Buddhism - getting started
With its distinctive philosopy, its specific terminology, and its many groups, schools and sects, sorting out the basics of Buddhism can be somewhat daunting for new-comers... and no-so-newcomers, too. The books in this section are ones I've found particularly direct and useful - both for "intellectual" understanding, and for clear presentations of the heart of Buddhism - how we practice in everyday life. These are the titles I mention frequently when someone asks me for suggested "getting started" reading.
My recommendations emphasize books that make an effort to be balanced and non-sectarian - without diluting the differences between the various Buddhist paths. I've also leaned toward western Buddhist teachers - or traditional teachers who have spent considerable time in the West - because of their familiarity with the perspectives and issues those of us raised in predominantly Christian cultures may bring to Buddhist study and practice.
Introducing Buddha by Jane Hope and Borin Van Loon / Paperback /Published 1994. This is a fun-to-read starter book, loaded with illustrations and easy on text. It does a nice job of summarizing both the history of Buddhism and the major schools and practices, giving newcomers a quick overview and a basic understanding of common Buddhist terms that have found their way into use in the West. I frequently suggest this book for those who are curious about Buddhism - a good choice for your non-Buddhist friends who wonder what you've gotten yourself into!
Entering the Stream : An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings by Samuel Bercholz (Editor), Sherab Chodzin Kohn (Editor) / Paperback / Published 1993. This anthology of texts by a number of Buddhist teachers and translators was originally published as a "companion" book for the movie "Little Buddha." It includes sections on the life of the Buddha, basic teachings, Mahayana and Vajrayana, and provides a thorough foundation for an intellectual grasp of Buddhism, as well as some starting points for practice. This is my personal favorite for a comprehensive overview.
A Path With Heart : A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
by Jack Kornfield / Paperback / 1993. There are three things I particularly appreciate
about this book: its in-depth discussions of the stages of spiritual growth, particularly
the phases experienced in the course of meditation practice; its presentation
of every-day applications of Buddhist practice without relying on unfamiliar terminology;
and his excellent discussion of student-teacher relationships - particularly for
identifying potentially abusive or manipulative situations.
The Miracle of Mindfulness : A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh / Hardcover / 1996. "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in... Breathing out, I smile." Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful books have a way of making the core practices of Buddhism as close and as understandabale as our every breath. Regardless of what tradition of Buddhism you eventually find a "home" in - or if your path borrows from many traditions without a specific affiliation - his deceptively simple approach to mindfulness is practical and immediately applicable.
What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula / Paperback / 1986. Often recommended as a general introduction to Buddhism, this short book covers the basics from a Theraveda perspective, with abundant references to Pali Canon sutras - the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha. I've found it particularly helpful as a reference for locating sutras related to various teachings.
Old Path, White Clouds : Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh / Paperback / 1991. This is a lovely biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, drawn from sutras and told in Thay's clear, simple prose. Lots of references in the back if you want to track down the Pali Canon source material for the many stories about the Buddha's life.
Peace Is Every Step : The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh / Paperback Reissue/ 1992. I'm in the habit of eliminating or reducing drastically my reading when I retreat, but having one book to open at random for a brief bit of inspiration can be a help. This book fits that description admirably, with short commentaries on everyday mindfulness. Good for non-retreat times, too.
For a Future to Be Possible : Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts by Thich Nhat Hanh / Paperback / 1993. This is an anthology of articles by teachers affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh, exploring the nuances of applying the Five Precepts in everyday life.
Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers / paperback / 1995. One of the notable challenges for those starting in Tibetan Buddhism is sorting out the Tibetan and Sanskrit terminology, the thicket of imagery and culture, and the various "schools." John Powers' book is a comprehensive guide that accomplishes these feats, as well as covering the history of Buddhism in Tibet, Tibetan culture, and the basics of traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice. A must-have for serious students - or potential students - in any Tibetan tradition.
Awakening the Buddha Within : Eight Steps to Enlightenment by Lama Surya Das / Hardback / 1997. When I first started prowling the web for Buddhist sites three years ago, Surya Das' Dzogchen Foundation website was one of the few that provided more than bare-bones information about how to contact a 3-D center. The strength of this book is its jargon-free, informal style, presenting Tibetan Buddhism in a way that connects with Western perspectives and psychological insights. Lama Das, who is from New York, has the traditional training with native Tibetan teachers and the extensive formal practice to be one of the leaders in the first generation of American Dharma teachers. My only wish would have been some unobtrusive footnotes referencing his selections from traditional texts and sutras. As a practice-focused intro to Tibetan Buddhism, this is both a wonderful starting point and an excellent review.
The Good Heart : A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus - Dalai Lama, et al / Hardcover / 1996. This particular book is an excellent "new-to-Buddhism" book for those raised in Christian traditions because it clarifies key similarities and differences between Buddhism (particularly in its Tibetan forms) and Christianity -- an area where I hear plenty of confusion! This book is also an inspiring example of the potentials for authentic interfaith dialog.
The Experience of Insight : A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation by Joseph Goldstein
Buddhism Without Beliefs : A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor / Hardcover / 1997. Batchelor created something of a stir with this book and his healthy agnosticism, which makes clear distinctions between Buddhism as a religion and Buddhism as a practice. Whether one agrees with some of his conclusions or not, I found this a practice-stimulating read that sings with spare, graceful prose and a depth of insight into the essentials that can benefit both newcomers and "old-timers."
Luminous Mind : The Way of the Buddha by Kalu Rinpoche, Maria Montenegro (Translator) / Paperback / 1997.
A Concise History of Buddhism by Andrew Skilton / Paperback / 1996
Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics) by Edward Conze / Paperback/ 1959. There really isn't a Buddhist equivalent of the Christian scriptures... unless you want to purchase the complete set of the Pali Canon (at some sixty volumes and over $1,000 the last time I checked). In addition, there are numerous non-Pali Sutras that are central to particular Buddhist sects (such as the Prajnaparamita (Heart) Sutras, the Lotus, and the Flower Ornament), as well as countless later teachings and commentaries. Conze's compilation is a good starting point for an overview of some of the major texts.
The Complete Guide to Buddhist America by Don Morreale, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein / Hardcover / 1998. This is a comprehensive guide to Buddhist centers, monasteries, practice groups and retreat facilities in the United States. It also includes numerous articles about particular centers and retreat facilities from participants' experiences, and provides some commentary on how Buddhism is emerging - and changing - in America.