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 provides assumptions about the world that are all but absent in Western culture, and things can get lost in the translation somehow. 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. Maybe that’s just me, but I wanted to provide others a comprehensive source on where to find good, basic books about Buddhism without getting bogged down in a particular sect or teaching. 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.
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.
- 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.
- Living Yogacara by Rev. 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, 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.
- For the last book, I recommend a pair of books together: The Lotus Sutra translated by Gene Reeves 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 not a trivial read at all, so the second book is a very handy, chapter-by-chapter commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh. The Lotus Sutra in many ways captures the spirit of Buddhism I believe, and well worth the study for any Buddhist.
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.
All of these books are only just suggestions, but I hope they prove useful to you. Good luck and happy studies!
Namu Amida Butsu