JOAN'S ANNOTATED RECOMMENDED READING LIST
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This list of recommended authors and books is in no way intended to be a comprehensive or definitive list, and I'm not endorsing every single word spoken or written by any of these authors (including Joan Tollifson, whose mind has been known to change). Some of these I read many years ago and might see differently now. Sometimes when I return to a book, I hear it in a whole new way. In fact, we never read the same book twice, any more than we step into the same river twice or are the same person from one instant to the next. The printed word can seem set in stone, but it isn’t really. It’s alive, and reading is a kind of dance between reader and text. This list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself, which is alive and ever-changing, and can be seen in many different ways. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don't believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. Always be ready to question your conclusions and to see something new and unexpected. – J.T.
JOAN TOLLIFSON: Death: The End of Self-Improvement (2019); Nothing to Grasp (2012); Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (2010); Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is (2003); and Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (1996) − My books are about seeing through (and waking up from) the imaginary problems created by conceptual thought, and discovering the aliveness, openness and immediacy here-now. My books always encourage the reader to investigate directly rather than holding onto beliefs or second-hand ideas. All my books include material drawn from my own life. At the same time, all of them are about seeing through the stories of our lives and waking up from the belief that we are an autonomous, separate individual who is authoring our thoughts and making our decisions. My first book (Bare-Bones) is a spiritual memoir published in 1996; two others (Heartland and Death) combine personal narrative with impersonal expository or poetic prose; Painting the Sidewalk is a collection of talks and dialogs; Nothing to Grasp is a concise distillation of my essential message; and Death, my most recent book, is about aging, dying, and being alive here and now. You can learn more about all of them here. These books all invite the discovery that the body-mind-world is an undivided, seamless, ever-changing, ungraspable, unresolvable happening with no inside or outside. My books explore questions of identity, free will, addiction, suffering, transformation, nonduality, awareness and the nature of experience. All my books point to the simplicity and immediacy of right here, right now, just as it is, and they invite a kind of meditative exploration that is direct, non-methodical, awareness-based and not result-oriented. I write from my own direct experience and insight, but my perspective has been informed by elements of Buddhism, Advaita, radical nonduality and nontraditional inquiry. Readers have expressed appreciation for the honesty, clarity and humor in all of these books. Learn more about them 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. She was a Zen teacher who left the tradition behind to work in a simpler and more open way. Her overall approach, which she called "the work of this moment" or "meditative inquiry," is about meeting whatever is here with non-judgmental curiosity, seeing through the thoughts and stories that so often run our lives, and coming upon “an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.” Toni saw the roles of "teacher" and "student" as a divisive hindrance to the freedom of open inquiry, and she always regarded herself as a friend and fellow-explorer. 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 grew up half-Jewish in Germany during the rise and reign of Hitler. The city where she lived was bombed during the war, and the family was in constant danger of being sent to a concentration camp. Living in an atmosphere of war, persecution, uncertainty and atrocities pushed Toni into a deep questioning of life. After the war, she married an American and eventually took up Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center. She would probably have been Roshi Kapleau’s first dharma successor had she not begun to question the traditional aspects of Zen: the ritual, the hierarchy, the authority, the dogmas. As that was happening, she encountered J. Krishnamurti, attended many of his talks, and he validated, reinforced and further opened up what she had been coming to herself. She left the Zen Center in 1982, and with her students (or friends, as she preferred), founded what became Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in rural, northwestern New York. I met her in the late 80s, was on staff at Springwater until the mid-90s, and Toni and I remained in touch until her death in 2013 at the age of 86. At Rochester Zen Center, they had used traditional koans, but Toni came to feel that everyday life was the real koan. Work, relationships, the messiness of everyday life—THIS was the koan. I pressed her once on why she focused so much attention in her talks on emotions such as anger and fear, rather than talking more about boundless awareness. She said if you talk about it too much, it can become an idea, and people can start chasing experiences, so she preferred to focus on illuminating and seeing through what gets in the way of this natural openness, letting people discover boundlessness themselves. Springwater continued to offer silent retreats as they do in Zen, but in a much more open and bare-bones way. Toni wasn't interested in the abstractions of metaphysics, philosophy or ideology, and her work was always rooted in present moment awareness, direct insight, and the breath and bones of ordinary life. The mind habitually wants comforting, feel-good answers; Toni provided none: "No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn't seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what's here now, is that possible?" Toni asked questions rather than handing out answers. She was wonderful at waking you up to the wonder, simplicity and immediacy of the nondual absolute: the wind in the trees, the swaying grasses, the chirp of a bird, the hum of the air conditioner, the listening silence being and beholding it all. 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. She had a keen eye for when the mind was turning insight into dogma or making something out of no-thing. She invited us to question what it is that gets defensive or hurt, to see if we could find the "me" at the center of our lives, to pay careful attention as choices and decisions unfolded to see if there was a chooser or a choice. And while this inquiry reveals that there is no self with individual free will, 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 and to not know what is or isn’t possible in this moment. I recommend Toni for the open and explorative spirit that she so beautifully conveys, for the clarity with which she sees through all stories and beliefs, for her remarkable ability to point to the deepest truth in a way that is utterly alive and immediate, and for the nuanced subtlety of her expression. In the last decade or more of her life, Toni lived with severe chronic pain and increasing disability, and in her last years, she was bedridden, but she continued to work with people even then. She asked a number of people to carry on, and Springwater Center continues to offer retreats on a lovely 200 acres in rural northwestern NY. 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 all those who are offering retreats there now (Richard Witteman, Wayne Coger, Sandra Gonzalez, Les Schaffer, Bob Dattola, Stew Glick, Susan Schepp, and others). You can learn more at the Springwater website, and you can find a treasure trove of Toni's talks (audio and video) on the Springwater Center YouTube channel, including recordings from the early days of Genesee Valley Zen Center when Toni was still using koans and Zen terminology, through all the years when she was teaching at Springwater Center, on up to her final years when she was quite ill—many phases in her life and many amazing and wonderful talks. There are a few talks by some of the current Springwater teachers as well. I talk about Toni and read from one of her books in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV, and my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation, is largely about living at Springwater and working with Toni. There is a chapter about Springwater in Richard Bryan McDaniel’s book Cypress Trees in the Garden, in which he interviews two of the second generation of Springwater “teachers” (who don’t like to use that word), Sandra Gonzalez and Wayne Coger. These are wonderful interviews that give a real feeling for the nature of the work at Springwater. Toni was one of the greatest teachers of all time, in my opinion, and I feel incredibly blessed to have been with her. Toni's books and talks, her successors, and Springwater Center itself are all very highly recommended. More here.
ALAN WATTS: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are; Out of Your Mind; and The Wisdom of Insecurity − These three books are excellent. They will give you an excellent understanding of the nondual perspective found in Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Taoism, but without any of the traditional baggage. He zeroes right in on the undivided, seamless, interdependent and playful nature of reality; the union of opposites; and the illusion of a separate self with independent free will. Alan Watts was an unconventional, iconoclastic, renegade who left organized religion behind and went right to the heart of the matter, and this he communicated with great lucidity and always with a sense of humor and play. Watts was perhaps the single person most responsible for introducing Zen and eastern spirituality to America. If you haven't read him in a long time, he's definitely worth exploring anew, and if you've never read him before, by all means do. Clear, direct, right on the mark, and always enjoyable to read. Watts was a one-time Christian minister with a doctorate in theology who left the church and turned to Vedanta and Zen, both of which he came to understand deeply and experientially, to the core and the root. There are many other wonderful books (including The Way of Zen) and several fine audio collections available now, and you can find Alan Watts on YouTube as well. I talk about and read from The Book by Alan Watts in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. More here and here. All very highly recommended.
ECKHART TOLLE: A New Earth; Stillness Speaks; The Power of Now; Practicing the Power of Now; and Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from Our Dogs and Cats – Eckhart is an exceptionally clear contemporary teacher whose expression is deeply grounded in presence and refreshingly free of conventional religious or dogmatic trappings. He is excellent at shifting the focus of attention from the habitual entrancement in thought-stories to the boundlessness of nonconceptual presence. This is about awareness, not intellctual information or beliefs. German by birth, Eckhart now lives in western Canada. His message is all about being fully awake in the (timeless) Now, seeing through the illusory separate self, and discovering the "eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." His talks and the pages of his books are palpably saturated with the awake stillness that he embodies and expresses so beautifully. Eckhart points eloquently and simply to the transformative power of awareness and presence. He illuminates the workings of the egoic mind—the habitual thoughts and behaviors that obscure the truth—with great clarity. He has a wonderfully whimsical sense of humor, and he so perfectly, with such spot-on accuracy and love, captures and pokes fun at the obsessive machinations of the thinking mind. Eckhart offers a stripped down, bare-bones, nondual approach to meditation and the art of present moment living, a very simple and direct way of seeing through thought-created suffering and being fully present with whatever is showing up, including an intelligent way of working with difficult emotions, compulsions and neurotic patterns (what he calls the pain-body). He once described his teaching as being like a marriage of Ramana Maharshi and J. Krishnamurti, and that feels on the mark to me. If you're all tied up in mental knots trying to think your way to enlightenment, Eckhart is excellent at waking you up from the mental trance of concepts and beliefs, and bringing you into the aliveness and immediacy of Now. To his credit, he has managed to speak to a wide range of people in ways that they can hear—e.g. he did a series with Oprah that was seen by millions worldwide. Eckhart has a beautiful ability to start wherever the questioner is and then open it up in deeper ways. I find him very genuine, and I greatly appreciate the fact that he is able to express the essence of being aware and present in simple, non-religious language that is accessible to a wide range of people. Eckhart (or more likely his team) seem to employ marketing strategies designed to attract a wide range of listeners by using alluring titles such as “Finding Your Life Purpose” or “Conscious Manifestation.” These sound New Agey, and they have put off many hardcore nondualists, but in every book or talk by Eckhart with a title like this that I’ve heard or read, he always brings it right back to here and now: your life purpose is to be present now; the “new earth” is Now; and so on. So don't let the marketing put you off. The beauty of his teaching is that he invites the listener to discover what's here now as a felt reality, and to see through the mental concepts, stories and ideas about it. There is tremendous depth and subtlety in all of Eckhart's books and talks, and I recommend them all very highly. A New Earth is his most comprehensive and recent book, and the one I would most highly recommend for getting his complete teaching. It's a masterpiece. Stillness Speaks is a highly distilled jewel that offers the essence of his message in sutra-like form—exquisitely clear and simple. The Power of Now was Eckhart's first book, and it is excellent. Practicing the Power of Now is a short book that distills some of the key material in The Power of Now along with some new material, also very good. There is a great deal of audio and video also available. Some of my favorites have been discontinued, but some excellent DVDs that I believe are still available include: Finding Your Life's Purpose; The Flowering of Human Consciousness; What Is Meditation; and The Art of Presence. Some excellent CDs I enjoyed include: Through the Open Door and Stillness Admidst the World. There are many others available that I haven't seen or heard, with new ones being added all the time, and I'm sure they're all excellent. There's an excellent, profound interview with him on YouTube here where he talks to a young man, first outdoors, and then inside his home, and that part indoors is what I really loved and would very highly recommend. I'd also highly recommend the podcast Russell Brand did with Eckhart in June 2020 that you can watch here on YouTube. Eckhart also offers retreats, often co-teaching with his partner, Kim Eng. More at Eckhart's website here. All very highly recommended.
DARRYL BAILEY: Essence Revisited; Dismantling the Fantasy; and "What the...?" A Conversation about Living − These slim books are powerful gems that offer the simplest, clearest, cleanest, most lucid and concise articulation of the dynamic, ever-changing, seamless, automatic and inconceivable nature of reality that I have ever encountered. When this is truly grokked, it is an immensely liberating realization. Darryl's writing is spare, lean, stripped down to the bone, minimalist and yet poetic, uncompromisingly radical (to the root), unpretentious, and refreshingly free of jargon, metaphysical beliefs or any kind of bullshit. He shows you that in this living reality, there is no separation or solidity, that the apparently separate self with free will is an illusion, and that nothing could be otherwise in this moment from how it is: "Whatever we are now, whatever we're doing now, is an inexplicable movement accomplishing itself. Nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it…We don’t exist as anything apart from this flow." Darryl focuses on three main points: everything is changing, there is no way to describe or understand what this is, and there is no one controlling any of it. Impermanence (or what he calls unform) is so thorough-going that no separate forms ever actually exist or persist. Everything is an inconceivable, uncontrollable happening, happening by itself. “Ultimately, my descriptions are false too," he says, "but they invite you to step out of description, in order to experience a sense of freedom and well-being that is impossible to create or to understand." Darryl’s expression is never prescriptive, never aimed at self-improvement or an escape from the pains and difficulties of life. His writing is a dismantling of every hopeful and curative fantasy, every place you try to land, every thing you try to grasp. Of course, it is precisely our hopeful grasping and our belief that we "should" be other than how we are that is our suffering, so realizing what Darryl points out is a huge and liberating relief. Although he spent many years meditating as a Buddhist monk, he doesn't offer any kind of meditative path, but he does invite what he calls a simple, non-conceptual "acknowledgement of the moment," in which "nothing needs to be accomplished," and where "attention has permission to rest with the entire happening of the moment," rather than being totally immersed in the storylines of thought. This could be called meditation, but Darryl makes it clear that he is not talking about techniques, or being in any particular posture, or doing any sort of intentional concentration or mindfulness practice. His emphasis is never on experiences or states of consciousness, but always on “the inexplicable wholeness of existence freely expressing itself." This, as he makes clear, is effortlessly always already happening. Our every thought, urge, impulse, desire, mood and action is this inexplicable wholeness; there is no "wrong" expression. Everything is a "vibrant, mysterious dance.” Darryl emphasizes the impossibility of influencing or controlling our lives or the world through individual choice or will-power: “Our appearance, direction, and actions simply happen. This realization is freedom." And he says, “This would be a doctrine of determinism if we existed as something separate from the movement of the universe, something being pushed around by it. But we’re not separate from it; we are this movement." By focusing on the choiceless nature of everything, and by refusing to offer anything prescriptive to do, Darryl brings the mind to a complete stop in its relentless search for a solution or an attainment: "Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself," he writes. "In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise." Elsewhere he writes: “This is a complete opening to the unformed, the undirected, the uncontrolled, the unexpected, and the unpredictable. This openness is often called love...This love is not some cold, intellectual understanding; it’s an openness of heart...a truly sensitive vulnerability to what is.” When this radical message is truly realized, it brings forth instant compassion for oneself and everyone else being expressed in exactly the way we are in each moment, and it puts an end to seeking what is always already fully present and actually inescapable. I love the simplicity and purity of this kind of radical message. Darryl did much direct exploration on his own, and also studied with mindfulness meditation teacher Ruth Denison for nine years, spent six years as a Buddhist monk under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho, had significant contact with both J. Krishnamurti and Robert Adams, and was profoundly affected by the insights of Ramesh Balsekar and UG Krishnamurti. Essence Revisited and Dismantling the Fantasy both lay out his essential message in a clear and simple way. "What the...?" A Conversation about Living, his most recent book, does the same, but in this one, Darryl also shares the story of his own journey, something he previously always refused to do, as well as offering some key questions for inquiry and exploration. He has one other book, Buddhessence, his first book, in which he distills the original, core, radical teachings of the Buddha along with material from developmental psychology, Alan Watts and U.G. Krishnamurti, and that one is available from his website. Darryl currently lives in Winnipeg, Canada and has worked as an ice fisherman, bus driver, suit salesman, childcare worker, carpenter and maintenance man among other things. He retired not long ago after many years working in a warehouse. He was offering "explorations" of non-duality in Winnipeg and occasionally elsewhere as well as monthly podcasts, but he stopped all of that, feeling his work is complete, although he recently told me a new book is forthcoming. He may still respond to emails, maybe he still does phone meetings, I'm not sure, and his archived podcasts are available on his website. In addition to Darryl's wonderful books, other writing plus excellent audio and video is available on his website. Very highly recommended. More here.
NISARGADATTA MAHARAJ: I Am That (dialogs with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman) — This is the most well-worn book in my library; in fact, my first copy completely disintegrated. Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897—1981) was a rare jewel − an Indian guru, a family man and a shopkeeper, living and teaching in the back lanes of Bombay. His teaching is Advaita Vedanta. Advaita means "not two," and refers to a nontheistic, nondual form of Hinduism that relies primarily on direct seeing rather than on scriptures, dogma or tradition. Nisargadatta is one of the clearest Advaita sages, and this book is full of profound insight. "Stop thinking of achievement of any kind," he says, "You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing.” He points to the boundless and formless conscious presence or beingness Here-Now, which he often calls the "I AM," the impersonal sense of being present that is here prior to everything that gets added on later (such as name, gender, social status, profession, etc). "Reality is what makes the present so vital," he says, "so different from the past and future, which are merely mental. If you need time to achieve something, it must be false." He points beyond our deeply held assumption that what appears Here-Now has any kind of inherent, observer-independent, objective reality outside of consciousness, and instead he compares everything perceivable and conceivable to a dream: "Just as the dream state is untrue, the waking state is also an appearance. Both happen spontaneously. Our talk is also taking place in a dream." Ultimately, Nisargadatta points beyond consciousness itself, to what is prior to the entire movie of waking life and even to that first bare sense of being present: "The sense of presence which has come spontaneously will leave spontaneously," he says. "The desire to be is the strongest of all desires and will go only on the realization of your true nature." His teaching can be summarized in a nutshell by one of his most beautiful statements: “When I see that I am nothing, that is Wisdom; when I see that I am everything, that is Love; and between the two my life flows.” Nisargadatta points not to attaining something new or having some exotic experience. It is rather about seeing through delusions and discovering what remains: “Expect nothing from experience. Realisation by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences. Yet the new experiences, however interesting, are not more real than the old. Definitely realisation is not a new experience. It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience.” Or as he puts it elsewhere: "There is no such thing as enlightenment. The appreciation of this fact is itself enlightenment." Described by Maurice Frydman as "warm-hearted, tender, shrewdly humorous, absolutely fearless and true," Nisargadatta could be fierce as well as loving, and he definitely didn’t conform to the stereotypic image of a soft-spoken, other-worldly, beatific guru. He smoked bidis (Indian cigarettes) during his satsangs, even as he was dying of throat cancer, and he would sometimes yell at people and throw them out. He offered satsang not in some quiet or idyllic location, but in a small apartment in a noisy, crowded, seedy part of Bombay near the red light district. Self-improvement was never his concern—he pointed to what is already free, prior to the body and the mind, prior to consciousness: “You are not confined to your body; you are everywhere. The limitation is your imagination.” And as he puts it elsewhere: “The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite…it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.” In addition to I Am That, I would also very highly recommend Consciousness and the Absolute: The Final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (his final and most radical teachings, edited by Jean Dunn) and Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj (excellent paraphrases of his teachings rendered by Ramesh Balsekar, who was one of Nisargadatta's translators). Other collections I have enjoyed include Seeds of Consciousness and Prior to Consciousness (both also edited by Jean Dunn); The Experience of Nothingness, The Ultimate Medicine and The Nectar of Immortality (all edited by Robert Powell); I AM THAT I AM: A Tribute to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (by Stephen Wolinsky); Freedom from Imagination (a poetic, non-literal rendering by Prasanna of previously unpublished material of Nisargadatta, published by NetiNeti Media); The Wisdom-Teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Visual Journey (distilled gems from Nisargadatta along with photos of him, edited by Matthew Greenblatt); Nothing Is Everything (edited by Mohan Gaitonde); and Beyond Freedom (edited by Maria Jory). There is an excellent DVD that I very highly recommend called Awaken to the Eternal: A Journey of Self-Discovery made by Inner Directions (Joan and Matthew Greenblatt and Bertram Salzman), which includes actual footage of Nisargadatta along with interviews with many people who spent time with him (Jack Kornfield, Robert Powell, Jean Dunn, and others). There is also an excellent series of DVDs about Nisargadatta produced by NetiNeti Media (Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo in collaboration with Stephen Wolinsky), with commentaries on Nisargadatta's teachings as interpreted by Wolinsky. You can find some audio recordings of Nisargadatta on the Urban Guru Cafe. You might also enjoy my reading from and talking about I Am That in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. Adyashanti did a wonderful exploration of Nisargadatta’s teachings that you might be able to find on his website. Nisargadatta has had a huge impact on me, and I consider him very clear and on the mark. Very highly recommended.
STEVE HAGEN: Buddhism Is Not What You Think; The Grand Delusion: What We Know but Don't Believe; Buddhism Plain & Simple; Meditation Now or Never -- These are all excellent, outstanding books, all of which I very highly recommend. Steve is one of the clearest, most awake and most articulate Zen teachers I've encountered, and I continue to learn from him. He is also a former science researcher. Many books and teachings give you something to hold onto and believe in, however subtle it might be, but Steve gives you absolutely nothing to grasp, and he shows you that this alone is true freedom. This is the radical (true and original) kind of Buddhism that is about nothing more or less than being awake right now. As Steve puts it, “This is about awareness. Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself—being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening. It’s about examining and exploring the most basic questions of life. It’s about relying on the immediate experience of this present moment. It’s not about belief, doctrine, formula, or tradition. It’s about freedom of mind.” Meditation, as Steve uses the word, is not a relaxation technique, nor is it about visualization or getting into special trance or samadhi states. It is "the practice of awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now." And as he says, "Meditation is not escapism, or tuning anything out. Meditation is tuning in and facing our problems head-on." The understanding that Steve conveys about impermanence, enlightenment and nonduality is so subtle, clear and complete that it instantly dissolves all conceptual fixations, leaving only the suchness that can never be formulated. Steve is excellent at clarifying the distinction between reality and our ideas about reality, between conceptual thought and direct perception. He goes right to the root of what creates human suffering, exposing the habitual tendency to freeze and grasp life with concepts and then to mistake the conceptual map for the actual living territory. Steve talks about emptiness not as a big empty space that contains all the forms, but as the impermanence that is so total, complete and thoroughgoing that no-thing actually ever forms to even be impermanent: “It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.” This understanding completely erases all the false dualistic divides between form and emptiness, consciousness and matter, free will and determinism. He also makes the point that, as a famous Zen text says, “Encountering Absolute is still not enlightenment.” As Steve says, “When people first get a taste of Oneness they often think they’ve experienced enlightenment. This Oneness is a necessary realization, but it’s not enlightenment, simply because Oneness does not account for the multiplicity that we encounter in every moment. Truly seeing Reality is experiencing these two views [unicity and multiplicity] at once so as to create a new, complete view…Unless we see both at once, we’ll not understand consciousness. This is because consciousness itself is the dividing up of what is otherwise a seamless Whole.” Enlightenment is not “out there,” Steve says. “It’s already here, now.” It’s not an experience of ecstasy or bliss, and there is no such thing as “after enlightenment,” he writes. “Enlightenment lies beyond any idea of time…like everything else that we can name or describe or conceptualize, [ecstatic moments and blissful states] don’t last…Something else takes place with enlightenment…from which you don’t emerge. This is because what is finally realized is that there was no ‘you’ to go into enlightenment in the first place.” Buddhism Is Not What You Think is my favorite of his books, but he considers The Grand Delusion his most important book, and it is his most recent. Steve has put up a web page where you can learn more about that book, access related talks and articles of his, and ask him questions related to the book. Steve has another book called Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense: An Inquiry into Science, Philosophy, and Perception that is more scientific in nature and not nearly as easy to read as Steve's other books, but it is worth the effort. In this book, as in The Grand Delusion, Steve points to the nonsubstantial nature of reality and argues for the primacy of Mind: "It's only when consciousness is seen as antecedent to matter that our problems with consciousness cease," and "True Knowledge, or Certitude, is pure, objectless Awareness." (That book was originally published as How the World Can Be the Way It Is, but the new edition, Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense, is updated and revised, and if you're going to read it, I recommend the newer edition--and if you find yourself unable to undertstand certain parts where he gets into complicated math and science, my advice is to just skip over those parts and keep going. You'll get something from the book even if you can't follow all of it.) A Zen priest in the lineage of Dainin Katagiri, Steve founded Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. He teaches Zen practice in a pretty bare-bones, stripped-down way, without much ceremony or fanfare, but it is still formal Zen practice, so he occasionally says things about sitting postures and hand positions and so on that don't particularly resonate with me, but the heart of what he says is spot on. I have found Steve to be truly humble, awake, down to earth, and very bright. He is a true Zen Master, in my opinion, although he would never tell you that. I highly recommend Dharma Field to anyone who feels drawn to formal Zen practice, and I very highly recommend Steve's books and talks to everyone with an interest in nonduality and waking up. This is excellent material. Buddhism Is Not What You Think had a huge impact on me—that’s the first book of his I read, and I found all his other books very enlightening as well. I attended a few sesshins (Zen meditation retreats) with Steve when I was living in Chicago, and I continue to listen to his talks and dip into his books, all of which I have read many times. I talk about Steve and read a bit from one of his books in the "Important Books in My Life" interview I did on Conscious TV. You can hear and see dharma talks by Steve and other Dharma Field teachers on their YouTube channel. You can also find a wealth of excellent talks and classes by Steve and other Dharma Field teachers (I especially recommend Norm Randolph and Cynthia Scott) on the Dharma Field website. Steve's books are not to be missed. Very highly recommended.
HUANG PO: The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind, transl. by John Blofeld — Clear, direct, original Zen from one of the greatest masters. Huang Po, who lived in the ninth century, cuts through all concepts and leaves you with nothing. Then he takes away any idea of nothing. Here are some selections from the book: “All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you—begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured….If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. Our original Buddha-Nature is…devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy…That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress towards Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all. You will come to look upon those aeons of work and achievement as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream…There is nowhere which is outside the Buddha-Mind…Relinquishment of everything is the Dharma…but the relinquishment of ALL delusions leaves no Dharma on which to lay hold…You must see clearly that there is really nothing at all—no humans and no Buddhas. The great chiliocosms, numberless as grains of sand, are mere bubbles. All wisdom and all holiness are but streaks of lightning. None of them have the reality of Mind…These mountains, these rivers, the whole world itself, together with sun, moon and stars—not one of them exists outside your minds!...Your true nature is something never lost to you even in moments of delusion, nor is it gained at the moment of Enlightenment…Above all, have no longing to become a future Buddha; your sole concern should be, as thought succeeds thought, to avoid clinging to any of them…Do not permit the least movement of your minds to disturb you. This alone is what is called liberation. Ah, be diligent! Be diligent!” Excellent, crystal clear! Very highly recommended.
ANAM THUBTEN: No Self, No Problem and The Magic of Awareness − Anam Thubten is a very awake, wonderful, clear, deeply realized contemporary teacher, originally from Tibet, who has been living and teaching in the West for many years now. He teaches from the heart and his whole being seems to radiate boundless love and deep transparent presence. He has a wonderful sense of humor, genuine humility, and he comes across as refreshingly down-to-earth and unbound by tradition or dogma. Anam Thubten is at the nondual edge of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Simple and radical in his approach, Anam Thubten invites us to see through the frozen mirage-world of stories and concepts and to wake up (or melt) to our True Nature as boundless love and pure awareness, not in some airy-fairy, transcendent, other-worldly way, but right here in the immediacy of what is, as it is. Clear and full of light, he has this wonderful twinkle of amusement and wonderment in his eyes. He sees our human foibles and imperfections very clearly, but always with humor and genuine empathy, and he encourages us to love ourselves and the world just as we are, to find nirvana in samsara and enlightenment in delusion. His expression is open, honest, and warm-hearted. Here are some quotes to give you a taste: "All of the problems we fight against do not really exist....When we don't believe in our thoughts we are always awakened. When we believe in our thoughts we are unawakened....Love is the ability to see every circumstance and every being as perfect just as they are...It is the total acceptance of all things....In every moment we are absolutely perfect....It's okay to fail and to fail continuously, time after time. In fact, every time we fail we should give ourselves a chocolate as a reward....The heart of all spirituality is to love this life, to enjoy this life...Awareness is like a fire because it burns down all illusions right there on the spot....When we start inquiring into what is holding us back from realizing the truth, we come to the realization that there is really nothing there. There are no obstacles. Nothing is holding us back from awakening." Anam Thubten is the head teacher at the Dharmata Foundation, based in the California Bay Area, and he gives talks and holds retreats all over the United States and the world. If you have the opportunity to be with him in person, by all means take it. Excellent audio and video is also available. He has several other books including The Fragrance of Emptiness: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra; Embracing Each Moment; A Sacred Compass: Navigating Life Through the Bardo Teachings; Choosing Compassion: How to Be of Benefit in a World That Needs Our Love; and a book of poems titled Big Sky; but The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem are my top favorites. Anam Thubten is a beautiful, rare, amazing jewel. Very highly recommended. More here.
RAMANA MAHARSHI: The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi: A Visual Journey (edited by Matthew Greenblatt); and Heart Is Thy Name, Oh Lord: Moments of Silence with Sri Ramana Maharshi (edited by Bharati Mirchandani) — Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was a deeply realized Indian sage who was mostly silent. He pointed to the one Self that is the ever-present reality behind all appearances. His teaching was essentially Advaita Vedanta (nondualism), although he pointed beyond all tradition to the Heart that is ever-present Here-Now. He lived at the foot of the sacred mountain Arunachala, radiated love to all beings, held wild animals in his hands, and had a beloved cow named Lakshmi. He said, “There is no greater mystery than this: Being Reality ourselves, we seek to gain Reality. We think that there is something hiding Reality and that it must be destroyed before the truth is gained. This is clearly ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will laugh at your past efforts. What you realize on the day you laugh is also here and now....Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized...The seen, regarded as an independent entity, independent of the Self, is unreal. The seen is not different from the seer. The seen regarded as the Self is real...There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny nor free will, neither path nor achievement. This is the final truth." These two exquisite books are the best collections of Ramana's teaching I've seen. They both combine words (minimal, concise, distilled, essential gems from Ramana) with powerful photographs to transmit his essential message and presence. Other collections of Ramana's teachings that I've enjoyed are: Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi edited by David Godman; The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi (Shambhala edition; foreward by C. Jung); Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi: On Realizing Abiding Peace & Happiness (Inner Directions); and Ramana Maharshi: Teachings of Self-Realization by Robert Wolfe. There is a wonderful and enlightening feature-length documentary about Ramana’s life and teaching called Jnani that you can watch on YouTube here. Directed by Jean R. Dedieu and co-produced by Paula Marvelly, it includes wonderful footage of Ramana, Arunachala, the ashram, and explanations of Ramana’s teaching by people who knew him or were deeply moved by him, including David Godman, Michael James, Mooji, and Sri V. Ganesan, the great-nephew of Sri Ramana Maharshi. There are two other excellent documentaries about Ramana, The Sage of Arunachala and Abide as the Self, both of which you can also now find on YouTube. All very highly recommended. More here.
JOHN TARRANT: Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light Inside the Dark – These are gorgeous books that I cannot recommend highly enough—playful but deeply serious, enlightening, joyful, freeing and exquisitely written. John is a wonderful, out-of-the-box Zen teacher. Originally from Tasmania, he now lives in Northern California, where he is the founder and director of the Pacific Zen Institute, where he teaches along with many others (he loves to work collaboratively). He also holds a PhD in Jungian psychology and used to be a psychotherapist. John approaches Zen, koan work, and the spiritual journey in a very unique, nontraditional, open and imaginative way, with a wonderful sense of humor and a deep feeling for both the darkness and the joy in life. 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 and “distractions” of our busy lives). John has a way of entering everything with his heart open and inviting us to do the same. There is a great sense of kindness in his work and genuine compassion and love for life, just as it is, with nothing left out. Bring Me the Rhinoceros is a tiny and explosive jewel with an amazing ability to flip you in your tracks and enlighten everything. It is a book that can unlock your heart and bring the unexpected into your life. It is without doubt one of the very best, most unusual and magnificent Zen books I have ever read, and of his two books, it is the one I’d recommend first. John uses koans, along with Aboriginal stories and events from his life, as springboards for imaginative explorations that wake you up again and again to the absolute perfection of your life exactly as it is. He brought koans and koan work alive for me with his playful and nontraditional approach to them. The Light Inside the Dark is an earlier book, subtitled "Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life," which reads like pure poetry (in prose). In that book, John points to the importance of both the transcendent dimension of life that he calls spirit, and the down-to-earth dimension that he calls soul, or “that part of us which touches and is touched by the world.” Spirit without soul tends to get lost in the absolute, in the desire for “pure things: clarity, certainty, serenity…Spirit forgets the necessity of imperfection…It lacks poetry, melancholy, and everything voluptuous…Soul loves to include and to learn; it is always trying to embrace things, to inhabit the brokenness of the world.” But soul without spirit leads to materialism, addiction, being swept away by emotion-thought, feeling small and deficient. “Spirit is the center of life, the light out of which we are born with eyes still reflecting the vastness, and the light toward which our eyes turn when our breath goes out and does not come in again.” I love the way John marries these two vital directions. He writes that, “attention is the most basic form of love." And the attention he points to is open, unmanaged, undomesticated, creative, playful and wild. I have attended several retreats with John and other wonderful teachers from PZI with whom he often co-teaches, and these retreats are always truly magical events, very outside-the-box and amazing, all about creativity, improvisation, openness, being surprised, and trusting the dark (the unknown). John is a frequent contributor to various Buddhist magazines. You can find writings, video and information about his events at Pacific Zen Institute and Santa Rosa Creek Zen Center, and you can read more of his writing at his Zenosaurus Blog, Uncertainty Club, and Tarrantworks. All very highly recommended.
