"There are eighty thousand books on Buddhism, and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter." I read those wise words, of course, in one of those 80,000 books. Therein lies one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual path: intellectual inquiry is disparaged and at the same time venerated.
It is said that books satisfy spiritual yearning about as well as a menu satisfies hunger. Read too much, we are warned, and you can mistake concepts for reality—or confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. At the same time, menus have value, and fingers pointing to the moon have value. Without the understanding we get from books we might not know that reading books is not enough. "You can get something from a book," said the Sufi scholar Idries Shah. "That something may be so important as to lead you to the recognition of the real thing."
Recently, a counseling client of mine was scanning my bookshelf. Suddenly, she got as excited as a child on Christmas morning. "Wow, this looks great," she exclaimed. "Can I borrow it? And this one?" She started plucking books like they were cherries that she couldn't wait to eat. Each book that caught her eye was an obscure title that too few people know about, lost as they are amidst the clamor of publicity campaigns and spiritual celebrities. Some were written by friends of mine. For them, and for readers who stand to benefit from their wisdom, I'm devoting this column to brief reviews of some highly worthy titles.
Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies by Dean Sluyter. A clever and illuminating romp through familiar films—Casablanca, Jaws, The Godfather and a dozen more—some of which you’d never think of as "spiritual." Also by Dean, who finds spiritual lessons in unlikely places: The Zen Commandments, a charming book filled with spiritual street smarts.
The Moth to the Flame by Connie Zweig. A transformative and moving novel based on the life of the great Sufi poet and mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi. Also by Connie: The Holy Longing, about the soul's search for the divine, and Romancing the Shadow, about bringing into the light the hidden parts of ourselves.
Yoga Rx, by Larry Payne. Different from other books on yoga in that it focuses on yoga therapy—postures, breathing exercises and meditative practices to alleviate pain and illness. Also by Larry (and Georg Feuerstein) Yoga For Dummies, an excellent introduction to this ancient system that will help you put together a personal routine.
Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God, by James Finley. An excellent resource for Christians who yearn for a deep meditative practice consistent with their heritage. Also by Jim, The Contemplative Heart, and Merton's Palace of Nowhere.
Hasidic Tales, by Rami Shapiro. These traditional tales transcend the time, place and culture of their origin, offering spiritual wisdom to everyone. Also by Rabbi Rami, Open Secrets, a series of letters from a fictional rabbi, and The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening, by Kay Lindahl. Practical advice for connecting deeply with others through genuine, open-hearted listening. Also by Kay, How Does God Listen?, a delightful book for eliciting wonder in children.
The Deepest Spiritual Life, by Susan Quinn. An insightful book about the importance of having both a personal practice and a spiritual community.
Grassroots Spirituality, by Robert Forman. The findings of an important study documenting the ongoing shift from the religion of imposed beliefs to the adventure of personal exploration. Also by Bob, The Problem of Pure Consciousness, a scholarly look at mystical experience, and Meister Eckhart, about the 14th century mystic/theologian.
What Would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf. Passages from Buddhist texts and pithy commentaries to guide you through 101 "daily dilemmas." Also by Franz, What Would Buddha Do At Work? and Buddha in Your Backpack, ancient wisdom for modern teens.
In the Tenderness of Stone, by Diana Denton. A poetic and sensual journey through the stages of the heart’s awakening, with roots in the tantric tradition.
Walking Through Walls, by Lee Jampolsky. Subtitled "Practical Spirituality for an Impractical World," it uses meditation, prayer and exercises to develop spiritual traits such as gentleness, joy and patience.
Seven Masters, One Path, by John Selby. Seven types of meditative practice based on the works of seven great teachers: Lao-tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishnamurti, Patanjali and Gurdjieff.
Making Peace with God and Roadsigns: Navigating Your Path to Spiritual Happiness by...modesty prevents me from going any further (he said, facetiously).
May these hidden treasures illuminate your path and at the same time remind you that reading, study, analysis and all our other intellectual pursuits, valuable as they are, can take you only to the doorstep of the Sacred. To enter, you have to leave the mind behind.