Without practice and learning Buddhism will cease to exist. Endeavor yourself and cause others to practice the two ways of practice and learning, which stem from faith. – Nichiren (Writings of Nichiren Shonin Volume 4: Faith and Practice)
A lot of people ask me what books they should read in order to further their understanding of Buddhism, so I would like to recommend a course of study I have developed. This course is the result of having spent more than 25 years practicing and studying Buddhism and having to sift through many sources to find what is essential and what is not. First, however, I’d like to say something about the role of learning or study as I now see it. I think that the study of Buddhist terms, doctrines, and systems must always have as their aim the elucidation of actual practice. If the study of these things is not helping to guide and encourage you in your actual practice and in the way you are cultivating the Dharma in daily life than it is becoming nothing more than the memorizing of trivia for Buddhist cocktail parties and/or for winning a flame-war on the internet (and there really is no such thing as “winning” a flame-war). Study should always be for clarifying and encouraging practice. Conversely, I think Buddhist practice should be guided and clarified by learning what the Buddha actually taught in the sutras. Now this does not mean that one should become a Buddhist fundamentalist or ideologue. What I mean is that authentic Buddhist practice will primarily look to the guidance and inspiration of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings before presuming to fill in the gaps with things taken from some other source. The Buddha invited people to try out what he taught for themselves by saying, “Come and see.” So come and see what Buddhism offers for yourself by giving the Buddha’s teachings an honest try and see what develops. Secondarily, learn from the commentaries of the great masters of the past who have, through trial and error, found approaches to the Buddha’s teachings and practice that seemed to be the most clear and effective approaches in their circumstances and that their lineages have since passed on to us. So try those out and see for yourself whether the recommendations are still an effective approach to Buddhist study and practice and more importantly to the spiritual development of one’s own life. Only you can tell whether something makes sense and is bearing fruit, but at the same time you can’t determine this until you have really studied the Dharma and given it an honest try. It’s like medicine, you can’t know if it is really helping unless you take it as prescribed.
So where do you start with Buddhism? You should always start with actual practice. You can, as I did, begin by reading books about Buddhism, but I do not think real study of Buddhism actually begins until the study is happening within the context of actual practice. Outside of practice you are just on the outside looking in from a theoretical point of view. Once you actually take up a daily practice then you will understand the teachings in their proper context – as guidance, clarification, and encouragement. The Buddha’s teachings were never meant to be taken as beliefs or creeds to accept or discard. Rather, they are instructions for practice and models for helping you, the practitioner, get a handle on the actualities of your life. You are meant to experience and see things for yourself, not take the Buddha’s word for things that you can never verify. The Buddha’s teachings are not for you to passively accept so that the Buddha will come and save you; rather, they are things you must try for yourself so that you will be a buddha (awakened one) who will know for him or herself the truth. So find a practice that resonates with you and that you can actually set aside some time to do each day, even if it is just for a few minutes upon waking or a few minutes before sleeping (ideally both). Many forms of Buddhism teach methods of silent meditation, but in Nichiren Shu the primary practice is the recitation of the mantra “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” (lit. Devotion to the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma), which is also a form of meditation. Please see this essay on Basic Meditation Instructions for specific instructions on meditation and the chanting of this Odaimoku (lit. Sacred Title). If you wish to go further and also recite the Lotus Sutra and the rest of the daily service used in Nichiren Buddhism, then I would recommend getting the daily service book called Dharma, and to read this essay on Nichiren Shu’s Daily Practice. There are also other essays in the section of my blog called Practice Instructions that you may find helpful.
