JOAN'S ANNOTATED RECOMMENDED READING LIST
This list of recommended authors and books is in no way intended to be a comprehensive, definitive or authoritative list of nondual or spiritual books. I'm not endorsing every single word spoken or written by any of these authors (including Joan Tollifson). The list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Some of them say that life (including you and your whole spiritual journey) is nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others say this present happening is all there is. Some insist that there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening, while others offer some kind of apparent process, practice or method for waking up. Some seem to suggest that "you" have the power of choice, while others say that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions and that there is no one apart from this whole happening to direct or control it. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist it comes with the recognition of that which never changes. Some insist that Consciousness is all there is, while others accept the prevailing materialist view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, and still others say there is no way to know what this is. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to question your conclusions and to see something new and unexpected. --J.T.
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JOAN TOLLIFSON: Nothing to Grasp (2012); Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (2010); Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is (2003); and Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (1996) − My books are about seeing through (and waking up from) the imaginary problems created by conceptual thought, and discovering the aliveness, openness and immediacy here-now. My books always encourage the reader to investigate directly rather than holding onto beliefs or second-hand ideas. All my books include material drawn from my own life, and several of them are wholly or partly in the form of personal narrative or memoir. At the same time, all of them are about seeing through the stories of our lives and waking up from the belief that we are an autonomous, separate individual who is authoring our thoughts and making our decisions. These books all invite the discovery that the body-mind-world is an undivided, seamless, ever-changing, ungraspable, unresolvable happening with no inside or outside. My books explore questions of identity, free will, addiction and other forms of human suffering, and the nature of experience. A fifth book, tentatively titled Death: The End of Self-Improvement, is in the works, exploring aging, dying and the embrace of uncertainty and groundlessness. All my books point to the simplicity and immediacy of right here, right now, just as it is, and they invite a kind of meditative exploration that is direct, non-methodical, awareness-based and not result-oriented. I write from my own direct experience and insight, but my perspective has been informed by elements of Buddhism, Advaita, radical nonduality and nontraditional inquiry. Readers have expressed appreciation for the honesty, clarity and humor in all of these books. More details here.
TONI PACKER: The Wonder of Presence; The Light of Discovery; Seeing Without Knowing / What Is Meditative Inquiry?; The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing; and The Work of This Moment − Toni was my main teacher (although she never used that word), and I never stop learning from her. I spent five years living and working at the retreat center she founded in northwestern New York, and we remained in touch until her death in 2013 at the age of 86. Toni was a former Zen teacher who began to question the rituals, beliefs, dogmas and hierarchy of traditional Zen. She was deeply affected by her contact with J. Krishnamurti, and she eventually left formal Zen practice behind. She continued to offer silent retreats, but in a much more open and bare-bones way. Toni wasn't interested in the abstractions of metaphysics, philosophy or ideology, and her work was always rooted in present moment awareness, direct insight, and the breath and bones of ordinary life. The mind habitually wants comforting, feel-good answers; Toni provided none: "No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?" Toni asked questions rather than handing out answers. She was wonderful at waking you up to the wonder, simplicity and immediacy of the nondual absolute: the wind in the trees, the swaying grasses, the chirp of a bird, the hum of the air conditioner, the listening silence being and beholding it all. There is a delicate subtlety and a spaciousness in her work, combined with a relentless ability to slice through all forms of self-deception. Toni approached meditative inquiry with the curiosity of a scientist—everything had to be tested, seen directly, never taken on faith or on someone else's authority—and whatever was discovered could always be questioned, looked at anew, taken further. Toni was passionately interested in listening and looking without answers or formulas, and without relying on the authority of the past. She had a keen eye for when the mind was turning insight into dogma or making something out of no-thing. I recommend Toni for the open and explorative spirit that she so beautifully conveys, for the clarity with which she sees through all stories and beliefs, for her remarkable ability to point to the deepest truth in a way that is utterly alive and immediate, and for the nuanced subtlety of her expression. Toni was exceptionally good at clarifying the difference between awareness and thinking, and between direct perceiving and the abstractions of conceptual thought. She invites us to pay careful attention as choices and decisions unfold, to question what it is that gets defensive or hurt, to see if we can find the "me" at the center of our lives, the self that is supposedly thinking our thoughts and making our choices. Her work reveals that there is no self with individual free will, and yet at the same time, Toni never makes "no self" or "no choice" into a new and limiting dogma or belief. Instead, she invites us to be present and aware, to wonder and not know what is possible or not possible in this moment. Her overall approach, which she called "the work of this moment" or "meditative inquiry," is about attending to what is, questioning and investigating directly—not by thinking and analyzing, but by looking and listening with awareness—seeing through the thoughts and stories that so often run our lives, and coming upon the undivided wholeness Here / Now. Toni looked closely at human suffering (anger, fear, compulsion, and so forth) and suggested meeting whatever is here with open interest and non-judgmental curiosity. She was no stranger to human pain and suffering—Toni grew up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, and in the last 14 years of her life, she lived with severe chronic pain and increasing disability. After she left the Zen tradition behind, Toni came to see the roles of "teacher" and "student" as a divisive hindrance to the freedom of open inquiry, and she always regarded herself as a friend and fellow-explorer. In 1981, Toni and friends founded Springwater Center, a lovely 200 acre retreat center in rural northwestern NY where others now carry on her work, meeting with people and offering silent retreats. Springwater is utterly unique in its open and undogmatic approach. If you're looking for a place to do meditation, meditative inquiry or silent retreats free of religious tradition, authority, ritual or dogma, Springwater is wonderful. The atmosphere is open and spacious, inviting you to look and listen and find your own way. I very highly recommend Toni's books and recorded talks, and I also highly recommend Springwater Center and the others who are now offering retreats there (Richard Witteman, Wayne Coger, Sandra Gonzalez, Les Schaffer, and others). You can learn more at the Springwater website, and you can find a treasure trove of Toni's talks (audio and video) on the Springwater Center YouTube channel, including recordings from the early days of Genesee Valley Zen Center when Toni was still using koans and Zen terminology, through all the years when she was teaching at Springwater Center, on up to her final years when she was quite ill—many phases in her life and many amazing and wonderful talks. There are a few talks by some of the current Springwater teachers as well. I talk about Toni and read from one of her books in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. Toni's books and talks are all very highly recommended. One of the greatest teachers of all time, in my opinion.
ALAN WATTS: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are and The Wisdom of Insecurity − These two books are excellent. They will give you an excellent understanding of the nondual perspective found in Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Taoism, but without any of the traditional baggage. He zeroes right in on the undivided and seamless nature of reality and the illusion of a separate self with free will. Alan Watts was an unconventional, iconoclastic, renegade who left organized religion behind and went right to the heart of the matter, and this he communicated with great lucidity and always with a sense of humor and play. Watts was perhaps the single person most responsible for introducing Zen and eastern spirituality to America. If you haven't read him in a long time, he's definitely worth exploring anew, and if you've never read him before, by all means do. Clear, direct, right on the mark, and always enjoyable to read. Watts was a one-time Christian minister with a doctorate in theology who left the church and turned to Vedanta and Zen, both of which he came to understand deeply and experientially, to the core and the root. There are many other wonderful books (including The Way of Zen) and several fine audio collections available now, and you can find Alan Watts on YouTube as well. I talk about and read from The Book by Alan Watts in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. All very highly recommended. More here.
NISARGADATTA MAHARAJ: I Am That (the classic collection of dialogs with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman) -- This is the most well-worn book in my library − in fact, my first copy completely disintegrated. Nisargadatta Maharaj was a rare jewel − a 20th century Indian guru, a family man and a shopkeeper, living and teaching in the back lanes of Bombay, where he died in 1981. His teaching is Advaita Vedanta. Advaita means "not two," and refers to a nontheistic, nondual form of Hinduism that relies primarily on direct seeing rather than on scriptures, dogma or tradition. Nisargadatta is one of the clearest Advaita sages, and this book is full of profound insight. "Stop thinking of achievement of any kind," he says, "You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing.” He points to the boundless and formless conscious presence or beingness Here-Now, which he often calls the "I AM," the impersonal sense of being present that is here prior to everything that gets added on later (such as name, gender, social status, profession, etc). "Reality is what makes the present so vital," he says, "so different from the past and future, which are merely mental. If you need time to achieve something, it must be false." He points beyond our deeply held assumption that what appears Here-Now has any kind of inherent, observer-independent, objective reality outside of consciousness, and instead he compares everything perceivable and conceivable to a dream: "Just as the dream state is untrue, the waking state is also an appearance. Both happen spontaneously. Our talk is also taking place in a dream." Ultimately, Nisargadatta points beyond consciousness itself, to what is prior to the entire movie of waking life and even to that first bare sense of being present: "The sense of presence which has come spontaneously will leave spontaneously," he says. "The desire to be is the strongest of all desires and will go only on the realization of your true nature." His teaching can be summarized in a nutshell by one of his most beautiful statements: “When I see that I am nothing, that is Wisdom; when I see that I am everything, that is Love; and between the two my life flows.” Nisargadatta points not to attaining something new or having some exotic experience. It is rather about seeing through delusions and discovering what remains: “Expect nothing from experience. Realisation by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences. Yet the new experiences, however interesting, are not more real than the old. Definitely realisation is not a new experience. It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience.” Or as he puts it elsewhere: "There is no such thing as enlightenment. The appreciation of this fact is itself enlightenment." Described by Maurice Frydman as "warm-hearted, tender, shrewdly humorous, absolutely fearless and true," Nisargadatta could be fierce as well as loving, and he definitely didn’t conform to the stereotypic image of a soft-spoken, other-worldly, beatific guru. He smoked bidis (Indian cigarettes) during his satsangs, even as he was dying of throat cancer, and he would sometimes yell at people and throw them out. He offered satsang not in some quiet or idyllic location, but in a small apartment in a noisy, crowded, seedy part of Bombay near the red light district. Self-improvement was never his concern—he pointed to what is already free, prior to the body and the mind, prior to consciousness: “You are not confined to your body; you are everywhere. The limitation is your imagination.” And as he puts it elsewhere: “The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite…it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.” In addition to I am That, I would also very highly recommend Consciousness and the Absolute: The Final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (his final and most radical teachings, edited by Jean Dunn); Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj (excellent paraphrases of his teachings rendered by Ramesh Balsekar, who was one of Nisargadatta's translators); The Wisdom-Teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Visual Journey (distilled gems from Nisargadatta along with photos of him, edited by Matthew Greenblatt); Freedom from Imagination (a poetic, non-literal rendering by Prasanna of previously unpublished material of Nisargadatta, published by NetiNeti Media); and an excellent DVD called Awaken to the Eternal: A Journey of Self-Discovery made by Inner Directions (Joan and Matthew Greenblatt and Bertram Salzman), which includes actual footage of Nisargadatta along with interviews with many people who spent time with him (Jack Kornfield, Robert Powell, Jean Dunn, and others). You might also enjoy my reading from and talking about I Am That in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. Adyashanti did a wonderful exploration of Nisargadatta’s teachings that is available on CD here. There is also an excellent series of DVDs about Nisargadatta produced by NetiNeti Media (Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo in collaboration with Stephen Wolinsky), with commentaries on Nisargadatta's teachings as interpreted by Wolinsky. And there are many other collections of Nisargadatta's teachings as well, including Seeds of Consciousness and Prior to Consciousness (both edited by Jean Dunn); The Experience of Nothingness, The Ultimate Medicine and The Nectar of Immortality (all edited by Robert Powell); I AM THAT I AM: A Tribute to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (by Stephen Wolinsky); Beyond Freedom (edited by Maria Jory); and Nothing Is Everything (edited by Mohan Gaitonde). Nisargadatta has had a huge impact on me, and I consider him very clear and on the mark. Very highly recommended.
STEVE HAGEN: Buddhism Is Not What You Think; Buddhism Plain & Simple; Meditation Now or Never -- These are all excellent, outstanding books, all of which I very highly recommend. Steve is one of the clearest, most awake and most articulate Zen teachers I've ever encountered, and I continue to learn from him. Many books and teachings give you something to hold onto and believe in, however subtle it might be, but Steve gives you absolutely nothing to grasp, and he shows you that this alone is true freedom. This is the radical (true and original) kind of Buddhism that is about nothing more or less than being awake right now. As Steve puts it, “This is about awareness. Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself—being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening. It’s about examining and exploring the most basic questions of life. It’s about relying on the immediate experience of this present moment. It’s not about belief, doctrine, formula, or tradition. It’s about freedom of mind.” Meditation, as Steve uses the word, is not a relaxation technique, nor is it about visualization or getting into special trance or samadhi states. It is "the practice of awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now." And as he says, "Meditation is not escapism, or tuning anything out. Meditation is tuning in and facing our problems head-on." The understanding that Steve conveys about impermanence, enlightenment and nonduality is so subtle, clear and complete that it instantly dissolves all conceptual fixations, leaving only the suchness that can never be formulated. Steve is excellent at clarifying the distinction between reality and our ideas about reality, between conceptual thought and direct perception. He goes right to the root of what creates human suffering, exposing the habitual tendency to freeze and grasp life with concepts and then to mistake the conceptual map for the actual living territory. Steve talks about emptiness not as a big empty space that contains all the forms, but as the impermanence that is so total, complete and thoroughgoing that no-thing actually ever forms to even be impermanent: “It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.” This understanding completely erases all the false dualistic divides between form and emptiness, consciousness and matter, free will and determinism. He also makes the point that, as a famous Zen text says, “Encountering Absolute is still not enlightenment.” As Steve says, “When people first get a taste of Oneness they often think they’ve experienced enlightenment. This Oneness is a necessary realization, but it’s not enlightenment, simply because Oneness does not account for the multiplicity that we encounter in every moment. Truly seeing Reality is experiencing these two views [unicity and multiplicity] at once so as to create a new, complete view…Unless we see both at once, we’ll not understand consciousness. This is because consciousness itself is the dividing up of what is otherwise a seamless Whole.” Enlightenment is not “out there,” Steve says. “It’s already here, now.” It’s not an experience of ecstasy or bliss, and there is no such thing as “after enlightenment,” he writes. “Enlightenment lies beyond any idea of time…like everything else that we can name or describe or conceptualize, [ecstatic moments and blissful states] don’t last…Something else takes place with enlightenment…from which you don’t emerge. This is because what is finally realized is that there was no ‘you’ to go into enlightenment in the first place.” Steve has another book called Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense: An Inquiry into Science, Philosophy, and Perception that is more scientific in nature and not nearly as easy to read as Steve's other books, but it is worth the effort. In this book, Steve argues for the primacy of Mind over matter: "It's only when consciousness is seen as antecedent to matter that our problems with consciousness cease," and "True Knowledge, or Certitude, is pure, objectless Awareness." (That book was originally published as How the World Can Be the Way It Is, but the new edition, Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense, is updated and revised, and if you're going to read it, I recommend the newer edition--and if you find yourself unable to undertstand certain parts where he gets into complicated math and science, my advice is to just skip over those parts and keep going. You'll get something from the book even if you can't follow all of it.) A Zen priest in the lineage of Dainin Katagiri and a former science researcher, Steve founded Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. He teaches Zen practice in a pretty bare-bones, stripped-down way, without much ceremony or fanfare, but it is still formal Zen practice, so he occasionally says things about sitting postures and hand positions and so on that don't particularly resonate with me, but everything he says about life and about the essential heart of meditation practice is right on the mark. I have found Steve to be truly humble, awake, down to earth, and very bright. He is a true Zen Master, in my opinion, although he would never tell you that. I highly recommend Dharma Field to anyone who feels drawn to formal Zen practice, and I very highly recommend Steve's books and talks to everyone with an interest in nonduality and waking up. This is excellent material. Buddhism Is Not What You Think had a huge impact on me, and I found all his other books very enlightening as well. I attended a few sesshins (Zen meditation retreats) with Steve when I was living in Chicago, and I continue to listen to his talks and dip into his books. I talk about Steve and read a bit from one of his books in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. You can find a wealth of excellent talks and classes by Steve and other Dharma Field teachers (I especially recommend Norm Randolph and Cynthia Scott) on the Dharma Field website, and Steve's books are not to be missed. Very highly recommended.
DARRYL BAILEY: Dismantling the Fantasy and Essence Revisited − Darryl offers the clearest, cleanest, simplest, most articulate and beautifully expressed description of the dynamic, ever-changing, seamless, automatic and inconceivable nature of reality that I've ever found. His writing is spare, stripped down to the essence, minimalist and yet poetic, radical (to the root), unpretentious, and refreshingly free of jargon or metaphysics. He points to the living reality from which nothing stands apart, showing you that there is no separation or solidity, that the apparently separate self with free will is an illusion, and that everything is as it is and could not be otherwise: "Whatever we are now, whatever we're doing now, is an inexplicable movement accomplishing itself. Nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it…We don’t exist as anything apart from this flow." Darryl focuses on three main points: everything is changing, there is no way to describe or understand what this is, and there is no one controlling any of it. Impermanence (or what he calls unform) is so thorough-going that no separate forms ever actually exist or persist. Everything is an inconceivable, uncontrollable happening, happening by itself. “Ultimately, my descriptions are false too," he says, "but they invite you to step out of description, in order to experience a sense of freedom and well-being that is impossible to create or to understand." Darryl’s expression is never prescriptive, never aimed at self-improvement or an escape from the pains and difficulties of life. His writing is a dismantling of every hopeful and curative fantasy, every place you try to land, every thing you try to grasp. Of course, it is precisely our hopeful grasping and our belief that we "should" be other than how we are that is our suffering, so realizing what Darryl points out is a huge and liberating relief. Although he spent many years meditating as a Buddhist monk, he doesn't offer any kind of meditative path, but he does invite what he calls a simple, non-conceptual "acknowledgement of the moment," in which "nothing needs to be accomplished," and where "attention has permission to rest with the entire happening of the moment," rather than being totally immersed in the storylines of thought. This could be called meditation, but Darryl makes it clear that he is not talking about techniques, or being in any particular posture, or doing any sort of intentional concentration or mindfulness practice. His emphasis is never on experiences or states of consciousness, but always on “the inexplicable wholeness of existence freely expressing itself." This, as he makes clear, is effortlessly always already happening. Our every thought, urge, impulse, desire, mood and action is this inexplicable wholeness; there is no "wrong" expression. Everything is a "vibrant, mysterious dance.” Darryl emphasizes the impossibility of influencing or controlling our lives or the world through individual choice or will-power: “Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom." And he says, “This would be a doctrine of determinism if we existed as something separate from the movement of the universe, something being pushed around by it. But we’re not separate from it; we are this movement." By focusing on the choiceless nature of everything, and by refusing to offer anything prescriptive to do, Darryl brings the mind to a complete stop in its relentless search for a solution or an attainment: "Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself," he writes. "In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise." Elsewhere he writes: “This is a complete opening to the unformed, the undirected, the uncontrolled, the unexpected, and the unpredictable. This openness is often called love...This love is not some cold, intellectual understanding; it’s an openness of heart...a truly sensitive vulnerability to what is.” When this radical message is truly realized, it is immensely freeing and brings forth compassion for oneself and all beings. Darryl studied with mindfulness meditation teacher Ruth Denison for nine years and spent six years as a Buddhist monk under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho. He also had recurring contact with J. Krishnamurti and a significant connection with the Advaita sage Robert Adams. Darryl has an earlier book, Buddhessence, also excellent and highly recommended, in which he distills what he sees as the core teachings of the Buddha and includes material by Alan Watts and U.G. Krishnamurti along with some developmental psychology. Darryl currently lives in Winnipeg, Canada and has worked as an ice fisherman, bus driver, suit salesman, childcare worker, carpenter and maintenance man among other things. He recently retired after many years working in a warehouse. He was offering "explorations" of non-duality in Winnipeg and occasionally elsewhere as well as monthly podcasts, but he stopped all of that, feeling his work is complete. As far as I know, he is still available for private sessions via Skype, and his archived podcasts are available on his website. In addition to Darryl's wonderful books, other writing plus excellent audio and video is available on his website. Very highly recommended. More here.
ECKHART TOLLE: The Power of Now; A New Earth; Stillness Speaks; Practicing the Power of Now; and Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from Our Dogs and Cats – Eckhart is an exceptionally clear contemporary teacher whose expression is deeply grounded in presence and refreshingly free of conventional religious or dogmatic trappings. He is excellent at shifting the focus from our habitual entrancement in thought-stories to the boundlessness of nonconceptual presence. His message is all about being fully awake in the (timeless) Now, seeing through the illusory separate self, and discovering the "eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." His talks and the pages of his books are palpably saturated with the awake stillness that he embodies and expresses so beautifully. Eckhart points eloquently and simply to the transformative power and freedom of boundless awareness, the ever-present Now. He illuminates the workings of the egoic mind—the habitual thoughts and behaviors that obscure the truth—with great clarity. He has a wonderfully whimsical sense of humor, and he so perfectly, with such spot-on accuracy and love, captures and pokes fun at the obsessive machinations of the thinking mind. Eckhart offers a stripped down, bare-bones, nondual approach to meditation and the art of present moment living, a very simple and direct way of seeing through thought-created suffering and being fully present with whatever is showing up, including an intelligent way of working with difficult emotions, compulsions and neurotic patterns (what he calls the pain-body). He once described his teaching as being like a marriage of Ramana Maharshi and J. Krishnamurti, and that feels on the mark to me. If you're all tied up in mental knots trying to think your way to enlightenment, Eckhart is excellent at waking you up from the mental trance of concepts and beliefs, and bringing you into the aliveness and immediacy of Now. To his credit, he has managed to speak to a wide range of people in ways that they can hear—e.g. he did a series with Oprah that was seen by millions worldwide. Eckhart has a beautiful ability to start wherever the questioner is and then open it up in deeper ways. I find him very genuine, and I greatly appreciate the fact that he is able to express the essence of being aware and present and seeing through stories in simple, non-religious language that is accessible to a wide range of people. The beauty of his teaching is that he invites the listener to discover what's here now as a felt reality, and to see through the mental concepts, stories and ideas about it. German by birth, he now lives in western Canada. There is tremendous depth and subtlety in all of Eckhart's books and tapes, and I recommend them very highly. A New Earth is his most comprehensive and recent book, and the one I would most recommend for getting his complete teaching. Stillness Speaks is a highly distilled jewel that offers the essence of his message in sutra-like form—exquisitely clear and simple. The Power of Now was Eckhart's first book, and it is excellent. Practicing the Power of Now is a short book that distills some of the key material in The Power of Now along with some new material, also very good. There is a great deal of audio and video also available. Some of my favorites have been discontinued, but some excellent DVDs that I believe are still available include: Finding Your Life's Purpose; The Flowering of Human Consciousness; What Is Meditation; and The Art of Presence. Some excellent CDs I enjoyed include: Through the Open Door and Stillness Admidst the World. There are many others available that I haven't seen or heard, with new ones being added all the time, and I'm sure they're all excellent. There's an excellent, profound interview with him on YouTube where he talks to a young man, first outdoors, and then inside his home, and that part indoors is what I really loved and would very highly recommend. More at Eckhart's website here. All very highly recommended.
RAMANA MAHARSHI: The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi: A Visual Journey (edited by Matthew Greenblatt); and Heart Is Thy Name, Oh Lord: Moments of Silence with Sri Ramana Maharshi (edited by Bharati Mirchandani) — Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was a deeply realized Indian sage who was mostly silent. He pointed to the one Self that is the ever-present reality behind all appearances. His teaching was essentially Advaita Vedanta (nondualism), although he pointed beyond all tradition to the Heart that is ever-present Here-Now. He lived at the foot of the sacred mountain Arunachala, radiated love to all beings, held wild animals in his hands, and had a beloved cow named Lakshmi. He said, “There is no greater mystery than this: Being Reality ourselves, we seek to gain Reality. We think that there is something hiding Reality and that it must be destroyed before the truth is gained. This is clearly ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will laugh at your past efforts. What you realize on the day you laugh is also here and now....Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized...The seen, regarded as an independent entity, independent of the Self, is unreal. The seen is not different from the seer. The seen regarded as the Self is real...There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny nor free will, neither path nor achievement. This is the final truth." These two exquisite books are the best collections of Ramana's teaching I've seen. They both combine words (minimal, concise, distilled, essential gems from Ramana) with powerful photographs to transmit his essential message and presence. Other collections of Ramana's teachings that I've enjoyed are: Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi edited by David Godman; The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi (Shambhala edition; foreward by C. Jung); and Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi: On Realizing Abiding Peace & Happiness (Inner Directions). There is a wonderful and enlightening feature-length documentary about Ramana’s life and teaching called Jnani that you can watch on YouTube here. Directed by Jean R. Dedieu and co-produced by Paula Marvelly, it includes wonderful footage of Ramana, Arunachala, the ashram, and explanations of Ramana’s teaching by people who knew him or were deeply moved by him, including David Godman, Michael James, Mooji, and Sri V. Ganesan, the great-nephew of Sri Ramana Maharshi. There are two other excellent documentaries about Ramana, The Sage of Arunachala and Abide as the Self, both of which you can also now find on YouTube. All very highly recommended. More here.
