A selection of recommended books about Buddhism for anyone on the path to awakening and self-knowledge. These are some of the books I’ve found particularly helpful over the years, plus links to online texts. There are longer reviews attached via links, and more to come…
Karen Armstrong – Buddha
This is a fascinating introduction to the life and times of Siddhatta Gotama, the man who became the Buddha. What we know about Siddhatta comes from various ancient writings that mix together history, biography and myth. This book tells the story of how Siddhatta abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment, how he taught what he discovered, the divisions among his followers, and how he chose to die. When I picked this book up, I was worried it might be a bit dull (I’m not usually a fan of history), but I was proved wrong. Karen Armstrong brings the Buddha’s world to life and explains his ideas clearly, but also delves into the social and political upheavals of the time to explore why his ideas had the impact they did and why they were so revolutionary. This is a great starting point for anyone curious about Buddhism.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso – The Sun of Wisdom
This mind-blowing book is a teaching on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by a brilliant Tibetan master. The Mulamadhyamakakarika was written in the 2nd century by Nagarjuna as a commentary on the Madhyamika, or Middle Way teachings of the Buddha. Khenpo Rinpoche uses Nagarjuna’s text and modern master Ju Mipham’s commentary as a framework to explain and illustrate the most important verses. He deconstructs the ideas and shows how they apply to your everyday experience, and how you can put them into practise. It has to be said, this book is not for beginners. If you haven’t come across the philosophy underpinning emptiness and non-being, you may struggle – but don’t let that put you off. This is a brilliantly lucid book and richly rewarding. One to return to and study over time as your practice and understanding deepens. Read the full review here.
Here’s a link to an interview which gives a glimpse into Khenpo Rinpoche’s style of teaching and an introduction to the ideas in this book – worth reading for the pictures alone! Khenpo Rinpoche interview (pdf)
Text of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika translated by Stephen Batchelor
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse – What Makes You Not a Buddhist
This is a brilliant and lucid book from a Tibetan Buddhist master who doesn’t pull his punches. He gives it to us straight: so you think you’re a Buddhist? Think again. In this book, Khyentse challenges common misconceptions about Buddhism, particularly those held by practitioners, and demonstrates what it really means to be a Buddhist. It’s not about the incense, beads and robes. Forget the stereotypes and the fantasies about enlightenment. With a great sense of humour, he demonstrates that Buddhism isn’t about renouncing the world, sneaking out on your wife while she’s sleeping, and starving yourself silly. It’s about being present in the world and accepting the four seals (not the same as the four noble truths). Read the book to discover what they are, but be warned: as Khyentse says, the answer to ‘what makes you a Buddhist’ doesn’t make for light dinner conversation! Read the full review here.
Jack Kornfield – After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
This book provides a detailed look into how the spiritual journey unfolds in practise, from a leading Buddhist teacher. Using first-person accounts, Jack Kornfield shows what it’s actually like to experience spiritual awakening, freedom and joy, as well as the other side of the path – struggles with relationships, health, earning a living, and death. Even the most highly accomplished spiritual practitioners can stumble and make mistakes. Most have struggled with depression, a loss of faith, or a dark night of the soul. This book shows that these troubles are a normal part of the path. Enlightenment isn’t about being happy 24 hours a day and never having problems. It’s about living an ordinary life, open to the usual ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and recognising the Buddha in all beings and all situations. A wise and compassionate book, and not just for Buddhists.
Other Jack Kornfield books worth reading:
Meditation for Beginners
Guidance on how to practice ‘insight’ or vipassana meditation to calm and clear the mind. Includes a CD with six guided meditations to get you started.
A Path with Heart
An essential book on meditation and the process of inner transformation which guides you through the ups and downs with wisdom and compassion.
Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
This is a Zen classic from a brilliant master and absolutely essential reading. The book is drawn from a series of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki on Zen Mind and how to practise. The talks in this book are divided into three sections covering Right Practice, Right Attitude, and Right Understanding. Beginner’s Mind is simply about asking who or what you are. What is my mind? Who is thinking these thoughts? In Zen practise you are always at the beginning, you can never really know. Remembering this keeps your mind open and doubting which means life can be approached like a true beginner – knowing nothing. Only then can you see things as they are. As soon as you think you know what Zen is or that you have attained enlightenment or understanding, you are lost. Keeping beginner’s mind is harder than it looks. This book demonstrates how it’s done. Read the full review here.
