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.
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JOAN TOLLIFSON: Nothing to Grasp (2012); Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (2010); Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is (2003); and Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (1996) − Of course I 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 unbound presence-awareness, 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. They don't ever insist that we are not the body or not a person, but they invite the discovery that this is not all we are, and that "the body" and "the person" are actually ever-changing, fluid events inseparable from the rest of the universe, all appearing in consciousness. My books explore all the perennial spiritual questions as well as the issues that people face in everyday life such as addiction, depression, anger, relationships, disability, and so on. A fifth book, Death: The End of Self-Improvement, which looks at growing old and dying from a nondual perspective, is in the works and will hopefully be available soon. All my books are a celebration of what is, exactly as it is, and they also offer a direct, non-methodical, (pathless) path of awareness and discovery, revealing that the Holy Reality is fully present Here / Now. Readers have expressed appreciation for the honesty, clarity and humor in all of these books. More details here.
TONI PACKER: The Wonder of Presence; The Light of Discovery; Seeing Without Knowing / What Is Meditative Inquiry?; The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing; and The Work of This Moment − Toni was my main teacher (although she never used that word), and I never stop learning from her. I spent five years living and working at the retreat center she founded in northwestern New York, and we remained in touch until her death in 2013 at the age of 86. Toni was a former Zen teacher who began to question the rituals, beliefs, dogmas and hierarchy of traditional Zen. She was deeply affected by her contact with J. Krishnamurti, and she eventually left formal Zen practice behind. She continued to offer silent retreats, but in a much more open and bare-bones way. Toni wasn't interested in the abstractions of metaphysics or philosophy, and her work was always rooted in present moment awareness and in 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 was passionately interested in listening and looking without answers or formulas, and without relying on the authority of the past. She was always open to questioning her conclusions, open to looking freshly and being surprised. This is a very rare quality. She had a keen eye for when the mind was turning insight into dogma or making something out of no-thing. 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. I recommend Toni for the openness and explorative spirit that she so beautifully conveys, for the clarity with which she sees through all stories and beliefs, and for her remarkable ability to point to the deepest truth in a way that is utterly alive and immediate. Toni was exceptionally good at clarifying the difference between awareness and thinking, and between direct perceiving and the conceptual overlay. 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, and Sandra Gonzalez). Audio, video, a newsletter, and books (including my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation) are available 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 aware presence here and now. His approach is nonconceptual and is all about bringing attention to the present moment, 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 he 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 tremendous clarity, and he has a wonderful ability to playfully mimic our hypnotic entrancement in the obsessive machinations of the thinking mind with spot-on accuracy and benevolent humor. He offers a 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). Eckhart speaks and writes out of a spacious openness that you can feel in his talks and in the pages of his books, all of which are saturated with the listening silence and stillness that he embodies and expresses so beautifully. 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. He has managed to speak to a wide range of people in a way that they can hear, which I think is wonderful, and in the course of that, 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, you find that he always brings it right back to Here and Now. Your life's purpose is to be present in the Now. That's really the beauty of his teaching—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. And when it comes to waking people up to nonconceptual presence (and out of the entrancement in thought), I consider Eckhart one of the most effective and deeply realized (genuine and authentic) teachers of our time. 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.
JON BERNIE: Ordinary Freedom -- Beautiful, gorgeous book! 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 feels authentic, original, unpretentious, alive to the unknown and grounded in presence. An excellent book, one of the very best. Very highly recommended. More 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 basic understanding of the nondual perspective found in Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Taoism, but without any of the traditional baggage. 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.
STEVE HAGEN: Buddhism Is Not What You Think; Meditation Now or Never; Buddhism Plain & Simple; and Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense -- These are all excellent, outstanding books, all of which I very highly recommend. I'd suggest you start with Buddhism Is Not What You Think. Steve is one of the clearest, most awake and most articulate Zen teachers I've ever encountered, and he has been a very important teacher for me. Many books and teachings give you something to hold onto, however subtle it might be, but Steve gives you absolutely nothing to hang onto, and he shows you that this alone is true freedom. This is the radical kind of Buddhism that offers no dogmas and no beliefs, the kind that is about nothing more or less than waking up now. Steve points to direct seeing, and the understanding he conveys about emptiness, impermanence, enlightenment and nonduality is so subtle and clear and complete that it instantly dissolves anything that we try to grasp onto, leaving only the vibrant immediacy of what is, as it is. 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 heart of what creates human suffering, exposing the habitual tendency to grasp life and to mistake the map for the territory. I especially appreciate how Steve talks about emptiness, not as a big empty space that contains all the forms, but rather, as the impermanence that "is so complete, so thorough, that nothing is formed in the first place to be impermanent." He completely erases all the false dualistic divides between form and emptiness, mind and matter, free will and determinism. Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense: An Inquiry into Science, Philosophy, and Perception is more scientific in nature and not always as easy to read as Steve's other books, but it is well worth the effort. 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 I recommend the newer edition. 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 bare-bones, stripped-down way, without much ceremony or fanfare. It is still formal Zen practice, however, and I'm not drawn anymore to formal Zen practice of that kind, so he occasionally says things that I don't resonate with about sitting postures and hand positions and so on, but everything he says about life (and about the true heart of real 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 would very highly recommend Dharma Field to anyone who feels drawn to formal Zen practice. You can find a wealth of excellent talks and classes by Steve and other Dharma Field teachers on the Dharma Field website. And Steve's books are not to be missed. Very highly recommended.