It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, that it is ideal if you can learn how to practice by working face-to-face with a teacher who has many years of doing the practice you have taken up or wish to take up under their belt and who has been authorized as a teacher or practice instructor in the lineage that one wishes to learn from and practice with. If you were going to learn karate or kung-fu or yoga, wouldn’t you want such personal face-to-face instruction from a teacher who has been vouched for by a particular school or organization with at least a modicum of credibility? Why should learning Buddhist practice be any different? Learn from someone you can trust. For that matter, before committing to any teacher try to spend some time with them and with the practice community (or Sangha as it is often called in Buddhism) first. Try to get a sense of what they are like both with each other and with outsiders. Ask yourself if these are the kind of people that you can trust and would want to emulate. Are these the kind of people that you would feel comfortable introducing family, friends, and co-workers to? Make sure you know what you are getting into, but once you have made a commitment, do your best to follow the customs and traditions of that lineage. This is a matter of respect and also a matter of suspending judgment on things that may not make sense immediately but might make a lot of sense later on as your practice and perspective develops. Of course, some things may not ever make sense and Sanghas can be dysfunctional, but that is another reason to be patient and not be judgmental as no one and no organization is perfect. Don’t let little things disrupt, discourage, or hinder your practice. On the other hand, do look out for yourself and don’t let others be abused either. There are definitely standards of common decency and common sense that should be observed – and this is again where Buddhist study comes in, because the Buddha has already set forth many of these standards and they are fairly universal (or should be).
Once you have a practice and hopefully have found a teacher and/or a Sangha to practice with it is time to really delve into the teachings. I think that for beginners it is best to get a general overview of Buddhism and of the particular lineage that you are practicing with. That way you can get a sense of how the practice you are doing and the teachings you may be receiving from your teacher fit into the grand scheme of Buddhism over the ages and across the nations. For those who wish to practice Nichiren Buddhism I will recommend that they read Lotus Seeds and/or Awakening to the Lotus in order to get this kind of general introduction to Buddhism and the Nichiren Shu lineage. Some people have also found my online book Dharma Flower helpful in getting an overview of Nichiren Buddhist teachings and practices. Dharma Flower, however, is more about the doctrine, while Lotus Seeds has a more practical orientation and doesn’t delve quite so much into doctrinal intricacies and their development. I have also written this Overview of Buddhism that many have found helpful in learning about the development of Buddhism and its many varieties.
I should also mention that while some people may want to read an introductory book on Buddhism that is non-sectarian or that does not take the perspective of a single lineage I do not think that is possible. Every book written on Buddhism is going to take the point of view of either the author’s lineage or the author’s own personal biases and the perspectives of their own context and background. There is no objective totally non-sectarian approach to Buddhism, though certainly some approaches are less narrowly biased and sectarian than others. There are authors who do their best to be objective and to focus on elements that are more or less universally agreed upon, but even those authors are either honestly acknowledging their own perspective or they are trying to present their own particular conception of an idealized universal form of Buddhism – which basically amounts to presenting or establishing their own unique take. That is, of course, just what the founders of the traditional lineages did in the past – each was originally trying to present or establish their own ideal universal form of Buddhism. My own particular approach is to try to allow the Buddha’s sutras to speak for themselves, but I do acknowledge that my own presentation and interpretation of them is certainly informed by the Nichiren Shu lineage that I am trained and ordained in, my own study of the Pali Canon and Mahayana sutras, and my long experience with Soto Zen and Won Buddhism. So if anyone is curious, that is where I am coming from in presenting this particular program of practice and study.
Once you have established a consistent daily practice and have gained an overview of Buddhism and of the lineage that you are practicing with or whose practices you have adopted (if you are unable to find a teacher and/or Sangha), you should be ready to begin learning directly from Shakyamuni Buddha. Of course the historical Buddha died over 2,000 years ago, and the only way to learn from him is through translations of translations of various recensions of the written record of the Buddha’s teachings inscribed several hundred years after the Buddha’s passing based upon an oral transmission. There is no way to verify what the historical Buddha actually said and did apart from the sutras. The Pali Canon is probably the closest we are going to get to what the historical Buddha actually said and did, and much of it is corroborated by the Agamas that are part of the Chinese canon. Even then, these are the teachings as redacted by male monks who had their own particular interests and outlooks. The earliest Mahayana sutras were recorded about the same time as the Pali Canon, but many were composed hundreds of years later. The Mahayana sutras assume the material found in the Pali Canon and the Agamas as their basis and there are many indications that the Mahayana sutras are the spiritual and literary creations of later generations of Buddhist monks. The bottom line is that Shakyamuni Buddha as presented in the sutras is basically a historical fiction, a literary creation of pre-Mahayana and Mahayana monks. Though the Buddha of the Pali Canon may be closer to the actual historical person there is still a distance, still a certain remove from the actual person to the person the monks wished later generations to know. This can be seen in the mythical and supernatural flourishes, the stylized repetitive nature of the teachings, and the stock phrases and descriptions used throughout the Pali Canon. This should not upset or shock us. It doesn’t matter that we cannot directly know the historical Buddha. What is important is the Buddha who speaks to us in the sutras. That is the Buddha who can be our teacher. So we must ask ourselves if the Buddha who speaks to us in the sutras makes sense. Are his teachings practical and relevant? Are his teachings inspiring and efficacious? The sutras are not necessarily the verbatim teachings of the historical Buddha, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the teachings of the sutras can be weighed on their own merits and actualized in our own lives. In making Shakyamuni Buddha our teacher by reading the sutras we are not looking to an authority figure to depend upon, rather we are opening our hearts and minds to the personified voice of a wisdom tradition that has stood the test of time and whose coherent system of wholesome living and spiritual cultivation we can test for ourselves.
