My Top 5 Dhamma Books

For a long time now, I’ve avoided giving book recommendations on dhamma.  “Avoided” is too weak a word, really.  There’s been some sort of block.  It’s like I’ve been mentally and physically incapable of suggesting reading.

Part of this has to do with an awful experience I had with intellectualized Buddhism.  When I got to Harvard as an eager, wide-eyed freshman, the very first elective class I took was a seminar on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

Dry, dry, dry, dry, dry.

I never read another word on dhamma for the next four years.

On the flip side of things, as a bibliophile and generally thinking-trapped individual, I’m acutely aware of how easily one can become fascinated and hypnotized by Buddhist philosophy, without ever really putting any of it into practice.  So it sometimes feels false or misleading to recommend books, rather than just accompany someone in learning basic dhammic meditation training.

Bodhidharma, credited with bringing Zen Buddhism from Northern India to China. Dude is said to have cut his own eyelids off to stop himself from falling asleep while meditating.

But the truth is, even when people who are trained and do practice ask me for books, I’ve been slow and reluctant.  So today is an effort to shift that.

A couple words about this short list.  One, as you may notice, there is a lot of Mahayana, even though I’m down with the Hinayana.  What can I say?  When it comes to reading, I like what I like.  Two, there are no suttas or canonic/original texts.  Looking forward to diving into those in 2011.  Three, the significance of these books in my life has had less to do with intellectual edification, and more to do with flat-out inspiring me to practice.  There are many more fascinating Buddhist works, scholarship, biographies, etc. that have helped and educated me, but these are more along the lines of altering my worldview and day-to-day spiritual engagement.

So here we go: my top 5 dharma books, in chronological order of when I read them.

0.  Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings

Edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chödzin Kohn

A wonderful and diverse collection of essays and excerpts that got me psyched on both reading and sitting practice.

Includes work by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” – classic), Bhikku Bodhi (with whom I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge last week; amazing), and other greats.



1.  Turning the Mind Into an Ally
by Sakyong Mipham

Covers in beautiful and inspiring ways the stages of profundity of meditation practice, from the chattering monkey-mind of the first sit through deeper, clearer, and more focused phases, each with their own quality and flavor.

When I’m feeling bored or annoyed with sitting, I remember a book like this and get all curious again.  It’s this kind of mapping that earned Tibetan Buddhists nicknames like “astronauts of the mind.”




2.  Teachings on Love
by Thich Nhat Hanh

This book helped me bring my practice more solidly into everyday life, from enduring a jilting to appreciating my parents and ancestors in totally new ways.  Great for early twentysomethings, I think.






3.  The Wisdom of No Escape (and the Path of Loving Kindness)
by Pema Chödrön

From what little I’ve read of her work, Pema lives up to the hype, in my opinion.  The written adaptations of her dharma talks are friendly, accessible, warm, down-to-earth, and at their core, fiercely courageous and pretty damn terrifying.  You just gotta get past the nice, unassuming words to the heart of what she’s saying.  Like Chicken Soup For the Soul, with five habañero peppers thrown in the pot.

Another reason I loved this book: I got to read it while cozied up in the library/reading nook of my beloved Barcelona yoga studio.  You know, sometimes the setting makes a difference.



4.  Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
by Chögyam Trungpa

The most famous one on this list.  This man was so sharp.  Even some of the spare chapter titles speak to the direct, knowing, human, no-bullshit spirit of the book.

The Guru


The Hard Way

The Open Way

Sense of Humor


5.  Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
by The Arahat Daniel M. Ingram

Recently loaned to me by a dharma friend, this book is . . . quite different.  Highly technical, deeply human and full of sharp criticisms of nearly all Western Buddhist culture (which he decribes as mushroom-like: soft, pale, and kept in the dark).

I don’t know if I agree with everything Ingram lays out (including the idea that you can be liberated and still be a generally angry, cranky old dude), but his passion and striking claims sure do make me wanna practice and find out for myself.

Oh, and he claims to be enlightened. Very interesting.



And how about you?  What are some of your favorites?

Happy Wednesday, y’all.

