Like most folks who are discovering, or rediscovering Buddhism, it can be pretty hard to figure out where to begin. Buddhism is a complicated religion and carries assumptions about the world that are often absent in Western culture, and so things can get lost in the translation. Also, personally, I am leery about gurus and teachers who set themselves as having all the answers, so I personally prefer to go “back to the source” where possible.
This collection of books is intended to be a general overview, though there is a bias toward Mahayana Buddhism which includes everything from East Asia (Pure Land, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, etc) because I have a lot more experience with it. Also, per request, I have added recommendations for specific
Otherwise, if you do want to explore a certain sect, you should just visit a temple if you can and get a feel for the atmosphere there. Sometimes, the temple that suits you isn’t necessarily your first choice.
General Buddhist Books
My recommendation on books is below in rough order from “basic” to “advanced”:
- What the Buddha Taught by Ven. Walpola Rahula. This is a classic but still one of the most solid books on basic Buddhist teachings. Too often, books that teach the basics include too much fluff, too few textual citations, and occasionally inaccuracies. This book can be a bit dry, but its compact, well-researched and comprehensive. Still one of my most favorites after all these years.
- The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a commentary one of the most popular and widely-recited sutras: the Heart Sutra. For such a small compact book, there’s some excellent teachings here that apply to all of Buddhism.
- For the last book, I recommend a pair of books together:
- The Lotus Sutra translated by Senchu Murano (a.k.a. “The Murano Translation”) and…
- Opening the Heart of the Cosmos by Thich Nhat Hanh.
The first book is the famous Lotus Sutra, which forms the crux of East Asian or “Mahayana” Buddhism, but the sutra is difficult to read without a chapter-by-chapter guide, so the second book is a very handy. The Lotus Sutra in many ways captures the spirit of Buddhism I believe, and well worth the study for any Buddhist. Also, the Murano translation of the Lotus Sutra is my personal favorite as it does a good job balancing readability with accuracy.
- Living Yogacara by Rev. Shun’ei Tagawa. This book is an introduction to the Buddhist philosophical school of Yogacara or “Conscious-only” teachings. Yogacara thought greatly influences much of what we know as Buddhism today, particularly Zen, so the book provides a kind of philosophical backbone to what people practice. Short, dense, but deeply profound. You will not look at life the same way. It is still one of my top three favorites.
- Finally, I recommend The Way to Buddhahood by Ven. Yin-Shun. This is a hefty tome of a book, but it is one of the very few books that covers such a wide range of subjects. Yin-Shun was a widely respected Chinese Buddhist scholar, and here he covers just about every aspect of Buddhism from the Four Noble Truths, the various types of precepts, different approaches to meditation, the Bodhisattva path and so on. It is not a trivial book to read, but a great reference if nothing else.
Other Options for General Buddhism
Also, the The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation in Taiwan offers many free books on Buddhism, including some of the above. I read What the Buddha Taught from a free version provided by the Foundation years ago to my local temple, and I also read Ou-I’s Commentaries on the Amitabha Sutra as well from a free copy they provided, so I know they’re good people. Consider browsing their catalog, (you can also download some books directly), and maybe make a donation if you would like others to enjoy them too.
Further, you can find books by K Sri Dhammananda, a respected Theravadin monk, on this page for free. I’ve enjoyed his books as well.
Pure Land Buddhist Books
Pure Land Buddhism is quite broad and there’s a number of interpretations and approaches. These books are presented in no particular order, but provide a good overview of the different perspectives. I tried to avoid any one particular Pure Land sect.
- Traversing the Pure Land Path by Jonathan Watts and Yoshiharu Tomatsu. This is a good overview of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, primarly focused on the Jodo Shu sect, but also includes related groups like Jodo Shinshu, etc. Useful for understanding different aspects of this important Buddhist movement.
- Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh. This is his commentary on the Amitabha Sutra, with an emphasis on the Pure Land here and now, and on the importance of mindfulness in the context of Pure Land Buddhism.
- A Raft from the Other Shore : Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism by Sho-on Hattori. This is a more scholarly book compared to Traversing the Pure Land Path and helps provide some insight into Japanese Buddhism in general. One of my personal favorites for a long time.
