Playlisted

The Best Zen Audiobooks to Guide You to Enlightenment

Seasoned spiritualists and meditation amateurs alike will find peace and enlightenment in our selection of best Zen audiobooks.

Perhaps you’re a meditation master looking for some in-depth topics, or maybe you’re new to your zen practice and seeking guidance. Either way, these ten titles offer a comprehensive selection to begin or continue your spiritual practice. Our selection includes poems, short stories, letters, and full-length texts all brought to life in audio. They span geographical nations and more than 20 centuries, covering various schools of philosophy and religion from traditionalists to modern practitioners. From the foremost religious and philosophical minds in history, here is our selection of the best zen audiobooks.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a compilation of teishos, or Zen talks, given by the Soto Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki at his center in San Francisco. Suzuki is known for establishing the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, so it’s no surprise that his collection of lectures has become one of the foremost classics in spiritual literature. Separated into three parts—right mind, right attitude, and right understanding—Suzuki’s teachings prioritize the value of maintaining a beginner’s attitude throughout your study in order to maximize openness and opportunity. Narrator Peter Coyote is an expert performer, with classics like The Four Agreements and The Voice of Knowledge under his belt, and his calm, authoritative voice combined with the vintage tone of this recording make this one of the best forays into the genre of zen audiobooks.

The Three Pillars of Zen

The Three Pillars of Zen

Another work by a renowned authority in the Zen community, The Three Pillars of Zen is a comprehensive overview of the basic tenets of Zen Buddhism by one of the founding fathers of the American Zen tradition, Roshi Phillip Kapleau. But it’s more than just an informational resource—Kapleau also incorporates stories of his own practice as both a student and as a teacher, which gives his wisdom the personal, human touch necessary to help listeners relate to it in a meaningful way. Narrator Sean Runnette is an Earphones Award winner and professional television actor, and his deep, meditative tone makes it easy to focus clearly on Kapleau’s words while also relaxing into a Zen state yourself. Plus, this edition also includes an afterword by the Rochester Zen Center current director, Bodhin Kjolhede.

The Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Thien Buddhist, is one of the most influential Zen masters in history and the champion of what he termed engaged Buddhism. This approach encourages the application of Buddhist principles to achieve social justice by working to alleviate the suffering of others. Hanh practiced his own principles powerfully throughout the Vietnam War, after which Martin Luther King, Jr., personally nominated him for a Nobel Prize. Narrator John Lee is a practiced expert in the narration of such influential works, among them One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Splendid and the Vile. He was also named AudioFile’s Golden Voice in 2009. Written during the 39 years Hanh was exiled from Vietnam, The Miracle of Mindfulness provides an unparalleled foundation for building a meditation practice in a style of Buddhism that focuses on the interpersonal as much as the internal.

The Way of Zen

The Way of Zen

Sean Runnette appears again on our list, this time as narrator of what was perhaps one of the greatest influences leading to the popularization of Buddhism among secular Americans. Originally published in 1957, The Way of Zen provides more of a historical and cultural education than the other titles on our list, giving listeners deeper insight into the context that surrounds their own Zen practices. Watts also traces the origins of particular elements of Buddhist practice, including the Noble Eightfold Path and the philosophical concepts that inform the practice of meditation. Runnette’s performance is simultaneously authoritative and contemplative, making this a slightly more active listen that still adopts the pensive tone that characterizes the Zen genre.

The Essential Dogen

The Essential Dogen

The Zen master referenced in this title, Eihei Dogen, was a 13th century Japanese Buddhist who founded the Soto school of Buddhismand whose writings have been studied by Zen students for many centuries. It is impossible to overstate Dogen’s influence; his monastery, Eihei-ji, is still operational today and Soto Buddhism remains the largest religion practiced in Japan. Brian Nishii was born and raised in Tokyo and is fluent in English, Japanese, and Chinese, so his narration is smooth and his pronunciations of the various Chinese and Japanese phrases throughout are effortless and accurate. In terms of foundational Zen texts, The Essential Dogen is undeniably a classic, and even for beginners, Dogen’s wisdom is easy to learn, understand, and apply.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

