Books for a Buddhist Nightstand

By Rev. Frederick Brenion

A finger pointing to the moon is only of value

when the moon illuminates it.

A book pointing to your heart is only of value

when your mind opens and you read it.

As a former bookseller, librarian, life-long reader and now Jodo Shinshu minister, let me recommend a few of my favorite Buddhist books.

Many are available from bookstores and online booksellers; others are out-of-print, but found in local libraries. Many titles are now e-books. You might also find them in thrift stores and yard sales. A wealth of wisdom awaits.

Books about Jodo Shinshu

I think of Jodo Shinshu as “Buddhism for broken people;” in other words, Buddhism for whom Buddhism is not working. These books may help.

*Call of the Infinite: The Way of Shin Buddhism by John Paraskevopoulos: A gentle and concise introduction to Jodo Shinshu and Shinran Shonin. A good first book.

*Dynamic Buddha and Static Buddha by Susumu Yamaguchi: The idea of a Dynamic Buddha, and thus a Dynamic Shinshu, inspires me, and I think, will inspire you.

*The Fragrance of Light: A Journey Into Buddhist Wisdom by John Paraskevopoulos: This is a collection of quotations illustrating the Pure Land path of Buddhism. There’s deep wisdom on every page, which makes it one of my devotional choices.

*Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path: A Life of Awakening by Takamaro Shigaraki. A gem of scholarly insight into what makes Shin Buddhism tick. It’s a workout that our spiritual muscles need.

*Immeasurable Life: The Essence of Shin Buddhism by John Paraskevopoulos: Grasp the power of transformative Shin teachings in the face daily life challenges.

*Naturalness: A Classic of Shin Buddhism by Kenryo Kanamatsu: This book strives to convey the spirituality of Shin Buddhism. It’s certainly worth reflecting on.

*Mahayana Way to Buddhahood, Theology and Enlightenment by Susumu Yamaguchi: This book helps illuminate Jodo Shinshu within the larger Mahayana tradition. The development of Mahayana thought through the lens of a renowned Shinshu scholar offers vistas and insights.

*River of Fire, River of Water, An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism by Taitetsu Unno: This book is a personal look at Buddhist teachings and life, which show why common people widely embraced Jodo Shinshu. It really embraces the needs and problems our current times.

*Tannisho: This collection of Shinran Shonin’s sayings and anecdotes compiled by a disciple is intense, with a clarity that gets to the heart. Various translations from Japanese to English are available; I particularly recommend versions by Taitetsu Unno and Ryukyo Fujimoto. This text will grow on you as you grow.

*The Unhindered Path: Ruminations on Shin Buddhism by John Paraskevopoulos: A nice collection of reflections, sermons, and essays. Like his other book, I return to it again and again.

Other Books about Buddhism:

*Basic Buddhism through Comics by Mitsutoshi Furuya: This manga approach to Buddhism does a good job. Don’t let the panels throw you, which read from right to left, following the Japanese language. This is an engaging presentation of the Buddhist teachings.

*Beyond Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor. This work critically explores Buddhism’s origins and ideas, and introduces them to the secular world. A must read in making clear the Buddha’s program for all. He expands his thinking in the book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World.

*Buddha by Karen Armstrong: A biography of the person known as Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived in ancient India. A good “first” book on Buddhism.

*The Buddha Way by William Corlett and John Moore: Reading this book when I was younger would have saved me much time. A friendly exploration of Buddhism.

*Buddhism, A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith: World Religions scholar Smith offers a solid, straightforward account of Buddhism, He also includes a nice discussion of Shin Buddhism in the afterward.

*Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen: Taking complex ideas and making them easy to understand, Hagen provides a guide to basic Buddhist concepts. Definitely on my “first book” recommendation list. Look for his explanation of “dependent origination.”

*Buddhism Without Beliefs, A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor: A controversial commentary on how some religions want you to be a person of the past, but not the present. How to be both Buddhist and critical.

*Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor: Chronicles the author’s life and explores the life of the historical Buddha. He relates Buddhism to the modern world.

*Ecstasy and Enlightenment: Teachings of Natural Tantra by Thomas Cleary: Encountering Tantric Buddhism in a way that is vivid and embracing.

*Ethics for the New Millennium by the Dalai Lama. Buddhism is like a three-legged stool of Wisdom, Concentration, and Ethics. Without ethics, the practice of meditation is empty, and wisdom is clouded. A dry book, but well worth wrestling with.

*The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion by David Brazier: Here’s a psychoanalytical approach to Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths.

*The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh: The author is a beloved teacher who presents an encyclopedic exploration of Buddhism. It’s a “must have” in my book.

*Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa: From the Theravada tradition view, this is a no-nonsense approach to applying Buddhism. Reading Buddhadasa is like splashing cold water on your face. He talks about Mahayana, social issues and ethics.

*The Monk and the Philosopher, A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life by Jean Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard: Scientist and translator for the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, talks to his father, European philosopher Jean Francois Revel, about embracing Buddhism and living in a modern scientific world. Unfolding throughout are rapport and respect between father and son.

*The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh produced many easy to read books, including Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, and No Death–No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. To explore Buddhist-Christian relationships, read Living Buddha, Living Christ. Also check out Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology.

*Unbinding: The Grace Beyond Self  by Kathleen Dowling Singh: A spiritual account of living the Buddhist teaching of “dependent origination,” or interdependence.

*The Vision of Buddhism by Roger Corless: I love this introduction to Buddhism. Instead of taking a strictly historical approach, Corless takes us topically around the Bodhi Tree to explore vast insights of Buddhism, while tying them all together.

*What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse: The author lays out the Four Dharma Seals, what makes the Buddhist teachings Buddhist, and what does not.

*The World is Made of Stories by David Loy: A book about how we make stories and talk about our lives and how they relate to the Buddhist concept of sunyata, emptiness.

*Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings by Paul Reps: A classic work presenting teaching stories of Zen Buddhism. There are gazillion books on Zen, but this one is special.


Rev. Brenion is a Jodo Shinshu minister in Southern California.