Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

On reading Buddhist books

I’m now on to my second book about the paramis (Skt paramitas) and I’ve come to a conclusion: what people read, what sells, and what has lasting value can be divided into four types of literature or writing.  These are…

Wait!  First, I want to preface my pending revelation with a rather obvious statement: This is just my opinion.  Nobody should get offended or think I’m talking down to them.  I am a certain type of person and as such have certain preferences and standards.  What works for me is not what’s going to work for everyone–if I have gained one iota of wisdom in my nearly half century of living, this much at least I can be sure of.  Now, back to the revelation.

Taichung_Baojue_Buddhist_Temple3

Read my books!

The four types of Buddhist literature are:

Popular: This type of book sells surprisingly well and is always twice as long as it needs to be.  For better or worse, a lot of people who aren’t even Buddhist read this stuff and feel good about themselves on account of reading it.  As a result, you definitely know who the authors of these books are so I won’t bother telling you their names.

Now, here’s how you can tell a Buddhist book is a “popular” book.

  1. If you do an Amazon search for “Buddhism” it probably comes up near the top of the list.
  2. The author was once a monk or nun but realized at some point that writing books was a more lucrative endeavor.
  3. The author is now a media personality and has founded one or more organizations.
  4. The author quotes indiscriminately from all the different Buddhist schools–as well as from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist, secular, and scientific writers, maybe even popular songs.
  5. The word “being” is used at least once every other page of every book the author writes.
  6. Quotes from other people and books are never given more attribution than the fact they were said/written by so-and-so.  In other words, the source text is rarely cited, and chapter and verse are never offered.
  7. Quotes from the Buddha, especially, sound like someone talking at your office–with an amazingly modern diction and vocabulary for a guy who died two and a half millennia ago.  Again, chapter and verse are nowhere to be seen.
  8. The historical veracity of the Mahayana and Vajrayana accounts of the Buddha’s words and biography are never doubted.
  9. The ultimate truth and unity of all religions is not questioned.
  10. Mother Theresa and/or Martin Luther King will be mentioned at least once and their sublime virtues discussed in passing
  11. Everyone is naturally, originally, uniquely, perfectly Good–if only they knew it.
  12. The writer’s grandmother was invariably the wisest and most awesome of hidden sages.
  13. There are no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography, and indexes are optional.
  14. The titles of these books are often derived from well known sayings, songs, or folksy expressions, etc.

Scholarly/practical: The authors of these sorts of books often have significant contemplative experience under their belts, with academic training to boot, though some are purely academic in their background and just happened to have broken into the public consciousness.  While not usually as popular or well known as the writers of “popular” books, their work can sell well.  Authors I would put in this category include Walpola Rahula (What the Buddha Taught), Gil Fronsdal (translator of the Dhammapada), Bhikkhu Bodhi, Daniel Goleman, and Henepola Gunaratna (Mindfulness In Plain English).  Their works are typically characterized by the following:

Gil Fronsdal

  1. 80-90% less fluff language than is found in the works of popular writers; instead, their language is typically crisp and intelligent though not dry or opaque.
  2. Uncommon and unique insights–no garden variety “wisdom” here.
  3. Almost always include indexes, as well as–frequently–bibliographies and endnotes.
  4. They actually provide citations for quotes and don’t rephrase the quotes to make them sound like 21st century utterances.
  5. Fewer stories from regular life, though these are still included.  Instead, many more stories and examples from original sources.
  6. You probably won’t learn anything about their grandmother, cat, or best friend.
  7. They are mindful of the differences between Buddhist schools and, except on rare occasions, don’t feel the need to invite comparisons with other religions and philosophies.
  8. You are more likely to remember one of these books a year later than you are a popular book.
  9. You are more likely to keep one of these books with the intention of rereading or consulting it in the future than you are a popular work, which will probably turn yellow on your shelf, assuming you don’t first charitably donate it to your local library or regift it to a wayward relative.
  10. You will probably want to underline, highlight or otherwise mark up one of these books.
  11. The authors of these books are less prolific than popular writers.  So the book in your hand will probably be one of only two or three (max) widely known works by him or her.  Popular writers, on the other hand, are constantly coming out with new and improved versions of the Dharma they wrote about last year.