Thich Nhat Hanh – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
In this essential book, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh shows you how to transform suffering into peace, joy and liberation using the teachings of the Buddha. If you only read one book on Buddhism, this would be an excellent choice as it provides everything you need to study the dharma. The teachings are explained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s clear and poetic style. Some of the subjects can get quite abstract, but he unpacks every point with such clarity and day-to-day relevance that it really brings the teachings down to earth. He covers all the essential teachings including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Six Paramitas, and Twelve Links of Interdependent Co-Arising. He then goes on to give sensitive guidance on how to practise the dharma and meditation. Read the full review here
Alan Watts – The Wisdom of Insecurity
There are so many great books by Alan Watts, it’s hard to know which to recommend. The Wisdom of Insecurity was the first of his books that I came across so it has a special place on my bookshelves. It explores the human quest for psychological security and demonstrates the impossibility of ever achieving it. We search for security through spiritual and intellectual certainty in religion and philosophy, but our minds deceive us every step of the way. Alan Watts shows that our insecurity arises from our desire to be secure, and that the only way to free ourselves is to recognise the impossibility of ever doing so. That sounds depressing, but the truth liberates our grasping mind and leaves us free to really live. This is classic Alan Watts and a demonstration of Zen Mind in action. Read the full review here.
Other Alan Watts books worth reading:
The Way of Zen
This book covers the fascinating background and history of Zen, as well as delving into its main philosophies and practices. An accessible and lucid introduction.
The Supreme Experience
This book is based on recently discovered transcripts of a series of lectures on the religion-less spirituality of Zen. Alan Watts explains the Zen of Zen.
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones – ed. Paul Reps
This is a collection of stories, parables and utterances designed to inspire and uplift the spirit. The 101 Zen Stories were collected together by Paul Reps, who says: “Old Zen was so fresh it became treasured and remembered. Here are fragments of its skin, flesh, bones, but not its marrow – never found in words.” The book also includes the mind-bending koans of The Gateless Gate, and the Ox Herding Pictures which depict the path to enlightenment. It can be read straight through or dipped into at random, but wisdom and profound truths will always be found. I recommend this book as inspiration on the spiritual path. If you’re looking for the truth, you’ll not find it written in words – not in this book, or any other. But these stories, with typical Zen humour, can kick start illumination within your mind as you search for the truth of your inner Buddha. Read the full review here
There are so many books I wanted to include! Here’s a few more Buddhism quickies, plus some links to texts available online:
Charlotte Joko Beck – Everyday Zen
This book takes Zen teachings out of the monastery and shows you how to apply them to ordinary everyday life. Practical and wise dharma talks from a brilliant teacher.
Pema Chodron – Start Where You Are
Down-to-earth guidance on how to develop fearlessness and compassion no matter what life brings, and embrace all aspects of your life. I recommend all of Pema Chodron’s books, but this is a great place to start.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama – How to See Yourself As You Really Are
Step-by-step guidance on the path to self-knowledge showing how to see through your illusions about yourself and reality, and recognise the Buddha within. Practical, forensic, compassionate.
Francesca Freemantle – Luminous Emptiness
This book explores the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a guide for the living rather than the dead, and explains the deeper meaning of the rich symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche – Joyful Wisdom
This book provides guidance on how to deal with disturbing emotions as stepping stones to freedom. It is wise, funny and practical. Highly recommended.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche – Joy of Living
Another great book from Mingyur – this provides a detailed exploration of meditation, weaving together Buddhism and science to show how and why it works.
This is BuddhaNet’s online study centre with texts and commentaries from beginner level and up. A fantastic resource, and free to use!
The Zen Site page which includes translations of various Buddhist sutras and the writings of Zen masters. Elsewhere on this site you’ll find essays, book reviews and critiques. Worth exploring!
Missed any good ones? Recommend a book in the comments section below…