JOAN'S ANNOTATED RECOMMENDED READING LIST
This list of recommended authors and books about nonduality and waking up is based on my own tastes and resonances and 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 (Advaita, Buddhism, radical nonduality, Taoism, Sufism, Christianity, brain science, and so on). Some of the books and authors listed below may appear to contradict each other. Some of them say that the entire movie of waking life (including you and your whole spiritual journey) is all nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others appear to take the phenomenal manifestation (and spiritual practice) very seriously. 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 there is no "you" and that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions over which no one has any control whatsoever. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist it comes with the recognition of That which never changes. Who has it right? What should you believe? As soon as you open your mouth, you go astray. 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. Question and look and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to see something new and unexpected. --J.T.
These recommendations are periodically updated or revised. If you've been here before, refresh or reload the page to be sure you are getting the most current version. You're welcome to link to this page, but please do not re-publish this list anywhere else.
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) − Of course I highly recommend my own books! All of them are about waking up from the imaginary problems created by conceptual thought and discovering the aliveness and immediacy that is Here / Now. They all point to the simplicity of this moment and the seamlessness or wholeness of life. My books always encourage the reader to investigate directly rather than holding onto beliefs or 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 thought-sense of being an autonomous self encapsulated in a separate bodymind. These books all invite the discovery that "the body" and "the person" are actually ever-changing, fluid events inseparable from the rest of the universe. My books explore questions of identity and free will, as well as many of the commonplace issues people face in everyday life such as addiction, depression, anxiety, anger, uncertainty, illness and disability, difficult neighbors and so on, all from an inclusive and open nondual perspective. A fifth book that explores aging, dying and waking up is in the works and will hopefully be finished soon. All my books point to what is already whole and complete just as it is, and at the same time, they offer a direct, non-methodical, awareness-based, present-moment (pathless) path of recognizing this wholeness and seeing through the stories of deficiency and lack. Readers have expressed appreciation for the honesty, clarity and humor in all of these books. More details here.
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. Very highly recommended. More 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 instead 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 (Wayne Coger, Richard Witteman, Sandra Gonzalez and others). You can learn more at the Springwater website, and you can find a treasure trove of her talks (audio and video) up 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. Her books and talks are all very highly recommended.
NISARGADATTA MAHARAJ: I Am That (translated by Maurice Frydman, this is probably the most well-worn book in my collection − in fact, my first copy completely disintegrated) − Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj was a rare jewel. An exceptionally clear 20th century Indian guru, Nisargadatta was a family man and a shopkeeper, living and teaching in the back lanes of Bombay, where he died in 1981. His teaching, which can be called Advaita Vedanta, comes not from book learning, but from his own direct insight. Advaita means "not two," and it refers to a nontheistic, nondual form of Hinduism that does not rely on scriptures, dogma or tradition. Nisargadatta points beyond all concepts and ideas to the living reality. He points first to the boundless and formless awareness or beingness Here / Now, which he often calls the "I AM," the impersonal sense of being present: "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.” The realization to which he points is not about attaining something new or having some exotic experience. It is 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.” There are many other collections of Nisargadatta's teachings, including some I haven't read, but of those I've read, I very highly recommend Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj (excellent paraphrases of his teachings rendered by Ramesh Balsekar, who was one of his translators), Consciousness and the Absolute: The Final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (his most radical teachings, edited by Jean Dunn), The Wisdom-Teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Visual Journey (distilled gems from Nisargadatta and photos of him, edited by Matthew Greenblatt), and a wonderful 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). Other excellent collections of Nisargadatta's teachings that I have enjoyed include Seeds of Consciousness and Prior to Consciousness (both edited by Jean Dunn); The Ultimate Medicine and The Experience of Nothingness (both edited by Robert Powell); Nothing Is Everything (edited by Mohan Gaitonde); and Freedom from Imagination (a poetic, non-literal rendering by Prasanna of previously unpublished material of Nisargadatta’s, published by NetiNeti Media). Neti Neti Media (Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo in collaboration with Stephen Wolinsky) have also produced a number of DVDs about Nisargadatta and his teachings, mostly as interpreted by Wolinsky, and there's some good material in those as well. Adyashanti did a wonderful exploration of Nisargadatta’s teachings that is available on CD here. Although I never met Nisargadatta Maharaj in person, he has touched (and continues to touch) my life very deeply. I Am That is a rare classic that you can dip into again and again. 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 vibrant immediacy of this ever-changing here and now. 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. 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 that I don't resonate with about sitting postures and hand positions and whatnot that seem irrelevant to me, but everything he says about life and about the heart of meditation 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. You can find a wealth of excellent talks and classes by Steve and other Dharma Field teachers (I especially recommend Norm Randolph) on the Dharma Field website, and Steve's books are not to be missed. Very highly recommended.
JEAN KLEIN: Transmission of the Flame; I AM; The Ease of Being; Beyond Knowledge; Living Truth; Open to the Unknown -- Some of my favorite books by Jean Klein, a European teacher of Advaita (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 beyond everything perceivable and conceivable. 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 always incorporated meditation (unconditioned, open listening), yoga and somatic awareness work into his retreats. He taught in Europe and the United States, where he died in 1998. There are several other books as well, all of them excellent. Some of Jean's books may be out of print, although Non-duality Press has 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 that and several of Jean's other books and a DVD 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 -- Beautiful, gorgeous book! One of my top favorites and one of the clearest and most refreshingly alive articulations of what this is really all about that I've come across. Jon doesn't give you philosophy, metaphysics or a bunch of mental ideas to think about, but rather, he invites you to let go into the openness and vibrancy of "this presence, this energy that we fundamentally are, right now...the unknown, the unspeakable." He talks about learning how to let things be exactly as they are, dropping out of conceptual thought 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. Jon lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was asked to teach by Adyashanti. Before being with Adya, Jon had practiced Zen and Theravada Buddhism, had also been with Advaita teachers Jean Klein, Papaji and Robert Adams, and had spent time with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. Jon is also a counselor in private practice and in the past has been both a concert violinist and a teacher of the Alexander Technique. He speaks with a voice that is authentic, original, alive to the unknown and grounded in presence. An excellent book, one of the very best. 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 focus is on being fully present in this moment. His approach is nonconceptual and rooted in awareness. It’s about waking up from the entrancement in thought and discovering our true nature as the "eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." Eckhart's expression is refreshingly free of conventional religious or dogmatic trappings. He is deeply grounded in presence, and both his talks and the pages of his books are all 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 at different stages of the awakening process in ways that they can hear—e.g. he did a series with Oprah that was seen by millions worldwide (with viewers ranging from newcomers to all of this who wanted a way through personal suffering to experienced truth-seekers in search of ultimate reality), and he starts wherever the questioner is and opens up the possibility of simply being present. He is sometimes promoted in New Agey ways with titles such as "Finding Your Life's Purpose" or "Manifesting Abundance in Your Life," but when you really listen to what he's actually saying in any of these talks with New Agey titles, you find that he always brings it right back to Here and Now—your life's purpose is to be fully present right Now, and everything else is secondary. The beauty of his teaching is that he wakes the listener up to the depth and aliveness of what matters most, not as an idea or a concept, but as a direct experiential reality. 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. Very highly recommended. More here.
