Top books by the most inspiring spiritual teacher today: best sellers
The Dalai Lama is that unique mix of a spiritual teacher and a political leader. Unlike the Pope he is virtually uncontested as a spiritual inspiration. His attempts at peaceful dialog with the Chinese government were amazing. Now that he’s retired as a political leader, he can put all his energy into his spiritual teachings. His attempts at finding a meeting ground between Buddhist philosophy and practice and scientific research is inspiring.
What follows are the top books he has written – though in most cases he had a co-writer. I start with the best sellers and have added my own favorites towards the bottom. I have organised the books by the amount of amazon reviews. However, I have also made sure that the most important TOPICS are listed.
A best seller with a whopping 595 reviews in Amazon when I last checked.
This book is based on interviews psychiatrist Howard Cutler had with His Holiness about the most essential questions in human existence: about the nature of love, happiness, kindness and sorrow. This new edition was updated with new material by Cutler and His Holiness.
Added to these interviews are Cutler’s insights based on the Western psychological tradition. This makes the book more accessible, as well as placing the Buddhist teachings in a modern context. All in all a classic that anyone who has read it is likely to come back to, time and again.
The Art of Happiness is a wonderful read. My copy is almost falling apart with over-use. The thing I like about this book is that you don’t have to start at the beginning and read through. I often just open it at random and find something helpful, meaningful, or just soothing that helps me get through a sticky patch.
I have read The Art of Happiness but it was quite some time back. It’s not a religious book but more about universal values and common sense. It’s a book that you can read and put it down to take in what was said before continuing on. If you want something by the Dalai Lama that touches on everyday life problems, then it’s the book to get.
Also available on Kindle
A practical introduction into Tibetan Buddhism. As introductions go, this one is mostly about Tibetan Buddhist PRACTICE: meditation, kindness and day to day living. This sums it up, H.H. on the way to find happiness:
The first is external. By obtaining better clothes, better shelter, and better friends we can find a certain measure of happiness and satisfaction. The second is through mental development, which yields inner happiness. However, these two approaches are not equally viable. External happiness cannot last long without its counterpart…. However, if you have peace of mind you can find happiness even under the most difficult circumstances.
As you can see he does not deny the daily necessities of life. In fact, the Dalai Lama is famous for acknowledging that Buddhism is meaningless in the world today if it doesn’t make us better people. Compassion may start on the meditation cushion, but it works in the world through our words and actions. The same is true for patience and kindness.
The book is, like the previous one, aimed at beginners in Buddhism. It starts with a biography of the Buddha focusing on the three aspects of the path that the Dalai Lama stresses here: morality, concentrated meditation and wisdom.
Also available on kindle
His Holiness has studied science all his life. He is not, of course, a professional scientist. However, he has been in dialogue with them for decades. This book is about the value of both science and spirituality. He sums up the conclusions of science as well as the essence of Buddhism and warns about the limitations of each.
The result is a valuable introduction into the overlap between scientific thought and Buddhist metaphysics. The Dalai Lama goes into the differences in approach between science and spirituality – and faces up to what’s missing in each approach.
Also available on kindle
Most of the books by the 14th Dalai Lama are summaries, extracts from his lectures or introductions with meditations. His audience is the world and he leaves the nuances of Buddhist philosophy to his students.
In this book and it’s sequel he shows that he is also an independent thinker of note. His decades of dialog with people from all over the world, all backgrounds and echelons of society have given him an insight into what is necessary that is unique.
An uncompromising look at our time, our world wide problems – and what each of us can do to solve them. What does taking responsibility mean, and what should be our priority?
As one reader says:
The Dalai Lama makes a very clear connection between human happiness and what he calls inner discipline. He also makes clear that it is not really meaningful to speak of compassion except in the context of self-restraint. This shows that Buddhism is much more than the feel-good religion it is sometimes taken for in the west. It also shows that Buddhist ethical thinking is much closer to traditional Judeao-Christian and even Catholic social teaching than one might suppose. In fact when this is taken on board it becomes much easier to understand the Dalai Lama’s near insistence that people stick to the religious tradition of their own culture.
See also the ‘sequel’ Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World in which His Holiness goes into practical ways in which we can develop compassion for ourselves – with or without religion.
Also available on kindle
The book is a commentary on on two Buddhist texts: the “Middle-Length States of Meditation”, by Kamalashila (an eight-century Indian sage who taught in Tibet) and “The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas” Togmay Sangpo (a 14th century Tibetan). Both are texts H.H. the Dalai Lama often returns to in his public teachings.
Based on lectures H.H. gave in New York in 1999 the book is accessible thought provoking. I think it just to add that the smile the Dalai Lama has for each person he meets is based on precisely what he teaches here: compassion in everyday life.
