The best books to learn about Buddhist philosophy

Graham Priest Author Of The Fifth Corner of Four: an Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuṣkoṭi
By Graham Priest

Who am I?

Initially trained as a mathematician, I have now been an academic philosopher for well over four decades—in the UK, Australia, and currently at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. About halfway through this time I was shocked to discover that I knew nothing of half of the world’s philosophy: that developed in the Eastern traditions. I set about educating myself—reading, travelling to India and Japan to teach and study, working with those who were specialists in the relevant areas. Nowadays in my philosophical writing and research I am able to draw on a much richer and deeper understanding of philosophy.

I wrote...

The Fifth Corner of Four: an Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuṣkoṭi

By Graham Priest,

Book cover of The Fifth Corner of Four: an Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuṣkoṭi

What is my book about?

The book explores one central strand in the development of Buddhist metaphysics, drawing on the techniques of modern logic to articulate and analyse many important aspects of this.

The books I picked & why

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Indian Buddhist Philosophy

By Amber Carpenter,

Book cover of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

Why this book?

Buddhism is a religion (or family of religions), but its underlying ideas—many of which are independent of the soteriology of Buddhism—have undergone a rich development in the two and a half thousand years since Siddhārtha Guatama (the historical Buddha) lived. Carpenter’s book introduces us to the philosophical development in India in the first 1,000 years of Buddhism. It concentrates on the ethical aspects, and explores, amongst other things, various relationships with ethical ideas from Ancient Greek philosophy.

The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

By Jan Westerhoff,

Book cover of The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

Why this book?

Westerhoff’s book covers much the same period as Carpenter’s, but is goes in for more textual analysis, and focuses on the the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of Indian Buddhist philosophy.

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

By Paul Williams,

Book cover of Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

Why this book?

Mahāyāna Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that emerges in India around the turn of the Common Era, and is the form that spreads into East Asia. (Only one of the earlier forms of religious Buddhism is still extant, Theravāda, which can be found in South East Asia.) Williams’ book traces the development of Mahāyāna philosophy from its beginnings in India into China, where Buddhist thought is influenced by the indigenous philosophies, in particular, that of Daoism (道家).

Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

By Francis H. Cook,

Book cover of Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

Why this book?

There are a number of distinct forms of Chinese (Mahāyāna) Buddhism.  Huayan (華嚴, Skt: Avataṃsaka) Buddhism is usually reckoned to be the most theoretically sophisticated. It flourished for only a few hundred years in the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era (though it still has a small presence in Japan, where it is called Kegon). However, it had a major impact on the thought of the other Chinese schools of Buddhism (and on Neo-Confucianism).  Cook’s book is old and a bit dated now, but it is still the best introduction to this form of Buddhist philosophy.

Zen Action Zen Person

By Thomas P. Kasulis,

Book cover of Zen Action Zen Person

Why this book?

Perhaps the best-known form of Chinese Buddhism in the West is Chan (). This had a major impact on Buddhism in Japan, when it took off there around the 12th Century. (The Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character is Zen.)  Zen is undoubtedly the most enigmatic form of Buddhism, and many “pop” books on it can be found in local bookstores, but good philosophical books are much harder to find. Kasulis’ book is one of the best. Certainly, you are going to get his take on matters, and there are others, but it’s hard to go past his book for a good philosophical introduction to Zen.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy in the First Millennium CE, Qu'Est­Ce Que le Bouddhisme, and Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction if you like this list.