RUPERT SPIRA: The Light of Pure Knowing (book plus MP3 CDs); The Transparency of Things: Contemplating the Nature of Experience; Presence (Volume I - The Art of Peace and Happiness and Volume II - The Intimacy of All Experience) − These are exceptionally clear and luminous books (and recordings) that lead the reader through a series of contemplations or explorations of our actual experience in this moment. These explorations bring one to a direct, experiential realization of the boundless openness and immediacy that is present Here / Now. A gifted contemporary British ceramic artist and a long-time student of Francis Lucille, Rupert now offers retreats, webinars and other events about nonduality around the world. He strikes me as deeply intelligent, highly sensitive, very genuine and awake. 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." Rupert's words do just that -- they come out of presence and dissolve into presence. He uses language in an exquisitely subtle and nuanced way, and his words are as "transparent, open, empty and luminous" as the "open Unknowingness" that they so beautifully reveal. Rupert recognizes that the sense of being a separate self is not merely a thought, that it is also held in the body, and that true liberation requires more than simply seeing through thoughts or being intellectually clear about the unreality of the self. He points out that intellectual clarity “can become a smoke screen for the far deeper feelings of separation which are too uncomfortable to be faced fully and honestly.” So Rupert invites a deeply embodied exploration into the nonconceptual, somatic-sensory-energetic layers of being, something I deeply 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, or 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). These are truly exquisite books, full of love, and very highly recommended. There are a number of beautiful DVDs available, including The Unknowable Reality of Things and Love: The Underground River, both of which I highly recommend, and you can find audio and video and learn much more about Rupert at his website here. 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) -- 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 the teaching and the presence of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), the deeply realized Indian sage who was mostly silent. His teaching was Advaita (nondualism). Very highly recommended. 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). These books are all beautiful pointers to the ultimate truth of non-duality, but the two I mention first with the photos are the ones I'd most highly recommend. There are a number of video documentaries about Ramana, and my favorite by far is The Sage of Arunachala. More here.
DARRYL BAILEY: Dismantling the Fantasy and Essence Revisited − Darryl's books offer the clearest, simplest, most articulate description of the dynamic, ever-changing, seamless, automatic and inconceivable nature of reality that I've ever found. His writing is clean, spare, unpretentious and free of jargon, and it points always to the living reality here now from which nothing stands apart. Darryl points out the thorough-going flux in which no separate and enduring forms ever actually exist. He emphasizes that everything is an inconceivable, uncontrollable, compulsory, automatic happening that can never be understood conceptually or put into words. “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 radical non-dual expression is never prescriptive, never aimed at self-improvement or a release from suffering (although realizing what he points to can be a huge relief). His writing is a dismantling of every hopeful and curative fantasy, every place you try to land, every thing you try to grasp. He shows you that everything is a "vibrant, mysterious dance," and that, "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 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 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. In this, you are not a body; you are not a mind; there is only love. This love is not some cold, intellectual understanding; it’s an openness of heart…This love is not some romantic myth of everyone embracing and singing the same song. Instead, it’s a truly sensitive vulnerability to what is. Ideas only go so far. At some point, the heart may open to the totally indefinable, unpredictable, and often unwanted movement that life is. Love is that openness of heart.” Although he doesn't offer any kind of formal meditation practice, he does invite a simple "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." But he 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. This is a deeply liberating perspective when it is truly understood. Darryl studied with mindfulness meditation teacher Ruth Denison for nine years, spent six years as a Buddhist monk under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho, 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 offers "explorations" at a local yoga center and occasionally elsewhere. He has worked as an ice fisherman, bus driver, suit salesman, childcare worker, carpenter and maintenance man among other things, and he currently works in a warehouse. In addition to Darryl's wonderful books, excellent audio and video is available on his website. Very highly recommended. More here.
'SAILOR' BOB ADAMSON: Presence-Awareness: Just This and Nothing Else; A Sprinkling of Jewels: Insights into Non-Duality; What's Wrong with Right Now Unless You Think About It? and One Essence Appearing as Everything -- Sailor Bob is a contemporary Australian who spent time with Nisargadatta Maharaj in the 1970's. Bob communicates radical nonduality (no self, no choice, no teacher, no path, no practice, nothing to do or not do other than exactly what is already happening) 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.” Bob is a rare jewel. 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 are two excellent books about Bob that I would also recommend: Only That: The Life and Teaching of Sailor Bob Adamson (by Kalyani Lawry), and Living Reality: My Extraordinary Summer with Sailor Bob Adamson (by James Braha), both of which include photos and dialogs with Bob and convey his teaching. You can learn more about Bob and find other video and audio as well at his web site here. Very highly recommended.
ADYASHANTI: True Meditation; Emptiness Dancing; Falling into Grace; The End of Your World; and The Way of Liberation -- 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 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 journey from initial glimpses of this Truth to what he describes as fully embodied liberation, giving attention to many of the ways people get stuck or fixated along the way. I find that any talk of a progresssive journey and "going all the way" can easily feed into the story of present-lack and the search for future attainment, but if you really hear Adya, 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 about meditation, and that one along with Emptiness Dancing and Falling into Grace are my personal favorites of his. Adya has also written a book about Jesus called Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic. That book is 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." Excellent audio and video is also available in addition to the books. All very highly recommended. More here.
