My Buddhist Bookshelf

The diagram to the right illustrates a very simple classifications of the flavors of Buddhism in the U.S.A.  In my post “Buddhist Contradictions“, I describe how many of us who read about Buddhism often get confused as to the differences between these sects and even end up meaninglessly blending their ideas into a Buddhist soup in our brains.

Below I sketched a picture of the Buddhism books on my bookshelf as a case in point of someone reading a variety of Buddhisms.  In “One Dharma, whose?“, David Chapman continues his excellent series on “Consensus Buddhism” further describes why we may be rightly confused in our understandings of Buddhism.

Though I am attracted to many aspects of Buddhism, I have never been able to recommend a Buddhist book from my shelf to a friend.  None of them describe the Buddhism I am most drawn to.  Even David’s teacher, Ngakpa Chögyam, whose teachings I find closest to what I value in Buddhism, has a lot of traditionalism and magic language that is hard for me to relate to and his books aren’t written in a systematic manner so I can’t recommend them confidently to friends.

Questions for readers:  Share thoughts about your bookshelf, your recommendations and your doubts.

Note:  For anyone interested in the details of the shelf, here is a .docx file:  My Buddhism Bookshelf


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “My Buddhist Bookshelf

  1. I would recommend 2 very similar books:

    (1) Ian Harris: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhism
    (2) Nicoletta Celli: Buddhismo (Available in Italian, French and Dutch, not (yet?) in English.)

    Both are encyclopedias with beautiful and well chosen illustrations. The first one is really basic, for total beginners, the second one can be informative for more advanced readers. Both books treat Buddhism as a collection of cultural phenomena, placing the texts and practices in this framework.

    What I like about them (besides the pictures) is their honesty. You will read many times sentences like ‘it is uncertain if…’, ‘while the tradition claims that…’ etc.

    If someone is interested in Theravada, the Forest Sangha has a new site of EBooks.

    Happy 2012, Sabio & Other Readers!

  2. Adam

    I too, have quite the mix of Buddhist books on my shelf. Zen, Chan, Tibetian, Therevada, Nichiren…

    It is difficult to recommend any one book as a primer on Buddhism, because I just don’t have that. Instead I’ve made specific reccomendations, like John Daido Loori’s Eight Gates of Zen for someone interested in Zen, or Mindfulness in Plain English for someone of a more Therevaden mind.

  3. Its not a religious book but I highly enjoyed Pankaj Mishra’s, “An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world”. Maybe the retelling of the Buddha’s journey brings back fond memories of when I was read the traditional burmese accounts of his life as a child during bedtime.

    I think it is hard to say what is a good introductory book for Buddhism unless you know what kind of information it is that you are looking for.

  4. Thanx folks, I edited your comments with easy links for readers. Have any of your felt that without guidance, some of your reading have left an unintelligible mix of Buddhism in your head from reading different sources?

    I agree, Soe Min Than, it depends on what someone expects as to which books would be best. Most of my friends are not starry-eyed new age folks, but instead are pragmatic empiricists — for these, valuable Buddhist books are sorely wanting.

  5. Dan Gurney

    Hmmm. My shelf carries a far larger percentage of Thervadin books. Have you ever read Henepola Gunarantara’s Mindfulness in Plain English? I’ll bet it would appeal to you.

  6. @ Dan Gurney
    Yeah, us Buddhaholics all have a different drinks in our bar. I dont’ know if you have read the different Chapman posts, but I think many of us who have large collection of buddhist books on our nightstands sometimes are befuddled by the mix — and rightfully so, the different styles and perceptions are often contradictory.
    That was the main point of my post.

    I may look at Gunarantara’s book — but do you think it will help me further clarify the mismash of all the different buddhisms or offer me anything significantly different than those on my self? Or is it just a “Hey, here is a fun read” recommendation.


  7. Dan Gurney

    “the different styles and perceptions are often contradictory” Yes. And then its development here in California is bringing another drink to the bar, wines red and white, mainly. It helps to study the history of Buddhism to understand its many often contradictory expressions.

    Gunarantara offers a presentation of Vipassana practice that is as close to secular as you’re likely to see and expressed clearly and colloquially. I think it would appeal to someone with skeptical and secular tastebuds. But still it is a secondary source.

    Another suggestion would be to include in your bookshelves one of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations of the Nikayas. I’d suggest the Majhima Nikaya (aka The MIddle Length Discourses). These are expensive and thick (the MN is $65 and has more than 1300 pages). They take a good deal of patience to read. But they give you a feeling for the teacher who got the whole Buddhism snowball rolling. Once you’ve made your way through the Nikayas you get a much better sense of how the various transmissions of Buddhism carry loads of cultural baggage from whence they came.

  8. Dan, for others, here are some links for your mentions, plus more:
    (1) Gunarantara: Mindfulness … (free on-line)
    (2) Bhikkhu Bodhi: Free Papers, his Majhima Nikaya, free on-line MP3 series of “A Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikaya“! Huge : 2003 – 2010
    (3) Thanissaro translations (free) and often better than Bhikkhu Bodhi
    (4) Jayarava’s posts discussing some of Bhikkhu Bodi’s translations.

    Dan, when I looked at Gunarantara’s on-line book I realized I had read it. It is on my kindle. Yes, it is a great intro to certain meditation methods and offers good advice. I have never been too fond of Theravada approaches. As David Chapman points out, they are loaded with the assumptions of detachment, renunciation and such — not the aspect of Buddhism for me.

    Also, I am not convinced that the Pali sources are the type of Buddhism I value. Some feel that they are the original words of the Buddha, some don’t. Me, I don’t care — instead, I care about what I find useful. But for those interested in that approach, I think your recommendations are great. Thanks.

    I worry that the mix of these Buddhisms (especially in California) may end up with a bland hybrid which will die off with us old white guys! 🙂

    Thanx again for references — I will probably look at them again!

  9. John Sorensen

    Personally I would not recommend any of the books on my shelf, however I would recommend any non-denominational secular form of meditation, and then after that perhaps recommend a book, if someone was interested. But that has not happened in 20 years, I tend not to loan books really.

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