- Mind-seal of the Buddhas by Patriarch Ou-i and translated by J.C. Cleary. This is actually a 17th-century Chinese-Buddhist text that explores the different levels of understanding in Pure Land Buddhism, with a lot of Zen insights as well. There are free online versions here and here.
- Pure-land Zen, Zen Pure-land by Forrest Smith and Master Thich Thien Tam. This is actually a collection of letters from a famous 19th-century Yin Guang. It covers a lot of general advice, but again shows how Zen and Pure Land Buddhism blend in Chinese Buddhism. There is a free online version here.
- Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by Taitetsu Unno. This is a nice introduction to the Jodo Shinshu or “Shin” school of Buddhism. It blends explanation of doctrine with personal accounts, and other insights. I read this long ago, and it is still probably my favorite book on Shin Buddhism.
I have less experience with Nichiren Buddhism, but these are some books I enjoyed reading to learn more about this often-ignored school of Japanese Buddhism:
- Awakening to the Lotus: an Introduction to Nichiren-Shu by Hoyo Watanabe. This book is a good overview of Nichiren-shu, the mainstream Nichiren sect in Japan, and covers all the basic categories: basic teachings, life of Shakyamuni Buddha and Nichiren, important texts and concepts. The book does praise Nichiren quite a bit, which can be off-putting, but overall it’s a good place to start.
- Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism by Michael McCormick. This book provides a similar content to Awakening to the Lotus, but I found this one more readable. It doesn’t cover quite as much as the previous book, but I felt the explanations made more sense sometimes. In all, I’d recommend both to get adequate coverage of the topics.
- Lotus Sutra Practice Guide: 35-Day Practice Outline by Ryusho Jeffus. This book takes a novel approach to learning about Nichiren-shu Buddhism by guiding the reader through daily readings (a copy of the Lotus Sutra is required though, fair warning) and learning Buddhist topics that way. The book needs additional editing, but is a fun, engaging way to explore Buddhism and in particular Nichiren Buddhism.
Zen Buddhism is a tough subject to read about because the nature of Zen is teachings beyond words, and many Zen books in English tend to dive right into meditation, without really explaining how Zen is organized, background, history or other handy information. Personally I like to have that info, but I haven’t found a lot of books. Here are Zen books I recommend thus far:
- Taking the Path of Zen by Rev. Aitken. Out of all the Zen books out there, I would recommend starting with this one. This book is intended as a kind of beginner’s handbook, but great for people who want to restart their Zen practice. It is very easy to read, very approachable, but also has lots of good substance and detail about how to get the most out of the Zen path.
- Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice by Rev. Kosho Uchiyama. This is an excellent book by an excellent teacher of Zen, and provides a lot of deeper insight that other books may leave out. The book is not limited to just meditation, but also covers living a “Zen life” as well.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Rev. Shunryu Suzuki. This is probably one of the most famous books on Zen, and is worth going back and re-reading even if you practiced for some time. It’s a classic for a good reason. On the other hand, it can leave some details out, so if you’re new to Zen you may want to pick up some other books to compliment it.
- What is Zen? by Fujiwara Toen and Jeffrey Hunter. This book is rather difficult to find since it was originally published in Japanese. A bilingual edition exists on Amazon JP and other sources. This is one of those rare books that covers many broad topics of Zen with the lay person in mind. It talks about how temples are organized, monastic life, meditation, etc. If you can get it, I highly recommend.
- The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea by Prof. Robert Buswell. Professor Buswell was formerly a Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhist monk and writes about his experiences there, and how Korean Seon Buddhism is similar to and differs from Japanese Zen. It is a broad tradition in its own right and a fascinating read.
- The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh. This is not a Zen book per se, but Thich Nhat Hanh provides a much valued commentary on the Diamond Sutra, which is central to Zen though. This is a sutra well worth studying for any Zen student.
- Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book covers the older sutra, the Four Frames of Reference or Satipatthana Sutta, which Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrates is the forerunner to the Diamond Sutra. Again, excellent commentaries and highly recommended for any serious Zen student or serious student of meditation.
All of these books are only just suggestions, but I hope they prove useful to you. Good luck and happy studies!