NIRMALA: Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self -- This is an excellent book! Warm-hearted and clear, Nirmala is a wonderful 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 awake presence that you truly are. He has a wonderful chapter called "The Movement of Awareness" where he compares the movement of attention to the zoom-function on a camera and suggests that trying to hold onto any one setting is suffering. Nirmala appreciates the subtle and ungraspable, ever-changing and fluid aliveness of Here / Now and doesn't get stuck or fixate on either side of a conceptual divide. He has chapters in another book (Meeting the Mystery, a book which I would also recommend) titled "Is There One or Many? Yes!" and "Awareness Is Never the Same Way Twice." Those titles give a sense of the flexability of mind that I appreciate in Nirmala. He has a lovely sense of lightness, humor and delight, and he approaches whatever shows up in satsang with openness and love. He has written many other books that I haven't read, but he is very clear and grounded in presence, so I'm sure anything he writes is excellent. And his first book, Nothing Personal, is a real jewel and one that I very highly recommend. You can find audio and video on his website as well. More here.
GANGAJI: The Diamond in Your Pocket; You Are That! (satsang dialogs, originally in two volumes, now in one); and Freedom and Resolve -- 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 a very 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. Gangaji holds satsangs and retreats around the world as well as webcasts. She is currently based in Ashland, Oregon. She has written a few other books as well, plus 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.
LEO HARTONG: Awakening to the Dream: The Gift of Lucid Living and From Self to Self − Leo is a contemporary Dutch writer (writing in English) whose books are exceptionally articulate and clear expressions of what I call radical nonduality (an uncompromising emphasis on the absolute truth: no self, no choice, no path, no attainment, no deviation possible, all is One). In simple, plain language, Leo shows you 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 beautifully deconstructs the illusory sense of being a separate entity with free will and choice. He shows how everything is an undivided happening and points out that what we 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. “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, radical, uncompromising 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—he doesn't seem to be doing this anymore, but you can find an archive of these newsletters on his website. Leo's second book, From Self to Self, is a collection of writings from this newsletter. All very highly recommended. More here.
"THE ULTIMATE STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS" by Ken Wilber -- This short piece of writing is a crystal clear, amazingly articulate, bubble-popping description of nonduality that I very highly recommend. It is the last chapter in Wilber's book Eye to Eye, and it also appears as the final article in John White's anthology, What Is Enlightenment? In this brilliant piece of writing, Wilber points to the nondual Absolute—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. Wilber is a contemporary author, long-time spiritual practitioner, and founder of Integral Institute, and in his many books, he provides a synthesis of different disciplines and an interesting critique of contemporary spirituality and culture, all from what I would describe as a nondual, evolutionary perspective, strongly influenced by Eastern spirituality, Western psychology and postmodernism. I've enjoyed several of his books, but what I'm recommending here is only this one piece, "The Ultimate State of Consciousness," which is very highly recommended. Absolutely excellent!
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 cuts through all concepts and leaves you with nothing. Then he takes that away. Excellent! 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. And an early version of one of Clarke's translations appears at the end of Leo Hartong's book From Self to Self (see separate listing). Zen teacher Steve Hagen (see separate entry on him above) 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 entry below). 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.
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. Some that I have enjoyed over the years include The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt)i; Appreciate Your Life by Taizan Maesumi; Sounds of Valley Streams, edited by Francis H. Cook; How to Cook Your Life and The Wholehearted Way by Uchiyama; and Realizing Genjokoan by Shohaku Okumura. Steve Hagen (see listing on him above) has some excellent classes on Dogen available on CD or download, and Norman Fischer and Daido Loori also offer excellent commentaries. The writings of Dogen are 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 into 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.
ANAM THUBTEN: No Self, No Problem and The Magic of Awareness − Anam Thubten is one of the most truly amazing beings I've ever been with, perhaps because he is so transparently present and has such genuine humility and lack of self-concern. He is a very awake, wonderful, 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. He is clear and full of light, and he has a wonderful sense of humor. Anam Thubten is at the nondual edge of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and he comes across as refreshingly down-to-earth and unbound by tradition or dogma. He has this wonderful twinkle of amusement and wonderment in his eyes, and his whole being seems to radiate boundless love. 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. His expression is open, honest, and warm-hearted. He sees our human foibles very clearly, but always with humor and genuine empathy, and he encourages us to love our limitations, to love ourselves and the world just as we are, to find nirvana in samsara and enlightenment in delusion. His teaching might be described as compassionate emptiness. 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 and very much recommended. Anam Thubten is a beautiful, rare, amazing jewel. Very highly recommended. More here.
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 or with the kind of formal Buddhism he practices, 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.
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 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.
FRANCIS LUCILLE: Eternity Now: Dialogues on Awareness; The Perfume of Silence; and Truth Love Beauty -- A contemporary teacher of Advaita originally from France, Francis currently lives in California and offers retreats worldwide. He points to our true nature as non-localized, 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. He loves music, has a background in science and mathematics, is exceptionally intelligent and clear, and like his teacher Jean Klein, Francis incorporates somatic movement and awareness work into his retreats. He was very helpful to me. Very highly recommended. More here.
J. KRISHNAMURTI: This Light in Oneself: True Meditation; Meeting Life; Choiceless Awareness: A Selection of Passages for the Study of the Teaching of J. Krishnamurti (published by KFA in 1992); 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. 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 freedom and possibility that is priceless and life-changing. He had a very big impact on me. Excellent video and audio is also available. 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.
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.
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!
ROBERT ADAMS: Silence of the Heart: Dialogues with Robert Adams -- Robert Adams was an American sage and a disciple of Ramana Maharshi. Robert grew up in the Bronx, where (so the story goes) he had a spontaneous awakening as a teenager while taking a math test. 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 had a unique and often humorous way of talking about Ultimate Reality, and although he was regarded by many as a guru, friends of mine who knew him have described him as a very unassuming and ordinary guy. 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 Robet's talks here. You can also find some of his talks on YouTube now. And Silence of the Heart is a wonderful book. Robert comes from the Heart and takes you right into Silence. Very highly recommended.
BYRON KATIE: A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are 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 definitely be a 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, it's truly about Self-realization. Loving What Is is probably the clearest and best introduction to The Work. My personal favorite is A Thousand Names for Joy, which offers stories from Katie's own life woven around verses from the Tao Te Ching. The book provides a kind of living portrait of the awakened mind in action in daily life. In the words of Katie's husband, 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. 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 highly recommend the books and also actually doing The Work. Audio, video, and more information on The Work here.
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. Her book on meditation is excellent—simple, clear, unbound by tradition, right on the mark. Some of Pema's other wonderful titles include The Wisdom of No Escape; The Places that Scare You; When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are. There are also many CDs available, such as Don't Bite the Hook. All very highly recommended. More here and 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 on Kabat-Zinn here.
JOHN TARRANT: Bring Me the Rhinoceros -- This book is a tiny and explosive jewel. Written by a contemporary Zen teacher, it has this amazing ability to flip you in your tracks and enlighten everything. This 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 approaches koans in a playful and imaginative way, using them as springboards for beautiful stories, some fictional and some drawn from "real life." John wakes you up again and again to the absolute perfection of your life exactly as it is. I love the way he 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, what I would call genuine compassion and love. John Tarrant is originally from Tasmania and he now lives in Northern California. He is the director of the Pacific Zen Institute, where he teaches, and he also holds a PhD in Jungian psychology. John approaches both Zen and koan work in a very nontraditional and open way, and he has a wonderful sense of humor and play along with a deep feeling for both the darkness and the joy in life. He has an earlier book called The Light Inside the Dark, which is pure poetry (in prose), and which I also highly recommend, but Bring Me the Rhinoceros is my favorite. 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've attended a few of his retreats and found them profoundly liberating and delightful experiences. I really love John and very highly recommend his writing, talks and events, and especially Bring Me the Rhinoceros.
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 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.
DOROTHY HUNT: Leaves from Moon Mountain (with collage art by Rashani Rea) and Only This! – Two collections of poetry and reflections on the nature of reality by Dorothy Hunt, a wonderful teacher in the lineage of Adyashanti. Dorothy is the spiritual director of Moon Mountain Sangha and founder of the San Francisco Center for Meditation and Psychotherapy. She has practiced psychotherapy since 1967 and has been sharing the dharma since 2004. She has a deep connection with Ramana Maharshi and with the nondual teachings of Zen, Advaita and the Christian mystics, but she speaks in her own original and beautiful voice. Clear, authentic, genuine, down to earth, from the heart, wise and deeply attuned to the subtle nuances of life. I had the good fortune to meet her recently and hear her speak, and I feel a great resonance with her and with how she sees and presents nonduality. She is a lovely being—a rare jewel. Very highly recommended. More here.
MOOJI: Breath of the Absolute: The Manifest and Unmanifest Are One; Before I Am: The Direct Recognition of Truth (second edition); and White Fire: Spiritual Insights and Teachings of Advaita Zen Master Mooji -- Various collections of writing, talks, dialogues, sayings and drawings by Mooji, a very wonderful contemporary Advaita guru. "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering," he writes, "Remind the world it is beautiful and free." I met him once in Chicago and found him to be a very warm-hearted, loving and deeply awake being whose presence was very powerful. Mooji, or Anthony Paul Moo-Young, was born in Jamaica in 1954 and lived most of his life in the UK, where he was an artist and a teacher before his spiritual journey took him to India. There he met H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Mooji has now founded a community in Portugal and offers retreats and satsangs there and around the world. There is a very strong guru-devotional scene around him that some may find off-putting and others may find attractive. For many years, I was allergic to this kind of devotional scene, and it can certainly be fraught with potential dangers, but it can also be a powerful heart-opening, and ultimately, one is in devotion to Presence or Truth and not to a person. And my take on Mooji is that he's very genuine and truly coming from the Heart. But whatever you think of the guru-devotional scene, Mooji's message is very clear, and he is a powerful and beautiful teacher. In addition to the books, you can find wonderful video, audio, live-streaming, written material and information about his events at his website here. Very highly recommended.
RAMESH S. BALSEKAR: Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj; Consciousness Speaks; A Net of Jewels; The Final Truth; Experiencing the Teaching; A Duet of One; From Consciousness to Consciousness -- 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 non-existence of personal volition. Ramesh hammers away relentlessly at the root illusion of a separate, autonomous individual with free will, and he shows you that everything is one, whole, undivided happening, and that Consciousness is all there is. "The universe is uncaused," he says, "like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end." (Indra's Net from the Buddhist Avatamsaka sutra). 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 hypnotic sense of personal agency, that gives rise to our human suffering. 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." Although Ramesh is clearly pointing to what is nonconceptual and effortless, he tends to express this in a very heady way that can sometimes get the thinking mind tangled up in mental knots trying to reason it all out, or at least that was my experience when I first encountered him. A Net of Jewels is a beautiful collection of essential gems organized so that you read two very brief selections every day, and in this format, the words tend to be received more meditiatively and are perhaps less likely to get the thinking mind spinning itself into confusion. He continually cautions his readers not to mistake the map for the territory, which I appreciate. Ramesh has many other books as well—these are simply the ones that stood out most strongly for me. His first book, Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj, is his excellent paraphrasing or rendition 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: Enlightenment Is Not What You Think; Never Mind: A Journey Into Non-Duality; 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), a collection of pithy and enlightening poems called 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 and rather dramatic moment in his life when the false sense of authorship disappeared permanently, never to return, and so he tends to describe enlightenment as a permanent disappearance of the illusory problem. I’ve never been a big fan of any finish-line model of enlightenment because I find that it sets everyone else up to seek a final event. But Wayne does stress over and over that there is no enlightened person—that enlightenment is the falling away of the one who would get enlightened—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." So if you read Wayne and find yourself thinking that "you" are not enlightened yet, see if you can find the one who is not enlightened. As Wayne says: "Enlightenment is not what you think but rather the ultimate, unimaginable dissolution into all that IS," and "When we talk about Enlightenment or Oneness it is much ado about Nothing!" 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." Wayne also emphasizes over and over again that no conceptual description or formulation is ever the truth, 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 very highly recommend Wayne for his uncompromising deconstruction of the false sense of authorship and his whole-hearted embrace of everything as the Holy Reality. The last approximately 10 pages of The Way of Powerlessness (from the final pages of the chapter on Step 12 to the end of the book) are especially wonderful. More here.
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." Highly recommended.
J. JENNIFER MATTHEWS: Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just As You Are -- This is a wonderfully 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 practice of “being 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.’” The author has degrees in philosophy and theology and works with homeless people in Massachusetts. Excellent book! Very highly recommended.