DAVID HINTON: China Root; Existence: A Story; and Hunger Mountain – David Hinton is a writer and translator whose work focuses on the perspective of Taoism and Ch’an (early Chinese Zen, which was very much influenced by Taoism). This is a perspective in which “there is no distinction between empty awareness and the expressive presence of existence.” Consciousness and Cosmos are “woven together into a single fabric,” “a dynamic breath-force tissue,” a “single generative tissue,” in which “Absence is the void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges” as the ten thousand things. This is a perspective beyond concepts and words, inviting an openness to “the wordless thusness of things, their sheer presence.” This is a perspective rooted in the natural world, not in the metaphysical. Chan practice is about wild mind, not domesticated mind: “It cultivates mind moving according to its nature, spontaneously and unrestrained, rather than clutching at stillness and emptiness.” It recognizes mind as already-awakened, and is about not just witnessing, but participating. Time is recognized as “an all-encompassing generative present…a constant burgeoning forth.” This perspective is evoked in Chinese landscape paintings where the landscape feels “infused with mystery,” where there is empty space and forms that seem to emerge out of emptiness and dissolve back into it. Hinton writes beautifully and sees deeply. These books are evocative, poetic, gorgeous and enlightening works of art that can open you up and offer a whole different way of seeing the world and living. Hunger Mountain is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, but I'm glad I read China Root and Existence: A Story first. Hinton has other books including Awakened Cosmos, and his translations include Classical Chinese Poetry; Tao Te Ching; No-Gate Gateway; and I Ching: The Book of Change. More here. Very highly recommended.
HSIN HSIN MING (Trusting the Heartmind) by Sengtsan — This poem by the Third Zen Patriarch is a beautiful expression of true non-duality. "The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences...Do not seek for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions...The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess...When no discriminating thoughts arise, the mind ceases to appear...The Great Way is all-embracing; It is neither easy nor difficult...When such dualities cease to exist, Oneness itself cannot exist. To this ultimate finality no law or description applies...Each thing reveals the One, the One manifests as all things. To live in this Realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection...The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today." These quotes are drawn from several different English translations of this text. Several of the most well-known translations are by Richard B. Clarke, who was one of my professors at Bard College back in the Sixties (more on him in an entry below). I still have a very tattered copy of one of his earliest translations of the Hsin Hsin Ming that he handed out in class, and I've been reading this text ever since, finding ever-new nuances within it. Richard Clarke continued to refine his translation over the years, and there are at least two different published versions that I've seen from White Pine Press. One of Clarke's translations appears at the end of Leo Hartong's book From Self to Self (see separate listing). Robert Wolfe (see separate listing) has a book of commentary on the Hsin Hsin Ming titled One Essence: The Nondual Clarity of an Ancient Zen Poem, that I recommend. Zen teacher Steve Hagen (see separate listing) has also done a few different translations of this text that you might find on the Dharma Field Zen Center website. And finally, Kazuaki Tanahashi has a new translation of the Hsin Hsin Ming that he calls "Engraving Trust in the Heart" in his book Zen Chants: Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary published in 2015 (see separate listing). I recommend reading many different translations. This is a text that you can read again and again over an entire lifetime and it never stops revealing itself. Very highly recommended.
DOGEN: Moon in a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds (both edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi) — Eihei Dogen was a 13th century Zen master and the founder of Soto Zen. These are both excellent collections that includes many of Dogen's most well-known works. My favorite piece in both collections, and the one I especially recommend, is "Genjo Koan" (variously translated as "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," "Manifesting Absolute Reality," "The Koan of the Present Moment," "The Paradox of Just This, As It Is," "The Spiritual Question As It Manifests Before Your Eyes," or "The Realization of Ultimate Reality"). Like all of Dogen's work, this piece can be read over and over, and with each reading, you will find new dimensions emerging that you hadn't seen or understood before. Dogen's understanding of nonduality is subtle, nuanced and all-inclusive -- so all-inclusive that it even includes duality: "The Buddha Way is leaping clear of the many and the one." In this radical view, even the map is the territory: "Neither the dharma world nor empty space is anything other than the painting of a picture....The moon and the pointing finger are a single reality." For Dogen, nothing exists independently of everything else. "There is nothing outside of mind," he writes, "Blue, yellow, red, and white are mind. Long, short, square, and round are mind. The coming and going of birth and death are mind...Dream, phantom, and empty flower are mind. Water, foam, splash, and flame are mind. Spring flowers and autumn moon are mind. All things that arise and fall are mind." He questions whether there is any kind of inherent objective reality "out there" apart from present experiencing: "Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object," he asks, "or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?" He says in Genjokoan: "Although the light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water...Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky." And elsewhere in Genjokoan: "No creature ever comes short of its own completeness." Dogen's burning question as a young monk was, if everything already has (or is) Buddha Nature, then why do we need to practice? His response is that to regard practice as the means by which we attain enlightenment in the future is to miss the point completely. Practice is the expression of enlightenment here and now. "If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind." Enlightenment is simply seeing through delusion: "Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings." And he says, "When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point...The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now...meeting one thing is mastering it--doing one practice is practicing completely." Dogen is poetic and profound. In addition to these two collections, there are many other collections and commentaries. I very highly recommend listening to and reading Norman Fischer's commentaries on Dogen, especially on Genjokoan and Uji, and Steve Hagen has some excellent classes on Dogen available on CD or download. Some other collections amd commentaries that I have enjoyed over the years include The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt); Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen (translated by Thomas Cleary); Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time by Dainin Katagiri; Appreciate Your Life by Taizan Maesumi; How to Cook Your Life and The Wholehearted Way by Uchiyama; Realizing Genjokoan; The Mountains and Waters Sutra; and Living by Vow, all by Shohaku Okumura; and Sounds of Valley Streams, edited by Francis H. Cook. All very highly recommended.
JOHN ASTIN: Searching for Rain in a Monsoon; This Extraordinary Moment: Moving Beyond Mind to Embrace the Miracle of What Is; This Is Always Enough; and Too Intimate for Words – John's wonderful, clear books point to the vibrant aliveness that is right here in every moment, to be discovered not by transcending what seems ordinary and mundane, but by opening fully to the non-conceptual actuality of this very moment, just as it is. John suggests that “the subtlest depths are not found behind, below, or beneath but smack dab in the middle of the so-called gross or surface level of things.” Nothing is an obstacle or a problem in this approach. John invites us to drop out of metaphysical speculation and belief, stop our desperate efforts to grasp reality conceptually: "Would you be willing to abandon, even for one instant, all teachers and teachings, all injunctions and practices, to simply meet what appears in each moment with no guidance or reference points to tell you what is true, or how you must live?" he asks. "What would it be like to no longer be identified with any conceptual framework or spiritual philosophy – not yours not Buddha’s, not Jesus’, not anyone’s? How would it feel to live with no maps, no mental conclusions, no final destinations, to cease to refer to any notion in the mind about how life is supposed to be?" Instead of turning to outside authorities, John suggests listening to actual, naked, unvarnished, present, sensory, energetic experience itself: “We’ve learned so much from others—parents, friends, teachers, our community, science, religion—we’ve been taught how to make sense of it all, how to understand and interpret what’s here, what experience is, who we are, what life is, and what it all might mean. But what if instead of deferring to what others have told us about what the reality of experiencing is, we simply let experience itself tell us what it is?” One of the many things I deeply appreciate about John is his openness and curiosity—he doesn’t land anywhere, but is always ready to question his own assumptions and conclusions, to change his mind, to see something in a new way. He is genuinely interested in exploring—and he suggests that there is no end to the infinity of what is and no "final understanding" or end to this ever-fresh discovery. Instead of urgency and oppressive seriousness, he invites approaching this exploration in a light-hearted, playful way. John holds a doctorate in health psychology, has worked as a counselor, consultant, professor, and researcher in the fields of integrative and mind-body medicine. He is also an accomplished singer-songwriter, and a poet. This Extraordinary Moment is John's most recent book, and it contains a series of explorations. The other books are marvelous poems and very short evocative pieces that all point beautifully to right here, right now and to the ungraspable, ever-changing, ever-present nature of reality. This Extraordinary Moment and Searching for Rain in a Monsoon are my personal favorites, but they're all wonderful. John holds weekly Zoom meetings and occasional retreats, and you can listen to some wonderful (very highly recommended) recordings of those here. John also has a YouTube channel. You can listen to a recording of one of John’s Sunday gatherings that I especially enjoyed: here. You can watch a very lovely interview with John on Buddha at the Gas Pump here that includes some of his music as well. And you can learn more about John and his events at his website here. Very highly recommended.
JEAN KLEIN: Transmission of the Flame; I AM; Living Truth; Beyond Knowledge; Open to the Unknown; The Ease of Being — Jean Klein was a European teacher of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) who lived and taught during the 20th century. I had the good fortune to attend several retreats with him toward the end of his life and was deeply touched by him. He had a wonderful openness and stillness, a listening presence that you can feel in these books. The books are clear, lucid, subtle, beautiful dialogs, transcribed from his retreats, that evoke and transmit the clarity and the open presence from which they emerged. His was a direct path, realizing oneself as the Ultimate Subject that is prior to everything perceivable and conceivable, the boundless awaring presence that Here / Now is. Jean was a medical doctor and musicologist who studied Advaita and yoga in India. He had a beautiful sensitivity to both the body and the arts, and he incorporated meditation (open listening) and somatic awareness explorations (a form of yoga) into his retreats along with satsang dialogs. He taught in Europe and the United States, where he died in 1998. Other wonderful earlier books by him include Be What You Are and Who Am I?. Some of Jean's books may be out of print, although New Harbinger and New Sarum Press have been bringing many of them back into print. The periodic journal Listening that was published when Jean was alive has now been made into a book, and you can find videos of him on YouTube, and there is a website here that has apparently been put together by a student of Jean's where you can find writing excerpts, a video clip, and other information. All of Jean's books are very highly recommended.
JON BERNIE: Ordinary Freedom (my favorite); and The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is — Jon offers one of the clearest and most refreshingly alive articulations of what this is really all about that I've come across. Beautiful, gorgeous books. Jon doesn't give you dogmatism or a bunch of abstract mental ideas to think about or believe in, but rather, he invites us to let go into the openness and immediacy of bare presence. He talks about learning how to let things be exactly as they are, dropping out of conceptual thought and belief into a process of exploration and discovery that is sensory and energetic, being present as boundless awareness and allowing whatever is showing up to move through. He conveys a spirit of open, alive, never-ending discovery, and a gentle and loving approach to our human struggles. “Spirituality does not mean leaving your humanity behind," he writes, "Rather, the height of spirituality is the complete embrace of every aspect of your humanity. Many people believe being ‘spiritual’ means transcending our humanity, somehow escaping our flawed and messy human experience. But true spirituality is the opposite of that. Nothing is denied. Nothing is excluded.” Jon was a concert violinist and a teacher of the Alexander Technique before becoming a teacher of nondual awakening. He practiced Zen and Theravada Buddhism and spent time with Advaita teachers Jean Klein, Papaji and Robert Adams, and also with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. Jon lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering what he calls "A Heart-Centered Approach to Awakening." He speaks from a place that is authentic, genuine, original, alive to the unknown and grounded in open presence. Very highly recommended, especially Ordinary Freedom. More here.
PEMA CHODRON: The Wisdom of No Escape; Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears; Welcoming the Unwelcome; Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change; Start Where You Are; When Things Fall Apart; How to Meditate; and The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times — Pema's books are jewels that I have found exceptionally clear and helpful. What I love about Pema is her honesty, her humanness, her sense of humor, her willingness to share her own foibles so openly, and her combination of razor-sharp clarity with warm-hearted kindness and compassion. Her books are about the cultivation of open awareness, natural wakefulness, and the ability to stay with difficult states of mind and body without moving away. She talks 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 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. 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. Nothing is “bad” in this view, and everything is workable. 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, offering a clear, intelligent, practice-oriented teaching with wisdom and heart. There are also many CDs available, such as Don't Bite the Hook, which is one I highly recommend, and she has many other books, including The Compassion Book: Teachings for Awakening the Heart; Comfortable with Uncertainty; Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better and No Time to Lose, and you can find talks on YouTube as well. 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 to practice was stricter and more formal than mine, I'm infinitely grateful to have worked with her. Her approach is practice-oriented, and the practice is very precise awareness in the midst of ordinary life. As she put it, "All practice can be summed up as observing the mental process and experiencing present bodily sensations; no more and no less." Joko raised her children as a single working mother and was well-versed in the challenges of ordinary life. From her perspective, the messier the circumstances and the bigger the disappointments, the richer the opportunities. She wasn't easily impressed, and you couldn't pull the wool over her eyes. She brought everything back to ordinary everyday life and to this moment here and now. If you tried to talk about your big enlightenment experience, she might say (as if dismissing a bothersome fly), that's nice, and how is your relationship with your partner these days? The “Practice Principles” that she formulated and that we used to recite regularly summed up her teaching (and that of the Buddha) in a nutshell: “Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering. Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream. Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher. Being just this moment, compassion’s way.” Joko taught at Zen Center of San Diego for many years and created the Ordinary Mind Zen School. She resonated with the expressions of many different people including Jean Klein, Toni Packer, Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta and David Bohm, and would often introduce their words into the practice. 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.
THICH NHAT HANH: The Sun My Heart; The Other Shore (a newer version of his previous book, 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 Other Shore (an updated version of The Heart of Understanding that includes a new translation of the Heart Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh) offers his commentary on the Heart Sutra, a profound Buddhist sutra about nonduality: "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," the sutra says, or as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.” You Are Here conveys the essential core of Buddhism (impermanence, non-self, going beyond all concepts) and lays out a practice for realizing the truth directly and freeing ourselves from suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet and his writing is not only exceptionally beautiful and clear, but the words are saturated with silence and mindful presence and seem to transmit the deep ground from which they come. "We are imprisoned by our ideas of good and evil," he writes. "We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements....You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa." I don't resonate with all the specific practices that he suggests, but I take what resonates and leave the rest. And there is some truly excellent, amazing material in these books. Thich Nhat Hanh was a monk and social activist in Vietnam during the war and has held retreats in America for veterans of that war. He was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize and is one of the main founders of socially engaged Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to treat our anger, our depression, our addiction, and all of ourselves with tenderness, not with violence. He is now living in exile in France, where he founded a monastery called Plum Village. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for this man and his work. He certainly walks his talk, as they say. His books offer subtle insight into nonduality as well as wonderful guidance from a Buddhist perspective on living fully here and now. Other favorites include No Death, No Fear; Cultivating the Mind of Love; The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion; Call Me By My True Names and Beyond the Self. For a basic book on meditation, you might also check out The Miracle of Mindfulness. More here and here. Very highly recommended.
JON KABAT-ZINN: Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness — This is a beautiful, grounded, intelligent, down to earth, insightful and articulate book about the healing power of simple awareness and coming to our senses. Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD is a molecular biologist and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He spent several years as a young man practicing Zen with the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, and went on to found the pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Kabat-Zinn's work began by bringing simple mindfulness meditation—paying attention to the present moment, stripped of all religious and metaphysical overlays—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. 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. You can watch the recording of a gathering he led called “Mindfulness, Healing, and Wisdom in a Time of COVID-19,” during the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic here. All very highly recommended. More here.
J. KRISHNAMURTI: This Light in Oneself; Freedom from the Known; Meeting Life; Choiceless Awareness: A Selection of Passages for the Study of the Teaching of J. Krishnamurti (published by KFA in 1992); The Ending of Time (with David Bohm); and Krishnamurti's Notebook — A few of my favorites out of the many excellent books by J. Krishnamurti, an Indian-born man who lived during the 20th Century and spent much of his life in California. Krishnamurti was groomed from early childhood by members of the Theosophical Society to be their promised World Teacher, but as a young man Krishnamurti renounced this mission and famously declared that "Truth is a pathless land." Krishnamurti spent the rest of his life looking into the human mind with open awareness, seeing through the deceptions of conceptual thought and the conditioning of the past, and coming in touch with the unconditioned aliveness and freedom that is beyond thought and belief. He offered no prescriptions, practices or methods, insisting that any form of repetition or control is deadening and false. Instead, Krishnamurti talked about the light of attention, an attention that is “without a center, without frontiers, where the known doesn’t interfere.” He suggested giving open attention to what is, without judgment or intention. He pointed out that "the observer is the observed," that there is no thinker apart from thought, that the thinker is itself a thought. He questioned the belief in free will and the apparent self who supposedly has this. Krishnamurti belonged to no religious organization, sect or country, nor did he subscribe to any school of political or ideological thought. On the contrary, he maintained that these are the very things that divide human beings and bring about conflict and war. He questioned all the absurdities of organized religion with its priests, gurus, dogmas and beliefs, and saw himself not as a guru or a teacher, but as a friend. He showed a way of exploration and discovery that is free of dogma and reliance on the authority of the past. Krishnamurti had tremendous sensitivity and depth, and he saw through our human confusion, delusion and suffering with remarkable clarity and subtlety. Reading him and truly hearing him requires great sensitivity, attention, and a high level of participatory looking and listening. No quick or comforting fixes or easy answers are on offer here. Krishnamurti's passionate intensity, combined with his old-school formality and often very serious and rather humorless way of talking can sometimes come across as gruff, abrasive, stern or critical, but in the next instant, he smiles with the most delightful, childlike openness and warmth. If you listen openly to what he is saying, you may come upon an unbounded and unconditioned freedom and possibility that is priceless and life-changing. He had a very big impact on me and on my main teacher and friend, Toni Packer. Excellent video and audio is also available. Very highly recommended. More here and here.
FRANCIS LUCILLE: Eternity Now: Dialogues on Awareness; The Perfume of Silence; and Truth Love Beauty-- These are all marvelous books, and Eternity Now is a beautiful introduction to this perspective, and one that has profound depth. A contemporary teacher of Advaita Vedanta (non-duality) originally from France, Francis currently lives in California and offers retreats worldwide. He points to our true nature as non-localized, unbound, timeless awareness—unconditioned and free: “All things appear by themselves in consciousness which is always in total openness…Openness is your nature…. Everything that appears in awareness is nothing other than awareness.” There is a beautiful subtlety and depth to his work that I appreciate greatly, a sensitivity and openness that is without expectation or conclusion. "If we say that our universe, with all its richness and diversity—the apples in the basket, the loved ones around us, the Beethoven quartet on the stereo, the stars in the nocturnal sky—at every instant emanates from, rests in, and is reabsorbed into our self-revealing presence, our words still fail to adequately describe the immediacy of this unveiling. They fail to do so because they still convey the notion of a transcendental presence from which this universe emanates as a distinct entity, whereas such a distinction is nowhere to be found in this unveiling. Our self-luminous background, which is the common thread of the dialogues in this book, constitutes the sole reality of all that is." Francis loves classical music, has a background in physics and mathematics, is exceptionally intelligent and clear, and like his long-time friend and teacher Jean Klein, Francis incorporates somatic movement and awareness explorations into his retreats, a form of yoga inspired by the Tantric and Hatha Yoga traditions, along with satsang dialogs and guided meditations. Many of his talks and guided meditations are available on-line or for purchase. In addition to Jean Klein, Francis was also influenced by J. Krishnamurti, Krishna Menon and Wei Wu Wei among others. I attended a one-week retreat as well as a number of satsangs with Francis many years ago and was deeply touched by those, by his writing, and by a number of his videos. He had a very big impact on me. Very highly recommended. More here.
RUPERT SPIRA: The Transparency of Things; Presence (Volume I - The Art of Peace and Happiness, and Volume II - The Intimacy of All Experience); The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter; The Ashes of Love; Being Aware of Being Aware; The Light of Pure Knowing (boxed set with book plus MP3 CDs) and Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception (boxed set that includes 6 MP3 CDs and a book with transcriptions of the spoken meditations) − Rupert is one of the clearest and finest teachers of our time, and these are exceptionally clear, luminous books (and recordings) that guide the reader through a series of direct explorations of present experience. All his words, whether spoken or written, are saturated with the deep, open presence and stillness from which they come and to which they point. A gifted contemporary ceramic artist from the UK and a long-time student of Francis Lucille, Rupert now offers retreats, webinars and other events about nonduality around the world. He is highly intelligent, deeply sensitive, totally genuine and awake. His style is simple and direct, no fanfare. He begins by guiding you through an excellent direct investigation and contemplation of actual present experience, so that you discover firsthand that you never experience anything outside of consciousness, that there is no actual boundary between the “inside self” and the “outside world,” and that what you truly are is "the open Unknowingness" that has been variously called boundless awareness, pure consciousness, unconditional love, God, and the light of Pure Knowing. As he puts it, “The essential discovery of all the great spiritual traditions is the identity of Consciousness and Reality, the discovery that the fundamental nature of each one of us is identical with the fundamental nature of the universe.” He takes you beautifully to a felt-sense of the open, spacious, subtle, radiant aliveness and immediacy that Here-Now is. "Everything we have ever longed for lies at the heart of all experience, simply waiting to be recognized. All that is required is to cease avoiding what is in favour of an imaginary past or future. Sorrow simply cannot stand in the now. It needs a past or a future to survive." Rupert distinguishes two parts to the awakening journey: the first is the path of exclusion, in which we discover we are not any particular thing, we are nothing perceivable or conceivable—we are pure Awareness—the uninvolved witness of everything; and the second part is the Tantric path of inclusion or love, in which we discover we are not merely the witness of everything, but that awareness is actually the substance and reality of everything perceivable or conceivable, so that it is all “one intimate, seamless, indivisible, ever-present, unlimited whole.” And that he calls pure Knowing, or the light of pure Knowing. And, of course, this is not the knowing associated with accumulating knowledge and information, but rather the immediate knowing of aware presence. "This discovery is a moment by moment revelation. It cannot be crystallised in words. It is the true unknowing in which nothing is known but everything is embraced." Here, any apparent duality between awareness and content is erased, and as a final step, even the word awareness is erased, because even to give it a name is “to objectify it even slightly,” to “make it a ‘some’ thing as opposed to ‘another’ thing.” Hence, he says, “when the idea of a separate, independent world collapses, the idea of awareness collapses with it. If there is no object, there cannot be a subject…'Oneness’ is one thing too much.” What I love in Rupert’s work is the contemplative exploration of direct experience and the felt-sense of openness and subtlety that he so beautifully conveys and invites. He recognizes that the sense of being a separate self in an outside world is not merely a thought, that it is also held in the body, and that true liberation requires more than simply seeing through beliefs or being intellectually clear. As he points out, intellectual clarity “can become a smoke screen for the far deeper feelings of separation which are too uncomfortable to be faced fully and honestly.” Rupert therefore invites a deeply embodied exploration into the nonconceptual, somatic-sensory-energetic layers of being, something I especially appreciate in his approach. He avoids many of the other common traps that I see some contemporary nondualists falling into, such as making enlightenment into a coveted future attainment, presenting himself as a special "enlightened person," or getting stuck on one side of any apparent duality (such as free will vs. determinism, or practice vs. no practice). Rupert says at the beginning of one book: "There is some reluctance to commit to the form of a finished book something whose nature does not lend itself readily to the written word. I would prefer the form of music, which dissolves as soon as it is uttered, leaving its true content as a formless perfume in the listener's heart." I find that his words actually do just that. Rupert uses language in an exquisitely subtle and nuanced way. His words are as "transparent, open, empty and luminous" as the open presence that they so beautifully reveal. Rupert is truly an extraordinary teacher and a beautiful being, and these are exquisite books and talks, full of love and light, subtlety and presence. A small taste in two short video clips here and here. There are a number of beautiful DVDs available, including The Unknowable Reality of Things and Love: The Underground River, and you can find audio and video and learn much more about Rupert at his website here. Very highly recommended.
DOROTHY HUNT: Ending the Search: from Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness; Leaves from Moon Mountain (poetry and prose by Dorothy, with collage art by Rashani Rea); Only This! (poetry) – Dorothy is a marvelous teacher and writer. She has a long and deep connection with the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, the path of self-inquiry, and the nondual teachings of Zen, Advaita, and the Christian mystics. She speaks and writes from the Heart, with a tenderness and sensitivity deeply attuned to the subtle nuances of life. Totally authentic and genuine, her perspective is at once transcendent and down-to-earth. She doesn’t get stuck in any extreme view, and her teaching is informed by the richness of her life as a psychotherapist (since 1967), poet, nature lover, city dweller, cancer survivor, wife, grandmother and much more. She is no stranger to human pain—her mother died suddenly on the day after Christmas when Dorothy was twelve, her beloved husband of over fifty years died—so Dorothy has known grief and heart-break as well as immense joy. Her most important teachers besides Ramana were Ramesh Balsekar and Adyashanti. Adya asked her to teach in 2004. She serves as the spiritual director of Moon Mountain Sangha, and she is the founder of the San Francisco Center for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Ending the Search is one of the clearest and best books on nondual awakening and awareness, and her earlier books of poetry (and prose) are magnificent as well. Wise, heart-felt, eloquent, lucid, crystal clear, right on the mark. More at her You Tube channel and her website. All very highly recommeded.
GANGAJI: The Diamond in Your Pocket and You Are That! — Gangaji is a very clear contemporary American woman whose final teacher was H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Gangaji has a beautiful heart and a truly remarkable ability to cut through the thinking mind and bring it to a stop, deconstructing all stories and revealing "the radiance at the core." She always points you to what is most intimate and already present, and she does it with love and with a great sense of humor. Gangaji has been an important teacher for me. I was a devotee decades ago—she let my bhakti side out of the closet and set it free, for which I remain ever-grateful—and I remain devoted to the ever-present freedom, joy and wonder to which she points. I find her to be very clear, intelligent, insightful, funny, enlightening and deeply rooted in stillness and presence. I've watched her teaching mature over the years in beautiful ways. 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! She emphasizes that we are all supporting each other in this awakening, and that we are each responsible (response-able) in this moment for whether we choose freedom or suffering: “I cannot give you what already exists in the core of your being," she says. "It is up to you to either recognize that core and be fulfilled or deny it and suffer unnecessarily…You are free to recognize this truth, and you are free to run from it. Just in the desire to wake up to your essential nature, you are surrounded by support. You discover it just by looking into your own heart. Wherever you are, in whatever circumstances, simply stop questioning and check the depth of your own being. Look into the core of your being. Look into silence, and recognize, what is already and always here.” Gangaji speaks from presence and direct insight, drawing freely from Advaita, Buddhism, Christianity, western psychology and other sources, but her teaching comes from the heart and is never bound by any particular packaging or tradition. Currently based in Ashland, Oregon, Gangaji holds satsangs and retreats here and around the world as well as webcasts. She has written other fine books as well, including Freedom and Resolve, Hidden Treasure, and a collection of photos and essential gems from her teaching called One River – One Ocean – One Heart. CDs and DVDs are also available, and many other resources can be found on her website, including on-line meetings and several wonderful regular podcasts with great thirty-minute episodes that you can listen to on-line or download. When you sign up for her mailing list, you receive a powerful 3-part course by email with videos and inquiry questions—a beautiful introduction to what she is offering. More here. Very higly recommended.
PETER BROWN: Dirty Enlightenment: The Inherent Perfection of Imperfection and The Yoga of Radiant Presence (both by Peter); The Astounding Nature of Experience: Conversations with Peter Brown (compiled and edited by Stanton Hunter); Essence of Recognition (Peter's translation and commentary on the Pratyabhijna Hridayam, a root text of Kashmir Shaivism); and The Yoga of Radiant Presence revealed in The Gospel of Thomas – Peter’s approach is direct and experiential, explorative, playful, and outside the box of any tradition. He points to the unfindable, unresolvable, radiant and indeterminate nature of everything. He calls what he offers the Yoga of Radiant Presence—a Tantric path in which all aspects of life are included, "with nothing needing to be restricted, rejected, controlled, or purified." Peter invites an open-ended, real-time exploration of the non-verbal, non-conceptual, sensory-energetic, bare actuality here-now. Life is a mysterious, magical, ever-changing, ever-present, chaotic, undefinable, ungraspable, unresolvable, incredibly rich happening. Nothing is the same from one instant to the next, and yet everything is nothing other than radiant presence. This all-inclusive presence has no opposite—no outside or inside, no beginning or end, no before or after. Even thinking, imagining, day-dreaming and conceptualizing are all included in this radiance. Nothing is actually a distraction, an obstacle or a problem: “It’s easy to have a fantastic idea of what we’re talking about. The actuality of this is not some ongoing condition of anything in particular. The only thing that actually could be accurately described as realization or enlightenment, is the discovery that this never departs from itself no matter what state it presents as.” Peter points out that there is never any finish-line or any ultimate understanding or formulation into which this reality can be fit. "Radiance, the flow of time, presence, the life force – it's an ongoing explosion, an ongoing big bang," he says. "You ARE this...It is doing itself. This, right here, is the breaking wave of this astounding radiance." Peter shows the utter futility of any attempt to pin down this living reality: "Leave the realm of the describable! It doesn't exist! You define your problems into existence, as well as their hoped-for solutions, thus creating an apparent difficult, limited reality, where none exists whatsoever. This actual, present condition is absolutely inconceivable; ANY way you hold it to be with your descriptions and ideas does not actually exist, and cannot in actuality limit or entrap you. Your imagined un-realization, confusion, spiritual obscuration, as well as the imagined enlightenment that you hope for as its solution, DO NOT EXIST! They are defined into apparent existence by your imagination. This actual condition can be clearly known as it is, but not if it is held to be this or that in imagination. Let go of all descriptions, and then what is this? You cannot say...but it is not nothing, and is wonderful beyond imagination." As he puts it elsewhere: “We build these elaborate stories in imagination and then we identify with them, we think we’re IN these stories, and then we think we’re STUCK in those stories. Once you see that all the elements that your story is made of don’t actually exist as objective realities in the way you think they do, then your whole story collapses; and where does that leave you? You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you are; but then there’s nothing to trap you, and no you to be trapped. THIS is liberation. THIS is enlightenment; simply seeing that there is in actuality nothing that can possibly trap you, and no separable you that could be trapped.” He writes: "True revelation is an ongoing, bottomless freefall...There IS an end to the searching, but no end to the opening." Peter describes himself as “a fully realized yogi, with mastery of Kashmir Shaivism, Dzogchen, Western Occultism, and the Yoga of Radiant Presence—the ultimate essence of all radical short (left-hand) path yogas,” and on his website he says: “Engaging in this Yoga directly requires ‘transmission’, which is the discovery of the actual condition of one's experiential Presence. This discovery generally occurs through engagement with a being who embodies the realization of this actuality." Peter says that he "makes himself available to transmit and teach this Yoga individually, in groups, and at retreats.” He doesn’t charge money, except at public events and then only to cover expenses. I love Peter’s emphasis on an in-depth exploration of immediate, direct experience and the way he points to the totally open, indescribable, all-inclusive, radiant and magical nature of everything. There's a great June 2020 interview with Peter here on Nonduality Podcast that I very highly recommend. There is an older two-part interview with Peter on Urban Guru Cafe. He has two YouTube channels: this one has older videos, and this one has the more current ones. He offers regular Zoom meetings. And you can find video, audio and more at his website here. Very highly recommended.
ANTHONY deMELLO: Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality — Tony deMello was a Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, author and workshop leader from India who was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism as well as by Christianity. He was the founder and director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India, and he also spent time in Chicago and NYC, where he died suddenly in 1987 at age 55. His utterly undogmatic, no-nonsense approach to waking up is one of awareness and direct insight. "Spirituality means waking up," he says. "Though everything is a mess, all is well." Not a trace of Catholic dogma (or any other dogma) here. In fact, deMello was condemned by the conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Tony deMello is funny, straightforward, clear, on the mark and wonderfully direct. "Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self," he writes."There's only one reason why you're not experiencing bliss at the present moment, and it's because you're thinking or focusing on what you don't have. But, right now you have everything you need to be in bliss." This is radical ("to the root"), wise, clear, amazing material that I very highly recommended. DeMello has many other excellent books as well as audio and video, and you can find out more here.