Scholarly: These books are easily spotted.  They usually come from university presses and you have to dig for them on Amazon.  Their authors are invariably professors, scholars, and other learned sorts–or were: maybe now they are living out a hermit-like retirement.  While some of these authors are good writers, they don’t hesitate knocking you over the head with Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean technical terms, and their sentences can take on a cerebral knottiness that requires multiple reads.  (Note: Tibetan terms in these books are invariably rendered in English via the unpronounceable Wylie system.)  Furthermore:

The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros

Too short a life and too many books!

  1. Diacritic marks and the italicization of technical terms are inevitable.
  2. Endnotes can run for dozens of pages.
  3. There is often a bibliography of works from the original language (Sanskrit, Chinese, etc).
  4. You have never heard of the author apart from the book in your hands.
  5. He or she may or may not be Buddhist.  If the author is Buddhist, he or she has not informed any professional colleagues about this fact.
  6. The author probably doesn’t meditate because that would (allegedly) impair his or her objectivity.
  7. The book may never break out of hardback and will be three times more expensive than a regular book of the same size and make.
  8. The topic of the book will be about a particular doctrine of a particular school in a particular century that ended long before you or anyone you know ever breathed.
  9. You will feel very intelligent while reading the book, but afterwards you will wonder what you should do with all that knowledge.
  10. You will probably keep the book, but will be afraid to open it again.
  11. No more than one–maybe two–people will have reviewed the book on Amazon.
  12. The reviewers’ comments will indicate they are much smarter and better read than you are.
daniel-ingram

The laughing arahat

Hardcore: These are the polar opposite of “popular” works, though they can, in fact, actually be popular.  Their authors are not typically interested in scholarship or “good works,” rather in the practice and achievement of exalted states of mind—jhanas, nyanas, nirvana, even siddhis.  Writers of this genre are typically very self-assured, speak with the confidence of “direct knowledge,” and are not generally terribly concerned with philosophical subtleties.  While they are sometimes quite orthodox in their thinking (simply accepting whatever theory is at hand), there is a tendency for some of them to challenge orthodox notions if tradition conflicts with their experience.  Moreover, these works:

  • Are long on practice and short on theory
  • Disdain fluff
  • Are grounded in meditative achievement
  • Are rarely published by big houses, but can yet attain “underground” or “cult” status
  • Don’t care how flowery or literary their prose is
  • Don’t tell lots of stories
  • Are often psychologically technical
  • Don’t quote original sources much but if they do are as likely to cite commentaries as suttas/sutras
  • Will make you feel like you’ve not done enough
  • Will inspire you to get up earlier, sit longer, and eat less

Examples of these books are some of Goenka’s material, Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma (originally Living Buddhist Masters, a book that had a significant impact on me when I first read it–the rest of Kornfield’s material is decidedly popular), books by some Burmese teachers (e.g. Webu SayadawMahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita) and Thai forest masters (e.g. Ajahn Chah) and, last but not least, that icon of the “hardcore dharma” movement,  Daniel Ingram (pictured above), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

I have read many examples of all four.  Popular books occasionally contain gems scattered among the endless deserts of vapid prose.  This, and the inevitable language of optimistic self-improvement they employ (hence the fluffy verbiage), is what keeps you reading them–they tell you you’re extraordinary, that you possess Buddha-nature (if only you could see it!), and you want to believe, so you read and read and read and read.  If you’re a beginner, these are naturally the sorts of books you’ll start with, but if you don’t get beyond them you’re probably doomed to never learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest.

Most of the best reading you’ll do will be by scholar-practitioners and hardcore dharma nuts.  People in both these groups really have something to say.  They are not looking for the next big seller; they know what meditation is about; they don’t have an organization to run (or if they do its supported by donors); and the scholar-practitioners especially are familiar with the original texts and the histories and can discuss them intelligently and practically.  Read as many of these (scholar-practitioner and hardcore) books as you can, but when particular issues become problematic for you or whet your interest, don’t be afraid of good scholars and their tomes, however weighty.  Some examples of excellent scholars and their work would be Steve Collins’ Selfless Persons, books by Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams, David Loy (Nonduality and others) and Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach among others.

Happy reading!

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4 thoughts on “On reading Buddhist books

  1. Pingback: Buddha Is As Buddha Does by Lama Surya Das | Buddhist Books Blog

  2. Pretty much agree with all these categories. I’d hesitate to put Jack Kornfield in the last category though, most of his books (in contrast to his actual teaching methods) fall into the first category. I think “A Path with Heart” must have quoted something from every spiritual tradition under the sun. The same goes for HH Dalai Lama who is obviously writing for a wide audience, but who himself practices vastly different methods to the things he talks about in his books (ie. just be a good person, follow ethics, meditate for a bit each day, be kind etc.). I would also add Ayya Khema, and maybe Pema Chodron in the 2nd category, great writers. Personally, I also find great material also to be found (usually free) with the Buddhist Publication Society.

    • criticalbuddhist on said:

      Hi Dean,
      You’re certainly right about Jack Kornfield. When I wrote the post I was thinking in particular of his excellent LIVING DHARMA (originally LIVING BUDDHIST MASTERS). I do need to clarify this though. Thanks for the point!

      Craig

  3. Hello Craig,
    Similar to above topic, i had send mail to my friends few months back, how to identify books by the authors and their style and also identify teachers of dharma. classified vaguely writing style of author and teachers.
    when i read this blog today, thought of just Sharing the info for your casual glance.

    (1) Translators or writers-Just translates and writes, but lacks subject (dharma) knowledge and experience.

    (2) Scholars-In depth Subject Knowledge, but lacks personal experience in subject (Non-Practitioners).
    E.g. -Rupert Gethin, Rhys Davids, B R Ambedkar, and many more…

    (3) Ordinary Teachers-Have Good Basic Knowledge of teaching Dharma, but lacks in depth Knowledge.

    (4) Scholarly Teachers-Have In depth Knowledge of sutras but Non-Practitioners of Insight-Meditation (Practice Sparingly) – Dalai lama xiv, Nyanaponika, Walpola Rahula, K. Dhammanada, Nanamoli, Narada, Bodhi,

    (4 A) Scholarly Teachers-(Rigid)-are Subject to any one of these (Rigid to personal thoughts, language usage, views; Stick to their gurus teaching without contemplating on it; not open to changes; Seeks Personal Identity or Recognition ;),– Buddhaghosa, Thinasara, Piyadhassi, and many more….

    (5) Practitioners (Insight Meditation) – Practice and teaches Insight Meditation only, but has limited knowledge on sutras.–Jack Kornfield, Paul breiter, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and many more..

    (6) Practitioners Teachers (Insight Meditation) – Great teachers Practice and teaches Insight and samatha meditation and decent knowledge on sutras.
    E.g. – Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah, Lee and many more (Thailand), H Gunaratna, Ayya Khema (srilanka), Thich Nhat Hanh(vitnam), S.N.Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw’s and U Pandita of Burma. and Lamas (Tibet) and many more…

    (7) Scholarly Practitioners Teachers- Practice and teaches Insight and samatha meditation and in-depth knowledge on Sutras.
    Eg- Sariputra, Kashyapa and many more (Buddha’s Time)
    Nagarjuna-India, Ajahn Buddhadasa-Thailand, saydaw’s-Burma, and many more

    Madhu

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