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 or have anything to do with Buddhism to appreciate Ajahn Sumedho. I highly recommend his books, especially this one. You can listen to some of Ajahn Sumedho's talks here and 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.
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 entry on him). 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; Open Secret; and Ask the Awakened -- Three of the many fine books on non-dualism by a 20th century Irishman, now deceased, who called himself Wei Wu Wei. The perspective is essentially that of true Advaita, Taoism, and Zen. Wei Wu Wei goes right for the root. Very highly tecommended. More 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, profound and 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.
SUSAN MURPHY: 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, writer, and mother) in Australia who writes with exquisite eloquence 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,” 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 commitment and letting go, 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. John Tarrant, one of Susan's teachers and mine as well, writes the foreword to both books. Very highly recommended. More on Susan 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! Elihu teaches a strict, formal, traditional form of Zen practice, which is not my way, but I even enjoyed the way he writes about rituals and precepts, and most of the book 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.
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. Highly recommended if you're looking for an intelligent practice-oriented approach. More here.
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 draws on Zen koans and on his insights and experiences as both a Zen teacher and a psychiatrist to explore what it means to be fully human and to live a truly fulfilling life. He challenges our "curative fantasies" of transcendence, perfection and imperviousness, pointing us instead to this very moment, just as it is. He 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. One of the things I most 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. I'm not into the kind of strict, rigorous, formal Zen practice that Barry offers, but there is a great deal of wisdom and insight in these books, and I recommend them very highly. Barry Magid teaches at Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC. More here.
RICHARD B. CLARKE: Always Home, Coming Home: A Life in Zen –This superb collection of poetry and other writings 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. 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, and he also 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). I recently discovered that many of his talks (or teishos) from the last 8 years of his life are available as audio files on-line at the website of the Living Dharma Center, the Zen Center he founded in 1972 (click on "Teisho" and then from that page, click on "Richard Clarke" and you'll find the talks). I’m struck by the razor-sharp clarity, the beauty and depth, the subtle nuances, the heart and the power of these talks. I can't recommend them highly enough. Richard was a brilliant man, fluent in about 8 languages, with advanced degrees in biology and biochemistry. In addition to being a Zen teacher, he taught Neuro-Linguistic Programming for awhile, published several books of poetry, and was a translator, 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). Richard's already published books of poetry include Fever and the Cold Eye, (Contact Press, 1966), Lunations, (Contact Press, 1969) and Sand Mirrors with Stephen Strom (Polytropos Press, 2012). 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, and this still unpublished collection (Always Home, Coming Home) that I hope will soon 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. There are a few parts I don’t resonate with, such as the emphasis on certain "correct" sitting postures and hand positions for meditation—and that fierce, urgent, life-or-death effort to “break through the barrier” that characterizes Rinzai Zen is quite different from the forms of Zen that I have practiced, which tend to emphasize a non-result-oriented, on-the-spot awakeness (which Paul also emphasizes, along with open inquiry and koans). He has apparently dropped most of the trappings and rituals of Zen, and overall, I resonated greatly with this book and found the heart of it right on the mark. Paul Gerstein 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. He sees through many of the common pitfalls along the way, and he offers a no-nonsense, crystal clear, wise and insightful path to liberation. An excellent book. He 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.
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 truth of Zen in stories, told largely in cartoons, about animal characters including a bumbling bloodhound named Unk who is constantly searching for what is already present. Donald Gilbert was a monk in the Cho Ke Order of Korea. He was born in California in 1909 and died there in 2006. He founded the Blue Dragon Buddhist Order. "If all of creation is 'wholeness,' it is infinite. If it is infinite, it has no outside. If it has no outside, it has no inside. There is nothing divisible except in conception. Unk is searching for a truth that is separated from his own truth. He wants to divide the undividable." These are both great books, very highly recommended!
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.
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 ideas of being the doer or not being the doer.
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." Highly recommended.
CHOGYAM TRUNGPA: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom -- These two books point to groundlessness and non-dwelling -- 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 Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in which he discusses The Heart Sutura (form is emptiness; emptiness is form) and the three misconceptions about the nature of reality (eternalism, nihilism, atomism) that are seen through in the "Middle Way" approach founded by Nagarjuna. That chapter is a real gem--very highly recommended. Chogyam Trungpa was an important 20th Century Buddhist teacher who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He fled Tibet as a young monk, lived for awhile in India and Scotland and eventually settled in the USA, where he gave up being a monk and became a lay teacher instead. Trungpa 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 to female students and sleeping with many of them--like so many other gurus and spiritual teachers, he was both profoundly realized and in some ways deeply flawed--but whatever you think of all that, these books have some excellent material in them. I'm not endorsing or recommending all the whistles and bells and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, unless you happen to be drawn to them, but Trungpa comes across in these books as very down to earth and direct. "Enlightenment is the ultimate and final disappointment," he writes. "Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult." More here.
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; A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World; 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 -- David Loy is a Zen teacher and a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy with an 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. In all his books, Loy does an excellent job of deconstructing the separate self and the dualistic view of life. I very highly recommend Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy 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. That 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. For those interested in social justice and environmental issues, A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World offers a very interesting perspective. Loy has written several other books as well that I haven't read, and he co-authored (with his wife Linda Goodhew) a wonderful piece called "Consuming Time" in the Buddhist anthology Hooked edited by Stephanie Kaza. Loy 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. Very highly recommended. You can listen to and watch a very interesting talk by David Loy here and you can learn more at his website 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.
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 the absolute truth of uncompromising, hardline, radical 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 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. Highly recommended. More here.
DOUGLAS HARDING: Open to the Source: Selected Teachings of Douglas E. Harding; Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature; On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious 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 in which everything is appearing. In other words, he discovered that "I" am nothing at all, and that "I" am 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. Very highly recommended. More here.