LEO HARTONG: Awakening to the Dream: The Gift of Lucid Living and From Self to Self − Leo Hartong (1948-2018) was Dutch, but he wrote both these books in English, and they are two of the clearest, simplest, most articulate expressions of what I call radical nonduality that I’ve ever encountered. By radical nonduality, I mean the direct and non-prescriptive pointing out that there is nothing other than the One Reality, that the separate self with free will is an illusion, that there is no need to engage (or deliberately not engage) in spiritual practices because there is no way to become (or not be) what we already are: “This is not about a gradual progression to a future goal, but about a radical awakening to what is,” he writes. “That which you truly are is forever awake and present.” What we all truly are is “the limitless field of Pure Awareness in which the drama of life merely arises.” And the awakening of which he speaks is a simple (impersonal) recognition, not some grandiose (personal) event: “True understanding will level the artificial boundaries between the mystical and the mundane, the extraordinary and the ordinary, the experience and the one who experiences. It will reveal the splendor and the simplicity, along with the freedom—even from the need to be free—that lies beyond this apparent duality….There is no need for a special experience to set you free. When you wait for such an event, you feed the erroneous belief that there really is a ‘you’ in need of liberation…All there is is this presence, expressing itself as the totality of manifestation, including everything, from the most distant galaxy to the smallest living creature, from the illusion of space and time to the way you appear as a character. This totality—both what arises and that in which it arises—is your true identity. There is absolutely nothing you can or have to do, nor is there anything you have to wait for to simply be what you already are.” Leo didn’t hold meetings because he felt that the very structure of having a supposedly "awakened one" sitting at the front of the room answering questions from apparently "unawakened seekers" only perpetuated the illusion that what was being sought was not already fully present here and now, belonging to no one. “To let go and relax into (or as) Pure Awareness is the most natural thing in the world. No effort, no trying, no seeking is needed; but if you want to make an effort or want to seek a little more, it is perfectly all right. Whether you stress and strain or become very quiet, Pure Awareness reflects it all without the slightest effort or judgment.” This radical perspective is immensely relieving and freeing. Leo shows how time and space have no inherent reality and why death is nothing to fear. He doesn’t get caught in any single formulation or word-choice for expressing the inexpressible, and he includes many wonderful quotes from such diverse sources as Walt Whitman, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi, the Hsin Hsin Ming, the Ashtavakra Gita, Basho, Jesus, Rumi, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Alan Watts, Shakespeare, David Bohm, Einstein, Dogen and many others to illustrate and further illuminate what he is saying. If you’re caught up in the belief that you haven’t awakened yet, if you're working very hard to “do it right” and “get somewhere” and improve yourself and become somebody (or become nobody), this crystal-clear message may be just the medicine you need to recognize that nothing is broken and that there is no one who lacks anything. Leo conveys this radical message with brilliant clarity and simplicity. For a long time, he put out a wonderful newsletter responding to questions he received, and his second book, From Self to Self, is an excellent collection of writings from this newsletter. You can listen to a wonderful interview with Leo on Urban Guru Cafe here. More (including excerpts from Awakening to the Dream) at his website here. All very highly recommended.
'SAILOR' BOB ADAMSON: Presence-Awareness: Just This and Nothing Else; What's Wrong with Right Now Unless You Think About It?; A Sprinkling of Jewels (photos and text); One Essence Appearing as Everything; and Only That: The Life and Teaching of Sailor Bob Adamson (a biography of Bob by Kalyani Lawry, with photos, that also includes dialogs and talks by Bob) — Sailor Bob is a contemporary Australian who spent time with Nisargadatta Maharaj in the 1970's. Bob points to the unbroken, nondual wholeness (the One-without-a-second) from which no-thing stands apart, and to the fact that there is nothing to do or not do other than exactly what is already (choicelessly) happening. Bob communicates this radical message in a clear and simple way, drawing from Advaita, Dzogchen, and his own direct seeing. With Bob, there are no carrots being dangled in front of you, no ego candy, no frills, no sidetracks or compromises, no guru-posturing, no bullshit, no glossy fanfare, no Bob. His message is direct, clean and clear. Bob encourages you to have a look for yourself and see that there is always only presence-awareness, the intelligence-energy that vibrates into different patterns but is always the One-without-a-second from which no separation is ever possible: “Have a look at nature and see the way it’s patterning and shaping and forming. Galaxies are forming, the earth and planets are moving round, seasons are coming and going, the tides moving in and out…the whole of nature is suffused with an innate intelligence, and you’re nothing but a pattern of energy. That intelligence is what is breathing you, growing your hair and your fingernails, replacing cells in your body, digesting your food—it’s all happening quite naturally and effortlessly." Bob says that "by taking the appearance to be real, we pretend to be separate beings, rather than recognizing that we truly are that pure intelligence energy.” He shows you that you already are what you seek, that there will never be any more Oneness than there is now. Bob never for a moment buys into any story that "this isn't it," and he never holds out the fantasy of some final finish-line to be crossed in the future. I met him in person in Chicago in 2004, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with him. I found him to be a very generous, kind, sincere, awake, down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy with genuine humility, completely devoted to sharing this simple and profound realization. He doesn't set himself above those who come to him, he always affirms that you are already That, and he points uncompromisingly to the aliveness Here / Now: “The value of any insight, understanding, or realisation can only be in the ever-fresh presence of the moment…The idea of enlightenment or self-realisation as a onetime event or a lasting and permanent state or experience is an erroneous concept.” In addition to the books, there is a wonderful interview of Bob by Peter Lawry on DVD called Just This...Nothing Else that I very highly recommend. It goes deep and is exquisitely done. And there is a book about Bob that contains photos and many dialogs with him called Living Reality: My Extraordinary Summer with Sailor Bob Adamson (by James Braha), also very good. There is excellent audio of Sailor Bob on the Urban Guru Cafe. You can learn more about Bob at his web site here, although the last time I looked at his website, most of the older audio and video had vanished, which seemed to be the case last time I checked his YouTube channel as well. What’s currently on offer seems to be mainly recent recordings of Bob, now in his 90’s, accompanied by a woman named Kat, who seems to be his partner now. I haven't seen most of this newer material, and some of it may be great, but If you can find some of his earlier recordings, they were wonderful. And the books are great. A clear, simple message with no bullshit. Very highly recommend.
BYRON KATIE: A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are; A Mind at Home with Itself: How Asking Four Questions Can Free Your Mind, Open Your Heart, and Turn Your World Around; and Loving What Is: Four Questions that Can Change Your Life -- Katie is a refreshingly unique contemporary teacher who has come up with a simple method for seeing through the mirage world created by thoughts, beliefs and story-telling. I'm not usually an enthusiast for methods and techniques, but I find "The Work" (as she calls it) truly liberating and definitely worth exploring. Every belief, story, and projection is exposed and deconstructed by putting it out and investigating it. Instead of encouraging us to try to be spiritual, Katie instead invites us to be as petty and unspiritual as possible -- bring out all our worst, most judgmental, most unenlightened, most spiritually incorrect thoughts -- and then investigate them by asking 4 simple questions. This questioning is done not on a purely cognitive level, but by feeling deeply into the answers. This simple process can be a tremendously effective wake up from the thought-created mirage that is our human suffering, and while this whole process might, at first glance, look like another self-improvement project, if you really take it all the way, it deconstructs everything and leaves nothing. Katie is very radical in her approach, and she definitely gets into some edgy territory that can feel quite threatening, especially when dealing with such highly-charged issues as incest, the Holocaust, or the election of Trump. She is always inviting people to question their story of being a victim, or their story of what "shouldn't" have happened, which can be very challenging and easily misunderstood, but clearly she's not condoning abuse or genocide. She's simply not arguing with reality, and she's questioning every story and belief about it. If you are open to this, in my experience, it is very liberating. Loving What Is is perhaps the clearest and best introduction to The Work. A Thousand Names for Joy has so far been my personal favorite of her books, offering stories from Katie's own life woven around verses from the Tao Te Ching. That book provides a kind of living portrait of the awakened mind in action in daily life. In the words of Stephen Mitchell, A Thousand Names for Joy is "a portrait of a woman who is imperturbably joyous, whether she is dancing with her infant granddaughter or finds that her house has been emptied out by burglars, whether she stands before a man about to kill her or...learns that she is going blind...it doesn't merely describe the awakened mind; it lets you see it, feel it, in action." This personal account offers a whole new way of looking at life that is quite liberating. A Mind at Home with Itself is woven around a new "interpretive adaptation," by Katie’s husband and co-writer Stephen Mitchell, of The Diamond Sutra, a famous Buddhist text. The book includes some of Katie's awakening story (which was pretty far out) as well as some excellent examples of people doing The Work, and it points beyond all concepts and imaginings to the absolute no-thing-ness of what is. Katie has several other books I haven't read including Who Would You Be Without Your Story? and I Need Your Love -- Is That True? How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead. There were also a few earlier books, probably all out of print now, including Losing the Moon: Byron Katie Dialogues on Non-Duality, Truth and Other Illusions, a much rawer and more unvarnished rendition of her teaching edited by Ellen Mack that I liked a lot. I find Katie's work very helpful whenever I find myself caught up in anger, resentment, self-pity, or other forms of upset and entrancement. With this simple form of inquiry, every upset becomes a doorway to waking up. Just reading these books can be eye-opening and enlightening, and I very highly recommend the books and (more importantly) actually doing The Work. Audio, video, and more information on The Work here.
SHUNRYU SUZUKI: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (edited by Trudy Dixon); and Not Always So (edited by Ed Brown) — two superb collections of talks by Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), the Soto Zen Roshi who was the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. (Not to be confused with D.T. Suzuki, the Zen scholar and author who also helped to bring Zen to America). I arrived at SFZC too late to meet Suzuki Roshi in person, but I spent a number of years practicing Zen in his lineage, and so he has been a very important teacher for me. I have read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind countless times over the years, and with each new reading, I hear it more deeply and see more in it. Truly, an amazing book. "Buddha's teaching is everywhere," Suzuki Roshi said. "Today it is raining. This is Buddha's teaching." He also said, "For Zen students, a weed is a treasure," and, "We should find perfection in imperfection." There are also two very wonderful books about Suzuki Roshi: Crooked Cucumber (a biography by David Chadwick that I very highly recommend) and Zen Is Right Here (previously titled To Shine One Corner of the World -- a collection of brief stories about Suzuki Roshi told by his students and edited by David Chadwick), and both of these books beautifully convey the heart of Suzuki Roshi's teaching. And there is a collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks on the Sandokai, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger). I'm no longer drawn to the kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice that Suzuki Roshi taught, but I love these books, especially Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and I have great respect and fondness for the San Francisco Zen Center and for Suzuki Roshi and his lineage, and he continues to touch my life very deeply. More about Shunryu Suzuki and his teaching here and here. And there are some videos like this one on YouTube as well. Very highly recommended.
BARRY MAGID: Nothing Is Hidden; Ordinary Mind and Ending the Pursuit of Happiness − Barry Magid is a Zen teacher in the lineage of Charlotte Joko Beck and also a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He teaches Zen at Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC. Barry challenges our "curative fantasies" of transcendence or depth, in which we endeavor to find some kind of unchanging ground of being either below the surface or above it all. Instead, he invites us to simply be with the bare actuality—the impermanence and interdependence of life, just as it is. For him, Zen is not about detaching from life, purifying oneself, or being some kind of unchanging awareness impervious to the vulnerability and messiness of life. He speaks of Zen as a religious practice, and to him, religious means “moment to moment reverence and awe, and the kind of attention that treats ordinary things as extraordinary and worthy of that kind of attention.” Instead of trying to fix ourselves or transcend our humanity, Barry invites us to be just as we are in this moment, finding the absolute in the relative, the wholeness in the particular, and the perfection in the seemingly imperfect. “Since I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher," he writes, "my professional life is all about working with people who say they have problems and who indeed are suffering, often quite visibly and terribly. How can I tell them that there is really nothing wrong with them?...Everyone who comes to therapy or meditation practice feels something is wrong and wants something to be fixed. That’s to be expected. We come seeking a relief of suffering, however we may conceive of that ‘suffering’ and that 'relief.’ Yet Zen is telling us that our search itself may embody the very imbalance we are trying to correct, and that only by leaving everything just as it is can we escape a false dichotomy of problems and solutions that perpetuates the very thing it proposes to fix. But before we too glibly arrive at that conclusion we will have to investigate thoroughly all the ways we feel that we are broken and be honest about just what kind of fixing, treatment, or salvation we think we need.” One of the many things I greatly appreciate about Barry's work is that he doesn’t ever get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide. He recognizes the reality of both wholeness and multiplicity, boundlessness and boundaries, self and no self. Our dualistic mind always thinks it must be either/or, that these opposite polarities are mutually exclusive and at war with one another, that one is “more true” than the other, that “the good one” must triumph over “the bad one,” and so on. But true nondualism is a dialectical balance, a recognition that both polarities work together. That said, I'm probably more open to the transcendent dimension of reality and to the radical Buddhist teachings of emptiness than Barry seems to be, and I'm no longer drawn to the kind of rigorous, formal Zen practice that he offers. But I've found his books and talks enormously helpful. He writes honestly and intelligently, uncovering many of the common pitfalls into which different nondual forms of spirituality can unwittingly tumble. There is a great interview of Barry here There is a huge amount of subtle, mature, nondual wisdom and insight in these books, and I recommend them all very highly. More here.
NOT DISMISSING ORDINARY LIFE: – This is an audio talk, not a book, given by Peter Nichols, a Zen practitioner at Zen Center of Philadelphia. He gave this talk on Zoom for Ordinary Mind Zendo in NYC (Barry Magid’s place) in July during the pandemic of 2020. This is one of the best talks I’ve ever heard. It says so much of what I have tried or wanted to say in my books. It reveals the sacred right where you are, just as you are. If you really hear it, it's like a great whack from the Cosmic Zen Master, leaving the mind with no escape and nothing to hang onto. It’s a marvelous talk. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Listen here.
DONALD GILBERT: Jellyfish Bones: The Humor of Zen and The Upside Down Circle: Zen Laughter -- Drawn and written by cartoonist and Zen Master Donald (Ta Hui) Gilbert, these two delightful, wise and humorous books convey the message that the truth is right here, right now, in this very moment, just exactly as it is. The story is told largely in cartoons about animal characters including a bumbling bloodhound named Unk who is constantly searching for what is already present. The books do a masterful job of exposing all the ways the seeker typically avoids waking up by seeking it "out there" or trying to grasp it intellectually, all the blind alleys we go down in our pursuit of what is ever-present here-now. Donald Gilbert points to what is “infinite and indescribable” (he calls it Mind), but he makes it very clear that this is not “out there” in some transcendent beyond-it-all, nor “in here” in some special Samadhi state, but right here in this very instant, just as it is: the sound of the train whistle, a steaming pile of dog poop, the ache in the knee, the smile of a stranger, and the aliveness of the vibrant awaring presence showing up as, and revealed by, all these momentary forms. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness not other than form. Leaping clear of the many and the one. These are the Zen lessons these brilliant books convey in such a magnificently simple and direct way. Donald Gilbert was a monk in the Cho Ke Order of Korea. He was born in California in 1909 and died there in 2006, and he founded the Blue Dragon Buddhist Order. These are both great books—clear, clean, simple but totally profound, and funny to boot. Very highly recommended!
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, now available on YouTube ) — 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 / DANIEL LADINSKY: I Heard God Laughing; The Gift; and The Subject Tonight Is Love -- three rich and delightful volumes of ecstatic and enlightening poetry (supposedly composed) by the 14th century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz and beautifully rendered by Daniel Ladinsky. However, I’ve heard reports recently that some of Ladinsky’s “translations” of Hafiz are not based on anything written by Hafiz himself or actual translators of the original work, but were “channeled” or imagined by Ladinsky. As a result, I don’t know how reliable, accurate or faithful to Hafiz any of his translations or renderings are, but wherever they come from, the poems are quite wonderful. A few samples: “This is the time / For you to deeply compute the impossibility / That there is anything / But Grace. / Now is the season to know / That everything you do / Is sacred.” And, “Know / The true nature of your Beloved. / In His loving eyes your every thought, / Word and movement is always – / Always Beautiful.” And, "I wish I could show you / when you are lonely or in darkness / the astonishing light of your own being," and finally, “A poet is someone / Who can pour light into a cup, / Then raise it to nourish / Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.” Superb! Very highly recommended. More here.
CHUCK HILLIG: Looking for God: Seeing the Whole in One and The Enlightenment Trilogy (Enlightenment for Beginners: Discovering the Dance of the Divine; The Way IT Is); and Seeds for the Soul -- Chuck has a wonderful sense of lightness and humor, and a fabulous ability to convey the essential message of radical nondualism with the utmost simplicity and clarity, in plain language. His books use words and pictures, and in one case even a hole in the center of the book, to point to the heart of the matter directly and to offer a resounding YES to everything. Chuck also has a wonderful DVD called "Living in the WOW!" that I very highly recommend, and there is other audio and video on his website. Whatever Chuck does, it is always fun, wise, and completely liberating. Very highly recommended. More here.
ROBERT WOLFE: Living Nonduality; Abiding in Nondual Awareness; Awakening to Infinite Presence; Ramana Maharshi: Teachings of Self-Realization; Always Only One; One Essence; and Elementary Cloudwatching — Robert Wolfe offers a very clear, simple, straight-forward, direct, no-nonsense, right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter expression of non-duality that I really appreciate. Robert is a nondual author and teacher living in Ojai, California. He is a very quiet, unpretentious, ordinary, down-to-earth guy whose biggest influences were Ramana Maharshi, J. Krishnamurti, and Zen Buddhism. He says, "To exclude any aspect of Reality is obviously dualistic. The enlightened sage does not go halfway in the Way. Consistency, integrity, honesty are markers of the open path; and the recognition 'all is That, doing what it does' is applied to both negative and positive circumstances without equivocation." Born in rural Ohio, Robert traveled around as a young man, working as an auto assembly line worker in Detroit, as a carnival worker, as a journalist in New York City. In his thirties, he encountered Zen through the books of Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki. He lived on a farm in a Zen community in California, and later worked as a landscaper, a financial consultant, and a janitor. Following a divorce, Robert bought a camper van and moved into a redwood forest where he lived for several years in solitude contemplating the inner life intensely, and in particular the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. There something "fell into place," and eventually Robert settled in Ojai and began writing and sharing, mostly through one-on-one meetings with people. I resonate deeply with both his message and his teaching style, and I love the simplicity and purity of this kind of radical nondual message. At the right moment, it is profoundly liberating. There are other books as well, and some of his books are available for free download on his website. There are some wonderful videos on YouTube, including one called “Living Nonduality The Film,” where a number of people who have been with Robert talk about awakening in a wonderfully ordinary, unpretentious, down-to-earth way. More here. Very highly recommended.
ADYASHANTI: True Meditation; Emptiness Dancing; The Impact of Awakening; The Way of Liberation; Falling into Grace; The End of Your World; The Most Important Thing and My Secret Is Silence: Poetry and Sayings of Adyashanti -- Adya is a very clear, articulate, contemporary American teacher based in California who offers a unique blend of Zen and Advaita. He has an open mind and a warm heart, and what he points to is not a conceptual or mental understanding, but rather, a directly experienced, felt-sense and embodiment of the open awareness and boundless presence that is our True Nature. Adya beautifully conveys the effortless effort at the heart of true meditation, and the counter-intuitive secret of transformation—allowing everything to be as it is. He speaks of letting go of the need to control, not only at the level of the mind, but also at the level of the heart and the gut. He doesn't get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide (such as free will vs. determinism, or practice vs. no practice, or relative vs. absolute). He is always pointing to the natural state, the Truth that is ever-present Here / Now, but he also explores in great depth the (never-ending) journey of awakening, illuminating many of the ways people get stuck or fixated along the way. He makes it very clear that we arrive at the destination only after we stop pursing it in the future. "In terms of awakening, all that matters is right here and right now," he says. "What happened yesterday does not really have much to do with what is happening today. The question isn't, 'Have I had an awakening?' The question is, 'Is awakening awake right here and right now?'" I attended a one-day retreat with him many years ago and he was very helpful to me on this very question. When I spoke with him during one of the satsangs that day, I told him that even though I experienced unbound, aware presence and saw clearly that the self was only a story, I still kept getting caught up in old patterns that seemed believable—depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, defensiveness, and so on—and therefore, there must be some decisive, final awakening that hadn't happened yet for me. He was very helpful in showing me that this was a story, and even more importantly, in the course of my interaction with him, I got to see how I kept picking that story up again, and how this was a choice that I was making to ignore the reality Here / Now and step back into the virtual reality of imaginary storyline instead. So he was actually very helpful to me in seeing through the "I'm Not There Yet" story and in discovering how I was doing that particular form of suffering. I found him very down-to-earth and right on the mark—a bright light. Adya emphasizes that suffering is a choice, and that everyone has a choice about what they give their life to in this moment, but he also acknowledges "the gravitational force of the dream state," and he even says, “In one sense, the awareness that there is nothing you can do is the most important realization you can have…Only then can spontaneous surrender happen.” So when he speaks of choice, he's not talking about will-power or control. Adya always encourages people not to give away their own authority, but to question and look for themselves. He writes that, "The primary task of any good spiritual teaching is not to answer your questions, but to question your answers." He emphasizes the importance of embodiment and not getting stuck in the transcendent: “Embodiment starts with the realization that every manifest thing and non-thing constitutes your true body…The entire cosmos is your body. Let your humanness reflect and manifest the whole…If your spiritual revelation is only big enough to go beyond the relative world but not include it, then you will continue to experience a duality and therefore a struggle with the relative world. Do not become attached to the realm of the absolute. See the absolute and the relative as an undivided whole, as two expressions of the same supreme reality that you are…This is a return to wholeness, to a completeness that includes the unmanifest and the manifest alike. It is perceiving that both formless consciousness and the world of form are simply two aspects of an unnamable, mysterious whole.” He writes 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! True Meditation is one of the best books ever written about meditation. In fact, one of my Zen teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, called it the only book on Zen you ever need to read. That one, along with Emptiness Dancing are my top favorites. I also enjoyed The Impact of Awakening; Falling into Grace; The Way of Liberation; and I love his little book of poetry, My Secret Is Silence. Adya has also written a book about Jesus called Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic. I found that one quite different from his other books, and it wasn't entirely my cup of tea, but I do love what Adya sees in Jesus: "It's not about getting out of the challenges of life, but about pouring oneself into life as an act of redemptive love...The message of the Jesus story is that we must fully enter the world." The importance of the "embodiment" of awakening and living the realization comes across in all his books. Excellent audio and video is also available in addition to the books, including some excellent guided meditations on CD. All highly recommended. More here.
NIRMALA: Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self — This is one of the clearest, finest, most lucid and enlightening books on nonduality and awakening that I've come across. I recommend it very highly. Nirmala is a contemporary American teacher, who has been a student of Neelam, Adyashanti, A.H. Almaas and Richard Clarke, and who lives in Arizona. In this wonderful book, Nirmala invites you to, "Say yes to the mystery of every moment," to get curious about whatever shows up, to move from the mind into the Heart, to recognize the boundless aware presence that you truly are, and "to keep diving into this place that is more honest and true and where you know less and less." His writing is saturated with, and it transmits, an open spacious presence awake to the subtle nuances and fluid aliveness of Here / Now. Warm-hearted, gentle and clear, Nirmala points beyond getting stuck in special experiences or fixated on either side of any conceptual divide. "The mind can't grasp [the Mystery]," he writes. "In the end, you have to be willing to go beyond recognizing it and even beyond experiencing it to being it. There is no little 'me' separate from the Mystery...you will discover that it all turns out to be Mystery." In one of his beautiful poems, Nirmala writes, “mind seeks to hold on to a still point of final understanding; heart knows it is being held by an unmoving whirlwind that it will never comprehend.” He has a wonderful chapter where he compares the movement of attention to the zoom-function on a camera, noting that Consciousness has the capacity for both flexibility and fixation, that the zoom lens can move freely, or it can get stuck, and it can even get stuck on trying to hold onto a zoomed-out experience of boundlessness. But Nirmala is always pointing to what is equally present in every different experience, whether expanded or contracted, clear or confused. He has two chapters in another book of his, Meeting the Mystery, titled "Is There One or Many? Yes!" and "Awareness Is Never the Same Way Twice." Those titles give a sense of the flexibility of mind and heart that I appreciate in Nirmala. He has a lovely sense of lightness, humor, delight and wonderment, and he approaches whatever shows up in satsang with openness and love. I knew Nirmala some years ago and really liked his expression, and I found his first book, Nothing Personal, exceptionally clear. He has written many other books, most of which I haven't read. More recently, he has veered in what I see as quite a different direction, offering what he calls “Christ Consciousness Transmissions." According to Nirmala, Jesus has asked Nirmala and his wife (Gina Lake) “to make ourselves available as an instrument of transmission for [Jesus] and for a circle of beings he works with including Mother Mary, Yogananda, Anandamayi Ma and others.” I've never been drawn to channeled entities, "ascended masters," the occult, or to people claiming to speak as Jesus or other dead people. The message being delivered may be great, I don't know, and I don't in any way doubt Nirmala and Gina's sincerity or their motives, but this isn't something that draws me, and it is not the aspect of Nirmala's teaching that I'm recommending here. I have a deep appreciation for Nirmala as I knew him long ago, and I continue to very highly recommend Nothing Personal, which is a real jewel in my opinion, one of the best. You can find audio and video on his website as well. More here.
BILLY DOYLE: The Mirage of Separation and Yoga in the Kashmir Tradition: The Art of Listening – Billy speaks out of deep presence and stillness. He is a yoga teacher and was a student of Jean Klein. The Mirage of Separation is a beautiful book of these marvelously spare and elegantly clear non-dual poems, which I love and very highly recommend. Yoga in the Kashmir Tradition: The Art of Listening talks about Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir yoga, the art of listening, listening to the body, the process of letting go, and it offers a series of guided meditations on relaxation, the body as sensation, the opening of the senses, the expansion of the body in space, movement and other topics designed to free the reader from all patterns and restrictions and bring them to openness and transparency, beyond the mind. Billy's words are saturated with and transmit the listening presence from which they emerge. “At the heart of this approach," he writes, "is how we observe: the art of listening. Listening here is not confined to hearing with the ears but refers to our total receptivity. In unconditioned listening, choiceless listening, we are completely open. It is an openness free of purpose or intent. It is an innocent welcoming of all that appears…When we maintain this open quality of attention, the perceived increasingly recedes and we are more aware of listening itself. We discover that this unconditioned listening is our real nature…Consciousness and its object are one…Ultimately we come to realise that the body and all manifestation are nothing but awareness.” Billy has also studied a variety of somatic therapies including Eutony, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique and Craniosacral Therapy. He holds regular yoga classes in London and retreats in different parts of the country and abroad, and also runs meditation and pranayama days in London. There's a beautiful interview with him on Conscious-TV, at the end of which he reads some of his poems, and you can isten to a beautiful short talk he gave at SAND here. His poems have even more depth after you've heard him read them, or even after you've heard him speak, because you hear the listening stillness, the silence, and the presence in them more fully. I love this man, a real jewel. Very highly recommended. More here.
ERIC BARET: Let the Moon Be Free: Conversations on Kashmiri Tantra, translated by Jeanric Meller – This is an extraordinary book, full of jewels. A friend of mine described it as "one of those books that you expect might actually be breathing when you're not looking.” Eric Baret, who was a student of Jean Klein, is a teacher of Kashmir Shaivism and yoga. This beautiful book is saturated with the listening silence and presence from which it emerges and to which it points: “The origin of every tradition does not reside in thought, but in silence. Not-knowing is the way…What is transmitted is not a body of knowledge, but a listening which is, ultimately, the only doorway to the essential.” By listening, he means listening with the whole body, listening with awareness, listening-feeling-sensing-awaring, giving complete open attention to the bare actuality of whatever is arising, whether it is anger or joy or fear. “The right action comes from the right listening,” he says. “You do not have a choice to act or not to act…There is no freedom of behavior…Life is action. You cannot not act. Action and non-action are the same thing…the body, the table, space are never still…To free the world from our projections is the ultimate art, expressed in all the great spiritual traditions. This listening, free of personal ownership, is the solution to our conflicts, imagined yet so real within our regimented lives….One day, you will stop wasting your time and money with books, teachings or workshops. What will matter to you will be you…It is your gift of every moment. Come back to this constant gift…Come back to your own experience of being, which is always available. The most profound thing is you….Whatever situation life sends me, it is a favorable one…everything becomes my path…That is only possible when I understand that I do not have to copy anyone, that I do not have to study, to become anything.” Beautiful, profound, clear. Most of his talks are in French, but you can find some in English as well by searching for him on YouTube or on his website here. Highly recommended.
DOUGLAS HARDING: Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature; Open to the Source: Selected Teachings of Douglas E. Harding; 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 went on to teach what he called "the Headless Way." I've always greatly enjoyed Harding's clear, direct, luminous writing, which is wonderfully down-to-earth, unpretentious, humorous, and crystal clear. He points what is clear and obvious: the unencapsulated boundlessness Here-Now—the clear, empty, aware Space in which everything is appearing. He called this discovery "having no head," since our actual experience is of being this wide-open Space (this nothingness) in which everything, including our face in the mirror and all the other faces, appears. Here-Now is the Original Face, the One Consciousness, the Space we all have in common, the indivisible Capacity in which the little-me disappears and everything else appears. Harding speaks of this as the true meaning of love. He emphasized the simplicity of this ever-present Open Space. He wasn’t talking about having some explosive peak experience with trumpets blaring, or feeling bliss all the time, or seeing blue lights, or anything other than the ordinary, ever-present (but often unnoticed and truly extraordinary) reality Here-Now. He wrote many books on the Headless Way, devised a number of simple experiments people can do to help them see the obvious, and gave workshops right up to the end of his life. His wife, Catherine Harding, co-taught with him for many years, and you can read her wonderful life story in the book The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding (see separate listing). Douglas Harding has a beautiful way of pointing to what is so clear and obvious that it is easily overlooked. I recommend Face to No-Face as an excellent introduction to his work, and Open to the Source is a lovely book of short quotations from him. Very highly recommended. More here.
THE FREEDOM TO LOVE: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding – This beautiful book is the life story of Catherine Harding, wife of the late Douglas Harding, as told to Karin Visser, a teacher of the Headless Way and chief editor of the Dutch nondual magazine Inzicht. Catherine Harding grew up in France during World War II, where she experienced the horrors of war. As a teenager, she had a deep recognition of what she called the luminous light within or the Clear Light. As a young woman, she married a writer from Morocco, had five children, eventually got divorced, studied yoga with Iyengar in India, and had many other adventures including a meeting with Kalu Rimpoche. When she was 60, she met and married Douglas Harding and co-taught the Headless Way with him until his death. The Headless Way showed her how to access her True Home of boundless awareness or Clear Light at will. This book is about living from that place. “Every one of us is looking out of the same clear, aware, impersonal space. When we see that we all are this universal consciousness there are no barriers between us…To live from who one really is changes life…then loving one another is much easier…Love is the only thing that counts: that is my conclusion at the end of my life.” Speaking of aging, she says, “I am learning and learning…learning how to be slow. Everything is really slow now, which makes you look at things differently…I am also learning to give up attachment to my appearance. The body is deteriorating all the time…It is not who I am…I am also learning to be patient…The art of life is really the art of disappearing…that’s actually what I practice.” She has so much wisdom, about suffering, about love, about what really matters. Catherine Harding died in 2020. This is a beautiful, wise, gorgeous book that I encourage people to read. More here. There a beautiful interview with her on YouTube here. Very highly recommended.