9 thoughts on “My Top 5 Dhamma Books

  1. Josh November 3, 2010 / 1:45 pm

    1. Alan Watts – The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
    2. Marshall Rosenberg – Nonviolent Communication (not Buddhist per se, but very relevant to the practice of right speech)
    3. Natalie Goldberg – The Long Quiet Highway
    4. Thich Nhat Hanh – Old Path White Clouds
    5. Thanissaro Bhikkhu – Wings to Awakening

  2. Puma Carpio November 3, 2010 / 2:04 pm

    1. Thich Nhat Hanh- Anger
    2. Pema Chodron- comfortable with uncertainty
    3. Jack Kornfield- A path with Heart
    4. Thich Nhat Hanh- old path white clouds
    5. Kakuzo Okakura- the book of tea :)

  3. Dana Heffern November 3, 2010 / 2:43 pm

    The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinposche saved my sanity after a death (yes, not near death) experience I had 6 years ago. Thank you for opening this topic up for conversation….I am going to check out everyone’s recommendations!

  4. kimberly November 3, 2010 / 3:07 pm

    Hi Katie! Thanks for sharing your favorite books. I think I’ve been looking for _Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism_ but didn’t know it!

    I’ve been in love with: Baldoquin, ed., Dharma, Color, and Culture; Rahula, What the Buddha Taught; and Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (another vote!). And Mushim Ikeda Nash’s essays are a favorite. I’m going to start soon on Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English; and hoping to get my hands soon on Senauke’s Bodhisattva’s Embrace.

    abrazo! Kim

  5. bohemiankitsch November 3, 2010 / 3:15 pm

    Turning the Mind Into an Ally. i must have purchased a dozen copies of that book over the past year or so. i keep giving it out. i STILL don’t own a copy for myself. ;)

  6. Derek November 3, 2010 / 5:33 pm

    1. Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung? Ajahn Brahm. [Wins the prize for Funniest Dharma Book, but is also the best book to give to non-Dharmites.]
    2. Natural Awakening. Tarchin Hearn. [Best intro book to Dharma.]
    3. Still Forest Pool. Ajahn Chah. [Most beautifully composed Dharma book; by one of the greatest teachers in the Theravada tradition.]
    4. Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha) excellent translation and footnotes by Bhikkhu Bodhi. [Indispensable text for Dharma nerds, comprised of 152 of the Buddha’s talks, including the most important: Satipatthanna Sutta (#10, Foundations of Mindfulness), and Anapanasati Sutta (#118, Mindfulness of Breathing)].
    5. Introduction to Tantra. Lama Yeshe. [Best explanation of tantra and meditation].

    Honorable mention: No Death No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh. [best Dharma book dealing with death].

  7. kloncke November 4, 2010 / 3:04 pm

    daaaaaaammnn y’all! i’m about to get in trouble completely neglecting my job and just inhaling books for the rest of the year. ;) thanks for sharing your inspirations.

    a couple additions from a facebook thread on my profile:

    Maia Duerr says:

    Good list. One of my faves is Zen Mind, Beginners’ Mind by Suzuki Roshi. I love the Entering the Stream book that you listed… that was one of the first dharma books I ever bought.

    and also recommends Sue Moon’s This Is Getting Old; Melody Ermachild Chavis’ Altars in the Streets; and Jarvis Masters (who wrote “Finding Freedom”) as examples of excellence in the craft of writing.

    Jeanie Murphy O’Connor seconds Altars in the Streets,

    and Adam Anderson says:

    Glad to hear you like the Daniel Ingram book. I have some similar feelings about it. Two books that I really stand by and also my most loaned out books are “What the Buddha Taught ” Walpolo Rahula and “Mindfulness in Plain English” Bhante Gunaratana. Lately I have been diving into the Majjima Nikaya, while listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s study course lectures on it, which have been helpful in digesting the text.

    Loving our collective list.

    Oh, and Derek, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE POSTERS! YOU ARE THE SWEETEST EVER! Ryan and I were touched that you addressed the package to both of us. :) Hope you’re well, friend.

  8. chaos November 7, 2010 / 12:58 pm

    My two favorites are comfortable with uncertainty and taking the leap.

  9. Maxwell November 8, 2010 / 1:10 am

    Thich Nhat Hanh- Anger is the only one I’ve read. But now I have a whole list of others to try out!
    “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
    -Martin Luther King, Jr. re: Thich Nhat Hanh

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