The journey of our lives is remarkably universal and predictable. That’s why we can share experiences, insights and sentiments, and that’s how we can empathize with one another. And so it is guaranteed that, after a pinprick of recognition, a flicker of awareness, someone will turn to me and ask what they should read next.
I would like to say, “Nothing” but that is neither kind nor practical. Of course we read, and we want to read, accustomed as we are to thinking that what is in a book will guide and shape us, will lead us to some deeper understanding, some culminating truth, and maybe even save us a step. Nothing you read in a book will give you that, although reading is itself a worthwhile pastime. Reading a good book is like gazing onto a field of flowers, or the sky, or the sea, or the sand, or a cornfield, or the parking lot at Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon. Gazing at any of those things will deliver you to a deeper recognition and appreciation of yourself and your world without informing you of one thing, except to stay away from Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon.
Information, least of all about the nature of your life, is vastly overrated and might even be harmful. Information about Zen, and Buddhism for that matter, is rather useless, although many will gorge themselves on it, as if eating the label on a can of soup can give them a taste of Tomato Bisque. Zen is the actual, living experience of your life. No one has yet documented the life that only you can live. The practice of Zen requires that you intimately experience your life, and not restrict yourself to reading about it. Almost nothing in your experience will match the anticipation, fear, and misconceptions that are stirred up by accumulating knowledge about this or that.
That doesn’t mean that the next book you read won’t serve a purpose. It will. What you read next or do next will lead you to what comes after. What comes after will appear in front of you at the moment you see it. So will the thing that comes after that. There is a reason why your spiritual path is called a path. It is not a metaphor. Trusting yourself begins by trusting that what appears in your life is uniquely suited for your consumption.
That being said, here are some signposts for your consideration:
1. Zen is a practice of poets, calling you to experience what can never be adequately described or defined. Great teachers speak and write in poetry, just as life expresses itself in poetry. Read poetry, and you will begin to see it, speak it and live it.
2. Writers who have a thoroughgoing practice of Zen write Zen. The topic can be anything at all. Writers who do not have a thoroughgoing practice write about Zen. Too much has already been written about that topic, and it hasn’t done much good. Great writing is always Zen, and it does great good.
3. Never read a book about Zen koans unless you have a koan teacher and you are in a formal koan practice and the teacher has asked you to read that book. A book about koans is the diametric opposite of koans. Koans are not literature, fables or history – they are a living teaching, as if Julia Child herself were standing in your kitchen showing you how to make mayonnaise. When you have an actual koan practice, you will become reluctant to read about koans, having learned for yourself the cruel and frustrating limits of what can be read. If you don’t know what a koan is, you are that much ahead of the rest of us and you should be content to stay that way.
4. Read a cookbook. You’ll not only save yourself from eating a label, you might make yourself a real meal. Eating real food is the only way to satisfy real hunger.