The best books on Buddhism and the West

The Books I Picked & Why

Imji Getsul: An English Buddhist in a Tibetan Monastery

By Lobzang Jivaka

Book cover of Imji Getsul: An English Buddhist in a Tibetan Monastery

Why this book?

I find the story in Imji Getsul (“English Novice”) incredibly moving. Lobzang Jivaka (Michael Dillon) was an extraordinary human being: the first trans man to have successful genital surgery and a pioneering (anonymous) writer on the subject. Outed by the British tabloid press, this deeply private man fled to India and became a Buddhist novice. In Ladakh he insisted on overcoming his own privilege as a white gentleman, starting at the bottom of the monastic hierarchy in gruelling physical conditions (which ultimately killed him). This book is an honest, funny, and powerful account of personal change and the meeting between cultures.


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The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent

By Thomas A. Tweed

Book cover of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent

Why this book?

I love this warm-hearted and rich account of the first Americans to become Buddhist: the romantics who fell in love with Asian cultures, the rationalists who thought of Buddhism as a science or philosophy of human existence, and the esotericists who sought magical powers and powerful initiations. From Lafcadio Hearn’s celebration of “old Japan” to Countess Canavarro who set up a nun’s order in Sri Lanka, via Theosophists, vegetarians, and atheists, this book is a fantastic collection of people’s lives which were both transformed by meeting Buddhism and yet remained distinctively American even in their new form.   


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All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West

By Lawrence Sutin

Book cover of All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West

Why this book?

I read this book just before I started writing my own book on Buddhism and Ireland. It’s almost an adventure story: there’s Alexander the Great and Aesop’s Fables, Marco Polo and Theosophist fantasies, Christian missionaries to Asia and Buddhist missionaries to the West, Asian immigrants in America, and British spies in Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and today’s western Buddhists. Sutin tells this whole complicated, rambling yarn in an easy-going and enjoyable way, making the book a real pleasure to read.


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Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation

By Carole Tonkinson

Book cover of Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation

Why this book?

One of the first places I heard about Buddhism was through Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder. The joy of reading Kerouac has worn off a bit, but Snyder and Ginsberg have become lifetime companions and real sources of inspiration for me, not least in their engagement with Buddhism. This collection of poems, essays, letters, and other writings brings them together with a much wider range of writers – Diane di Prima and Philip Whalen, Anne Waldman and Kenneth Rexroth, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – showing how the best minds of two generations heard, felt and responded to Buddhism in their many different ways. It’s a real treasure-house of words.


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Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

By Donald S. Lopez Jr

Book cover of Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Why this book?

When my grandparents died they left small presents for their grandchildren, and in a way that many Buddhists would recognise I bought a book about Buddhism – a funny and sad one. Lopez’s book tells the story of how Western fantasies talk over actual Tibetans and their struggles, from what we think we know about the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” to Lobsang Rampa’s spurious The Third Eye, passing through how we talk about Tibetan art and what we say about the mantra “Om mani padme hum”. This is a deeply humane book about how Tibetans are trapped not only by superpower politics and colonialism but also by how they are represented to the West. 


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