For about as long as I can remember (and therefore probably longer) I have always been intensely interested in Religion and Spirituality. Having been raised in a completely areligious household- not anti-religious, not hostile in any way, more like the subject just didn’t exist in the world at all- it was left to me to sort out for myself what my spirituality was. Me being me, books played a key role in this process. Here’s the first part of a list of ten that were pivotal in the development of my spiritual beliefs throughout my life.
The Children’s Bible– Given the aforementioned areligious household, I can’t imagine who even gave this to me. It’s possible I asked for it myself! This was a tome of shortened versions of Old and New Testament passages written for a children’s reading level. besides being beautifully illustrated, it had an admirable willingness to not sanitize adult details, like Absalom’s donkey getting him hung from a tree. I later had an obsession with biblical prophecy, took a Bible correspondence course, was in Bible studies groups in various churches in teens and twenties, have read through the whole thing several times, sometimes taking notes the whole way through, and have perused more books on the history and meaning of Judaism and Christianity than you can shake a library at. But this book retains a special place in my heart as my first foray into the area.
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones– This collection of Zen stories, anecdotes and Koans (short riddles meant to prompt moments of enlightenment) was one of my first introductions to Buddhism. I remember at the time (I can’t place it exactly, but it would have been late teens) feeling that Buddhist philosophy intuitively felt right, and fit with my experience of the world. I went on from there to more intensive study, being parts of mediation groups at various times, and checking out Daoism and Hinduism too. And I still feel instinctively drawn to and in-sync with Buddhism to this day!
What Religion Is– After teaching English in Japan following college, my future ex-wife and I went back-packing around Asia for several months. This remains one of the grander adventures of my life. On the more mundane side, travel means a lot of long distance hauls on trains and buses. One of the things that really helped pass the time in India was the cheap paperbacks available from vendors at every train station. I had previously heard of Swami Vivekananda, one of the key figures in popularizing Eastern Religions in the West, so I eagerly picked up this book, an expanded version of his remarks to the Parliament of the World’s Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His central premise, that the world’s various religions are at heart one, and are different adaptations to bring the message to different people’s at different times, has been tremendously influential for me ever since. In subsequent study of the scriptures of Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, etc., I have found that, sure enough, once you delve underneath the framework of specific historical and cultural context, the central message of what life is, how to live it, and how to treat each other has an astonishing underlying unity.
The Gospel According to Jesus– I have heard it said that it’s very hard to understand a box from inside the box. Nowhere is this more true than with our cultural “boxes”. What Jesus taught is so sunk in to (and so inconsistently practiced by) Western culture that it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary his message actually was. And is. In this slim volume, Stephen Mitchell takes advantage of the best of recent historical scholarship and comparisons with spiritual traditions from around the world to re-present the teachings of Jesus. Having started with the Bible, and then diving into Eastern Religion, reading this in my mid-20s brought Jesus back to me and gave me a renewed love for him and his message.
The Book of Life– In my late 20s, I was working in Hong Kong. It was a highly charged, and in many ways, very dark period of my life. I was, selfishly and ill-advisedly, living apart from my future ex-wife, working ridiculous hours at an international trading company, and spiraling down into various addictions. This collection of daily meditations from Krishnamurti provided me with glimmers of hope during this difficult period. Krishnamurti himself is a very interesting figure- in childhood he was identified by the heads of Theosophy as the coming “World Teacher” who would unveil their message to the world. In his 20s, he had a profound spiritual experience that eventually led him to repudiate Theosophy, and his identified role, and announced: “I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. … This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.” Of course, it’s not that easy to get out of being a messenger once you’ve been tapped, and he did go on to become a spiritual teacher of sorts, one whose compassionate and unflinching message of radical spiritual liberation helped get me through a very dark time.