Quite a few of my Buddhist teachers say that Tibetan Buddhism has helped them deal with anger issues. It is not surprising then that the Dalai Lama wrote a whole book on the topic.
The traditional antidote to violent anger is patience and Santideva devoted a whole chapter to that topic in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. This book is a commentary on that chapter.
This book is NOT for newbies in Buddhism, unless they are willing to skip the parts where His Holiness goes into deeper aspects of Buddhist philosophy. This book is aimed at serious Buddhist practitioners, somewhat familiar with the teachings of emptiness.
For the patient reader however, the book does offer valuable insight. For instance (quote from p. 77):
[…] within oneself, within a single person, one finds many inconsistencies and contradictions. Sometimes the disparity between one’s thoughts early and late in the day is so great that one spends all one’s energy trying to figure out how it can be resolved. This can lead to headaches. So naturally, between two persons, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, there are differences. Conflict and disagreements are bound to happen. Given that there are bound to be disagreements, conflicts, contradictions, how do we deal with them, how do we face them? If we have confidence in our capacity for reconciliation then we will be able to deal with these situations.
This is a ‘Lam Rim‘ style text: a summary of the path to Enlightenment covering all the topics one needs to meditate on to get there.
It’s small, it’s available for very little on Kindle and it is profound. Few of the books His Holiness has written are this close to the traditional teachings. This is perhaps due to the fact that this book was first published in 1994. Here are a few quotes that show what I mean:
When death arrives, the only thing that can help us is the compassion and understanding of the nature of reality one has thus far gained. (p. 55)
He goes on to explain why rebirth is a reality.
When he summarizes the four noble truths he says:
Delusion is separate from consciousness; it is not part of the essential nature of mind. For example, someone who might be very short-tempered does have some moments of peace of mind.
When he comes to the bodhisattva practices, which start with generosity, he says:
To increase and develop your sense of generosity, you should begin by giving away small possessions. With practice, this will lead to your not having even the slightest sense of apprehension or reservation in giving away your body.
I think I should stress that this should be read literally: BEGIN by giving away small things. As long as this is still done with reservation or apprehension, giving away bigger things isn’t recommended. Giving away the body (that is, allowing it to be killed) is a VERY advanced practice which is not realistically recommended at all. It is mentioned only to remind us that we are only beginners.
This list would not be complete without a book on Buddhist philosophy. ‘Emptiness’ is one of my own favorite topics of contemplation which makes it even more necessary to list at least one book on the topic. I could not resist however: these last three are all about selflessness. They are not easy to read. That makes sense, because this is a tough topic.
The first is a commentary on three chapters in Nagarjuna’s famous ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’ (Fundamentals of the Middle Way). It ends with a short exploration of The Three Principles of the Path by Lama Tsong Khapa, one of his famous Lam Rim texts.
Many modern Western Buddhists wonder why these abstruse topics are necessary at all. Isn’t it enough to get a FEEL for the truth? Traditional Tibetan Buddhism says NO to that question. For instance, the Dalai Lama says on p. 15:
Buddhist texts speak of four types or qualities of intelligence: great intelligence, swift intelligence, clear intelligence, and penetrating intelligence. Because we must analyze the subject matter carefully, we need great intelligence; because we cannot naively conclude that something is the case expect on the basis of meticulous analysis, we need clear intelligence; because we need to be able to “think on our feet”, we need swift intelligence; and because we need to pursue the full implications of a line of inquiry, we need penetrating intelligence.
This is another book based on Santideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva. His Holiness clearly cannot get enough of that text. In this case it is a commentary on the famous last chapter of that book: about emptiness. Studying emptiness is the main stay of developing wisdom, so it is also called the Wisdom chapter. Hence the title of the book.
When I did an emptiness retreat (of a mere two days) a few months ago, I was glad to find that this book contains about 10 good short meditations on the topic.
When it comes to Tibetan Buddhism, I have a tendency to do things backwards. Not only did I start studying emptiness way before I knew much about the Tibetan tradition. I also tried reading one of the most difficult books the Dalai Lama wrote in order to try and get a grasp on it.
This is that book. It is the first book by His Holiness ever published in English and it shows. This is not only a very traditional book, it is also a book written primarily for his Tibetan audience. The English version was translated from the Tibetan, unlike any of the other books mentioned above.
This is a very useful book for the scholar: it contains Sanskrit terminology for often used phrases and is full of the traditional lists Buddhists have always used to keep track of their teachings. Just one quote to illustrate (p. 32):
In order to understand the secret of these two levels of truth, we must pay attention to the characteristics of both, when it will then become clear that they are inseparable. While it has just been pointed out that these two are contrary to one another, this does not conflict with the statement that the nature of both is basically the same.
He then goes on to explain the four ways this statement may be misunderstood. Reading this stuff – however dry – may give one a feeling just where the Dalai Lama got his sense of humor.