The Zen bookshelf

October 12th, 2007

“I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.” – Zen koan

Awhile ago I tumbled onto a blogger’s review of Momma Zen. I say “tumbled” because the writer didn’t share my elevated view of my work, and I fell down hard. She found the book a wee bit lacking and lamented that she didn’t learn anything new, finally confessing that she viewed mothers like me with half-pity, half-scorn.

The thing is, she was right about everything, even the pity part, because I bet even you pity me now.

Most people approach Buddhism the way they approach everything else: venturing only so far. They want to investigate, read, discuss and cogitate. They want to “wrap their minds around it.” This is precisely why I don’t play tennis. This is precisely why we don’t do most things.

But Zen isn’t like that, and reading a Zen book, a real Zen book, isn’t going to teach you anything new. It is going to reveal what you already know, the wisdom that you instantly recognize but have long since forgotten. When you read it, you won’t feel like you acquired anything at all, but rather like you dropped a lot of unnecessary stuff. Your breathing will relax and your tensions, ease. A good Zen book does all this by being about nothing at all.

So this weekend I want to leave you with a nice, empty bookshelf: a selection of contemporary and classic readings that I recommend. I do this as a gift to you and as recompense for the blind faith repeatedly misplaced in me by my publisher.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is like a song; it’s like a whisper. The edited transcriptions of Suzuki Roshi’s talks are effortless and spare. Zen hors d’oeuvres they are, and yet somehow a complete meal.

Writing Down the Bones. Show me a writer without this on the shelf. Now show me the writer who truly appreciates how Natalie Goldberg applies the inscrutable words of her Zen teacher to her life and art. You be the one.

Letters to a Young Poet. This slim classic bears re-reading, especially if you find yourself still chasing the idea of a perfect life. Rilke is haunting as he speaks of true love as the mutual gift of solitude. It is startling to hear this from a die-hard romantic, and this makes him a must-read in the pantheon of inadvertent Zen masters.

Appreciate Your Life. My first teacher Maezumi Roshi never wrote a book. He never felt ready to add anything to the titanic body of Zen commentary. He was that wise. Before he died he cautioned me that his teachings were being editorially intellectualized, but this book offers the only way to hear the depth and nuance of his voice.

Tao te Ching. There are nearly 50 translations of the Tao te Ching out there to choose from. You can look or you can find. This ancient Chinese verse will help you locate your hara, the center of your being, because when you read it, the words will fall all the way down to your gut and echo back up again. Taoism is Zen’s cousin, inextricably akin, hence the striking family resemblance.

Finally, I am happy to reveal the winner of this week’s random drawing of commenters, as chosen by my able, honest and blind-folded assistant, Georgia. Marta will be receiving one of the first copies of The Best Buddhist Writing of 2007 as soon as I get one and I can inscribe it inscrutably. That will easily make her one of the best-read non-Buddhists on the block, which is naturally worth nothing at all.

Thank you all for a week of eloquence and honesty. Your attention is love, and I return it in full.


  1. When I read your book it revealed what I already knew, but much better said. I was able to drop unnecessary stuff, my breathing relaxed and tensions were eased. I “got it”, and that is because you said it so well. Thank you for the recommendations, you sparked my curiosity.

    Comment by Mika — October 12, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  2. I don’t care if your book says things I already knew. It’s the company of your voice resonating that which I know that I cherish.

    As for the winner, I can’t think of anyone more deserving! Marta is a close friend of mine (we met in Austin about 8 years ago). She was one of my two inspirations for delving into visual art — making it myself, that is. I’ve also had the privilege to read one of her novels, and I’m rooting for her to find an agent and publisher. On top of all this she’s an awesome mother.

    Comment by kathryn — October 12, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

  3. I forgot to mention that the readings used at my wedding were Rilke quotes from the volume you mention. Thanks for reminding me — I think I’ll re-read them for refreshment.

    Comment by kathryn — October 12, 2007 @ 2:41 pm

  4. Congratulations, Marta!

    Karen, thank you for the reading recommendations.