ANAM THUBTEN: The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem − Anam Thubten is a very awake, wonderful, clear, deeply realized contemporary teacher, originally from Tibet, who has been living and teaching in the West for many years now. He teaches from the heart and his whole being seems to radiate boundless love and deep transparent presence. He has a wonderful sense of humor, genuine humility, and he comes across as refreshingly down-to-earth and unbound by tradition or dogma. Anam Thubten is at the nondual edge of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Simple and radical in his approach, Anam Thubten invites us to see through the frozen mirage-world of stories and concepts and to wake up (or melt) to our True Nature as boundless love and pure awareness, not in some airy-fairy, transcendent, other-worldly way, but right here in the immediacy of what is, as it is. Clear and full of light, he has this wonderful twinkle of amusement and wonderment in his eyes. He sees our human foibles and imperfections very clearly, but always with humor and genuine empathy, and he encourages us to love ourselves and the world just as we are, to find nirvana in samsara and enlightenment in delusion. His expression is open, honest, and warm-hearted. Here are some quotes to give you a taste: "All of the problems we fight against do not really exist....When we don't believe in our thoughts we are always awakened. When we believe in our thoughts we are unawakened....Love is the ability to see every circumstance and every being as perfect just as they are...It is the total acceptance of all things....In every moment we are absolutely perfect....It's okay to fail and to fail continuously, time after time. In fact, every time we fail we should give ourselves a chocolate as a reward....The heart of all spirituality is to love this life, to enjoy this life...Awareness is like a fire because it burns down all illusions right there on the spot....When we start inquiring into what is holding us back from realizing the truth, we come to the realization that there is really nothing there. There are no obstacles. Nothing is holding us back from awakening." Anam Thubten is the head teacher at the Dharmata Foundation, based in the California Bay Area, and he gives talks and holds retreats all over the United States and the world. If you have the opportunity to be with him in person, by all means take it. Excellent audio and video is also available. He has several other books including The Fragrance of Emptiness: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra and Embracing Each Moment, but the two I listed above are my top favorites. Anam Thubten is a beautiful, rare, amazing jewel. Very highly recommended. More here.
JEAN KLEIN: Transmission of the Flame; I AM; The Ease of Being; Who Am I? — My favorite books by Jean Klein, a European teacher of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) who lived and taught during the 20th century. I had the good fortune to attend several retreats with him toward the end of his life and was deeply touched by him. He had a wonderful openness and stillness, a listening presence that you can feel in these books. The books are clear, lucid, subtle, beautiful dialogs, transcribed from his retreats, that evoke and transmit the clarity and the open presence from which they emerged. His was a direct path, realizing oneself as the Ultimate Subject that is prior to everything perceivable and conceivable, the boundless awaring presence that Here / Now is. Jean was a medical doctor and musicologist who studied Advaita and yoga in India. He had a beautiful sensitivity to both the body and the arts, and he incorporated meditation (open listening) and somatic awareness explorations (a form of yoga) into his retreats along with satsang dialogs. He taught in Europe and the United States, where he died in 1998. Other wonderful books by him include Beyond Knowledge; Living Truth; and Open to the Unknown. Some of Jean's books may be out of print, although Non-duality Press and New Harbinger have been bringing many of them back into print. The periodic journal Listening that was published when Jean was alive has now been made into a book, and you can find videos of him on YouTube and there is a short video clip at Non-duality Press. There is also a website here that has apparently been put together by a student of Jean's, where you can find writing excerpts, a video clip, and other information. All of Jean's books are very highly recommended.
JON BERNIE: Ordinary Freedom — This is one of the clearest and most refreshingly alive articulations of what this is really all about that I've come across. Beautiful, gorgeous book. Jon doesn't give you dogmatism or a bunch of abstract mental ideas to think about or believe in, but rather, he invites us to let go into the openness and immediacy of bare presence. He talks about learning how to let things be exactly as they are, dropping out of conceptual thought and belief into a process of exploration and discovery that is sensory and energetic, being present as boundless awareness and allowing whatever is showing up to move through. He conveys a spirit of open, alive, never-ending discovery, and a gentle and loving approach to our human struggles. “Spirituality does not mean leaving your humanity behind," he writes, "Rather, the height of spirituality is the complete embrace of every aspect of your humanity. Many people believe being ‘spiritual’ means transcending our humanity, somehow escaping our flawed and messy human experience. But true spirituality is the opposite of that. Nothing is denied. Nothing is excluded.” Jon was a concert violinist and a teacher of the Alexander Technique before becoming a teacher of nondual awakening. He practiced Zen and Theravada Buddhism and spent time with Advaita teachers Jean Klein, Papaji and Robert Adams, and also with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. Jon lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering what he calls "A Heart-Centered Approach to Awakening." He speaks from a place that is authentic, genuine, original, alive to the unknown and grounded in open presence. Jon has a second book, The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is, which is also excellent, and which I also recommend, but of the two, Ordinary Freedom is definitely my favorite. Very highly recommended. More here.
FRANCIS LUCILLE: Eternity Now: Dialogues on Awareness; The Perfume of Silence; and Truth Love Beauty-- A contemporary teacher of Advaita Vedanta (non-duality) originally from France, Francis currently lives in California and offers retreats worldwide. He points to our true nature as non-localized, unbound, timeless awareness—unconditioned and free: “All things appear by themselves in consciousness which is always in total openness…Openness is your nature…. Everything that appears in awareness is nothing other than awareness.” There is a beautiful subtlety and depth to his work that I appreciate greatly, a sensitivity and openness that is without expectation or conclusion. "If we say that our universe, with all its richness and diversity—the apples in the basket, the loved ones around us, the Beethoven quartet on the stereo, the stars in the nocturnal sky—at every instant emanates from, rests in, and is reabsorbed into our self-revealing presence, our words still fail to adequately describe the immediacy of this unveiling. They fail to do so because they still convey the notion of a transcendental presence from which this universe emanates as a distinct entity, whereas such a distinction is nowhere to be found in this unveiling. Our self-luminous background, which is the common thread of the dialogues in this book, constitutes the sole reality of all that is." Francis loves classical music, has a background in physics and mathematics, is exceptionally intelligent and clear, and like his long-time friend and teacher Jean Klein, Francis incorporates somatic movement and awareness explorations into his retreats, a form of yoga inspired by the Tantric and Hatha Yoga traditions, along with satsang dialogs and guided meditations. Many of his talks and guided meditations are available on-line or for purchase. In addition to Jean Klein, Francis was also influenced by J. Krishnamurti, Krishna Menon and Wei Wu Wei among others. I attended a one-week retreat as well as a number of satsangs with Francis many years ago and was deeply touched by those, by his writing, and by a number of his videos. Very highly recommended. More here.
'SAILOR' BOB ADAMSON: Presence-Awareness: Just This and Nothing Else; What's Wrong with Right Now Unless You Think About It?; A Sprinkling of Jewels (photos and text); One Essence Appearing as Everything; and Only That: The Life and Teaching of Sailor Bob Adamson (a biography of Bob by Kalyani Lawry, with photos, that also includes dialogs and talks by Bob) — Sailor Bob is a contemporary Australian who spent time with Nisargadatta Maharaj in the 1970's. Bob points to the unbroken, nondual wholeness (the One-without-a-second) from which no-thing stands apart, and to the fact that there is nothing to do or not do other than exactly what is already (choicelessly) happening. Bob communicates this radical message in a clear and simple way, drawing from Advaita, Dzogchen, and his own direct seeing. With Bob, there are no carrots being dangled in front of you, no ego candy, no frills, no sidetracks or compromises, no guru-posturing, no bullshit, no glossy fanfare, no Bob. His message is direct, clean and clear. Bob encourages you to have a look for yourself and see that there is always only presence-awareness, the intelligence-energy that vibrates into different patterns but is always the One-without-a-second from which no separation is ever possible: “Have a look at nature and see the way it’s patterning and shaping and forming. Galaxies are forming, the earth and planets are moving round, seasons are coming and going, the tides moving in and out…the whole of nature is suffused with an innate intelligence, and you’re nothing but a pattern of energy. That intelligence is what is breathing you, growing your hair and your fingernails, replacing cells in your body, digesting your food—it’s all happening quite naturally and effortlessly." Bob says that "by taking the appearance to be real, we pretend to be separate beings, rather than recognizing that we truly are that pure intelligence energy.” He shows you that you already are what you seek, that there will never be any more Oneness than there is now. Bob never for a moment buys into any story that "this isn't it," and he never holds out the fantasy of some final finish-line to be crossed in the future. I met him in person in Chicago in 2004, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with him. I found him to be a very generous, kind, sincere, awake, down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy with genuine humility, completely devoted to sharing this simple and profound realization. He doesn't set himself above those who come to him, he always affirms that you are already That, and he points uncompromisingly to the aliveness Here / Now: “The value of any insight, understanding, or realisation can only be in the ever-fresh presence of the moment…The idea of enlightenment or self-realisation as a onetime event or a lasting and permanent state or experience is an erroneous concept.” In addition to the books, there is a wonderful interview of Bob by Peter Lawry on DVD called Just This...Nothing Else that I very highly recommend. It goes deep and is exquisitely done. And there is a book about Bob that contains photos and many dialogs with him called Living Reality: My Extraordinary Summer with Sailor Bob Adamson (by James Braha), also very good. You can learn more about Bob and find other video and audio as well at his web site here. Very highly recommended.
LEO HARTONG: Awakening to the Dream: The Gift of Lucid Living and From Self to Self − Leo was a contemporary Dutch writer (writing in English) whose books are exceptionally articulate and clear expressions of uncompromising nonduality: the non-prescriptive pointing out that there is nothing other than the One Reality, which can never be lost and therefore cannot be attained, for it is already 100% present. Leo died in 2018 from pancreatic cancer, but his books remain. In simple, plain language, Leo deconstructs the illusory sense of being a separate entity with free will and choice. He shows you that there is no independent self authoring your thoughts, making your choices and performing your actions. Everything is an undivided happening, and what we all truly are is “the limitless field of Pure Awareness in which the drama of life merely arises.” Because there is no way to become what we already are, Leo offers no practices and no path: “This is not about a gradual progression to a future goal, but about a radical awakening to what is,” he writes. “That which you truly are is forever awake and present.” When you really see it, this radical perspective is immensely relieving and freeing, and it brings forth instant compassion for oneself and all beings. “To let go and relax into (or as) Pure Awareness is the most natural thing in the world. No effort, no trying, no seeking is needed; but if you want to make an effort or want to seek a little more, it is perfectly all right. Whether you stress and strain or become very quiet, Pure Awareness reflects it all without the slightest effort or judgment.” If you’re caught up in the belief that you haven’t arrived yet, if you're working very hard to “do it right” and “get somewhere” and improve yourself and become somebody (or become nobody), this crystal clear message may be just the medicine you need to recognize that nothing is broken and that there is no one who lacks anything. Leo conveys this ultimate truth with brilliant clarity and simplicity. For a long time, Leo put out a wonderful newsletter, and his second book, From Self to Self, is an excellent collection of writings from this newsletter. All very highly recommended.
HUANG PO: The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind, transl. by John Blofeld — Clear, direct, original Zen from one of the greatest masters. Huang Po, who lived in the ninth century, cuts through all concepts and leaves you with nothing. Then he takes away any idea of nothing. Here are some selections from the book: “All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you—begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured….If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. Our original Buddha-Nature is…devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy…That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress towards Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all. You will come to look upon those aeons of work and achievement as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream…There is nowhere which is outside the Buddha-Mind…Relinquishment of everything is the Dharma…but the relinquishment of ALL delusions leaves no Dharma on which to lay hold…You must see clearly that there is really nothing at all—no humans and no Buddhas. The great chiliocosms, numberless as grains of sand, are mere bubbles. All wisdom and all holiness are but streaks of lightning. None of them have the reality of Mind…These mountains, these rivers, the whole world itself, together with sun, moon and stars—not one of them exists outside your minds!...Your true nature is something never lost to you even in moments of delusion, nor is it gained at the moment of Enlightenment…Above all, have no longing to become a future Buddha; your sole concern should be, as thought succeeds thought, to avoid clinging to any of them…Do not permit the least movement of your minds to disturb you. This alone is what is called liberation. Ah, be diligent! Be diligent!” Excellent, crystal clear! Very highly recommended.
HSIN HSIN MING (Trusting the Heartmind) by Sengtsan — This poem by the Third Zen Patriarch is a beautiful expression of true non-duality. "The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences...Do not seek for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions...The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess...When no discriminating thoughts arise, the mind ceases to appear...The Great Way is all-embracing; It is neither easy nor difficult...When such dualities cease to exist, Oneness itself cannot exist. To this ultimate finality no law or description applies...Each thing reveals the One, the One manifests as all things. To live in this Realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection...The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today." These quotes are drawn from several different English translations of this text. Several of the most well-known translations are by Richard B. Clarke, who was one of my professors at Bard College back in the Sixties (more on him in an entry below). I still have a very tattered copy of one of his earliest translations of the Hsin Hsin Ming that he handed out in class, and I've been reading this text ever since, finding ever-new nuances within it. Richard Clarke continued to refine his translation over the years, and there are at least two different published versions that I've seen from White Pine Press. One of Clarke's translations appears at the end of Leo Hartong's book From Self to Self (see separate listing). Robert Wolfe (see separate listing) has a book of commentary on the Hsin Hsin Ming titled One Essence: The Nondual Clarity of an Ancient Zen Poem, that I recommend. Zen teacher Steve Hagen (see separate listing) has also done a few different translations of this text that you might find on the Dharma Field Zen Center website. And finally, Kazuaki Tanahashi has a new translation of the Hsin Hsin Ming that he calls "Engraving Trust in the Heart" in his book Zen Chants: Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary published in 2015 (see separate listing). I recommend reading many different translations. This is a text that you can read again and again over an entire lifetime and it never stops revealing itself. Very highly recommended.
THICH NHAT HANH: The Sun My Heart; The Heart of Understanding and You Are Here — Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist whose clear insight into emptiness and nonduality, or what he calls "interbeing," is profound and subtle. The Sun My Heart is my favorite of all his books and the one I would recommend first and foremost. The Heart of Understanding is a slender book that offers his commentary on the Heart Sutra, a profound Buddhist sutra about nonduality: "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," the sutra says, or as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.” You Are Here conveys the essential core of Buddhism (impermanence, non-self, going beyond all concepts) and lays out a practice for realizing the truth directly and freeing ourselves from suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet and his writing is not only exceptionally beautiful and clear, but the words are saturated with silence and mindful presence and seem to transmit the deep ground from which they come. "We are imprisoned by our ideas of good and evil," he writes. "We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements....You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa." I don't resonate with all the specific practices that he suggests, but I take what resonates and leave the rest. And there is some truly excellent, amazing material in these books. Thich Nhat Hanh was a monk and social activist in Vietnam during the war and has held retreats in America for veterans of that war. He was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize and is one of the main founders of socially engaged Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to treat our anger, our depression, our addiction, and all of ourselves with tenderness, not with violence. He is now living in exile in France, where he founded a monastery called Plum Village. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for this man and his work. He certainly walks his talk, as they say. His books offer subtle insight into nonduality as well as wonderful guidance from a Buddhist perspective on living fully here and now. Other favorites include No Death, No Fear; Cultivating the Mind of Love; The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion; Call Me By My True Names and Beyond the Self. For a basic book on meditation, you might also check out The Miracle of Mindfulness. More here and here. Very highly recommended.
RUPERT SPIRA: The Transparency of Things; Presence (Volume I - The Art of Peace and Happiness) and Presence (Volume II - The Intimacy of All Experience); The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter; The Ashes of Love; The Light of Pure Knowing (boxed set with book plus MP3 CDs) and Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception (boxed set that includes 6 MP3 CDs and a book with transcriptions of the spoken meditations) − These are exceptionally clear, luminous books (and recordings) that guide the reader through a series of direct explorations of present experience. A gifted contemporary ceramic artist from the UK and a long-time student of Francis Lucille, Rupert offers retreats, webinars and other events about nonduality around the world. He is highly intelligent, deeply sensitive, genuine, awake and very clear. His style is simple and direct, no fanfare, and he begins by guiding you through an excellent direct investigation and contemplation of actual present experience, so that you discover firsthand that you never experience anything outside of consciousness, that there is no actual boundary between the “inside self” and the “outside world,” and that what you truly are is boundless awareness, pure consciousness, unconditional love, the light of Pure Knowing. He takes you beautifully to a felt-sense of the open, spacious, subtle, radiant aliveness and immediacy that Here-Now is. What I love in Rupert’s work is the contemplative exploration of direct experience and the felt-sense of openness and subtlety that he so beautifully conveys and invites. Rupert considers the prevailing scientific view of a material universe in which consciousness arises as an epiphenomenon of matter to be a false belief that doesn’t hold up to either direct investigation or to what he calls “higher reasoning.” For him, consciousness is the fundamental reality out of which everything is made, and he endeavors to convey that to his listeners, not as a belief or an idea, but as a directly experienced, felt-reality. He is an extraordinary teacher, a beautiful man, and he uses language in an exquisitely subtle and nuanced way. His words are as "transparent, open, empty and luminous" as the open presence that they so beautifully reveal. Rupert guides people first to the realization that I (as this unbound awaring presence) am not confined to any particular form or location. I AM free, boundless, whole, unconditioned. I am nothing (not this, not that), meaning that I am not limited to anything perceivable or conceivable. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to show that everything perceivable and conceivable is nothing other than consciousness, that I AM everything. Any apparent duality between awareness and content is erased, and as a final step, even the word awareness is erased, because even to give it a name is “to objectify it even slightly,” to “make it a ‘some’ thing as opposed to ‘another’ thing.” Hence, he says, “when the idea of a separate, independent world collapses, the idea of awareness collapses with it. If there is no object, there cannot be a subject…'Oneness’ is one thing too much.” Rupert recognizes that the sense of being a separate self in an outside world is not merely a thought, that it is also held in the body, and that true liberation requires more than simply seeing through beliefs or being intellectually clear. As he points out, intellectual clarity “can become a smoke screen for the far deeper feelings of separation which are too uncomfortable to be faced fully and honestly.” Rupert therefore invites a deeply embodied exploration into the nonconceptual, somatic-sensory-energetic layers of being, something I especially appreciate in his approach. He avoids many of the other common traps that I see some contemporary nondualists falling into, such as making enlightenment into a coveted future attainment, presenting himself as a special "enlightened person," or getting stuck on one side of any apparent duality (such as free will vs. determinism, or practice vs. no practice). Rupert says at the beginning of one book: "There is some reluctance to commit to the form of a finished book something whose nature does not lend itself readily to the written word. I would prefer the form of music, which dissolves as soon as it is uttered, leaving its true content as a formless perfume in the listener's heart." I find that his words actually do just that. These are truly exquisite books and talks, full of love and light, subtlety and presence. There are a number of beautiful DVDs available, including The Unknowable Reality of Things and Love: The Underground River, and you can find audio and video and learn much more about Rupert at his website here. Very highly recommended.
MOOJI: White Fire; Vaster Than Sky Greater Than Space; Before I Am (second edition); Writing on Water; Breath of the Absolute: The Manifest and Unmanifest Are One; An Invitation to Freedom (available as book or audio); and The Mala of God — Mooji is a very clear contemporary Advaita guru with a powerful presence who comes from the Heart. I met him once in Chicago and felt that I was in the presence of a very genuine, warm-hearted, generous, deeply awakened being. Love just pours out of him. He has a wonderful sense of humor as well. He strips away everything that can be stripped away, pointing in a simple, direct, immediate way to what cannot be removed: the boundless, unborn, unconditioned, limitless, formless, information-less, pure awareness that is prior to (i.e. subtler than) everything perceivable, conceivable or experienceable—this unseeable seeing that is always already here. And it is to this ultimate and (in his view) most liberating reality that his life is dedicated. "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering," he says, "Remind the world it is beautiful and free." And that is exactly what he does. Born in Jamaica in 1954, Mooji (then Anthony Paul Moo-Young) moved to Brixton, London in the UK as a teenager, where he became an artist and a college art teacher. In 1987, an encounter with a Christian mystic led Mooji to "walk out of his life," and a few years later, his spiritual journey took him to India where he met his Master, H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Mooji points to a liberating shift from the constriction of identifying as a separate person to the freedom of recognizing oneself as impersonal boundless presence, and ultimately, as the pure awareness that is subtler even than the first sense of presence. Mooji has no interest in psychological or social problems, personal stories, past history, future hopes, or any of that—he is totally focused on helping people to recognize and abide as pure awareness. “Live as though you have no entitlements," he says, "and you’ll appreciate all that comes." He has a beautiful ability to point out the tricks of the mind that pull us back into identification with the personal, psychological self. While this is definitely a transcendent approach, Mooji doesn't in any way reject the world, which he describes as the dynamic expression of consciousness. He stresses that he is not against duality—as he says, nothing could appear without duality—but he points to the nondual absolute Here / Now that is untouched by the world: “If you open your inner eyes," he writes, "you will see the Truth that lies right here inside of you beyond the transient play of phenomena we call life—beyond everything we can see or perceive. When I say beyond, I don’t mean beyond in terms of distance, but beyond in terms of subtlety. The search for truth is not about running away from the things of this world but about understanding their ephemeral nature. And more than that, it is about discovering our true nature as an inherent stillness from where even the subtlest movements of phenomena are perceived.” I love that he dances freely with many different expressions of Truth—Christ, Shiva, Buddha—seeing the universal at the heart of all of them. His satsangs include heart-opening bhajans (devotional songs), which I love, and the people around him shine with a wonderful radiance and light—they seem truly filled with love. Mooji teaches in a Hindu guru-devotional style that can be off-putting to those who are not so-inclined, especially skeptical Westerners. This is not my style, and I would never deny that this kind of devotional-guru-format has many potential dangers and pitfalls, but in my experience, it can also be a powerful heart-opening, and ultimately, one is in devotion to presence-awareness itself, and not to another person. Mooji has founded an ashram and retreat center, Monte Sahaja, in Portugal, and he offers retreats and satsangs there and sometimes elsewhere. Many of his satsangs, retreats and intensives are broadcast live over the internet, and many are available on his YouTube channel and on Mooji TV. Even more than his books, which are all wonderful, I recommend watching Mooji live (in person or via broadcasting) or on video. There is audio, video and written material, as well as information about his events, at his website here. Very highly recommended.
PETER BROWN: Dirty Enlightenment: The Inherent Perfection of Imperfection and The Astounding Nature of Experience: Conversations with Peter Brown (compiled and edited by Stanton Hunter) – Peter invites an open-ended exploration of the sensory-energetic bare experiencing here-now and the discovery of its ever-changing, infinite, chaotic, undefinable, ungraspable, unresolvable, indeterminate nature. Nothing is the same from one instant to the next, and yet everything is nothing other than radiant presence, here-now. This all-inclusive presence has no opposite—no outside or inside, no beginning or end, no before or after. Even thinking, imagining, day-dreaming and conceptualizing are all included in this radiance. Nothing is actually a distraction, an obstacle or a problem. Peter points out that there is never any finish-line or any ultimate understanding or formulation into which this reality can be fit. "Radiance, the flow of time, presence, the life force – it's an ongoing explosion, an ongoing big bang," he says. "You ARE this...It is doing itself. This, right here, is the breaking wave of this astounding radiance." Peter shows the utter futility of any attempt to pin down this living reality: "Leave the realm of the describable! It doesn't exist! You define your problems into existence, as well as their hoped-for solutions, thus creating an apparent difficult, limited reality, where none exists whatsoever. This actual, present condition is absolutely inconceivable; ANY way you hold it to be with your descriptions and ideas does not actually exist, and cannot in actuality limit or entrap you. Your imagined un-realization, confusion, spiritual obscuration, as well as the imagined enlightenment that you hope for as its solution, DO NOT EXIST! They are defined into apparent existence by your imagination. This actual condition can be clearly known as it is, but not if it is held to be this or that in imagination. Let go of all descriptions, and then what is this? You cannot say...but it is not nothing, and is wonderful beyond imagination." As he puts it elsewhere: “We build these elaborate stories in imagination and then we identify with them, we think we’re IN these stories, and then we think we’re STUCK in those stories. Once you see that all the elements that your story is made of don’t actually exist as objective realities in the way you think they do, then your whole story collapses; and where does that leave you? You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you are; but then there’s nothing to trap you, and no you to be trapped. THIS is liberation. THIS is enlightenment; simply seeing that there is in actuality nothing that can possibly trap you, and no separable you that could be trapped.” He writes: "True revelation is an ongoing, bottomless freefall." Excellent! I love Peter’s emphasis on an in-depth exploration of immediate, direct experience and the way he transmits the totally open, indescribable, all-inclusive, radiant nature of everything. He's at once a very ordinary and very extraordinary guy, and I find his expression quite delightful and amazing. You can find video and more here. Very highly recommrended.