DARRYL BAILEY: Dismantling the Fantasy and Essence Revisited − Darryl's books are among the clearest, simplest, most articulate descriptions I've come across of the ever-changing, seamless, automatic and inconceivable nature of reality. His writing is clean, spare, unpretentious and free of jargon, and he points to the nonconceptual, sensory, energetic, living reality that is here prior to thought. He shows you that everything is an undivided, inconceivable, uncontrollable, compulsive and spontaneous happening that can never be understood 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…It’s similar to waking up after a night of deep sleep. In deep sleep we give up everything.” Like deep sleep, Darryl’s books are a dismantling of every place you try to land and every thing you try to grasp. Darryl shows you that there is no solid or enduring form and no independent, separate self—that everything is an undivided and unexplainable happening, 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 thought or will-power: “Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom." By refusing to offer any way out, Darryl brings the mind to a complete stop in its relentless search for a solution to the imaginary problem. He invites a simple acknowledgement of the moment, just as it is: "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." To truly realize this is both a huge relief and a joy: “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.” 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.
NISARGADATTA MAHARAJ: I Am That (translated by Maurice Frydman) − This is probably the most well-worn book in my collection; in fact, I think my first copy completely disintegrated! It is the classic of Nisargadatta's teaching. Nisargadatta was a rare jewel. An exceptionally clear 20th century Indian guru, he was a family man and a shopkeeper, living and teaching in the back lanes of Bombay, where he died in 1981. His teaching is Advaita Vedanta, a form of Hinduism. Advaita, which means "not two," is a radical, direct, nontheistic, nondual teaching that does not rely on scriptures, dogma or tradition. Nisargadatta points beyond concepts and ideas to the awareness or beingness Here / Now, what he sometimes 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 has any kind of inherent, objective reality, instead comparing 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." He famously said: “Love says: ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says: ‘I am nothing.’ Between the two my life flows." And elsewhere: “Don’t pretend to be what you’re not, and don’t refuse to be what you are.” Described by Maurice Frydman as "warm-hearted, tender, shrewdly humorous, absolutely fearless and true," Nisargadatta could be fierce as well as tender, 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 would sometimes yell at people and throw them out. There are a number of other fine collections of Nisargadatta's teachings, and of those, I especially recommend Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj (paraphrases of Nisargadatta rendered by Ramesh Balsekar) and Consciousness and the Absolute: The Final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (perhaps his most radical teachings, edited by Jean Dunn). Other collections include Seeds of Consciousness and Prior to Consciousness (both edited by Jean Dunn); The Wisdom-Teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Visual Journey (photos and text edited by Matthew Greenblatt); and The Ultimate Medicine and The Experience of Nothingness (both edited by Robert Powell). In addition, there are now several excellent DVDs about Nisargadatta and his teaching that I would very highly recommend. Awaken to the Eternal: A Journey of Self-Discovery, made by Bertram Salzman and Matthew Greenblatt, is available from Inner Directions, and it includes actual footage of Nisargadatta along with interviews with many people who spent time with him (Jack Kornfield, Robert Powell, Jean Dunn, and others). NetiNeti Films (Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo in collaboration with Stephen Wolinsky) have produced a number of DVDs about Nisargadatta and his teachings, as interpreted by Wolinsky, who throws in some quantum physics and neuroscience, along with many (to me, tedious) guided meditations that he (Wolinsky) has devised. I'm a bit leery of the way Wolinsky sets himself up as “a direct disciple of Nisargadatta Maharaj” and an authority on Maharaj’s teachings, and these DVDs may in reality be more a reflection of Wolinsky than Nisargadatta, but that aside, I resonate with much of what Wolinsky has to say, and there is some good material in all these NetiNeti DVDs, including some actual footage of Nisargadatta. I very highly recommend the teachings of Nisargadatta, and especially I Am That.
RAMANA MAHARSHI: Heart Is Thy Name, Oh Lord: Moments of Silence with Sri Ramana Maharshi (edited by Bharati Mirchandani) and The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi: A Visual Journey (edited by Matthew Greenblatt) -- 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.
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.
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.
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'm no longer into the kind of traditional and formal Buddhist practice that Thich Nhat Hanh is, and I don't resonate with all the specific practices that he suggests, but I take what resonates and leave the rest. And there is some truly excellent material here. 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.
NIRMALA: Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self and Meeting the Mystery: Exploring the Aware Presence at the Heart of All Life -- 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 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 a chapter titled "Is There One or Many? Yes!" and another called "Awareness Is Never the Same Way Twice." 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. You can find audio and video on his website as well. Very highly recommended. More here.
GANGAJI: The Diamond in Your Pocket (this is the book of hers that I'd recommend reading first); You Are That! (satsang dialogs, originally in two volumes, now in one); and Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story -- 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 long been an important teacher for me, and I find her to be very clear, open, awake, present, intelligent, insightful, radiant, lively, funny, honest, warm, enlightening and heart-opening. I love her invitation to give up the search: "Self-inquiry is not a path that leads you somewhere," she says. "It is the path that stops you in your tracks." Beautiful! Gangaji draws freely from Advaita, Buddhism, Christianity, western psychology and other sources, but her teaching comes directly from the heart and is never bound by any particular packaging or tradition. Gangaji holds satsangs and retreats around the world as well as webcasts. She is currently based in Ashland, Oregon. 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.
