The German Jesuit scholar Heinrich Dumoulin produced a formidable 2 volume history of Zen:
Zen Buddhism: A History, India & China
Zen Buddhism, Volume 2: A History (Japan) (Treasures of the World's Religions)
This shorter work by him, although it provides some history of Zen, does so only with a focus on explaining, in an academic fashion, the role of enlightenment in Zen. It is derived from lectures he gave during or before 1976.
I'd suggest keeping in mind, if one does read this book, that, as Dumoulin observes, one of the greatest Zen masters, Hui-Neng, could not read or write, let alone understand such a scholarly presentation of Zen. Nevertheless, this book may provide some context for understanding Zen Buddhism and its practices. Even so, its coverage of contemporary enlightenment experiences, centering on the forced methods of Harada school, will seem unusual to any one studying Soto Zen: it centering did to me. Of course, if you are an academician, this book may be ideal for you, although even then you may find the chapter of Dogen's metaphysics tough going, perhaps less so depending on your familiarity with Mahayana Buddhism.
Some of the useful historical background includes:
- Indian roots, noting the similarities between Yoga and zazen (e.g. the lotus pose)
- legendary founding in China by Bodhidharma
- the Mahayana foundation of Zen
- how Taoism influenced the development of Zen
- Hui-Neng and enlightenment as sudden not gradual
- Lin-Chi and the beginning of Rinzai school
- the beginning of the use of systematic methods: zazen and koans
- Zen's entry into Japan
- Dogen and the Soto sect: his emphasis on zazen and the metaphysics of the Buddhanature
The historical elements I found well-presented and useful.
The explanation of Dogen's teaching I found too academic and rather hard to follow (where's Brad Warner where we need him, for which see the less complete but considering easier to follow
Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye)
Dumoulin mentions the early Chinese Zen poem "Faith in Mind" that contains many Taoist elements. You can read a commentary on this poem that can also guide your Zen sitting practice by Master Sheng-yen in
Faith in Mind: A Commentary on Seng Ts'an's Classic.
If you practice Soto Zen, you may want to skip or at least lightly browse, the final 2 chapters on Contemporary Accounts and Satori. It will seem baffling and probably quite contrary to what your Soto Zen master has taught. Whether anyone actually can have a liberating experience of any value using the approach of the Harada school I almost doubt; can the master really recognize a meaningful satori of the disciple or is there some sort of collusion involved? I suppose I'm too suspicious but my limited practice has been Soto and quite undramatic compared to what is described here. Nevertheless, I feel I have made some progress in experiencing nonduality (where am I?) and all without the pressures of the Harada approach. I suppose you can read these 2 chapters and decide what you make of it.
All in all, this relatively short book nevertheless is quite informative and, despite being so scholarly, may be of help...if it doesn't fill your head up with lots of facts and philosophy you may well not need if you mean to do Zen practice. Hopefully, if you don't mean to get a college degree in Zen, you can forgot much of it soon after you finish reading but hold onto enough to provide some context for your practice.