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The Three Pillars of Zen

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  6,844 ratings  ·  177 reviews
Through explorations of the three pillars of Zen--teaching, practice, and enlightenment--Roshi Philip Kapleau presents a comprehensive overview of the history and discipline of Zen Buddhism.  An established classic, this 35th anniversary edition features new illustrations and photographs, as well as a new afterword by Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede, who has succeeded Philip Kaplea ...more
Kindle Edition, 480 pages
Published December 18th 2013 by Anchor (first published 1965)
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In his essays on Synchronicity C.G. Jung writes of the “acausal connecting principal” or what we in the West refer to as chance. Jung believed in events not connected causally, and thus unprovable in an empirical sense, but connected by the meaning we derive from them. Buddhism is the only nontheistic discipline I know of which allows for such a possibility.

Earlier I was drawn to books by Pema Chödrön. Perhaps because the discipline for the form of meditation she espoused was rather loosely str
I was expecting a different kind of book when I picked up “The Three Pillars of Zen”; I think I was expecting a teaching book, with a clear plan (sort of like “On Zen Practice”, for lack of a better word, as where it is more a collection of interesting testimonials. It is really inspiring, and it helps me stay very motivated and focused to read these students’ dokusan records and about their satori experiences. But I am not sure I’d call it a manual for ...more
robin friedman
Aug 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Searching For Mu

There is a famous Zen koan (a Zen paradox which the student of Zen must resolve on the path to enlightenment) known as Mu. As recounted in this book (page 82) it goes like this: "A monk in all seriousness asked Joshu "has a dog Buddha-nature or not?" Joshu retorted "Mu!"
A great deal in Philip Kapleau's book discusses the Koan Mu and its role in Zen -- or some forms of Zen. Kapleau was trained as a court reporter and served as a court reporter after WW II for the war crimes trials
Jul 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First of all, language is conceptual, dividing the world up into categorical separations. The most basic instructions given for Zen practice should be sufficient to experience this simple, delicate, easy task. Yet we as westerners have been trained to reason, deduct, and to ask 'why?', at least that seems to be the common obstacle for western practitioners.

Sadly you can go into all of the logical explanations, but never touch the very simple experience that is Zen, and become lost in the discus
Viet Hung
Jan 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-reread
Must read for meditation practitioners. The book clearly explains in details all things about Japanese Zen. It is very useful, helpful for people who are learning and practicing Zen / Buddhism meditation.
I will have to re-read it. As I can't consume everything in the first read. It's great though.
PDF for Vietnamese edition is here:
Michael Cabus
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Spiritual books often rely on a variety of literary devices; biography, testimony, instruction and problem statements for contemplation. Nearly all have a fair bit of repetition usually because the ideas presented are not our default way of thinking.

Reading this one wonders if a spiritual doctrine like this formed the basis of the western world. It's devoid of the political, often war like passages in the bible; it focuses on internal development; and it emphasises peacefulness. It's hard to im
Apr 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have had my reservations regarding this book. And though I still have them, this is one powerful read regarding Japanese Zen. Varying human perspective (letters to students, all kinds of experiences etc.) plus commentaries, insights and some facts. I am not sure how I feel reading about enlightenment experiences for I don't know what's that and I am not sure how to relate to that. But it is an amazing text overall and I am glad I've got myself to read it. ...more
Mar 03, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buddhism, mysticism
A fairly good book on Zen, especially as it focuses so much on the practice of zazen. Nonetheless, it is a bit long and repetitive for how much it emphasizes the uselessness of discursive intellect.
Mar 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Hands down, one of my favourite books on Zen Buddhism. You won't find any flowery poetry, philosophy or mind games in this book. Instead, you are given the basics of meditation, Zen life on retreats, and a feel for the Japanese flavour of Zen Buddhism. The lectures from YR are invaluable. The author has done a great job here. I'm also glad he pointed out the shallow nature of some other schools/authors that is passed off as "Zen", and which normally involves zero practical work. This idea is cor ...more
Stewart Dorward
The practical nature of the first part is inspiring. Up to page 161 covers a small group of short talks on very useful points such as delusions that can be experienced in sitting, types of sitting, motivation in sitting and so on. This is followed by a series of transcripts of interviews between teacher and student during a sesshin - it functions like FAQs of zazen. However, the struggles of these students are quite inspiring - real questions, issues and problems and how they are faced or not by ...more
Nov 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Today it seems the west is in a big backwash of Zen related themes. The Zen of Gardening, the Zen of Grooming your Pet, the Zen of brushing your teeth etc. Most of these accounts are by people who wouldn't know Realization if it jumped up and bit them in the rumps. It's due to these circumstances that Philip Kapleau's account of Zen is truly refreshing.