RUPERT SPIRA: The Transparency of Things: Contemplating the Nature of Experience and Presence (Volume I - The Art of Peace and Happiness and Volume II - The Intimacy of All Experience) − These are exceptionally clear and luminous books 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, but that it is also held in the body, and that true liberation requires more than simply seeing through the me-thought or being intellectually clear about the unreality of the self. He is critical of some contemporary expressions of nonduality that do nothing but talk endlessly about oneness and no-self, pointing out that ideology of this kind “can become a smoke screen for the far deeper feelings of separation which are too uncomfortable to be faced fully and honestly.” Instead, Rupert invites a deeply embodied exploration into the nonconceptual, somatic-sensory-energetic layers of being. He avoids many of the other traps that I see some contemporary nondualists falling into as well, 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, or relative truth vs absolute truth). These are beautiful books, 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 free audio and video and learn much more about Rupert at his website here. Very highly recommended.
ANTHONY deMELLO: Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality -- deMello was a Jesuit priest from India, and also a psychotherapist, who was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism as well as by Christianity. His utterly undogmatic, no-nonsense approach is one of simple awareness. Not a trace of Catholic dogma here, in fact, deMello was condemned by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Anthony deMello is funny, straightforward, clear, and wonderfully direct. This is an excellent book, very highly recommended. Other books, audio and video also available. More on deMello here.
LEO HARTONG: Awakening to the Dream: The Gift of Lucid Living and From Self to Self − Leo's books are exceptionally articulate and clear expressions of what I call radical nonduality. In simple, plain language, Leo shows you that there is no separate self, no personal free will, and nothing other than the One Reality. Because there is no way to become what we already are, radical nonduality offers no practices and no path. It is a description of what is, but never a prescription for how to fix it. What makes this message so liberating is that it allows no wiggle room for the thinking mind bent on self-improvement and postponement to sneak back in and concoct a story about how "this isn't it," and something else is needed (always in the future), and "I" must make it happen. When you really see it, this radical perspective is immensely relieving and freeing. If you’re caught up in the dualistic belief that "this isn't it," thinking 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 uncompromising message may be just the medicine you need to recognize that nothing is broken and that there is no one who lacks anything and nothing that needs to be other than how it is. 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.
'SAILOR' BOB ADAMSON: A Sprinkling of Jewels: Insights into Non-Duality; Presence-Awareness: Just This and Nothing Else; 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 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.
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 Zen books I have ever read. 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), and he does this by actually deeply seeing and entering everything with his heart open and inviting us to do the same. Beautiful, imaginative, outside the box, full of love—this book is a work of art that opens your eyes to the beauty and wonder that is everywhere. 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 such 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: Zen, Soul & the Spiritual Life, and he is a frequent contributor to various Buddhist magazines. You can find writings, video and information about his events at Pacific Zen Institute, and you can read more of his writing at his Zenosaurus Blog, and at Tarrantworks. Very highly recommended.
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 Daniel Ladinsky. Superb! Highly recommended. More here.
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. He taught a class on Vedanta and Zen, which I took, and ran a small Zen sitting group, which I occasionally attended. I still have a very tattered copy of one of his earliest translations of the Hsin Hsin Ming that he handed out in class. He went on to found the Living Dharma Center where he taught Zen and continued to refine his translation over the years until his death in 2013. There are several different published versions floating around all from White Pine Press. Zen teacher Steve Hagen (see above) has also done a few different translations of this text that you could probably get from Dharma Field Zen Center.
DOGEN: Moon in a Dewdrop (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi) and The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt) -- Eihei Dogen was a 13th century Zen master and the founder of Soto Zen. Moon in a Dewdrop is an excellent collection that includes many of Dogen's most well-known works. My favorite piece in the collection, 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. The Essential Dogen is a wonderful collection of excepts from various works by Dogen organized by theme. 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: "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 Enlightenment Unfolds, also edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi; 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; 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 Shunryu Suzuki and his lineage. Very highly recommended. More about Shunryu Suzuki and his teaching here and here.
FRANCIS LUCILLE: Eternity Now: Dialogues on Awareness -- A contemporary teacher of Advaita originally from France, Francis currently lives in California and offers retreats worldwide. 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 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 has several other books now as well, which I haven't read, but I'm sure they're probably excellent, and there are many very fine DVDs and CDs available. 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. 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 being aware of 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 his 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.
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.
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.
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.
