Spiritual Reading List
This list appears as an appendix, "Suggestions for Further Reading," in my book, The Way: Meaningful Spirituality for a Modern World.
"The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell (or anything by Joseph Campbell) is a great place to start. The book is a transcript of interviews of Campbell, one of the greatest thinkers of the last century, by Bill Moyers, one of the greatest interviewers of the last century. Campbell recognizes the powerful symbols that appear and reappear in many religions, irrespective of place and time.
"Tao Te Ching" by Lao Zi is a classic Taoist text. The Tao or the Way describes the essential force of the universe. Before I read the mystics, I could not understand how God could be perceived as a force or a presence, rather than a person, in the East. After I read the mystics, I completely understood it.
"The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" by Thich Nhat Hanh (or anything by Thich Nhat Hanh) is a good introduction to Buddhist thought. Buddhism is seen as a way of life, rather than a religion, and it is concerned with right behavior, rather than right belief. Christianity began this way, too, until the priests and the theologians took over.
"Jesus in the Lotus" by Russill Paul (or anything by Bede Griffiths) describes the time that Paul spent with Bede Griffiths, who lived simultaneously as a Christian mystic and as a Hindu holy man at an ashram in India. Griffiths honored both traditions, without compromising either tradition. Paul also describes his own mystical experiences, which will sound familiar to anyone who has read the mystics.
"Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian" by Paul F. Knitter describes the journey of a former Catholic priest who explored Buddhism and re-evaluated his Christian doctrine in the light of his Buddhist world view. Today, Knitter is a practicing Christian and a practicing Buddhist, who has attained deeper understanding of his Christian faith through Buddhist insights on topics like the afterlife and petitioning prayer and sin.
"Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher" by Meister Eckhart contains some of the more influential writings of one of the great Christian mystics. Eckhart was a proponent of "via negativa" or the path of negation, believing that language is inadequate to describe God. ("Neti neti" as the Hindus say, meaning "neither this, nor that.") This book is part of a series, Classics of Western Spirituality, which contains other great books.
"The Cloud of Unknowing" by Anonymous (appropriately) is a spiritual guide to contemplative prayer that urges its readers to seek experience of God, rather than knowledge of God. The practice of centering prayer was inspired by this book.
"The Dark Night of the Soul" by St. John of the Cross is the best-known work by the best-known Christian mystic. The book describes the spiritual journey and the "dark night" that the spiritual journey often entails.
(Note: Although both are revered today, Meister Eckhart was tried for heresy and St. John of the Cross was tortured by his Carmelite brothers. Maybe that's why the author of "The Cloud..." chose to remain anonymous!)
"Contemplation: A Christian Path" by Willigis Jager, is the best book on the practice of Christian contemplation that I have read. Jager is a Benedictine monk and a Zen master, so he writes from a Christian perspective and his writing is inspired by Christian mystics like the author of "The Cloud..." and Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, but Jager appreciates and understands the Eastern traditions, too.
"Tales of the Hasidim" by Martin Buber is an example of the Jewish wisdom tradition. The Hasidic rabbis reached their peak of influence in the 1700s and 1800s.
"The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks" is an example of the Christian wisdom tradition. The desert fathers were monastics, who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 400s.
"Tales of the Dervishes" by Idries Shah (or anything by Idries Shah) is an example of the Muslim wisdom tradition. Shah released several collections of Sufi stories, which are often humorous and always insightful.
"The Way of Chang Tzu" by Thomas Merton (or anything by Thomas Merton) is an example of the Taoist wisdom tradition. Merton was a twentieth-century Christian mystic who studied Eastern religions.
"The Essential Rumi" by Jalal al-Din Rumi and Coleman Barks is a collection of poetry by a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic. Rumi is the most popular poet in the United States. His poetry is enigmatic, but a list like this would not be complete without it.
"Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth" by Richard J. Foster is a guide to Christian spirituality, consisting of twelve inward, outward, and corporate disciplines, such as prayer and fasting. Foster is a Quaker, and his spirituality is right up my alley, more mystical than doctrinal and more focused on right behavior than right belief.
