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One of Two Suzuki Zen Masters
on February 7, 2004
This book is, in fact, probably the very best introduction to Zen Buddhism for Americans. It is short, informal, yet well written.
Shunryu Suzuki, the author of this book, is not of the same school of Zen as D.T. Suzuki, who wrote many more books and is probably better known. Shunryu was of the Soto school of Zen, while D.T. belonged to the Rinzai school.
To the beginner, the differences might seem small. Both schools practice sitting meditation, called zazen. But Rinzai puts more emphasis on the experience of Satori, which I will not explain here (and is hardly explainable, anyhow). Soto Zen, and Shunryu in this book, emphasizes just sitting and practicing zazen. He does not dwell on Satori, in fact, I don't even think he mentions it.
In any event, I highly recommend this book as an introduction to Zen. Shunryu tells you about real Soto Zen practice -- not history, or theoretical concepts. It can be read in an evening, and can be re-read for years.
You can later proceed to other books on Zen; by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, or others, including John C. H. Wu. Thich Nhat Hanh is very popular too, and has written many books. He is Vietnamese, while both of the Suzukis were Japanese. I believe that Nhat Hanh is of the Soto school, but I could be wrong. Most other authors should be avoided until you are more familiar with Zen. (Beware especially of the shallow, even flippant, Zen books, which usually begin with the words "Zen and the ..." They have little value.) Just remember that Zen Buddism has two main schools: Soto and Rinzai. Also, Zen is a special form of Buddhism -- kind of like Quakers being a special form of Christianity -- and is not necessarily representative of Buddishm as a whole.
Zen was heavily influenced by Taoism. So if you really want to go deeper, consider getting a translation of the Tao Te Ching -- I highly recommend the version by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, but the translation by John C. H. Wu is good and very popular, plus he is Chinese by birth.
Finally, both Shunryu Suzuki and D.T. Suzuki definitely agree on one thing; Zen is about practice, not about books or even about ideas. Zen is not a philosophy. If you really want to understand Zen, then you will need to find a Zendo (meditation center or temple) and a teacher. And sit!