ADYASHANTI: True Meditation; Emptiness Dancing; Falling into Grace; The Way of Liberation and The End of Your World -- Adya is a very clear, articulate, contemporary American teacher based in California who offers a unique blend of Zen and Advaita. What he points to is not a conceptual or mental understanding, but rather, a directly experienced, felt-sense of the open awareness and liberating presence that is our True Nature. Adya beautifully conveys the heart of true meditation and the counter-intuitive secret of transformation, which is 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). Adya points above all to the Truth that is ever-present Here / Now, the unbound awareness that is all there is, and he also explores in great depth the journey from initial glimpses of this Truth to what he describes as fully embodied liberation or enlightenment, giving attention to many of the ways people get stuck or fixated along the way. That can easily sound as if there is somewhere to go, and in a sense there is, but it's not what the mind imagines. I do find that the way Adya talks about stages of awakening can easily contribute to the story of present lack and the distracting hope of future attainment, but if you really hear him, Adya is 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?'" And as he says elsewhere: "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! Adya uses the pointer of choice more than I do, and he can be somewhat strident at times about insisting that everyone has a choice about what they give their life to or whether they continue with an addiction. In my experience, that "choice" is not always available, but Adya does acknowledge "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. He's pointing to the possibility that is available only now of giving up the resistance to what is and the search for something better, letting go, surrendering, being fully present and awake, allowing everything to be just as it is, and discovering that the problem and the one who seemingly had it were both imaginary. 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." I attended a one-day retreat with him many years ago and he was very helpful to me. 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 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. His book on True Meditation is absolutely excellent and it comes with a CD. I also especially loved Emptiness Dancing. Excellent audio and video is also available in addition to the books. More here.
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. Whenever I hear tapes of him talking or read his words in this book, something comes through that goes far beyond the words. I'd call it silence, emptiness, total freedom, unconditional love, the Heart. 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 instsnt, 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." Robert's books are published by The Infinity Institute, and I used to have a link to them, but over the years, they seem to have drifted further and further away from the aspects of Robert that appeal to me. Last time I looked at their site, they had turned him into "The American Illuminated Master," they had re-done the originally plain and simple recordings of his talks so that the words were overlaid with New Agey background music, and they'd built up a whole fancy program around their interpretation of his teachings. Overall, their website had a very New Agey feel to it, nothing at all like my sense of Robert, and for those reasons, I no longer link to it. However, I've recently discovered an alternative website where you can access transcripts and unaltered recordings of Robet's talks as well as photos of him. And I love this book, Silence of the Heart, or at least the version I have, which is an older (1999) edition. It's possible that the "New Authentic 2011 Edition" (which I haven't seen), or any editions that might follow that, could be revised by the publisher in ways I would not like. But the 1999 version that I have is wonderful. Skip the introductory material written by several of his devotees and just read Robert. He comes from the Heart and takes you right into Silence. 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 doing The Work. Very highly recommended. Audio, video, and more information on The Work 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 with other forms of unhappiness and suffering including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. But you don't need to have an addiction in any conventional sense to benefit from Scott's excellent book on addiction or his work in these areas. Scott has developed a number of 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 potential power of this work. I'm not usually attracted to methods and techniques, but this method of inquiry is an innovative and useful tool in the toolbox. I resonate completely with Scott's approach to addiction and to waking up, and I find all of his books very intelligent, clear and rooted in presence. He presents a simple and direct path to awakening and to recovery, and he does it in a way that is refreshingly 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, down-to-earth, warm-hearted person. You can see videos on his website of the inquiry process he has developed. Very highly recommended. More here.
A.H. ALMAAS: The Unfolding Now: Realizing Your True Nature through the Practice of Presence -- 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 Unfolding Now is a wise guide book to waking up, grounded in the breath and bones of life itself. 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 this one I really resonated with. I found it 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! This is an excellent book, one that I very highly recommend. You'll find video, information about the Diamond Approach and his other books, and more at his website 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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!
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 and 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, unconditioned awareness experiencing this-here-now. 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, but the one I'm 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."
JEFF FOSTER: The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life and Falling in Love with Where You Are -- A graduate in astrophysics from Cambridge University, Jeff Foster writes and talks beautifully and with great love and compassion about the deepest acceptance of this moment, just as it is, and he points to the realization that whatever appears, all of it is the One Reality. "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. 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 in ever-more beautiful and subtle ways. His earlier books are also wonderful and worth reading, but they lean one-sidedly toward uncompromising, hardline, radical nonduality (no self, no choice, no practice, no path). Those earlier titles include The Wonder of Being (which is a combined and revised edition of Jeff's first two books, Life Without a Centre and Beyond Awakening); An Extraordinary Absence and The Revelation of Oneness. In his more recent books, the ones I'm especially recommending, he's no longer just describing a nondual view of reality, but he's also addressing the nitty-gritty, messy issues of human life and offering a never-ending, non-methodical, pathless-path of awakening here and now. Audio and video is also available. Jeff is presently holding meetings in the UK and around the world. Very highly recommended. More here.
MOOJI: Breath of the Absolute: The Manifest and Unmanifest Are One and Before I Am: The Direct Recognition of Our Original Self -- Two excellent collections of dialogues with Mooji, a very wonderful contemporary teacher of Advaita. Mooji, or Anthony Paul Moo-Young, was born in Jamaica in 1954. He has 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 now offers retreats and satsangs around the world. I met him once in Chicago and found him to be a very warm, loving and deeply awake being whose presence was very powerful. "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering," he writes, "Remind the world it is beautiful and free." You can hear audio, see video, read dialogues, and learn more at his website here.
