Top Five Dharma books for beginners

Several  people  have asked for reading suggestions, since there are so many dharma books out there.  It is really, really difficult to know where to start.  So, here is my list of a beginner’s guide.  I start with the disclaimer that I am mostly coming from the so-called ‘Tibetan’ form of Buddhism.  This is not meant to suggest it is ‘better than’ other forms. It just happens to be where I am. SO, without further ado:

1. Sakyong Mipham, “Turning the Mind into an AllySakyong Mipham, “Turning the Mind into an Ally”

The vast majority of people I talk to are interested in Buddhism because their minds are so agitated, filled with thoughts they don’t want, or are just plain a mess.  This is the best instruction manual for how to do something about those issues without a bunch of jargon or having to ‘join the club.’  It’s mostly a clear guide to calm-abiding meditation, which is what most people think of as meditation.

If you just want to get your mind together, start here.

2. Chögyam Trungpa, “Myth of FreedomChögyam Trungpa, “Myth of Freedom”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche left a huge impact on how the Dharma is taught in the West. To a great extent, he created the vocabulary used by all schools, coming up (along with his Nalanda translation committee) with words that really worked to get across the meaning of dharma terminology.  For example, where previous translators used the phrase “void” or “voidness” to describe absolute reality, Trungpa Rinpoche used “emptiness” (of inherent existence), which has much less nihilistic connotations. He especially was known for teaching buddha-dharma with an emphasis on psychological training versus “spiritual” matters.

He focused on making the ‘esoteric’ parts of Buddhism – especially the Vajrayana of the Himalayas – and making it have actual practical value for his students.

From his immense canon, I would go with “Myth of Freedom.”  A lot of folks would go with his previous book, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism,” which put him on the map in 1970. But I prefer “Myth” for the topics covered, such as the 5 Skhandas, the 6 realms, and practical advice for weaving practice – often the ‘basic’ sitting described by his son in the previous book – into daily life. He covers the entire path up through tantra.

Trungpa Rinpoche had a style of teaching that was very different.  Here are a few excerpts from “Myth of Freedom” that give a flavor.

If you want an overview of the entire path in a form that is not ‘foreign’ or overly ‘religious’,  start here.

3. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, “Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, “Transformation of Suffering: A Handbook for Practitioners”Transformation of Suffering: A Handbook for Practitioners

Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche (also called simply Khen Rinpoche by his students) covers core teachings here such as karma, impermanence, and especially how to use unpleasant circumstances on the path. (Thus the title.) He covers many of the same topics that Chögyam Trungpa did in “Myth of Freedom.”  Khen Rinpoche does it in a more traditional way than Trungpa, quoting extensively from old classic texts and giving traditional lists.  But his commentary describing them and giving accessible examples from his experience of having lived in the United States for 20 years makes it just as fresh and applicable.  I’ve been studying and practicing under Khen Rinpoche since 2000.  I heard him cover the basics of this book over the course of 2 days in May-June of that year, and it blew my mind.  Like Trungpa Rinpoche in “Myth of Freedom,” Khen Rinpoche covers the entire path up through tantra.  He takes a completely different approach than Trungpa does in trying to demystify tantra practice. I find both approaches equally valid and useful.

As I like to say, if one has decided that Shakyamuni makes sense and wants to follow in a more traditional way, then start here.

4. Thich Naht Hahn, “Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness”  Thich Naht Hahn, “Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness”

I’m going with another non-standard choice.  Most people would go with one of Thich Naht Hahn best sellers like “Being Peace” or “Peace in Every Step”.

I am going with Transformation and Healing because it shows that what Thich Naht Hahn, also called Thaye, has been teaching goes all the way back to the very beginning, to this 4 Foundations of Mindfulness.  These foundations are the body, feelings, the mind, and relating with the outer world. These 4 Foundations were taught by Shakimuni Buddha, and went on to be shared by most Buddhist schools in one form or another.  Beyond simply being ‘Mindfulness,’ this teaching also goes head-on into instructions about exactly how to deconstruct your self-grasping, as well as facing the reality of death in an extremely precise and vivid way.

Thict Naht Hahn takes three different translations and weaves his teaching between them all. Everything that people familiar with his mass appeal books – such as the gathas (short verses to encourage mindfulness of actions) – are here.   Khandro Rinpoche taught on this in 2011, using a Theravadan translation (since the full text of this sutra did not make it to Tibet, though everything within it did in other later texts).  I actually prefer the translation that Thich Naht Hahn uses.

If you wanted one book to teach you how to actually ‘be there’ for what is left of your life, start here.

5. Khandro Rinpoche, “This Precious LifeKhandro Rinpoche, “This Precious Life”

Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche’s first book, which is focused on the Four Reminders,  also referred to as four thoughts which turn one’s mind to the Dharma, and furthermore known as the Outer Preliminaries.  These are the foundation teachings shared by all the Himalayan Buddhist schools.  I have addressed these in my own humble way.  These are:

  1. The precious and rarity of having a human birth with all the qualities and potential to get enlightened in this very life;
  2.  the certainty of death and impermanence;
  3. the inevitability of cause and effect, also known (though widely misunderstood in the West) as karma; and
  4.  the reality of suffering.

As a student of hers for many years, I have heard her say much of what she says in this book.  One thing I recall her saying early on was “If you have the Four Reminders firmly in mind at all times, you will be able to overcome all obstacles and difficulties.   I have seen Khandro Rinpoche challenge groups of newer students to throw out potential obstacles to practice, and answer all of them – no matter how outlandish in some cases – explain how one of the Four Reminders is the antidote to that difficulty.

She covers these topics much more in-depth and more traditionally than, for example, Trungpa Rinpoche does.  Since some people may get turned off by her describing the cold hell realms in detail, I have put this at the end of the list.  Khandro Rinpoche does address “Do I have to believe THIS?” issues head-on, in a manner that makes total sense to me.  At the end, she talks about the whole concept of taking refuge, which is when one becomes a Buddhist.  She explains it in the context of becoming an actual Buddha-dharma practitioner.

If you have decided you really want to engage on this path of practice with an in-depth grounding, start here.

This will be enough to get anyone started.  🙂




Filed under black swan, Dharma teachings

2 responses to “Top Five Dharma books for beginners

  1. Craig Thomas

    Might I also suggest Rebel Buddha by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpocheist and What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche.

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