    As for the reviewer / blogger: “half-pity, half-scorn?” What’s that about? Please allow me to be just a tiny bit outraged on your behalf! Please!

    Comment by Mama Zen — October 12, 2007 @ 3:01 pm

  5. Karen-Do you live in my head? You seem to hit on a subject in my thoughts or which has been discussed within a day or two! πŸ™‚

    I was just talking to my husband about that —

    “It is going to reveal what you already know, the wisdom that you instantly recognize but have long since forgotten.”

    I wasn’t speaking of it as eloquently, but trying to explain the feeling and the quest and the continued ‘interest’ (if that is a good way to describe it) over the years.

    I’m sending him on over! πŸ˜‰

    And thanks for the book selections – some read, some to be re-read, and some new. Just right.

    Comment by denise — October 12, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

  6. Congrats Marta!
    And Karen, will there be another contest/drawing anytime soon? Please? πŸ™‚
    And did you write these words just for me? You did, even if you don’t know you did. As you are aware, I get very entangled and anxious thinking ABOUT things, attempting to wrap my mind around them.
    Your truth, guidance, is taken with gratitude.

    Comment by bella — October 12, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

  7. Thanks for the book recommendations, useful for my next bookstore getaway. It’s funny you said this about “remembering what you already know.” I picked up a few books this week (one of them is Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching) and reading through them, this is exactly the feeling I’m getting. I described it as “feeling like I came home.”

    Comment by Shannon — October 12, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

  8. Wow! And to think it’s my birthday this weekend–and I LOVE my birthday. Yeah, your book was about nothing and yet showed me a great deal. It also lead me here, which is a good place to be. Thank you!

    Oh, I’ve never looked at anyone with scorn. Scorn is for those who can’t see the world from another’s point of view…

    And lastly, Kathryn is a wonderful friend. She inpsires me always. (She brought me to this internet world, by the by).

    Well, I’m looking forward to further glimpses into the Zen world…which is no world at all? Or something like that.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by marta — October 12, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

  9. Mama Zen, please be extremely outraged on my behalf, if you don’t mind.

    Denise, yes I do live in your head, and in Bella’s, and in Mika’s and in Shannon’s for that matter, and it never gets crowded because, as you can see from the outrage I’ve expressed above, we all live in one very big head.

    Yes, friends, based on your magnanimous response to the contest, I may resort to bribery on a daily basis.

    Comment by Karen — October 12, 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  10. I view said blogger with half-pity and half-scorn because her barn burned down and she still can’t see the moon.

    Love the recs. Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet is one of my faves. And I have a very old copy of the Tao te Ching that I bought back in the late 80’s and is all dog-eared and love-worn. Much like my copy of Momma Zen.

    Comment by Wendy — October 12, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

  11. Thanks for the great recommendations. I need to put them all on my reading list, right behind Momma Zen! πŸ˜‰

    Comment by Mary P Jones (MPJ) — October 13, 2007 @ 12:36 am

  12. What??? Not everybody loved your book? I just can’t believe it.

    These all look great … I’m on them as soon as I get my first Amazon gift certificate. Thanks!

    Good for you for keeping your head up. I agree with Mama Zen, though … let me be outraged for you.

    Comment by Shawn — October 13, 2007 @ 10:30 pm

  13. Thank you for the books you suggested. Greatly appreciated. So glad I discoved your blog, from my friend Shauna. Congratulations on your award.

    Comment by Eileen — October 14, 2007 @ 8:18 am

  14. All the reviews I’ve read of your book are VERY complimentary. I can’t wait to get into it and review it myself. πŸ™‚

    THANK YOU so much for such a wonderful selection of Zen readings. I’m bookmarking this post so that I can put some (or all) of these on my to-read list.

    I’m so glad you shared this. Your posts are so elegant and uplifting.

    THANK YOU for that!


    Karen Beth πŸ™‚

    Comment by Karen Beth — October 14, 2007 @ 7:16 pm

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