Eastern Religion and Philosophy



The Upanishads
 [ca. 8th-4th centuries BC]
      These ancient discourses, usually in the form of dialogues between spiritual master and student, are among the earliest expositions of mystical experience. All beings and all phenomena are considered to be mere passing manifestations of the one true reality, Brahman, which is not a god but an indescribable reality beyond any gods (what Eckhart calls the Godhead or the Ground of Being). The aim of the dialogues is to foster the realization of one’s unity with that ultimate universal Self. There is a good short selection translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester. For more detailed study I suggest the annotated one-volume edition by Swami Nikhilananda (abridged from his four-volume edition).

The Bhagavad Gita  [ca. 3rd century BC]
      This short dialogue, inserted into the epic poem The Mahabharata, has been one of the world’s most influential documents. Despite its apparently “pro-war” message (the hesitant warrior Arjuna is convinced by Krishna to plunge into the battle with which he is confronted as long as he makes sure to do the killing in a nonattached manner) it served as an inspiration to Gandhi, because the same sort of nonattachment can be applied to nonviolent struggle. Like many traditional commentators, he saw the epic’s plot as symbolic of an internal spiritual battle. There are innumerable translations. Relatively literal annotated versions include those by Franklin Edgerton, R.C. Zaehner, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Other good versions include those by Ann Stanford, Barbara Stoler Miller, and Swami Prabhavananda/Christopher Isherwood.
      Isherwood, incidentally, also wrote an interesting account of the nineteenth-century holy man, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, as well as a very personal and sometimes rather amusing account of his own experiences in the practice of Vedanta, My Guru and His Disciple.
      [Rexroth essay on The Bhagavad Gita]

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching  [ca. 5th century BC]
      Stressing the humble over the haughty, the discreet over the visible, the feminine over the masculine, this deceptively simple little work is as inexhaustible as the Way it evokes. It is one of the most widely translated books in the world. There have been well over two hundred different versions in English alone. The great diversity of interpretations makes it essential to compare several of them. Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power (1934) is still one of the basic ones. Other notable early versions include the very free poetic rendering by Witter Bynner (The Way of Life According to Laotzu, 1944) and Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of Laotse (1948), which features passages from Chuang Tzu by way of commentary. Ellen M. Chen's The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary (1989) includes useful annotations. Robert Henricks has translated two recently discovered early manuscript versions, which differ in important respects from the traditional text (Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, 1989, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, 2000). Victor H. Mair's Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (1990) is another fine edition based on those newly discovered manuscripts. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall’s Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation (2003) provides an illuminating Whitehead-influenced interpretation. Red Pine’s translation (Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching, 1996) is one of the most poetically concise, and he follows each chapter with excerpts from 2000 years of traditional Chinese commentaries. Jonathan Star’s Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition (2001) is the most useful edition for close study of the text because it lists the full range of possible meanings and translations of each character. Ursula K. Le Guin’s version (Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, 1998) is very free but often illuminating. Sam Hamill’s Tao Te Ching: A New Translation (2005) belongs near the top of the list, being both poetic and precise. There are numerous other translations of widely varying styles and merits, with new ones coming out virtually every year. Note that many of them are very inaccurate, so proceed with caution. You can get an idea of the differences from the reproduction here of 175+ versions of the first chapter.
      Good general studies include Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power, Holmes Welch’s Taoism: The Parting of the Way, Chang Chung-Yuan’s Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry and Alan Watts’s Tao: The Watercourse Way. Less scholarly but delightfully provocative is The Tao Is Silent by the magician and logician Raymond Smullyan.
      [Rexroth essay on the Tao Te Ching]

Chuang Tzu  [ca. 3rd century BC]
      The other classic Taoist text is a collection of parables and anecdotes by or about the sage Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi). It’s a thoroughly delightful work, including satires of Confucius and other historical figures and whimsical philosophical dialogues between characters such as North Sea Jo, Big Goose Dummy, Mad Mouther and Do-nothing Say-nothing. Its influence was undoubtedly one of the key factors in transforming the prolix philosophical forms of Indian Buddhism into the dramatically concentrated and down-to-earth style of Zen. Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton’s The Essential Chuang Tzu is appropriately lively and colloquial, in addition to being more complete than most other editions. I’d say it’s the best choice if you’re only going to get one version, but there are other good ones by Burton Watson, A.C. Graham, Thomas Merton and others, including an English version of Martin Buber’s German edition (I and Tao: Martin Buber’s Encounter with Chuang Tzu). I have reproduced six versions of one of the stories here.

Confucius, The Analects  [551-479 BC]
      With its emphasis on social order and morality, Confucianism may not seem so appealing as its perennial rival, Taoism, but ultimately the two perspectives are probably more complementary than antagonistic. The great Chinese writers and artists have usually seen them as such, combining a respectable Confucian orthodoxy in their public careers with Taoist (and/or Buddhist) attitudes in their private lives. In any case, Confucius is one of the most influential figures in history, so it’s a good idea to have some idea of what he was about. The best edition of The Analects that I have seen is the recent translation by Simon Leys. For general background you might try Arthur Waley’s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, which compares Taoism (represented by Chuang Tzu), Confucianism (represented by Mencius), and “Realism” or “Legalism” (the more or less Machiavellian philosophy represented by Han Fei Tzu).



Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught
      A good exposition of the original teachings of the historical Buddha (ca. 563-483 BC).
      [Rexroth essay on Buddhism]

Lucien Stryk (ed.), World of the Buddha  [1968]
      A good anthology of the wide range of Buddhist writings, from the earliest Pali sutras to the Mahayana texts of Tibet, China and Japan.

Garma Chang (trans.), The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa  [12th century]
Milarepa (1052-1135) was the greatest and most popular figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. This story of his life presents him as constantly bursting into mystical songs in his encounters with gurus, disciples, and ordinary people. I think you will be won over by his verve and good humor even if you are dubious about the miraculous legends about him and know nothing about the complexities and obscurities of Tibetan Buddhism. There is a complete two-volume edition and a one-volume abridgment. See also W.Y. Evans-Wentz’s Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa.

The Diamond Sutra  [ca. 4th century]
      This short Mahayana text, with its frequent statements of the form “A is neither A nor not A; thus it is called A,” is a striking example of using language to point beyond the limits of language (the same thing that is done more briefly and dramatically in Zen koans). There are numerous translations. The new one by Red Pine, which includes extensive excerpts from traditional Chinese commentaries, is probably the best one for serious study.
      (Note: This and the following book are unlikely to be very interesting, or even comprehensible, to those who have not already undertaken some exploration of Buddhism.)

Garma Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality  [1977]
      An examination of the form of Buddhism centered on the Avatamsaka Sutra (translated into English by Thomas Cleary as The Flower Ornament Scripture). Like many Mahayana texts, the Avatamsaka Sutra is so immense and so repetitive that few people are ever likely to read it in its entirety (I myself have only dipped into it). Chang’s book at least gives us a little taste of some of the basic features of this inconceivably grandiose perspective, which envisions countless trillions of universes, each reflected in each other and in each constituent of itself, each reflection reflected in turn in each other reflection. . . . Whereas the Diamond Sutra uses a primarily negative tack — pulling the rug out from under our habitual preconceptions by systematically denying every possible fixed viewpoint — the Avatamsaka Sutra accomplishes somewhat the same thing by overwhelming us with continually vaster positive visions ad infinitum.

Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America  [1981]
      A good account of one of the most significant cultural encounters in history, beginning with the first Oriental influences on Emerson and Thoreau, continuing through the amusing adventures of eccentric occultist Westerners such as Madame Blavatsky and the isolated pioneering work of D.T. Suzuki, Nyogen Senzaki, Sokei-an Sasaki, and a few others, and culminating in the solid implantation of Buddhist practices (Zen above all, but also Tibetan and Vipassana) in the decades following World War II.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness  [1977]
      The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the pioneers of “socially engaged Buddhism.” In The Miracle of Mindfulness he presents the Vipassana practice of constant mindfulness in whatever you are doing. Another of his books I particularly like is The Sun My Heart, which goes into the interconnectedness of all things — a sort of easy-to-understand exposition of some of the basic Avatamsaka insights. He has written dozens of other excellent books on Buddhism, nonviolence, and related themes. However, as I have tried to show in the texts linked below, while I feel that the emergence of engaged Buddhism has been a healthy development, I believe that the political perspectives of Nhat Hanh and most other engaged Buddhists have remained extremely naïve.
      [My critique of Thich Nhat Hanh and socially engaged Buddhism]
      [A followup of the above critique]



There are hundreds of books on Zen Buddhism. Some are superficial, but quite a large number are excellent. I have limited myself here to mentioning a few that I have found most useful in my own practice in the Soto style of Zen brought to America by Shunryu Suzuki. It should go without saying that if you really want to explore Zen you should start practicing it, if possible with a group and a competent teacher. Only in that context can books about Zen be of much use.

The Platform Sutra  [8th century]
      This seminal text (a.k.a. The Sutra of Hui-neng or The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch) sets forth the life and teachings of Hui-neng (638-713), one of the founding figures of Chinese Zen. I recommend the new edition translated and edited by Red Pine.

The Mumonkan  [ca. 1228]
      The Wumenguan, better known under its Japanese title Mumonkan, is the most widely used collection of Zen koans, the enigmatic anecdotes that serve as focuses of meditation, particularly in Rinzai Zen but also to some extent in Soto. There are several different editions. I cannot speak with any authority in this area, koan study not having been a significant part of my practice, but those in the know generally agree that Robert Aitken’s The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-men Kuan and Zenkei Shibayama’s The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan are among the most reliable. Their commentaries do not pretend to “solve” the koans — it’s up to practitioners to struggle with that for themselves — but they at least help clear away some of the more superficial obscurities and red herrings.

Dôgen, Moon in a Dewdrop  [1200-1253]
      After long neglect even in Japan, the Soto Zen master Dôgen is beginning to be recognized as one of the world’s most profound and original religious thinkers. There are numerous translations of his works. Moon in a Dewdrop, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi in collaboration with several American Zen teachers, is probably the best single collection, but Dôgen’s writings are so pithy and so full of obscurities and apparent contradictions (almost like koans) that the serious student will want to compare other translations of the most important texts.

Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (ed.), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones  [1959]
      101 Zen stories plus other texts. Not as rigorous as many later collections, but a little classic nonetheless.

Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker (ed.), The Roaring Stream  [1996]
      Perhaps the best general Zen anthology. An excellent selection of writings and talks by the greatest Chinese and Japanese Zen masters, some newly translated, others drawn from the best editions of recent decades, with useful introductory remarks by Nelson Foster (a “dharma heir” of Robert Aitken and cofounder with him of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship).

D.T. Suzuki  [1870-1966]
      D.T. Suzuki was the most important figure in the transmission of Zen to the West. Someone compared the appearance of his first volume of Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927) with the new translations of Plato that contributed to the flowering of the Renaissance. His influence has been so extensive that it has tended to eclipse his own work. Writing at a time when his readers had little opportunity to engage in any form of Zen practice, he was forced to “explain” Zen to some extent in Western religious and philosophical terms. Now that Buddhism has become implanted in the West, readers expect more practice-oriented content and some of his writings seem dated. Nevertheless, many of them are still well worth reading. For example: Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (written in 1907 (!), but still a good introductory survey), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (good description of traditional Zen training in Japan), and Zen and Japanese Culture (the classic study of Zen’s influence on martial arts, ink painting, haiku poetry, tea ceremony, etc.).

Alan Watts  [1915-1973]
      Alan Watts was a extremely important influence on people of my generation, introducing us to Zen and other Oriental “ways of liberation” in a lively, irreverent and very uncultish manner. Like other contemporary popularizers, he tended to glide over the ethical aspects of Eastern religions, giving the impression that they were just concerned with personal experiences. This tended to confirm our focus on psychedelic experiences and other subjective “trips” and sometimes encouraged a flippant dismissal of efforts to change the world. But I still think that much of Watts’s “philosophy” is basically correct — how the universe works (or as he would say, plays), the dialectical unity of opposites, etc. Some of his more interesting books: Nature, Man and Woman (one might say this was about the relation of sexuality to spirituality, except that Watts always rightly objected to the usual tendency to separate spirit from matter); Psychotherapy East and West (compares traditional Oriental spiritual practices with modern psychological methods); Joyous Cosmology (descriptions of his psychedelic experiences); and In My Own Way (autobiography).

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind  [1970]
      The American “Zen boom” of the fifties and sixties was almost totally based on the dramatic, goal-oriented Rinzai form of Zen expounded by D.T. Suzuki, popularized by Alan Watts, and sensationalized by the publicity surrounding the Beats. This was what people such as myself expected of Zen when we discovered that an actual Japanese Zen master was teaching in San Francisco. That genial little teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, represented the rather different Soto style of Zen. He gently weaned us away from impatient striving for spiritual highs, counseling us to settle down and pay attention to what we were actually doing. His teaching was primarily by living example, but insofar as it can be put into words you can find it in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This is the book I give to friends who express interest in practicing Zen. There are two other excellent collections of his talks — Not Always So and Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness — and an excellent biography by David Chadwick: Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki.

Sojun Mel Weitsman, Seeing One Thing Through [2023]
      Memoirs and talks by my longtime Zen teacher. Among other things, his memoirs recount his experiences as a taxi driver and an abstract-expressionist painter in the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s. Then he met Shunryu Suzuki and never turned back. He founded Berkeley Zen Center in 1967 and led it for more than fifty years until his recent death at the age of 92. During all that time he was a solid, lowkey, and unpretentious presence and example for his countless students, carrying on the clarity and simplicity of his teacher Shunryu Suzuki. “Pay attention.” “One thing at a time.” “Nothing special,” A very special teaching indeed!

Florence Caplow & Susan Moon (ed.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women  [2013]
      One of the most significant and welcome results of Buddhism’s spread to the West has been the breakdown of traditional Asiatic barriers to the participation of women. Over the last several decades a steadily increasing number of strong women teachers have emerged, and there is also increasing awareness of earlier women teachers who had previously been neglected in the standard histories. This collection presents 100 brief stories and reflections by 100 of these ancient and modern teachers, mostly in the Zen tradition but also including a few others (Tibetan, Vipassana, etc.).

David Chadwick, Thank You and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan  [1994]
      There have been many first-hand accounts of Westerners’ Zen experiences, but to my mind they often tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. Chadwick reveals the humorous as well as the sublime aspects of Zen practice, and the anecdotes about his run-ins with Japanese culture are often hilarious. (See, for example, his description of the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license: pp. 285-292.)

Brian Victoria, Zen at War  [1997]
      A salutary cautionary note for those who may be inclined to idealize Zen and other Far Eastern religions. This book documents the Japanese Zen establishment’s accommodation to Japanese militarist policies before and during World War II (with rare exceptions such as Uchiyama Gudô, an antiwar socialist Zen monk who was executed in 1911).


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

No copyright.