practices in everyday life such as mindful eating and how to love, how to walk, how to sit, and how to relax. These are among the more than 100 books he has authored.
I was first introduced to the writings of this Buddhist monk and peace activist, who fled his native Việt Nam to bring peace to the world, during a month-long sojourn living in a Zen monastery in 2005. His book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames spoke to my own darker issues with anger in ways that psychology and Western language fell miserably short.
Further, I was amazed that we shared this issue given how I experienced Hahn’s peacefulness and freedom so very far from the anger I once knew. With his work, I have grown to realize ways to befriend anger rather than control, suppress or avoid it.
In his just-released book, the 90-year-old Hanh presents, for the first time, seven transformative meditations (emptiness, signlessness, aimlessness, impermanence, non-craving, letting go, and nirvana) that open up new perspectives on our lives, our relationships and our interconnectedness with the world around us. Based on the last full talks before his sudden hospitalization, and drawing on intimate examples from his own life, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how these seven meditations can free us to live a happy, peaceful and active life. He also shows us how to face aging and dying with curiosity and joy and without fear.
Two Books on Tibetan Wisdom
Venturing beyond Zen is to leap beyond sutras and sitting, and into metaphysics. That journey integrates study with practice. The next two selections offer a wonderful primary text by two masters.
4 – When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön, celebrated its 20th-anniversary with a special edition published in 2016.
A master of Tibetan Lojong (mind clearing) practices, Pema’s work translates this wisdom within the question: How can we live our lives when everything seems to fall apart—when we are continually overcome by fear, anxiety, and pain?
The answer, Pema Chödrön suggests draws from Tibetan wisdom, and thus flies in the face of reason: move toward painful situations, embrace them and begin a new and intimate relationship with suffering to open up our hearts in ways we never before imagined. She offers life-changing tools for transforming suffering and negative patterns into habitual ease and boundless joy.
I offer this book for those interested in integrating practices to create a new relationship with everyday suffering. Once we begin to witness our mind now we can train it. With Pema as a guide, we can begin this journey with heart and compassion as well as intention and wisdom.
Just the name Pema adds joy and healing to many lives, including marketing guru Seth Godin who places her work on his top five list of resources that make his life work. While writing this post, I received the latest copy of Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, on this very title.
5 – Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness (2003) are the teachings by Chogyam Trungpa’s (founder of Shambhala and Naropa University) whose original 1993 text by spouse Diana Mukpo is a classic translation of the 8th century Tibetan Lojong Wisdom.
Amazon aptly alerts readers: Warning: Using this book could be hazardous to your ego!
Lojong mind cultivation (developed over a 300-year period between 900 and 1200 CE, as part of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism), is organized around Seven Points that contain fifty-nine pithy yet provocative slogans, that can confront sensibilities to awaken our mind (wisdom) and cultivate our heart (compassion).
These teachings provide linguistic scaffolding to hold focus with slogans such as, “Don’t be swayed by external circumstances,” “Be grateful to everyone,” and “Don’t bring things to a painful point,” offer mindful practices.
Those interested in upgrading their practice beyond mindfulness practices can include this text with Pema’s book (#4 on list) to develop a set of daily rituals, bringing mind-clearing to our lives. Not surprising, Pema authored the foreword to this book, given her studies with Trungpa (as his student) and devotion to Lojong Wisdom.
I would be remiss not to mention that I’ve grappled with this book for the last decade. This primary text opens one to new learning of self – beyond attachment to any identity. With each program or class, I return to it to deepen my learning, confront my ego, and enhance meditation and mindfulness.
Zen in our Pluralistic World
6 – Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016) by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah have ignited a relevant dialogue about the legacy of racial injustice and white supremacy in society at large and Buddhist communities in particular. These thinkers put forth a new dharma that invites a new “spirit activism” on how racism and privilege prevent our mutual understanding and collective awakening.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah represent a new voice in American Buddhism. They offer their own histories and direct experiences as illustrations of the types of challenges facing dharma practitioners and teachers who are different from those of the past five decades. They ask how teachings that can transcend color, class, and caste are hindered by discrimination and the dynamics of power and ignorance.
I enjoyed meeting and listening to Rev. angel this past year. I experienced her Zen training come through as compassion and wisdom as she created an openness for all voices. This special gift comes through as these three authors share perspectives in dialogue that are often dicey and triggering.
Radical Dharma demonstrates how social transformation and personal, spiritual liberation must be articulated and inextricably linked. This link to Rev angel is a short intro into some of her work and to Buddhism.
Take Your Path
I offer these selections to invite you to expand your vision and open your mind. While this blog post focuses on Buddhism, take it more as a philosophy of awareness or mindful living. Take a peek and discover your way.
Consider breathing to start, to slow down. Once that expands awareness, bring mindfulness to moments in your day – washing dishes, watering plants, eating meals. Perhaps you may wish to expand to some daily practices from Tibetan Wisdom, or you may wish to join a sangha. The path is there; take a step and make it yours.
Read related post: Mind-Opening Summer Reads.