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

The Books I Picked & Why

Indian Buddhist Philosophy

By Amber Carpenter

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.


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The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy

By Jan Westerhoff

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.


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Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

By Paul Williams

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).


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Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra

By Francis H. Cook

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.


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Zen Action Zen Person

By Thomas P. Kasulis

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.


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