The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin
This is a remarkably unbiased book about all of the Buddhist traditions and the history and evolution of Buddhism. I cannot recommend this book enough. I discovered it some years ago while doing an M.A. program in Buddhist Studies (and no, I never finished the program!).
Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide by Kevin Trainor
This is another book along the same lines as the Gethin book. It is not quite as dense and scholarly, but a fun book with wonderful maps and illustrations.
The Search for the Buddha by Charles Allen
This gem is also in the Buddhist history theme. This book happened to be published the year before I had the wonderful opportunity to go to India and do the Buddhist circuit. This is not a book about Buddhism. It is the story of how Buddhist sites in India were rediscovered by European “Orientalists”. It reads like an archaeological detective story. It qualifies as something of a guilty read for Buddhists.
As noted in the Meditation Guide I have never found a book on meditation that I found completely satisfying. That is why I am writing my own guide. However, the two following books are well worth reading:
Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg
This book is about the Anapanasati (Mindfulness with Breathing) sutta.
With Each and Every Breath by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Thanissaro’s books are free. You can either download the electronic versions, or write to the monastery and request a paper copy. This book is a little are to follow. I had to go through it several times. But if you can stick with it, it is perhaps the best single book on meditation.
I am always encouraging people to read the discourses for themselves. Admittedly it takes a while to get used to the language, and they are not an easy read. I took a year to read the Majjhima Nikāya for the first time. But the Pali canon is a real treasure trove. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Introduction to the Majjhima Nikāya is worth the cost of the book alone:
Majjhima Nikāya translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi
If you only read one book in the Pali canon, read this one. Buy it directly from Wisdom Publications, They make more money that way, and they are good folks.
A Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi
This is a series of lectures by Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Majjhima Nikāya. They are very intense and extremely thorough. Sadly some of the audio quality is quite poor. Still, this is another truly priceless gem. I have listened to most of these talks while in the car.
The Shape of Suffering by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
A couple of years ago I was complaining to a dear Dhamma Sister of mine that in all the years I had been studying and of all the books that I had read on dependent co-origination (the Buddha’s teachings on causality) and of all the talks I had heard on the subject, not once did I think that the teacher really knew what they were talking about. She told me about this book and she was right. This is the only source that I know of on this topic that makes sense to me. To be sure, this is not an easy subject, but when you feel ready to tackle it, read this book.
I Give You My Life by Ayya Khema
Ayya Khema was one of the truly great teachers of the 20th century. Her books and her Dhamma talks are all priceless treasures. The story of her life is remarkable.
Evening Talks by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
These talks are meant to be listened to at the beginning of a meditation session (specifically the evening hour-long sessions at the monastery).
Survival of the Kindest by Paul Ekman
Because of all the religious hoopla that surrounds Charles Darwin, he tends to go unappreciated as one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was brilliant, and a keen observer, meticulous in his fact finding. And Darwinism is often mistakenly seen to justify aggression and the ability of the strong to survive by dominating the weak. In fact, Darwin never used the phrase “survival of the fittest.” He used the expression “natural selection”, which has a quite different tone. Further, Darwin recognized the role of compassion in the evolution of higher species. This article does a wonderful job of describing Darwin’s writings on compassion, which he wrote about in his final book.
No-self or Non-self? by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
One of the most enigmatic teachings of the Buddha is anatta, non-self. Even well-known and highly respected teachers get this wrong, often teaching nihilism (i.e., that the self does not exist), which the Buddha most definitely did not teach. This article is the best one I know that describes the Buddha’s teaching on anatta.
“The Nature of Mindfulness and Its Role in Buddhist Meditation” – A Correspondence between B. Alan Wallace and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi
This is a rather lengthy and sometimes technical article about mindfulness, its original meaning, and how it has come to be corrupted in modern use.
The Insight Revolution – by Buddhadharma
This is a fascinating article about how what we now call “vipassana meditation” was invented in Burma in the early 20th century as a response – in part – to the fear that Buddhism in Burma would die out during British occupation.
Biographies of the Buddha
A lot of people are interested in the historical figure the Buddha. Unfortunately the man as presented in the original discourses got magnified and morphed over the years into something he never claimed to be. These two books offer, I think, a reasonable rendering of his life as it was understood to be before the later revisionism.
The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli
This biography is considered one of the classics in Buddhist literature. As the title suggests, it uses information mainly from the Pali canon.
The Historical Buddha by H.W. Schumann
This is a scholarly work, but reasonably readable. It is really full of fascinating information.