Review of the Classic Zen Koan Compendium Entangling Vines

Koan Study Books

There are a number of books that contain Koans, which are meditation training stories used in Zen practice. The idea of Koan came from China and was called in Chinese Gong An, or Public Case, as in a court case. Koans (the Japanese pronunciation) bring out a particular facet of reality or life, which seekers of truth can use to unlock their own understanding and wisdom.

Rather than recite the Chinese or Japanese sources, this brief overview will give a number of examples of books which are publicly available in English Translation. Included are links to see them on Amazon, where you can read reviews.  To evaluate these books would probably cause the succession of Zen Master, living or dead, to roll their eyes at my presumptuousness. They’re all classics and all in fact priceless. Any one of these will keep you engaged for a life time, or several lifetimes.

What I can say, is that the first Zen Book I ever read was Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The story behind that is that I first heard the word “Zen” when I was 9 years old but had no idea what it was. Then, 5 years later, I was browsing on a book rack at a local convenience store, when the name popped out at me. “There’s that word!” So I bought it on the spot. It is short, easy to read and charming. It captures you on some intuitive level as having the ring of truth about it. At least it did for me. That got me started on my Zen journey. The other books in this list are more advanced, so some readers may know about them. Robert Aitken’s Gateless Barrier is fairly reader friendly and is based on his talks about one of the most well known books in Zen literature.

The Tao of Physics and The Buddhist Teaching of Totality are not specifically about Zen but offer a window into Eastern thinking patterns, which are, what I may say, are more spacial. Western thinking has an implicit assumption of a First Cause or Core Truth, where as Eastern thinking does not assume that. Both books explore this idea. Western thinking tends to divide things whereas Eastern thinking sees things holistically.

The others are also good reads for those who want to explore Zen more deeply.

A couple of books (shameless admission, one from my teacher, Nelson Foster, and one from Andy Ferguson who was invaluable in aiding my pilgrimage) that go into background of some of the great teachers of Zen, are as follows:


Two books closely related to Zen teaching are: