The best books on Buddhism and the West

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been a street musician, set up kindergartens, worked in special needs education, and run wood-fired showers in a field for meditation retreats. I’m also associate professor of sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. I became a Buddhist partly out of interest in a very different culture and started wondering how Buddhism got from Asia to the West. I think about this through my own experience of teaching meditation, being an activist for 35 years, living in five countries, and learning ten languages: what do you have to do to make an idea come alive in a different culture? 

I wrote...

The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire

By Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, Brian Bocking

Book cover of The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of an Irish emigrant who became a sailor, hoboed his way across the US, and became a Buddhist monk and anti-colonial activist in Asia, active in today’s Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, China, and Australia. U Dhammaloka (born Laurence Carroll, 1856-1914) defied the British Empire and missionary Christianity in defence of local culture. He had 5 different aliases, was tried for sedition, put under police and intelligence surveillance, faked his own death, and ultimately disappeared. Brian Bocking, Alicia Turner, and I spent ten years piecing together this dramatic and mysterious life, which rewrites the story of how Buddhism became a modern global religion.

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The books I picked & why

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

Laurence Cox Why did I love 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.

By Lobzang Jivaka,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imji Getsul as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the publisher: "Here is the daily life and routine of a very remote monastery on the Tibetan border. The author was a novice there, speaking the language, experiencing the discomfort and the blows and the beauty of that life. Lobzang Jivaka rejected most of the common values of Western life, to search for truth; and found it in an obscure corner of the world. This is fascinating as a work of travel, and as a religious book of some authority. It is an Englishman's account of life at Rizong Gompa in Ladakh, which he came to love as much…

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

Laurence Cox Why did I love 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.   

By Thomas A. Tweed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work examines 19th-century America's encounter with one of the world's major religions. Exploring the debates about Buddhism that followed upon its introduction to the USA, the author shows what happened when the transplanted religious movement came into contact with America's established culture and fundamentally different Protestant tradition. The text, first published in 1992, traces the efforts of various American interpreters to make sense of Buddhism in Western terms. Tweed demonstrates that while many of those interested in Buddhism considered themselves dissenters from American culture, they did not abandon some of the basic values they shared with their fellow Victorians.…

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

Laurence Cox Why did I love 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.

By Lawrence Sutin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All Is Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The modern-day creation of a distinctly Western Buddhism is arguably the most significant spiritual development of our time. Few realize, however, that the complicated dance between Western and Eastern religions has gone on for more than two millennia. ALL IS CHANGE is the definitive account of the two-thousand year transmission of Buddhism to the West. From the early exchanges between the Classical Greeks and the Buddhists of India to the encounters between Buddhist and Christian traders and missionaries in China to the influence of Buddhism on Western philosophers and the current fascination with the Dalai Lama, this is a riveting…

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

Laurence Cox Why did I love 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.

By Carole Tonkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Big Sky Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Essays, poems, photographs, and letters explore the link between Buddhism and the Beats--with previously unpublished material from several beat writers, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Diane diPrima.

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

Laurence Cox Why did I love 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. 

By Donald S. Lopez Jr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prisoners of Shangri-La as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To the Western imagination, Tibet evokes exoticism, mysticism, and wonder: a fabled land removed from the grinding onslaught of modernity, spiritually endowed with all that the West has lost. Originally published in 1998, Prisoners of Shangri-La provided the first cultural history of the strange encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Donald Lopez reveals here fanciful misconceptions of Tibetan life and religion. He examines, among much else, the politics of the term "Lamaism," a pejorative synonym for Tibetan Buddhism; the various theosophical, psychedelic, and New Age purposes served by the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead; and the unexpected history…

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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