JOHN BUTLER: Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment — Some of the most beautiful, unique, heart-felt, soulful writing I have ever read. This book is a rare jewel—simple, deep, clear, genuine and definitely one-of-a-kind. John Butler is a contemporary Christian mystic, now in his eighties. I first encountered him on the two-part interview with him on Conscious-TV. I fell in love with his beautiful heart, his quiet stillness, his unpretentious simplicity and humility, his love of nature and animals, and his utterly unique way of talking about spiritual realization. What draws me to John, and the reason I recommend him, is the deep presence, the listening stillness, the awakeness to this moment that he embodies so fully. Occasionally some of the Christian terminology and metaphysical framework that he uses doesn’t resonate with me, but I listen to the spirit and the heart of what John is saying, and the deeper truth to which he is pointing, and when I do that, I don’t get hung up on the words. If you listen with your heart and from presence, he will invite you into a deep and wondrous place. The book shares stories about his life along with profound spiritual insights. Among other things, he has been an organic farmer in the UK, a teacher in Russia, and a traveler in many lands including North and South America and Africa. Meditation has been at the heart of his long spiritual journey. He learned it as a young man at the London School of Meditation, which apparently teaches a mantra approach based in Advaita Vedanta. John replaced the mantra with the Jesus Prayer, which he uses to lead him into wordless silence. But as he says, you can use any mantra you like, or the breath, or nothing at all. The point is to dissolve or open into that vast invisible presence that he calls Spirit. When John speaks of prayer, he means this kind of silent meditation, to which he devotes himself twice a day at a local church near where he lives in rural England. His approach to meditation begins with “feet on the ground” (present in this moment, hearing the birds, etc.), and then moves on to dissolving into formless presence, which John describes as a transcendent movement, rising above the darkness of embodied human life and melting into pure Spirit. I resonate with “feet on the ground,” hearing the birds, and dissolving into presence, but not with the mantra or the notion of leaving this “sinful” world behind. And for me, dissolving into formless presence is but one possible direction or aspect of meditation, but it is one that John beautifully conveys, that open spacious dissolution into Spirit. I love his humility, his joy and delight, his love of the simple things in life that are here right now: the sounds of the wind, the trees, the grasses, the birds, the listening silence, the all-pervasive Spirit. John had a private education at one of England’s elite schools where the Bible and Christianity were drilled into him, followed by military service, and aside from his travels and a few years living in Russia, where he was deeply influenced by Russian Orthodox Christianity, John has lived the greater part of his life in rural England. The social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s basically passed him by, and he has what I would describe as a rather old-fashioned, traditional world view reminiscent of the 1950s. He mourns the loss of God in the public schools, doesn't much like the modern concern with human rights, doesn’t use gender-inclusive language, and all of that is a side of John that I find rather painful—but I try to look past it and appreciate what he has to offer in other ways, and luckily, he doesn't share his social and political views too often. On the level of personhood, we will always have disagreements and conflicts, but in unbound, formless presence (or Spirit), there is no division, only wholeness. And as John sees it, abiding in Spirit and being whole is the greatest work we can offer the world, and he may very well be right. One of John’s key insights that has guided his life has been, “To make whole, be whole.” He speaks about how we see (and create) a world of darkness by turning away from God (Wholeness, Spirit, Truth), and how, when we turn back to the light, this world is seen in its glory, and everything becomes more glorious. And he says, we have choice—bondage or freedom. John speaks from and transmits wholeness. His words come from wordless presence, from the heart, not from the head or from mental ideas. He points you to that silent, still presence that he calls Spirit, the jewel beyond all price, available to everyone, but often undiscovered. He transmits this alive stillness and presence with his whole being, and he does it in a wonderfully grounded, simple, open way in the talks on his YouTube channel. His message is transcendent, focused on rising above the world, and he has a dark view of humanity that I don't share, but he does have a deep love of nature, a great love for animals and a profound sensitivity to the earth. There's a truly marvelous DVD you can order from his website called A Good Farmer that includes a BBC documentary about John made back in 1975 along with some recent interviews with him. John is the real deal. There are many lovely talks on his YouTube channel, all of them permeated with stillness and presence and his twinkling sense of wonderment. He has several other books, but this one is my favorite. That and the two interviews on Conscious-TV, as well as the videos on his YouTube channel are all very highly recommended. And there is a beautiful interview with John on Nothing Media here. John is very warm and welcoming to anyone who wishes to join him in silent meditation at the church in Bakewell England where’s he’s been meditating each early morning and afternoon for many years. He is now offering retreats there as well. More at John’s website here. Very highly recommended.
ISAAC SHAPIRO: Escaping from a Dream Tiger; It Happens by Itself; Outbreak of Peace — I particularly love and appreciate Isaac for his open, explorative approach, and his willingness to keep learning and to go in new directions. He calls himself a facilitator rather than a teacher, and on his Facebook page, he calls himself “an expression of totality, savouring this moment as the beloved.” He emphasizes inquiry rather than an agenda, meaning that he encourages an approach based in open curiosity and a gentle noticing of what’s showing up, with no idea of what is supposed to happen. "All we have is the sensory experience of this moment, NOW,” he says. “This moment is only an experience to us. That’s all we have. The world, time, space, our own bodies and each other are all an experience to us.” He points out that, “We all have unconscious habits of attention, that are uncomfortable to ourselves, and the ones closest to us,” and that, “All reality is experienced through these unconscious habits, which function as cognitive filters.” This is what he invites people to explore. “The beauty of this invitation,” he says, “is that nothing needs to be changed, fixed, or eliminated. It is a non-dualistic, non-judgmental enquiry into our present being. Everything happens through the agency of awareness. As we bring awareness to these unconscious habits, there is a shift that occurs. In the course of investigation, people spontaneously recognize the true nature of themselves, which many report as the experience of peace, unconditional love, compassion, or simply of being home.” Rather than providing answers, he asks wonderful questions: “The sensations of now are all we have. The nature of experience is constant change. Is it possible to receive the sensations of this moment as the beloved? Is that dependent on the sensations? What is required to receive the sensations as the beloved?” Isaac was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1950 and has lived for many years in Australia. He holds meetings and retreats there and elsewhere in Europe, often co-facilitating with his partner Meike Schuett. Isaac has a background in Feldenkrais and other modalities, has been with a number of different teachers, and he draws on a broad spectrum of understanding, from wisdom traditions to neurophysiology. He asks, “How do we live our lives moment by moment?” And that includes, "how we relate to ourselves and to others, how we parent, do business and interact with our environment.” I enjoyed attending a number of his live events in the Bay Area many years ago, and I’ve enjoyed watching some of his more recent work on-line. All three books are good, but rather old at this point (the most recent is Escaping from a Dream Tiger, published in 2006), and I would strongly suggest watching and listening to video and audio on his website to get a better picture of what he's doing now. More here. Highly recommended.
SUSAN MURPHY: Upside-Down Zen: Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary; Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis; and Red Thread Zen: Humanly Entangled in Emptiness – Susan Murphy is a Zen teacher (also a filmmaker, producer, writer, mother and grandmother) in Australia who writes and speaks with exquisite eloquence, clarity and passion. “Zen is not a quest for perfection,” she writes, “nor does it renounce any part of what is. It refuses no part of the world as unholy...Zen is a direct path into reality, a direct path into the hard and exhilarating questions of being alive...Zen is a whole-body, whole-hearted, whole-life practice...one that invites an audacious and radical spirit of inclusion rather than renunciation," a practice that she describes as being at once playful and rigorous, crooked and upside-down. Susan so beautifully expresses the marriage of boundless emptiness and the bones and breath of each unique and embodied moment. She speaks to “the problem of reconciling the one continuous mistake we sometimes call 'life' with buddha nature, which is complete grace from the beginning." She writes, "Limitedness is the gate to the most boundless and free condition; but you must go through it, you cannot go around it...only by accepting your condition can you stop clinging to it." She speaks about trusting the unknown, accepting all offers, freely living within limitation, being deeply at home in the universe. “There are still untouched and wild places in this world, as close as your own breathing." In a beautiful passage on breathing, she writes: "We live by the sheer generosity of a moment-by-moment miracle, and it is called the breath. Actually, we could say we live and die by this miracle. Every breath out is a practice of yielding the self to the universe; every breath in is a reincarnation event, the self reborn, fresh. Zen is the practice of agreeing to live with a mind and self as alive and fluid as breathing itself: accepting the offer of each moment, yielding to the passing of each moment….Consider that one day, the final breath of your life will expire and take you with it back into pure unknowing, relinquishing the self forever. As you do, in a way, with every out-breath….Death is actually moment by moment. The moment before is actually dark behind us—the very dark we came from. No breath-moment can be recovered or entered ever again. Life, too, blooms moment by moment from that. To live more closely attentive to the keenness of the one moment is to find it has no limits." Susan draws not only on the richness of Zen koans but also on the Aboriginal earth-based spirituality indigenous to Australia, along with lessons from family life in the modern urban world. “Body and mind begin to loosen and fall away, and we grow wider and more free, wanting less, wanting nothing. The most ordinary and subtle happiness arises in this wanting nothing.” Subtle, passionate, wise, and always right to the heart of the matter, Susan's books bring true Zen practice and insight vividly and richly to life—but you don't have to be into formal Zen to appreciate and delight in these books. They speak to anyone with an interest in waking up. Susan is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia, and you can find some wonderful audio recordings of her talks on her website. She was authorized to teach by John Tarrant and Ross Bolleter. Very highly recommended. More here.
JOAN SUTHERLAND: Vimalakirti & the Awakened Heart and Acequias & Gates -- Joan Sutherland is a Zen roshi in the lineage and koan tradition of John Tarrant’s Pacific Zen Institute and a translator of Chinese and Japanese. Vimalakirti & the Awakened Heart is a short little book that had a very deep impact on me. A true masterpiece—beautifully written—pure poetry in prose—profoundly wise, deeply insightful. Joan weaves this book around her reflections on The Sutra that Vimalakirti Speaks, a famous Buddhist text, also called The Reconciliation of Dualities. But this is no dry, scholarly commentary. This is Joan Sutherland dancing with the text, allowing it to serve as a point of departure for her own vision, a vision with breath-taking depth, moments of wonderful humor, and a profound commitment to this “broken and tilted world.” Acequias & Gates is a book that literally begins at both ends (front to back, left to right, and back to front, right to left) and meets in the middle. It contains the Pacific Zen School’s koan collection along with Joan’s writing about koans. She has been deeply involved in re-imagining the koan tradition and exploring its relationship to creativity: “Chan [Chinese Zen] has been described as a move from pacifying, cultivating and contemplating the mind to letting the mind be free.” It is about wild mind, not domesticated mind. As she tells us in Acequias and Gates, “In the eighth century, a new kind of Chan Buddhism developed in response to a cataclysmic time in Chinese history: in the space of ten years, two-thirds of the population died of rebellion, invasion, famine, and disease…A few Chan innovators had a fierce desire to leap out of the usual ways of doing things and into new territory—not to escape the catastrophe looming around them, but to more fully meet it… Chan practice wasn’t about getting free of the world; it was about being free in the world. How do we fall willingly into the frightened, blasted, beautiful, tender world, just as it is?... This true self you are looking for, [the old Chan masters] said, is not just here, in your own heart-mind, but everywhere. Everything you see is buddha nature; everything shines with that light. Everything you see is you—and this at a time when what you saw included blighted fields, refugees starving by the roadside, deserted towns. There’s something so moving about the large and generous spirit of these [Zen teachers] who responded to the devastation around them by saying, This is all me. This is all you. They showed that the way to come to terms with life’s pains is not by turning away from them but by moving deeper into life…Awakening, they saw, happens in relationship.” In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Vimalakirti is lying on a sickbed in a small room. “When Vimalakirti begins to speak from his sickbed,” Joan writes, “it’s with absolute, unquestioned, unmitigated, unbuffered, uncompromised allegiance to this world—and his illness is part of what he has allegiance to.” Vimalakirti says, “I am sick because the whole world is sick.” Joan writes: “Part of taking up the way of not-two is accepting the offer this world makes to us, which is to be an unbalanced being in an unbalanced world. If the negative qualities of the offer are obvious, there’s also a positive quality, which is a kind of creativity. We don’t just look at the instability of the world as the cause of suffering and complication; we can also see it as a source of creative responses to those very difficulties.” Joan considers both enlightenment and endarkenment essential in the “lifelong process” of awakening. Enlightenment is “the brilliant illumination that lifts us out of the suffering world,” and endarkenment is “the radiance of the deeps that lets us find home in the world…the heart that breaks open to life, rests comfortably on the unfathomable mystery of existence, and is easy with uncertainty, complexity, and what courses underground.” Joan writes that, “After centuries of Buddhist treatises on the practices leading to enlightenment, Vimalakirti lays out one of the first drafts of the practices of endarkenment.” Joan has lived with serious chronic health problems herself, which very much bond her with Vimalakirti. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt at one point: “Most of the work in the world is done by people who aren’t feeling very well that day.” And Joan says, “Vimalakirti advises us to put outrage and disappointment down and instead take up the impossible vow to love the world, no matter what.” Not by glossing over the pain, but by fully opening ourselves to it. This is the first book in a still-unfolding collection called Pilgrim’s Bundle. There are some marvelous videos that you can find on her website, in one of which she says: “About 96% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy,” and she asks, “How do I include that 96% of the dark? What if there’s this whole underground thing happening? What’s it like to be in that moment?” She says, “I tend now to think of a vast original dark that is nondual and that holds the light and the dark within it… this vast dark and the manifest lit world that comes out of that…There is this great dreaming going on underneath everything all the time.” She speaks of “learning to rest on that mystery, lie back on that fathomless sea…to come to rely on the fact that there’s nothing to rely on…to feel the beauty of that and to love that mystery, in some ways to become devoted to that mystery.” And she speaks of “our willingness to get our hearts broken and to stay broken, in the understanding that the broken heart is open and connected.” On her website you can find these videos and also some powerful writing. Joan lived for many years in New Mexico and now lives in northern California. She has retired from teaching to focus exclusively on writing. Vimalakirti & the Awakened Heart and Acequias & Gates are both amazingly rich and profound books that I cannot recommend highly enough, along with her videos. More at her website. All very highly recommended.
NORMAN FISCHER and SUSAN MOON: What Is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner's Mind -- Jon Kabat-Zinn sums up my feelings about this wonderful gem of a book perfectly in his endorsement blurb: "This book is pure Zen, and pure poetry in the form of prose: refreshingly down-to-earth, modest, razor sharp, and subtle." Norman and Sue are both Zen teachers and writers. They are also old friends, and Norman is Sue’s Zen teacher. The book is in the form of a conversation in which Sue poses wonderfully unpretentious, candid questions, and Norman provides exceptionally generous and lucid responses. “Life is impossible!” Norman says. “We are all suffering. We will all die. And we are clueless about the real nature of this sad, beautiful, immense human life.” Most people who come to Zen are looking for something, he says. “That’s good. Yet looking for something stands in the way of getting what you are looking for. This is an odd paradox: you get what you are looking for but only when you stop looking for it. And what you get may not be exactly what you thought you were after in the beginning. It will be what you were really looking for but didn’t know you were looking for.” As Norman says, “No matter what you believe or think, this simple practice of sitting down in silence and feeling the present moment will have a powerful impact on your life,” and “Zen practice helps you to live your actual life, not your descriptions of it." Zazen [Zen meditation] is, he says, “fundamentally, sitting with the basic feeling of being alive…embodied, breathing, and conscious...I feel that zazen is essentially creative. It clears the heart, returning it to presence, to zero, to emptiness, which is the ground of creativity." He goes on to say, “For me uselessness is the essential characteristic of all spiritual practice. If it’s spiritual practice, it must be useless; that is, it won’t improve your looks, your health, your livelihood, your intelligence. It won’t help the world. You do it just to do it—literally uselessly. But its uselessness is exactly its usefulness!” As for our flaws and imperfections, Norman says, “Our scars are our treasure. Our uniqueness is an offering to the world…This is the main change that any of us who practice Zen could hope for: that we would become very good at being ourselves.” How does he see nondualism? "The way I'd understand nondualism is that it includes dualism. If nondualism doesn't include and validate dualism, then it is dualistic!" And enlightenment? “There are no magic lines in the sand to cross,” according to Norman. “Enlightenment amounts to nothing more or less than being fully and deeply human,” he suggests, having “wisdom and a good heart.” He adds that wisdom in Zen includes “the capacity of see that ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’…that things are not the way they ordinarily appear to be. They are more fluid, more evanescent than we think they are.” This book is at once practical and deep, apparently simple, but right to the very heart of Zen. Both Norman and Sue have other books, and Norman has some great talks and writings on the Everyday Zen website, such as his commentaries on Dogen's Genjokoan and Uji, plus many other Zen texts, that I very highly recommend. This book is a quiet gem. Very highly recommended.
AJAHN SUMEDHO: Don't Take Your Life Personally -- A truly excellent book that points to being aware of what is, here and now, and allowing whatever shows up to be just as it is. "Right now, it's like this," Sumedho says. "Everything belongs." He speaks in a way that is very open, spacious, direct, simple, clear, and down to earth. Buddhism as he presents it isn't about trying to control things or improve ourselves, nor is it about intellectually taking on a bunch of concepts or doctrines. It is simply about being awake. Although Ajahn Sumedho is a monk in a very strict Buddhist monastic order, he actually comes across as completely undogmatic, nonsectarian, nonauthoritarian and totally open in his approach. He avoids philosophy, metaphysics and other intellectual abstractions, and instead keeps pointing to present moment awareness. I greatly appreciate his sense of humor and his unpretentious honesty and willingness to expose his own human foibles. Born in the United States, Ajahn Sumedho studied Buddhism in Thailand. He has lived for many years in England, where he founded several Buddhist monasteries. This is one of the very best books on the true heart of Buddhism that I've come across, but you don't need to be a Buddhist to appreciate Ajahn Sumedho. I very highly recommend all his books, but especially this one. You can hear some of his talks at the Amaravati Buddhist You Tube channel, and you can learn more at the Amaravati Monastery website. Very highly recommended.
KATHERINE THANAS: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is – a beautiful compilation of talks by a Zen teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) was the founding teacher of the Monterey Bay Zen Center and abbot of the Santa Cruz Zen Center. Born in Berkeley, California, she was a visual artist before discovering Zen. She had already completed a B.A. in Journalism, an MA in Sociology from the New School for Social Research in New York, a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and was enrolled in an MFA program in painting at UC Davis when she discovered Zen. She dropped painting and devoted herself to Zen. “I spent many years trying to be someone other than Katherine,” she says, “But the more I practiced, the more I became Katherine." To which she adds, "When we’re most completely ourselves, we’re most completely free of ourselves.” Chapter titles include The Joy of Not Choosing, No Pressure to Improve, This Very Mind Is Buddha, To Meet That Which We Cannot Know, Set Ourselves to Zero, It’s All in the Details, Seeing Impermanence Itself, Loving the World as It Is, True Intimacy, and much more. This is a marvelous book by a wonderful teacher whom I was fortunate enough to meet at Tassajara many years ago. More here and here. Very highly recommended.
KEN WILBER: "The Ultimate State of Consciousness," a short piece which is the final chapter in Wilber's book Eye to Eye; A Brief History of Everything; and “Always Already: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness,” which is the final chapter from Wilber’s book The Eye of Spirit − The first piece is a crystal clear, amazingly articulate description of the nondual absolute that beautifully illuminates the all-inclusive, timeless and spaceless Here-Now, the One without a second that is “completely and wholly present at every point of space and time.” And as Wilber so clearly shows, this nondual absolute is never not fully realized, for “the ultimate state of consciousness is in no way different from your ordinary state of consciousness.” The ultimate state of consciousness is not an altered state or a special state, it is not a state “that can be entered, or that emerges after various practices,” but rather, it is always 100% present and fully realized Here-Now. For a concise and brilliant pointer to the nondual absolute, this chapter is unsurpassed. A Brief History of Everything is a book of his that I'd urge everyone interested in nondual spirituality to read. It provides a comprehensive overview of his work that is easily readable and well-worth reading. And Always Already: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness is a wonderful, meditative pointing out of the essential nondual recognition and what (seemingly) gets in the way: "The realization of the Nondual traditions is uncompromising: there is only Spirit, there is only God, there is only Emptiness in all its radiant wonder. All the good and all the evil, the very best and the very worst, the upright and the degenerate—each and all are radically perfect manifestations of Spirit precisely as they are. There is nothing but God…in all directions, and not a grain of sand, not a speck of dust, is more or less Spirit than any other. This realization undoes the Great Search that is the heart of the separate-self sense. The separate-self is, at bottom, simply a sensation of seeking. When you feel yourself right now, you will basically feel a tiny interior tension or contraction—a sensation of grasping, desiring, wishing, wanting, avoiding, resisting—it is a sensation of effort, a sensation of seeking. In its highest form, this sensation of seeking takes on the form of the Great Search for Spirit. We wish to get from our unenlightened state (of sin or delusion or duality) to an enlightened or more spiritual state. We wish to get from where Spirit is not, to where Spirit is. But there is no place where Spirit is not. Every single location in the entire Kosmos is equally and fully Spirit…The Great Search simply reinforces the mistaken assumption that there is some place that Spirit is not…There is only Spirit. The Great Search for Spirit is simply that impulse, the final impulse, which prevents the present realization of Spirit, and it does so for a simple reason: the Great Search presumes the loss of God. The Great Search reinforces the mistaken belief that God is not present, and thus totally obscures the reality of God’s ever-present Presence. The Great Search, which pretends to love God, is in fact the very mechanism of pushing God away; the mechanism of promising to find tomorrow that which exists only in the timeless now." Ken Wilber is a brilliant contemporary philosopher, author, long-time spiritual practitioner, and founder of Integral Institute. In his many books, Wilber provides a synthesis of different disciplines and approaches; an insightful critique of of where post-modernism, progressive social movements, and nondual spirituality have gone off course; and a path forward in an integral direction. I would describe Wilber as having an evolutionary, integral, non-dual perspective, strongly influenced by both Eastern spirituality and Western psychology. He moves fluidly between relative (developmental, evolutionary, progressive) and absolute (non-dual, always already whole and complete) perspectives, not fixating on either. He describes evolution as a creative and self-transcending process, in which everything moves to become part of a greater whole. Each successive stage must transcend and include the previous stages, and this applies equally to the evolutionary stages of consciousness, which Wilber has delineated in great depth and with great insight. Wilber draws a very helpful distinction between natural (healthy) hierarchies and (pathological) dominator hierarchies, pointing out that “a natural hierarchy is simply an order of increasing wholeness.” His 2017 book titled Trump and a Post-Truth World is another one that I would highly recommend especially to progressives who are looking for a way forward. All of Wilber's books that I've read offer some truly valuable insights. And both "The Ultimate State of Consciousness" and “Always Already" are crystal clear pointers that I very highly recommend, along with his wonderful book A Brief History of Everything. More here and here.
DAVID STEINDL-RAST: Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer; A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness; and i am through you so i – These are marvelous, beautiful books that I very highly recommend. Brother David is a Benedictine monk who was born in Austria in 1926, lived through the Nazi occupation, and has since lived for many years in the United States, sometimes living as a solitary hermit and sometimes traveling and lecturing worldwide. He has worked closely with Buddhists and other interfaith groups and has been literally all over the world meeting with people of every kind. He has a wonderfully open mind and heart and a beautiful and deep sense of the sacred in the now. His books are a great joy to read. You can feel the depth of his presence and his heart. "Love wholeheartedly," he writes, "be surprised, give thanks and praise – then you will discover the fullness of your life." i am through you so i, published in 2017, is an exquisitely beautiful book, an unconventional autobiography divided into nine decades (each with a different topic) with reflections in each section written by Brother David, followed by interviews of him by Johannes Kaup. The book explores faith, beginner's mind, living in the now, aging, death, social justice, interfaith spirituality, indigenous spirituality, and much more. I love all these books. A truly remarkable man. Very highly recommended. More here.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: My Grandfather's Blessings and Kitchen Table Wisdom -- Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a former pediatrician who works with people facing chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Remen herself has lived with Crohn's disease for many years. She is one of the pioneers of Relationship Centered Care and Integrative Medicine, and was a co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, one of the first support groups for cancer patients in America. 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.
DAN HARRIS and JEFF WARREN: 10% Happier (by Dan Harris) and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics (by Dan Harris and Jeff Warren) – These two books are 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. Both books are highly readable, practical, honest, insightful, clear, irreverent, free of religious dogma, and written with a wonderful sense of humor. 10% Happier is subtitled How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, and it tells the story of how Dan Harris became an advocate for meditation. Dan 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, along with "episodic depression and anxiety," 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 great sense of humor. I couldn’t put it down. An honest, clear and compelling book that I very highly recommend. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is a follow-up book that Dan wrote with Jeff Warren, a no-nonsense meditation teacher who happens to have ADD, and it chronicles their cross-country bus trip aimed at de-bunking the myths and misconceptions that stop people from taking up meditation. Along the way, they offer a very clear and useful practical guide to meditation as they talk to a wide variety of people (cops, parents, military cadets, politicians, celebrities, social workers, formerly incarcerated youth) about meditation. This is a great book for anyone wanting a clear introduction to the practice of meditation. I appreciated the open way in which they offer instructions, not as "The Only Way to Do This," but as various possibilities to try out, always encouraging people to find what works for them, and to approach it with non-judgmental warmth and a sense of humor. I also greatly appreciate their honesty about themselves. This is a truly great book that I very highly recommend. Along with Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, Dan has created a meditation app with talks and guided meditations. There is a 10% Happier website, a Facebook page, and you can find more about Jeff Warren here. All very highly recommended, especially for anyone looking for a practical and secular approach to basic mindfulness meditation without the spiritual overlay. Even after years of meditation and being a writer/teacher myself, I have found both these books helpful and genuinely enlightening and transformative.
CYPRESS TREES IN THE GARDEN by Richard Bryan McDaniel – This is a book about second-generation Zen in America. I haven't even read the whole book, but I’m recommending it for the three chapters in it that I found very compelling. One of these chapers is “Three at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry,” in which McDaniel writes briefly about Toni Packer, the founder (and my main teacher), and then interviews two of the second generation teachers (who don’t like to use that word) at Springwater, Sandra Gonzalez and Wayne Coger. These wonderful interviews with Sandra and Wayne give a real feeling for the nature of the work at Springwater. The other two chapters I loved were the ones about John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland, two very creative, unconventional, innovative and out-of-the-box Zen teachers. McDaniel interviews many other Zen teachers in the book as well, and many of these interviews will be interesting especially to those involved in Zen. McDaniel is not shy about exposing the dirty laundry, either. In addition to the paperback, the book is now out in a Kindle edition on Amazon. I very highly recommend the three chapters I mentioned.
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 was a truly fascinating man who struck me as very alive and awake. He died in 2018. A cigar-smoking former aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in mathematics, Glassman was 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 was 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 loved what he called "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 included 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 sent his students at the Maezumi Institute off to spend nine days at Byron Katie’s School for the Work. I've always found Glassman's unpredictable and ever-changing approach to Zen immensely intriguing, and I deeply appreciate the Zen understanding of nondualism, which for my money is as subtle, as nuanced, as profound and as truly nondual as it gets. Glassman has several other books, and I would also recommend Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters, a book he co-authored with Rick Fields that talks about business, right livelihood, social change and community from a Zen perspective. But above all, I very highly recommend Infinite Circle. This is an excellent book—clear, wise, subtle, and right on the mark. More here.
HUBERT BENOIT: Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine (originally published as The Supreme Doctrine) − Joko Beck (see entry on her above) described this book as "her main teacher" and said that "it may be the best book on Zen ever written." The author was a French surgeon (and later psychiatrist) who was severely wounded during a bombing in World War II that left him unable to move for many years. The book is a brilliant exposition of our essential human problem and its resolution. It was translated from the French by Benoit's friend Wei Wu Wei (see separate listing). The book is unfortunately not always easy to read, and the choice of words (whether in the original or the translation, I don't know) sometimes feels not the best to me, but it is well worth the effort to read it anyway. Truly an extraordinary book, one of the very best. Excellent and very highly recommended.
WEI WU WEI: All Else Is Bondage -- This is my personal favorite of the many fine books on nonduality by Wei Wu Wei. He himself apparently said that this book was "the shortest, the clearest, and the most direct" of all his books, and he reportedly considered it the epitome of his life's work. Other favorites of mine include Open Secret, Posthumous Pieces, and Ask the Awakened. Wei Wu Wei was the pen name of Terence Gray (1895-1986), an English theatrical producer who traveled to Asia, spent time at Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, and eventually authored many fine books on the nondual perspective found in Taoism, Zen and Advaita. His writing is very clear and direct and goes right for the root. More here.
RAMESH S. BALSEKAR: Consciousness Speaks; A Net of Jewels; The Final Truth; Experiencing the Teaching; A Duet of One; From Consciousness to Consciousness; Your Head in the Tiger's Mouth; Who Cares?; and Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj -- Ramesh S. Balsekar was a bank president in India who became a close disciple and translator of Nisargadatta and then a teacher in his own right. Ramesh died in 2009. His teaching is Advaita with a strong emphasis on the root illusion of a separate, autonomous individual with free will. Ramesh shows you that everything is one, whole, unbroken, undivided happening, and that "All there is, is Consciousness." Paraphrasing the Buddhist image of Indra's Net, Ramesh says, "The universe is uncaused, like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end." Ramesh distinquishes between the inseparable, interrelated polarities that are inherent in the phenomenal manifestation and the dualistic illusion that these polarities are separate and opposing forces in conflict with each other. It is the latter misunderstanding, along with the sense of personal agency, that gives rise to our human suffering. He calls this "the divine hypnosis." Liberation is not an acquisition, but the falling away of an imaginary problem: "Self-Realization is effortless. What you are trying to find is what you already are." Ramesh has many other books as well—these are the ones that stood out most strongly for me. His first book, Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj, is his excellent paraphrasing of Nisargadatta's teaching, and then all his other books are his own expression of that understanding. You can watch an old but very wonderful interview with Ramesh here. More here and here.
WAYNE LIQUORMAN: Never Mind: A Journey Into Non-Duality; Enlightenment Is Not What You Think; Acceptance of What Is: A Book About Nothing; The Way of Powerlessness: Advaita and the Twelve Steps of Recovery; Hello My Loves; and (under the pen name, Ram Tzu), NO WAY for the Spiritually "Advanced" − Irreverent and without spiritual veneer, Wayne is a former businessman, a recovered alcoholic and drug addict, and a disciple of Ramesh Balsekar. Under Wayne's sometimes gruff exterior, there is a lot of heart and a very open and vulnerable being with a devotional streak. This is not some airy, detached, other-worldly version of Advaita, but rather, a total embrace of everything, just the way it is: "As you walk the spiritual path," Wayne says, "It widens, not narrows, until one day it broadens to a point where there is no path left at all." Everything is included. This is one of the main things I find so liberating in Wayne's message, and when you really see what Wayne is pointing to, it is a huge relief—the falling away of a burden—and also the beautiful discovery that everything is sacred and that nothing is lacking or out of place. Wayne's central emphasis is on seeing through the false sense of personal authorship—the illusion that each of us is a separate, independent agent freely choosing our thoughts and actions. The idea that free will is an illusion may evoke terror and despair in the mind that imagines itself in control, but the true realization of this offers the most profound liberation. Wayne does an excellent job of showing that all thoughts, impulses, interests, intentions, actions, successes and failures are impersonal happenings, that whatever happens could not be otherwise than exactly how it is, and that ALL of it is the movement of one indivisible whole. As he puts it, everything is Consciousness; Consciousness is all there is. He also notes that when the false sense of individual authorship dissolves, when we recognize our personal powerlessness, suddenly a new kind of power flows in, an impersonal power: “Once we know ourselves to be Ocean in the form of wave, we become free to be ourselves in a way we never dreamed possible. It is as if we had spent our life driving with the emergency brake on and suddenly it is off.” Another important part of Wayne's teaching is the way he distinguishes between experiences (which are by nature temporary) and the seamless, boundless, all-inclusive Totality from which nothing stands apart. The seeker typically assumes that enlightenment would mean an unending, permanent experience of oneness, unity or impersonal presence. Thus, the seeker imagines “me” flip-flopping between the experience of unity and the experience of separation and involvement – “getting it” and then “losing it." But as Wayne points out, there are no one-sided coins, and true enlightenment includes the whole of What Is. Enlightenment is “the dissolution of that which is concerned with going in and out of involvement,” the falling away of the belief in the mirage-like "me" who seems to be the owner or author of these ever-changing experiences. “Rather than being the presence of something, Enlightenment is the absence of something,” Wayne says. “The ultimate state of Understanding includes both [the experiential state of oneness and the experience of separation] and absorbs both, but is neither to the exclusion of the other.” As Wayne puts it, enlightenment is like no longer having a stone in your shoe, a stone that was never really there in the first place, but was only ever a kind of hypnotic suggestion. Apparently for Wayne, there was a decisive moment in his life when the false sense of authorship disappeared permanently, never to return, and he describes enlightenment as an event in which the false sense of authorship permanently dies, "with no possibility of resurrection." That kind of final, finish-line event hasn't been my experience, but as Wayne stresses over and over, there is no enlightened person—enlightenment is the falling away of the one who would get enlightened: "Enlightenment is not what you think but rather the ultimate, unimaginable dissolution into all that IS." Or as Ram Tzu wisely puts it: "In order to realize the miracle of what you Are, you must surrender the fantasy of what you will become." And in his more recent writing, Wayne acknowledges that “awakening takes many forms. For some it is sudden and dramatic, for others, gradual and barely noticeable.” And his main point, always, is that whatever seems to happen or not happen, it is all an impersonal happening, and that Consciousness is all there is: "There is nothing to become...We are all already That." And he says, "When we talk about Enlightenment or Oneness it is much ado about Nothing!" So if you read Wayne and find yourself thinking that "he" is enlightened and "you" are not, see if you can find the one who is not enlightened, the one who is concerned about it. Wayne emphasizes over and over again that no conceptual description or formulation is ever the truth. He stresses that he is not putting forward a new belief system, but rather, that he is inviting people to look for themselves and see directly. He calls what he offers the Living Teaching. I love Wayne's whole-hearted embrace of everything as the Holy Reality, his no-nonsense style, his devotional heart, his unrelenting emphasis on the fact that nothing has independent existence or volition, that all apparent opposites are "not two," and his emphasis on direct experience and the living reality, not philosophy. More here.
THE HEART OF AWARENESS: A Translation of the Ashtavakra Gita, translated by Thomas Byrom -- This beautiful translation of a classic and radical text in Advaita Vedanta is elegantly spare, simple and crystal clear. The translator, Thomas Byrom, seems to have deep spiritual insight combined with a poet's feeling for language, and his rendering is exquisite. In his introduction to the book, Byrom writes, "Ashtavakra's words begin after almost everything else has been said. They barely touch the page. They are often on the point of vanishing. They are the first melting of the snow, high in the mountains, a clear stream flowing over smooth and shining pebbles." Byrom says of the Ashtavakra Gita, "All its beauty is in the transparency, its enraptured and flawless purity." Byrom sums up the essential message of the Ashtavakra Gita as: "We are all one Self. The Self is pure awareness. This Self, this flawless awareness is God. There is only God." Beautiful book!