TONY PARSONS: Nothing Being Everything; All There Is; and The Open Secret (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 Tony, 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." Although I don’t share his disdain for all forms of spiritual practice, his childlike wonder and irreverent humor can be great correctives to grueling spiritual practices based in a sense of unworthiness and an obsession with purification and self-improvement. His emphasis is on 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 points to right here, right now and 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." He does sometimes talk about an energetic shift, a pop, or a moment when the penny drops, thus suggesting that there is something to attain. But this is the paradox inherent in trying to point to the shiftless shift or the gateless gate, and in another moment he will say, "There is no such thing as liberation or awakening...All there is is being." And he always stresses that, “There is no such thing as an awakened person; that’s a contradiction in terms." He also says (and I love this): "Let’s say there is just being and ‘me’-ing…If those so-called enlightened people were honest, they would probably say to you that…there can still be a contraction into ‘me’-ing, but the final liberation is that anything is accepted and everything is accepted; nothing is denied. So both are now seen as one…There is being, but contraction can happen. It happens within the perception of the whole. Anything can happen because this is liberation…Liberation includes the total acceptance of all that is.” Or as he puts it elsewhere: "There's nowhere to go. There's no goal. There's no carrot. There's no prize. All there is is this. But the difference between there just being what's happening and the sense that it's happening to you is immeasurable." And he describes this shiftless shift as “a leap in perception, a different seeing, already inherent but unrecognised.” Beautiful! He can get rather dogmatic about asserting that his way of expressing nonduality is the One True Way, but that aside, I love his juiciness, his passion, his irreverent humor, the absence of spiritual veneer and the radical heart of his message. 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.
RAMESH S. BALSEKAR: Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj; Consciousness Speaks; A Net of Jewels; The Final Truth; Your Head in the Tiger's Mouth; From Consciousness to Consciousness; Experiencing the Teaching; Explorations into the Eternal; A Duet of One; and The Wisdom of Balsekar -- 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. This is uncompromising, non-dual 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. "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." He 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, his writing can feel quite dense, intellectual and heady, and if you find yourself getting tangled up in mental knots when you read him, I recommend putting the book down and listening to the traffic and the birds for awhile instead. 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. Ramesh has other books as well, but these are my favorites and the ones I would most recommend. More here and here.
BERNIE GLASSMAN: Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen -- This excellent book elucidates the Zen understanding of nondualism by exploring two wonderful Buddhist texts, The Heart Sutra and The Identity of Relative and Absolute. Bernie Glassman is a truly fascinating man who strikes me as very alive and awake. A cigar-smoking former aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in mathematics, Glassman is a Zen teacher, a long-time activist for peace and social justice, and the founder of the Zen Community of New York, the Zen Peacemaker Order and the Maezumi Institute. Glassman is deeply committed to "Not Knowing" ("giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe") and "Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world." He speaks of taking action in the world with no idea of a cure, and of practicing Zen not in order to become enlightened, but because we are enlightened. This book explores the nondual understanding that "form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form," and that ultimate reality is "not one, not two." Glassman loves what he calls "plunges"—"taking you out of that space of knowing and dropping you into a place of not knowing," and his varied activities over the years include creating Zen business ventures and social service projects, holding retreats on the streets of New York City where participants are homeless for a week, holding interfaith bearing witness retreats at Auschwitz and in Rwanda, working for peace in the Middle East, and clowning (he created the Order of Dis-Order). He co-authored a book with actor Jeff Bridges, and he sends his students at the Maezumi Institute off to spend nine days at Byron Katie’s School for the Work. I've always found Glassman's unpredictable and ever-changing approach to Zen immensely intriguing, and I deeply appreciate the Zen understanding of nondualism, which for my money is as subtle, 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.
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.
DAVID R. LOY: Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy and The World Is Made of Stories -- David Loy is a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy and a Zen teacher. I recommend Loy's book Nonduality to anyone who is struggling to reconcile (or differentiate) Advaita and Buddhism, or to anyone who is clinging dogmatically to one position or the other, or to anyone who wants a deeper and more subtle understanding of nonduality. The book compares and contrasts the Advaita notion of Self (Immutable Reality) with the Buddhist understanding of no self (impermanence, thorough-going flux, no-thing-ness). Loy 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. The book takes an intellectual, philosophical approach, but Loy has spent decades practicing Zen, so his understanding is not merely coming from the intellect. The World Is Made of Stories is a wonderful book that explores how our lives our shaped by language and stories and how stories transform us. Loy asks, “If delusion is awareness stuck in attention-traps, and enlightenment liberates awareness, does the spiritual path involve finding the correct story, or getting rid of stories, or learning to story in a new way?” The book includes some wonderful quotations as well from a diverse group of authors. Loy has written several other books that I have read around in and enjoyed parts of as well, including Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays and Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. Loy also co-authored a wonderful piece called "Consuming Time" in the Buddhist anthology Hooked edited by Stephanie Kaza. Loy is interested in the intersection of Buddhism with both psychology and larger social issues. He is most definitely an interesting thinker and observer of post-modern culture and nondual teachings, and he brings the discernment of a trained philospher as well as the practice-experience of a long-time Buddhist to the table in his books. You can listen to and watch a very interesting talk by David Loy here and you can learn more at his website here.
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.
H.W.L. POONJA: Wake Up & Roar (originally published as two volumes, now available in one); The Fire of Freedom: Satsang with Papaji; and This: Prose and Poetry of Dancing Emptiness -- 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. Wonderfully direct and simple, clear and full of heart, he is truly excellent at 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." Papaji sees through all 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." He attracted many Westerners (including Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro, Mooji, Eli Jaxon-Bear, Jon Bernie, Catherine Ingram and other people 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.