BYRON KATIE: A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are; A Mind at Home with Itself: How Asking Four Questions Can Free Your Mind, Open Your Heart, and Turn Your World Around; and Loving What Is: Four Questions that Can Change Your Life -- Katie is a refreshingly unique contemporary teacher who has come up with a simple method for seeing through the mirage world created by thoughts, beliefs and story-telling. I'm not usually an enthusiast for methods and techniques, but I find "The Work" (as she calls it) truly liberating and definitely worth exploring. Every belief, story, and projection is exposed and deconstructed by putting it out and investigating it. Instead of encouraging us to try to be spiritual, Katie instead invites us to be as petty and unspiritual as possible -- bring out all our worst, most judgmental, most unenlightened, most spiritually incorrect thoughts -- and then investigate them by asking 4 simple questions. This questioning is done not on a purely cognitive level, but by feeling deeply into the answers. This simple process can be a tremendously effective wake up from the thought-created mirage that is our human suffering, and while this whole process might, at first glance, look like another self-improvement project, if you really take it all the way, it deconstructs everything and leaves nothing. Katie is very radical in her approach, and The Work is a powerful tool. Loving What Is is perhaps the clearest and best introduction to The Work. A Thousand Names for Joy has so far been my personal favorite of her books, offering stories from Katie's own life woven around verses from the Tao Te Ching. That book provides a kind of living portrait of the awakened mind in action in daily life. In the words of Stephen Mitchell, A Thousand Names for Joy is "a portrait of a woman who is imperturbably joyous, whether she is dancing with her infant granddaughter or finds that her house has been emptied out by burglars, whether she stands before a man about to kill her or...learns that she is going blind...it doesn't merely describe the awakened mind; it lets you see it, feel it, in action." This personal account offers a whole new way of looking at life that is quite liberating. A Mind at Home with Itself is woven around a new "interpretive adaptation," by Katie’s husband and co-writer Stephen Mitchell, of The Diamond Sutra, a famous Buddhist text. The book includes some of Katie's awakening story (which was pretty far out) as well as some excellent examples of people doing The Work, and it points beyond all concepts and imaginings to the absolute no-thing-ness of what is. Katie has several other books I haven't read including Who Would You Be Without Your Story? and I Need Your Love -- Is That True? How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead. There were also a few earlier books, probably all out of print now, including Losing the Moon: Byron Katie Dialogues on Non-Duality, Truth and Other Illusions, a much rawer and more unvarnished rendition of her teaching edited by Ellen Mack that I liked a lot. I find Katie's work very helpful whenever I find myself caught up in anger, resentment, self-pity, or other forms of upset and entrancement. With this simple form of inquiry, every upset becomes a doorway to waking up. Just reading these books can be eye-opening and enlightening, and I very highly recommend the books and (more importantly) actually doing The Work. Audio, video, and more information on The Work here.
JOHN ASTIN: This Extraordinary Moment: Moving Beyond Mind to Embrace the Miracle of What Is – This wonderful, clear book points to the vibrant aliveness that is right here in every moment, to be discovered not by transcending what seems ordinary and mundane, but by opening fully to the non-conceptual actuality of this very moment, just as it is. John suggests that “the subtlest depths are not found behind, below, or beneath but smack dab in the middle of the so-called gross or surface level of things.” Nothing is an obstacle or a problem in this approach. John invites us to drop out of metaphysical speculation and belief, stop our desperate efforts to grasp reality conceptually, and instead of turning to outside authorities, he suggests listening to (actual, naked, unvarnished, present, sensory, energetic) experience itself: “We’ve learned so much from others—parents, friends, teachers, our community, science, religion—we’ve been taught how to make sense of it all, how to understand and interpret what’s here, what experience is, who we are, what life is, and what it all might mean. But what if instead of deferring to what others have told us about what the reality of experiencing is, we simply let experience itself tell us what it is?” His original title, which the publisher rejected, was It’s Not What You Think It Is: Meditations on the Inconceivable Nature of Reality. That captures the book in a nutshell. One of the many things I deeply appreciate about John is his openness and curiosity—he doesn’t land anywhere, but is always ready to question his own assumptions and conclusions, to change his mind, to see something in a new way. He is genuinely interested in exploring—and he suggests that there is no end to the infinity of what is and no "final understanding" or end to this ever-fresh discovery. Instead of urgency and oppressive seriousness, he invites approaching this exploration in a light-hearted, playful way. John holds a doctorate in health psychology, has worked as a counselor, consultant, professor, and researcher in the fields of integrative and mind-body medicine. He is also an accomplished singer-songwriter, a poet, and the author of 3 previous books, which I also highly recommend, although his understanding has evolved and changed in significant ways since they were written: Too Intimate for Words, This Is Always Enough, and Searching for Rain in a Monsoon. You can watch a very lovely interview with John on Buddha at the Gas Pump here that includes some of his music as well. And you can learn more about John and read his blog at his website here. Very highly recommended.
ADYASHANTI: True Meditation; The Impact of Awakewning; Emptiness Dancing; The Way of Liberation; Falling into Grace; My Secret Is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti; and The End of Your World -- Adya is a very clear, articulate, contemporary American teacher based in California who offers a unique blend of Zen and Advaita. He has an open mind and a warm heart, and what he points to is not a conceptual or mental understanding, but rather, a directly experienced, felt-sense and embodiment of the open awareness and boundless presence that is our True Nature. Adya beautifully conveys the effortless effort at the heart of true meditation, and the counter-intuitive secret of transformation—allowing everything to be as it is. He speaks of letting go of the need to control, not only at the level of the mind, but also at the level of the heart and the gut. He doesn't get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide (such as free will vs. determinism, or practice vs. no practice, or relative vs. absolute). He is always pointing to the natural state, the Truth that is ever-present Here / Now, but he also explores in great depth the (never-ending) journey of awakening, illuminating many of the ways people get stuck or fixated along the way. He makes it very clear that we arrive at the destination only after we stop pursing it "out there." In allowing everything to be as it is, in surrendering, we discover that we already are what we seek. "In terms of awakening, all that matters is right here and right now," he says. "What happened yesterday does not really have much to do with what is happening today. The question isn't, 'Have I had an awakening?' The question is, 'Is awakening awake right here and right now?'" I attended a one-day retreat with him many years ago and he was very helpful to me on this very question. When I spoke with him during one of the satsangs that day, I told him that even though I experienced unbound, aware presence and saw clearly that the self was only a story, I still kept getting caught up in old patterns that seemed believable—depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, defensiveness, and so on—and therefore, there must be some decisive, final awakening that hadn't happened yet for me. He was very helpful in showing me that this was a story, and even more importantly, in the course of my interaction with him, I got to see how I kept picking that story up again, and how this was a choice that I was making to ignore the reality Here / Now and step back into the virtual reality of imaginary storyline instead. So he was actually very helpful to me in seeing through the "I'm Not There Yet" story and in discovering how I was doing that particular form of suffering. I found him very down-to-earth and right on the mark—a bright light. Adya emphasizes that suffering is a choice, and that everyone has a choice about what they give their life to in this moment, but he also acknowledges "the gravitational force of the dream state," and he even says, “In one sense, the awareness that there is nothing you can do is the most important realization you can have…Only then can spontaneous surrender happen.” So when he speaks of choice, he's not talking about will-power or control. He's pointing to the possibility that is available only now (as aware presence) of giving up all control and resistance, dropping the search for something better, allowing everything to be just as it is, being fully present and awake right now—and in that awakeness, discovering that the problem and the one who seemingly had it were both imaginary. To his credit, Adya always encourages people not to give away their own authority, but to question and look for themselves. He writes that, "The primary task of any good spiritual teaching is not to answer your questions, but to question your answers." He writes: "There is more reality and sacredness in a blade of grass than in all our thoughts and ideas about reality. When we perceive from an undivided consciousness, we will find the sacred in every expression of life...in our teacup, in the breeze, in the brushing of our teeth, in each and every moment of living and dying. Therefore we must leave the entire collection of conditioned thought behind and let ourselves be led by the inner thread of silence into the unknown, beyond where all paths end, to that place where we go innocently or not at all—not once but continually." Beautiful! True Meditation is one of the best books ever written about meditation. The Way of Liberation is a short, concise, excellent distillation and summary of Adya's essential teaching, and his first book, The Impact of Awakening, is also quite a wonderful distillation. Emptiness Dancing remains a top favorite of mine, and I enjoy his poetry and brief sayings in My Secret Is Silence. Adya has also written a book about Jesus called Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic. I found that book quite different from his other books, and although it wasn't entirely my cup of tea, I do love what he sees in Jesus: "It's not about getting out of the challenges of life, but about pouring oneself into life as an act of redemptive love...The message of the Jesus story is that we must fully enter the world." And I love that aspect of Adya's teaching. Excellent audio and video is also available in addition to the books, including some excellent guided meditations on CD. All very highly recommended. More here.
DOROTHY HUNT: Ending the Search: from Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness; Leaves from Moon Mountain (poetry and prose by Dorothy, with collage art by Rashani Rea); Only This! (poetry) – Dorothy is a marvelous teacher and writer. She has a long and deep connection with the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, the path of self-inquiry, and the nondual teachings of Zen, Advaita, and the Christian mystics. She speaks and writes from the Heart, with a tenderness and sensitivity deeply attuned to the subtle nuances of life. Totally authentic and genuine, her perspective is at once transcendent and down-to-earth. She doesn’t get stuck in any extreme view, and her teaching is informed by the richness of her life as a psychotherapist (since 1967), poet, nature lover, city dweller, cancer survivor, wife, grandmother and much more. She is no stranger to human pain—her mother died suddenly on the day after Christmas when Dorothy was twelve, her beloved husband of over fifty years died—so Dorothy has known grief and heart-break as well as immense joy. Her most important teachers besides Ramana were Ramesh Balsekar and Adyashanti. Adya asked her to teach in 2004. She serves as the spiritual director of Moon Mountain Sangha, and she is the founder of the San Francisco Center for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Ending the Search is one of the clearest and best books on nondual awakening and awareness, and her earlier books of poetry (and prose) are magnificent as well. Wise, heart-felt, eloquent, lucid, crystal clear, right on the mark—very highly recommended. More here.
RUMI: The Illuminated Rumi and One Song (both with translations & commentary by Coleman Barks and illuminations by Michael Green); The Essential Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks); and Rumi: Poet of the Heart (a film on DVD) — Jelaluddin Rumi, who gave rise to the Sufi order of whirling dervishes, was a passionate 13th century mystical poet. He was born in what is now Afghanistan and lived most of his life in Konya, Turkey. His poetry is profound and beautiful, brimming with love and the ecstasy that embraces absolutely everything. The foremost translator of Rumi's work into English is the poet Coleman Barks, but there are many other translations and collections available. The Essential Rumi, translated by Barks, is an excellent, comprehensive collection of Rumi's work. The Illuminated Rumi is a gorgeous book that weaves together Rumi's words, translated by Barks, with stunning visual images by the artist Michael Green, who later came out with a second "Illuminated Rumi" book called One Song, which also includes a CD of music by the Illumination Band setting Rumi's poems to bluegrass, gospel and blues. These two "Illuminated Rumi" books are definitely worth buying and savoring over a lifetime. Rumi: Poet of the Heart is an exquisite film available on DVD that features Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Huston Smith, Hamza El Din, Jai Uttal, Deepak Chopra, Michael Meade and others, blending Rumi's poems in English and Persian with music, visual imagery, and rich commentary (more on the film here). Other favorite collections of mine include Rumi: the Book of Love, translation and commentary by Coleman Barks, and Open Secret, translated by John Moyne & Coleman Barks. There are many others. Very highly recommended!
HAFIZ: I Heard God Laughing; The Gift; and The Subject Tonight Is Love -- three rich and delightful volumes of ecstatic and enlightening poetry by the 14th century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz, all beautifully rendered by the amazing Daniel Ladinsky. A few samples: “This is the time / For you to deeply compute the impossibility / That there is anything / But Grace. / Now is the season to know / That everything you do / Is sacred.” And, “Know / The true nature of your Beloved. / In His loving eyes your every thought, / Word and movement is always – / Always Beautiful.” And, "I wish I could show you / when you are lonely or in darkness / the astonishing light of your own being," and finally, “A poet is someone / Who can pour light into a cup, / Then raise it to nourish / Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.” Superb! Very highly recommended. More here.
DOGEN: Moon in a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds (both edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi) — Eihei Dogen was a 13th century Zen master and the founder of Soto Zen. These are both excellent collections that includes many of Dogen's most well-known works. My favorite piece in both collections, and the one I especially recommend, is "Genjo Koan" (variously translated as "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," "Manifesting Absolute Reality," "The Koan of the Present Moment," "The Paradox of Just This, As It Is," "The Spiritual Question As It Manifests Before Your Eyes," or "The Realization of Ultimate Reality"). Like all of Dogen's work, this piece can be read over and over, and with each reading, you will find new dimensions emerging that you hadn't seen or understood before. Dogen's understanding of nonduality is subtle, nuanced and all-inclusive -- so all-inclusive that it even includes duality: "The Buddha Way is leaping clear of the many and the one." In this radical view, even the map is the territory: "Neither the dharma world nor empty space is anything other than the painting of a picture....The moon and the pointing finger are a single reality." For Dogen, nothing exists independently of everything else. "There is nothing outside of mind," he writes, "Blue, yellow, red, and white are mind. Long, short, square, and round are mind. The coming and going of birth and death are mind...Dream, phantom, and empty flower are mind. Water, foam, splash, and flame are mind. Spring flowers and autumn moon are mind. All things that arise and fall are mind." He questions whether there is any kind of inherent objective reality "out there" apart from present experiencing: "Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object," he asks, "or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?" He says in Genjokoan: "Although the light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water...Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky." And elsewhere in Genjokoan: "No creature ever comes short of its own completeness." Dogen's burning question as a young monk was, if everything already has (or is) Buddha Nature, then why do we need to practice? His response is that to regard practice as the means by which we attain enlightenment in the future is to miss the point completely. Practice is the expression of enlightenment here and now. "If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind." Enlightenment is simply seeing through delusion: "Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings." And he says, "When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point...The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now...meeting one thing is mastering it--doing one practice is practicing completely." Dogen is poetic and profound. In addition to these two collections, there are many other collections and commentaries. I very highly recommend listening to and reading Norman Fischer's commentaries on Dogen, especially on Genjokoan and Uji, and Steve Hagen has some excellent classes on Dogen available on CD or download. Some other collections amd commentaries that I have enjoyed over the years include The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt); Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen (translated by Thomas Cleary); Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time by Dainin Katagiri; Appreciate Your Life by Taizan Maesumi; How to Cook Your Life and The Wholehearted Way by Uchiyama; Realizing Genjokoan by Shohaku Okumura; and Sounds of Valley Streams, edited by Francis H. Cook. All very highly recommended.
SHUNRYU SUZUKI: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (edited by Trudy Dixon); and Not Always So (edited by Ed Brown) — two superb collections of talks by Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), the Soto Zen Roshi who was the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. (Not to be confused with D.T. Suzuki, the Zen scholar and author who also helped to bring Zen to America). I arrived at SFZC too late to meet Suzuki Roshi in person, but I spent a number of years practicing Zen in his lineage, and so he has been a very important teacher for me. I have read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind countless times over the years, and with each new reading, I hear it more deeply and see more in it. Truly, an amazing book. "Buddha's teaching is everywhere," Suzuki Roshi said. "Today it is raining. This is Buddha's teaching." He also said, "For Zen students, a weed is a treasure," and, "We should find perfection in imperfection." There are also two very wonderful books about Suzuki Roshi: Crooked Cucumber (a biography by David Chadwick that I very highly recommend) and Zen Is Right Here (previously titled To Shine One Corner of the World -- a collection of brief stories about Suzuki Roshi told by his students and edited by David Chadwick), and both of these books beautifully convey the heart of Suzuki Roshi's teaching. And there is a collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks on the Sandokai, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger). I'm no longer drawn to the kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice that Suzuki Roshi taught, but I love these books, especially Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and I have great respect and fondness for the San Francisco Zen Center and for Suzuki Roshi and his lineage, and he continues to touch my life very deeply. More about Shunryu Suzuki and his teaching here and here. And there are some videos like this one on YouTube as well. Very highly recommended.
CHARLOTTE JOKO BECK: Everyday Zen: Love & Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen − Joko was an exceptionally clear, sharp, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, no frills, tough-as-nails, modern day Zen teacher. She died in 2011 in Arizona. She was one of my most important teachers, and although her approach to practice was stricter and more formal than mine, I'm infinitely grateful to have worked with her. Her approach is practice-oriented, and the practice is very precise awareness in the midst of ordinary life. As she put it, "All practice can be summed up as observing the mental process and experiencing present bodily sensations; no more and no less." Joko raised her children as a single working mother and was well-versed in the challenges of ordinary life. From her perspective, the messier the circumstances and the bigger the disappointments, the richer the opportunities. She wasn't easily impressed, and you couldn't pull the wool over her eyes. She brought everything back to ordinary everyday life and to this moment here and now. If you tried to talk about your big enlightenment experience, she might say (as if dismissing a bothersome fly), that's nice, and how is your relationship with your partner these days? The “Practice Principles” that she formulated and that we used to recite regularly summed up her teaching (and that of the Buddha) in a nutshell: “Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering. Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream. Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher. Being just this moment, compassion’s way.” Joko taught at Zen Center of San Diego for many years and created the Ordinary Mind Zen School. She liked to try different things to wake people up. For example, on her sesshins, we had an hour of bowing practice every day, and every day she gave us a different thing to bow to − these were full bows, to the floor − and with each bow, we were to allow a different example of the thing in question to come to mind and then bow to it. One day, it was bow to all your disappointments; another day, it was bow to everything you think is other than you. With each new bow, it was fascinating to see what came up, and then very enlightening to bow to it. There is a wonderful video that I highly recommend called "Nothing Special" about Joko that beautifully transmits the essence of her teachings as well as her remarkable spirit; it is available here. You can see a clip from it on YouTube. An excellent CD of some of Joko's talks, which I very highly recommend, has been produced by Sounds True and is available from them or from Amazon.com. Joko said: "Practice is not about having nice feelings, happy feelings. It's not about changing, or getting somewhere. That in itself is the basic fallacy. But observing this desire begins to clarify it. We begin to comprehend that our frantic desire to get better, to 'get somewhere,' is illusion itself, and the source of suffering." She also said, "When we maintain awareness, whether we know it or not, healing is taking place...When we can sit with a simple mind, not being caught by our own thoughts, something slowly dawns, and a door that has been shut begins to open. For that to occur, we have to work with our anger, our upset, our judgments, our self-pity, our ideas that the past determines the present. As the door opens, we see that the present is absolute and that, in a sense, the whole universe begins right now, in each second. And the healing of life is in that second of simple awareness...Healing is always just being here, with a simple mind." This is very clear, no bullshit, bare-bones Zen. Very highly recommended.
PEMA CHODRON: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears; Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change; and How to Meditate — All three of these books are jewels that I have found exceptionally clear and helpful. They are about the cultivation of what Pema calls open awareness, natural wakefulness, wonder and love. Pema is an American woman (divorced, with grown children) who was a student of Chogyam Trungpa. She became a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and now heads Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes about learning how to be with our fundamental discomfort, fear, uncertainty, restlessness and anger without fighting against it or chasing after false solutions and making it worse: "To the degree that you relax more into uncertainty and groundlessness, you find your heart opening." Pema talks about embracing the world (and this moment) just as it is, learning to be present and awake without expecting perfection. She encourages us to approach the apparent problems and setbacks in our lives as opportunities rather than as obstacles or signs of failure. She talks about the importance of groundlessness and not clinging to beliefs. Pema meets the darkness, the chaos, the difficulty, and the messiness of everyday life with love, humor, and warmth. She is refreshingly honest, sharing her own foibles openly, and she offers a clear, intelligent, practice-oriented teaching with wisdom and heart. Some of Pema's other wonderful titles (all very highly recommended) include The Wisdom of No Escape; Start Where You Are; The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times; The Compassion Book: Teachings for Awakening the Heart; When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times; Comfortable with Uncertainty; Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better; and No Time to Lose. There are also many CDs available, such as Don't Bite the Hook. All very highly recommended. More here and here.
CHUCK HILLIG: Looking for God: Seeing the Whole in One and The Enlightenment Trilogy (Enlightenment for Beginners: Discovering the Dance of the Divine; The Way IT Is); and Seeds for the Soul -- Chuck has a wonderful sense of lightness and humor, and a fabulous ability to convey the essential message of radical nondualism with the utmost simplicity and clarity, in plain language. His books use words and pictures, and in one case even a hole in the center of the book, to point to the heart of the matter directly and to offer a resounding YES to everything. Chuck also has a wonderful DVD called "Living in the WOW!" that I very highly recommend, and there is other audio and video on his website. Whatever Chuck does, it is always fun, wise, and completely liberating. Very highly recommended. More here.
ROBERT WOLFE: Abiding in Nondual Awareness; Awakening to Infinite Presence; Always Only One; Living Nonduality; One Essence; Ramana Maharshi: Teachings of Self-Realization; and Elementary Cloudwatching — Robert Wolfe offers a very clear, simple, straight-forward, direct, no-nonsense, right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter expression of non-duality that I really appreciate. Robert is a nondual author and teacher living in Ojai, California. He is a very quiet, unpretentious, ordinary, down-to-earth guy whose biggest influences were Ramana Maharshi, J. Krishnamurti, and Zen Buddhism. He says, "To exclude any aspect of Reality is obviously dualistic. The enlightened sage does not go halfway in the Way. Consistency, integrity, honesty are markers of the open path; and the recognition 'all is That, doing what it does' is applied to both negative and positive circumstances without equivocation." Born in rural Ohio, Robert traveled around as a young man, working as an auto assembly line worker in Detroit, as a carnival worker, as a journalist in New York City. In his thirties, he encountered Zen through the books of Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki. He lived on a farm in a Zen community in California, and later worked as a landscaper, a financial consultant, and a janitor. Following a divorce, Robert bought a camper van and moved into a redwood forest where he lived for several years in solitude contemplating the inner life intensely, and in particular the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. There something "fell into place," and eventually Robert settled in Ojai and began writing and sharing, mostly through one-on-one meetings with people. I resonate deeply with both his message and his teaching style. There are other books as well, and some of his books are available for free download on his website. There are some wonderful videos on YouTube, including one called “Living Nonduality The Film,” where a number of people who have been with Robert talk about awakening in a wonderfully ordinary, unpretentious, down-to-earth way. All highly recommended. More here.
DONALD GILBERT: Jellyfish Bones: The Humor of Zen and The Upside Down Circle: Zen Laughter -- Drawn and written by cartoonist and Zen Master Donald (Ta Hui) Gilbert, these two delightful, wise and humorous books convey the message that the truth is right here, right now, in this very moment, just exactly as it is. The story is told largely in cartoons about animal characters including a bumbling bloodhound named Unk who is constantly searching for what is already present. The books do a masterful job of exposing all the ways the seeker typically avoids waking up by seeking it "out there" or trying to grasp it intellectually, all the blind alleys we go down in our pursuit of what is ever-present here-now. Donald Gilbert points to what is “infinite and indescribable” (he calls it Mind), but he makes it very clear that this is not “out there” in some transcendent beyond-it-all, nor “in here” in some special Samadhi state, but right here in this very instant, just as it is: the sound of the train whistle, a steaming pile of dog poop, the ache in the knee, the smile of a stranger, and the aliveness of the vibrant awaring presence showing up as, and revealed by, all these momentary forms. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness not other than form. Leaping clear of the many and the one. These are the Zen lessons these brilliant books convey in such a magnificently simple and direct way. Donald Gilbert was a monk in the Cho Ke Order of Korea. He was born in California in 1909 and died there in 2006, and he founded the Blue Dragon Buddhist Order. These are both great books—clear, clean, simple but totally profound, and funny to boot. Very highly recommended!