DATTATREYA'S SONG OF THE AVADHUT: The Avadhut Gita (English translation by S. Abhayananda with Sanskrit transliteration) – A classic expression of nondualism attributed to the Avadhuta Dattatreya. This collection of short verses is considered one of the most celebrated and important books in Vedanta. This is my favorite of the several translations I’ve read, and they each give a different slant on the verses. Here is a small taste, possibly some of it from one of the other translations: "When a jar is broken, the space that was inside merges into the space outside. In the same way, my mind has merged in God; to me, there appears no duality. Truly there’s no jar, no space within; there’s no body and no soul encased. Please understand; everything is Brahman. There’s no subject, no object, no separate parts...The motionless Brahman possesses all that is movable and immovable without any effort. It is by nature calm, conscious, and all-pervading like space…. the omnipresent Brahman alone guides effortlessly all that is mobile and immobile. Then how can that nondual Brahman be different from me?...Why should I care about the waves of the mind? They appear and disappear like bubbles in water…Brahman is subtler than the subtlest…pure consciousness…undivided and uninterrupted…In Brahman there is no differentiation between one who is a disciple and one who is not. In Brahman there is no differentiation between the movable and the immovable. The all-pervading Reality is liberation Itself…Brahman is bereft of form and formlessness. It is truly neither divided nor undivided…it is free from creation and destruction…Truly, I am the pure, unclouded, all-pervading Reality." Beautiful!
MOOJI: Vaster Than Sky Greater Than Space; White Fire (second edition); Before I Am (second edition); Writing on Water; Breath of the Absolute: The Manifest and Unmanifest Are One; and An Invitation to Freedom (available as book or audio) — Mooji is a contemporary Advaita guru who comes from the Heart and who offers a simple, direct, beautifully clear and transcendent message. I met him once in Chicago at a small gathering and felt that I was in the presence of a very genuine, warm-hearted, generous, deeply awakened being—a clear light. Love just seemed to pour out of him. He has a wonderful sense of humor and playfulness, too. Mooji calls himself an "Advaita Master," and he works in a guru-devotional Hindu style, surrounded by radiant devotees showering him with unabashed devotional love and calling him their Master. That way of working is anathema to many, and not surprisingly, Mooji has had no shortage of detractors and critics. I would never deny the potential dangers in that way of working, and it definitely isn't my way of working. I personally can’t imagine letting people kiss my feet or call me their Master. But I do have a bhakti streak, and I do have a good feeling about Mooji, so I’m not put off by the whole scene in the way many people are. But I haven't been to Mooji's ashram, and I can't say what does or doesn't go on there (I've heard many conflicting stories). All teachers, sages and gurus are human beings, and I always caution against idolizing and worshipping them, making them into infallible authorities, or believing that you need an intermediary to wake up to what is already Here-Now. So I would recommend not turning Mooji into a savior or a god. But whatever you may think of his guru-devotional style, and whatever human flaws he may or may not have, what I'm recommending here, and what I appreciate most about Mooji, is his clear and direct pointing to presence, as well as the genuine love and joy that I feel coming from him and from those around him. He strips away everything that can be stripped away, pointing in a simple, direct, immediate way to what cannot be removed: the boundless, unborn, unconditioned, limitless, formless, information-less, pure awareness that is subtler than everything perceivable, conceivable or experienceable—this unseeable seeing that is always already here. And it is to this ultimate reality that his life is dedicated. "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering," he says, "Remind the world it is beautiful and free." And that is exactly what he does. "Open the eyes of Your Heart, look, everywhere Is God." Born in Jamaica in 1954, Mooji (then Anthony Paul Moo-Young) moved to Brixton, London in the UK as a teenager, where he became an artist and a college art teacher. In 1987, an encounter with a Christian mystic led Mooji to "walk out of his life," and a few years later, his spiritual journey took him to India where he met the man he calls his Master, H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Mooji points to a liberating shift from the constriction of identifying as a separate person to the freedom of recognizing oneself as impersonal boundless presence, and ultimately, as the pure awareness that is subtler even than the first sense of presence. “The way is not really a way,” he says. “It is a depth. It is not a distance. It is a deepening into the stillness…listening takes you deeper into the bliss of the unknowable.” Mooji has no interest in psychological or social problems, personal stories, past history, future hopes, or any of that—he is totally focused on helping people to recognize and abide as pure awareness. “Live as though you have no entitlements," he says, "and you’ll appreciate all that comes." He has a beautiful ability to point out the tricks of the mind that pull us back into identification with the personal, psychological self. While this is definitely a transcendent approach, Mooji doesn't in any way reject the world, which he describes as the dynamic expression of consciousness. He stresses that he is not against duality—as he says, nothing could appear without duality—but he points to the nondual absolute Here / Now that is untouched by the world: “If you open your inner eyes," he writes, "you will see the Truth that lies right here inside of you beyond the transient play of phenomena we call life—beyond everything we can see or perceive. When I say beyond, I don’t mean beyond in terms of distance, but beyond in terms of subtlety. The search for truth is not about running away from the things of this world but about understanding their ephemeral nature. And more than that, it is about discovering our true nature as an inherent stillness from where even the subtlest movements of phenomena are perceived.” I love that he dances freely with many different expressions of Truth—Christ, Shiva, Buddha—seeing the universal at the heart of all of them. His sangha and his world-wide gatherings have a wonderful international flavor that I also greatly appreciate—multiethnic, multiracial and intergenerational. His satsangs include heart-opening bhajans (devotional songs), which I love. (I do have a bhakti streak, although for me, it isn't about worshipping a guru). Mooji has founded a center for Self-realization called Monte Sahaja in Portugal, and he offers retreats and satsangs there and elsewhere. Many of Mooji's satsangs, retreats and intensives are broadcast live over the internet, and many are available on his YouTube channel and on Mooji TV. Russell Brand has a great conversation with Mooji that includes a guided meditation here. Even more than his books, I recommend watching Mooji live (in person or via broadcasting) or on video. There is audio, video and written material, as well as information about his events, at his website here. Highly recommended.
JAN KERSSCHOT: Beyond: Dialogues About Aware Beingness and This Is It (a wonderful collection of interviews with spiritual teachers including Nathan Gill, Tony Parsons, Chuck Hillig, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Liquorman, Francis Lucille, U.G. Krishnamurti and others) – Wonderful books. Jan offers clear, intelligent, non-dogmatic, open-hearted, bare-bones nondualism, plain and simple, no fanfare. A graduate in medicine from Antwerp University in Belgium, Jan is a natural healer, an artist, and a nondual writer/speaker. In straightforward , non-religious language, he points to the One Reality—the ocean that is equally present as every wave—the aware beingness that has no borders and no center, which cannot be achieved because it is already effortlessly present. “It may be seen that the beingness we all share—the naked awareness which we all are—has never been absent…It is the one common denominator of all humanity.” Asked how he can know that for sure, he replies, “I can’t. It is not something which I can prove. But when this space is discovered in your own heart, in the center of your own being, and there is a taste for the vastness of it, it might become clear that this space has no boundaries…It is the most obvious and yet the most overlooked thing there is. But ‘it’ isn’t a thing of course, it is not an object, it’s not a sensation, it can’t be seen or felt or heard, and yet it is the origin of all our thoughts, feelings and perceptions…It is the space in which everything can come and go.” He points out that the ego, or person, is simply an intermittent appearance in this unbound awareness, and that the whole movie of waking life, including time and space, past and future, also appears in this aware space. I appreciate the term "aware beingness" and the way he makes it clear that awareness and content are "not two." I also love how he distinguishes between uncompromising "naked nondualism," which is true on the absolute level, and the human level, where we need to obey traffic laws and where it might make sense to take up meditation or do psychological work. He says that the experience of being a person is not something we need to get rid of, but that it can simply be seen as "one of the ten thousand things. Instead of fighting against it, it can be celebrated.” And he makes it clear that so-called liberation isn't about maintaining some special expanded state "all the time," but simply noticing the aware beingness that can never actually leave. The collection of interviews in This Is It are wonderful, as is Jan's writing in that book, and it's helpful to hear the message in so many different voices. And his newest book, Beyond, is wonderful. Other earlier books by Jan include The Myth of Self-Enquiry; Nobody Home; and Coming Home (out of print), but I especially recommend Beyond and This Is It. More here.
SALVADORE POE: Liberation IS the End of the Spiritual Path; The Way of Freedom: Conversations with Salvadore Poe; and Blown Wide Open: A Collection of Holidays – Sal points to the end of the search, if you really want freedom. But as Sal points out, most people actually don’t want freedom—they want their identities, their stories of past and future, their ideas. But if you really want freedom, it’s right here and it couldn't be simpler. Here-Now, there is no past and future, no problems, no story. There is simply open, free, boundless, knowing. To be free is to be devoted to freedom, to Here-Now. Sal uses the word "holiday" to describe what he invites people to explore: "A holiday is what the word implies," he writes. "It's being on a holiday from everything, and I mean everything." A holiday is simply allowing attenton to be open and free and not logged in to the thoughts and stories that create the mirage-like separate self with it's imaginary past and future. Sal delivers this simple, direct, radical (to the root), clear message with no frills and without making himself into anybody special. I've listed his books in the order they were published. The first book begins by guiding you through a series of inquiries and experiments that allow you to see for yourself that you are aware, free, all-inclusive, Here-Now. Sal recommends starting with these inquiries and with the direct discovery or recognition of your essential being that is always already fully present—the natural, default condition of open, aware presence Here-Now. Once this is recognized, if you truly want to be free, it’s simply a matter of being devoted NOW to what has been revealed by jumping off the habitual carousel of thinking, seeking, philosophizing, psychologizing, postponing, and so on. Sal doesn’t say this radical approach is for everyone, and he encourages people who feel the need for psychotherapy or other kinds of work to do it. What he offers is a radical endgame. This isn’t about self-improvement, maintaining a mindfulness practice, getting an intellectual understanding, acquiring knowledge, having mystical experiences, or getting into special, elevated states of consciousness. It’s simply about recognizing what is obvious, immediate and always already here, and then being true to that recognition. “If I say I am awareness, I am making awareness into a thing," he writes. "In fact, I am no-thing—simply aware, free and all-inclusive…I Am, but I am no-thing in particular.” Beautiful! For some twenty years as a young adult from New Jersey, Salvadore Poe pursued a career in music, along with a life of alcohol, drugs and partying, until one night in NYC in 1997, something changed. “From that moment on, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes were finished, with no effort or struggle,” he writes, and a serious spiritual search began. Sal did years of intensive meditation, read Thich Nhat Hanh, Osho and J. Krishnamurti, went on silent retreats, lived in ashrams in India, spent time with U.G. Krishnamurti, Douglas Harding, Toni Packer, a silent sage in India, and a number of other teachers, had a host of mystical experiences that all came and went, and in 2004 met his final teacher, a woman named Dolano. With her, Sal very quickly had the “very ordinary and obvious recognition” that “I am free,” and his search ended. He lived a simple life in India for the next eight years, making music again, until he was asked to teach. “I am not a guru or a spiritual teacher,” he writes. “There are not and never will be ashrams, sanghas, disciples, students, followers, etc. In my opinion, the days of all that are over.” But he does share this realization with those who are interested in being free, and he does it in a very straight-forward, no-nonsense way, pointing out that “you are now and always have been free.” Sal takes on many other topics as well in these books (including free will, death, emotion, causation, time, etc.), all in ways that I deeply appreciate. He has a website and a YouTube channel. Very highly recommended.
ROGER CASTILLO: Roger Castillo is a contemporary satsang teacher based in Australia. I find him very genuine, unpretentious, and exceptionally clear and articulate. His teaching is wonderfully down to earth and practical, rather than metaphysical and abstract. What we really want is happiness, he says, and happiness is peace of mind regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Enlightenment is the end of suffering, and happiness is what remains when suffering falls away. Peace of mind, love and contentment are our very nature, the core of our being (Consciousness, Source). Suffering is an uncomfortableness with our self and with life that manifests as guilt, blame, pride, worry, anxiety, expectation and attachment, all stemming from a mental self-image that is out of line with reality, the false belief that we are a separate body with free will. Borrowing the terminology of his guru Ramesh Balsekar, Roger calls this false attitude to life the thinking mind, which he distinguishes from the working mind. The working mind is the wholesome, functional mind, awareness and intellect working together. Roger identifies two fundamental errors of the thinking mind: the false belief in personal doership, and the false belief that our completeness and happiness depend on outcomes or circumstances. In reality, he says, life in its entirety is an unfathomable creation of Source, and each of us is the result of our genetics and our up to date conditioning, which is continuously changing. Transformation is a process of quieting the thinking mind and resting in our own being. We’re not capable of “doing” this transforming or getting rid of the thinking mind, because we are not the doer. Rather, this process is happening on its own. That Source which put the thinking mind in place is also what dissolves it. Satsang provides new conditioning, a kind of anti-virus, that works on its own to expose the false beliefs of the thinking mind. As those fall away, what remains is our true nature: happiness. In addition to Ramesh Balsekar, Roger says that the teachings of Jesus, A Course in Miracles, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi, among others, were important to him in his awakening journey. Roger offers satsangs and retreats in Australia, Europe, India and perhaps elsewhere. He doesn’t have a book, but he has a website and a YouTube channel.
URBAN GURU CAFÉ: This wonderful on-line collection of 100 podcasts with nondual speakers was created by Gilbert Schultz and Areti Alexova. The interviews run about 20 to 30 minutes each and are intercut with music and other sound effects in a way I find very appealing. Areti is a great interviewer—she asks just the right questions in a very concise way, drawing out each speaker and keeping her own words to a minimum. You’ll find excellent interviews or clips from talks here with Sailor Bob Adamson, Gilbert Shultz, Leo Hartong, Darryl Bailey, Peter Brown, Greg Goode, Tony Parsons, Nisargadatta, Ramesh Balsekar, J. and UG Krishnamurti, Rupert Spira, Robert Wolfe, Kenneth Madden, John Wheeler, Jeff Foster, myself and many others. It’s hard to find an index of all the speakers, but I hope a partial list will show up on this link to Darryl Bailey's interview here. If not, you can do a google search for a particular person at Urban Guru Cafe or just scroll through them all on the UGC site. A real treasure trove. Very highly recommended.
CHOGYAM TRUNGPA: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – This book is full of profound insight. Trungpa sees very clearly the ways we fall into self-deception, and he sees the spiritual path not as an escape from life where we aim for blissful states, nor as some rigid and humorless quest for self-improvement and perfection. "Treading the spiritual path is painful,” he writes. “It is a constant unmasking, peeling off layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult." And enlightenment is not some final victory for the ego, but rather: "Enlightenment is the ultimate and final disappointment." There's an excellent chapter called "Shunyata," where Trungpa discusses The Heart Sutra (form is emptiness; emptiness is form) and deconstructs the three main misconceptions about the nature of reality (eternalism, nihilism, atomism). That chapter is a real gem. It points to the raw actuality of this moment, just as it is, offering not a path of transcendence or any ultimate knowledge about how the universe works, but rather, pointing to what he calls the “open way” of groundlessness and non-dwelling — an unmasking of self-deception and the dropping of all reference points and conceptual constructs: "Then it is possible to experience the uniqueness and vividness of phenomena directly." Trungpa was an important 20th Century Buddhist teacher who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He fled Tibet as a young monk, lived for a while in India and Scotland and eventually settled in the USA, where he gave up being a monk and became a lay teacher instead. He was an immensely creative man who founded Vajradhatu, the Naropa Institute and Shambhala. He was also a controversial character who drank heavily and had a long-standing habit of coming on sexually to students and sleeping with many of them—like so many other great spiritual teachers, he was both profoundly realized and humanly flawed—but whatever you think of all that, this book has some truly excellent material in it. Another book of his I liked was The Myth of Freedom. I'm not into all the whistles and bells and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, but for the most part, Trungpa comes across here as very down to earth and direct. Highly recommended. More here.
DAININ KATAGIRI: You Have to Say Something; Returning to Silence; and Each Moment Is the Universe -- I have returned to these books many times, and each time, I find a new depth in them that I hadn't seen before. 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. "The real bedrock of existence is pure motion," he says. "There is nothing to hold on to, nothing we can claim for ourselves. All we really have to do is just be here, and in that way we will learn what the world is before we measure it." Katagiri 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.” There is great insight and wisdom in these books. Very highly recommended. More here.
MAURINE STUART: Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart − Maurine Stuart (1922-1990) was a Zen teacher, a concert pianist, a wife and mother, a powerful force of nature and a truly remarkable being. I was lucky enough to sit one sesshin (silent Zen meditation retreat) with her in the late 1980’s as she was dying of pancreatic cancer. It was an amazing sesshin. She brought classical musicians in to play for us, she circled the zendo during sitting periods giving each of us wonderful shoulder rubs with her strong pianist hands, and her teaching was passionate and original. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Maurine toured the US and Canada as a concert pianist, spent time in Paris, France, and eventually settled in NYC, where she studied Zen with Yasutani Roshi, Soen Roshi and Eido Roshi. She later moved to Massachusetts and taught at the Cambridge Buddhist Association on Sparks Street until her death. The book is a collection of talks given there and at other Zen Centers around the country. “Please don't cling to yesterday, to what happened, to what didn't happen. And do not judge today by yesterday. Let us just live today to the fullest! Moment after moment, each sitting is the only sitting.” And by no means was she talking only about sitting—for her, Zen was about living each moment to the fullest. "There is no final realization," she said. "In this no-knowing, wondering-on, openhearted condition of mind, we face directly whatever comes—good, bad, ugly, beautiful. We don’t push anything under the rug, we don’t buffer it with something; we experience it fully.” Beautiful! Highly recommended.
NAGARJUNA: Mulamadhyamakakarika (The Middle Way) -- Nagarjuna lived in India in the second century C.E. and is considered one of the most important and seminal figures in Buddhism, perhaps second only to the Buddha himself. Nagarjuna was noted for deconstructing the conceptual mirage of solidity and permanence, and questioning the mind's tendency to grasp, fixate and reify. He points out the fallacies of every way in which we try to conceptualize reality, and he does this without ever offering us an alternative (as in, the right way of conceptualizing it). We want that, but Nagarjuna doesn't offer it, because concepts can't ever be the truth (the map isn't ever the territory). Steve Hagen (see listing above) has a whole course about Nagarjuna available on CD that is excellent and very highly recommended -- well worth the price. Good translations of Nagarjuna include those by David J. Kalupahana and Jay L. Garfield. Not easy material, but excellent.
DAVID R. LOY: Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy -- David Loy is a Zen teacher and a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, and I very highly recommend this book to anyone who is struggling to reconcile (or differentiate) Advaita and Buddhism, or to anyone who is clinging dogmatically to one position or the other, or to anyone who wants a deeper and more subtle understanding of nonduality. The book compares and contrasts the Advaita notion of Self (Immutable Reality) with the Buddhist understanding of no self (impermanence, thorough-going flux, no-thing-ness), and it explores concepts such as time and space, substance, causality, freedom, and spiritual path from a nondual perspective, drawing not only on Advaita and Buddhism, but also on Taoism and Western philosophy. Loy also has a deep interest in how the Buddhist understanding of the roots of suffering can contribute to our efforts to bring about a more just and egalitarian society in harmony with the environment, and for those interested in environmental and social justice, I recommend A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. Loy has a number of other interesting books as well, including Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays; Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism; and The World Is Made of Stories. Loy co-authored (with his wife Linda Goodhew) a wonderful piece called "Consuming Time" in the Buddhist anthology Hooked edited by Stephanie Kaza. In all his books, Loy does an excellent job of deconstructing the separate self and the dualistic view of life. He is definitely an interesting observer of present-day economic and social realities, as well as someone with a deep understanding of nondualism, and he brings the discernment of a trained philospher as well as the practice-experience of a long-time Buddhist student and teacher to the table in his books. You can listen to and watch a very interesting talk by David Loy here and you can learn more at his website here. Very highly recommended.
GREG GOODE: Emptiness and Joyful Freedom (with Tomas Sander, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics) − Greg Goode has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has studied both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta as well as Western philosophy. This is a marvelous book that presents the Buddhist emptiness teachings in a new and unique way. Emptiness is the recognition of the nonsubstantiality, impermanence and interdependence of everything, and when it is truly grokked, it brings forth a sense of lightness, playfulness, compassion, and what Greg and Tomas call joyful irony (“a life lived with no landing, no foundations”). “Emptiness is not nothingness or voidness. It is more like relatedness…It’s simply the fact that things, and your self, do not have essences or substances. They don’t exist in an independent, self-powered way.” As Buddhism does, Greg distinguishes between conventional and inherent existence. Emptiness refutes the illusion of inherent existence, but doesn’t reject or ignore conventional existence. It lives on “the razor’s edge of the middle way,” not refuting too little and not refuting too much. This is about "a flourishing, open-hearted liberation that doesn't land on a position of one or many, existence or non-existence. There is no clinging to dualistic extremes such as good or bad, natural or unnatural, etc. This liberation is non-dual by dissolving dualistic extreme positions." And in another quote: "By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is freed up to work with the empty self. This is where the West's abundant resources for creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can be treated as a work of art." This moves beyond many of the stale fixations and extremes into which some Advaitans, Buddhists and radical non-dualists can fall. I very highly recommend this book. Greg also deeply understands the Advaita teachings of Oneness and standing as Awareness, and he has written many books from that perspective. Through the lens of the emptiness teachings, the perspective offered by Advaita can be held more lightly, not as an absolute truth about the nature of reality, but as a possible way of seeing things that is itself empty and playful. Greg lives in NYC and calls himself a philosophical counselor. His other books include Standing as Awareness: The Direct Path; The Direct Path: A User Guide; and After Awareness: The End of the Path, and he also edited a book called Real-World Nonduality: Reports from the Field, which is a collection of essays by various individuals about how the discovery of nonduality, “the intimacy and inseparability of things,” has impacted their lives. His books are very clear and articulate pointers, and along the way, he offers concrete explorations or meditations that the reader can undertake to realize experientially and directly what is being pointed out. He avoids many of the common pitfalls into which other contemporary nondualists frequently fall, such as reification and getting stuck on one side of an imaginary conceptual divide. Above all, I very highly recommend Emptiness and Joyful Freedom − a very enlightening, enlivening and liberating book! More on Greg 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.
RICHARD B. CLARKE: Always Home, Coming Home: A Life in Zen and Sand Mirrors (with photographs by Stephen Strom) – Richard B. Clarke (1933-2013) was in a very real sense my first living Zen teacher. He was a biology professor at Bard College when I was there as a student in the late 1960’s. He offered a course called Vedanta and Zen that I took, and he led a small Zen sitting group in the basement of the college chapel, which is where I first sat zazen (Zen meditation). He went on to found a Zen Center in 1972. Many of his talks (or teishos) from the last 8 years of his life are available as audio files at the website of the Living Dharma Center (click on "Teisho" and then from that page, click on "Richard Clarke" and you'll find the talks). These talks are very powerful and clear, with incredible beauty, depth and subtlety, and I recommend them very highly. Richard is probably best known for his ever-evolving translations of the Hsin-Hsin Ming of Seng T'san (several published by White Pine Press, on my recommended list above). Always Home, Coming Home is a superb collection of poetry and other writings and is still unpublished, but keep an eye out for it – these poems distill and transmit the essence of Zen with extraordinary clarity, insight and love for the ordinary / extraordinary everyday world. Sand Mirrors is a beautiful collaboration between Richard's words and Stephen Strom's photography, and it is in print and available. Faith Mind, a film based on the Hsin-hsin Ming and featuring Richard, is supposedly in post-production. Richard's previously published books of poetry, Fever and the Cold Eye (Contact Press, 1966) and Lunations (Contact Press, 1969), are unfortunately both out of print. Richard was a brilliant man, fluent in about 8 languages, with advanced degrees in biology and biochemistry. In addition to being a Zen teacher, a poet and a translator, he also taught Neuro-Linguistic Programming for awhile. Richard writes on the Living Dharma website: “Our Zen way begins by analysis until we are clear on certain presuppositions of our life, such as that things could not have been different in the past or at this moment, that there is no self to be found, only identifications, and that calendar and clock time is radically different from ‘being-time.’ And then zazen, witnessing the ‘passing show’ of phenomena and letting all attachment to them drop away, is the foundation of our Way of Zen….I encourage all of you to…penetrate deeply beneath all words and concepts so you may Realize in yourselves your essential Self that is one with all the great Zen Masters and one with this world, including its ignorance and suffering. There is only One Reality.” And this is from his book Always Home, Coming Home: A Life in Zen: “The logic of Zen is so simple: when you are drawn to an ultimate question such as what am I? how will I live this life? what is the meaning of life? what is reality? and you have clearly understood that all you call reality is a construction of your own mind, then you realize that all your prayers and callings out are to beings whose only reality is within stories in your own mind, and you understand that all religions are simply socio-political structures perpetuating beliefs in falsehoods that console and reassure many millions of people, and when you have witnessed the uninvited thoughts etc. that arise spontaneously in your mind until you are no longer enticed by these entertainments. Then it is obvious and hopefully compelling, to practice the letting go of all such items until the mind is an open space from which you cannot be distracted—and there you hold to your initial ultimate question yearning for and receptive to a direct and final experiential answer—it is there when the world’s final secret will reveal itself—often turning your familiar world upside-down.” I very highly recommend his teishos, his poetry, his translation of the Hsin-hsin Ming, Sand Mirrors, and especially the still unpublished collection, Always Home, Coming Home, that I hope will eventually find a publisher and be available. You can also listen to talks by two of his dharma successors (Paul Gerstein and Norma Salter) on the "Teisho" page of the website as well. All very highly recommended.
PAUL GERSTEIN: Form Is Emptiness: An Insider’s Guide to the Heart of Zen Buddhism – Paul Gerstein is a retired ER physician, the first Dharma successor of Richard Clarke, and the principle teacher of the Living Dharma Center since Richard’s death. This is an exceptionally clear, very articule, well-written and illuminating book. Paul is unpretentious, sincere, genuine and down to earth. He has dropped most of the trappings of formal Zen, and he doesn’t set himself up as an unquestionable authority in the way so many teachers do. The book beautifully points out the nature of emptiness and impermanence, and the spirit of Zen meditation and inquiry, on and off the meditation cushion. Paul sees through many of the common pitfalls along the way, and he offers a no-nonsense, crystal clear, wise and insightful approach to exploring reality and freeing oneself from the confusion and suffering of our conceptual minds. I'm not into all the stuff about "correct" sitting postures and hand positions for meditation, but overall, this is an excellent book. Paul conveys both the fierce, urgent, life-or-death effort to “break through the barrier” characterizes Rinzai Zen as well as the non-result-oriented, on-the-spot awakeness of Soto Zen, and the practice he offers includes a mix of both, using open inquiry, koan work, and zazen (meditation). Paul has created a podcast channel called Pandemic Zen that he describes as “an experimental podcast exploring the healing and life-sustaining potential of Zen insight, meditation and mindfulness in a modern world of existential challenges to health, happiness and our very survival.” Paul also has some excellent talks that you can hear by going to the "Teisho" page of the Living Dharma Center website. All very highly recommended. More here.
LAO TZU: Tao Te Ching -- Beautiful, simple, clear. There are any number of fine translations of this ancient Taoist classic, and each different translation conveys different flavors and shades of meaning for each verse. I especially recommend the translation by Stephen Mitchell. I also like the one by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English and the one by David Hinton, and there's also a lovely version by Brian Walker, who also translated the less well-known Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu, which I also recommend.
BANKEI: The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, translated by Norman Waddell − Bankei (1622-1693) was a Zen Master who emphasized the simple truth of abiding in the Unborn, which was his word for presence-awareness or the Now. He said, "I always urge people to live in the unborn Buddha-mind...When you are unborn, you're at the source of all things." Bankei de-emphasized many of the traditional Zen practices, spoke in the common language of the people, and focused on the simple heart of the matter: present moment awareness. “You’re unborn right from the start," he says, "There’s no need for you to become the Unborn. The true Unborn…is beyond becoming or attaining. It’s simply being as you are.” Abiding in the Unborn "has nothing to do with either 'self-power' or 'other-power,'" he says, "It's beyond them both. My proof is this: While you face me and listen to me say this, if somewhere a sparrow chirps, or a crow caws, or a man or woman says something, or the wind rustles the leaves, though you sit there without any intent to listen, you will hear and distinguish each sound. Because it isn't yourself that's doing the listening, it isn't self-power. On the other hand, it wouldn't do you any good if you had someone else hear and distinguish the sounds for you. So it isn't other-power." What a beautiful way of pointing beyond all dualistic or fixated ideas of choice vs. choicelessness. Highly recommended.
A.H. ALMAAS: The Unfolding Now: Realizing Your True Nature through the Practice of Presence and Runaway Realization: Living a Life of Ceaseless Discovery -- Almaas is the pen name of Hameed Ali, a contemporary spiritual teacher and co-founder, with his partner Karen Johnson, of the Diamond Approach to Self-Realization and the Ridhwan School. What i love about him is that he doesn't land anywhere. He is open to new discoveries. He holds multiple views at once. This is true freedom. He points to exploring ordinary reality and to 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, science, 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. I especially appreciate the way Almaas discusses the dangers of reification and identification, including any tendency to identify as the Absolute. "This is one of the central dangers on the spiritual path: whenever we experience something new, we want to put it in a box. We reify it and then separate from it in order to identify with it." And here's another passage that I found very helpful: “No moment is better than any other moment. No one’s experience is better than another person’s experience. Your experience in the moment is the way True Nature is teaching. It is not accurate to say, ‘That guy is at a more advanced place than I am, so I should be like him.’ You are comparing yourself and making a judgment that your experience is not as valuable—and so the sense of your own value is lost. No, your experience is the right teaching at that moment for you, and for the rest of reality, too. Your experience is just as valuable, just as necessary, as the experience of somebody supposedly more advanced on the path or having more sublime experiences. The more we learn that each moment has its own intrinsic value, the easier it is for us to let ourselves just be in each moment, however it is manifesting….Who are we to say that we should be like some other person?” Beautiful! Excellent books. You'll find video, articles, information about the Diamond Approach and his other books and more here. And this is a wonderful talk by A.H. Almaas and Karen Johnson, Living at the Edge of the Unknown.
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. There's also an excellent biography called Infinite Potential: The Life And Times Of David Bohm by F. David Peat. All of 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. There's also a movie about his life and work available on YouTube called Infinite Potential. All very highly recommended.
PETER RUSSELL: From Science to God: A Physicist's Journey Into Mystery of Consciousness; Seeds of Awakening; and Waking Up in Time -- Peter is a very interesting man who has a background in mathematics, theoretical physics, experimental psychology and computer science, along with eastern spirituality and meditation. He has many other books, DVDs, and articles, and I have found him to be very open, intelligent, insightful, wise and non-dogmatic. This is an excerpt from his excellent (and evolving) piece called “Blind Spot” that you can find on this website in which he talks about exponential growth, acceleration, climate change and the mortality of the human species: “Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing… We've always known human beings could not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be some time way off in the future. We don't like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. There are obvious parallels here with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we have some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow. Yet accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts of consciousness…The same may apply to humanity…The question then naturally arises: How do we spend our final days?...Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness? For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer such an avid follower of the news, getting upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving. Accepting the end is nigh does not mean that I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet's own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow. We will also need to take care of our fellow beings who will be in need of help and support—providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. And there will be much needed emotional and mental support—care, comfort, compassion, coping with the fear and pain, and adapting to changing situations.” There is a fascinating interview of Peter by Catherine Ingram on this subject titled “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016) that you can find here. I highly recommend Peter. More here. Very highly recommended.
CATHERINE INGRAM: Passionate Presence: Seven Qualities of Awakened Awareness and A Crack in Everything (a novel) – I love Catherine’s sensitivity and deep sense of silence and presence, her intelligence and wisdom, her concern with what’s happening on the planet right now, her open mind and heart, and her ability to articulate all of this so clearly and beautifully. She doesn’t set herself up as some kind of beyond-it-all guru figure, which I greatly appreciate, and she is very clear and on the mark. A former journalist, Catherine was a co-founder of the Buddhist Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and later a student of H.W.L. Poonja. For many years, she has held Dharma Dialogues and led silent retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and she has also worked for human and animal rights. Her teaching is informed by her rich life experience, her years of Buddhist meditation, her deep encounter with Poonjaji and other Advaita teachings, as well as her interest in science, reason, ethics, climate change, and political activism. I have found her perspective on climate change and the coming catastrophe very helpful. She has written a powerful piece about climate change called Facing Extinction that I very highly recommend. It takes about an hour to read, and it faces the reality of the situation, offering no false hope, but offering a way of meeting the coming catastrophe and extinction from the heart, and thus, even in its hopelessness, it feels positive. It is a brilliant, wise, informative article that I would encourage people to read. As with getting any terminal diagnosis, it can inform you in practical ways and also change your life in unexpectedly positive ways. On the same subject, I recommend several of her earlier podcasts, including “Love for the Living World” (Feb 2018) and a conversation she did with Peter Russell called “Peter Russell: A Crisis of Acceleration” (March 2016), both of which you can find here. Catherine currently lives in Australia. She did a wonderful interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump. And her novel brought me to tears. More at her website here. Highly recommended.
