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The Best, the Greatest Spiritual Books?

I have seen some really elaborate attempts to categorize and rank spiritual books. Long-time residents of the North Bay area may recall Dawn Horse Bookstore in San Rafael, where spiritual books were placed upon the shelves according a seven-tiered ranking system devised by (as he was then known) Da Free John. And most religious organizations have lists of approved books. Regrettably, some even have lists of banned works.

Many Rivers has a different attitude toward categorization of, and recommendations about spiritual books. I hope to explore this topic over a series of postings. For this post, I want to consider the topic of superlatives (“best” “greatest” etc.) as applied to spiritual books.

Superlatives are not arguments, nor are they absolutes. This is a compressed way to state that claims for greatness do not, and cannot themselves establish superiority.  And further, it is an articulation of the position that God – or Buddha Nature, or whatever transcendent category you want to use – does not pick and choose.  So what can it mean to talk about a “great” spiritual book? In a sense, would not any judgment about a tool designed to open consciousness be self-contradictory, even self-defeating?

To address this question, we need to remember that the rarest  human achievement is the embodiment of transcendence within the grounded particulars of a human life. That’s the demonstration that saints, avatars, and spiritual masters offer. The transcendent embodied in the particular, and the particular as an expression of the transcendent.  In one sense, that’s all there is, or could ever be; everything else is illusion. But it’s hard for the human organism to achieve recognition and appreciation of the inescapability of the transcendent.

One way to approach this recognition is by searching for the eternal within the quotidian realm of everyday existence.  Paradoxically, the eternal emerges when we expand consciousness to see that there is a season for everything under the sun, as Ecclesiastes reminds us.

The challenge of human existence is to discriminate without identifying with the act of discrimination. If this sounds self-contradictory, for the egoic mind, it is. That’s why spiritual attainment is rare, and practice is a necessity.

So without creating an “absolute” list of the “best” spiritual books, the aim of this blog is to point to and discuss books that at least some people have found useful.  It’s not just about books that I or someone else “likes” or has a fondness for.  It’s about books that have proved genuinely inspiring to the process of spiritual growth for someone at some point – and it’s about trying to articulate how one has been moved in a useful or helpful direction by that inspiration.

“Inspiration” means “to breathe life into.” Inspiration is a funny thing. It is no more tangible than a breath, a waft of air. Yet people can be moved by inspiration in ways that may exceed the grasp of greed, anger, or ignorance.  Such inspiration is what people seek to find in spiritual books. Yet what moves a person to great things on one day may prove dry and useless on another day. A book that touches your heart profoundly may leave me unmoved.

So what we can offer in a blog about spiritual books is our best, most honest testimony about books which have moved or failed to move us. Use this information for what it’s worth to you in your unique spiritual situation right now.  And let us know how “inspiring” our efforts have been.

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Here are some books that I have found useful:

Training the Mind
and Cultivating Loving-Kindness

Chögyam Trungpa

A very clear and direct commentary on a Tibetan text consisting of 59 "slogans." The text itself is a precise description/prescription of spiritual work-on-self, and the commentary by Trungpa is wonderful!

The Book of Balance
Yasuhiko Kimura

This is hands-down the best translation of the Tao Teh Ching I have ever seen. Kimura is a Japanese, Zen priest living in California. His translation of the ancient Chinese text to 21st Century English is priceless. But it only cost me $13 at Many Rivers :)

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