JOHN TARRANT: Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light Inside the Dark -- Originally from Tasmania, John now lives in Northern California, where he is the founder and director of the Pacific Zen Institute, where he teaches. He also holds a PhD in Jungian psychology. John approaches Zen, koan work, and life in general in a very nontraditional, open, playful and imaginative way, with a wonderful sense of humor and a deep feeling for both the darkness and the joy in life. Bring Me the Rhinoceros is a tiny and explosive jewel with an amazing ability to flip you in your tracks and enlighten everything. It is a book that can unlock your heart and bring a rhinoceros into your life. It is without doubt one of the very best and most unusual, outside-the-box Zen books I have ever read. John uses koans, along with Aboriginal stories and events from his life, as springboards for imaginative explorations that wake you up again and again to the absolute perfection of your life exactly as it is. I love the way John seems to find the wonder and the love and the possibility in everything, including the things we usually think are shameful mistakes, erroneous detours, distractions, or flaws in our character (everything from the drunken one-night stand that gave us AIDS to the endless interruptions of our busy lives). He has a way of entering everything with his heart open and inviting us to do the same. There is a great sense of kindness in his work, genuine compassion and love. The Light Inside the Dark is an earlier book, subtitled "Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life," which is pure poetry (in prose). In that book, John brings together the transcendent dimension of life that he calls spirit, and the down-to-earth dimension that he calls soul, knowing that both are vitally important. "Attention is the most basic form of love," he writes. I love both of these books, but if I had to choose only one, I'd recommend Bring Me the Rhinoceros first and foremost. I have attended several retreats with John and other wonderful teachers from PZI with whom he often co-teaches, and these retreats were truly magical events, very outside-the-box and amazing. John is a frequent contributor to various Buddhist magazines. You can find writings, video and information about his events at Pacific Zen Institute and Santa Rosa Creek Zen Center, and you can read more of his writing at his Zenosaurus Blog, Uncertainty Club, and Tarrantworks. I love John and very highly recommend his writing, talks and events.
CHOGYAM TRUNGPA: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – This brilliant book points to right here, right now—the raw actuality of this moment, just as it is. Chogyam Trungpa is not offering a path of transcendence, nor is he offering any ultimate knowledge about how the universe works—rather, he points to what he calls the “open way” of groundlessness and non-dwelling — an unmasking of self-deception and the dropping of all reference points and conceptual constructs: "Then it is possible to experience the uniqueness and vividness of phenomena directly." I especially recommend the excellent chapter called "Shunyata," in which he discusses The Heart Sutra (form is emptiness; emptiness is form) and deconstructs the three misconceptions about the nature of reality (eternalism, nihilism, atomism). That chapter is a real gem--very highly recommended. Trungpa sees very clearly the ways we fall into self-deception, and he sees the spiritual path not as one where we aim for blissful states. "Treading the spiritual path is painful,” he writes. “It is a constant unmasking, peeling off layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult." And enlightenment is not some final victory for the ego, but rather: "Enlightenment is the ultimate and final disappointment." Trungpa was an important 20th Century Buddhist teacher who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He fled Tibet as a young monk, lived for a while in India and Scotland and eventually settled in the USA, where he gave up being a monk and became a lay teacher instead. He was an immensely creative man who founded Vajradhatu, the Naropa Institute and Shambhala. He was also a controversial character who drank heavily and had a long-standing habit of coming on sexually to female students and sleeping with many of them—like so many other great spiritual teachers, he was both profoundly realized and humanly flawed—but whatever you think of all that, this book has some excellent material in it. Another book of his I also enjoyed and would recommend is The Myth of Freedom. I'm not endorsing or recommending all the whistles and bells and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, but for the most part, Trungpa comes across in these books as very down to earth and direct. Very highly recommended. More here.
JON KABAT-ZINN: Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness — This is a beautiful, grounded, intelligent, down to earth book about the healing power of simple awareness and coming to our senses. Kabat-Zinn founded the pioneering Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. His work began by bringing simple mindfulness meditation (paying attention to the present moment) to patients working with severe chronic pain. From there the concept expanded to working with people in other kinds of stressful situations: prison inmates, people with low incomes, corporate executives, dying people, etc. This is basic insight meditation (present moment awareness) stripped of all the religious and spiritual trappings. If you're spinning your wheels trying to figure out Ultimate Reality intellectually, this book will show you how to realize it directly. And for those who struggle with the apparent contradiction between practices, such as meditation, and the absolute truth that there is nothing to attain and no one to attain it, I highly recommend the following three the chapters in this book: “Meditation—It’s Not What You Think,” "Two Ways to Think About Meditation," and "Why Even Bother? The Importance of Motivation." As an example of how meditation is both a path and at the same time pathless, Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same. He writes that: “Meditation is a way of being, not a technique… Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love…a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson…Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole." This book is excellent—very highly recommended. Kabat-Zinn's meditation and body scan CDs are also excellent if you're looking for a simple, basic, awareness meditation. He is also the author of Full Catastrophe Living and several other fine books, and he is the co-author of a book called The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. All very highly recommended. More here and here.
ANTHONY deMELLO: Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality — Tony deMello was a Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, author and workshop leader from India who was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism as well as by Christianity. He was the founder and director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India, and he also spent time in Chicago and NYC, where he died suddenly in 1987 at age 55. His utterly undogmatic, no-nonsense approach to waking up is one of awareness and direct insight. "Spirituality means waking up," he says. "Though everything is a mess, all is well." Not a trace of Catholic dogma (or any other dogma) here. In fact, deMello was condemned by the conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Tony deMello is funny, straightforward, clear, on the mark and wonderfully direct. "Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self," he writes."There's only one reason why you're not experiencing bliss at the present moment, and it's because you're thinking or focusing on what you don't have. But, right now you have everything you need to be in bliss." This is radical ("to the root"), wise, clear, amazing material that I very highly recommended. DeMello has many other excellent books as well as audio and video, and you can find out more here.
J. KRISHNAMURTI: This Light in Oneself; Freedom from the Known; Meeting Life; Choiceless Awareness: A Selection of Passages for the Study of the Teaching of J. Krishnamurti (published by KFA in 1992); The Ending of Time (with David Bohm); and Krishnamurti's Notebook — A few of my favorites out of the many excellent books by J. Krishnamurti, an Indian-born man who lived during the 20th Century and spent much of his life in California. Krishnamurti was groomed from early childhood by members of the Theosophical Society to be their promised World Teacher, but as a young man Krishnamurti renounced this mission and famously declared that "Truth is a pathless land." Krishnamurti spent the rest of his life looking into the human mind with open awareness, seeing through the deceptions of conceptual thought and the conditioning of the past, and coming in touch with the unconditioned aliveness and freedom that is beyond thought and belief. He offered no prescriptions, practices or methods, insisting that any form of repetition or control is deadening and false. Instead, Krishnamurti talked about the light of attention, an attention that is “without a center, without frontiers, where the known doesn’t interfere.” He suggested giving open attention to what is, without judgment or intention. He pointed out that "the observer is the observed," that there is no thinker apart from thought, that the thinker is itself a thought. He questioned the belief in free will and the apparent self who supposedly has this. Krishnamurti belonged to no religious organization, sect or country, nor did he subscribe to any school of political or ideological thought. On the contrary, he maintained that these are the very things that divide human beings and bring about conflict and war. He questioned all the absurdities of organized religion with its priests, gurus, dogmas and beliefs, and saw himself not as a guru or a teacher, but as a friend. Whether or not you completely agree with his take on religion and politics, he is certainly wonderful at showing a way of exploration and discovery that is free of dogma and reliance on the authority of the past. Krishnamurti had tremendous sensitivity and depth, and he saw through our human confusion, delusion and suffering with remarkable clarity and subtlety. Reading him and truly hearing him requires great sensitivity, attention, and a high level of participatory looking and listening. No quick or comforting fixes or easy answers are on offer here. Krishnamurti's passionate intensity, combined with his old-school formality and often very serious and rather humorless way of talking can sometimes come across as gruff, abrasive, stern or critical, but in the next instant, he smiles with the most delightful, childlike openness and warmth. If you listen openly to what he is saying, you may come upon an unbounded and unconditioned freedom and possibility that is priceless and life-changing. He had a very big impact on me and on my main teacher and friend, Toni Packer. Excellent video and audio is also available. Very highly recommended. More here and here.
AJAHN SUMEDHO: Don't Take Your Life Personally -- A truly excellent book that points to being aware of what is, here and now, and allowing whatever shows up to be just as it is. "Right now, it's like this," Sumedho says. "Everything belongs." He speaks in a way that is very open, spacious, direct, simple, clear, and down to earth. Buddhism as he presents it isn't about trying to control things or improve ourselves, nor is it about intellectually taking on a bunch of concepts or doctrines. It is simply about being awake. Although Ajahn Sumedho is a monk in a very strict Buddhist monastic order, he actually comes across as completely undogmatic, nonsectarian, nonauthoritarian and totally open in his approach. He avoids philosophy, metaphysics and other intellectual abstractions, and instead keeps pointing to present moment awareness. I greatly appreciate his sense of humor and his unpretentious honesty and willingness to expose his own human foibles. Born in the United States, Ajahn Sumedho studied Buddhism in Thailand. He has lived for many years in England, where he founded several Buddhist monasteries. This is one of the very best books on the true heart of Buddhism that I've come across, but you don't need to be a Buddhist to appreciate Ajahn Sumedho. I very highly recommend his books, especially this one.
NORMAN FISCHER and SUSAN MOON: What Is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner's Mind -- Jon Kabat-Zinn sums up my feelings about this wonderful gem of a book perfectly in his endorsement blurb: "This book is pure Zen, and pure poetry in the form of prose: refreshingly down-to-earth, modest, razor sharp, and subtle." Norman and Sue are both Zen teachers and writers. They are also old friends, and Norman is Sue’s Zen teacher. The book is in the form of a conversation in which Sue poses wonderfully unpretentious, candid questions, and Norman provides exceptionally generous and lucid responses. “Life is impossible!” Norman says. “We are all suffering. We will all die. And we are clueless about the real nature of this sad, beautiful, immense human life.” Most people who come to Zen are looking for something, he says. “That’s good. Yet looking for something stands in the way of getting what you are looking for. This is an odd paradox: you get what you are looking for but only when you stop looking for it. And what you get may not be exactly what you thought you were after in the beginning. It will be what you were really looking for but didn’t know you were looking for.” As Norman says, “No matter what you believe or think, this simple practice of sitting down in silence and feeling the present moment will have a powerful impact on your life,” and “Zen practice helps you to live your actual life, not your descriptions of it." Zazen [Zen meditation] is, he says, “fundamentally, sitting with the basic feeling of being alive…embodied, breathing, and conscious...I feel that zazen is essentially creative. It clears the heart, returning it to presence, to zero, to emptiness, which is the ground of creativity." He goes on to say, “For me uselessness is the essential characteristic of all spiritual practice. If it’s spiritual practice, it must be useless; that is, it won’t improve your looks, your health, your livelihood, your intelligence. It won’t help the world. You do it just to do it—literally uselessly. But its uselessness is exactly its usefulness!” As for our flaws and imperfections, Norman says, “Our scars are our treasure. Our uniqueness is an offering to the world…This is the main change that any of us who practice Zen could hope for: that we would become very good at being ourselves.” How does he see nondualism? "The way I'd understand nondualism is that it includes dualism. If nondualism doesn't include and validate dualism, then it is dualistic!" And enlightenment? “There are no magic lines in the sand to cross,” according to Norman. “Enlightenment amounts to nothing more or less than being fully and deeply human,” he suggests, having “wisdom and a good heart.” He adds that wisdom in Zen includes “the capacity of see that ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’…that things are not the way they ordinarily appear to be. They are more fluid, more evanescent than we think they are.” This book is at once practical and deep, apparently simple, but right to the very heart of Zen. Both Norman and Sue have other books, and Norman has some great talks and writings on the Everyday Zen website, such as his commentaries on Dogen's Genjokoan and Uji, plus many other Zen texts, that I very highly recommend. This book is a quiet gem. Very highly recommended.
BARRY MAGID: Nothing Is Hidden; Ordinary Mind and Ending the Pursuit of Happiness -- Barry Magid is a psychoanalyst and a Zen teacher in the lineage of Charlotte Joko Beck. He teaches at Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC. Barry challenges our "curative fantasies" of transcendence, perfection and imperviousness, pointing us instead to this very moment, just as it is. “Since I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher," he writes, "my professional life is all about working with people who say they have problems and who indeed are suffering, often quite visibly and terribly. How can I tell them that there is really nothing wrong with them?...Everyone who comes to therapy or meditation practice feels something is wrong and wants something to be fixed. That’s to be expected. We come seeking a relief of suffering, however we may conceive of that ‘suffering’ and that 'relief.’ Yet Zen is telling us that our search itself may embody the very imbalance we are trying to correct, and that only by leaving everything just as it is can we escape a false dichotomy of problems and solutions that perpetuates the very thing it proposes to fix. But before we too glibly arrive at that conclusion we will have to investigate thoroughly all the ways we feel that we are broken and be honest about just what kind of fixing, treatment, or salvation we think we need.” One of the many things I greatly appreciate about Barry's work is that he doesn’t ever get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide. He recognizes the reality of both wholeness and multiplicity, boundlessness and boundaries, self and no self. Our dualistic mind always thinks it must be either/or, that these opposite polarities are mutually exclusive and at war with one another, that one is “more true” than the other, that “the good one” must triumph over “the bad one,” and so on. But true nondualism is a dialectical balance, a recognition that both polarities work together. Barry conveys the ever-changing nature of this living reality and the emptiness (or non-solidity and interdependence) of everything. He writes honestly and intelligently, uncovering many of the common pitfalls into which different nondual forms of spirituality can unwittingly tumble. I'm no longer drawn to the kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice that Barry offers, but the essence of what he's doing is spot-on. There is a huge amount of subtle, mature, nondual wisdom and insight in these books, and I recommend them all very highly. More here.
ROBERT ADAMS: Silence of the Heart: Dialogues with Robert Adams — Robert Adams was a deeply realized American sage and a disciple of Ramana Maharshi. Robert grew up in the Bronx, where he had a spontaneous awakening as a teenager while taking a math test. This changed the course of his life. He later spent several years in India with Ramana. At the end of his life, Robert lived in Sedona, Arizona, where he died of Parkinson's disease in 1997. Robert comes from the Heart, from silence, and there is a powerful transmission of open presence and freedom that comes through whenever I read or hear his words. He had a unique and sometimes humorous way of talking about Ultimate Reality, and I find something very beautiful and true in his message. Friends who knew him have described him to me as unassuming and ordinary. Robert says: "Everything is unfolding the way it should....There are no mistakes....Trust the Power that knows the way....You are that Power yourself....There's nothing to fix in your life. Nothing to change. Nothing to accomplish. Nothing to do. Except to abide in the Power that knows the way....Only the Self exists....Love yourself always. When you love yourself, you love God....You are total freedom, right this instant, right this minute....Feel the Presence within yourself. Feel the happiness and the joy that you really are....You are already Self-realized...The truth is you have nothing to transcend, nothing to overcome...everything you see, everything in the universe, in the world, emanates from your mind....You are the Imperishable Self." You can find transcripts and recordings of Robert's talks here. You can also find many of his talks on YouTube now. Listen with your heart, not with your mind. Very highly recommended.
DOUGLAS HARDING: Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature; On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious; Open to the Source: Selected Teachings of Douglas E. Harding; and Look For Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realization -- Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a British architect who woke up to the unencapsulated boundlessness of Here / Now, the emptiness of clear awareness in which everything is appearing. He discovered that the true "I" is at once nothing at all, and at the same time, absolutely everything. He called this discovery "having no head," and he went on to write many books on the Headless Way. He also devised a number of simple experiments people can do to help them see the obvious, and he gave workshops on the Headless Way right up to the end of his life. I've always greatly enjoyed Harding's clear, simple, luminous writing. He has a beautiful way of pointing to what is so clear and obvious that it is easily overlooked. On the subject of death and resurrection, he writes: "Everything perishes. If you don’t want to perish, go where there isn’t anything to perish. Then you find that you are already there…In the Whole all the dead wholly live, and in the Center all the living wholly die. Here, we lose ourselves and find Ourself in a deathless world whose divisions and opacity have finally vanished, and where everything is indescribably weightless and open and brilliant…It is a marvelous thing to realize that as human beings we are a washout, that everything is lost, that the whole situation has gone to pot. Then we rely only on Who we are. We have to die before God can live in us.” Beautiful! Very highly recommended. More here.
H.W.L. POONJA: Wake Up & Roar (originally published as two volumes, now available in one); This: Prose and Poetry of Dancing Emptiness; and The Fire of Freedom: Satsang with Papaji -- H.W.L. Poonja (affectionately known as Papaji) was an Indian guru and a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Papaji lived during the 20th Century (1910-1997) and taught Advaita, emphasizing that there is no self, no path, no practice and nothing to do. At his best, he can be wonderfully direct and simple, clear and full of heart, pointing directly to what is most intimate and at the same time boundless: "First locate where you are, and then we can find the distance to where we have to proceed...I is a place where you presently are, isn't it?...Go toward the I and see what happens." Papaji guides his listeners to the immediate discovery of the unavoidable and thus attainable Here / Now of unbound, limitless Awareness. He says: "Surrender to the Source. Surrender to Awareness...Let Silence have You." And elsewhere: "Love Everything...Love all, no matter what, Love all." He sees through the doubts that people bring to him: "The desire for the permanency of clarity is a trick of the mind because permanency is in time and only postpones what is Here and Now." Papaji attracted many Westerners (including Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro, Mooji, Eli Jaxon-Bear, Jon Bernie, Sam Harris, Catherine Ingram and a number of other teachers from the Insight Meditation community, and many others who are now teaching). Wake Up & Roar (edited by Eli Jaxon-Bear) and The Fire of Freedom (edited by David Godman) are both collections of satsang dialogs. This (edited by Prashanti, Vidyavati de Jager and Yudhishtara) is pure poetry right from the Heart, distilled from a much longer book called Truth Is, and I'd say, stick with the distilled version; it's a jewel. More here and here and here.
GANGAJI: The Diamond in Your Pocket and You Are That! -- Gangaji is a contemporary American woman whose final teacher was H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Gangaji has a beautiful heart and a truly remarkable ability to cut through the thinking mind and bring it to a stop, deconstructing all stories and revealing "the radiance at the core." She always points you to what is most intimate and already present, and she does it with love and with a great sense of humor. Gangaji has been an important teacher for me, and I find her to be very clear, open, awake, present, intelligent, insightful, radiant, lively, funny, honest, warm, enlightening and heart-opening. I love her invitation to give up the search: "Self-inquiry is not a path that leads you somewhere," she says. "It is the path that stops you in your tracks." Beautiful! Gangaji draws freely from Advaita, Buddhism, Christianity, western psychology and other sources, but her teaching comes directly from the heart and is never bound by any particular packaging or tradition. Currently based in Ashland, Oregon, Gangaji holds satsangs and retreats here and around the world as well as webcasts. She has written other fine books as well, including Freedom and Resolve, Hidden Treasure, and a beautiful collection of photos and essential gems from her teaching called One River – One Ocean – One Heart. Excellent CDs and DVDs are also available, and many other resources can be found on her website, including a wonderful radio program with great thirty-minute episodes on particular topics such as addiction, chronic pain, intimacy, depression, anxiety, enlightenment, death, and so on that you can listen to on-line or download. All very highly recommended. More here.
NIRMALA: Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self -- This is one of the clearest and best books on nonduality and awakening that I've come across. I recommend it very highly. Nirmala is a contemporary American teacher (a student of Neelam, Adyashanti, and A.H. Almaas) who lives in Arizona. He invites you to "say yes to the mystery of every moment," to get curious about whatever shows up, and to recognize the boundless aware presence that you truly are. His writing conveys an open spacious presence awake to the subtle nuances and fluid aliveness of Here / Now. Warm-hearted, gentle and clear, Nirmala points beyond getting stuck in special experiences or fixated on either side of any conceptual divide. "The mind can't grasp [the Mystery]," he writes. "In the end, you have to be willing to go beyond recognizing it and even beyond experiencing it to being it. There is no little 'me' separate from the Mystery...you will discover that it all turns out to be Mystery." He has a wonderful chapter where he compares the movement of attention to the zoom-function on a camera, noting that Consciousness has the capacity for both flexibility and fixation, that the zoom lens can move freely, or it can get stuck, and it can even get stuck on trying to hold onto a zoomed-out experience of boundlessness. But Nirmala is always pointing to what is equally present in every different experience, whether expanded or contracted, clear or confused. He has two chapters in another book of his, Meeting the Mystery, titled "Is There One or Many? Yes!" and "Awareness Is Never the Same Way Twice." Those titles give a sense of the flexibility of mind and heart that I appreciate in Nirmala. He has a lovely sense of lightness, humor, delight and wonderment, and he approaches whatever shows up in satsang with openness and love. I knew Nirmala some years ago and really liked his expression, and I found his first book, Nothing Personal, exceptionally clear. Lately, he has been offering what he calls “Christ Consciousness Transmissions,” explaining that Jesus has asked Nirmala and his wife “to make ourselves available as an instrument of transmission for [Jesus] and for a circle of beings he works with including Mother Mary, Yogananda, Anandamayi Ma and others.” I am personally not an enthusiast for people claiming to speak as Jesus (or other dead people, especially deceased spiritual superstars). What’s being offered in these “transmissions” may well be beautiful and heart-opening as Nirmala claims, but it certainly doesn't appeal to me. So I am not recommending this latest turn in his teaching. But I do have a deep appreciation for Nirmala, at least as I knew him, and I continue to very highly recommend Nothing Personal, which is a real jewel in my opinion. You can find audio and video on his website as well. More here.
KEN WILBER: "The Ultimate State of Consciousness," a short piece which is the final chapter in Wilber's book Eye to Eye − This piece is a crystal clear, amazingly articulate description of the nondual absolute that beautifully illuminates the all-inclusive, timeless and spaceless Here-Now, the One without a second that is “completely and wholly present at every point of space and time.” And as Wilber so clearly shows, this nondual absolute is never not fully realized, for “the ultimate state of consciousness is in no way different from your ordinary state of consciousness.” The ultimate state of consciousness is not an altered state or a special state, it is not a state “that can be entered, or that emerges after various practices,” but rather, it is always 100% present and fully realized Here-Now. For a concise and brilliant pointer to the nondual absolute, this chapter is unsurpassed. Ken Wilber is a brilliant contemporary philosopher, author, long-time spiritual practitioner, and founder of Integral Institute. In his many books, Wilber provides a synthesis of different disciplines and approaches; an insightful critique of of where post-modernism, progressive social movements, and nondual spirituality have gone off course; and a path forward in an integral direction. I would describe Wilber as having an evolutionary, integral, non-dual perspective, strongly influenced by both Eastern spirituality and Western psychology. He moves fluidly between relative (developmental, evolutionary, progressive) and absolute (non-dual, always already whole and complete) perspectives, not fixating on either. He describes evolution as a creative and self-transcending process, in which everything moves to become part of a greater whole. Each successive stage must transcend and include the previous stages, and this applies equally to the evolutionary stages of consciousness, which Wilber has delineated in great depth and with great insight. Wilber draws a very helpful distinction between natural (healthy) hierarchies and (pathological) dominator hierarchies, pointing out that “a natural hierarchy is simply an order of increasing wholeness.” A Brief History of Everything is a book of his that I'd urge everyone interested in nondual spirituality to read. It provides a comprehensive overview of his work that is easily readable and well-worth reading. His 2017 book titled Trump and a Post-Truth World is one that I would highly recommend to progressives who are looking for a way forward. All of Wilber's books that I've read offer some truly valuable insights. And "The Ultimate State of Consciousness" is a crystal clear description of the nondual absolute. Very highly recommended. More here and here.
BERNIE GLASSMAN: Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen -- This excellent book elucidates the Zen understanding of nondualism by exploring two wonderful Buddhist texts, The Heart Sutra and The Identity of Relative and Absolute. Bernie Glassman is a truly fascinating man who strikes me as very alive and awake. A cigar-smoking former aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in mathematics, Glassman is a Zen teacher, a long-time activist for peace and social justice, and the founder of the Zen Community of New York, the Zen Peacemaker Order and the Maezumi Institute. Glassman is deeply committed to "Not Knowing" ("giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe") and "Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world." He speaks of taking action in the world with no idea of a cure, and of practicing Zen not in order to become enlightened, but because we are enlightened. This book explores the nondual understanding that "form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form," and that ultimate reality is "not one, not two." Glassman loves what he calls "plunges"—"taking you out of that space of knowing and dropping you into a place of not knowing," and his varied activities over the years include creating Zen business ventures and social service projects, holding retreats on the streets of New York City where participants are homeless for a week, holding interfaith bearing witness retreats at Auschwitz and in Rwanda, working for peace in the Middle East, and clowning (he created the Order of Dis-Order). He co-authored a book with actor Jeff Bridges, and he sends his students at the Maezumi Institute off to spend nine days at Byron Katie’s School for the Work. I've always found Glassman's unpredictable and ever-changing approach to Zen immensely intriguing, and I deeply appreciate the Zen understanding of nondualism, which for my money is as subtle, as nuanced, as profound and as truly nondual as it gets. Glassman has several other books, and I would also recommend Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters, a book he co-authored with Rick Fields that talks about business, right livelihood, social change and community from a Zen perspective. But above all, I highly recommend Infinite Circle. This is an excellent book—clear, wise, subtle, and right on the mark. More here.
