If you know me, it will come as no surprise that I rely heavily on books for information about the world beyond my nose. One of my closest friends told me several years ago that if I didn't find it in books then I didn't find it all.
Guilty as charged. I have spent too much time burying my nose in books when I could have more profitably lent a hand to someone in need.
And yet certain books have been my teachers. They have given me material and information that seemed to come at the right time, and in the right way, and as the years roll by, I find myself more and more thankful that I discovered them or that someone else discovered them and told me about them.
In attempt to share these books, and perhaps to exorcise a bit of the guilt that arises from the devoted self-involvement of every dedicated reader, I offer here a list of books that either saved me from making mistakes in my practice that I was on the verge of making; or clarified issues that I had been unable to clarify for myself; or simply opened an idea or a practice to me in ways that were unforgettable.
In short, these books have been essential to me in understanding the Great Experiment we have undertaken as we try to translate an old and venerable Asian spiritual practice into contemporary American terms. It's not easy work, but it's good work if you find yourself in the midst of it. I hope some of these books will be helpful.
Meditation—We don't do a great deal of seated, silent meditation in Geshe la's classes, so you have to learn this essential skill on your own. There are many, many books that I could recommend, but these are the ones that I consult on a regular basis.
- Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana. Every word is a revelation. Simple, clear, and practical, the book lays out clear instructions for the practice and not only teaches you the fundamental skills for developing basic awareness and mindfulness, but also shows you why you need to be doing this. Gunaratana is a monk from the Theravadan tradition, and his writing is authoritative.
- Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana. If you get through Mindfulness in Plain English and want to go to the next level, here's the book for you.
- No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Probably the second-most well known monk in the world, Thich Naht Hanh has become one of the great advocates of developing mindfulness, and this book strikes to the heart of his distinctive practice.
What the Buddha Said—Ever wonder why you don't read the sutras, the discourses of the Buddha, in Geshe's classes? Gelugpas spend vast amounts of time on the commentaries on those sutras, instead of the sutras, because those sutras are, well, difficult at times, and the commentarial tradition not only explains those difficult passages, but develops them as well. I have always felt, however, drawn to the actual words that are credited to the Buddha. I want to know what he sounded like. If you feel the same way, you might want to start with this book.
- In the Buddha's Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. A deeply learned monk and gifted translator in the Theravadan tradition, Bhikkhu Bodhi has gathered together the heart of the Buddha's teachings and written authoritative introductions to each section. I read this book daily.
An Authentic Practice—Ever wonder if you're developing an authentic and productive practice? Start here.
- Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa was one of the first, most controversial, most influential, and most learned Tibetan lamas to come to America. This is his most well known work, and it addresses the issue of self-deception in Buddhist practice, a problem that confronts even the most dedicated practitioners, and one that Westerners have been particularly susceptible to. It's clear, it's impassioned, and is one of the most helpful books that I know when you're wondering about the authenticity of your practice.
- What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. How would you answer this question: "So you're a Buddhist? What do you believe that allows you to claim that label?" This brief book will give you the information to answer that question. Written partly in response to the rising number of part-time Buddhists in the world, the book states and develops very efficiently what Buddhists, if they are to call themselves Buddhists, believe.
- Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah, by Ajahn Chah. Born in Thailand in 1918, Ajahn Chah's life and practice have gradually established him as one of the most able, clear, and authoritative Buddhist teachers in the world. These essays, transcriptions of Ajahn's Chah's teachings, cut to the heart of daily Buddhist practice and meditation. You can't read this book without being profoundly influenced. Each chapter shows you clearly where you stand on the path, without sentimentality or delusion. "It's hard to know," as Jack Kornfield says in the Introduction, "how best to introduce the wisest man I have ever met."
The Central Ideas of Buddhism—At some point, you'll want to get a handle on the major ideas of Buddhism, and how they relate to each other. As you can imagine, the number of books that qualify for this list is long. But this brief list will get you started.
- What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula. Another monk in the Theravadan tradition, Rahula treats the major ideas of the tradition, and because he reads Pali, the language of the Sutras, he has an authority much like that of Bhikkhu Bodhi. And he never loses his focus—he keeps his eye on the major ideas and how intricately they are inter-woven together.
- Buddhism for Beginners, by Thubten Chodron. This is, simply, the best book for beginners, as its title suggests, because it is organized in a question-and-answer fashion. It's also a helpful book to give to anyone who's not a Buddhist, but wants to know what Buddhists think about things like abortion, or suicide, or any of those head-line grabbing ethical issues. Very clear and informed.