#15: ENTERING THE STREAM: BUDDHISM FOR ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS. Every once in a while a friend, knowing of my interest in Buddhism, will ask me what the best introductory book is on the topic, and I have to admit I’ve never had a confident answer. Buddhism is a tremendously heterogeneous tradition—so much so that Thanissaro Bhikku has just written a book called Buddhist Religions. Buddhism has evolved not only in a variety of purely intellectual and philosophic directions but taken on the colorings of a number of host countries and their cultures and languages. The Buddhist Canon itself, written in Pali and Sanskrit, is enormous—many thousands of pages—and just, say, the Tibetan commentarial tradition alone is another entire library. Some books are written from the viewpoint of historical scholarship and some of practice, and there is every combination imaginable of modern Western explication and original texts now in print. So if I list a few books it’s with the hope of being helpful but none of being definitive. For further information, The Eternal Legacy: An Introduction to the Canonical Literature of Buddhism, by Sangharakshita (Windhorse Publications, 2006) is a useful guide and reference.
Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin (Oxford, 1998) and The Story of Buddhism, by Donald Lopez (Harper) are both readable narratives intended for first-timers. Andrew Skilton’s Concise History of Buddhism (Windhorse) will help you get your feet on the ground as to what, when and where—it sorts out the schools and cultural areas of Buddhist influence with admirable clarity. The Buddha and his Teachings, edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Kohn (Shambhala, 1983, originally titled Entering the Stream, a traditional phrase for beginning practice) is a good mix of texts with some of the best contemporary teachers, with a short version of Kohn’s lovely biography of the Buddha. Also in pocket edition from Shambhala is Teachings of the Buddha, well-selected bits and the right size to be a vade-mecum. Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible suffers slightly from old-fashioned translations but has a lot of important texts in one place, and is back in print from Beacon Press. Both The Buddhist Tradition In India, China and Japan, edited by William Theodore de Bary (Vintage, 1969) and World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature, edited by Lucien Stryk (Grove, 1968) are good general anthologies, though lacking in any material on the Tibetan tradition.
Two of the shortest canonical texts are, I think, particularly essential: the Metta Sutta and the Heart Sutra. They are both contained in the Shambhala anthologies. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas, translation and commentary by Red Pine, is a vivid and helpful annotation and study—the very model of what these things should be. The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra, by Mu Soeng (Wisdom Publications, 2010) is also very good.
Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate: A Practical Guide (Wisdom Publications, 1984) is just that, a direct and non-academic approach to the various methods of Buddhist meditiation. Will Johnson’s book The Posture of Meditation: A Practical Manual for Meditators of All Traditions (Shambhala, 1996) is also good and, as it claims, practical.
Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught (Grove) is an oft-reprinted classic—a collection of texts, mainly Theravadan (the school mostly associated with southeastern Asia); it’s heavily peppered with Pali terms, but it’s good. In The Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications) is an excellent anthology of Theravadan texts, selected from the vast jungle of the Nikayas, the original Pali sutta collections, and arranged thematically. The most famous and central Pali text, the Dhammapada, has been translated dozens of times—I like Thomas Byrom’s version, in a pocket edition from Shambhala.
Many of the anthologies are entirely from the Pali Theravadan texts: A Treasury of Mahayan Sutras, edited by Garma C.C. Chang (Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1983) is a selection from the compendious Maharatnakuta Sutra and an excellent and varied anthology of Mahayana works. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams (London, Routledge, 1989) is a tad academic in style but is clear, intelligent and readable—a good general groundplan of the topic.
The Teachings of Buddha, another oft-reprinted anthology from Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai/Buddhism Promoting Foundation, is an excellent collection of texts for practice, with a Shin Buddhist leaning to it. For an introduction to Shin—a predominantly Japanese tradition—read D.T. Suzuki’s Buddha of Infinite Light, reprinted by Shambhala. The Promise of Amida Buddha: Honen’s Path to Bliss, translated by Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi (Wisdom, 2011) and The Essential Shinran, by Alfred Bloom (World Wisdom, 2007) will introduce you to two major Shin figures. Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume Two: Pure Land (University of California Press, 2015) is a terrifically intelligent collection; the last chapters of Suzuki’s Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist (Harper, 1957; recently reprinted by Forgotten Books), about the Shin saint Saichi, are also particularly worth reading. Taitetsu Unno’s River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism (Doubleday, 1998) is also very good.
For the Vajrayana tradition, B. Alan Wallace’s Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up (Wisdom Publications, 1993) approaches a complicated topic in accessible, nontechnical terms. The Buddhism of Tibet and The Key to the Middle Way (Allen and Unwin) and The World of Tibetan Buddhism (Wisdom Publications), by the Dalai Lama, are clear and admirable entry-level introductions. Of the Dalai Lama’s books on more specific topics, my favorites are Healing Anger (Snow Lion, 1999—send for their newsletter or check out their website), Illuminating the Path to Englightenment (see www.lamayeshe. com) and How to Practice (Pocket Books, 2002). Essential Tibetan Buddhism (Castle Books, 1997) has an instructive selection of Tibetan texts; the forty-five page introduction by Robert Thurman gives a clear, excellent and persuasive reading of the place of the Tibetan tradition. Weighing in at 500 pages, John Powers’ Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Snow Lion, revised edition 2007) is perhaps the deep end of the pool, but it’s a superb book, readable and impartial and scholarly—really an essential work.
And then there’s Zen, “a transmission outside the scriptures,” which seems to
occupy its own distinct corner. Alan Watts’s 1957 The Way of Zen is still pretty good, and Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen (North Point Press, 1982) is excellent and accessible. D.T. Suzuki’s Manual of Zen Buddhism is a fine collection of texts. Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki’s little classic Zen Flesh, Zen Bones has been piquing people’s interest for almost fifty years and through many editions—it’s still bloom-fresh, charming and unique. Zen Keys, by Thich Nhat Hanh (Anchor Books, 1974) is a good first book to read and a good introduction to Nhat Hanh’s work. The “bares bones Zen” texts of the school’s originating patriarch have been gathered and superbly well translated: The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, a bilingual edition translated with an introduction by Red Pine (North Point, 1987).
I don’t want to leave the topic without recommending Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, a moving and personal book by John Blofeld (Shambhala, 1977) about Avalokitesvara, or Kuan Yin, the intercessor figure of the Buddhist pantheon. Go read all of these if you’re interested in Buddhism at all.