Recently I was asked which books I would recommend to get started in Buddhism. This is an interesting question, because I suspect there are a zillion different paths taken by those of us who read our way into Buddhism.
I’ll share my journey, but I’ll preface it by saying that I think reading is a good way to whet your appetite for the practice, but when you get a chance (difficult right now with COVID), go to services and see how it feels. Meet different teachers. Do a lot of listening. Hear from many voices. See and hear and smell the room. Use all of your senses. See how it all makes you feel.
For me, I did a lot of reading before committing to Buddhism. I even sporadically attended services. But it wasn’t until I experienced a crisis that I decided I wanted and needed the practice. In hindsight, I would have liked to have the practice before the crisis, but our paths are unique and we come to it as we are.
I wouldn’t let one book or one service or one dharma talk or even one sangha convince you whether it’s the practice for you. Cast your net wide. There are many traditions. There are many perspectives.
Before we begin, I’ll disclose that I am a half-Palestinian, half-German/Irish/European mix raised Melkite Catholic. My grandmother was born in Nazareth — a very religious, holy city that I have visited numerous times. I was born and raised in California. The only other exposure to religion that I had was a sociology class about women and religious practices, and I also became somebody’s godmother 20 years ago. This was my starting point.
My first exposure to Buddhism was visiting temples in China as a college student back in 2001. It was part of the tour, and not much was taught about Buddhism itself. I didn’t think much about it after the trip.
The next encounter happened five years later as a second year teacher, getting thrown into teaching 7th grade World History. Buddhism is in the curriculum, and I had never been exposed to it before. The textbook had a few small paragraphs of information about Buddhism, paling in comparison to the section on Christianity. I remember having my class make footprints on poster paper to learn the Eightfold Path. In hindsight, I feel like I trivialized the ancient practice and did not do it justice, but I was literally learning it and teaching it on the go. I had no tools in my toolbox to convey anything about world religions. I was raised Catholic in the United States. My worldview was quite limited.
The third encounter with Buddhism came the next year, when I started teaching at a new school and participated in an East Asian Studies series of classes with a few colleagues. We took a field trip to a Chinese Fo Guang Shan temple nearby, and I was struck by it all. The temple was beautiful. There was something magical about being there. It was very foreign and I knew nothing about the practice (I actually had to look up what type of Buddhism they practice while writing this essay). I felt the sacredness of the space though, as oblivious as I was to the big, wide world.
It was my fourth encounter that made all of the difference. A few months into the new job, I befriended the teacher next door to me, who happened to be Japanese and Buddhist.
I didn’t consider myself a practicing Buddhist back then, even though I occasionally went with him to temple service. Not even after I agreed to raise our children as Buddhists. It was my husband’s death that led to me becoming a practicing Buddhist.
But I had been casually reading books on Buddhism for years. The first book was “Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children” by Sarah Nathali.
I have a habit of writing my name and date inside of books, and this one says “9–19–11,” which put me about a year and a half into new motherhood. There are even little baby scribbles in my book — proof of the era I was living in. In the back of the book, I wrote notes that said, “Beginner’s mind.” An important reminder as you try to raise young children. I remember being impressed that Buddhism was something you could practice even as you washed the dishes, and it could be something to grasp onto through the stresses of parenting. Something to help develop inner peace when you’re losing your shit. I really, really loved the practical application. I never experienced that as a Catholic.
Obviously, this book may or may not appeal to you depending on where you are in life. I just happened to decide to start reading books on Buddhism in the middle of becoming a new mother, and that is what resonated with me.
You enter where it makes sense to you.
I read many of the popular Buddhist books from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I would highly recommend these. They are simple, easy to find, and they resonate with everyday life. Looking at my bookshelf, I seemed to have gravitated more toward Thich Nhat Hanh. A year before my husband died, I bought “You are Here.” I would later reach for the book after he passed away; there are notes dated weeks after he died, where I underlined passages such as, “You should not wait for emotion to appear before you begin practicing. Otherwise you will be carried away by the storm.”
I was obviously in the midst of a storm, desperately trying not to drown.
I put stars next to: “If there are things that are causing you to suffer, you have to know how to let go of them. Happiness can be attained by letting go, including letting go of your ideas about happiness. You imagine that certain conditions are necessary to your happiness, but deep looking will reveal to you that those notions are the very things standing in the way of happiness and are making you suffer.”
I picture myself back then in 2016, numb, searching for the antidote to my misery. I could not conceptualize ever being happy again, but as I devoured Buddhism during this time, it became a lifeboat to cling to in the storm. A glimmer of hope that me — and only me — could hang on long enough to find my way out, and then I could find reasons to smile again. Reasons to keep living, and perhaps even thrive.
I’m so glad I had Buddhism, because it gave me practical ways to learn how to shift my perspective and cope with suffering. I feel stronger because of it. I can honestly say I am happy today, even though I lost my husband, and even as a single mom of three young children. I felt my strength as we entered the global pandemic, and I feel confident that I will be able to keep my head high in my future suffering with a deep practice.
Here are some other books that have been helpful in my life:
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
An Introduction to Buddhism by Peter Harvey
No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh
How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh
My husband was a Shin Buddhist, so that’s how I got involved with it. I feel so fortunate that somehow my path crossed with his and I stumbled upon this type of Buddhism. There are many types of Buddhism and you should definitely explore whatever feels right to you. Zen emphasizes meditation. Shin Buddhists chant. That’s probably an oversimplification. I’m open and eager to read about all kinds of Buddhism, but lately I’ve delved into Shin Buddhist readings.
Here are some of the ones that really resonated for me and helped clarify my questions:
Jodo Shinshu A Guide
Shin Buddhism Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by Taitetsu Unno
Dharma Breeze by Nobuo Haneda
Ocean by Kenneth Tanaka
Discovering Buddhism in Everyday Life by Marvin Harada
The Center Within by Gyomay M. Kubose
I am currently reading “Secularizing Buddhism” by Richard Payne and “Be the Refuge” by Chenxing Han. I am a few pages away from finishing “Be the Refuge.” This book examines the voices of Asian Americans in “American Buddhism,” and points out the erasure of those voices. As someone who is not Asian (but raising half-Asian children and practicing at a predominantly Japanese temple), and someone who is inclusive-minded, I grapple with fitting in while also not overstepping my boundaries. It’s mostly in my head; the sangha at my temple has been most welcoming, and one of our ministers is even white. But I don’t want to be a part of white-washed Buddhism. I was initially attracted to learning from Eastern philosophy. In my mind, I already rejected my Western upbringing. I already had years of learning from Western philosophy. I was looking for new perspective. As I get more involved, I want to be mindful of respecting Asian voices, while encouraging others to take up the practice who are not Asian, and maybe even make contributions to American Buddhism. I want to be mindful about all of it.
Sharing Buddhism is important to me, because I’ve lived the effects of the practice. I know how much it has helped me cope with grief and loss. I see the impact on my daily life. I’m a better person because of it.
Our minister is always reminding us to try things out and see how it works.
I love that about Buddhism. My previous experiences with religion would have never said to try it out and decide for myself. This is the beauty of Buddhism. It gives you tools you can try or not try — it’s always up to you. No coercion.
That would be my biggest piece of advice when embarking on the reading journey. Try it out. See how it works for you. If it adds value to your life, keep reading and find more sources.
For other sources of inspiration, I highly recommend YouTube. There are dharma talks from local temples and seminars. You can take self-paced courses from Everyday Buddhist, with each course always providing a bibliography that will lead you to new sources of knowledge. Everyday Buddhist has a blog, and temples even have newsletters with articles to read. You can read my recent article “An Accidental Realization” here. There are even podcasts to listen to. I’ve used a combination of all of this to build my knowledge, and I’m still learning!
I would love to hear what your first book on Buddhism was? I feel like it represents our bigger journey of life, both unique and personal. And you never know how each book will impact every aspect of your life and future. ❤