"In the Spirit of Happiness: Spiritual Wisdom for Living" by the Monks of New Skete has been described as "a monastic retreat in book form." Often, I give this book to friends, because it is so practical. The monks train dogs, which is an interesting ministry.
"Christianity: Essence, History, and Future" by Hans Kung is the only 900-page book on the list, but I recommend it because it traces the development of Christianity from the first century to the twenty-first century, describing how doctrines such as the trinity and the divinity of Jesus and the primacy of the pope and the justification by faith took mainstream Christianity farther and farther from its early Jewish Christian roots.
"Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus" by Robin R. Meyers is a relevant and timely book that attempts to reclaim the gospel of Jesus and the spirit of early Christianity.
"Food for the Heart" by Ajahn Chah helped me to understand the Buddhist perspective on suffering. I read it while I was going through some rough times, so it helped me to deal with some real-life suffering. Because the book helped me in a practical way, it was much more compelling to me than many of the more philosophical books on the same subject, and it really opened the door to Eastern spirituality for me.
"Be As You Are" by Ramana Maharshi explains the practice of self-inquiry, which focuses on the question, "Who Am I?" The practice is designed to strip away the egoic self, leaving only the authentic Self or "I Am." In the Vedic tradition, "atman is brahman," where atman is the authentic Self or the divinity "in here" and brahman is Ultimate Reality or the divinity "out there." Ramana Maharshi is "the real deal."
"Christ the Guru" by Swami Muni Narayan Prasad and "The Zen Teachings of Jesus" by Kenneth Leong are two books that examine Christianity from an Eastern perspective. They show that Jesus' message is universal and that Jesus' message has been subsumed by Christian theology (Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm) and Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Plato.) Can we follow Jesus without following Aristotle or Augustine?
"History of Mysticism: The Unchanging Testament" by Swami Abhayananda is a survey of the major mystical traditions and their understandings of God. S. Abhayananda identifies two consistent themes, which correspond to Ramakrishna's notions of "God with name and form" (the personal God) and "God without name and form" (the impersonal or transpersonal God.) PDF versions of his books are free at his website.
"The Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra explores the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. The science is interesting and the spirituality is interesting, but the parallels are REALLY interesting. Most of this stuff was familiar to me, but this is a good introduction for someone who does not want to read every book on the shelf.
"The Courage to Be" by Paul Tillich (or anything by Paul Tillich) is a classic by the renowned philosopher and theologian. Tillich has a broader perspective than most Christian theologians, and his concept of God as "the ground of being" is universal.
"The Farther Reaches of Human Nature" by Abraham Maslow is an expansion of his well-known work on self-actualization. In this posthumous work, Maslow discusses the concept of transcendence. The "self" is a critical concept in spirituality, and Maslow suggests that the final step in realizing our selves is to transcend our selves.
"The Ego Trick" by Julian Baggini is a deconstruction of the elusive concept of the self. Baggini concludes that "the self" is a bundle of associations, ephemeral and fluid, and that the self is not identical to our bodies or brains or memories or souls. If this is so, what does that tell us about our concepts of ourselves and our futures and our gods?
"Conscious" by Annaka Harris is a short, but compelling, book about consciousness, where the author explores the felt experience (consciousness) free will, and the self. She examines the "hard problem" of philosophy, how matter produces consciousness, by suggesting panpsychism (consciousness is inherent in matter) as a viable theory.
"Healing Breath" by Ruben Habito is a clear description of Zen practice, which is written from a Christian perspective by a former Jesuit priest. Habito is a professor of Comparative Religion at Southern Methodist University and a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center.
If you are only going to read a few books, then you might read some of these books:
"The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell
"The Bhagavad Gita" translated by Eknath Easwaran
"Contemplation: A Christian Path" by Willigis Jager
"Saving Jesus from the Church" by Robin R. Meyers
"Food for the Heart" by Ajahn Chah
"Be As You Are" by Ramana Maharshi
"The Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra