Celebrating World Religions: Books to Help You Understand Buddhism

Posted on December 1, 2022

by Amy H

With 360 million followers, Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world. Its emphasis on meditation and mindfulness instills a practice methodology that can be pursued by itself or incorporated into other religious faiths. There is no single holy book or foundational text so it can be difficult to know where to begin learning about Buddhist beliefs.  Here are some great places to start…

Buddhism for Dummies

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Don’t let the “Dummies” thing fool you: this is a remarkably well-written and authoritative guide to the foundations and basic tenants of mindfulness Buddhist thought.

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

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Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers gentle anecdotes and practical exercises as a means of learning the skills of mindfulness–being awake and fully aware. From washing the dishes to answering the phone to peeling an orange, he reminds us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness. See also his “Peace is Every Step: the path of mindfulness in everyday life” and other works.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

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To Buddhists, meditation is important because it brings about a state of “mindfulness,” a condition of “being” rather than “doing” during which you pay attention to the moment rather than the past, the future, or the multitudinous distractions of modern life. In brief, poetic chapters, Kabat-Zinn describes different meditative practices and what they can do for the practitioner. The idea that meditation is “spiritual” is often confusing to people, Kabat-Zinn writes. He prefers to think of meditation as a workout for one’s consciousness.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life

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We may long for wholeness, suggests Jon Kabat-Zinn, but the truth is that it is already here and already ours. The practice of mindfulness holds the possibility of not just a fleeting sense of contentment, but a true embracing of a deeper unity that envelops and permeates our lives. With Mindfulness for Beginners you are invited to learn how to transform your relationship to the way you think, feel, love, work, and play—and thereby moving beyond one’s “story” into direct experience, to awaken and embody more completely who you really are.

Mindfulness in Plain English

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This helpful guide walks readers through how to meditate and deal with the many typical obstacles which arise in one’s practice. Bhante Gunaratana is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, classically trained and ordained in the Vipassana form of practice, which places great emphasis on mindfulness. “Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline.” But meditation is also rejuvenating and liberating, and most seasoned practitioners develop a good and deeply compassionate sense of humor, because the practice creates a calmness and relaxed perspective about life.

If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life

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Using anecdotes from his own life—as well as quotations drawn from sources as varied as the Bible, Yiddish aphorisms, and stand-up comedy — Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford shares the wisdom won over his lifetime of full-hearted engagement with the Zen path.

Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

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We’re bombarded every day with false promises of ways to make our lives better—buy this, go here, eat this, don’t do that; the list goes on and on. Pema Chödrön shows that, until we get to the heart of who we are and really make friends with ourselves, everything we do will always be superficial. Here she offers down-to-earth guidance on how we can go beyond the fleeting attempts to “fix” our pain and, instead, to take our lives as they are as the only path to achieve what we all yearn for most deeply—to embrace rather than deny the difficulties of our lives. See also, Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” and other works.

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

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At the heart of Buddhism is a simple claim: The reason we suffer—and the reason we make other people suffer—is that we don’t see the world clearly and are constantly trying to reshape it to fit our predetermined expectations on how things should be. At the heart of Buddhist meditation is a radical promise: With practice, we can learn to see the world, including ourselves, more clearly and truly accept what we experience. Wright shows how this practice can loosen the grip of anxiety, regret, and hatred, and how it can deepen our appreciation of beauty and of other people. He also shows why this transformation works, drawing on the latest in neuroscience and psychology, demonstrating how, in a time of technological distraction and social division, we can save ourselves from ourselves, both as individuals and as a species.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

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Shunryu Suzuki is one of the founders of organized Zen practice in the United States, and this is his fundamental work on the practice, nature, and basic attitudes of Zen Buddhism for Western practitioners.

Finding the Still Point: A Beginner’s Guide to Zen Meditation

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Loori, the revered founder and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, distills his experience and wisdom for anyone looking to begin a meditation practice in this tiny but powerful book. Written in an easy-to-understand format, it is one of the best and most concise guides on how to meditate.

Buddhism Plain and Simple

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Zen priest and longtime teacher Steve Hagen presents the heart of Buddhist teachings in (as the title suggests) plain and simple, easy to understand terms.

Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha

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This book by Thich Nhat Hanh presents the a comprehensive story of the Buddha’s life, from Siddhartha Gautama’s early life as a prince, his rejection of that life, and his journey to forming the first sangha.

The Laughing Sutra

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The book of fiction doesn’t necessarily teach you about Buddhist principles, but at the heart of this comedic adventure are deeply-rooted ideological differences between East and West.