HUBERT BENOIT: Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine (originally published as The Supreme Doctrine) − Joko Beck (see entry on her above) described this book as "her main teacher" and said that "it may be the best book on Zen ever written." The author was a French surgeon (and later psychiatrist) who was severely wounded during a bombing in World War II that left him unable to move for many years. The book is a brilliant exposition of our essential human problem and its resolution. It was translated from the French by Benoit's friend Wei Wu Wei (see separate listing). The book is unfortunately not always easy to read, and the choice of words (whether in the original or the translation, I don't know) sometimes feels not the best to me, but it is well worth the effort to read it anyway. Truly an extraordinary book, one of the very best. Excellent and very highly recommended.
WEI WU WEI: All Else Is Bondage -- This is my personal favorite of the many fine books on nonduality by Wei Wu Wei. He himself apparently said that this book was "the shortest, the clearest, and the most direct" of all his books, and he reportedly considered it the epitome of his life's work. Other favorites of mine include Open Secret, Posthumous Pieces, and Ask the Awakened. Wei Wu Wei was the pen name of Terence Gray (1895-1986), an English theatrical producer who traveled to Asia, spent time at Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, and eventually authored many fine books on the nondual perspective found in Taoism, Zen and Advaita. His writing is very clear and direct and goes right for the root. Very highly recommended. More here.
RAMESH S. BALSEKAR: Consciousness Speaks; A Net of Jewels; The Final Truth; Experiencing the Teaching; A Duet of One; From Consciousness to Consciousness; Your Head in the Tiger's Mouth; Who Cares?; and Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj -- Ramesh S. Balsekar was a bank president in India who became a close disciple and translator of Nisargadatta and then a teacher in his own right. Ramesh died in 2009. His teaching is Advaita with a strong emphasis on the root illusion of a separate, autonomous individual with free will. Ramesh shows you that everything is one, whole, unbroken, undivided happening, and that "All there is, is Consciousness." Paraphrasing the Buddhist image of Indra's Net, Ramesh says, "The universe is uncaused, like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end." Ramesh distinquishes between the inseparable, interrelated polarities that are inherent in the phenomenal manifestation and the dualistic illusion that these polarities are separate and opposing forces in conflict with each other. It is the latter misunderstanding, along with the sense of personal agency, that gives rise to our human suffering. He calls this "the divine hypnosis." Liberation is not an acquisition, but the falling away of an imaginary problem: "Self-Realization is effortless. What you are trying to find is what you already are." Ramesh has many other books as well—these are the ones that stood out most strongly for me. His first book, Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj, is his excellent paraphrasing of Nisargadatta's teaching, and then all his other books are his own expression of that understanding. Very highly recommended. More here and here.
WAYNE LIQUORMAN: Never Mind: A Journey Into Non-Duality; Enlightenment Is Not What You Think; Acceptance of What Is: A Book About Nothing; The Way of Powerlessness: Advaita and the Twelve Steps of Recovery; Hello My Loves; and (under the pen name, Ram Tzu), NO WAY for the Spiritually "Advanced" − Irreverent and without spiritual veneer, Wayne is a former businessman, a recovered alcoholic and drug addict, and a disciple of Ramesh Balsekar. Under Wayne's sometimes gruff and abrasive exterior, there is actually a lot of heart and a very devotional streak. This is not some airy, detached, other-worldly version of Advaita, but rather, a total embrace of everything, just the way it is: "As you walk the spiritual path," Wayne says, "It widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all." Everything is included. This is one of the main things I find so liberating in Wayne's message, and when you really see what Wayne is pointing to, it is a huge relief—the falling away of a burden—and also the beautiful discovery that everything is sacred and that nothing is lacking or out of place. Wayne's central emphasis is on seeing through the false sense of personal authorship—the illusion that each of us is a separate agent freely choosing our thoughts and actions. The idea that free will is an illusion may evoke terror and despair in the mind that imagines itself in control, but the true realization of this offers the most profound liberation. Wayne does an excellent job of showing that all thoughts, impulses, interests, intentions, actions, successes and failures are impersonal happenings, and that whatever happens could not be otherwise than exactly how it is. He also notes that when the false sense of individual authorship dissolves, when we recognize our personal powerlessness, suddenly a new kind of power flows in, an impersonal power: “Once we know ourselves to be Ocean in the form of wave, we become free to be ourselves in a way we never dreamed possible. It is as if we had spent our life driving with the emergency brake on and suddenly it is off.” Another important part of Wayne's teaching is the way he distinguishes between experiences (which are by nature temporary) and the seamless, boundless, all-inclusive Totality from which nothing stands apart. The seeker typically assumes that enlightenment would mean an unending, permanent experience of oneness, unity or impersonal presence. Thus, the seeker imagines “me” flip-flopping between the experience of unity and the experience of separation and involvement – “getting it” and then “losing it." But as Wayne points out, there are no one-sided coins, and true enlightenment includes the whole of What Is. Enlightenment is “the dissolution of that which is concerned with going in and out of involvement,” the falling away of the belief in the mirage-like "me" who seems to be the owner or author of these ever-changing experiences. “Rather than being the presence of something, Enlightenment is the absence of something,” Wayne says. “The ultimate state of Understanding includes both [the experiential state of oneness and the experience of separation] and absorbs both, but is neither to the exclusion of the other.” As Wayne puts it, enlightenment is like no longer having a stone in your shoe, a stone that was never really there in the first place, but was only ever a kind of hypnotic suggestion. Apparently for Wayne, there was a decisive moment in his life when the false sense of authorship disappeared permanently, never to return, and he describes enlightenment as an event in which the false sense of authorship permanently dies, "with no possibility of resurrection." I'm not a big fan of event-oriented, finish-line models of enlightenment (or such terms as "the final understanding"), partly because that hasn't been my experience, and partly because I find that holding out the notion of a finish-line or a final resolution tends to set other people up to seek (or manufacture) that kind of decisive event and then settle on it with a kind of closure if it happens. So if you read Wayne and find yourself thinking that "he" is enlightened and "you" are not, see if you can find the one who is not enlightened. As Wayne stresses over and over, there is no enlightened person—enlightenment is the falling away of the one who would get enlightened: "Enlightenment is not what you think but rather the ultimate, unimaginable dissolution into all that IS." Or as Ram Tzu wisely puts it: "In order to realize the miracle of what you Are, you must surrender the fantasy of what you will become." And in his more recent writing, Wayne acknowledges that “awakening takes many forms. For some it is sudden and dramatic, for others, gradual and barely noticeable.” And his main point, always, is that whatever seems to happen or not happen, it is all an impersonal happening, and that Consciousness is all there is: "There is nothing to become...We are all already That." Wayne also emphasizes over and over again that no conceptual description or formulation is ever the truth. As he says, "When we talk about Enlightenment or Oneness it is much ado about Nothing!" And he stresses that he is not putting forward a new belief system, but rather, that he is inviting people to look for themselves and see directly. He calls what he offers the Living Teaching. I love Wayne's whole-hearted embrace of everything as the Holy Reality, and I recommend him very highly for that and for his deconstruction of the false sense of authorship. More here.
LAO TZU: Tao Te Ching -- Beautiful, simple, clear. There are any number of fine translations of this ancient Taoist classic, and each different translation conveys different flavors and shades of meaning for each verse. I especially recommend the translation by Stephen Mitchell. I also like the one by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, and there's also a lovely version by Brian Walker, who also translated the less well-known Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu, which I also recommend.
NAGARJUNA: Mulamadhyamakakarika (The Middle Way) -- Nagarjuna lived in India in the second century C.E. and is considered one of the most important and seminal figures in Buddhism, perhaps second only to the Buddha himself. Nagarjuna was noted for deconstructing the conceptual mirage of solidity and permanence, and questioning the mind's tendency to grasp, fixate and reify. He points out the fallacies of every way in which we try to conceptualize reality, and he does this without ever offering us an alternative (as in, the right way of conceptualizing it). We want that, but Nagarjuna doesn't offer it, because concepts can't ever be the truth (the map isn't ever the territory). Steve Hagen (see listing above) has a whole course about Nagarjuna available on CD that is excellent and very highly recommended -- well worth the price. Good translations of Nagarjuna include those by David J. Kalupahana and Jay L. Garfield. Not easy material, but excellent.
DAVID R. LOY: Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy -- David Loy is a Zen teacher and a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, and I very highly recommend this book to anyone who is struggling to reconcile (or differentiate) Advaita and Buddhism, or to anyone who is clinging dogmatically to one position or the other, or to anyone who wants a deeper and more subtle understanding of nonduality. The book compares and contrasts the Advaita notion of Self (Immutable Reality) with the Buddhist understanding of no self (impermanence, thorough-going flux, no-thing-ness), and it explores concepts such as time and space, substance, causality, freedom, and spiritual path from a nondual perspective, drawing not only on Advaita and Buddhism, but also on Taoism and Western philosophy. Loy also has a deep interest in how the Buddhist understanding of the roots of suffering can contribute to our efforts to bring about a more just and egalitarian society in harmony with the environment, and for those interested in environmental and social justice, I recommend A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. Loy has a number of other interesting books as well, including Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays; Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism; and The World Is Made of Stories. Loy co-authored (with his wife Linda Goodhew) a wonderful piece called "Consuming Time" in the Buddhist anthology Hooked edited by Stephanie Kaza. In all his books, Loy does an excellent job of deconstructing the separate self and the dualistic view of life. He is definitely an interesting observer of present-day economic and social realities, as well as someone with a deep understanding of nondualism, and he brings the discernment of a trained philospher as well as the practice-experience of a long-time Buddhist student and teacher to the table in his books. You can listen to and watch a very interesting talk by David Loy here and you can learn more at his website here. Very highly recommended.
GREG GOODE: Emptiness and Joyful Freedom (with Tomas Sander); Standing as Awareness: The Direct Path; The Direct Path: A User Guide; and After Awareness: The End of the Path -- Greg Goode has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and has studied Advaita Vedanta as well as many forms of Buddhism. He deeply understands both the Advaita teachings of Oneness and standing as Awareness, and the Buddhist emptiness teachings, and he is able to convey both in a clear and uniquely Western voice. Standing as Awareness and The Direct Path both offer to the reader a direct, experiential insight into the understanding of Advaita, and Emptiness and Joyful Freedom conveys the Buddhist emptiness teachings (along with similar Western teachings). Greg lives in NYC and calls himself a philosophical counselor. His books are very clear and articulate pointers, and along the way, he offers concrete explorations or meditations that the reader can undertake to realize experientially and directly what is being pointed out. He avoids many of the common pitfalls into which other contemporary nondualists sometimes fall, such as getting stuck on one side of an imaginary conceptual divide. I especially enjoyed Emptiness and Joyful Freedom: "This book presents non-dualism with a difference. It's about a flourishing, open-hearted liberation that doesn't land on a position of one or many, existence or non-existence. There is no clinging to dualistic extremes such as good or bad, natural or unnatural, etc. This liberation is non-dual by dissolving dualistic extreme positions." And in another quote from that book: "By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is freed up to work with the empty self. This is where the West's abundant resources for creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can be treated as a work of art." This moves beyond many of the stale fixations and extremes into which some Advaitans, Buddhists and radical non-dualists can fall. More here and here.
A.H. ALMAAS: The Unfolding Now: Realizing Your True Nature through the Practice of Presence and Runaway Realization: Living a Life of Ceaseless Discovery -- Almaas is the pen name of Hameed Ali, a contemporary spiritual teacher and founder of the Diamond Approach to Self-Realization and the Ridhwan School. The heart of what Almaas points to is open awareness and presence (what he calls True Nature), and he offers a very nuanced and deep form of contemplative exploration, inquiry and practice. In his work, he brings together the spiritual and the psychological, drawing upon insights from Buddhism, Sufism, the enneagram, depth psychology, and other perspectives to create an approach that is at once transcendent and embodied, non-dual and yet awake to the particulars and subtleties of human life. Almaas was born in Kuwait, came to California in the 1960's to study physics, and still lives in Berkeley as far as I know. A number of friends of mine over the years have gotten into the Diamond Approach, and I’ve tried in the past to read a number of his other books and never made it past the first few pages. But these two I really resonated with. I found them very clear and on the mark. I especially appreciate the way he discusses the dangers of reification and identification, including any tendency to identify as the Absolute. "This is one of the central dangers on the spiritual path: whenever we experience something new, we want to put it in a box. We reify it and then separate from it in order to identify with it." And here's another passage that I found very helpful: “No moment is better than any other moment. No one’s experience is better than another person’s experience. Your experience in the moment is the way True Nature is teaching. It is not accurate to say, ‘That guy is at a more advanced place than I am, so I should be like him.’ You are comparing yourself and making a judgment that your experience is not as valuable—and so the sense of your own value is lost. No, your experience is the right teaching at that moment for you, and for the rest of reality, too. Your experience is just as valuable, just as necessary, as the experience of somebody supposedly more advanced on the path or having more sublime experiences. The more we learn that each moment has its own intrinsic value, the easier it is for us to let ourselves just be in each moment, however it is manifesting….Who are we to say that we should be like some other person?” Beautiful! Excellent books, very highly recommended. You'll find video, information about the Diamond Approach and his other books, and more here.
TARA BRACH: Radical Acceptance and True Refuge – Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and insight meditation teacher based in the Maryland / Washington, D.C. area. These are excellent books about waking up from the trance of self-hatred, unworthiness and taking ourselves for a separate self. Tara offers a path of Radical Acceptance that involves “seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion.” She gives a very clear and articulate explanation of how we suffer and how we can wake up through a path of present moment awareness that involves coming home to our body, opening the heart, and allowing everything to be as it is in this moment. Both books include guided meditations and explorations that you can try as well as stories from the author's own life and from her work as a therapist and meditation teacher. Tara is wonderfully honest in sharing her own struggles and human foibles, and she makes it clear that awakening is a lifelong adventure and not a one-time event. True meditation is not just something you do for an hour a day on a cushion, but a way of living and being with the challenges of everyday life, and these are two of the clearest and most loving articulations of true meditation that I have ever read. More here.
SUSAN MURPHY: Red Thread Zen: Humanly Entangled in Emptiness; Upside-Down Zen: Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary; and Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis – Susan Murphy is a Zen teacher (also a filmmaker, producer, writer, mother and grandmother) in Australia who writes and speaks with exquisite eloquence, clarity and passion. The words come alive on the page, evoking the vibrant openness of this moment. “Zen is a direct path into reality,” she writes, “a direct path into the hard and exhilarating questions of being alive...Zen is a whole-body, whole-hearted, whole-life practice...one that invites an audacious and radical spirit of inclusion rather than renunciation," a practice that she describes as being at once playful and rigorous, crooked and upside-down. "Limitedness is the gate to the most boundless and free condition; but you must go through it, you cannot go around it...only by accepting your condition can you stop clinging to it." Susan so beautifully expresses the marriage of boundless emptiness and the bones and breath of each unique and embodied moment. She speaks to “the problem of reconciling the one continuous mistake we sometimes call 'life' with buddha nature, which is complete grace from the beginning." Susan draws not only on the richness of Zen koans but also on the Aboriginal earth-based spirituality indigenous to Australia, along with lessons from family life in the modern urban world. “There are still untouched and wild places in this world, as close as your own breathing." She writes about trusting the unknown, accepting all offers, freely living within limitation, being deeply at home in the universe. “Body and mind begin to loosen and fall away, and we grow wider and more free, wanting less, wanting nothing. The most ordinary and subtle happiness arises in this wanting nothing.” Subtle, passionate, wise, and always right to the heart of the matter, Susan's books bring true Zen practice and insight vividly and richly to life—but you don't have to be into formal Zen to appreciate and delight in these books. They speak to anyone with an interest in waking up. My favorites are Red Thread Zen and Upside-Down Zen.Susan is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia, and you can find some wonderful audio recordings of her talks on her website. She was authorized to teach by John Tarrant and Ross Bolleter. Very highly recommended. More here.
ISAAC SHAPIRO: Escaping from a Dream Tiger; It Happens by Itself; Outbreak of Peace — Isaac Shapiro was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1950, was based in Australia for many years, and seems to divide his time now between there and Germany as well as traveling and teaching in the US and elsewhere in Europe. His message is both radical and at the same time recognizes the need for an on-going explorative process rooted in awareness to expose and undo conditioning and the effects of trauma on human functioning. He has a background in Feldenkrais and other modalities, and his work includes a somatic approach. His teacher was Papaji (H.W.L. Poonja) in India. I particularly appreciate Isaac for his open, explorative approach, his willingness to be with other teachers and to go in new directions. He is always down-to-earth and rooted in the living reality of Here / Now: "All we have is the sensory experience of this moment, NOW. This moment is only an experience to us. That’s all we have. The world, time, space, our own bodies and each other are all an experience to us,” he says. “We all have unconscious habits of attention, that are uncomfortable to ourselves, and the ones closest to us…All reality is experienced through these unconscious habits, which function as cognitive filters…The beauty of this invitation is that nothing needs to be changed, fixed, or eliminated. It is a non-dualistic, non-judgmental enquiry into our present being. Everything happens through the agency of awareness. As we bring awareness to these unconscious habits, there is a shift that occurs.” He describes his meetings as “An invitation to enjoy the sensations of now, which includes everything, the universe, our bodies, time and space, as the beloved. The way our attention focuses on the sensations produces both the experience of the world and the sense of ‘I’.” More information and audio/video here. Highly recommended.
J. MATTHEWS: Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just As You Are; All Is Well: The Unending Blessing of What Is; Truth Is; Inexpressible: Reflections on the Heart of Enlightenment; and Universal Radiance: Illuminating the Sayings of Jesus of Nazareth -- Clear, simple, beautiful expressions of non-duality. J's first book, Radically Condensed Instructions, is an exceptionally clear, succinct, lucid, jargon-free, intelligent and wise book, with a sense of humor to boot, that explores how we create dissatisfaction and confusion by "abandoning what we actually see, hear, and feel (which is always dissolving, always falling apart) in favor of concepts, which hold together nicely, but which are mere conventions." The book points to the boundlessness Here / Now that is always complete and whole however it appears: "There is clarity: luminous, still and silent clarity. It is with you and in you. It is you. It always exists. No it never takes a break; no it never goes out for just one cigarette. It is the wholeness you can never fall out of. Not in your drunkest, sorriest, most hysterical moments, not even then can you fall out of this clear and sacred perfection. You know that." This book also does a lovely job of reconciling the pointer to “be here now” with the absolute nondual understanding that there is no way not to be here now: “We know that even in our worst and most neurotic moments, we never leave the openness of the here-and-now, which is the only ‘thing’ there is. And yet we also understand it is best for us to simply ‘be here, now.’” This little book is so wonderfully simple and clear and on the mark. In his more recent books, J’s expression has become more distilled and radical (to the root), I might even say mystical: “Your true self is nothing but Love…Nothing harms you, everything supports you…Allow yourself to dissolve into the Love that you are…Enlightenment will happen as naturally as breathing and as easily as falling in love…We can focus on our apparent story in time, or we can focus on Love in the present moment…This choice is our path, and our path is also our goal…Enlightenment is a choice - it doesn't happen ‘one day’ because it only happens now.” J. Matthews has graduate degrees in philosophy and theology, worked for many years in social services with homeless people in Massachusetts, and currently works in the chemistry department at M.I.T. You can find more on his Amazon Author Page and on J's website. All very highly recommended.
DAVID STEINDL-RAST: A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness; Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer; and i am through you so i – Brother David is a Benedictine monk who was born in Austria in 1926, lived through the Nazi occupation, and has since lived for many years in the United States, sometimes living as a solitary hermit and sometimes traveling and lecturing worldwide. He has worked closely with Buddhists and other interfaith groups and has been literally all over the world meeting with people of every kind. He has a wonderfully open mind and heart and a beautiful and deep sense of the sacred in the now. His books are a great joy to read. You can feel the depth of his presence and his heart. "Love wholeheartedly," he writes, "be surprised, give thanks and praise – then you will discover the fullness of your life." i am through you so i, published in 2017, is an exquisitely beautiful book, an unconventional autobiography divided into nine decades (each with a different topic) with reflections in each section written by Brother David, followed by interviews of him by Johannes Kaup. The book explores faith, beginner's mind, living in the now, aging, death, social justice, interfaith spirituality, indigenous spirituality, and much more. I love all these books. A truly remarkable man. More here.
JOSH BARAN: The Tao of Now (originally published as 365 nirvana here and now: living every moment in enlightenment) − Josh Baran, a former Zen monk now running his own communications and public relations business in NYC, has assembled a magnificent, mind-stopping, eye-opening collection of quotations from a diverse group of sages and artists that includes Toni Packer, Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, Jesus, Buddha, Walt Whitman, Kabir, Krishnamurti, Joko Beck, Steve Hagen, Mary Oliver, Osho, Henry Miller, Meher Baba, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ball, Gangaji, Tulku Urgyen, Byron Katie, Jean Klein and a host of others. Each gem-like passage is an arrow aimed at shifting attention to Here / Now and popping all ideas about distant goals and future attainments. Josh's introductory material is beautiful, as is the dialog with him at the end of the original edition. This is a truly wonderful book that can be dipped into again and again, and never be exhausted. Enlightening and enlivening, free of dogma and beyond belief—utterly simple and direct—open it anywhere and it stops the mind. Very highly recommended. More here.
TAIZAN MAEZUMI: Appreciate Your Life -- Maezumi was a Zen teacher, born in Japan, who came to the US and founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles. His students included Joko Beck and Bernie Glassman along with many others. The book points you to this present moment here and now: "We do not see that our life right here, right now, is nirvana," he writes. "Maybe we think nirvana is a place where there are no problems, no more delusions...We always think nirvana is something very different from our own life. But we must really understand that nirvana is right here, right now." Maezumi offers subtle, nondual, Zen teaching that is clear and on the mark. You don't need to be into the kind of rigorous, traditional, formal Zen practice that Maezumi taught to appreciate the truly wonderful insight and wisdom in this book. It includes as an appendix translations of Dogen's Genjokoan and Sekito Kisen's Identity of Relative and Absolute. Very highly recommended. More on Maezumi here and here.
DAININ KATAGIRI: You Have to Say Something; Each Moment Is the Universe; and Returning to Silence -- Katagiri was a Zen priest who lived during the 20th Century. He came to the U.S. from Japan in 1963 and later founded the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, where he died of cancer in 1990. He points to an immediacy that is prior to thought: “The first moment is pure and transparent…Returning to this first moment is our practice. It is not something we can have some idea about. It’s something we have to live.” He talks about attending wholeheartedly to the activities of everyday life and “playing freely.” He says: “There is nowhere to go. This is liberation. It’s very simple.” Katagiri tells a beautiful story of how the tortoise was able to beat the hare in a race, explaining that the tortoise "had to free himself completely from the label of being the slowest creature...Instead of expecting some particular result from his effort, he had to just walk forward, step after step.” I'm no longer drawn to the kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice that Katagiri practiced and taught, and I'm not recommending that unless you happen to be drawn to it, but the essence of Zen meditation is right on the mark, and there is some truly wonderful insight and wisdom in these books. More here.
ELIHU GENMYO SMITH: Everything Is the Way: Ordinary Mind Zen − This is a wonderful book that illuminates and conveys the true heart of Zen. Being this body-mind-world, right now, waking up from the self-centered dream, "working with the self-centered thoughts that cut off this moment and prevent us from opening to this moment." Elihu is the resident teacher at the Prairie Zen Center in Illinois and a co-founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. He is a dharma heir of one of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, and he also studied with Soen Roshi, Eido Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi. I love the way Elihu uses language and the way he conveys what is simplest and most intimate. This is about lifelong practice in the midst of ordinary life. "Mistake after mistake is the perfect way," he writes. "The sounds of the stream, the mountains, the office building, the traffic—all this is our very body, the body of the Buddha." And elsewhere: “What is it that we think is not the Attained Way? What is it that we think is not Buddha? What is it we think is I? What is it we think is not-I?” Wonderful questions! I'm no longer wedded to the kind of rigorous, strict, formal Zen practice that Elihu teaches, but the heart of practice as he presents it is right on the mark, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way he writes about rituals and precepts. Essentially, the book (and Zen practice) is simply about being awake in this moment in the midst of everyday life, which is useful for everyone. Down to earth, beautifully clear, very highly recommended. He has an earlier book, Ordinary Life, Wondrous Life, about the Ten Bodhisattva Precepts that is also excellent. These precepts in Buddhism are not intended as commandments or ideals, but rather as ways of practicing and reflecting on life. So when a student expresses the feeling that she can never live up to the precepts, Elihu says, “Notice the belief, the expectation that precepts are about your living up to them…In all sorts of ways, we break the precepts. And we make the best effort.” More here.
MAURINE STUART: Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart − Maurine Stuart (1922-1990) was a Zen teacher, a concert pianist, a wife and mother, a powerful force of nature and a truly remarkable being. I was lucky enough to sit one sesshin (silent Zen meditation retreat) with her in the late 1980’s as she was dying of pancreatic cancer. It was an amazing sesshin. She brought classical musicians in to play for us, she circled the zendo during sitting periods giving each of us wonderful shoulder rubs with her strong pianist hands, and her teaching was passionate and original. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Maurine toured the US and Canada as a concert pianist, spent time in Paris, France, and eventually settled in NYC, where she studied Zen with Yasutani Roshi, Soen Roshi and Eido Roshi. She later moved to Massachusetts and taught at the Cambridge Buddhist Association on Sparks Street until her death. The book is a collection of talks given there and at other Zen Centers around the country. “Please don't cling to yesterday, to what happened, to what didn't happen. And do not judge today by yesterday. Let us just live today to the fullest! Moment after moment, each sitting is the only sitting.” And by no means was she talking only about sitting—for her, Zen was about living each moment to the fullest. "There is no final realization," she said. "In this no-knowing, wondering-on, openhearted condition of mind, we face directly whatever comes—good, bad, ugly, beautiful. We don’t push anything under the rug, we don’t buffer it with something; we experience it fully.” Beautiful!
RICHARD B. CLARKE: Always Home, Coming Home: A Life in Zen and Sand Mirrors (with photographs by Stephen Strom) – Richard B. Clarke (1933-2013) was in a very real sense my first living Zen teacher. He was a biology professor at Bard College when I was there as a student in the late 1960’s. He offered a course called Vedanta and Zen that I took, and he led a small Zen sitting group in the basement of the college chapel, which is where I first sat zazen (Zen meditation). He went on to found a Zen Center in 1972. Many of his talks (or teishos) from the last 8 years of his life are available as audio files at the website of the Living Dharma Center (click on "Teisho" and then from that page, click on "Richard Clarke" and you'll find the talks). These talks are very powerful and clear, with incredible beauty, depth and subtlety, and I recommend them very highly. Richard is probably best known for his ever-evolving translations of the Hsin-Hsin Ming of Seng T'san (several published by White Pine Press, on my recommended list above). Always Home, Coming Home is a superb collection of poetry and other writings and is still unpublished, but keep an eye out for it – these poems distill and transmit the essence of Zen with extraordinary clarity, insight and love for the ordinary / extraordinary everyday world. Sand Mirrors is a beautiful collaboration between Richard's words and Stephen Strom's photography, and it is in print and available. Faith Mind, a film based on the Hsin-hsin Ming and featuring Richard, is supposedly in post-production. Richard's previously published books of poetry, Fever and the Cold Eye (Contact Press, 1966) and Lunations (Contact Press, 1969), are unfortunately both out of print. Richard was a brilliant man, fluent in about 8 languages, with advanced degrees in biology and biochemistry. In addition to being a Zen teacher, a poet and a translator, he also taught Neuro-Linguistic Programming for awhile. Richard writes on the Living Dharma website: “Our Zen way begins by analysis until we are clear on certain presuppositions of our life, such as that things could not have been different in the past or at this moment, that there is no self to be found, only identifications, and that calendar and clock time is radically different from ‘being-time.’ And then zazen, witnessing the ‘passing show’ of phenomena and letting all attachment to them drop away, is the foundation of our Way of Zen….I encourage all of you to…penetrate deeply beneath all words and concepts so you may Realize in yourselves your essential Self that is one with all the great Zen Masters and one with this world, including its ignorance and suffering. There is only One Reality.” I very highly recommend his teishos, his poetry, his translation of the Hsin-hsin Ming, Sand Mirrors, and especially the still unpublished collection, Always Home, Coming Home, that I hope will eventually find a publisher and be available. You can also listen to talks by two of his dharma successors (Paul Gerstein and Norma Salter) on the "Teisho" page of the website as well. All very highly recommended.
PAUL GERSTEIN: Form Is Emptiness: An Insider’s Guide to the Heart of Zen Buddhism – Paul Gerstein is an ER doctor, the first Dharma successor of Richard Clarke, and the principle teacher of the Living Dharma Center since Richard’s death. This is an exceptionally clear, well-written and illuminating book about the true heart of Zen. Paul comes across as unpretentious, sincere, genuine and down to earth. He has apparently dropped most of the trappings and rituals of Zen, and in this book, he beautifully captures the true spirit of Zen—its profound insight into the nature of reality, its ordinary everyday-ness, and the practice itself–on and off the meditation cushion. Paul sees through many of the common pitfalls along the way, and he offers a no-nonsense, crystal clear, wise and insightful path to liberation. There are a few things I don’t resonate so much with, such as the emphasis on certain "correct" sitting postures and hand positions for meditation, but overall, this is an excellent book. Paul conveys both the fierce, urgent, life-or-death effort to “break through the barrier” that characterizes Rinzai Zen as well as the non-result-oriented, on-the-spot awakeness of Soto Zen, and the practice he offers includes a mix of open inquiry, koan work, and zazen (meditation). Paul also has some excellent talks that you can hear by going to the "Teisho" page of the Living Dharma Center website. All very highly recommended. More here.
JOHN DAIDO LOORI: Making Love with Light and The Zen of Creativity -- John Daido Loori (1931-2009) was a photographer and Zen teacher. He founded the Mountains and Rivers Order and Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY, where he was the abbot for many years. He studied photography with Minor White. Making Love with Light, subtitled Contemplating Nature with Words and Photographs, is a collection of beautiful photographs of nature, each accompanied by a haiku-like poem. Each photograph can be contemplated for a long time as it continues to reveal more and more, and as the words dance beautifully with the image. The book also includes short introductory essays to each of the sections. The Zen of Creativity is about the creative process from a Zen perspective with suggestions for the aspiring artist and material about Daido's own life journey. Both books convey the spirit of Zen and invite an awake intimacy with life. Daido Loori wrote many other books on Zen, and he was an award-winning photographer and videographer who integrated art and wilderness training into Zen practice. Very highly recommended.
ZEN CHANTS: Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi -- This book offers new translations and adaptations of some of the main Zen liturgical chants (including the Meal Chant, the Robe Verse, the Three Refuges) as well as some of the most essential Zen texts (including Genjokoan, Hsin Hsin Ming, Song of the Grass Hut, Being One and Many, the Heart Sutra, etc.) along with commentary. It also includes Chinese ideographic and original Japananese and Sanskrit versions of many. Kaz is a world-renowned calligraphic artist in addition to a translator of Dogen, Ryokan and other Zen works.
TIMELESS SPRING: A Soto Zen Anthology, edited and translated by Thomas Cleary -- an excellent collection of Zen writings that includes such classics as "Merging of Difference and Unity" and "Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi." I especially recommend a piece in this collection called "Hongzhi said." Very highly recommended.
BANKEI: The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, translated by Norman Waddell − Bankei (1622-1693) was a Zen Master who emphasized the simple truth of abiding in the Unborn, which was his word for presence-awareness or the Now. He said, "I always urge people to live in the unborn Buddha-mind...When you are unborn, you're at the source of all things." Bankei de-emphasized many of the traditional Zen practices, spoke in the common language of the people, and focused on the simple heart of the matter: present moment awareness. “You’re unborn right from the start," he says, "There’s no need for you to become the Unborn. The true Unborn…is beyond becoming or attaining. It’s simply being as you are.” Abiding in the Unborn "has nothing to do with either 'self-power' or 'other-power,'" he says, "It's beyond them both. My proof is this: While you face me and listen to me say this, if somewhere a sparrow chirps, or a crow caws, or a man or woman says something, or the wind rustles the leaves, though you sit there without any intent to listen, you will hear and distinguish each sound. Because it isn't yourself that's doing the listening, it isn't self-power. On the other hand, it wouldn't do you any good if you had someone else hear and distinguish the sounds for you. So it isn't other-power." What a beautiful way of pointing beyond all dualistic or fixated ideas of choice vs. choicelessness. Very highly recommended.
KNOW YOURSELF: An exploration of the oneness of being, from Arabic manuscripts attributed to Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240) and also to Awhad al-din Balyani (died 1287), translated by Cecilia Twinch – I was introduced to this beautiful Sufi-Islamic text on non-duality by hearing Rupert Spira read aloud from it and comment on it. While the text speaks of God and uses masculine pronouns, Rupert translated that as simply Consciousness. So I would suggest not getting hung up on the gender-exclusive language, and listen to the heart of this text, which is pure nondualism, beautifully and clearly expressed.
THE HEART OF AWARENESS: A Translation of the Ashtavakra Gita, translated by Thomas Byrom -- This beautiful translation of a classic and radical text in Advaita Vedanta is elegantly spare, simple and crystal clear. The translator, Thomas Byrom, seems to have deep spiritual insight combined with a poet's feeling for language, and his rendering is exquisite. In his introduction to the book, Byrom writes, "Ashtavakra's words begin after almost everything else has been said. They barely touch the page. They are often on the point of vanishing. They are the first melting of the snow, high in the mountains, a clear stream flowing over smooth and shining pebbles." Byrom says of the Ashtavakra Gita, "All its beauty is in the transparency, its enraptured and flawless purity." Byrom sums up the essential message of the Ashtavakra Gita as: "We are all one Self. The Self is pure awareness. This Self, this flawless awareness is God. There is only God." Very highly recommended.
NATHAN GILL: Already Awake and Being: The Bottom Line – These two books are among the simplest, clearest and most articulate expressions of uncompromising, bare-bones, radical nonduality on offer. Nathan points to the simplicity of what is, never wavering from the insistence that absolutely nothing needs to be done (or not done). "It's always already it, always," he says, no matter what is appearing. If you're caught up in some grueling practice rooted in stories of lack or fantasies of self-improvement, or if you're seeking or waiting for some kind of explosive future transformation or final event, Nathan can be a liberating one to read. He dispels any notion that there is something bigger and better to find in the future, he dangles no subtle carrots in front of you, and keeps pointing to this, right here, right now, exactly as it is. "Whatever happens, there is only Being," he writes. "You can't put a foot wrong, because nothing and no one is going anywhere. 'You' are not a character on a journey to self-realisation. It's all a play of appearances." This is an immensely freeing and relieving message when it truly sinks in. It provides a wonderful corrective to many of the common pitfalls in progressive paths and traditional practices, and it brings forth a natural compassion for oneself and all beings. My only caution with this kind of uncompromising radical nonduality is its tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to become in some cases almost a new fundamentalist dogma that cannot be questioned. When that happens, it’s like putting on a new set of blinders rather than being truly open and free of grasping. But when realized, it is a very liberating message. Nathan was a lovely, irreverent, down to earth guy who never tried to set himself above those who came to him. He worked as a gardener and held meetings in the UK about nonduality for a number of years. Nathan ended his life in 2014 after many years of a debilitating illness that left him too ill to work and without hope of recovery. His website is no longer up, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to him, and there might still be some clips of him on YouTube. He was a friend, and a lovely man, with a clear and simple message.
GARY CROWLEY: From Here to Here: Turning Toward Enlightenment − This short, concise book, written in plain language, is an elegantly simple, spare, accessible, direct, straight-forward, crystal clear deconstruction of the sense of being a separate individual with an independent free will. Gary shows how everything we think, feel and do is the outcome and activity of conditioned neurology, and then he invites the reader to discover the freedom and delight of being what we always already are: the ever-present nothingness of awareness experiencing the everythingness of this-here-now. No carrots are being dangled in front of you here. This is a no-bullshit, spot-on pointer to true enlightenment, which is not a personal achievent that somebody gets, but rather, a recognition of what has never been absent. Very highly recommended. Gary has another more recent book, Pass the Jelly: Tales of Ordinary Enlightenment, a humorous collection of stories drawn from his own life to illustrate his central themes that "people do what they do" and that "if you fight the play of opposites that make up life, you suffer." I liked parts of that one as well, but the one I'm most highly recommending is From Here to Here. Gary works as a rolfer and lives in California. He used to have a website about nonduality, but for whatever reason, he took it down, but last I checked, you could still find videos of him posted on YouTube and elsewhere by googling "Gary Crowley Nonduality."
KARL RENZ: A Little Bit of Nothingness; If You Wake Up, Don't Take It Personally and May It Be As It Is: The Embrace of Helplessness − Karl is a contemporary German painter, musician, and anti-guru of sorts who I believe is currently based in Mallorca. He travels around the world giving talks about the Unnameable. He calls his talks "Self-entertainment," and he functions as a kind of iconoclastic trickster, destroying all your attempts to make something out of nothing: "I teach emptiness. I am a rug puller; I am even pulling out the flying carpet." This is the radical edge of nonduality, and to some, it may all sound like gobbledygook, but for others—at the right moment—Karl can be very liberating. Whatever you hold onto, Karl will gleefully demolish. He can be ruthless in this, and some people have experienced him as insensitive, insulting, hurtful or offensive. He does mock other teachers and push people's buttons, and I don't resonsate with everything he says and does—but at a certain moment on my journey, I found him delightfully freeing. However, if you are looking for loving-kindness in the usual sense, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you're looking for total destruction in the best sense, then you might enjoy Karl. He offers the total demolition and total acceptance of everything. But be prepared for the outrageous. He loves to shock and contradict and fly in the face of every spiritual assumption -- in short, he loves to pull the rug out from under the mind in every possible way. If you're lucky, you'll be left with nothing. Karl points beyond the whole movie of waking life to that which is unattainable, unavoidable and inconceivable. And if you think you know what that is, Karl will destroy all your ideas and ridicule every experience you cling to as special. "Nobody's enlightened or unenlightened," he says, "Any idea of awakening disappears. There are no sleeping or awakened ones anymore, no more hocus-pocus of trying to get anywhere and have special experiences....You are in Self-entertainment only when you have no result coming out of it....You are in spite, not because of your doing or not doing....What you are existed before this body was born....You are the infinite eye, which looks from infinite angles into what you are. You are the infinite perception, which perceives only Self-information....I'm always pointing to that Absolute you are, which is total helplessness....Everything is a totality of controllessness and freedom....And that freedom you cannot lose and you cannot gain." He talks about being "released from the idea that you have to be released," and he says, "that's the biggest release...that you never can be released from what you are." Irreverent and without spiritual veneer, Karl loves to joke and laugh and play with words, and the words seem to pour out of him at tremendous speed and with complete abandon. He transmits a liberating absence of concern, a relaxed care-less-ness or absolute freedom that seeks nothing and has no problem with anything. Karl offers no methods or practices, pointing out that the search for a solution only gives credence to the apparent reality of the imaginary problem, and he speaks of liberation as the willingness to remain in hell forever. He is refreshingly devoid of any missionary impulses and happily declares that he is "useless and irrelevant." Imagine a marriage between the final and most radical teachings of the Advaita sage Nisargadatta Maharaj and the provocative iconoclast U.G. Krishnamurti, being conveyed by an irreverent, postmodern German with a sense of the absurd, and that might give you some hint of what Karl is like, but truly, he isn't like anyone else. I love Karl, but his ruthless, provocative and radical expression of nonduality won't be for everyone. As a friend of mine said, Karl is like a rare cheese – some love it, some do not. Although he deluges you with words, the heart of his message cannot be received on the level of thought. If you really hear this uncompromising message, it has the potential to stop the seeking mind and free you from all your imaginary problems by showing you that there is only the Unnameable Self and no way out: "You are the absolute perpetrator and you never did anything. You are the doer, the doing, and the done. This is the end of separation: you are the seer, the seeing, and the seen...This is peace, because there is no second. Peace cannot be gained. The peace that you are, you cannot not be—neither can you lose it or gain it...To not be able to escape the madness you are is peace. The total hopelessness, to not be able to escape yourself, is peace." Karl leaves you with nothing to grasp and nowhere to land. There are other books as well, and audio and video recordings of his meetings are also available. At the right moment, for those with a taste for rare cheese, Karl can be very liberating. He was for me. Just don't turn his radical message into a new dogma. You can learn more here.
GILBERT SCHULTZ: Resonance in the Heart and One Moment (audio recordings); and The First Instant (maybe out of print) and Everything Is Clear and Obvious (e-book) -- This is clear, direct, pure, uncompromising, radical nonduality. No carrots are being dangled in front of you here. Nothing is on offer to do or to attain—no path, no method, no special states— just the simple, non-conceptual recognition of what is "clear and obvious." Gilbert is descriptive but never prescriptive, emphasizing only the One-without-a-second from which no-thing stands apart. He is a very down-to-earth, contemporary Australian who points in a very direct and clear way to what he calls ordinary wakefulness, immediate knowing or presence-awareness. This simple, naked, everyday presence is non-conceptual and ever-present. He writes: "In the first instant of knowing there is a spaciousness, which is free from fixations. This is the natural state...It is not knowledge. It is always immediate knowing. This knowing is ever prior to all thoughts or states in body-mind. You are THAT." Gilbert points to the non-existence of the separate self and to the absence of free will: "Everything without one single exception, is happening spontaneously." No shift or enlightenment is needed because this "One Boundless Awareness" is all-inclusive and, "You have never left it, ever." Gilbert's main teachers were Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramesh Balsekar, Ranjit Maharaj, and finally Sailor Bob Adamson, with whom Gilbert has had a long and close association. Gilbert transcribed and edited Bob's first book and has helped in many ways to bring Bob's teaching to the world. Gilbert was also a co-creator of the Urban Guru Cafe. Gilbert points out that seeking some special experience or some imaginary future transformation is the very thing that prevents us from noticing what is here-now. There is no way in or out of this nondual absolute, the One-without-a-second, and there is no one apart from this to lose or attain it. Gilbert always urges the listener to look and see and discover this for themselves, and not to adopt any of it as a second-hand belief, and to focus on the message and not the messenger. "As a messenger, I am here to do a job," he writes. "Get the message and forget about me." He doesn't allow the seeker to indulge their personal drama in any way, insisting that "all psychological suffering is completely unnecessary." Gilbert can be quite ruthless and unrelenting in this and in his dismissal of most spiritual teachers and teachings—some people have experienced him as rude or abrasive, but I also see a gentle sensitivity and a tender heart. "Be warm to yourself," he says, "Stop beating yourself up with concepts." He suggests that if you can use his challenges as an opportunity to look more deeply, rather than taking them as personal insults, they can be useful to those who genuinely want to awaken. When it truly hits home, this radical message is very liberating. Just don't get stuck on it and turn it into a new fundamentalist dogma that cannot be questioned. When that happens, it’s like putting on a new set of blinders rather than being truly open. But if you're looking for unvarnished, uncompromising, bottom-line, clear, simple, unadorned, radical nonduality, Gilbert offers this in a crystal clear way. There are a number of other e-books and CDs available as well as some free audio and video, along with writing, on his website. You can also watch a lovely video interview of him at NeverNotHere. More here.
JED McKENNA: Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing − This novel disguised as a memoir may demolish many of your sacred cows, pull some of your most cherished rugs out from under you, and generate some provocative questions. It is a first-person account of a few days in the life of Jed McKenna, an unconventional, iconoclastic, homegrown, fictional, "enlightened guy" (as he calls himself) from Iowa. In this multi-layered journey behind the veils, Jed distinguishes between “abiding non-dual awareness” (or true enlightenment) and such non-abiding things as mystical experiences, unity consciousness, mindfulness practices, personal growth, self-improvement, spiritual evolution, human adulthood and saving the world. As Jed puts it, “The critical distinction is that one is in the dream and the other is not.” Jed points beyond the content of consciousness, what I often call the movie of waking life (whether mundane or spiritual), to that which has no opposite, that which “cannot be found because it cannot be lost.” His teaching is all about the discovery of Truth, “that which cannot be simpler—cannot be further reduced.” Truth realization is a process of seeing through false ideas and cutting through our emotional attachments to them. Jed invites you to look at whatever you think is true, question it, discard everything that can be doubted, and keep going "further" in the spiritual demolition process until there is no further. Enlightenment, as he describes it, is “a swan dive into the abyss of no-self,” and that's what makes it so challenging, because we cling to the idea of being somebody: "The fear of no-self is the mother of all fears, the one upon which all others are based." Jed urges you to be your own teacher, to leave all the comforting trappings and beliefs of spirituality behind, and to cut to the chase without compromise. "Truth is everywhere at all times," he says, "never absent, never distant." All of the above is what I loved about the book and found so compelling. Reading a pre-publication review copy that I got in the mail many years ago had quite a profound impact on me. There were a number of other things about the book that I was less enthusiastic about, and there are important ways in which I feel the author misses the mark, but possible flaws aside, this is a book that may shake you up, encourage you to question some of your most cherished assumptions and perhaps to discover the Truth that “cannot be further reduced.” One of the truly great jokes about this book is that Jed McKenna is a fictitious character, so if you go looking for the "enlightened guy" instead of for Truth itself, you won't find anybody. (Although sadly, many seekers have dedicated countless hours to conspiracy theories and endless attempts to figure out who the real author is). Spiritual Enlightenment was the first of the many books that Jed has since written, and it's the one I'd recommend first. If nothing else, Jed will leave you with some great questions and the encouragement not to settle for anything more or less than Truth itself. Just don't take the book as gospel or waste your precious time and energy trying to track down the author. To do either is to miss the point. More here.
PETER DZIUBAN: Consciousness Is All and Simply Notice – Peter invites you to notice your actual experience in order to discover directly the primacy of boundless, impersonal consciousness (or awareness) as what you most fundamentally are. He says that his writings and talks “are intended to provide an alive experience, rather than a lot of mere ideas or inspiring statements.” Prior to writing these books, Peter worked in corporate America, mostly in communications. He investigated many spiritual and mystical teachings and traditions, ranging from Eastern to Christian, including Unity, Science of Mind, Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, The Infinite Way, and in particular, the work of Alfred Aiken. These books offer a way to question the prevailing ideology of a material universe in which consciousness arises as an epiphenomenon of matter and to explore a different possibility. Peter currently lives in Arizona and speaks and holds workshops around the country and on the internet. More here.
SALVADORE POE: Liberation Is: The End of the Spiritual Path and The Way of Freedom: Conversations with Salvadore Poe – Sal offers a simple, direct, radical, clear pointing to being free Here-Now. The first book begins by guiding you through a series of inquiries and experiments that allow you to see for yourself that you are aware, free, all-inclusive, Here-Now. Sal recommends starting with these inquiries and with the direct discovery or recognition of your essential being that is always already fully present—the natural, default condition of open, aware presence that Here-Now is. According to Sal, once this is recognized, if you truly want to be free, it’s simply a matter of being devoted to what has been revealed by (in this moment now) jumping off the habitual carousel of thinking, seeking, philosophizing, psychologizing, postponing, and so on. Sal doesn’t say this radical approach is for everyone, and he encourages people who feel the need for psychotherapy or other kinds of work to do it. What he offers is a radical endgame. This isn’t about self-improvement, maintaining a mindfulness practice, getting an intellectual understanding, acquiring knowledge, having mystical experiences, or getting into special, elevated states of consciousness. It’s simply about recognizing what is obvious, immediate and always already here and then being true to that recognition. “If I say I am awareness, I am making awareness into a thing," he writes. "In fact, I am no-thing—simply aware, free and all-inclusive…I am, but I am no-thing in particular.” Beautiful! For some twenty years as a young adult from New Jersey, Salvadore Poe pursued a career in music, along with a life of alcohol, drugs and partying, until one night in NYC in 1997, something changed. “From that moment on, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes were finished, with no effort or struggle,” he writes, and a serious spiritual search began. Sal did years of intensive meditation, read Thich Nhat Hanh, Osho and J. Krishnamurti, went on silent retreats, lived in ashrams in India, spent time with U.G. Krishnamurti, Douglas Harding, Toni Packer, a silent sage in India, and a number of other teachers, had a host of mystical experiences that all came and went, and in 2004 met his final teacher, a woman named Dolano. With her, Sal very quickly had the “very ordinary and obvious recognition” that “I am free,” and his search ended. He lived a simple life in India for the next eight years, making music again, until he was asked to teach. “I am not a guru or a spiritual teacher,” he writes. “There are not and never will be ashrams, sanghas, disciples, students, followers, etc. In my opinion, the days of all that are over.” But he does share this realization with those who are interested in being free, and he does it in a very straight-forward, no-nonsense way, pointing out that “you are now and always have been free.” Sal takes on many other topics as well in these books (including free will, death, emotion, causation, time, etc.), all in ways that I deeply appreciate. He has a website and a YouTube channel.