ELIHU GENMYO SMITH: Everything Is the Way: Ordinary Mind Zen − This is a wonderful book that illuminates and conveys the true heart of Zen. Being this body-mind-world, right now, waking up from the self-centered dream, "working with the self-centered thoughts that cut off this moment and prevent us from opening to this moment." Elihu is the resident teacher at the Prairie Zen Center in Illinois and a co-founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. He is a dharma heir of one of my teachers, Charlotte Joko Beck, and he also studied with Soen Roshi, Eido Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi. I love the way Elihu uses language and the way he conveys what is simplest and most intimate. This is about lifelong practice in the midst of ordinary life. "Mistake after mistake is the perfect way," he writes. "The sounds of the stream, the mountains, the office building, the traffic—all this is our very body, the body of the Buddha." And elsewhere: “What is it that we think is not the Attained Way? What is it that we think is not Buddha? What is it we think is I? What is it we think is not-I?” Wonderful questions! I'm no longer wedded to the kind of rigorous, strict, formal Zen practice that Elihu teaches, but the heart of practice as he presents it is right on the mark, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way he writes about rituals and precepts. Essentially, the book (and Zen practice) is simply about being awake in this moment in the midst of everyday life, which is useful for everyone. Down to earth, beautifully clear, very highly recommended. He has an earlier book, Ordinary Life, Wondrous Life, about the Ten Bodhisattva Precepts that is also excellent. These precepts in Buddhism are not intended as commandments or ideals, but rather as ways of practicing and reflecting on life. So when a student expresses the feeling that she can never live up to the precepts, Elihu says, “Notice the belief, the expectation that precepts are about your living up to them…In all sorts of ways, we break the precepts. And we make the best effort.” More here. Very highly recommended.
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. He also had a shadow side involving sexual misconduct and a struggle with alcoholism, and he drowned in his bathtub after a night of heavy drinking. But he was also a great Zen teacher. And you don't need to be into the kind of rigorous, traditional, formal Zen practice that Maezumi taught to appreciate the truly wonderful insight and wisdom in this book. It includes as an appendix translations of Dogen's Genjokoan and Sekito Kisen's Identity of Relative and Absolute. Very highly recommended. More on Maezumi here and here.
MEL ASH: The Zen of Recovery – This is a really wonderful book about Zen, addiction and recovery. Mel Ash survived an abusive childhood, became a drunk, sobered up through AA, became a Zen student and eventually a Zen teacher and also a Unitarian. I love what he writes about Zen, about 12-Step work, and about finding freedom. "Please don’t believe for a moment that someone else’s hands are pulling the strings," he writes. "Oh no, don’t believe for a second that you’re only a puppet. You are the hands that pull the strings of attachment. You are both puppet and puppetmaster. But how to explain scissors to one who’s never seen or used them? How to convince a puppet that scissors even exist? How to convince someone (listen closely now) that there is no need for scissors because the strings themselves never existed except through our belief in them? Just walk away from the puppetmaster. He cannot hold you. Turn quickly and see his face. It is only yours." Mel Ash died in August, 2019. Excellent book. Highly recommended.
STEPHEN MITCHELL: The Second Book of the Tao – This wonderful and amazing 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 marvelous, wise, deeply playful, deeply radical book full of profound insight, bright light, and great heart. The words transmit the freedom of which they speak. 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. The Second Book of the Tao is truly a great book, one that I very highly recommend. More here.
WES "SCOOP" NISKER: Buddha's Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos; Essential Crazy Wisdom; Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again, and The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom: The Spiritual Experiments of My Generation -- Wes Nisker is an insight meditation teacher, author, performer, former radio newscaster, and co-founder and co-editor of the excellent Buddhist journal "Inquiring Mind." He is refreshingly real and open, has a great sense of humor and freely admits that he doesn't know how the universe works. He remains open to new discoveries, and he offers a very practical, down-to-earth path rooted in awareness, scientific curiosity and an ability to laugh. Years ago in San Francisco, in the early 1970's, I remember "Scoop" Nisker would always end his newscast on the popular rocknroll station I listened to back then by saying, "And remember, if you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Wes is a very wise, insightful, honest human being whose work I very highly recommend. His book The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom had me laughing out loud, and I found his insights and reflections on our (boomer) moment in history profoundly healing. And Buddha's Nature is a great dharma book that brings together science and Buddhism in an original mix. There is also a wonderful DVD available of one of his live performances, and you'll find much more at his website here. Very highly recommended!
NATHAN GILL: Already Awake and Being: The Bottom Line – These two books are among the simplest, clearest and most articulate expressions of uncompromising, bare-bones, radical nonduality on offer. Nathan points to the simplicity of what is, never wavering from the insistence that absolutely nothing needs to be done (or not done). "It's always already it, always," he says, no matter what is appearing. If you're caught up in some grueling practice rooted in stories of lack or fantasies of self-improvement, or if you're seeking or waiting for some kind of explosive future transformation or final event, reading Nathan can be wonderfully liberating. He dispels any notion that there is something bigger and better to find in the future, he dangles no subtle carrots in front of you, and keeps pointing to this, right here, right now, exactly as it is. "Whatever happens, there is only Being," he writes. "You can't put a foot wrong, because nothing and no one is going anywhere. 'You' are not a character on a journey to self-realisation. It's all a play of appearances." This is an immensely freeing and relieving message when it truly sinks in. It frees one from the painful need to improve or practice, and from the underlying belief that "this isn't it" and "I'm not there yet." It also brings forth a natural compassion for oneself and all beings. 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. His website is no longer up, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to him, and there might still be some clips of him on YouTube. He was a friend, and a lovely man, with a clear and simple message, and these books are jewels of radical nonduality.
GILBERT SCHULTZ: Self Aware and Self Illumination − Two clear, simple, direct books with a radical message (radical meaning "to the root"). No carrots being dangled in front of you here. Nothing on offer to do or to attain—no path, no method, no special states—just the simple recognition of what is "clear and obvious." Gilbert stresses that what he’s pointing out is non-conceptual, and he urges the reader to look, see and discover this for themselves: "My advice is to drop all study and simply pay attention to what is. It is simply obvious…Your ‘immediate life’ is THIS moment, just as it is. Let the natural state resonate." He doesn't talk about himself at all, instead urging the reader to focus on the message and not the messenger. He points not to some dramatic enlightenment event, but to a simple recognition of what is already fully present: “No need for excitement, trumpets and banners, lightening bolts or fanfares. It is ordinary, absolutely ordinary. It is so ordinary that no one notices its immaculate nature. Hidden in plain view. Nothing can be added to this wakefulness and…nothing can be taken away from it.” No special event or breakthrough is needed because this boundless awareness is all-inclusive and ever-present: "You have never left it, ever." He points out that the autonomous separate self with free will is an illusion: "Everything without one single exception, is happening spontaneously." He sees the body-mind-world as patterns of energy, dream-like appearances with no substance, and he points out that seeking some special experience or some imaginary future transformation is the very thing that prevents us from noticing what is fully present here-now, this ordinary wakefulness, this immediate seeing-knowing, this presence-awareness, the One Essence appearing as Everything. "There is no was in Enlightenment," he writes. "There is no will be in Enlightenment. Enlightenment is timeless Awareness." He says, "In the first instant of knowing there is a spaciousness, which is free from fixations. This is the natural state...It is not knowledge. It is always immediate knowing. This knowing is ever prior to all thoughts or states in body-mind. You are THAT." And if it seems to be otherwise, "Investigate—that is all that is necessary...We can simply open to the warmth of our own Being and stay quietly attentive. With a simple open view, you may very well see clearly that you have never been bound, and that this innate freedom is yours…Use this natural power of discrimination. See the true and see the false and KNOW the difference…What you are is all that you need…Let the mind rest on nothing. Let it be spacious. A living openness… You are FREE, right NOW." Gilbert is a contemporary Australian whose main teachers were Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramesh Balsekar, Ranjit Maharaj, and finally Sailor Bob Adamson, with whom Gilbert had a long and close association. Gilbert transcribed and edited Bob's first book and helped in many ways to bring Bob's teaching to the world. Gilbert was also a co-creator of the Urban Guru Cafe. He has no use for spiritual teachings and teachers that offer practices or methods for recognizing and opening more fully or deeply to what is already effortlessly present, a point on which he and I disagree, but in his view, all such endeavors only reinforce the root delusion. Gilbert doesn't allow the seeker to indulge their personal drama in any way, insisting that "all psychological suffering is completely unnecessary." That feels overly simplistic to me, but Gilbert does do a great job of holding your feet to the fire and calling you out on any attempts to move away from this very instant, back into the story or into identity as a person. And it's fascinating to see how the mind will argue with this uncompromising stance, saying "yes, but..." and even defending and arguing for the reality of our suffering and our story. Gilbert can be quite ruthless and challenging (and in my view a bit dogmatic) in his stance at times, but there is a gentle sensitivity and a tender heart behind his radical and uncompromising expression: "Be warm to yourself," he says, "Stop beating yourself up with concepts." If you can use his challenges as an opportunity to look more deeply, rather than taking them as personal insults, they can be powerful pointers for those who genuinely want to wake up right now. When it truly hits home, this uncompromisingly radical message is profoundly liberating. I would just caution against turning it into a new dogma. Some radical nondualists get pretty close-minded in my opinion, and then genuinely radical insight all too easily becomes a new set of blinders. Gilbert has written several other books and produced several audio recordings in the past, but these may no longer be available. And these two most recent books are truly all you need to get the essential message. You can also find some audio with him on the Urban Guru Cafe. And you can watch videos of him on his YouTube page and here. More on his Facebook page and on his website.
JIM NEWMAN: This is radical nonduality, or what is sometimes called the ultimate medicine (the medicine that points out that the apparent disease is imaginary and no cure is needed—what is, is already whole and complete, just as it is, and it never really is in the way we imagine). Jim doesn't yet have a book, but there's some writing on his website and many talks and dialogs on YouTube. I enjoy his energy, humor, ease of being, and uncompromising, bottom-line, radical message. He emphasizes that absolutely nothing needs to happen for this to be what it is already, and he gives the mind nowhere to land and nothing to grasp. He points to just this, simplicity itself, the absolute freedom that is already all there is. Radical nonduality is uncompromisingly and unwaveringly absolute (no self, no-things, no choice, no path, no meaning or purpose, no context). I love the simplicity and purity of this kind of message and the way it leaves you with nowhere to stand and nothing to hold on to—utterly free as this indivisible no-thing-ness appearing as everything. If you really hear it, it can be the most liberating message. It is often misunderstood—but Jim makes clear that he is not saying that people shouldn’t meditate or see a therapist if they are so inclined, only that there is no independent self who does (or doesn’t) do any of this, and the kind of “relative medicine” that such things apparently offer is not what he is talking about. Jim gives talks and retreats around the world and on zoom, and as best I can tell, he is an American who lives with his wife Rita in Vienna. He spent more than a decade with a teacher named Barry Long before coming upon Tony Parsons, whose message resonated, and Jim is very much like Tony in his style and expression. Jim describes his meetings as “an uncovering, revealing, pointing to the reality, that that experience of separation, that experience that I'm real, that there's something wrong and that I need to do something about it, is illusory. In reality, THIS is whole, this is complete. There's nothing missing, there's no real lack, there's no real need for anything to happen...THIS, this appearance, isn't what it appears to be. It is and it isn't. It's no-thing being something. It's emptiness appearing as everything. It's unified appearing as divided or separated.” He says of his talks, “This sharing has no authority…There is no path…There is no meaning and no need for a meaning of life. Everything is already what it is, which is already needlessly, free and fulfilled. There is only what is… ‘What is’ is indivisible, all encompassing, everything without position or perspective, no inside, no outside, not two, not separate, non-dual…There is nothing missing and no need to find anything. When the dream ends, no one wakes up. The dream was the dreamer’s only reality. When it ends, there is no one left to wake up....This doesn't need anything else, this is already all there is. Whatever is happening—whatever feelings, thoughts, experiences are happening—that is the wholeness that is looked for. It's not the wholeness the individual's looking for…It's a wholeness that's beyond the personal seeking, beyond the personal need for something more or something else." Like Tony, Jim describes an energetic contraction or tension in the body that he says is the illusion of separation and being a self (which he calls "here" or "I am"), and he says this can dissolve, thus dangling a bit of a carrot before the seekers in his audience, but he then adds that nothing actually happens, that all of this is a story, and that no one is liberated or not liberated: “This can’t be found. There’s no one to find it. It can’t be lost. It’s all there is…the unknowable, unimaginable simplicity of what’s happening.” Even this contracted energy and sense of separation and lack is nothing but freedom appearing as the sense of not being free. I love how Jim dispels the notion that there is something or anything that needs to happen, not even the imaginary release of that contracted energy. He is a master at uncompromisingly pulling the rug out from under any place the mind tries to stand or get a grip. As he says, this message cannot be understood, and it "completely undermines the experience of the individual as real.” He's not pointing to an experience, or a particular state, or an attainment, but to what is completely ordinary and yet utterly miraculous: just this, which both is and isn’t. If you have a taste for radical nonduality, as I do, Jim is someone you might enjoy. I resonate completely with the heart of Jim's expression, but I do find some of his language confusing, and his message has a certainty and an unwillingness or inability to really question its own assumptions that feels rather dogmatic and closed down rather than open. There is a kind of circular logic in some of this radical nondual messaging, and I feel that it fixates on a very absolute view. In Zen, they caution that realizing the absolute is not yet the whole truth. Jim would disagree, but I put out this kind of radical message myself for a while, and I came to feel that something important was being overlooked or left out. So I would caution against turning this message (or any other) into a new fundamentalist dogma, which I often see happening in the radical nondual subculture. Also, Jim seems to use some terminology (such as "here," "I am," and "awareness") differently from the way I do, so it's always helpful to clarify how words are being used by different people in order to avoid misunderstandings. More on his website here and on his YouTube channel here.
JEFF FOSTER: The Deepest Acceptance; The Joy of True Meditation; Falling in Love with Where You Are; and The Wonder of Being (which is a combined and revised edition of Jeff's first two books, Life Without a Centre and Beyond Awakening) -- A graduate in astrophysics from Cambridge University, and the survivor of near-suicidal depression as a young man, Jeff Foster embraces the whole of life, including the messy parts. He says, “My guru is this moment. My lineage is this moment. My spiritual path is this moment. And my home is this moment.” I've watched over the years as his understanding and expression continue to unfold. His earlier books lean toward uncompromising, radical nonduality, and his more recent books include a pathless-path of awakening here and now through the deepest acceptance of this moment, just as it is: "Suffering or stress or psychological discomfort is no longer something bad or evil to be transcended or destroyed; it is a unique opportunity to see what you are still at war with, what you are still seeking." He shows how the deepest acceptance of suffering takes us home, and how "home is always present, even in the midst of all of those experiences you'd rather escape, just as the ocean is always present, in and as every wave." As he puts it in the subtitle of Falling in Love with Where You Are, this is about "Radically Opening Up to the Pain and Joy of Life." The Deepest Acceptance includes a section on addiction that is one of the clearest articulations I've come across of an approach very much akin to my own. Audio and video is also available. Jeff is presently holding meetings in the UK and around the world. More here. Highly recommended.
SCOTT MORRISON: There Is Only Now and Open and Innocent: The Gentle, Passionate Art of Not-Knowing – Two wonderfully clear books by a man who unfortunately died in 2000 at a relatively young age (around 40, I think). His writing is simple, genuine, clear, direct, right to the point, unpretentious, and full of wisdom, insight and down-to-earth compassion. "It’s not a matter of hope," he writes. "Just keep it simple. It all comes down to this: Stop thinking you have time, that you can somehow put it off until later…This is it. This is everything." Scott was a student of Gangaji, and he also mentions Toni Packer (along with many others) in his acknowledgments and recommended readings. “To be enlightened is to be unconditionally intimate with this moment,” Scott writes. “There is no other time or place to give yourself, totally, to all that is. Everything else about spiritual experiences and transformation is just memory, speculation and fantasy, is it not?” You can find these books on Amazon, and some of his writings are still available through the Internet Archive. Highly recommended.
LONGCHENPA: Natural Perfection: Longchenpa’s Radical Dzogchen and Spaciousness: The Radical Dzogchen of the Vajra Heart, both translated and with commentary by Keith Dowman – Longchenpa (1308–1364) was a major teacher in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and is widely considered the single most important writer on Dzogchen. This is radical nondualism at its finest, beautifully translated by Keith Dowman, a Dzogchen teacher and translator of many Tibetan Buddhist texts, who has lived in India and Nepal for many years. Introducing these texts, Dowman writes: "The essence of Dzogchen may be characterized as a lightness of being, humor, and laid back detachment, spontaneous joy and an uninhibited freedom of expression. Perhaps these qualities will emerge here in this work through an understanding of Longchenpa’s intent, but we need to apologize, immediately, for any failure to uphold the cosmic joke, full of joyful laughter, or to induce a dance of cosmic energy involving all life and work, and a pacific play of light that is free of all pain and anxiety. The exemplar of Dzogchen may be anonymous, but he is also the divine madman—or the urban yogi—jumping through decisive moments in life as easily as through the most trivial dilemma, gleefully shouting the absurdity of existence from the rooftops, and asserting the essential beauty of the human predicament. This Dzogchen text should be read as a paean of joy that loosens every knot, opens up every attenuation, and softens every hardening of the psychic arteries in a resolution of the anxiety that marks human embodiment." More here.
THE FLiGHT OF THE GARUDA: The Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (compiled and translated by Keith Dowman) – Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, is the quintessence of the tantric paths in Buddhism. This book contains the translation of four Dzogchen texts belonging to the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, together with an introduction and commentaries by Keith Dowman: The Flight of the Garuda, Secret Instruction in a Garland of Vision, an extract from Emptying the Depths of Hell, and The Wish-Granting Prayer of Kuntu Zangpo. More here.
ORIGINAL PERFECTION: Vairotsana's Five Early Transmissions (updated edition of Eye of the Storm), compiled and translated by Keith Dowman – These five texts are the root of Dzogchen practice, the main practice of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Vairotsana, a master among the first generation of Tibetan Buddhists, reveals here a truth that is at once simple and deeply profound: that all existence--life itself, everyone one of us--is originally perfect, just as is. More here.
THE BOOK OF EQUANIMITY: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans (with commentaries by Gerry Shishin Wick) – This is the classic koan collection used in Soto Zen. (Thomas Cleary translated it into English as the Book of Serenity, so you may know it by that name). It was originally compiled in the twelfth century by Wanshi, with prefaces and capping verses to each koan added a century later by Bansho. The English translations in this volume were done mostly by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who was Gerry Wick’s teacher. This collection includes the original koans as well as Bansho’s prefaces to each, and then a commentary by Gerry Wick, a Soto Zen teacher and the abbot of Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado, which he founded in 1996. Wick is also a former physicist, oceanographer, science writer and computer scientist with a Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley. As he says in the introduction, “Koans are used to liberate students from their rigid, restrictive ways of viewing themselves and the world around them and to open the eye of wisdom.” I like Wick’s commentaries, and it’s a wonderful collection of koans, so it's the one I've enjoyed most. But there are other great koan collections including The Blue Cliff Record, which is the classic Rinzai Zen collection, translated into English by Thomas and J.C. Cleary, and The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans, translated by Kaz Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, with commentary and verse by Daido Loori. And there are many more.
ZEN CHANTS: Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi -- This book offers new translations and adaptations of some of the main Zen liturgical chants (including the Meal Chant, the Robe Verse, the Three Refuges) as well as some of the most essential Zen texts (including Genjokoan, Hsin Hsin Ming, Song of the Grass Hut, Being One and Many, the Heart Sutra, etc.) along with commentary. It also includes Chinese ideographic and original Japananese and Sanskrit versions of many. Kaz is a world-renowned calligraphic artist in addition to a translator of Dogen, Ryokan and other Zen works.
TIMELESS SPRING: A Soto Zen Anthology, edited and translated by Thomas Cleary -- an excellent collection of Zen writings that includes such classics as "Merging of Difference and Unity" and "Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi." I especially recommend a piece in this collection called "Hongzhi said." Very highly recommended.
THE ART OF JUST SITTING (edited by John Daido Loori) − This is a wonderful collection of articles about the Zen practice of shikantaza or “just sitting,” meditation without an object or a goal, simply panoramic attention to whatever shows up. Contributors include old masters such as Dogen and Hongzhi, as well as more contemporary teachers such as Norman Fischer, Dan Leighton, Dainin Katagiri, Shunryu Suzuki, Mel Weitsman, and Bonnie Myotai Treace. There is some truly excellent material in this book. For example, this is Norman Fischer: “Zazen is fundamentally a useless and pointless activity…Our life is already fine the way it is.” Very highly recommended.
H.W.L. POONJA: Wake Up & Roar (originally published as two volumes, now available in one); This: Prose and Poetry of Dancing Emptiness; and The Fire of Freedom: Satsang with Papaji -- H.W.L. Poonja (widely known as Papaji) was an Indian guru and a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. Papaji lived during the 20th Century (1910-1997) and taught Advaita, emphasizing that there is no self, no path, no practice and nothing to do. I especially enjoyed Wake Up and Roar and This: Prose and Poetry of Dancing Emptiness. At his best, Papaji can be wonderfully direct and simple, clear and full of heart, pointing directly to what is most intimate and at the same time boundless: "First locate where you are, and then we can find the distance to where we have to proceed...I is a place where you presently are, isn't it?...Go toward the I and see what happens." Papaji guides his listeners to the immediate discovery of the unavoidable and thus attainable Here / Now of unbound, limitless Awareness. He says: "Surrender to the Source. Surrender to Awareness...Let Silence have You." And elsewhere: "Love Everything...Love all, no matter what, Love all." He sees through the doubts that people bring to him: "The desire for the permanency of clarity is a trick of the mind because permanency is in time and only postpones what is Here and Now." Papaji attracted many Westerners (including Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro, Mooji, Eli Jaxon-Bear, Jon Bernie, Sam Harris, Catherine Ingram and a number of other teachers from the Insight Meditation community, and many others who are now teaching). Wake Up & Roar (edited by Eli Jaxon-Bear) and The Fire of Freedom (edited by David Godman) are both collections of satsang dialogs. This (edited by Prashanti, Vidyavati de Jager and Yudhishtara) is pure poetry right from the Heart, distilled from a much longer book called Truth Is, and I'd say, stick with the distilled version; it's a jewel. More here and here and here.
KARL RENZ: If You Wake Up, Don't Take It Personally; A Little Bit of Nothingness; Worry and Be Happy; and May It Be As It Is: The Embrace of Helplessness − Karl is a contemporary German painter, musician, and anti-guru of sorts who I believe is currently based in Mallorca. He travels around the world giving talks about the Unnameable. He calls his talks "Self-entertainment," and he functions as a kind of iconoclastic trickster, destroying all your attempts to make something out of nothing: "I teach emptiness. I am a rug puller; I am even pulling out the flying carpet." This is the radical edge of nonduality, and to some, it may all sound like gobbledygook, but I found him delightfully freeing. 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, so if you are looking for loving-kindness in the usual sense, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you're looking for total destruction in the best sense, then you might enjoy Karl. He offers the total demolition and total acceptance of everything. But be prepared for the outrageous. He loves to shock and contradict and fly in the face of every spiritual assumption – in short, he loves to pull the rug out from under the mind in every possible way. If you're lucky, you'll be left with nothing. Karl points beyond the whole movie of waking life to that which is unattainable, unavoidable and inconceivable. And if you think you know what that is, Karl will destroy all your ideas and ridicule every experience you cling to as special. "Nobody's enlightened or unenlightened," he says, "Any idea of awakening disappears. There are no sleeping or awakened ones anymore, no more hocus-pocus of trying to get anywhere and have special experiences....You are in Self-entertainment only when you have no result coming out of it....You are in spite, not because of your doing or not doing....What you are existed before this body was born....You are the infinite eye, which looks from infinite angles into what you are. You are the infinite perception, which perceives only Self-information....I'm always pointing to that Absolute you are, which is total helplessness....Everything is a totality of controllessness and freedom....And that freedom you cannot lose and you cannot gain." He talks about being "released from the idea that you have to be released," and he says, "that's the biggest release...that you never can be released from what you are." Irreverent and without spiritual veneer, Karl loves to joke and laugh and play with words, and the words seem to pour out of him at tremendous speed and with complete abandon. He transmits a liberating absence of concern, a relaxed care-less-ness or absolute freedom that seeks nothing and has no problem with anything. Karl offers no methods or practices, pointing out that the search for a solution only gives credence to the apparent reality of the imaginary problem, and he speaks of liberation as the willingness to remain in hell forever. He is refreshingly devoid of any missionary impulses and happily declares that he is "useless and irrelevant." Imagine a marriage between the final and most radical teachings of the Advaita sage Nisargadatta Maharaj and the provocative iconoclast U.G. Krishnamurti, being conveyed by an irreverent, postmodern German with a sense of the absurd, and that might give you some hint of what Karl is like, but truly, he isn't like anyone else. Michele Brehl, who has translated and edited several of Karl’s books, says this about his talks: “Karl calls them entertainment, and they are a much more colorful, unpredictable and chaotic performance than the usual question-and-answer satsangs. To me they feel like a mix of punk concert, circus, stand-up comedy and jam session—a mind-blowing, mesmerizing high-speed firework with words. It is a new way to experience language, a mix of poetry, rap, twisting and juggling, hammering and pounding and finally pulling the rug out from under you. Karl contradicts and changes meanings again and again until the mind is twisted into knots and all that’s left is a refreshing sensation of blankness or hysterical laughter…For him the beauty of language is its emptiness and he makes sure to take this freedom of words to the absolute limit…and I wonder if the show that is going on is just a distraction while the brain is being re-wired and any understanding that has been collected in years of spiritual searching is deleted, including the seeker himself.” I love Karl, but his ruthless, provocative and radical expression of nonduality won't be for everyone. As a friend of mine said, Karl is like a rare cheese – some love it, some do not. Although he deluges you with words, the heart of his message cannot be received on the level of thought. If you really hear this uncompromising message, it has the potential to stop the seeking mind and free you from all your imaginary problems by showing you that there is only the Unnameable Self and no way out: "You are the absolute perpetrator and you never did anything. You are the doer, the doing, and the done. This is the end of separation: you are the seer, the seeing, and the seen...This is peace, because there is no second. Peace cannot be gained. The peace that you are, you cannot not be—neither can you lose it or gain it...To not be able to escape the madness you are is peace. The total hopelessness, to not be able to escape yourself, is peace." Karl leaves you with nothing to grasp and nowhere to land. There are other books as well, and audio and video recordings of his meetings are also available. At the right moment, for those with a taste for rare cheese, Karl can be very liberating. He was for me. You can learn more here.
GARY CROWLEY: From Here to Here: Turning Toward Enlightenment; Pass the Jelly: Tales of Ordinary Enlightenment; and Soft−Style Conscious Awakening -- Gary is (or was, last I heard) a rolfer and a nondual author who lives in California. He writes short, concise books, in plain language, that offer a simple, spare, accessible, direct, straight-forward, crystal clear deconstruction of the sense of being a separate individual with an independent free will. Gary shows how everything we think, feel and do is the outcome and activity of conditioned neurology, and he invites the reader to discover the freedom and delight of being what we always already are: the ever-present nothingness of awareness experiencing, the everythingness of this-here-now. No carrots are being dangled in front of you here. These are no-bullshit, spot-on pointers to true enlightenment, which is not a personal achievement that somebody gets, but rather, a recognition of what has never been absent. Gary shows you that "if you fight the play of opposites that make up life, you suffer."
JAY JENNIFER MATTHEWS: Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just As You Are; All Is Well; Inexpressible; and Truth Is — Jay's first book, Radically Condensed Instructions, is a marvelous book is a short, simple, clear, direct, exceptionally lucid, jargon-free, intelligent expression of non-duality, with a sense of humor to boot. It 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." Jay also does a lovely job of reconciling the pointer to “be here now” with the absolute nondual understanding that there is no way not to be here now: “We know that even in our worst and most neurotic moments, we never leave the openness of the here-and-now, which is the only ‘thing’ there is. And yet we also understand it is best for us to simply ‘be here, now.’” In Jay's more recent books, which I also highly recommend—All Is Well: The Unending Blessing of What Is; Truth Is; Inexpressible: Reflections on the Heart of Enlightenment; and Universal Radiance: Illuminating the Sayings of Jesus of Nazareth —and in Jay’s other more recent writings, the expression has become more transcendent and focused on the absolute, influenced by the persepective of Jesus, Peter Dziuban, Mary Baker Eddy, and Ramana Maharshi: “Your true self is nothing but Love…Nothing harms you, everything supports you…Allow yourself to dissolve into the Love that you are…We can focus on our apparent story in time, or we can focus on Love in the present moment…This choice is our path, and our path is also our goal…Enlightenment is a choice—it doesn't happen ‘one day’ because it only happens now...Give yourself over to love. Let the seed of joy grow in your heart. Don't take thought's ulterior avenues. Stay at the center, with God... Consciousness is everything. We think we’re at the center of our lives, but Consciousness is the center. We think we’re bodies moving around, but there is only apparent motion in Consciousness, as Consciousness. We think our temporal existence is reality, but reality is eternal ever-presence. This entire drama is but a tempest in a teapot. Consciousness is like an ocean where not a drop sloshes out. The understanding that Consciousness is all - some call it God - is a door. Go through it, and you will find nothing at all. This no-thing-ness is Love and Joy, but it cannot answer to these names. Try to glimpse it, and it has no beginning. Try to follow it, and it has no end.” This simple and essential message is presented in a very stripped down, clear way, pointing to what is already here and never absent. Jay has graduate degrees in philosophy and theology, worked for many years in social services with homeless people in Massachusetts, and is currently working in the chemistry department at M.I.T. You can find more on Jay's website.
WILL PYE: Blessed with a Brain Tumor and The Gratitude Prescription – Will Pye is a very bright, optimistic, warm-hearted fellow from the UK whose life was transformed by a brain tumor diagnosis in 2011. He is now a transformational coach, speaker and spiritual teacher pointing to the creative power of Mind and the transformative power of gratitude. Will is a practitioner of Zen, yoga and Qigong with an interest in integrating what he calls "new-paradigm scientific research" with spiritual insight to facilitate genuine transformation and what he calls sacred activism. He sees everything as a gift, and encourages everyone to realize their full potential, always with great compassion for our failures and a sense of humor. Will divides his time between Australia and England, and offers meetings, workshops, and retreats around the world and on-line. I was profoundly moved by his first book, which I highly recommend, and by the wonderful, positive energy he radiates. I have found the heart of his message very helpful. More here.
TIM FREKE: Deep Awake and Lucid Living – These are among the many books Tim Freke has written. Tim is an exuberant being in the UK who calls himself a philosopher, a deep awake guide, and a gnostic scholar. He might also be called a performance artist of sorts. He offers a fresh approach to awakening, which he calls the “deep awake life.” I love his contagious energy and enthusiasm for life, his inclusive perspective that doesn’t fixate on one side of any conceptual divide, his evolutionary philosophy, and his embrace of our humanity and the world. As Tim sees it, ego is not an enemy to be defeated; personhood is not something to leave behind; the world is not an illusion to be discarded; and fear, desire and anger are not obstacles or signs of spiritual failure, and neither is thinking. I resonate completely with how he describes awakening as the deep intuition that “life is good, death is safe, and what really matters is love.” He urges us to wake up to oneness and also to feel empowered as individuals. For Tim, these are not mutually exclusive. He celebrates the capacity for choice, says that we actually have more freedom than we can imagine and that the more conscious we are, the more freedom we have. Tim speaks of meditation not as a grueling discipline, but as something immensely pleasurable. He seems to bubble over with joy, love and humor. Deep Awake and Lucid Living are about awakening in this way, and they are the books of his that I recommend. He has another recent book that I read called Soul Story in which he suggests that individual souls reincarnate from one life to the next, stopping off in between in what he calls the “love-light.” I don't share the belief in individual souls or reincarnation, so that book wasn't my cup of tea, but whether I agree with Tim on everything or not, I always appreciate the way he clarifies that none of his ideas are certainties, and that everything he says is only how he is seeing it now, which changes. Tim has also written The Wisdom of Christian Mystics and several books about Jesus, such as The Gospel of the Second Coming and The Laughing Jesus criticizing organized religion and suggesting that the story of Jesus is a mythological story originally intended to convey a gnostic or mystical perspective. Tim offers workshops, retreats and trainings around the world. I recommend starting with Deep Awake and this presentation gives a good sense of his curent work (2020), as well as this excellent conversation between Tim and Robert Saltzman here. More here.