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. The experiments never appealed to me, although I'm guessing they are probably helpful to many people, but I did greatly enjoy Harding's writing. He has a beautiful way of pointing to what is so clear and obvious that it is easily overlooked. More about his work here.
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, a sparkling clarity, and a luminosity that is full of love, wonder and delight. This is a man who has been to hell and back and who has found the light in the darkness. Amberchele's books often include a few of Harding's "Headless Way" experiments (designed to help people experience directly the impersonal and all-inclusive Awake Capacity that we truly are). I'm not personally drawn to these experiments, but I'm sure they are helpful to many people, as they obviously were to Amberchele, and you can take them or leave them − there is plenty of other material in these books besides the experiments. What I appreciate most in these books is Amberchele's own expression, much of which I find quite insightful and beautifully written. Amberchele's life is a testimony to the fact that the universe begins anew in this moment and that no one is beyond redemption.
BENTINHO MASSARO: Insights Into Awareness -- This is (or at least was, in the version I read back when it first came out) a wonderfully clear collection of articles, available for free, by a young teacher originally from the Netherlands who is now living in the US. Several friends of mine who spent time with him in person early on in his teaching career told me that he was one of the clearest and most freeing teachers they had ever experienced. Bentinho comes across as a beaming and joyous young man full of light, and he obviously has tremendous energy. I watched a number of his early videos some years ago when I first heard of him. I was initially ready to dismiss him as some sort of mindless bliss-junky, but after listening for awhile, I found him to be very genuine, awake, intelligent, clear and liberating. What I found beautiful in his expression was the way he pointed to what is already free Here / Now, and how he spoke in plain language − no spiritual baggage from Advaita or Buddhism. When Bentinho interacted with people in the videos I saw, he never bought into their problem or their story, however convincing it might be. He always spoke to (and from) the place that is always already free and whole. His message was challenging and yet delivered with such delight and love that it instantly seemed to disarm the egoic mind and invite the listener to open up: “When you realize the indestructibility of what you are, then in that very recognition, everything that seemed so compelling at first, so serious, so threatening – even your own seriousness becomes one big joke and the mind starts to laugh, slowly at first, because it doesn't want to admit that it's been serious for no reason all this time.” Beautiful! Back then, his message seemed remarkably clean and simple. I don't know him personally and I haven't heard or read much of his more recent teachings, but at a quick glance, there seems to be more New Agey metaphysics, and his current message seems to include a strong emphasis on the power of choice and the notion that we create our own reality: “As you start choosing your state of being moment by moment, you will soon reach a point of re-empowerment, where you have remembered that your state of being is truly up to you, and up to you only; and that all things that show up in your life are derived from your state of being.” This sounds very much like The Secret and other New Age teachings that are not usually my cup of tea. Teachings of this kind seem to me to contain a grain of truth that can potentially be helpful and liberating, at least for some people, but such teachings can be very seductive to the seeking mind rooted in a sense of lack, and they all too often end up instilling guilt and shame in those who fail to create happy realities. This kind of message also seems to ignore or deny the reality of social, political and biological problems, as if the answer to everything is happy thoughts and blissful feelings. So there are probably aspects of Bentinho's current teaching that I would not entirely endorse or recommend. But I saw something truly genuine and alive and quite remarkable in this young man, and it will be interesting to see how his teaching unfolds as it goes along. My sense is that Bentinho is for real--sincere, authentic and awake--but he strikes me as one of those people who is right on that edge between genius and madness, and between enlightened confidence and hubris, and that can be a dangerous edge in someone so young and charismatic. I wish the best for him because there is something truly rare and sparkling and bright going on here. So I recommend Bentinho with a mix of enthusiasm and caution. You’ll find lots more on his website including audio and video. More here.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 a sense of present lack, or if you're seeking 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." The beauty and liberating power of this uncompromising and radical message is that it holds the line unwaveringly on the absolute completeness of what is, just as it is. Every time you try to move away from the simplicity of this-here-now into "Yes, but...." or "What if..." or "First I have to...", Nathan just keeps bringing you back to the immediacy of this. And that can be a very freeing message when it truly sinks in. Unlike Nathan, I do still see a value in meditative (i.e. nonconceptual, awareness-based) inquiry and exploration, and without it, I find that people can sometimes miss the living reality to which these radical expressions are actually pointing and instead take them on conceptually as merely a new ideology or a philosophy. But on the other hand, the uncompromising nature of radical nonduality is precisely what makes it so liberating--it allows no wiggle room for the thinking mind to sneak back in and insist that "this isn't it." When you really grok it, this radical message is immensely freeing. Nathan was a lovely, irreverent, down to earth guy who never tried to set himself above those who came to him. He worked as a gardener and held meetings in the UK about nonduality for a number of years. Nathan ended his life in 2014 after many years of a debilitating illness that left him too ill to work and without hope of recovery. His website is no longer up, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to him, and there might still be some clips of him on YouTube. Lovely man, clear and simple radical message.
