The Top Ten Zen Books of 2019

Published annually, “The 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People” is a list compiled annually by Watkins Publishing, revered as the oldest (1893) esoteric bookshop and publishing house in the UK. I have seen this list referenced in articles from The New York Times to CNN and The Guardian, among other places, and in various blogs and videos. It represents a fairly accepted consensus on the spiritual Zeitgeist all over the world in any given year by a fairly influential publisher/bookseller in the market of English-language spiritual books.

Along with their list of the “100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People”, the people at Watkins Publishing also announce sub-lists noting influential texts and authors in various spiritual disciplines and traditions. Their lists are a kind of benchmark which often guide the buying trends of individuals and bookstores throughout the English-speaking world.

Their most recent list of “The Top 10 Books on Zen Buddhism” is made up entirely of books by or about teachers in the Japanese Zen traditions. There is only one book from a non-Japanese tradition: Among the titles by Dogen, Hakuin, Suzuki Roshi and Joko Beck, they have chosen Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake as one of the top ten most essential books on Zen.

This book was originally my master’s thesis for the degree at Harvard Divinity School. When it was come time to submit a theme for my Master’s thesis, I asked my advisor, the legendary Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi, if it would be possible to research and collect scattered and unrecorded teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, whose lineage I was just then entering through residency at the Cambridge Zen Center. Prof. Nagatomi said that he did not like to accept works produced by the “disciple” of someone as their thesis, for obvious reasons of impartiality. But he noted that not much was available on Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teachings, that there was not a great body of his works in print. So if my master’s thesis could one day become a book, and fill this void, he would approve such an idea.

I spent several years working on this. But I had no idea of publishing it. I was meanwhile tasked, by Dae Soen Sa Nim, with co-editing and publishing his Whole World is a Single Flower (1992), The Compass of Zen (1997), and a near-total redo of Only Don’t Know (1999). My hands were overfull (and schedule tightened by the fact that I shut everything down twice a year to do the 90-day intensive Kyol Che ango retreats), and since these other books were direct requests from him, there was no personal decision in all of this. I just carried out what my Teacher asked me to do.

But one day, during a meeting in his room in Hwa Gye Sah Temple sometime near the end of those projects, when I mentioned to him that I also had this old manuscript from my Harvard days, he immediately said, “You must make book! Make book necessary!”

This is the fruit of that order from him. It is the only text, of all that I worked on, where I retained the copyrights as my own. I had had some nervous experiences with the administrative and hierarchical workings of the Kwan Um School of Zen, and was leery of letting this thing go until it had become established as a text and could no longer be changed. I have never earned a single penny from the sales of this book: everything was donated back to the School, for the first 10 years, as was everything that was earned on all of the texts that I wrote, edited, and published for Dae Soen Sa Nim. Like all the texts that came before it, compiling and editing this collection was a labor of love and gratitude, meant to benefit the sangha and all beings.

Here is the list:

https://www.watkinsmagazine.com/top-10-zen-buddhism
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