TARA BRACH: Radical Acceptance and True Refuge – Tara Brach, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and insight meditation teacher based in the Maryland / Washington, D.C. area. These are excellent books about waking up from the trance of self-hatred, unworthiness and taking ourselves for a separate self. Tara offers a path of Radical Acceptance that involves “seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion.” She gives a very clear and articulate explanation of how we suffer and how we can wake up through a path of present moment awareness that involves coming home to our body, opening the heart, and allowing everything to be as it is in this moment. Both books include guided meditations and explorations that you can try as well as stories from the author's own life and from her work as a therapist and meditation teacher. Tara is wonderfully honest in sharing her own struggles and human foibles, and she makes it clear that awakening is a lifelong adventure and not a one-time event. True meditation is not just something you do for an hour a day on a cushion, but a way of living and being with the challenges of everyday life, and these are two of the clearest and most loving articulations of true meditation that I have ever read. More here.
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, including one called Aging for Beginners (written with his wife Elizabeth Hamilton), and I'm sure they're probably all good. Very highly recommended if you're looking for an intelligent practice-oriented approach. More here.
SEUNG SAHN (aka Soen Sa Nim): Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn – Seung Sahn (1927-2004) was a Korean Zen teacher who founded the Kwan Um School of Zen. He came to the United States from Korea in 1972 and was repairing washing machines in a small shop when he was discovered by some university students who were interested in Zen. They organized an informal group around him that eventually became the Providence Zen Center. The book includes dialogues between Seung Sahn and his American students, stories, formal Zen interviews, Dharma talks and letters. His students included Jon Kabat-Zinn and Stephen Mitchell (who compiled the material in this book). Very concise, clear, direct Zen teaching.
JASON SHULMAN: Re-Breathing Buddha’s Four Noble Truths – Jason Shulman is an American spiritual teacher whose original work springs from his Judaic and Buddhist background. This little book is a real jewel. Jason’s expression of nonduality includes duality. It includes being a person. It includes everyday life. It includes shadows and uncertainties. And it includes suffering and desire, not as problems we can eventually transcend, but as integral aspects of the very fabric of existence. “Is the unsatisfactoriness of life something that is foreign to life or is it perhaps one of life’s great secrets? Its engine is the primal desire for awakening…To view suffering as something extra, something that happens to us instead of being us, is to see it as if it had an objective existence and…as something we could conquer….But we are not viewing anything that is separate from ourselves…Life is suffering. Is. Suffering.” Instead of seeing desire, or clinging, as something we must transcend, Jason sees it as how the universe holds together and functions. The cessation of suffering, in his view, “has to do with the integration of light and dark.” Instead of the transcendent, idealized, purist vision that views certain aspects of reality as superior to others, this is a down-to-earth, all-inclusive, fully-embodied approach. “In a world of uncertainty, awakening does not bring the hoped-for certainty we longed for. Mystery remains. Wildness remains. Danger remains. Vitality and freedom remain as well.” And awakening is never finishing. It is on-going. Jason founded A Society of Souls: The School for Nondual Healing and Awakening and created something he calls the MAGI Process, a nondual method of working with conflicts between people, institutions and governments. He has written many other books which I haven't read, and there are BATGAP and C-TV interviews with him that you can find on-line. More here and here. I loved this little book.
THOMAS MERTON: Day of a Stranger; Raids on the Unspeakable; No Man Is an Island; Zen and the Birds of Appetite; The Seven Story Mountain – Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, hermit, writer, photographer, social activist and explorer in Eastern religion. He wrote many other books besides these. Born in France, Merton grew up in New York and Europe, attended Columbia University in NYC, converted to Catholicism, and eventually became a Trappist monk in Kentucky where he lived for the rest of his life. Merton died in Thailand while attending an interfaith monastic conference. Reflecting on his life as a hermit, he wrote, “Perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” (from Day of A Stranger). More here. Very highly recommended.
RASHANI REA: Beyond Brokenness – This spiritual memoir is a book from the deep that finds light not by seeking light, but by letting go into darkness. It is a book of miracles—not the usual kind of miracles like walking on water – but the miracle of finding beauty in the ordinary and love and transcendence in the very heart of brokenness and loss. I love the way Rashani weaves together the beautiful and the ugly so that we can see how inseparable they are, and I especially loved reading about her amazing childhood. Rashani is a poet, writer, visual artist and musician, and also a designer, builder, tree planter and landscape artist who has created a sanctuary where she lives on the Big Island in Hawaii, and where she offers retreats. Rashani has created many other books as well as beautiful posters and cards, including a book with quotes from me and artwork by her called Pencil Sharpeners and Thunderstorms. More here.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint and Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People – This isn't nonduality, but there is something about this woman and her message that resonates deeply with me. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a tattooed, former standup comic and recovering alcoholic turned Lutheran minister and “public theologian.” She is a brilliant story-teller, and Pastrix is a spiritual memoir like no other, and it's the book I'd recommend starting with. Accidental Saints continues in the same vein and is equally excellent. Nadia is deeply insightful, incredibly honest, funny, serious, irreverent and full of genuine wisdom. Her message, which she conveys through stories from her own life and the lives she has touched and been touched by, is that God loves you just as you are with all your neurosis, flaws and shortcomings, and that God works through our brokenness in unfathomable ways. It is a message of love and acceptance that feels truly genuine and real and grounded in the nitty-gritty, unvarnished reality of human life. Nadia is a progressive, concerned with social justice, and yet unflinchingly alert to the ways that progressives can also create an “other” to reject and de-humanize. She writes from a Christian perspective, using the dualistic language of theism, but this is a very unconventional, progressive, down-to-earth, open-minded, rule-breaking, stereotype-smashing, undogmatic Christian perspective—in the true spirit of Jesus (as I hear him). And although she has Christian beliefs, she speaks primarily from experience and from the heart, and not from theology—and she clearly doesn’t care if anyone else believes what she does or not. This isn't about belief. Nadia is the founder and former pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado founded to serve those who would not normally feel comfortable in a church (drag queens, the LGBTQ community, the recovery community, the unemployed, ex-felons, and so on). She is the author of several other books as well, and she is a wonderful writer. Her books are page-turners. In addition, you can learn more at her website here. You can hear Krista Tippett (host of “On Being”) interviewing Nadia Bolz-Weber live at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival at a gathering about the emerging church, here. And you can find many clips of her on YouTube, including a wonderful bio and overview here. And also on YouTube, you'll find more here and here and here. Very highly recommended.
VALARIE KAUR: See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love – This is a powerful book that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in social justice. Valarie Kaur is a marvelous story-teller, and I couldn’t put the book down. It’s both her own story and her wisdom on how to be in this world. Valarie grew up in the Central Valley of California on a farm, a brown-skinned Sikh in a world of conservative white Christians. She has become a civil rights activist, a lawyer, a filmmaker, an educator, an author, an interfaith leader, a wife and mother, the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, and a bright light in today's world. She holds undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and International Relations from Stanford University, a master's in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Her TED talk on revolutionary love in a time of rage moved me deeply. It is one of the most beautiful, profound, powerful talks I’ve ever heard, and it moved me to order her book. This is not a nondual book in the usual sense, but it does bring a spiritual perspective, primarily stemming from her Sikh faith, which is one of love and unity as well as fighting for justice. The book deals with racism, sexism and all forms of prejudice and oppression, and offers a vision for a different way of living. It honors the power and importance of rage, while prescribing nonviolent revolutionary love as the path to change, and reconciliation over punishment. “The opposite of love is not rage. The opposite of love is indifference,” she writes. “Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects that which is loved.” This book made me question many of my own ideas. The principles of the Revolutionary Love Project are: (1) We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way; (2) We declare love even for our opponents; (3) We declare love for ourselves. More at her website. Very highly recommended.
FRANK OSTASESKI: The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully -- This is a beautiful, powerful, heart-opening book filled with amazing stories and great wisdom. Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher, the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, founder of Metta Institute, and a leading voice in contemplative end-of-life care. The powerful stories in the book come from his own life and from his experiences working at the Zen Hospice. The Five Invitations are Don't Wait; Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing; Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience; Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things; and Cultivate Don't Know Mind. Beautiful foreword by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. More here and here.
TIM BURKETT: Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are and Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives – Tim is the Guiding Teacher of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. He is also a licensed psychologist and the director of a large mental health agency. He was a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Dainin Katagiri Roshi. These are wonderful, wise books full of great stories and insights, all told in a beautifully unpretentious, clear, simple, straightforward way. Highly recommended. More here
SAM HARRIS: Free Will and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion – Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, social critic, and meditation teacher. He has a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in neuroscience, and is also a martial artist. Sam has practiced meditation for many years ((Vipassana insight mindfulness meditation and also Dzogchen) and has studied with both Buddhist and Advaita teachers. Sam is widely known as an atheist and a proponent of science and reason, and his focus includes both spirituality and politics and culture. Politically and culturally, I would describe him as a very intelligent, nuanced, open-minded, thoughtful and heterodox progressive with a willingness to consider many different points of view. I don’t always agree with him on every point, but I always find his perspective thought-provoking and worthy of serious consideration, and I deeply appreciate his willingness to question various “politically correct” narratives, and to challenge belief-based metaphysical leaps and magical thinking. His Making Sense podcast explores social issues, and he has created a Waking Up app on which you can access guided meditations, dharma talks, and conversations between Sam and a wide variety of other teachers including Rupert Spira, Loch Kelly, Jim Newman, and a host of well-known Buddhist teachers. Friends have spoken very highly of the app, and the few selections I've heard have been excellent. Free Will is a very short, clear, articulate explanation of why free will is an illusion, and how the recognition of this in no way threatens morality or human accomplishment in the ways that are often feared. This book may be very helpful to readers who imagine that human free will is keeping the universe together, and that without it, chaos and mayhem will surely ensue, or that without it, we will be unable to do anything to improve our lives or make changes of any kind. Waking Up is an attempt to disentangle the valuable aspects of spirituality from the dogmas, beliefs, cultural accoutrements and backward ideas of religion. Sam offers a rational version of spirituality, including mindfulness meditation, which he describes as “a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.” He approaches meditation in a practical way, as a skill that one can train in and improve at: “The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained,” he says. “The purpose of meditation is to recognize that you already have such a mind. That discovery, in turn, helps you to cease doing the things that produce needless confusion and suffering for yourself and others.” He recognizes that this is a long, slow, gradual process: “As every meditator soon discovers, distraction is the normal condition of our minds.” Sam explores the nature of consciousness and the self, he examines different approaches to realization and considers gurus, drugs, death and other topics. He knows, from his own experience with both meditation and drugs, that expanded and liberated states of consciousness are possible, but (as I greatly appreciate) he carefully avoids jumping from this to any metaphysical conclusions about the nature of reality: “It is quite possible," he writes, "to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos.” To which he adds, “This says a lot about the possibilities of human consciousness, but it says nothing about the universe at large.” In his discussion of consciousness, Sam seems to accept the primacy of the physical universe and the emergence of consciousness from matter, but he does at least acknowledge that "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion," and that, "A world teeming with fields and forces, vacuum fluctuations, and other gossamer spawn of modern physics is not the physical world of common sense." I don't resonate with everything he says in this book, and I found it uneven and rather disappointing, but it has some good material. Sam is the author of many other books, most notably perhaps The End of Faith, in which he argues against belief-based religion (particularly theism and the Abrahamic religions) and in favor of science and reason. He has been a strong critic of fundamentalist Islam and of what he sees as false tolerance for this on the left. He co-authored a book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, with Maajid Nawaz, a British author and activist who was once a member of a radical Islamist group and who now works to counter extremism. I often enjoy Sam’s podcast—I don’t always agree, but I often do, and I find the questions he raises very valuable and always appreciate his willingness as a progressive to question dominant views on the left. In this brief excerpt from a public talk, Sam discusses mindfulness and Dzogchen practices. He has a YouTube channel. And you can find more at his website. Very highly recommended.
SCOTT KILOBY: Love’s Quiet Revolution; Natural Rest for Addiction: A Revolutionary Way to Recover Through Presence; The Unfindable Inquiry: One Simple Tool to Overcome Feelings of Unworthiness and Find Inner Peace; Living Realization; Living Relationship; Doorway to Total Liberation; and Reflections of the One Life -- Scott is a former attorney and drug addict, then nondual teacher, and eventually founder of the Kiloby Center for Recovery in Palm Springs, California. He has been developing new ways of working with addiction and compulsion, trauma, depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and with stories of lack and deficiency and other forms of unhappiness and suffering, including spiritual addiction. The approach emphasizes nondual presence (or mindfulness) and a set of excellent inquiries that Scott has developed. You don't need to have an addiction in any conventional sense to benefit from Scott's excellent approach to addiction. He says, "Through the years, my message has started to turn towards helping people see the spiritual search as the ultimate addiction, a grand attempt to avoid what is arising now." Instead, he emphasizes the "present freedom and fullness that cannot be found by chasing the future." Scott has developed a number of "living inquiries" that he describes as “simple, effective tools that allow us to turn towards and dissolve the beliefs, fears, anger, sadness, guilt, shame and lack that have been running our lives. They show us how to allow everything to be as it is, instead of trying to constantly change our experience or seek something outside ourselves. This provides a deep relaxation in the midst of whatever is happening, which is nothing short of a radical shift in perspective.” Scott has trained many facilitators to work with people in this way. I'm not usually attracted to methods and techniques, but this method of inquiry is an innovative and useful tool that I have tried and used, and one I very highly recommend. I find all of Scott's books very intelligent and clear. He presents a simple and direct path to awakening and to recovery, and he does it in a way that is refreshingly down-to-earth and free of jargon. Scott says, "Enlightenment is not a goal to achieve or an idea to grasp. It is the timeless presence that you already are....'Enlightenment' is simply a description of what happens when you see beyond your mind-made box and realize yourself as the field that contains all boxes." Beautiful! Scott is a very open, unpretentious, generous, warm-hearted person. You can see videos on his website of the inquiry process he has developed. More here.
STEVEN HARRISON: Doing Nothing: Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search; Getting to Where You Are: The Life of Meditation; The Question to Life's Answers: Spirituality Beyond Belief; Being One: Finding Our Self in Relationship; What’s Next After Now? Post-Spirituality and the Creative Life; The Love of Uncertainty; The Shimmering World: Living Meditation; and The Happy Child: Changing the Heart of Education -- Steven calls himself "post-spiritual" and sets out to reject all forms of spirituality that are rooted in narcissism and self-deception and that seek security, certainty, pain relief, extraordinary experiences, ego-enhancement, self-improvement or comfort. Instead, he invites the reader into what he describes as a life of open inquiry, "a life of discovery without reliance on any system or philosophy," a life beyond the known. I had some interesting dialogs with him many years ago, and I greatly appreciated his deconstruction of all the prevailing answers and the way he attempts to live his investigation rather than just think and talk about it. He has co-founded a community and an alternative school in Colorado, a publishing venture, and a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to people in Asia and Africa. Audio and video, plus several other books, and information about Steven's projects and events is available here.
THE GURU PAPERS: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad -- This is an excellent, intelligently written, very important book that I wish everyone would read. It explores the dangers of authoritarian structures and the often subtle and covert ways they permeate all aspects of our lives. The authors look at our desire for certainty and security, especially as the old answers are crumbling in the post-modern world, driving many of us to various forms of authoritarianism and fundamentalism, whether spiritual, political or personal. They have a very interesting chapter on addiction critiquing both 12-step and responsibility models and exploring the divided self and the Inner Authoritarian. They examine authority, hierarchy and power, exploring issues such as control, surrender, dominance, narcissism, channeling and cults in fresh and interesting ways, and they critique many cherished spiritual ideas like enlightenment, oneness, and unconditional love. I don't always agree with them, but I strongly encourage people to read this book. It raises many valuable and important questions, and is an important consideration for our times and for anyone on a spiritual quest. More here.
SHIV SENGUPTA: Advaitaholics Anonymous: Sobering Insights for Spiritual Addicts – This is a book about sobering up from the addiction of the spiritual search and the addiction of imagining a better future and a new and improved me living in perpetual happiness. It’s a book about appreciating what’s here right now, appreciating the ordinary. It’s about coming down to earth and being authentic, true to your own self, your own experiences, your own reality, as it is—taking responsibility for your own life. “I encourage you to revisit everything you think you know about yourself, about the world, about spirituality, about teachers and yet to trust in your own intuition, first and foremost,” he writes. “While the bathwater may be murky, there is still a baby somewhere in there. In the end, spirituality is really about getting sober. Developing the courage to see life as it is, without needing to inflate it with escapist love and light rhetoric nor resorting to a nihilistic resignation by declaring that everything is just illusion and thus meaningless. Sobriety involves engaging with life in its all-encompassing ordinariness and taking responsibility for it in all its manifestations, the good, the bad and the ugly.” Being true to our own authentic path is the key: “Spirituality is a highly personal business. It is a person’s unique relationship with reality. Yet, the moment it is taken out of the person and objectified in the form of a system of thought it is no longer a personal affair. Once it is made concrete for others to congregate and build a community or culture around then that spirituality—our own relationship with reality—ceases to be the focal point.” I'm not as dismissive as Shiv is of the potential value in many teachers, spiritual communities, and even in certain systems or methods, but I share his dislike of authoritarian systems and teachers and his recognition of the potential dangers in becoming a follower and no longer thinking or looking for yourself. For Shiv, spirituality is like art—it’s a form of play. It’s not about getting to a finish-line or having only the high, exuberant notes and sustaining them forever—it’s about enjoying the whole symphony: “Happiness is enjoying the miraculous opportunity to play. Peace is realizing that no matter what you build it will eventually be taken down and returned to its original form. The system is flawless to begin with and nothing you can do can either improve or fuck it up. So play. Just play. When it comes to playing, there is no how.” Shiv compares himself to the crow that took a shit on his shoulder one day just after his car got a flat tire—the bird that briefly accelerated and then totally interrupted his sense of injustice and despair over the flat tire, bringing forth liberating laughter and freedom from his sense of self-importance and entitlement: “I’m not some enlightened dude here to teach you to liberate yourself,” he writes. “I’m just a crow taking a shit on your shoulder.” Shiv ruthlessly blasts the spiritual industry, as he calls it, the industry that he feels is selling us addictive promises and fantasies. He points out that the goal of a good business venture is retention—keeping customers—while the goal of good teaching is that the teacher becomes obsolete—but as he sees it, most spiritual teachers and gurus are operating from the business model while disguising it as the teaching model. “As long as we continue to uphold spiritual values that promote ease, calm and peace as the highest virtues and any form of resistance or turmoil as bad and to be avoided at all cost,” he writes, “then we just continue to perpetuate the same models of consumerism and convenience that society is perpetuating. We are spiritual consumerists, desperately seeking to avoid the harsh realities of life by creating bubbles of psychological security surrounded by every source of feel-good emotion one could want, within which we hope to live out the rest of our lives.” He does value the simplicity of doing nothing other than being present, stripped of all the approved postures, techniques and accompanying rituals—just simply sitting down: “Not meditating, not trying to experience insight, not trying to see reality, not trying to witness your own thoughts, not trying to be aware of awareness or some such pretentious crap. But literally…just sitting.” Not escaping. I’m not quite as iconoclastic or dismissive of the "spiritual industry" as Shiv. I probably like and see value in a number of the teachers, pointers and practices that he would disdain. And I enjoy gospel music, bhajans and some religious rituals, not because I take them literally, but because I find them heart-opening and uplifting in the same way other art forms can be, whereas he may regard them as merely narcotics (although he did recently tell me that he loves gospel music). In any case, we don’t see eye to eye on everything, but I resonate with his encouragement to give up the addictive search (as distinct from genuine exploration), to stand on one’s own, to let go of the effort to control our minds, and to explore the actuality here and now without resorting to authorities, beliefs and traditions. “There’s talk about not relying on outer authorities that gets tossed around,” he writes, “but few people understand what that actually means. It means being adrift in the ocean without a lifeline, it means getting used to uncertainty as a constant companion, it means walking through dark woods without a map. It’s much easier said than done. Everyone wants the kind of freedom that comes with that romantic notion of being free from the dictates of others. They don’t realize how much security those kinds of dictates actually bring to our life.” Yes! This is a book about letting go of all our security blankets. In Shiv’s view, based on his experience, awakening is an event in time that reveals a perspective that informs our life from then on, but the experience itself is temporary and the egoic mode inevitably returns. And he sees enlightenment not as “some pinnacle state of consciousness but rather is a continuous process of ever-increasing clarity about self and reality—one that every sentient being is engaged with whether one is aware of it or not.” I loved the way he distinguishes between what he calls philosophical wisdom and what he calls practical wisdom: “Philosophical wisdom has to do with an acceptance of things as they are.” It is “a holistic view of life” that is “a critical ingredient of hindsight.” Whereas practical wisdom involves action, “the ground level view of life,” and is about how to “navigate efficiently and effectively forward.” It is “a critical ingredient of foresight.” So, in the example he gives, we can recognize (philosophically) that our abusive childhood contributed to our strength and wisdom, and at the same time, we can work (practically) to prevent child abuse happening to others going forward. You may not agree with every word Shiv says, and some of it may even upset you, but this is definitely a book worth reading. You can watch a great interview with Shiv by Emerson at Nothing Media here. Shiv is a Canadian citizen who was born and raised in India. After living on Japan's northernmost island, he and his wife and two daughters are currently living in western Canada. Shiv is the creator of the Advaitaholics Anonymous Facebook page. He also has a website, and he offers private consultations. Very highly recommended.
ROBERT SALTZMAN: The Ten Thousand Things and Depending on No-Thing - Robert is a photographer, retired psychotherapist, former spiritual teacher, and American expat who lives in Todos Santos, Mexico. I don’t agree with everything he says, and I disagree strongly with some of it, but I do resonate with what I see as the heart of his message: the questioning of beliefs, escapes, false comforts and magical thinking; the willingness to live without authorities, final answers or certainties; the recognition of being this ever-changing flow of present experiencing without knowing what it is; and the encouragement to put aside all authorities and look for ourselves. “As long as one is looking elsewhere, here and now remains invisible, overlooked, or undervalued,” he says. “If you are interested in awakening, it is advisable, I say, to begin by discarding all beliefs you may have acquired, no matter what their source. Just wipe the slate clean and make your own inquiry, starting from scratch without depending on anyone or anything at all. Forget concepts. Forget what others claim to have known. Forget what you know…There is no path from here to here.” Beautiful! Robert describes his expression not as spiritual teaching, and not as some Absolute Truth, but simply as he sees it, which I also greatly appreciate. Robert encourages all of us to relax and be as we are, to let go of self-improvement and the search for spiritual transcendence, to discover our own truth instead of looking to others, and to be here with the unvarnished simplicity of what is. I agree with him completely about the importance of looking and listening and thinking for ourselves and not making others into infallible authority figures, but I do also see value in working with teachers, and in my view, false egalitarianism is equally untrue. Robert sometimes criticizes specific teachers in ways I find to be inaccurate and at times inappropriate. I have no problem with him criticizing teachers, forms, behaviors, ways of working, or views that he feels are off-the-mark, and I even agree with some of his concerns, but what I find disturbing is that he often misquotes the people he is criticizing, distorts and misunderstands what they say, impugns their motives, and even shares unsubstantiated rumors and personal gossip about them in his books and public talks. So I would urge people not to unquestioningly swallow everything he says about others, and I would also urge people not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As many people have noted, Robert can be strongly opinionated, judgmental, close-minded, self-aggrandizing, prone to over-generalizations and often surprisingly oblivious to his own inner workings, biases and shortcomings, but in my experience of him as a friend, he can also be tender, vulnerable, generous, kind and insightful. He tends to be a rather polarizing figure: some people love him and worship his every word, while some think he’s dreadful. My own take is more mixed, and he and I have fallen out and reconciled again several times. We remain friends, but at a distance. Robert's first book, The Ten Thousand Things (aka 4-T), combines text with some of his photographs (although a text-only edition is also available), and the second book, Depending on No-Thing, is text only (600 pages long). Robert points to the possibility of living without the false security and certainty of metaphysical conclusions and beliefs, without the illusion of control and free will, and without trying in any way to transcend the bare, unvarnished actuality of life, just as it is: “My entire interest is focused upon whatever is arising now in this very moment,” he writes. “All of these matters are impossible to put into words. That does not mean that one should not try, but it does mean that no explanation will ever fully evoke THIS—the ineffable suchness of everything.” Robert describes awakening as “coming to a sense of being that is free of beliefs, paths, destinations, and final answers." He describes himself as “an indefinable, unrestrained flow of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts,” and he says, “That flow is not happening to me. That flow is me...a stream of consciousness over which I have no control. We are all like that, but not all of us know it. Most of us were put into a trance state long ago, beginning in early childhood—a kind of stupor in which the emptiness, impermanence, and co-dependency of ‘myself’ goes unseen. We are lost in a fantasy of separation in which I am ‘in here’ while the world I see—the ten thousand things—is ‘out there.’ It is from that confusion that one awakens.” Beautiful! Robert regards most of what goes on in the world of spirituality and religion as a kind of hypnotic trance on the part of both teachers and students, as well as an endless search to escape ordinary life and become something else. For him, awakening is the loss of all that. Just to be human and alive is enough in his view: "Coming to terms with being fully human seems always to be a hard slog—a long walk on the razor’s edge: nihilism on one side, and the stupidity of idealism and eternalism on the other. It’s never easy if it’s real." I very much appreciate that he doesn’t try to escape or deny our human vulnerability as “ordinary primate mammals,” and that he acknowledges our epistemological limits and the impossibility of knowing with certainty how the universe works. He does lean strongly toward the materialist (or substantialist) view of reality, although he says that ultimately he doesn't know. He seems to listen to other teachers primarily with the cognitive, rational, intellectual mind, and I feel he often misses the crucial contemplative or experiential dimension in what they are expressing. Robert has repeatedly asserted that all guided meditations are a form of hypnosis (even though he says he hasn't heard very many and never listens to them). He frequently puts things down without knowing anything about what they actually are. He describes Advaita Vedanta as "toxic,” says that Rumi reminds him of a Hallmark card, has no use for transcendence or spiritual practice in any sense, feels no resonance with devotional language or ritual of any kind, and he describes the contemporary spiritual scene as a money-making industry. Needless to say, I don't see all this exactly the way he does, and I feel Robert often throws the baby out with the bathwater, but I do share his recognition that it is very easy, both as a teacher and as a student, to be seduced and hypnotized by second-hand beliefs, metaphysical conclusions, spiritual hoopla, charismatic teachers and grandiose claims of enlightenment. And I resonate completely with his invitation to question our escapist tendencies and to look deeply and honestly at what we actually know directly and what we have taken on as a belief. I appreciate his encouragement to be aware of our human vulnerability to magical thinking, hypnotic suggestion, group-think, and confirmation-bias, and I love the way he points to simply being the ever-changing stream of experiencing here-now without needing to have any metaphysical conclusions about it. I also deeply appreciate that he offers no final resolution, no grand explanation of how the universe works. I would just caution against turning his iconoclasm into a new dogma, or turning Robert into a new anti-guru guru or authority figure—as he himself constantly warns against. “In each instant,” Robert writes, “things are as they are and cannot be any different. Whatever one perceives, thinks, and feels in each moment is ‘myself.’ Except in memory or a fantasized future, there is no other myself. No ‘myself’ stands apart from events and phenomena as the ‘experiencer’ of those occurrences. That myself is an illusion. One is not having experiences. One is identical to the totality of experience, conscious and unconscious. That’s what ‘I’ am: experience, and experience is only this aliveness, right now, in this very moment." Beautiful! As seekers, he says, we’re expecting something to happen, but the realization he calls awakening is that it’s already happening and always has been—it’s life, just as it is, and we’re not creating it. “We’re seeking control and power," he says, "and we’re not going to get it… We need to come to an understanding of our littleness, our smallness, and the transitory nature of ‘me’… There’s nothing to hold onto, I’m falling through space… We don’t know anything, it’s all occurring… You’re liberated because you have no choice—this is it.” This is what he means by being awake—realizing it’s all happening choicelessly, and that this is it, life as it is. This is what we have to swallow, he says, the world as it is, not the grandiose pictures created by spirituality. You can watch a short video with his words and images here. He responds to questions on a Facebook page. You can see a conversation between Robert and myself here. He has a YouTube channel. He offers periodic meetings of different types on Zoom and occasional in-person gatherings (all announced on his Facebook page). You can watch Robert talking to Emerson at Nothing Media here. You can see an earlier interview with Robert on Buddha at the Gas Pump. There's an interesting and I think rather beautiful conversation between Robert and Tim Freke here. Robert may shake you up and upset you, he may challenge many of your sacred cows, and you may not agree with everything he says, as I don't, but I think it's healthy and important to have our cherished ideas and certainties challenged and questioned. For that, and his encouragement to stand on your own, to "find your own mind," and to abandon beliefs in favor of the unvarnished simplicity of just what is, I recommend Robert. Just don't let him talk you into throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and trust your own sense of which is which rather than adopting his.
SHARON SALZBERG: Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience – Sharon Salzberg is a long-time meditation teacher and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I loved this book. It tells her story, starting with a very difficult childhood, and it’s a moving journey from suffering to freedom. It’s also about faith, and by that, she doesn’t mean a belief system. She means “trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.” She describes faith as “fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating…No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again.” This book is full of wisdom. Sharon has written many other books, but this happens to be the only one I’ve read. She lives in NYC and Massachusetts. More here.
JUDITH BLACKSTONE: Trauma and the Unbound Body: The Healing Power of Fundamental Consciousness; and The Enlightenment Process: A Guide to Embodied Spiritual Awakening – Judith Blackstone was a dancer whose severe back injury led to a subtle exploration of the body and an awakening to what she calls fundamental consciousness, a transcendent and non-objective dimension which is “deeper, and more subtle, than the physical and energetic levels of our being.” She went on to develop and teach what she calls the Realization Process for embodied nondual awakening. “Enlightenment is the lived experience of the luminous transparency of our own being, and of all being,” she writes. The books include some short exercises you can try to get a sense of what she is talking about. “Above all else, the spiritual path is a process of becoming real. We grow toward internal contact with ourselves at the same time as we transcend our separateness and realize our oneness with everything around us…It requires the integration of love and detachment, distance and intimacy.” I love the way she brings together individuality and unity, self and selflessness, embodiment and transcendence, immediate actuality and an unfolding process. Judith studied with many teachers in the Hindu traditions (Advaita Vedanta, Bhakti and Kashmir Shaivism), and in the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, but the Realization Process emerged outside of any traditional lineage. Judith has a Ph.D. in Psychology, Eastern Religion and Embodiment and many years of clinical experience as a psychotherapist. With her husband, Zoran Josipovic, she founded the Nonduality Institute. Judith is the author of many other books, and she offers workshops and trainings, some of them on-line. There is audio and video anavailable as well, including a set of CDs produced by Sounds True called The Realization Process: A Step-by-Step Guide to Embodied Spiritual Awakening. More here.
JOHN PRENDERGAST: In Touch: How to Tune In to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself and The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence – John is a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher based in California, and he points to an awake presence that is at once embodied and boundless. He writes about tuning in to the body and the Heart in subtle and profound ways, listening with the whole body, discovering what he calls inner resonance and inner knowing, exposing core beliefs, working with the darkness, waking up from form and then waking down to "the freedom to enter into form." John brings together scientific and spiritual perspectives, writing with an open mind rather than with any kind of fixed dogmatic views. His main teachers were Jean Klein and Adyashanti, and John was also deeply touched by the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj. His books have so many rich dimensions, and they are palpably saturated with the open, spacious, listening presence to which John points. John is a truly lovely person. More here.
AMODA MAA: Falling Open in a World Falling Apart and Embodied Enlightenment – Amoda Maa invites a falling open into “the groundless ground of unbroken presence…listening to the deepest truth in you, listening to that which is prior to narrative and prior to reactivity, listening to the silence within—and then moving from this silence. Or not moving at all.” Her approch is not about denying or by-passing our human experience, but rather, she sees the full and tender embrace of the human experience as the true path to liberation. Her teaching comes from presence, from the heart, not from the thinking mind. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Northern California. She is not affiliated with any lineage or tradition. I really loved her book Falling Open in a World Falling Apart. Earlier books include Radical Awakening and Change Your Life Change Your World. More at her website and her YouTube channel.