GILBERT SCHULTZ: The First Instant and Everything Is Clear and Obvious -- Gilbert Schultz is a contemporary Australian who points in a very direct and clear way to what he variously calls "Self-Knowing Awareness" or "this very ordinary wakefulness" or "the First Instant" that is omnipresent, non-conceptual, universal, undifferentiated and immediate. He writes: "The First Instant is this ever-present actuality – which is nothing other than this boundless beingness – the essence of what you truly are. You cannot move away from this instant and you never have been anywhere other than right here 'in' and 'as' this one and only first instant." Gilbert points to the non-existence of the separate self and to the fact that no shift or awakening is needed because this "One Boundless Awareness" is all-includive 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. This is clear, direct, uncompromising, hardline, radical nondualism. No carrots are being dangled in front of you here, no-bullshit, nothing to attain, just a spot-on pointer to this ever-present, boundless Awareness. Gilbert always urges the reader to look and see and discover this for themselves, and not to adopt any of it as a second-hand belief. He doesn't allow the seeker to indulge their personal drama in any way, insisting that "all psychological suffering is completely unnecessary." He can be quite ruthless in this, but there is a gentle sensitivity to him as well. Both books seems to be out of print, but Everything Is Clear and Obvious is available as an e-book and there are a number of CDs available as well as some free audio and video, along with writing, on his website here. 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, 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. I find radical nonduality very liberating, and it provides a wonderful corrective to many of the common pitfalls in progressive paths and traditional practices. I would just caution against dogmatically throwing the baby out with the bathwater or picking up this radical message as a new belief system, because then it just becomes another set of blinders. That said, Nathan's expression of radical nonduality is one of my favorites. He 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 that I highly recommend.
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 radical nonduality, and I would not recommend Karl to people just starting out or take anything he says too literally, but at a certain point on the journey, he 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, but 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 a 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, irreverent and provocative expression of radical 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." There are other books as well, and audio and video recordings of his meetings are also available. Highly recommended to those with a taste for rare cheese. You can learn more here.
TONY PARSONS: The Open Secret; All There Is; Nothing Being Everything; This Freedom (all UK editions); and also As It Is and Invitation to Awaken (US editions) -- Tony is an irreverent, unorthodox, iconoclastic Englishman with a wonderful sense of humor who communicates radical nonduality. His expression is vibrant, rich and passionate. For him, everything is the Beloved, whether it appears as a flower garden, as dog shit, or as the holocaust. "Everything about you is totally absolutely perfectly appropriate," Tony says. "All the things you think are wrong with you are absolutely right." His childlike wonder and irreverent humor can be great correctives to any grueling or goal-oriented spiritual practices rooted in a sense of unworthiness and driven by an obsession with purification and self-improvement. He points to the illusory nature of the separate self and to the undivided immediacy of being and the simple truth that this is it, just as it is: “There’s no destiny, there’s no God, there’s no plan, there’s no script, there’s nowhere to go because there is only timeless being…And it is alive and fleshy and sexy and juicy and immediately this.” Meeting him some years ago was very liberating and freeing for me. I found him to be very accessible, generous, unpretentious, open-hearted and full of love. Tony sees the awakened life not as one of transcendent detachment, but rather as a love affair, unfiltered full-on aliveness. He relentlessly pulls the rug out from under any attempt to create a progressive path toward a future goal: "Life is not a task," he writes, "There is absolutely nothing to attain except the realisation that there is absolutely nothing to attain." Or as he puts it elsewhere: "There is no such thing as liberation or awakening. All there is is being...but the difference between there just being what's happening and the sense that it's happening to you is immeasurable." Tony describes this as “a leap in perception, a different seeing, already inherent but unrecognised.” He stresses that the sense of separation is not merely a thought-construct, but that "it is a contracted energy embodied in the whole organism," and that "when there is openness to the possibility of that which is beyond self-seeking and personal experience then it seems that the apparently contracted energy can collapse into the boundless freedom which already is.” He continually emphasizes that, “There is no person that becomes enlightened. No one awakens. Awakening is the absence of the illusion of individuality. Already there is only awakeness, oneness, timeless being, radical aliveness. When the dream seeker is no more, it is seen (by no one) that there is nothing to seek and no one to become liberated.” Or as he puts it elsewhere, "This is an exposure of an illusory dream and a pointing to something which is utterly simple and ordinary and magnificent." As far as Tony is concerned, any teaching that offers something to do only serves to reinforce the illusion that the imaginary problem is real and that the one who apparently suffers from it actually exists. Hence, Tony offers nothing at all—no path, no method, no hope, no way out—backing the seeker into a corner with no wiggle room. With luck, the frustration and helplessness this often engenders can open to the realization that both the seeker and the apparent problem are imaginary. There are a few aspects of Tony's expression that I don't resonate with or that I would question. For example, he can be quite dogmatic about asserting that this uncompromising way of expressing nonduality is the Only True Way, and that any teacher or teaching that offers anything to do (such as meditation or inquiry) is a “personal” and "dualistic" teaching aimed only at personal fulfillment. I find that assertion rather ridiculous. So I don't agree with everything Tony says, but I find the heart of his expression very liberating. And part of what makes it liberating is the fact that it is so uncompromising. Sometimes, I'm not entirely sure what Tony is trying to convey. Recently, for example, he seems to be asserting that awareness is the root of separation, rather than seeing it as Wholeness itself or as the essential factor in seeing through and dissolving the mirage of duality. Perhaps he simply means that consciousness is the breaking up of unbound unicity into apparent multiplicity and duality—the movies of waking and dreaming life, the appearance of time and space, subject and object, self and not-self—and thus it could be said that awareness is the first appearance and the root of all illusion? Or maybe he's pointing beyond the dualistic idea that “awareness” is some thing, such as a detached witness or witnessing, separate from the content of awareness? Or maybe he’s pointing beyond a fixation on “being aware," as in some over-zealous mindfulness practice that reinforces the sense of a personal doer in search of personal fulfillment? I don't know exactly what he means. But possible short-comings aside, I love Tony's juiciness, his passion, his irreverent humor, the absence of spiritual veneer, and the living reality to which he points so uncompromisingly. That is a truly liberating message that I very highly recommend. There are different UK and US versions of some of his books, often containing different material. CDs and DVDs are available as well, and Tony offers meetings and retreats in Europe. More here.
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."
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, and one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Isaac is that he’s one of the few teachers in the Advaita world who continues to learn from other teachers (or at least he did for many years). I have always enjoyed and appreciated Isaac because of his open, explorative approach and his down-to-earth way of being. "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.
DAVID STEINDL-RAST: A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness and Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer -- Brother David is a Benedictine monk who has worked closely with various Zen communities. He has a wonderfully open mind and heart and a beautiful and deep sense of the sacred in the present moment. 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." Brother David was born in Vienna but has lived for many years in the United States. He has lectured worldwide and has also lived as a hermit. I love these books. More here.