Roshi Kapleau traveled back to Japan after having been stationed there post World War II to study Zen and stayed for 13 years. When he came back
Iona  Stewart
Jan 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is filled with valuable information penned by erudite scholars and Zen masters.

It is most suitable as a work of reference and is not to be read cover to cover. It needs to be owned and I don’t own it so I didn’t get far with it, having to return it quickly to the library, since there were apparently others waiting in line for it.

It’s a book for the serious student of Zen, and can in no way be called an easy read.

We are told in detail how to practice zazen, a form of Zen meditation.

Silvio Curtis
Sep 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The editor of this book was one of the first Zen teachers outside Asia, and seems to have mainly intended this book as a sort of teach-yourself manual for people who couldn't find someone to teach them. Since I wasn't really considering becoming a Zen student before reading it, and am definitely not considering it now, I don't fall into the target audience. All the same, I found it an illuminating explanation of a religion that is radically different from typical European/Western Asian religions ...more
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it

Michael Singer, who wrote The Untethered Soul, described in another of his books, The Surrender Experiment, how he read The Three Pillars of Zen in his youth was was motivated to leave grad school for the woods to meditate and to wander. Naturally, I had to see what it was all about.

So sorry for the long review/notes. If you want to skip all that, just read this and you will know all: “Mu.”

Big Ideas:

+ The three pillars of Zen are: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment.

+ The purpose of enlighten
Mar 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Zen buddhism has fascinated me for a long time, while I didn't know why. When I've engaged with it off and on over the years it went over my head while still intriguing me. So I took on this book, considered a classic in the canon, with more urgency and determination. Lately I'd been wondering if I've ever met an enlightened person and was starting to wonder if it's even possible (without having to go live in a cave in Tibet or a monastery :-)). Is becoming enlightened, of realizing the inherent ...more
Brian Barnett
Apr 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Clear, careful, detailed exposition of Zen practice (as opposed to Zen philosophy) and the varieties thereof. For those who aren't familiar with the author (Kapleau), he was the founder of the Rochester Zen Center--one of the earliest Zen institutions to be established in America. ...more
Feb 11, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: zen
Grasping the ox. Some interesting insight into what actual zen practice looks like, but I feel like this made me realize I am more just interested in meditation than actual zen practice.
Apr 23, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Why did I feel that the very book which was dealing with a very non-conceptual concept, conceptualised the hell out of it? This was a complicated read for me.
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
An enlightening and beautiful exploration of the Rinzai school of Zen. While mesmerizing, at the same time made me quite sure that I could not follow the Rinzai school.
Dec 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book and I go way back. I read it in my twenties and it influenced me to spend some time in Zen Buddhist temples and practice centres.

Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen was a good read for me as a teenager, and gave me my initial introduction to Chan (Zen) as a “way”, explaining its ancient developmental background in India & China. Watts was good on tracing how this religious movement was influenced in China, then had a degree of influence on Chinese culture, and much more influence later in Japa
Mar 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan
The Three Pillars of Zen is an essential text for anyone interested in engaging with Zen Buddhism from either an introductory, technical, or academic perspective. Kapleau's writing and clarity are superb; his training as a lawyer gives his writing an unparalleled clarity and flow. The book is broken down into three sections with subsections that explore the whole gamut of Zen Buddhism ranging from how to sit, testimonies of enlightenment, and even modern translations of medeival Zen-Master texts ...more
Oct 31, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have a feeling that this is a great book, badly organized. At least, I couldn't follow any clear progression of thought -- the 'lectures' seemed random to me. But maybe that's because I'm not enlightened enough. It seemed to be everything you need to know about Zen crammed into one place.
Nonetheless, the section on zazen is very useful; the illustrations of posture are excellent, and the questions and answers helpful to the novice.
A good book for dipping into, hunting for specific informatio
Jordan O'Leary
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Living in a trailer and determined to face the looming despair of actually having to grow up and make a living, this book truly opened reality for me. As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, this book developed in me a practical sense for Buddhism that Zen so loves to obscure and cast in riddle. It made the practice more clear and more plain, and inspired in me a zeal to sit on my ass and do the work. As a result of this book, and I shite you not, I had a profound awakening in the middle of my trash ...more
Sep 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are many spiritual moments in this book. It is inspirational and long lived in history as well as individual lives. By the time you are finished you come to realize that in the bottom foundation, there is not much difference between Christianity and Buddhism. It is about the human search for peace and spiritual knowledge of being. This is ancient spirituality. Pretty cool for someone who is curious and open minded to all perspectives of achieving a purposeful and "good" life. ...more
Anthony Mazzorana
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buddhism
This is really a collection of lectures, letters, commentaries, and essays, compiled by the founder of the Rochester Zen Center in an effort to introduce Zen Buddhism to the Western mind. Highly recommendable for the breadth of information it contains and its accessibility. Whatever your level of interest in Zen, this is a worthy read.
Michael RoehmT#0reau Robin's words say enough. A good book either for one in Zen or one who just wants a snese of what Zen is about. Kapleau's book is a Western Zen classic. ...more
Jason Pryde
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jeff Cliff
May 29, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ben-jeff
To a large extent this book mostly just served as a checksum to other books on Zen that I'm reading and have read: much of the content was not new, but said in a different way, from a different perspective which helped to clarify that the accounts I had read were accurate. This is one of the books that sought to clarify what Zen actually was for the english speaking world circa 1954-1966. So this would have been passed down from person to person for awhile, keeping a perspective formed just afte ...more
Paul LaFontaine
A thorough review of Zen teachings to include stories of enlightenment and notes on posture and practice. If interested in Japanese oriented Zen teachings, an accessible book. Though not very effective as a recruiting document.

It never fails that Zen is the practice that has the most lengthy tomes to describe it. And they all say the whole show is simply about staring at a wall until you can just stare at a wall. That's a one page description but I guess not very good for selling books.

This boo
Brad McKenna
Apr 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buddhism, zen
This book was extraordinarily useful to my practice and, along with Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" has shifted my focus from Tibetan Buddhism to Zen. This book has the usual introductory info but also has so much more. Some of my highlights:

It has 10 examples of Dokusan, which is when a Roshi answers students' questions about their meditations.

It has 8 examples of people attaining enlightenment. But that doesn't mean that they were Buddhas, yet. The book also teaches that there ca
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“If you fall into poverty, live that way without grumbling - then your poverty will not burden you. Likewise, if you are rich, live with your riches. All this is the functioning of Buddha-nature. In short, Buddha-nature has the quality of infinite adaptability.” 16 likes
“You must realize that no matter how intently you count your breaths you will still perceive what is in your line of vision, since your eyes are open, and you will hear the normal sounds about you, as your ears are not plugged. And since your brain likewise is not asleep, various thought forms will dart about your mind. Now, they will not hamper or diminish the effectiveness of zazen unless, evaluating them as "good", you cling to them or, deciding they are "bad", you try to check or eliminate them.” 16 likes
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