If you wish to learn from Shakyamuni Buddha in order to develop your faith (by “faith” I mean confidence and motivation), practice, and understanding, then begin at the beginning. This means beginning with the teachings found in the English translations of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is so named because Pali is the language it was recorded in. Pali is no longer a spoken language, it is solely a Buddhist liturgical and canonical language. The Pali Canon is the canon of the Theravadin school of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka and SE Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, parts of Vietnam). It is the only complete canon of early or pre-Mahayana Buddhism that still exists today and it has been translated into English. The Agamas, written in another Sanskrit dialect, now exist only in their Chinese translation. The Agamas are taken from different schools of pre-Mahayana Buddhism and they have not been translated into English, though scholars who have compared the Agamas with the Pali Canon have found that the Buddha’s teachings are essentially the same in both. Anyway, for us English speakers it is the Pali Canon that is the most accessible source of the Buddha’s foundational teachings. The Pali Canon is, however, large enough to fill a whole bookcase. Fortunately it is not necessary to read all of that. I would recommend either or both of the following two anthologies: In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi, or Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. Both books are composed of passages from the Pali Canon with commentary by the respective translators in order to orient the reader. The first book provides an outline of the Buddha’s life and walks you through all the Buddha’s foundational teachings and most important discourses. The second book does a more thorough job of telling the Buddha’s life story and it also provides the most important discourses but it is a bit more challenging to read as the author does not try to explain or interpret the passages beyond simply introducing their context within the life of the Buddha. I would also like to recommend that a serious student of Buddhism read the Dhammapada. I would recommend either the translation and commentary by Glenn Wallis or the translation and commentary by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. Another book by Glenn Wallis that may be very helpful to a student of the Dharma would be his Basic Teachings of the Buddha that is a selection of 16 passages translated from the Pali Canon with his commentaries. Finally, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh might also be helpful as a very accessible summary explanation of basic Buddhism. It is not an anthology of sutra passages, but it does contain many citations from both the Pali Canon and the Agamas. If I may presume, I have also written a series of articles about the life of the Buddha and commented on the discourses from the Pali Canon that I have found to be the most helpful in understanding Buddhism generally and links to these may all be found at the section of my blog entitled Shakyamuni Buddha’s Life and Teachings.
After studying the basic teachings of the Buddha one will then be ready to move into the Mahayana teachings. Mahayana teachings assume that one is at least familiar with basic Buddhism, but it goes on to draw out what it sees as the deeper implications of those teachings. In particular, Mahayana tries to inspire and encourage the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all beings. It sets forth the path of the bodhisattva (lit. awakening-being) who seeks to attain buddhahood by cultivating the six perfections of generosity, virtue, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom. Mahayana discusses the perfection of wisdom in terms of the direct realization of emptiness. Mahayana also presents a more transcendent and yet at once more immediate image of the Buddha. There are many Mahayana sutras and some of them, like the Flower Garland Sutra, are quite long and extremely subtle and complex. I do not think that the average practitioner needs to read all of this material anymore than they need to read all of the Pali Canon in order to get the essential points to inspire, guide, and clarify spiritual practice. I do think that one should at least read and be familiar with the teaching concerning emptiness as presented in the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. A good scholarly translation and explanation of both these sutras can be found in the book Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra by Edward Conze. Thich Nhat Hanh has also put out translations of and commentaries on these sutras that many may find more practical and accessible than Conze. These would be The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion and The Heart of Understanding. In addition, Thich Nhat Hanh has recently put out a book containing translations of and commentaries on seven key discourses of the Buddha from the Pali Canon as well as the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra. It is called Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. The Diamond and Heart sutras do not, however, cover the bodhisattva path in detail and for that I would recommend not a sutra but a poem. The poem is the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva (8th century), which I think is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive summaries of the bodhisattva vehicle of Mahayana Buddhism that can be found. There is a translation by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton and one by Stephen Batchelor and several others as well (Pema Chodron and the Dalai Lama have both written a commentaries on it). Another important work (esp. for East Asian Mahayana) is a short treatise attributed to Ashvaghosha but most likely composed in China called the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana that deals with matters of Consciousness Only, Buddha-nature, Original and Acquired Enlightenment and other such matters that developed in later Mahayana Buddhism. There is a translation by Yoshito Hakeda that I would recommend, though others have translated it as well including D.T. Suzuki. Now for many reasons I would recommend that one should next read the Vimalakirti Sutra. This sutra is relatively short (for a Mahayana sutra) but it is important because of its focus on an idealized lay bodhisattva, the titular Vimalakirti. It also expresses some of the most severe (and yet humorous) critiques of the early Buddhist ideal of the arhat (which sets up the more conciliatory teaching of the One Vehicle found in the Lotus Sutra). I also recommend it for its paradoxical, playful, and subtle teachings concerning non-duality. There is a translation by Burton Watson and one by Robert Thurman. Both are good, but I prefer the Robert Thurman translation as I believe it is clearer.
From the Nichiren Shu perspective all of this culminates in the Lotus Sutra. If you have read the sutras and other works I mentioned above, by the time you begin reading the Lotus Sutra you will find that you are able to understand its terms, references, and allusions. The Lotus Sutra assumes that you are familiar with the teachings contained in the above works and so it will be a much more rewarding and richer experience to read this sutra with that background knowledge. In turn, the Lotus Sutra presents the overarching goal of all the previous teachings – the attainment of buddhahood and the immediacy of awakening. So which translation of the Lotus Sutra should you read? There is a translation by Senchu Murano put out by the Nichiren Shu, but at the moment it is out of print and I understand that a new revised version will by available before long. In the meantime, I would recommend The Lotus Sutra translation by Gene Reeves. Reeves’ translation also includes translations of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and the Sutra of Contemplation of the Dharma Practice of Universal Sage Bodhisattva that are known respectively as the opening and closing sutras of the so-called “Threefold Lotus Sutra.” For those who want a more scholarly translation I would recommend the translation by Leon Hurvitz that is called Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. Hurvitz’s translation is of the Lotus Sutra only, but it has an appendix that contains translations of passages from the Sanskrit version that differ from or were left out of the Chinese version by Kumarajiva. For those who would like a guide or introduction to the Lotus Sutra I would highly recommend Shinjo Suguro’s Introduction to the Lotus Sutra. Gene Reeves has also written a book of commentaries on the parables of the Lotus Sutra called Stories of the Lotus Sutra. There is also a great commentary on the Lotus Sutra by Nikkyo Niwano called Buddhism for Today that I understand was itself based on Nichiren Shu commentaries. There are of course other translations of and commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, but those are the ones that I have found to be the most useful.
That is the study program that I would recommend at this time. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of books on Buddhism. This is just a list of those books that I think would be the most helpful to a practitioner who wants a general familiarity with the most essential Buddhist teachings (inclusive of the Mahayana). It is also particularly aimed at learning those things that will help one have a deeper understanding of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of the Lotus Sutra as that is the foundation of my own practice. So again, this list is not for the purpose of reading a bunch of books for the sake of conceptual knowledge of Buddhism but for the purpose of giving you the tools be better motivate, guide, and clarify your own actual practice, cultivation, and realization in daily life. I hope that these recommendations will be helpful to you, and I look forward to any rational, thoughtful, and constructive criticism that may be offered.