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 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.
To 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, etc) because I have a lot more experience with it. Also, I per request, I’ve made an extra section for Pure Land books in particular due to my background in Pure Land Buddhism.
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 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 trivial, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
All of these books are only just suggestions, but I hope they prove useful to you. Good luck and happy studies!
Namu Amida Butsu