A slightly more advanced delve into Zen philosophy, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones highlights the concept of nonduality, which is a state of consciousness in which one is able to transcend the dichotomy between self and other. Another work narrated by Peter Coyote and featuring a more vintage, 20th-century recording feel, this work is actually a collection of four texts: 101 Zen Stories, The Gateless Gate, Ten Bulls, and the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra. Uncommonly found in Western Buddhist communities until Paul Reps compiled and published them, all four are themselves collections of shorter stories, poems, and anecdotes ranging in origin from the 13th to 20th centuries. Incorporating both Chinese and Japanese Zen philosophies, the collection is a meditation on enlightenment, the purification of the mind, and the ultimate achievement of true Zen.

The Unfettered Mind

The Unfettered Mind

Perfect for those seeking a refreshing perspective on the Zen genre, The Unfettered Mind is unique on our list in two ways: firstly, it is written in the second person as a series of three letters from the Rinzai monk Takuan Soho. Secondly, it focuses not just on Buddhism but on the application of Zen principles to the practice of martial arts. Addressed to a pair of martial artists and swordsmen, Soho’s writings interpret the tenets of Buddhism through the elements of swordsmanship and martial artistry. This perspective is valuable for beginner students as well, since Soho rarely uses inaccessible terminology and instead utilizes anecdotal scenarios to explain concepts in the vocabulary of a martial artist. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re seeking a deeper understanding of what you’ve already learned, The Unfettered Mind is a valuable addition to your Zen collection.

Sky Above, Great Wind

Sky Above, Great Wind

In a departure from the rest of the works on our list, this selection is actually a collection of poems by the revered monk Ryokan. Living during the turn of the 19th century, Ryokan was nomadic and reclusive, and his poems are private and detailed musings on his observations of the world and his relationship to it. Brian Nishii again sells his pitch-perfect performance effortlessly, merging the artistry of Ryokan’s writings with Tanahashi’s biographical explanations interspersed throughout. These interludes provide meaningful context as the work progresses, giving the listener a full understanding of Ryokan’s life and work.

Meditation in Action

Meditation in Action

This work has the unique benefit of being both written and performed by Zen leaders. Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa was a highly influential evangelist for Dharma in the West, while Sam Bercholz is one of Trungpa’s indirect descendants and a Buddhist teacher at the Shambhala Mountain Center that Trungpa founded in Boulder, Colorado. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, Trungpa was an advocate for engaged Buddhism, and Meditation in Action summarizes his beliefs regarding how Buddhism should be used to guide one’s behavior and mentality through active life. Focusing on six elements—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, clarity, and wisdom—Trungpa guides the listener beyond a purely meditative understanding of Zen into a fully engaged philosophical approach.

The Buddha Is Still Teaching

The Buddha Is Still Teaching

The last of our Zen audiobook selections is the best on our list for leaving a lasting impression on the listener, since it deals with the idea that the Buddha’s teachings, though originally laid out over 25 centuries ago, are as fresh and alive today as they were then. Zen practitioner Jack Kornfield emphasizes the importance of the timeless freedom that the Buddha’s teachings offer, and how this timelessness applies to the Buddha’s wisdom itself as well. Narrator Edoardo Ballerini is a veteran of the genre, and his lofty, elegant tone is ideal for bringing the many quotes included in the audiobook to life. Kornfield couches the Buddha’s words with contributions from many others, including Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, the psychotherapist Mark Epstine, meditation expert Sharon Salberg and more to paint a moving picture of the Buddha’s eternal influence.


Selection Methodology

Inclusion in Audible’s “Best Audiobooks” series is based on a number of factors, including presence on Audible best seller lists, listener ratings and reviews, Goodreads ratings, and input from the Audible Editors. All audiobooks featured here have a minimum of 500 reviews averaging at least 4.5 stars, with some exceptions made for outstanding stories and performances.

Up Next