FRANCIS BENNETT: I Am That I Am-- Francis (now Fran) Bennett is a former Trappist monk who has done pastoral care in hospices and hospitals, and who has also practiced several forms of Buddhism and been deeply touched by the Advaita sage Ramana Maharshi. Fran is a transgender (M to F) woman, and she has written openly on Facebook about her transition. Prior to all of that, some years ago, Fran had what she describes as "a radical perceptual shift in consciousness," in which it became clear to her that what she had long been seeking outside herself was right here in the immediacy of simple present-moment awareness. As she puts it, "God is in everything and everything is in God." Fran now teaches outside of any particular tradition, but she draws on all of them. As someone who also resonates deeply with Jesus, Buddha and Ramana Maharshi, and as someone who considers myself gender-fluid, I appreciate the way Fran brings together the heart of Buddhism, Advaita and Christianity while also challenging notions of gender and ideas of what is and isn't spiritual. As a transgender person who dared to be who she authentically is as a human being, Fran beautifully embodies the marriage of relative and absolute truth. Highly recommended. More here.
JEFF FOSTER: The Deepest Acceptance; Falling in Love with Where You Are; and The Wonder of Being (which is a combined and revised edition of Jeff's first two books, Life Without a Centre and Beyond Awakening) -- A graduate in astrophysics from Cambridge University, Jeff Foster writes and talks beautifully and with great love and compassion, embracing the whole of life. He says, “My guru is this moment. My lineage is this moment. My spiritual path is this moment. And my home is this moment.” Beautiful! Jeff is a genuine, bright, open, unpretentious, down to earth, loving guy with a willingness to look freshly, see things in new ways and change his mind. I've watched over the years as his understanding and expression continue to unfold and open in ever-more nuanced and subtle ways. His earlier books lean toward uncompromising, hardline, nonduality (no self, no choice, no teacher, no path, no practice, nothing to do or not do other than exactly what is already happening, etc). In his more recent books such as The Deepest Acceptance and Falling in Love with Where You Are, he's still pointing to the absolute, radical truth, but he's also offering a never-ending, non-methodical, pathless-path of awakening here and now through the deepest acceptance of this moment, just as it is: "Suffering or stress or psychological discomfort is no longer something bad or evil to be transcended or destroyed; it is a unique opportunity to see what you are still at war with, what you are still seeking." He shows how the deepest acceptance of suffering takes us home, and how "home is always present, even in the midst of all of those experiences you'd rather escape, just as the ocean is always present, in and as every wave." As he puts it in the subtitle of Falling in Love with Where You Are, this is about "Radically Opening Up to the Pain and Joy of Life." The Deepest Acceptance includes a wonderful section on addiction that is one of the clearest articulations I've come across on our fundamental human problem and its possible resolution. He has several other earlier titles as well including An Extraordinary Absence and The Revelation of Oneness. Audio and video is also available. Jeff is presently holding meetings in the UK and around the world. Very highly recommended. More here.
TIM BURKETT: Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are –Tim is the Guiding Teacher of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. He is also a licensed psychologist and the director of a large mental health agency. He was a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Dainin Katagiri Roshi. This is a wonderful, wise book full of great stories and insights, all told in a beautifully unpretentious, clear, simple, straightforward way. Very highly recommended. He has a second book called Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives which I haven't read. More here
WES "SCOOP" NISKER: Buddha's Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos; Essential Crazy Wisdom; Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again, and The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom: The Spiritual Experiments of My Generation -- Wes Nisker is an insight meditation teacher, author, performer, former radio newscaster, and co-founder and co-editor of the excellent Buddhist journal "Inquiring Mind." He is refreshingly real and open, has a great sense of humor and freely admits that he doesn't know how the universe works. He remains open to new discoveries, and he offers a very practical, down-to-earth path rooted in awareness, scientific curiosity and an ability to laugh. Years ago in San Francisco, in the early 1970's, I remember "Scoop" Nisker would always end his newscast on the popular rocknroll station I listened to back then by saying, "And remember, if you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Wes is a very wise, insightful, honest human being whose work I very highly recommend. His book The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom had me laughing out loud, and I found his insights and reflections on our (boomer) moment in history profoundly healing. And Buddha's Nature is a great dharma book that brings together science and Buddhism in an original mix. There is also a wonderful DVD available of one of his live performances, and you'll find much more at his website here. Very highly recommended!
STEPHEN MITCHELL: The Second Book of the Tao – This wonderful book contains free-ranging adaptations of two Chinese anthologies: Master Chuang’s Chuang-tzu and the Chung Yung ascribed to Tzu-ssu, alongside playful and enlightening commentaries by Mitchell himself. “One of the qualities I most treasure in Chang-tzu,” Mitchell writes, “is his sense of the spontaneous, the uncapturable. This makes it easy to follow in his footsteps. Since there are no footsteps, all you can follow is what he himself followed: the Tao.” This is a playful, radical, wild book full of deep insight. Stephen Mitchell, a former Zen student and the husband of Byron Katie, is the translator and/or author of many books including the Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job, The Bhagavad Gita and The Gospel According to Jesus, and the co-author of two of Byron Katie’s books. I can feel Katie’s influence in this book. It’s a great book. More here.
PETER RUSSELL: From Science to God: A Physicist's Journey Into Mystery of Consciousness -- Peter is a very interesting man who has a background in mathematics, theoretical physics, experimental psychology and computer science, along with eastern spirituality and meditation. He has many other books, DVDs, and articles, and I have found him to be very open, intelligent, insightful, wise and non-dogmatic. This is an excerpt from his excellent (and evolving) piece called “Blind Spot” that you can find on this website in which he talks about exponential growth, acceleration, climate change and the mortality of the human species: “Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing… We've always known human beings could not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be some time way off in the future. We don't like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. There are obvious parallels here with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we have some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow. Yet accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts of consciousness…The same may apply to humanity…The question then naturally arises: How do we spend our final days?...Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness? For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer such an avid follower of the news, getting upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving. Accepting the end is nigh does not mean that I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet's own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow. We will also need to take care of our fellow beings who will be in need of help and support—providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. And there will be much needed emotional and mental support—care, comfort, compassion, coping with the fear and pain, and adapting to changing situations.” There is a fascinating interview of Peter by Catherine Ingram on this subject titled “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016) that you can find here. I very highly recommend Peter. More here.
CATHERINE INGRAM: Passionate Presence: Seven Qualities of Awakened Awareness and A Crack in Everything (a novel) – A former journalist and a deeply intelligent and sensitive person, Catherine was a co-founder of the Buddhist Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and later a student of H.W.L. Poonja. For many years, she has held Dharma Dialogues and led silent retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and she has also worked for human and animal rights. Her teaching is informed by her rich life experience, her years of Buddhist meditation, her deep encounter with Poonjaji and other Advaita teachings, as well as her interest in science, reason, ethics, climate change, and political activism. I have found her perspective on climate change and the coming catastrophe very helpful. For that I recommend several of her podcasts, including “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016) and “Love for the Living World” (Feb 2018), both of which you can find here. Catherine currently lives in Australia. Highly recommended. More here.
EZRA BAYDA: Beyond Happiness and Being Zen -- Ezra Bayda is a very clear, no-nonsense, contemporary Zen teacher who teaches at Zen Center San Diego. He writes about being present in the midst of everyday life, and he offers a number of very simple practices that one can draw on in the midst of difficulties and challenging circumstances. He avoids getting lost in metaphysics and philosophy, and focuses instead on the nitty-gritty stuff of daily life and on being present in this moment, just as it is. True happiness, Ezra says, is about "being present, being awake, being open." This is very clear, practical, down to earth, practice-oriented Zen teaching through the lens of everyday life. Ezra has several other books as well that I haven't read and I'm sure they're probably all good. Very highly recommended if you're looking for an intelligent practice-oriented approach. More here.
CHERI HUBER: The Key: And the Name of the Key Is Willingness; There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate; The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once & for All; When You're Falling, Dive; How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything; The Depression Book: Depression As An Opportunity for Spiritual Growth; I Don't Want To, I Don't Feel Like It: How Resistance Controls Your Life and What to Do About It; Nothing Happens Next; Sex and Money...are dirty, aren't they?; Suffering Is Optional; That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek; How To Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be -- Cheri is a Zen teacher in California who founded several Zen practice centers as well as a nonprofit dedicated to peace and service. Her books, many of them illustrated with wonderful drawings and presented with a hand-written look, deal with common psychological issues such as self-hatred, depression and fear. Some might say that this is "just psychological stuff," but this is precisely the stuff that obscures the truth and keeps us on the wheel of suffering and delusion. Cheri's approach is "Zen Awareness Practice," which she is very careful to distinguish from self-improvement. As she says, "Trying to control life, manipulate it, and make it what we want it to be guarantees that we will never have the life we want." Rather, this is about paying attention to thisherenow, seeing how the ego-identity grabs our attention and maintains control, and discovering our authentic nature as awareness. "It is possible to choose awareness instead of resistance," she says. "Switching attention from the resistance of ego-identity to the intelligence that animates us is a skill we can learn. And it takes practice." There is great wisdom in all her books along with many liberating exercises that are well worth exploring, especially if you are struggling with depression, fear or self-hatred. Cheri came to Zen practice after being severely depressed and attempting suicide, so she knows the darkness firsthand. These books are wonderfully clear and down to earth, with no extraneous fanfare of any kind. More here.
SCOTT KILOBY: The Unfindable Inquiry: One Simple Tool to Overcome Feelings of Unworthiness and Find Inner Peace; Living Realization; Natural Rest for Addiction: A Revolutionary Way to Recover Through Presence; Living Relationship; Doorway to Total Liberation; Reflections of the One Life; and Love’s Quiet Revolution -- Scott is an attorney, former drug addict, founder of the Kiloby Center for Recovery in Palm Springs, California, and a nondual teacher who emphasizes presence, awareness, and the "present freedom and fullness that cannot be found by chasing the future." He has been developing new ways of working with addiction and compulsion and also with stories of lack and deficiency and other forms of unhappiness and suffering including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. And you don't need to have an addiction in any conventional sense to benefit from Scott's excellent book on addiction. He says, "Through the years, my message has started to turn towards helping people see the spiritual search as the ultimate addiction, a grand attempt to avoid what is arising now." Scott has developed a number of "living inquiries" that he describes as “simple, effective tools that allow us to turn towards and dissolve the beliefs, fears, anger, sadness, guilt, shame and lack that have been running our lives. They show us how to allow everything to be as it is, instead of trying to constantly change our experience or seek something outside ourselves. This provides a deep relaxation in the midst of whatever is happening, which is nothing short of a radical shift in perspective.” Scott has trained many facilitators to work with people in this way. I'm not usually attracted to methods and techniques, but this method of inquiry is an innovative and useful tool that I very highly recommend. I find all of Scott's books very intelligent and clear. He presents a simple and direct path to awakening and to recovery, and he does it in a way that is refreshingly down-to-earth and free of jargon. Scott says, "Enlightenment is not a goal to achieve or an idea to grasp. It is the timeless presence that you already are....'Enlightenment' is simply a description of what happens when you see beyond your mind-made box and realize yourself as the field that contains all boxes." Beautiful! Scott is a very open, unpretentious, generous, warm-hearted person. You can see videos on his website of the inquiry process he has developed. Very highly recommended. More here.
STEVEN HARRISON: The Love of Uncertainty; What's Next After Now? Post-Spirituality & the Creative Life; The Question to Life's Answers: Spirituality Beyond Belief; and Getting to Where You Are: The Life of Meditation -- Steven calls himself "post-spiritual" and sets out to reject all forms of spirituality that are rooted in narcissism and self-deception and that seek security, certainty, pain relief, extraordinary experiences, ego-enhancement, self-improvement or comfort. Instead, he invites the reader into what he describes as a life of open inquiry, "a life of discovery without reliance on any system or philosophy," a life beyond the known. I had some interesting dialogs with him many years ago, and I greatly appreciated his deconstruction of all the prevailing answers and the way he attempts to live his investigation rather than just think and talk about it. He has co-founded a community and an alternative school in Colorado, a publishing venture, and a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to people in Asia and Africa. Audio and video, plus several other books, and information about Steven's projects and events is available here.
MIKE DICKMAN: The Sayings of Old Ch’eng: On the Nature of Original Mind – this short, pithy “ancient” text, translated by Mike Dickman (and written by the One and Only behind all the masks) is right on the mark. A great wake up book! Hits the nail right on the head. Very highly recommended. More here.
ROBERT SALTZMAN: The Ten Thousand Things - This clear and refreshingly honest book has had a powerful impact on me. Robert is a photographer and retired psychotherapist who lives in Todos Santos, Mexico, and his book combines text with some of his photographs. The text is made up of questions and reports from people on what might be considered spiritual matters, and Robert's responses to those questions and reports. The book points to the possibility of living without the false security and certainty of metaphysical conclusions and beliefs, without the illusion of control and free will, and without trying in any way to transcend the bare, unvarnished actuality of life, just as it is: “My entire interest is focused upon whatever is arising now in this very moment,” he writes. “All of these matters are impossible to put into words. That does not mean that one should not try, but it does mean that no explanation will ever fully evoke THIS—the ineffable suchness of everything.” Robert describes awakening as “coming to a sense of being that is free of beliefs, paths, destinations, and final answers." He writes: “In each moment, I find myself here as an apparent focus of awareness without ever having chosen to be here, without knowing what I ‘really’ am, and without needing to know…That is what I mean by ‘awake.’…The ‘I’ who is replying to questions here is…an indefinable, unrestrained flow of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. That flow is not happening to me. That flow is me. In the eyes of the world Robert may be a person, but to myself I am...a stream of consciousness over which I have no control. We are all like that, but not all of us know it. Most of us were put into a trance state long ago, beginning in early childhood—a kind of stupor in which the emptiness, impermanence, and co-dependency of ‘myself’ goes unseen. We are lost in a fantasy of separation in which I am ‘in here’ while the world I see—the ten thousand things—is ‘out there.’ It is from that confusion that one awakens.” Robert regards most of what goes on in the spiritual world as a kind of hypnotic trance on the part of both teachers and students, as well as an endless search to escape ordinary life and become something else. For him, awakening is the loss of all that. It is a stripping away, being naked, living without illusions: “Selling feel-good beliefs is the stock in trade of the priests, pastors, gurus, shamans, spiritual teachers, and other such ‘experts’ who make a living practicing their special versions of the world’s oldest profession. Some of them even believe what they are saying, although there is, I say, little ‘truth’ in any of it, at least as far as we know. But the credulity with which so many people approach the assertions of those ‘experts,’ and their allegedly sacred texts, as if hearing something from a so-called saint, or reading it in a purportedly holy book, made it automatically true, from my perspective appears infantile. Clinging is one of the two primal human instincts observed in newborns. Sucking at the breast is the other. ‘Spirituality’ offers the opportunity for grown adults to indulge both, and even to be considered high-minded for doing so. If that rankles, sorry. That is not my intention. I just say what I see. Anyone is free to disagree entirely with any or all of it.” Robert offers strident (at times quite derogatory and judgmental) critiques of many teachers and gurus, highlighting both their authoritative claims to certainty and the slick marketing and seductive stagecraft (as he calls it) of some of them. He has no use for religion or most of spirituality, and he feels no resonance with devotional language or rituals. I have a somewhat more eclectic and less iconoclastic perspective on all of this, and Robert and I don't always completely agree on every point in regard to gurus and religions and so on, but I certainly do agree with him that it is very easy, both as a teacher and as a student, to be seduced and hypnotized by second-hand beliefs, metaphysical conclusions, spiritual hoopla, charismatic teachers and grandiose claims of enlightenment. I would just caution against making Robert into an authority, turning his iconoclasm into dogma, or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But I very much appreciate his invitation to question our escapist tendencies and to look deeply and honestly at what we actually know directly and what we have taken on as a belief, and I love his encouragement to be aware of our human vulnerability to magical thinking, hypnotic suggestion, group-think, and confirmation-bias. I love the way he points to simply being the ever-changing stream of experiencing here-now without needing to have any metaphysical conclusions about it. And I deeply appreciate that he offers no escape hatch, no final resolution, no grand explanation of how the universe works. Just to be human and alive is enough: “Your search to find ‘true nature’ is part of the culturally infused story which says that one’s moment-to-moment existence as an ordinary primate mammal is somehow deficient—not what we ‘really’ are—so that one must improve upon the thoughts, and feelings of the present moment, and find out how to replace them with something ‘better,’ something with a meaning and significance elevated beyond merely living and breathing.” Elsewhere, he writes: “In each instant, things are as they are and cannot be any different. Whatever one perceives, thinks, and feels in each moment is ‘myself.’ Except in memory or a fantasized future, there is no other myself. No ‘myself’ stands apart from events and phenomena as the ‘experiencer’ of those occurrences. That myself is an illusion. One is not having experiences. One is identical to the totality of experience, conscious and unconscious. That’s what ‘I’ am: experience, and experience is only this aliveness, right now, in this very moment." Robert challenges all of us in important and deeply provocative ways, shaking us out of our slumber. And for that and his clarity in seeing what is, as it is, I recommend him very highly. You can watch a short video with his words and images here. He responds to questions on a Facebook page. You can see a conversation between Robert and myself here. He has a YouTube channel, He offers periodic meetings of different types on Zoom (announced on his Facebook page). You can see an interview with him on Buddha at the Gas Pump. Very highly recommended.
LOCH KELLY: Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness – Loch Kelly is the founder of the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute in NYC, and his understanding is informed by both Buddhism and Advaita and by his work as a psychotherapist. He was asked to teach by both Adyashanti and Mingyur Rinpoche. Loch does a beautiful job of translating traditional insights and practices into simple, contemporary language. He has an understanding of nonduality that includes both relative and absolute perspectives, and he doesn't get stuck in either one. He speaks of "Being Home while Returning Home," indicating that awakening is both a process in time and the discovery of what is ever-present. Loch talks about the awakening journey as one that leads to freedom from the fear of death, freedom from the fear of life, and freedom from the fear of love. He articulates different aspects of awareness and the awakening process, as he sees it, while at the same time making very clear that no description of the ocean is the same as jumping in and experiencing it directly. To that end, the book includes many experiential explorations or practices the reader can try—geared to different learning styles—and many of these experiential practices are available on a Sounds True audio of the same title as the book, so that you can be guided through them by Loch himself without having to read the instructions. Loch has an interest in social engagement, modernizing meditation, and collaborating with neuroscientists to explore how awareness training can enhance compassion and well-being. I've found him to be a very genuine, lovely, down-to-earth, warm-hearted, intelligent, awake being. More here.
TAIGEN DAN LEIGHTON: Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry – Taigen Dan Leighton is a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In Just This Is It, Taigen explores the Zen teachings of Dongshan on suchness, the vivid experiencing of reality and the insubstantiality and interdependence of everything, drawing on ancient Zen masters along with Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud, Jack London and Bob Dylan among others, and exploring such Zen texts as The Jewel Mirror Samadhi and The Five Degrees. In Zen Questions, Taigen writes, “Zen is about questioning. Zen continuously questions. Zen questioning does not necessarily involve finding answers, but it does involve finding a space in which to sustain questioning, being willing to remain present and upright in the middle of questions.” And he notes that, “In the title Zen Questions, the second word is a verb, at least as much as a noun.” Drawing on sources as diverse as Dogen, Rumi, Bob Dylan, Mary Oliver, Thomas Jefferson, Naomi Klein, Thoreau, Gary Snyder and Wallace Stevens, he explores topics ranging from inquiry, creativity, meditation and time, to disaster capitalism and climate change. Taigen practiced and resided for years at San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara monastery, and Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. He also practiced for two years in Japan, translating Dogen with Shohaku Okumura and practicing with several Japanese Soto Zen teachers. Taigen moved to Chicago from the S.F. Bay area in 2007, and now teaches there. Taigen has been active in many interfaith dialogue programs, has studied Native American spiritual practice, and has long been active in various engaged Buddhist programs for peace and social justice, including environmental activism and work against the death penalty. More here.
S.N. GOENKA: The Discourse Summaries of S.N. Goenka and Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation by Marshall Glickman -- S.N. Goenka is a retired businessman from Burma who initially took up Buddhist meditation to help him deal with severe pain. He ended up becoming a lay teacher and founding centers worldwide. Goenka has developed a style of Vipassana meditation that is an experiential, scientific, sensation-based, awareness practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level. I haven't done a retreat in this tradition, but from what I understand, they explore bodily sensation in great depth along with embracing a strong ethical commitment to Buddhist precepts. The Discourse Summaries offers a condensed version of the talks Goenka gives during these retreats as guidelines to the practice. Here, the practice is what counts. Goenka emphsizes that, "Liberation can be gained only by practice, never by mere discussion." He also says, "The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma - the way to liberation - which is universal." This is not about philosopy, religious ritual or dogma, or idolizing a teacher. This is about looking within and finding your own way to liberation. Before reading Goenka's discourses, I would actually recommend starting with Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation by Marshall Glickman. This is an excellent book by one of Goenka's American students. Glickman puts Goenka's approach into language that I suspect will resonate more easily and deeply with contemporary Westerners. Glickman's book is excellent and I recommend it to everyone, not just those interested in Vipassana. Ten-day retreats in Goenka's style are available in many places around the world, all run on a donation basis. You can find retreats in your area and learn more about Goenka and this style of Vipassana here. This type of meditation has been brought into a number of prisons, including a maximum-security prison in Alabama, and there is a powerful documentary about that called The Dhamma Brothers, which you can learn more about here. Many people find Goenka's approach extremely transformative, and you can witness its effects on the men in this documentary.
DAN HARRIS: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris – This is an important contribution to the growing effort to provide the world with a form of meditative awareness work that isn’t cloaked in religious or metaphysical dogma and that holds up under scientific and rational scrutiny. And what a refreshing title 10% Happier is, in contrast to all the inflated claims and promises of total, permanent liberation so often on offer in the spiritual marketplace. Dan Harris lives in NYC and has a highly competitive, fast-paced, stressful, corporate job in television news. A scientifically-inclined skeptic and agnostic who had no use at all for spirituality or religion, Dan was asked to be the religion reporter for ABC News, much to his chagrin. That eventually brought him into contact with Eckhart Tolle. Some years before that auspicious meeting, Dan had a nationally televised panic attack on air while reading the morning news. All of this sets in motion what eventually becomes Dan’s exploration of Buddhist insight meditation. He is commendably honest in revealing his own mind and how it changes. And it does change! He ends up as an enthusiast for the practice, goes on a long silent retreat, and writes very clearly and cogently about the subject. His approach will appeal especially to those who are allergic to religion and New Age spirituality, those who want practical solutions to everyday problems, and those who work in highly stressful and competitive environments. Dan and I have lived quite different lives, and we came to meditation and have approached it in very different ways. His approach is more practical, scientific and athletic, viewing meditation as a form of exercise and training for the brain. At first, I found myself reacting negatively to this approach and to his sometimes harsh judgments about people and things I see in a more positive light (judgments that often changed and softened as the book went on). As I kept reading, I found this dissonance between Dan and myself more and more interesting, eye-opening and thought-provoking (in a good way), inviting me to question many sacred cows and old assumptions. In the end, this book touched my life in surprisingly positive ways I would not have imagined when I first picked it up. Dan offers a clear and intelligent path of basic bare-bones meditation that can be helpful for everyone. In addition, the book is a good read, a well-written and entertaining story of personal transformation, with a good sense of humor. I couldn’t put it down. An honest, clear and compelling book. Dan has a new book I haven’t read called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, and along with Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, Dan has created a meditation app with talks and guided meditations that a friend says is great. Very highly recommended, especially for those who want basic mindfulness meditation without the spiritual overlay. More here.
BLANCHE HARTMAN: Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart – Blanche Hartman was a Zen teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. She was the first woman to assume a leadership position at the Center. Born in Alabama in 1926, Blanche worked as a chemist before becoming a Zen priest. This book is a collection of little dharma nuggets. Plain and simple, unpretentious, nothing fancy, there are some real jewels here. I knew Blanche back in my Zen Centers days and always appreciated her quiet, unpretentious, down-to-earth teaching and her kindness and generosity of spirit. All of that shines through in this book. Blanche died in 2016.