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.
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.
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, highly recommended. You'll find video, information about the Diamond Approach and his other books, and more at his website 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 not recommending the kind of rigorous, formal, traditional Zen practice that Katagiri practiced and taught (unless you happen to be drawn to it), but there is some truly wonderful insight and wisdom in these books. 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. I'm not recommending the kind of rigorous, traditional, formal Zen practice that Maezumi taught (unless you happen to be drawn to it), but there is some 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. More on Maezumi here and here.
ALEXANDER SMIT: Consciousness: Talks About That Which Never Changes -- Alexander Smit (1948-1998) was a teacher of Advaita from the Netherlands. Smit met and came in contact with many teachers, including J. Krishnamurti, Jean Klein and Douglas Harding, and Smit's final teacher was Nisargadatta Maharaj. Alexander Smit points beyond all concepts, ideas and beliefs, to the Ultimate Reality, the unicity that is prior to everything perceivable and conceivable. "What you can see is, that without the least exertion you are perfectly effortlessly aware, conscious of the manifested world. When you have seen through the habit of interweaving yourself with everything that moves, suffering ends. If there is anything to be done at all, then this is the only thing you can do: To be what you are, and for that you don't need to do anything."
FRANCIS BENNETT: I Am That I Am-- Francis Bennett is a former Trappist monk who has done pastoral care in hospices and hospitals, and who now teaches non-duality. In addition to his Christian background, he has practiced several forms of Buddhism and been deeply touched by the Advaita sage Ramana Maharshi. Francis had what he describes as "a radical perceptual shift in consciousness," in which it became clear to him that what he had long been seeking outside himself was right here in the immediacy of nondual presence and awareness. As he puts it, "God is in everything and everything is in God." I feel a deep presence, clarity, and simplicity in this book. And for those nondualists with a Christian streak, this book may bring together Ramana, Buddha and Jesus for you in a new way. Lovely book. More here.
SCOTT KILOBY: 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, and having tried these inquiries myself, I can attest to the power and depth of this work. 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. Highly recommended. More here.
GREG GOODE: Emptiness and Joyful Freedom (with Tomas Sander); Standing as Awareness: The Direct Path; and The Direct Path: A User Guide -- 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 uniquely Western voice. Standing as Awareness and The Direct Path both convey the perspective 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 recommend 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. There is a joyous fluidity, a freedom and lightness, a subtlety, a richness and depth in these books that I deeply appreciate, especially the one on emptiness. More here and 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
J.C. AMBERCHELE: The Almighty Mackerel and His Holy Bootstraps: Waking Up to Who You Really Are; The Light That I Am: Notes from the Ground of Being; The Heavenly Backflip: Seeing and Being the Unfigureoutable; and Cracked Open − J.C. Amberchele is the pen name of an American man who is currently incarcerated in prison, where he has been for some three decades, and where he will likely spend the rest of his life. While in prison, Amberchele joined a Buddhist group and read many spiritual books including those by Nisargadatta, Ramesh Balsekar, Gurdjieff, Byron Katie, Tony Parsons, Hafiz, Rumi and the Christian mystics. But it was the "Headless Way" of Douglas Harding that really woke Amberchele up to a profound recognition of the "Luminous Awareness" or "Awake Capacity" that is boundless, ever-present and "filled to the brim with all that presents itself." Amberchele describes this wakefulness as "a love affair of immense proportions, bursting from No-thing, vanishing into No-thing." His writing brings this realization alive for the reader in a simple and direct way, and with an immediacy and a sparkling clarity that is full of love, wonder and delight. I love the way he weaves that recognition of "Luminous Awareness" together with beautifully evocative descriptions of daily life at the prison—from his encounters with the wildlife outside his window, to the insects that show up in his cell, to the amazing juxtapositions of tenderness and violence that he observes amongst his fellow inmates, along with his own on-going practice to live from the Headless perspective in countless challenging everyday situations. Amberchele includes a few of Harding's "Headless Way" experiments in some of his books—explorations designed to help people experience directly the impersonal and all-inclusive Awake Capacity that we truly are. But what I appreciate most in these books is Amberchele's own expression, which I find quite insightful and beautifully written. I have corresponded with him for a number of years now, and I consider him a friend. I have no doubt that his awakening is genuine. This is a man who has done (and been through) some terrible things, but who has discovered that he is not who he thought he was. His awakening is a testimony to the fact that no matter what you've done or how lost you are, it's always possible to wake up because what you truly are has never been lost or damaged. My personal favorites of his books and the ones I'd recommend most highly are The Almighty Mackerel and His Holy Bootstraps and The Light That I Am. 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 genuine and deep understanding is informed by both Buddhism and Advaita and by his work as a psychotherapist. He has an interest in social engagement, modernizing meditation, and collaborating with neuroscientists to explore how awareness training can enhance compassion and well-being, all of which seems great to me. Loch was asked to teach by Adyashanti and Mingyur Rinpoche. The book has been highly praised, but I haven’t read it in its entirety. It's not the kind of book that particularly appeals to me, but from dipping into it and scanning through it, it seems like a book that may be helpful to many people, so I include it on the list. It is full of categories and types and levels and charts and experiential explorations or practices the reader can try, and it offers a clear articulation of different aspects of awareness and the awakening process (as Loch sees it) that I'm guessing many readers may find helpful. Loch speaks of "waking-up, waking-in, and waking-out" as three stages of the awakening process, and he says, “Waking-up leads to freedom from the fear of death. Waking-in leads to freedom from the fear of life. And waking-out leads to freedom from the fear of love.” Beautiful! Although the book wasn't quite my cup of tea, I feel the author is very genuine and awake, and that this book will be useful to many readers. 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.
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.
LAO TZU: Tao Te Ching -- Beautiful, simple, and 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, and the one by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English. 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.
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 that kind of strict, formal, traditional Buddhist practice is no longer my way, I nonetheless found something very beautiful and moving in this book, and I have great respect for this man. 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. Highly recommended. More here.