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 was traveling around the world giving talks about the Unnameable, but last I heard, he was no longer doing this. He called his talks "Self-entertainment," and he functions as a kind of iconoclastic trickster, destroying all your attempts to make something out of nothing. 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 at the right moment, he can be wonderfully liberating. 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." Karl's ruthless, irreverent and iconoclastic 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. I don't share Karl's total rejection of all pathes and practices, but his uncompromising message has the potential to deconstruct beliefs, stop the seeking mind and wake you up to the recognition that there is nowhere that is not the Holy Reality. There are other books as well, and audio and video recordings of his meetings are also available. Recommended to those with a taste for rare cheese. You can learn more 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; 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. Wayne's expression is refreshingly down to earth. 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. 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. Wayne does a great 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. “All there is, is Consciousness,” he says. Wayne distinguishes between experiences of unity (which are by nature temporary) and the seamless and boundless Totality from which nothing stands apart. Entranced by the belief in the separate self and the false sense of authorship, the seeker imagines “me” flip-flopping between the experience of unity (“getting it”) and the experience of separation (“losing it”). The seeker assumes that enlightenment would mean an unending experience of oneness. But as Wayne says: “The experience of oneness and the experience of fear are both experiences. It is just that one seems to be very spiritual in nature while the other appears to be unspiritual…It’s a very common misconception that this experiential state of oneness is somehow different in its fundamental character from the experience of fear and separation. Both are experiences in phenomenality, both are overlays onto What Is…The ultimate state of Understanding encompasses both and absorbs both, but is neither to the exclusion of the other.” There are no one-sided coins, as he puts it. “Rather than being the presence of something, Enlightenment is the absence of something….It is that which is transcendent of the entire phenomenal manifestation.” And: “What we call transcendence is the dissolution of that which is concerned with going in and out of involvement.” He claims that in true enlightenment, this dissolution is permanent, and that for him, all sense of personal authorship is gone forever and can never reappear. I'm not a fan of this "finish-line" model of enlightenment, but to his credit, Wayne does stress that there is no enlightened person, and in his more recent writing, he even acknowledges that “awakening takes many forms. For some it is sudden and dramatic, for others, gradual and barely noticeable.” And whatever seems to happen or not happen, Totality is all there is; it has no opposite: "There is nothing to become," Wayne says, "We are all already That." But if you do 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 emphasizes 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 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.
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.
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.
HUBERT BENOIT: Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine (originally published as The Supreme Doctrine) − Joko Beck describes this book as "her main teacher" and says 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. The book is unfortunately not easy to read, and the choice of words (whether in the original or the translation, I don't know) often feels not the best to me, but reading it anyway is well worth the effort. It was translated from the French by Benoit's friend Wei Wu Wei.Excellent book!
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.
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.
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.
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. More here.
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.
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 chapter called "Shunyata" in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. 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 slept with female students, 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.
CHERI HUBER: The Key: And the Name of the Key Is Willingness -- A very simple, clear, handwritten book, illustrated with drawings, and full of wonderful insight. 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 deal with common psychological issues such as self-hatred and depression through the approach of Zen Awareness Practice, which she is careful to distinguish from self-improvement. There is great wisdom in all her books along with many liberating exercises. Cheri truly and passionately belives that awareness has the power to resolve all our human problems; in fact, she says in one of her other books, "If you follow the process outlined here, I can promise you this: It will work...If I can reach a place of freedom, anyone can." I'm not as certain as Cheri is that this approach will work for anyone and everyone under all circumstances, but I do think awareness is the key to liberation and that Cheri's gentle, down-to-earth guidance can help many people. Some of her many wonderful titles include When You're Falling, Dive; How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything; There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate; The Depression Book: Depression As An Opportunity for Spiritual Growth; The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once & for All; 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; I Don't Want To, I Don't Feel Like It. 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: The Psychology of Zen Koans -- Barry Magid is a psychoanalyst and a Zen teacher in the lineage of Charlotte Joko Beck. He draws on his experiences as both a psychiatrist and a Zen teacher to explore what it means to be human and to live a truly fulfilling life. The book is organized around Zen koans which he uses as a kind of springboard into the areas he wants to explore. He writes honestly and intelligently, uncovering many of the common pitfalls into which nondual forms of spirituality such as Zen can unwittingly tumble. One of the things I appreciate about this book is that Barry doesn’t get stuck on either side of any conceptual divide. He recognizes the reality of both wholeness and multiplicity, seamless interdependence and boundaries, self and no self, and so on. Our dualistic mind always thinks these opposite polarities are at war with one another, that one is “more true” than the other, that “the good one” must triumph over “the bad one,” but true nondualism is the recognition that both polarities work together. Barry has two earlier books, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness and Ordinary Mind, both of which I also remember enjoying. He teaches at Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC. More here.