VERNON KITABU TURNER: Soul Sword: The Way and Mind of a Zen Warrior -- Kitabu Turner is an African-American martial arts master and Zen Roshi with roots in Christianity. Born in 1948, he grew up dealing with gangs, bullies and racism in a rough neighborhood in the segregated South, and eventually he became a writer, martial artist and Zen teacher. Famous for his ability to knock over skilled opponents by using only one finger, Kitabu Roshi has dedicated his life to bringing forth what he variously calls the Original Mind, the Mind of Christ or the Mind of Zen. His way of expressing all of this is quite unique, drawing from both Buddhism and Christianity, and the language he uses may not be what you're used to if you're steeped in Advaita and Zen, but I find him to be genuine and authentic. In an interview with W.I.E. Magazine that appears in the book, Kitabu Roshi said: "Enlightenment is first of all coming to understand that there is no self in the conventional sense...and it's in the process of letting go of that notion that one experiences what one truly is in the universal sense. That's when enlightenment comes -- when you realize that you are not in control. And because of that, you are very much in control." Kitabu Roshi has several other books including: Ki-Asana Zen: Bridging the Gap Between East and West and Soul to Soul: Harnessing the Power of Your Mind. More on Vernon Kitabu Turner here.
TIM FREKE: Deep Awake and Lucid Living – These are among the many books Tim Freke has written. Tim is an exuberant being in the UK who calls himself a philosopher, a deep awake guide, and a gnostic scholar. He might also be called a performance artist of sorts. He offers a fresh approach to awakening, which he calls the “deep awake life.” I love his contagious energy and enthusiasm for life, his inclusive perspective that doesn’t fixate on one side of any conceptual divide, his evolutionary philosophy, and his embrace of our humanity and the world. As Tim sees it, ego is not an enemy to be defeated; personhood is not something to leave behind; the world is not an illusion to be discarded; and fear, desire and anger are not obstacles or signs of spiritual failure, and neither is thinking. I resonate completely with how he describes awakening as the deep intuition that “life is good, death is safe, and what really matters is love.” He urges us to wake up to oneness and also to feel empowered as individuals. For Tim, these are not mutually exclusive. He celebrates the capacity for choice, says that we actually have more freedom than we can imagine and that the more conscious we are, the more freedom we have. Tim speaks of meditation not as a grueling discipline, but as something immensely pleasurable. He seems to bubble over with joy, love and humor. Deep Awake and Lucid Living are about awakening in this way, and they are the books of his that I recommend. He has another recent book that I read called Soul Story in which he suggests that individual souls reincarnate from one life to the next, stopping off in between in what he calls the “love-light.” I don't share the belief in reincarnation, and I wouldn't recommend that book. He has also written books about Jesus, such as The Gospel of the Second Coming and The Laughing Jesus, criticizing organized religion and suggesting that the story of Jesus is a mythological story originally intended to convey a gnostic or mystical perspective. Tim offers workshops, retreats and trainings around the world. I recommend starting with Deep Awake. More here
JOHN BUTLER: Wonder of Spiritual Unfoldment — John Butler is an amazing man, and this book is a rare jewel—unique, original, genuine, profound, definitely one-of-a-kind. I first encountered John Butler on the two-part interview with him on Conscious-TV. I fell in love with his beautiful heart, his quiet stillness, his unpretentious simplicity, his love of nature and animals, and his utterly unique way of talking about spiritual realization. I immediately ordered the book, which is made up of stories about his life and spiritual insights. He comes from the heart, not the head. Spiritual awakening has been at the center of his long life journey, during which (among other things) he has been an organic farmer in the UK, a teacher in Russia, and a traveler in many lands. He learned meditation, which has been the heart of his spiritual path, at the London School of Meditation, which teaches a mantra approach based in Advaita Vedanta. But he remains simultaneously anchored in Christianity, not as it is often narrowly defined by the church, but in its deepest mystical sense. And in his openness, John doesn’t seem stuck in the language of any one tradition, but moves freely between them to the heart of it all, the living Presence Here and Now. He has several other books I haven't read. But this one and the two interviews on Conscious-TV are highly recommended. More at John’s website here.
STEPHEN LEVINE: Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart; and Who Dies? -- With his wife Ondrea, Stephen has spent his life working with people who are terminally ill, as well as with war veterans, concentration camp survivors, survivors of sexual abuse, and people suffering from "the loss of dignity due to racial and religious prejudice, or the multitude of finely wrought cultural humiliations suffered by women, the aged, children, the infirm, and the less than 'beautiful.'" His own history included drugs and prison years ago. His approach is Buddhist-oriented but eclectic and open-minded. This is a gentle and tender teaching that can soften your belly (as he likes to say), open your heart, and invite loving-kindness to others and to yourself. Stephen died early in 2016. More here.
CLAUDE ANSHIN THOMAS: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace -- Thomas is an American Zen monk, teacher and peace activist. As a young man, he fought in the Vietnam War. He won numerous medals, killed hundreds of people, witnessed unimaginable cruelty and suffering, and narrowly escaped death. He returned home with severe post traumatic stress and fell into drug and alcohol addiction, isolation and homelessness. He eventually attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for Vietnam veterans and that started him on the Buddhist path. Later ordained by Bernie Glassman, Thomas now teaches Zen and has taken vows as a mendicant. This book is honest, real, and direct. It shows the Buddhist way through suffering, not abstractly, but through the eyes and example of someone who is living that journey, breath by breath. Thomas writes: "Our culture operates with the idea that healing means the absence of pain, but I've come to understand that healing doesn't mean that our pain and suffering go away. Healing is learning to live in a different relationship with our pain and suffering so it does not control us. The only way in which I can heal my wounds, the only way in which I can awaken, is to live in the present moment in mindfulness, breathing in and breathing out." Thomas teaches a grounded, committed, embodied, practice-oriented approach to Buddhism. While I am no longer drawn to that kind of strict, formal, traditional Buddhist practice, I found something very beautiful and moving in this book, and I have great respect for this man. More here.
FRANK OSTASESKI: The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully -- This is a beautiful, powerful, heart-opening book filled with amazing stories and great wisdom. Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher, the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, founder of Metta Institute, and a leading voice in contemplative end-of-life care. The powerful stories in the book come from his own life and from his experiences working at the Zen Hospice. The Five Invitations are Don't Wait; Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing; Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience; Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things; and Cultivate Don't Know Mind. Beautiful foreword by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. More here and here.
DAVID BOHM: Thought As a System -- This excellent book, which I very highly recommend, is the transcript of a seminar with Bohm exploring thought, awareness, and dialogue. Bohm was a leading theoretical physicist who dialogued extensively with J. Krishnamurti. Bohm says: "I would say that in my scientific and philosophical work, my main concern has been with understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment." This particular book is a remarkably clear and exquisitely subtle exploration of thought and its effects on the world, and it also explores Bohm's ideas about the importance of group dialogue as a form of meditative inquiry. Also recommended: Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political and Environmental Crises Facing our World by David Bohm & Mark Edwards, which explores the development of human culture, and how the mis-use of thought is the root source of the escalating global crisis. That book is a dialogue between the authors, both of whom were associated with Krishnamurti, alongside photographs taken by Mark Edwards all around the world. Both these books are excellent and very highly recommended, especially Thought As a System. Bohm has a number of other books I've read that are accessible to a non-physicist, Unfolding Meaning and Wholeness and the Implicate Order. More on Bohm here.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey -- When this neuroanatomist suffers a stroke that disables the left hemisphere of her brain, she gets an unexpected opportunity to study, explore and observe the brain from the inside out. The two hemispheres of the human brain are each responsible for very different functions. The hemisphere that was damaged in Jill's stroke was the one associated with attention to details, rational thinking, linear sequencing, language and mathematics. What she is left with is the part of the brain that sees only seamless fluidity, wholeness, and the present moment (she calls it nirvana). She can't even figure out how to dial the phone to call for help. But luckily, she does get help, and over a period of some eight years, Jill is able to recover the left brain function that had been lost in the stroke. In the process, she learns about her own power to consciously choose and shift from left brain to right brain. This is a fascinating book on so many levels, one that I very highly recommend! It offers an exploration of awareness and consciousness through the lenses of both brain science and direct observation (the latter refreshingly free from any spiritual road maps or preconceptions that would filter or obstruct the view). In addition, this book is an excellent guide for how to treat people who are having or recovering from strokes. More here.
CHRIS NIEBAUER: The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-Brain Plays Unending Games of Self-Improvement -- Niebauer is a neuropsychologist, and in this book, he talks about how the brain constructs the apparent world "out there" and the apparent self "in here," how the left-brain functions as what he calls "the interpreter" or pattern-finder, why self-improvement tends to fail, how we end up in arguments, what he calls the law of opposition, and more. He frequently cites both Alan Watts and Eckhart Tolle and at one point mentions both Krishnamurti and Mooji, so he’s clearly familiar with the waters of nonduality. In the spirit of Alan Watts, this is an Aikido-like anti-self-help book, with a final chapter titled “There Is No Conclusion.” Niebauer takes the view that the universe is basically playful and that ultimately, it’s all in good fun: “The playful, rascal nature of the universe is harmonious behind its surface of benign and benevolent drama.” He has a new book coming out called Catching up with the Buddha: How Psychology, Brain Science and Eastern Philosophy Are Changing Our Understanding of What It Means to be Human. He has a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and here’s a podcast with him where he discusses some of the ideas in The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment. This is a very interesting book, well worth reading. I recommend it.
SAM HARRIS: Free Will – This is a very short, clear, articulate explanation of why free will is an illusion, and how the recognition of this in no way threatens morality or human accomplishment in the ways that are often feared. Sam has a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in neuroscience, and he has practiced meditation for many years and studied with both Buddhist and Advaita teachers. Sam is widely known as an atheist and a proponent of science and reason. I disagree with some of Sam's views about religion and politics, but I often find his perspective thought-provoking even when I disagree. He is the author of many other books, most notably perhaps The End of Faith, in which he argues against belief-based religion (particularly theism and the Abrahamic religions) and in favor of science and reason. He wrote a book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion that is supposedly about waking up without the dogmas, beliefs, cultural accoutrements and backward ideas that too often accompany spirituality. That sounded promising, but I found the book quite disappointing. In his discussion of consciousness in that book, Sam seems to assume the primacy of the physical universe and the emergence of consciousness from matter, an assumption that seems at least questionable to me--although he does acknowledge that "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion," and he does note that, "A world teeming with fields and forces, vacuum fluctuations, and other gossamer spawn of modern physics is not the physical world of common sense." Sam has also been a strong critic of fundamentalist Islam and of what he sees as false tolerance for this on the left. He co-authored a book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, with Maajid Nawaz, a British author and activist who was once a member of a radical Islamist group and who now works to counter extremism--that book I haven’t read. Sam can be quite strident at times in his views, and he relies heavily on reason and logic, all of which is fine, but rather dry and lacking in both heart and the spacious openness of presence. Whatever you think of Sam Harris, he raises some interesting questions, and his short little book on Free Will may be helpful to readers who imagine that human free will is keeping the universe together, and that without it, chaos and mayhem will surely ensue. More here.
A SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO THE MIND: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Burton MD, a neurologist and neuroscientist. Burton talks about our sense of boundaries, agency, will, intention, certainty and causation as sensations we have that give rise to the illusion that all these things and the separate self really exist. He talks about how these sensations may vary in different individuals. I’ve always found it curious that the absence of free will has always seemed so totally obvious to me, while to so many people I meet with, this absence seems completely baffling and incomprehensible. Burton’s insights may help to explain that discrepany. Burton has a wonderful sense of humility which allows him to remain skeptical in the best sense, and he offers an important caution and corrective to all of us without scientific expertise who use "scientific conclusions" to prove metaphysical ideas. Burton shows how findings in neuroscience that may actually be tentative, questionable or even out of date can become popularized as indisputable fact and then given interpretive meanings that these findings never really had. Many interesting, thought-provoking things in this book. There is an excellent interview with him on Brain Science Podcast — Podcast #96, from April 26, 2013. And you can find more on Burton at his website here. He has an earlier book called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. All very readable and highly recommended!
INCOGNITO: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman -- published in 2011, this fascinating book, written by a neuroscientist, presents the brain as a "team of rivals" with no central executive (no single "me") in command. The book looks into how our perception of reality is constructed, and it explores the question of free will and whether there is anyone to blame for an action, or if blame is perhaps the wrong question. Eagleman considers the moral and legal implications of what we are learning about the brain, comparing the impact of these recent discoveries to that of the earlier discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe. Highly recommended. More here and here.
OUTLIERS: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell -- This is a fascinating book about all the random factors that go into making someone a success. Why is it that not everyone with talent and ambition who works hard actually ends up achieving their dreams? Why do some countries produce more students who excel at math or flight crews that are more or less likely to crash the plane they are flying? If you believe that all it takes for success is hard work, talent, and positive thinking, this book will make you think again. Gladwell, a journalist and author, has two previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, both very interesting as well and all very highly recommended. More here.
ORDINARY MAGIC: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path edited by John Welwood -- An excellent collection of writings by a variety of spiritual teachers, artists, activists, and healers including Joko Beck, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Krishnamurti, A.H. Almaas, Allen Ginsberg, Natalie Goldberg, Ram Dass, Stephen Levine, Joanna Macy, Deena Metzger, Eugen Herrigel, Frederick Franck, and many others.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: My Grandfather's Blessings and Kitchen Table Wisdom -- Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a former pediatrician who now counsels people facing chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Remen herself has lived with Crohn's disease for many years. These two magnificent books are collections of stories from her life and practice. This woman has incredible soul, heart, wisdom, and love, and these are two of the most beautiful books I've ever read. Deeply touching material. Very highly recommended. More here.
KARIN VISSER and CATHERINE HARDING: The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding – This beautiful book is the life story of Catherine Harding, wife of the late Douglas Harding, as told to Karin Visser, a teacher of the Headless Way and chief editor of the Dutch nondual magazine Inzicht. Catherine Harding grew up in France during World War II, where she experienced the horrors of war. As a teenager, she had a deep recognition of what she called the luminous light within or the Clear Light. As a young woman, she married a writer from Morocco, had five children, eventually got divorced, studied yoga with Iyengar in India, and had many other adventures including a meeting with Kalu Rimpoche. When she was 60, she met and married Douglas Harding and co-taught the Headless Way with him until his death. The Headless Way showed her how to access her True Home of boundless awareness or Clear Light at will. This book is about living from that place. “Every one of us is looking out of the same clear, aware, impersonal space. When we see that we all are this universal consciousness there are no barriers between us…To live from who one really is changes life…then loving one another is much easier…Love is the only thing that counts: that is my conclusion at the end of my life.” Speaking of aging, she says, “I am learning and learning…learning how to be slow. Everything is really slow now, which makes you look at things differently…I am also learning to give up attachment to my appearance. The body is deteriorating all the time…It is not who I am…I am also learning to be patient…The art of life is really the art of disappearing…that’s actually what I practice.” She has so much wisdom, about suffering, about love, about what really matters. This is a beautiful, wise, gorgeous book that I encourage people to read. More here. Very highly recommended.
MARY OLIVER: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (this beautiful 2017 collection, arranged by Mary Oliver herself, spans more than five decades from her first book of poetry to her most recent); New & Selected Poems (Vols. I and II); American Primitive; House of Light; Dream Work; Twelve Moons; The Leaf & the Cloud; A Thousand Mornings; Upstream — These are a few of the wonderful titles by Mary Oliver, a deeply spiritual contemporary American poet whose writing bursts with awake presence and with a profound devotion to life. She describes herself as a "praise poet," and her poems reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and the transcendent in the earth and eros of life. She celebrates the natural world and conveys its exquisite beauty, but this is no sentimental picture of nature. She sees its fragility, how everything eats something else and is eaten in turn, and she conveys not only the mysical beauty of this world, but also the immensity of pain and sorrow, yet always in a way that affirms the power of love and awareness and possibility. She captures the depth and breadth of human experience and the infinite subtlety of what matters most. Toni Packer used to read Mary Oliver's poems aloud at the end of silent retreats. You can listen to a wonderful interview with Mary Oliver here. There are other collections of her work as well, and all of them are excellent. Her writing is truly breath-taking. Very highly recommended
LOVE POEMS FROM GOD: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky -- exquisitely rendered poems by Rumi, Hafiz, Meister Eckhart, Mira, Rabia, Kabir, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis, and others. I love Ladinsky's introductory words and the spirit he brings to the work. Very highly recommended!
THE SOUL IS HERE FOR ITS OWN JOY: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures, edited by Robert Bly -- Wonderful collection of spiritual poems, including work by Rumi, Kabir, Lalla, Rilke, Silesius, Mirabai, Dickinson, Oliver, Transtromer, and many others. Pure celebration of the Divine: "There the bee of the heart stays deep inside the flower, and cares for no other thing." Another wonderful collection by Robert Bly is The Winged Energy of Delight, which includes poems by Transtromer, Kabir, Rilke, Jimenez, Basho, Issa, Rumi, Lorca, and many others.
RYOKAN: Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi; and One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens -- Ryokan, known as the "Great Fool," was a Zen poet, monk and hermit in late 18th and early 19th century Japan. In the words of John Stevens, Ryokan "slept when he wanted to, drank freely, and frequently joined the dancing parties held in summer. He acquired his simple needs by mendicancy, and if he had anything extra he gave it away. He never preached or exhorted, but his life radiated purity and joy; he was a living sermon...Often he spent the entire day playing with the children or picking flowers." His poems transmit the essence of Zen with exquisite simplicity and beauty. A few samples: “New pond. / No sound of a frog / jumping in.” and, “In an autumn field, / hundreds of grasses / burst into bloom. / Kneeling down, / a male deer cries.” and, “If I say it / it’s easy, / yet my diarrhea stomach / is indeed / hard to bear.” (all three from the Kaz Tanahashi collection), and, “The thief left it behind / the moon / At the window.” (from the John Stevens collection). Both collections very highly recommended.
KABIR: The Kabir Book (Versions by Robert Bly); Songs of Kabir (Translated by Rabindranath Tagore); and The Bijak of Kabir (translated by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh, with essays and notes by Linda Hess) -- Kabir was a fifteenth-century Indian poet who grew up Muslim, was influenced by the Sufis, and became a disciple of the Hindu teacher Ramanada, a heart-centered devotional bhakti approach. Kabir was an unorthodox, iconoclastic, mystical poet, apparently illiterate, a weaver by trade, whose ecstatic poems and "upside-down language" radiate love of God, poke fun at spiritual pretensions, and call for a simple, direct, immediate realization of Truth. "Who is it we spend our entire life loving?" he asks. “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman – This is a novel about a contemporary Catholic nun in a Carmelite monastery outside of Los Angeles dealing with the difficulties of faith and with her attachment to beautiful experiences of God that turn out to be the result of epilepsy. Will she have the recommended surgery even though it may bring these mystical experiences to an end? The book is beautifully written, short and spare, and I found it to be a wise and profoundly spiritual book. It explores what it means to be human, to go through darkness, to have faith, to find grace in what is most ordinary. Although told in the frame of Christianity, the struggles this book touches upon and the lessons it conveys transcend any single tradition and could just as easily come from Zen or from no tradition at all. I also highly recommend Salzman's wonderful memoir The Man in the Empty Boat.
THE GURU PAPERS: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad -- This is an excellent book that explores the dangers of authoritarian structures. The authors look at the rise of fundamentalism and the need for certainty, they examine issues such as control, surrender, and addiction in fresh and interesting ways, and they critique cherished spiritual ideas like enlightenment, oneness, and unconditional love. You may not agree with everything they say (I don't), but I encourage people to read this book. It raises many valuable questions. More here.
WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON: The Next Enlightenment: Integrating East and West in a New Vision of Human Evolution -- A very interesting book by the author of Reality Isn't What It Used to Be (another wonderful book which I greatly enjoyed). The Next Enlightenment takes a look at East and West from Buddhism to evolution, brain science and new physics in search of truth without dogmatism. Anderson writes (and sees) with intelligence, humor, and a secular perspective that is refreshingly unattached to any particular system of thought.
WABI-SABI: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren -- This book of text and photos is about "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete...things modest and humble...things unconventional." Wabi-sabi could be described as the quintessential Japanese or Zen aesthetic. The author was trained as an architect but never built anything except an eccentric Japanese tea house. Instead he produced books and magazines. More about the author and the book here.
EVERYWHERE A GUEST, NOWHERE AT HOME: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine by Kim Chernin – This slender little book is about how we come to believe certain things and take on certain identities and how we can begin to question our assumptions and positions. The author is a Jewish writer and psychotherapist with deep insight. She was an avid Zionist and apologist for Israel who began to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people. She begins to see that there is truth and suffering and violence on both sides. From there she begins to question how people who had survived a genocide could end up behaving as oppressors to another group of people. This isn’t about blame or condemnation, but about understanding and compassion. Although this is not a book about nonduality or spirituality in the usual sense, I include it on this reading list because the conflict between Israel and Palestine is exemplary of the kinds of conflicts that divide us and lead to terrible suffering. It is a hot-button issue. The very mention of Palestine or Israel can trigger instant emotional reactions and deeply-held beliefs in many of us. Thus, I think this book offers a way forward for all of us, not just in terms of this particular struggle. Kim offers a vision of peace that is based on listening openly and questioning our beliefs. The book weaves her own personal journey together with various historical and journalistic accounts of the long struggle in this troubled part of the world. She appreciates the truth on both sides, and she remains open to the complexities, nuances and ambiguities of the situation. This is not a black and white political diatribe, but rather an invitation to all of us to listen openly and to be willing to question our most deeply-held assumptions and narratives. This book is beautifully written, very insightful and well worth reading, especially for those who take an interest in global politics and conflict resolution. More here.
WAKING: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford — Matt is a teacher of Iyengar yoga. He became a paraplegic at age 13 in a car crash that killed his father and sister. This is the story of how he moved through that loss, and how he re-discovered his body many years later. Matt is also a public speaker, and an innovator in the world of adaptive yoga, mindbody connections, improving the healthcare system and working with trauma survivors. There are many things I love about this book, but one of them is his sense of exploration and discovery—the kind of curiosity and direct inquiry he has done so deeply and that he invites, trusting one's own experience, feeling one's way in the dark, not knowing where it will lead. He speaks about embodiment as the key to compassion, and he talks about consciousness, silence, simplicity, aging, the unity of life and death, dark spaces, being with suffering, and many other things in quite unique and beautiful ways. I found this book deeply transformative. You can watch a beautiful interview with Matt on Conscious TV here. Or check out his website here, or the nonprofit he founded, Mind Body Solutions.
FALLING INTO THE FIRE: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross. This is not a book on nonduality and it’s not an overtly spiritual book, but it’s a book I highly recommend. The author is an inpatient psychiatrist who writes about some very profound and often bizarre forms of human suffering, like the woman who compulsively and repeatedly swallows razor blades, bed springs, broken light bulbs, nails and other sharp objects and then undergoes repeated surgeries as a result, or the people who amputate their own limbs, or the mothers who murder their own children. Montross meets each of her patients with compassion and curiosity, questioning herself as she goes. I loved her reflections on life and human vulnerability, on difficult moral questions, on the suffering that sometimes has no cure. You’ll come away with compassion for all of these people, and you’ll be truly amazed at some of the things that go on in human life. For anyone who believes there is a single cause or a single cure for our human problems, this book might wake you up to the profound complexity and extremes of affliction and to the fact that we are not really in control or running this show. In fact, I consider it a deeply spiritual book. As Simone Weil says in one of the epigraph quotes at the beginning, to be aware of this suffering and vulnerability “is to experience non-being. It is the state of extreme and total humiliation which is also the condition for passing over into truth.” More here.
GONEBOY: A Father's Search for the Truth in His Son's Murder (a new and updated edition of a book originally titled Goneboy: A Walkabout) by Gregory Gibson -- This is not a spiritual book or a book about nonduality, but I recommend it because of the way it shows again and again how things are not what we think they are. In 1992, Gregory Gibson's eighteen-year-old son was shot and killed by a fellow student in a shooting rampage at Simon's Rock College that left two dead and several more injured. The book is a true story about the author's journey toward understanding and coming to grips with the murder of his son. Gibson takes us with him on this "walkabout" as he meets with school officials, gun dealers, lawyers, psychiatrists, friends of the shooter, and finally the parents of the shooter and eventually the shooter himself. I couldn't put the book down. It's an honest and insightful page-turner and an extraordinary story. Be sure to get the updated 2011 North Atlantic Books edition with the introduction, prologue and afterword, as it contains important new developments not in the original version. The Amazon listing is very confusing if you just type in the title, but here's a link to the new edition on Amazon.
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