The Best Books On Buddhism

The Books I Picked & Why

After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

By Stephen Batchelor

After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

Why this book?

Stephen Batchelor is an old and dear friend of mine – partly because I love his radical ‘take’ on Buddhism. He knows his traditional Buddhist stuff all right: he was a Tibetan Buddhism monk for eight years, and studied in a Korean Zen monastery for four. To some, he is a heretic because his books peel away the cultural superstitions that have befogged the Buddha’s original teachings – such as karma and reincarnation - and reveal a message that is as relevant and insightful today as it was two and a half millennia ago. But his deep and lightly-worn scholarship shines through and – to me at least – he is bang on: both down to earth and utterly inspirational.


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The Way of Zen

By Alan Watts

The Way of Zen

Why this book?

This was one of the first books on Buddhism I ever read: I have a battered and much-scribbled-on copy beside me that dates back to 1970. Like Stephen Batchelor he has been seen as an ‘outsider’ to the Buddhist establishment – he described himself ironically as a ‘genuine fake’ – but his psychological understanding, contemporary language and his vivid turn of phrase spoke to me then, and still do now, in a way that much of the more ‘religious’ and scholastic writings never have. For example, he points out that in a sea wave, the actual water isn’t going anywhere; it “only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a ‘piece’ of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant ‘self’ moving through successive experiences [and] constituting a link between them.” I would love to have met and listened to Watts, and I’m sorry I never had the chance – but there are great talks of his on the internet which still take my breath away.


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On Having No Head

By Douglas Edison Harding

On Having No Head

Why this book?

One person I was lucky enough to meet and study with, though, was a very English Englishman called Douglas Harding: an ex British army officer who has some transformative experiences whist serving in India and spent the rest of his life devising smart, simple and profound ways to induce the same experiences in others. For example: point with your right index finger at the tip of your nose, and pay close attention to your actual experience of what the finger (which you can see) is pointing at (which you can’t). If you are lucky, you’ll be quite disconcerted! It was only some years after his wake-up call that Douglas realised that he had discovered Zen Buddhism for himself.


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

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

Why this book?

This little book is the best introduction to the practice – and benefits – of mindfulness I know. It is easy to make meditation more complicated than it needs to be, and Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh keeps drawing you back to the simple essence of the practice, and to the peaceful aura of the present. Just above my computer screen I have one of his postcards pinned to the wall. “Here I am, sitting in this room, aware of the chair, aware of the sitting, aware of the breathing – aware of this precious moment.” What an effective stress-buster – bringing me back from the maelstroms of thoughts inside my head to the simple, pleasurable fact of just being alive, here, now, and enabling me to reset the emotional dashboard!


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Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

By Tara Brach

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

Why this book?

Talking of the emotional dashboard, Tara Brach’s book on radical acceptance dives deeply into how we can better deal with the uncomfortable and threatening nature of much of our experience. “The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives” she says. Really? Everything? Sorrow, shame, pain, inconvenient desire? Even accepting my non-acceptance? Yep: the lot. “Clearly recognising what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart”: doesn’t that sound nice! Not wallowing or fighting or indulging; just telling ourselves the truth so we can deal with things on the basis of the full picture, not one occluded by denial. Highly recommended.


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