SUNYATA (Emmanuel Sorensen): Sunyata: The Life and Sayings of a Rare-born Mystic (edited and compiled by Betty Camhi and Elliott Isenberg) and Dancing with the Void (edited by Betty Camhi and Gurubaksh Rai) – Born on a farm in Denmark in 1890, Emmanuel Sorensen eventually became a gardener in England, where he met Rabindranath Tagore, who suggested that Emmanuel “come to India to teach Silence.” Emmanuel lived a simple life in India for many years. He visited Ramana Maharshi a number of times, and said of his first meeting with Ramana, "Never before had I awared such integral Self-Radiance in any human form, such light of Silence. One was being fed just awaring him." Ramana recognized Emmanuel as a "rare-born mystic" and silently transmitted to him the message "We are always aware sunyata." Thereafter, Emmanuel called himself Sunyata. In 1974, he was invited by the Alan Watts Society to visit California. Sunyata spent the last years of his life in California, where he held gatherings on the old Alan Watts houseboat, and also made yearly trips to Chicago. He was hit by car in California in 1984 and died a few days later. By all accounts, he was a simple, quiet, unassuming man with no interest in power, fame or money. He continually insisted he was a "no-body" who had attained "no-thing" and had nothing to teach. Betty Camhi writes in her introduction to The Life and Sayings of a Rare-born Mystic that Sunyata "radiated a joy, a peace, and an energy that he was unaware of. When people would comment to him about this wonderful energy that seemed to radiate from him, he would say, 'I do not know what I do. We are constantly being used by the invisible forces and we are simply the actors on the stage of life. We think we push and pull and control events, but all the while we are being pushed and pulled and used. Do not complain or cry or pray, but open your intuitive eye and aware the light in and around you; it is forever.'" Highly recommended.
ON THE MYSTERY OF BEING: Contemporary Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality, edited by Zaya and Maurizion Benazzo – This marvelous anthology includes writings by both spiritual teachers and scientists, and it’s really fabulous. I very highly recommend it. It includes material by Adyashanti, Rupert Spira, Vera de Chalambert, Mirabai Starr, Gangaji, Pamela Wilson, Unmani, Eric Baret, Ellen Emmet, Neil Theise, Fritjof Capra, Donald Hoffman, Peter Russell, Cynthia Bourgeault, Chris Fields, Larry Dossey, Gabor Mate, Peter Levine, Edward Frenkel, Dorothy Hunt, Jean Houston, A.H. Almaas, Robert Thurman, Kabir Helminski, Henry Stapp, Bernardo Kastrup, Charles Eisenstein, myself, and many others. More here. Highly recommended.
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.
BLANCHE HARTMAN: Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart – Blanche Hartman was a Zen teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. She was the first woman to assume a leadership position at the Center. Born in Alabama in 1926, Blanche worked as a chemist before becoming a Zen priest. This book is a collection of little dharma nuggets. Plain and simple, unpretentious, nothing fancy, there are some real jewels here. I knew Blanche back in my Zen Centers days and always appreciated her quiet, unpretentious, down-to-earth teaching and her kindness and generosity of spirit. All of that shines through in this book. Blanche died in 2016.
JOHN DAIDO LOORI: Making Love with Light and The Zen of Creativity -- John Daido Loori (1931-2009) was a photographer and Zen teacher. He founded the Mountains and Rivers Order and Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY, where he was the abbot for many years. He studied photography with Minor White. Making Love with Light, subtitled Contemplating Nature with Words and Photographs, is a collection of beautiful photographs of nature, each accompanied by a haiku-like poem. Each photograph can be contemplated for a long time as it continues to reveal more and more, and as the words dance beautifully with the image. The book also includes short introductory essays to each of the sections. The Zen of Creativity is about the creative process from a Zen perspective with suggestions for the aspiring artist and material about Daido's own life journey. Both books convey the spirit of Zen and invite an awake intimacy with life. Daido Loori wrote many other books on Zen, and he was an award-winning photographer and videographer who integrated art and wilderness training into Zen practice.
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.
CHERI HUBER: The Key: And the Name of the Key Is Willingness; There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate; The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once & for All; When You're Falling, Dive; How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything; The Depression Book: Depression As An Opportunity for Spiritual Growth; I Don't Want To, I Don't Feel Like It: How Resistance Controls Your Life and What to Do About It; Nothing Happens Next; Sex and Money...are dirty, aren't they?; Suffering Is Optional; That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek; How To Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be -- Cheri is a Zen teacher in California who founded several Zen practice centers as well as a nonprofit dedicated to peace and service. Her books, many of them illustrated with wonderful drawings and presented with a hand-written look, deal with common psychological issues such as self-hatred, depression and fear. Some might say that this is "just psychological stuff," but this is precisely the stuff that obscures the truth and keeps us on the wheel of suffering and delusion. Cheri's approach is "Zen Awareness Practice," which she is very careful to distinguish from self-improvement. As she says, "Trying to control life, manipulate it, and make it what we want it to be guarantees that we will never have the life we want." Rather, this is about paying attention to thisherenow, seeing how the ego-identity grabs our attention and maintains control, and discovering our authentic nature as awareness. "It is possible to choose awareness instead of resistance," she says. "Switching attention from the resistance of ego-identity to the intelligence that animates us is a skill we can learn. And it takes practice." There is great wisdom in all her books along with many liberating exercises that are well worth exploring, especially if you are struggling with depression, fear or self-hatred. Cheri came to Zen practice after being severely depressed and attempting suicide, so she knows the darkness firsthand. These books are wonderfully clear and down to earth, with no extraneous fanfare of any kind. More here.
STEPHEN LEVINE: Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart; and Who Dies? -- With his wife Ondrea, Stephen has spent his life working with people who are terminally ill, as well as with war veterans, concentration camp survivors, survivors of sexual abuse, and people suffering from "the loss of dignity due to racial and religious prejudice, or the multitude of finely wrought cultural humiliations suffered by women, the aged, children, the infirm, and the less than 'beautiful.'" His own history included drugs and prison years ago. His approach is Buddhist-oriented but eclectic and open-minded. This is a gentle and tender teaching that can soften your belly (as he likes to say), open your heart, and invite loving-kindness to others and to yourself. Stephen died early in 2016. More here.
DEVON AND CRAIG HASE: How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life – This is a wonderful, practical, whole-hearted, down-to-earth book in everyday language about mindfulness and compassion and wise living. As Craig says, the book “offers six really good pieces of semi-Buddhist advice to keep you anchored and steady amidst the chaos of modern life.” And it does so with humor and honesty and a wonderful attitude toward life and practice. The authors are a young couple who live in Ashland, Oregon—Devon a former English teacher, Craig a PhD in psychology, both with an extensive Buddhist background in different traditions, and both doing impressive work now including offering retreats, teacher training, and individual mentoring. More here.
TONY PARSONS: The Open Secret; All There Is; Nothing Being Everything; and This Freedom (all UK editions) — Tony is an irreverent, unorthodox, iconoclastic Englishman with a wonderful sense of humor who communicates uncompromising radical nonduality. Meeting him years ago was very liberating, and I found him to be very accessible, generous, unpretentious, open-hearted and full of love. He conveys the nondual message that 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,” he says, “All the things you think are wrong with you are absolutely right." Tony sees the awakened life not as one of transcendent detachment, but rather as a love affair, unfiltered full-on aliveness. "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.” This isn’t about mindfulness, trying to "be here now," or identifying as awareness, detached from what appears. Tony says, “Awareness is once removed. It’s still subtly dual. There’s awareness of you sitting on a seat. So there are two things. The sitting on a seat and awareness of it. Liberation is totally beyond the watcher, awareness, all of that. Awareness is still an experience.” He points beyond the duality inherent in “observing,” and dispels any kind of reification of “awareness” as some separate thing to abide in or identify with. Tony emphasizes that, “There is no person that becomes enlightened. No one awakens. Awakening is the absence of the illusion of individuality. Already there is only awakeness, oneness, timeless being, radical aliveness. When the dream seeker is no more, it is seen (by no one) that there is nothing to seek and no one to become liberated." Or as he puts it elsewhere: "There is absolutely nothing to attain except the realisation that there is absolutely nothing to attain." He beautifully describes liberation as “a leap in perception, a different seeing, already inherent but unrecognized.” Tony offers nothing (other than his book and events)—no path, no method, nothing to do—thus backing the seeker into a corner with no hope of escape, where, with luck, the apparent bubble of separation and encapsulation may pop, and the whole search may collapse, revealing "the gift of freedom that is hidden within that hopelessness." Tony describes the (illusory) separate self as an energetic contraction or tension in the body, and he says that "the apparently contracted energy can collapse into the boundless freedom which already is." That formulation obviously dangles a bit of a carrot in front of the seeker, wanting this dissolution of contraction that has apparently happened for Tony, but thankfully, he goes on to point out that everything is already this empty fullness: “The whole apparent contracted seeking energy sometimes seems to unravel and evaporate or collapse, but only apparently…and this is the paradox," he writes. "There is no real contraction that needs to unravel or collapse. There is nothing real that needs to happen. There is no real seeker, path, liberation, better or worse, higher intelligence weaving a destiny and no real choice functioning at any level. All that seems to happen is only an appearance.” As Tony emphasizes, whatever appears to be happening, whether it is apparent expansion or contraction, apparent anger or bliss, it is all equally no-thing at all, happening to no-one—all equally impersonal and equally meaningless. He says that his talks and retreats have no purpose, aim or intention. No self-improvement is on offer here, and at the right moment, that can be the most liberating message. Tony is quite hardline about this uncompromising stance, and he makes some rather sweeping generalizations about other nondual teachers and ways of expressing nonduality, sometimes misunderstanding what they are saying. He seems to feel that any teaching that offers something to do (such as meditation or inquiry, or pretty much anything other than attending his meetings and retreats and reading his books) is automatically a "dualistic" teaching aimed only at personal fulfillment. That hasn't been my experience, and the meditation I’ve encountered (and offered) is all about Here-Now, not some future attainment—it is immediate and not progressive or result-oriented—but that said, I do see the potential pitfalls in any kind of apparent process or practice, and I do appreciate the beauty in Tony's uncompromising refusal to offer any solution or any way out. Unfortunately, he muddles up his radical message in a number of ways. For one thing, I find his personal awakening stories totally silly (and misleading). In his first book, he told of a walk across the park in which he disappeared, and more recently, he’s been talking instead about looking at a carpet and bang!—his sense of self disappeared forever and he is no longer Tony Parsons, whereas after the park, he was apparently still switching between “me-ing and be-ing,” but now he’s just be-ing. This is all very misleading stuff as far as I'm concerned. It is certainly possible to have no sense of being an encapsulated, separate self, but this is not, in my experience, an extraordinary event, and it doesn't mean one then loses all functional sense of also being a particular person in the play of life. So I find some of Tony's expression not very clear. But I resonate totally with the heart of it, and I love his passion, his irreverent humor, his deconstruction of anything we try to grasp, and his emphasis on the immediacy of what is. He has had an immensely liberating effect on many of us over the years, myself included, and I feel much love and gratitude for him. I've listed his books in the order they were written, and his message definitely evolves over the years. In addition to those books, there are two other titles, As It Is and Invitation to Awaken, which are different versions of two of his books, edited and published by Inner Directions in the US, containing some different (often edited and reshaped) material. I recommend the original UK versions I listed above. Tony has a YouTube channel, and he offers meetings and retreats in Europe. More here.
ROBERT ADAMS: Silence of the Heart: Dialogues with Robert Adams — Robert Adams was an American spiritual teacher who grew up in the Bronx and died in Sedona, Arizona of Parkinson's disease in 1997. He had a unique and sometimes humorous way of talking about Ultimate Reality, and I find many of the things in this book quite beautiful. It appears, however, that Robert had a shadow side. Apparently he fabricated his whole story of going to India and meeting Ramana in person, and apparently he had some questionable behaviors around money, sex and honesty in general. I don’t know how credible these reports are, but I’ve heard enough of them to suspect that there is at least some truth in them. On the other hand, the people I know who knew Robert in person say that he was "impeccable and kind and honored everyone equally," and that he was “giving a very simple teaching for free and it was a very clear teaching, very profound.” And as Robert said to one of these people, “Nothing is what it appears to be,” which for her, was an invitation to look deeper, to re-discover the Mystery that is everywhere, the wonder and curiosity that we knew as children. Perhaps Robert was a kind of shape-shifter, a trickster, someone (like all of us) impossible to pin down. I always caution against idealizing teachers and turning them into infallible authorities. Teachers are human beings subject to human foibles, and I think it's wise to fous on the message and not the messenger. As for Robert, everyone will have to make up their own mind what to make of him, but for me, this book was in many ways liberating. Here are a few selections from the book: "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....Awaken, be free, be yourself. You are the joy of the world. The light that shines in darkness. You are a blessing to the universe. Love yourself always. When you love yourself, you love God….You are total freedom, right this instant, right this minute....Feel the Presence within yourself. Feel the happiness and the joy that you really are....You are already Self-realized...The truth is you have nothing to transcend, nothing to overcome...everything you see, everything in the universe, in the world, emanates from your mind....You are the Imperishable Self." You can find transcripts and recordings of Robert's talks here.
JED McKENNA: The Enlightenment Trilogy (Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing; Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment; and Spiritual Warfare) − This trilogy of novels disguised as memoir may demolish many of your sacred cows, pull some of your most cherished rugs out from under you, and generate some provocative questions. The trilogy is a first-person account of Jed McKenna, an unconventional, iconoclastic, homegrown, fictional, "enlightened guy" (as he calls himself) from Iowa. In this multi-layered journey behind the veils, Jed distinguishes between “abiding non-dual awareness” (or true enlightenment) and such non-abiding things as mystical experiences, unity consciousness, mindfulness practices, personal growth, self-improvement, spiritual evolution, human adulthood and saving the world. As Jed puts it, “The critical distinction is that one is in the dream and the other is not.” Jed points beyond the content of consciousness, what I often call the movie of waking life (whether mundane or spiritual), to that which has no opposite, that which “cannot be found because it cannot be lost.” His teaching is all about the discovery of Truth, “that which cannot be simpler—cannot be further reduced.” Truth realization is a process of seeing through false ideas and cutting through our emotional attachments to them. Jed invites you to look at whatever you think is true, question it, discard everything that can be doubted, and keep going "further" in the spiritual demolition process until there is no further. Enlightenment, as he describes it, is “a swan dive into the abyss of no-self,” and that's what makes it so challenging, because we cling to the idea of being somebody: "The fear of no-self is the mother of all fears, the one upon which all others are based." Jed urges you to be your own teacher, to leave all the comforting trappings and beliefs of spirituality behind, and to cut to the chase without compromise. "Truth is everywhere at all times," he says, "never absent, never distant." All of the above is what I loved about these books and found so compelling. My favorite was the first one, Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing. I got a pre-publication review copy of that one in the mail many years ago, and it had quite a profound impact on me. There is definitely some great material in Jed's books, although I found some of it questionable or off the mark, so I would advise against swallowing every word or assuming that Jed really is the most enlightened guy of all time. In fact, one of the truly great jokes about these books is that Jed McKenna is a fictitious character, so if you go looking for the "enlightened guy" instead of for Truth itself, you won't find anybody. (Although sadly, many seekers have dedicated countless hours to conspiracy theories and endless attempts to figure out who the real author is). If nothing else, the novels are a fun read, and Jed may shake you up and encourage you to question some of your most cherished assumptions. Other books by Jed include Jed McKenna’s Theory of Everything; Dream State: A Conspiracy Theory; and JedTalks. More here.
VERNON KITABU TURNER: Soul Sword: The Way and Mind of a Zen Warrior -- Kitabu Turner is an African-American martial arts master and Zen Roshi with roots in Christianity. Born in 1948, he grew up dealing with gangs, bullies and racism in a rough neighborhood in the segregated South, and eventually he became a writer, martial artist and Zen teacher. Famous for his ability to knock over skilled opponents by using only one finger, Kitabu Roshi has dedicated his life to bringing forth what he variously calls the Original Mind, the Mind of Christ or the Mind of Zen. His way of expressing all of this is quite unique, drawing from both Buddhism and Christianity, and the language he uses may not be what you're used to if you're steeped in Advaita and Zen, but I find him to be genuine and authentic. In an interview with W.I.E. Magazine that appears in the book, Kitabu Roshi said: "Enlightenment is first of all coming to understand that there is no self in the conventional sense...and it's in the process of letting go of that notion that one experiences what one truly is in the universal sense. That's when enlightenment comes -- when you realize that you are not in control. And because of that, you are very much in control." Kitabu Roshi has several other books including: Ki-Asana Zen: Bridging the Gap Between East and West and Soul to Soul: Harnessing the Power of Your Mind. More on Vernon Kitabu Turner here.
CLAUDE ANSHIN THOMAS: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace -- Thomas is an American Zen monk, teacher and peace activist. As a young man, he fought in the Vietnam War. He won numerous medals, killed hundreds of people, witnessed unimaginable cruelty and suffering, and narrowly escaped death. He returned home with severe post traumatic stress and fell into drug and alcohol addiction, isolation and homelessness. He eventually attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for Vietnam veterans and that started him on the Buddhist path. Later ordained by Bernie Glassman, Thomas now teaches Zen and has taken vows as a mendicant. This book is honest, real, and direct. It shows the Buddhist way through suffering, not abstractly, but through the eyes and example of someone who is living that journey, breath by breath. Thomas writes: "Our culture operates with the idea that healing means the absence of pain, but I've come to understand that healing doesn't mean that our pain and suffering go away. Healing is learning to live in a different relationship with our pain and suffering so it does not control us. The only way in which I can heal my wounds, the only way in which I can awaken, is to live in the present moment in mindfulness, breathing in and breathing out." Thomas teaches a grounded, committed, embodied, practice-oriented approach to Buddhism. While I am no longer drawn to that kind of strict, formal, traditional Buddhist practice, I found something very beautiful and moving in this book, and I have great respect for this man. More here.
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. Very highly recommended. More here.
A SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO THE MIND: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Burton MD, a neurologist and neuroscientist. Burton talks about our sense of boundaries, agency, will, intention, certainty and causation as sensations we have that give rise to the illusion that all these things and the separate self really exist. He talks about how these sensations may vary in different individuals. I’ve always found it curious that the absence of free will has always seemed so totally obvious to me, while to so many people I meet with, this absence seems completely baffling and incomprehensible. Burton’s insights may help to explain that discrepany. Burton has a wonderful sense of humility which allows him to remain skeptical in the best sense, and he offers an important caution and corrective to all of us without scientific expertise who use "scientific conclusions" to prove metaphysical ideas. Burton shows how findings in neuroscience that may actually be tentative, questionable or even out of date can become popularized as indisputable fact and then given interpretive meanings that these findings never really had. Many interesting, thought-provoking things in this book. There is an excellent interview with him on Brain Science Podcast — Podcast #96, from April 26, 2013. And you can find more on Burton at his website here. He has an earlier book called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. All very readable and highly recommended!
INCOGNITO: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman -- published in 2011, this fascinating book, written by a neuroscientist, presents the brain as a "team of rivals" with no central executive (no single "me") in command. The book looks into how our perception of reality is constructed, and it explores the question of free will and whether there is anyone to blame for an action, or if blame is perhaps the wrong question. Eagleman considers the moral and legal implications of what we are learning about the brain, comparing the impact of these recent discoveries to that of the earlier discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe. Highly recommended. More here and here.
OUTLIERS: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell -- This is a fascinating book about all the random factors that go into making someone a success. Why is it that not everyone with talent and ambition who works hard actually ends up achieving their dreams? Why do some countries produce more students who excel at math or flight crews that are more or less likely to crash the plane they are flying? If you believe that all it takes for success is hard work, talent, and positive thinking, this book will make you think again. Gladwell, a journalist and author, has two previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, both very interesting as well and all very highly recommended. More here.
CHRIS NIEBAUER: No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism; and The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-Brain Plays Unending Games of Self-Improvement -- Niebauer is a neuropsychologist, and in this books, he talks about how the brain constructs the apparent world "out there" and the apparent self "in here," how the left-brain functions as what he calls "the interpreter" or pattern-finder, how that differs from the holistic and intuitive right-brain functioning, why self-improvement tends to fail, how we end up in arguments, and much more. He has also been a long-time explorer in the realm of Eastern spirituality, so he brings that together with the Western scientific perspective. The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment is an Aikido-like anti-self-help book, with a final chapter titled “There Is No Conclusion.” And No Self, No Problem expands upon the first book in ways I personally found very helpful. Niebauer takes the view that the universe is basically playful and that ultimately, it’s all in good fun: “The playful, rascal nature of the universe is harmonious behind its surface of benign and benevolent drama.” He has a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and here’s a podcast with him.
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.
JACQUES LUSSEYRAN: And There Was Light and Against the Pollution of the I – Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) was blinded at the age of seven, and almost immediately, he saw this new way of perceiving the world as a gift rather than as a hinderance. He was a leader in the French Resistance against the Nazis, and he spent fifteen months in Buchenwald concentration camp. He went on after the war to be a university professor, married several times and had children, moved from France to the US, and eventually died in a car accident. His autobiography, And There Was Light, was one of Toni Packer’s favorite books. Against the Pollution of the I is a collection of essays he wrote. He is someone who met adversity in an amazing way, some have called him a mystic, and these are both beautiful books that I very highly recommend.
KATY BUTLER: Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death and The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life – Katy Butler is an American journalist and essayist who has practiced Zen and done The Work with Byron Katie. The first book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, is about what she and her parents went through at the end of their lives navigating the medical system and envisioning a better way of dying. It’s a compelling and beautifully written story, one that I very highly recommend. Her second book is a practical guide to the end of life. [There are many other books now by many different authors on the subject of aging, dying and end of life, including my own book Death: The End of Self-Improvement. Another excellent book on the end of life is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, an American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. B.J. Miller, a physican specializing in hospice and palliative care and former Executive Director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, who is also a triple amputee, has written A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, which I haven’t read, but I like him a lot. Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby is another good book.] More on Katy Butler here. Very highly recommended.
FALLING INTO THE FIRE: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross. This is not a book on nonduality and it’s not an overtly spiritual book, but it’s a book I highly recommend. The author is an inpatient psychiatrist who writes about some very profound and often bizarre forms of human suffering, like the woman who compulsively and repeatedly swallows razor blades, bed springs, broken light bulbs, nails and other sharp objects and then undergoes repeated surgeries as a result, or the people who amputate their own limbs, or the mothers who murder their own children. Montross meets each of her patients with compassion and curiosity, questioning herself as she goes. I loved her reflections on life and human vulnerability, on difficult moral questions, on the suffering that sometimes has no cure. You’ll come away with compassion for all of these people, and you’ll be truly amazed at some of the things that go on in human life. For anyone who believes there is a single cause or a single cure for our human problems, this book might wake you up to the profound complexity and extremes of affliction and to the fact that we are not really in control or running this show. In fact, I consider it a deeply spiritual book. As Simone Weil says in one of the epigraph quotes at the beginning, to be aware of this suffering and vulnerability “is to experience non-being. It is the state of extreme and total humiliation which is also the condition for passing over into truth.” More here.
YUVAL NOAH HARARI: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century; Sapiens; and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – I found these books immensely interesting in many ways. Yuval Harari is a brilliant Israeli historian and thinker, who happens to also be a student of Vipassana meditation (Goenka style, see separate listing on him). Harari has many interesting insights into how humans became the dominant species on the planet, and I was fascinated by his observations about the importance of gossip, and the critical importance for our dominance as a species of “the appearance of fiction,” in which, “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” For primitives, that might be superstitious religious beliefs, and for moderns, it might be our shared belief in the reality of money and corporations. He also examines with great insight what is developing now in terms of social media, artificial intelligence (AI) and information technology, as well as reflecting on many other subjects including terrorism, religion, secularism, liberal democracy, education, the rise of Trump, the importance of stories, factory farming, meditation, and much more. His perspective always feels nuanced and open-minded, never black-and-white or dogmatic. For example, he unpacks the current debate over immigration in such a way that allows us all to better understand the opposing points of view without falling into simplistic, black-and-white polarization. He argues compellingly against being terrified by terrorism and over-reacting to it, and against getting lost in despair, hopelessness or dystopian doomsday fantasies. He certainly sees the very real dangers of climate change, nuclear war, mis-used technology, and so on, but he seems quite optimistic about human potential and points out many things about what humans have accomplished so far that make him optimistic about how things can potentially unfold. He regards free will as an illusion, but at the same time, he doesn’t get stuck in any kind of fatalistic, deterministic model either. He encourages having an open mind that is flexible and willing to see things in new ways. And he feels meditation is very important in our present world in terms of getting to know how our minds work and getting back in touch with our bodies and with the actuality of life. He takes significant amounts of time every year to be in silence, unplugged from computer, phone and TV. Very interesting (and very brilliant) guy. He has a YouTube channel with a lot of very interesting talks and interviews. Sam Harris has done two podcasts with him. So, there’s a lot you can find on-line. And you can learn more at his website here. Very highly recommended.
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.
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. However, I’ve heard reports recently that some of Ladinsky’s “translations” of Hafiz are not based on anything written by Hafiz himself or actual translators of the original work, but were “channeled” or imagined by Ladinsky. As a result, I don’t know how reliable or accurate any of his translations are, but wherever they come from, the poems in this collection are all quite wonderful. Very highly recommended!
THE SOUL IS HERE FOR ITS OWN JOY: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures, edited by Robert Bly -- Wonderful collection of spiritual poems, including work by Rumi, Kabir, Lalla, Rilke, Silesius, Mirabai, Dickinson, Oliver, Transtromer, and many others. Pure celebration of the Divine: "There the bee of the heart stays deep inside the flower, and cares for no other thing." Another wonderful collection by Robert Bly is The Winged Energy of Delight, which includes poems by Transtromer, Kabir, Rilke, Jimenez, Basho, Issa, Rumi, Lorca, and many others. Very highly recommended.
RYOKAN: Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi; and One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens -- Ryokan, known as the "Great Fool," was a Zen poet, monk and hermit in late 18th and early 19th century Japan. In the words of John Stevens, Ryokan "slept when he wanted to, drank freely, and frequently joined the dancing parties held in summer. He acquired his simple needs by mendicancy, and if he had anything extra he gave it away. He never preached or exhorted, but his life radiated purity and joy; he was a living sermon...Often he spent the entire day playing with the children or picking flowers." His poems transmit the essence of Zen with exquisite simplicity and beauty. A few samples: “New pond. / No sound of a frog / jumping in.” and, “In an autumn field, / hundreds of grasses / burst into bloom. / Kneeling down, / a male deer cries.” and, “If I say it / it’s easy, / yet my diarrhea stomach / is indeed / hard to bear.” (all three from the Kaz Tanahashi collection), and, “The thief left it behind / the moon / At the window.” (from the John Stevens collection). Both collections very highly recommended.
KABIR: The Kabir Book (Versions by Robert Bly); Songs of Kabir (Translated by Rabindranath Tagore); and The Bijak of Kabir (translated by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh, with essays and notes by Linda Hess) -- Kabir was a fifteenth-century Indian poet who grew up Muslim, was influenced by the Sufis, and became a disciple of the Hindu teacher Ramanada, a heart-centered devotional bhakti approach. Kabir was an unorthodox, iconoclastic, mystical poet, apparently illiterate, a weaver by trade, whose ecstatic poems and "upside-down language" radiate love of God, poke fun at spiritual pretensions, and call for a simple, direct, immediate realization of Truth. "Who is it we spend our entire life loving?" he asks. “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”
MARY OLIVER: Devotions: The Selected Poems of 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; Upstream — These are a few of the wonderful titles by Mary Oliver (1935—2019), a deeply spiritual American poet whose writing bursts with awake presence and with a profound devotion to life. She described herself as a "praise poet," and said, “My work is loving the world.” Her poems reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary and the transcendent in the earth and Eros of life. She celebrates the natural world and conveys its exquisite beauty, but this is no sentimental picture of nature. She sees its fragility, how everything eats something else and is eaten in turn, and she conveys both the mystical depth and beauty of this world and also the immensity of pain and sorrow, yet always in a way that affirms the power of love, awareness and possibility. Some of her lines from different poems: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished….When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms….You do not have to be good, You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” She captures the depth and breadth of human experience and the infinite subtlety of what matters most. Toni Packer used to read Mary Oliver's poems aloud at the end of silent retreats. Mary Oliver won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among many others. You can listen to a wonderful interview with Mary Oliver here. There are other collections of her work as well, and all of them are excellent. Her writing is truly breath-taking. Very highly recommended
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 loved Salzman's wonderful memoir The Man in the Empty Boat. Both very highly recommended.
THE FORTY RULES OF LOVE by Elif Shafak – This beautiful novel weaves together the story of Rumi and Shams in the thirteenth century with the story of a relationship in the twenty-first century between an American woman and a present-day Sufi. It is a story of love and transformation and how everything belongs and is perfectly placed. It embraces the passion of life and the nothingness of death. An extraordinary book. The author is a Turkish-British novelist, essayist, teacher, public speaker and social activist. Born in France in 1971, she grew up in Ankara, Turkey, raised by her well-educated, secularist, Westernised mother and her uneducated, spiritual, Eastern grandmother. Shafak spent her teenage years there and also in Madrid, Amman and Istanbul. As an adult, she has lived around the world—Boston, Michigan, Arizona, Istanbul, and she now lives in London. She holds a degree in International Relations, a Master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a PhD in Political Science. She is an activist on women's rights, minority rights and freedom of speech, and she clearly has a deep feeling for spirituality along with an appreciation of uncertainty, ambiguity, unresolvability and bewilderment. She has written both fiction and non-fiction, in both Turkish and English, and she is a brilliant, deeply intelligent, very wise woman. I have loved, and highly recommend, several of her other novels including Three Daughters of Eve and Honor, as well as some of her non-fiction essays and talks. More here. Very highly recommended.
BRIAN DOYLE: Mink River and Chicago (two novels); and One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder (a posthumous collection of nonfiction writings) – Brian Doyle (1956-2017) is a magical story-teller whose writing is deep and joyous and whimsical and full of every texture that life contains. I would say he has a spiritual perspective and vision, but not in any heavy-handed way. He has roots in Catholicism and a love of mysticism; he is a post-modernist who brings us talking birds and dogs and who happily breaks the rules of grammar and sentence length in delightful ways. The books I’m recommending are the only ones I’ve read so far, but he’s written many more—novels, stories, poetry, essays. Born in New York, Doyle attended college in Chicago, lived for a while in Boston, and settled eventually in Oregon, where he died in 2017 of a brain tumor at age 60. Beautiful, amazing books full of heart and soul and faith in life. You can find some great, passionate talks by him on YouTube by searching on YouTube for “Brian Doyle Oregon author” – to avoid confusion with a Canadian author of the same name. Books and talks all very highly recommended.
THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers – This extraordinary novel is about trees and people and life. It really can't be adequately described, but it had a deep impact on me. It opened my heart and my eyes and my mind in new ways. Beautiful, powerful, brilliant, amazing book. More here. Very highly recommended.
RAN ORTNER: Ran Ortner is a visual artist whose work, and what he says about his work (and about life), really intrigues and excites me. It relates very much, I think, to what this website and my own work is all about. He gave a wonderful talk at the American Academy in Berlin in 2018. There’s a fairly long introduction, but Ortner takes the stage at 6:41 into it. Watch here. More at his website. Very highly recommended.
WAKING: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford — Matt is a teacher of Iyengar yoga. He became a paraplegic at age 13 in a car crash that killed his father and sister. This is the story of how he moved through that loss, and how he re-discovered his body many years later. Matt is also a public speaker, and an innovator in the world of adaptive yoga, mindbody connections, improving the healthcare system and working with trauma survivors. There are many things I love about this book, but one of them is his sense of exploration and discovery—the kind of curiosity and direct inquiry he has done so deeply and that he invites, trusting one's own experience, feeling one's way in the dark, not knowing where it will lead. He speaks about embodiment as the key to compassion, and he talks about consciousness, silence, simplicity, aging, the unity of life and death, dark spaces, being with suffering, and many other things in quite unique and beautiful ways. I found this book deeply transformative. You can watch a beautiful interview with Matt on Conscious TV here. Or check out his website here, or the nonprofit he founded, Mind Body Solutions.
EVERYWHERE A GUEST, NOWHERE AT HOME: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine by Kim Chernin – This slender little book is about how we come to believe certain things and take on certain identities and how we can begin to question our assumptions and positions. The author is a Jewish writer and psychotherapist with deep insight. She was an avid Zionist and apologist for Israel who began to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people. She begins to see that there is truth and suffering and violence on both sides. From there she begins to question how people who had survived a genocide could end up behaving as oppressors to another group of people. This isn’t about blame or condemnation, but about understanding and compassion. Although this is not a book about nonduality or spirituality in the usual sense, I include it on this reading list because the conflict between Israel and Palestine is exemplary of the kinds of conflicts that divide us and lead to terrible suffering. It is a hot-button issue. The very mention of Palestine or Israel can trigger instant emotional reactions and deeply-held beliefs in many of us. Thus, I think this book offers a way forward for all of us, not just in terms of this particular struggle. Kim offers a vision of peace that is based on listening openly and questioning our beliefs. The book weaves her own personal journey together with various historical and journalistic accounts of the long struggle in this troubled part of the world. She appreciates the truth on both sides, and she remains open to the complexities, nuances and ambiguities of the situation. This is not a black and white political diatribe, but rather an invitation to all of us to listen openly and to be willing to question our most deeply-held assumptions and narratives. This book is beautifully written, very insightful and well worth reading, especially for those who take an interest in global politics and conflict resolution. More here.
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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