SUSAN MURPHY: Upside-Down Zen: Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary – Susan Murphy is a Zen teacher (also a filmmaker, writer, and mother) in Australia who writes exquisitely. She uses language with the eloquence and passion of an ecstatic, devotional poet. The words come alive on the page, evoking the openness and aliveness of this moment. “There are still untouched and wild places in this world, as close as your own breathing," she writes. "Meditation, an utterly embodied practice, is often an education in catching up and becoming consonant with your wise, wild, animal body, with its sharp keenness for life rooted in an old knowing that it dies.” Susan so beautifully captures the marriage of play and rigor, commitment and letting go, boundless eternity and the bones and breath of each unique and embodied moment. Subtle, passionate, wise, direct, and right to the heart of the matter, this book brings 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 this book. It speaks to anyone with an interest in waking up. John Tarrant, one of Susan's teachers and another favorite of mine, writes the foreword. More on Susan 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
SAM HARRIS: Free Will and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion – Sam Harris has a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in neuroscience, and he is the author of many books, most notably perhaps The End of Faith, in which he argues against belief-based religion (particularly the Abrahamic religions) and in favor of science and reason. While I disagree at times with some of his views about religion and his conclusions on a number of political issues, I almost always find his work interesting, thought-provoking, and in many ways on the mark. In addition to his training in philosophy and neuroscience, Sam has practiced meditation for many years. He has been with a number of teachers including Sayadaw U Pandita, H.W.L. Poonja and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, he counts Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein as one of his friends, and he has direct experience with seeing through the illusory nature of the separate self. Free Will is a very clear and 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. Waking Up is about waking up without the dogmas, beliefs, cultural accoutrements and absurd stupidities that too often accompany spirituality. The book offers an exploration of consciousness (in which I'm not sure Sam has it entirely right, but the exploration is interesting), a deconstruction of the illusion of the self and a careful look at exactly what it is about the self that is illusory, and a look at the efficacy of practices such as meditation. Sam offers an insightful comparison of gradual and sudden approaches to awakening, a rational critique (but not a dismissal) of gurus and teachers, an excellent critique of some cherished New Age ideas such as near death experiences, and some thoughts on the usefulness of psychedelics and other drugs. I don't completely agree with all of his judgments and conclusions, but I do appreciate his scientific rigor and his unwillingness to swallow spiritual Kool-Aid and be seduced by foolish beliefs. I'm very glad he's around, saying what he's saying. I do find him somewhat strident at times, and his books do feel as though they emerge primarily from the intellect and not from the spacious openness of presence (although clearly many of the insights do come from direct experience). 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. Both Waking Up and Free Will are definitely worth reading. 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 highly recommended. More here.
STEPHEN LEVINE: Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart; and Who Dies? -- With his wife Ondrea, Stephen has spent his life working with people who are terminally ill, as well as with war veterans, concentration camp survivors, survivors of sexual abuse, and people suffering from "the loss of dignity due to racial and religious prejudice, or the multitude of finely wrought cultural humiliations suffered by women, the aged, children, the infirm, and the less than 'beautiful.'" His own history included drugs and prison years ago. His approach is Buddhist-oriented but eclectic and open-minded. This is a gentle and tender teaching that can soften your belly (as he likes to say), open your heart, and invite loving-kindness to others and to yourself. More here.
CLAUDE ANSHIN THOMAS: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace -- Thomas is an American Zen monk, teacher and peace activist. As a young man, he fought in the Vietnam War. He won numerous medals, killed hundreds of people, witnessed unimaginable cruelty and suffering, and narrowly escaped death. He returned home with severe post traumatic stress and fell into drug and alcohol addiction, isolation and homelessness. He eventually attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for Vietnam veterans and that started him on the Buddhist path. Later ordained by Bernie Glassman, Thomas now teaches Zen and has taken vows as a mendicant. This book is honest, real, and direct. It shows the Buddhist way through suffering, not abstractly, but through the eyes and example of someone who is living that journey, breath by breath. Thomas writes: "Our culture operates with the idea that healing means the absence of pain, but I've come to understand that healing doesn't mean that our pain and suffering go away. Healing is learning to live in a different relationship with our pain and suffering so it does not control us. The only way in which I can heal my wounds, the only way in which I can awaken, is to live in the present moment in mindfulness, breathing in and breathing out." Thomas teaches a grounded, committed, embodied, practice-oriented approach to Buddhism. While 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.
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," arguing that the whole construction of spirituality is bankrupt: "As a conditioned expression of our sense of lack, [spirituality] is caught in its own promise of fulfillment." Steven rejects 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. He dismisses "being in the now," mindfulness meditation, non-duality, Advaita, New Age self-improvement programs, psychotherapy -- all the popular answers on the spiritual scene today. 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. Steven suggests that radical transformation is possible only through direct contact with actuality, and if you think you know what actuality is, that isn't it. If you're ready to question all your ideas about spirituality and nonduality, these books will at the very least raise some excellent questions and challenge your beliefs. I greatly appreciate the way Steven questions and deconstructs all the prevailing answers, his honesty and inquiring spirit, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
GONEBOY: A Father's Search for the Truth in His Son's Murder (a new and updated edition of a book originally titled Goneboy: A Walkabout) by Gregory Gibson -- This is not a spiritual book or a book about nonduality, but I recommend it because of the way it shows again and again how things are not what we think they are. In 1992, Gregory Gibson's eighteen-year-old son was shot and killed by a fellow student in a shooting rampage at Simon's Rock College that left two dead and several more injured. The book is a true story about the author's journey toward understanding and coming to grips with the murder of his son. Gibson takes us with him on this "walkabout" as he meets with school officials, gun dealers, lawyers, psychiatrists, friends of the shooter, and finally the parents of the shooter and eventually the shooter himself. I couldn't put the book down. It's an honest and insightful page-turner and an extraordinary story. Be sure to get the updated 2011 North Atlantic Books edition with the introduction, prologue and afterword, as it contains important new developments not in the original version. The Amazon listing is very confusing if you just type in the title, but here's a link to the new edition on Amazon.
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