BLANCHE HARTMAN: Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart – Blanche Hartman is 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. I like some of them more than others, but 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 is currently in an assisted living facility close to San Francisco Zen Center.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 has practiced meditation for many years. He has been with both Buddhist and Advaita teachers. I disagree with any number of Sam's views about religion and politics, so by including this book on the list, I am by no means endorsing all his ideas on all subjects, but I do find some of his other work interesting and thought-provoking. Sam 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 absurd stupidities that too often accompany spirituality. That sounds good, but I found that book disappointing overall. In it, Sam discusses the nature of consciousness, offers a deconstruction of the illusion of the self, compares gradual and sudden approaches to awakening, gives a rational critique of gurus and teachers and many cherished New Age ideas such as near death experiences, and shares his thoughts on the usefulness of psychedelics and other drugs. In his exploration of consciousness, Sam notes that "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion," but he nevertheless assumes the primacy of the physical universe and the emergence of consciousness from matter, an assumption that seems to me at the very least questionable--although 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." I don't agree with all of his judgments and conclusions in that book, but I do appreciate his commitment to scientific rigor and his unwillingness to swallow spiritual Kool-Aid or be seduced by foolish beliefs. Sam has also been a strong critic of radical Islam and of what he sees as false tolerance for this on the left, and he recently co-authored a book with Maajid Nawaz that I haven’t read called Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. 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 heady and lacking the spacious openness of presence. In addition to his books, Sam is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values. Whatever you think of Sam Harris, he raises some interesting and thought-provoking questions, and I think 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.
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.
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.
MARY OLIVER: New & Selected Poems (Vols. I and II); American Primitive; House of Light; Dream Work; Twelve Moons; The Leaf & the Cloud; A Thousand Mornings -- Mary Oliver is a contemporary American poet whose writing bursts with awake presence. She celebrates the natural world and exquisitely reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary and the transcendent in the earth and eros of life. Mary Oliver says in a recent interview, "I consider myself kind of a reporter—one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography." In the same interview, she says, "You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about....I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet." There are other collections of her work as well, and all of them are 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.
KABIR: The Kabir Book (Versions by Robert Bly) and Songs of Kabir (Translated by Rabindranath Tagore) -- 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 radiate love of God, poke fun at spiritual pretensions, and call for a simple, direct, immediate realization of Truth. There are other translations as well, and one I look forward to reading is The Bijak of Kabir by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh.
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.
JED McKENNA: Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing − This novel disguised as a memoir may demolish a few sacred cows, pull a few cherished rugs out from under you, and generate some provocative questions. My feelings about the book are mixed, and in recommending it, I would caution you not to assume that this is the definitive word on enlightenment, Truth or the nature of reality. The novel is an entertaining and potentially enlightening story about a few days in the life of Jed McKenna, an unconventional, iconoclastic, homegrown, "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.” Jed never tells you what Truth is, but instead, he invites you to see through and discard whatever you think it is and to keep going "further" in the spiritual demolition process. "Truth is everywhere at all times," he says, "never absent, never distant." 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." All of the above is what I loved and found so compelling about this book. There were a number of other things about the book that I was less enthusiastic about, not least among them the way Jed comes across to my ear as rather arrogant and full of himself. "I am free of delusion and unbound by ego," he proclaims (hopefully referring to non-dual awareness and not Jed McKenna). Jed is a real salesman, selling you the finish-line model of final enlightenment, and the approach he offers seems very thought-based, rather than the more direct and embodied awareness-based approach that appeals to me. But possible flaws and hubris aside, this is a book that may shake you up in a number of good ways. 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. I first read the book in a pre-publication review copy sent to me for an endorsement, and that early version ended differently and made it far less obvious that this was a novel and that Jed was fictitious. And for me, the whole event of briefly falling for the imaginary "enlightened guy" and his appparently final and superior awakening (a caterpillar turned irrevocably into a butterfly, as Jed puts it) was a great wake up, one of the final nails in the coffin of my search for final enlightenment and the mythic finish-line after which delusion can never return. My struggles with this book helped me to see clearly that my persistent doubts and concerns about whether or not enlightenment or awakening had occurred, or whether "I wasn’t quite there yet," were all about the fictitious me and an imaginary journey to a non-existent “there.” It was the falling away of the whole myth of personal enlightenment and permanently enlightened people. So at its best, this novel may encourage you to question some of your most cherished assumptions, to see through and discard much of what passes for spirituality, and to discover the essential Truth that “cannot be further reduced.” This is the first book in a trilogy about enlightenment. I lost interest in and didn't finish reading the others, but they continue on with the same basic themes. This first book is the one I’d recommend. There are some real gems in this book, and it's an entertaining read. Just take some of it (including the self-proclaimed "spiritual master" at the center of it) with a grain of salt. 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. More here.
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 and 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 who went from being an avid Zionist and apologist for Israel to recognizing the plight of the Palestinian people. From there she begins to question how people who had survived a genocide could end up behaving as oppressors to another group of people. 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 forces within each of us that drive us alternately toward peace or war (inwardly and outwardly). The very mention of Palestine or Israel can trigger instant emotional reactions and deeply-held beliefs in many of us. 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.
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 swallows razor blades, bed springs, broken light bulbs and nails, 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. 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.
LOVE UNBROKEN: from Addiction to Redemption by Susan Thesenga and her daughter Pamela Thesenga – I found this a very powerful book. Pamela goes through ten years of heavy drug addiction (heroin, meth, homelessness, living on the streets) and failed recovery attempts. That she survives at all is a miracle. Susan goes through an amazing journey of her own as she witnesses all this, tries to help her daughter, realizes her own powerlessness to save Pam, and lets go finally into unconditional love and acceptance. Along the way, both Susan and Pam are profoundly changed by their encounter with the Santo Daime church and the healing use of ayahuasca, which seems to play a vital role in Pam’s recovery. They try many different treatment approaches, and what seems most healing for Pam are those approaches that start with seeing and reinforcing the wholeness in the person, recognizing that which is unbroken, rather than starting with an emphasis on the disease. This is a deeply moving and transformative book on so many levels. It’s about awakening; it’s about unconditional love; and it’s about addiction and recovery—and unlike so many books on addiction, it isn’t pushing any one recovery model. Susan Thesenga observes that different people may need different approaches, and this is one story, but it is a story that offers some truly valuable insights into this whole topic of addiction. You may not resonate with everything in this book—I found that some aspects of Susan's spiritual journey and some of her views on addiction were not entirely my cup of tea—but overall, I think you'll find this to be a remarkably moving and powerful story about life itself and how we move through trauma and difficulty to find redemption. 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.
back to top of page