The Best Buddhist Books of 2012: Selections from the Review Editor’s Desk


There was a harvest of good Buddhist books published in 2012. So what makes a “Best Buddhist Book”?

This question has become something of a koan for our review editors, and while we have not unriddled it, we’ve managed to come up with a rationale for selecting this year’s Best Buddhist Books:

  1. They inform Buddhists about their practice
  2. They advance our understanding of, or shatter our preconceptions about, Buddhism
  3. They are well written or translated, and accessible

The ultimate litmus test, though, is if we like it!

Some of the books and collections that made this year’s list were obvious choices while others were surprising gems. Since translations of Buddhist books are essential to the long-term reception of the Buddhist traditions and are primary sources for study and practice, we’ve created a separate category for translations into English, underscoring their importance.

Below is our selection of Best Buddhist Books for 2012.

Not For Happiness

not for happiness

A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices

By Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Shambhala Publications

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse throws a wrench in the logic of feel-good Buddhism. He makes clear that Buddhism is about enlightenment; if you’re looking for comfort and ease, perhaps you’d be better off getting a massage. If, however, you’re interested in the work of transformation, Dzongsar Rinpoche serves as an invaluable guide to the reader, walking you step-by-step with care and attention through each of the ngondro tantric preliminary practices. Read an excerpt from the current issue of Buddhadharma.

The Scientific Buddha

books scientific buddhaHis Short and Happy Life

By Donald Lopez
Yale University Press

In response to all the fuss about Buddhism and science, this book asks: Why do we yearn for Buddhism to have predicted every scientific breakthrough, from the Big Bang to Darwinian evolution to Einstein’s relativity theory to the latest discoveries in neuroscience? Though this book strips away myths that Buddhism was ever scientific, what we like most about it is that it suggests what is truly valuable about the Buddha’s teachings is that they radically challenge how we see the world.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

books living beautifully
By Pema Chödrön
Shambhala Publications

What makes this book valuable is that it’s by Pema Chödrön. If you like her gentle conversational teaching style, then this won’t disappoint. The popular Buddhist author brings us another one of her toolkit books. She suggests the tools she is discussing be used to live without the ego’s story line, without fear and uncertainty. The book is framed around the three Buddhist vows: commitment to personal liberation, to selfless response to others, and to accepting reality as it is.

Where the Heart Beats

books where the heart
John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

By Kay Larson

More than remembering and celebrating the life of the musician John Cage, this book documents a historical moment at the intersection of Buddhism with modern art. A self-described composer of “silent prayer,” Cage composed music as an act of non-doing and an expression of emptiness. With this well-written biography, we are given a window into the elegance and depth of this American Zen artist. Read an excerpt, published in the Fall 2012 Buddhadharma magazine.

The Cult of Emptiness

The Western Discovery of Buddhist Thought and the Invention of Oriental Philosophy

By Urs App
University Media

How we have received and continue to interpret Buddhism through European lenses is kaleidoscopic. Urs App explores and narrates this history, beginning with sixteenth-century Jesuit and Christian missionaries who encountered Zen Buddhists in Japan, and looks at how these encounters shaped the invention of a unified “Oriental philosophy,” an atheistic doctrine of nothingness that was attributed to the Buddha and thought to originate in Egypt. The story of what was known about Buddhism and how that knowledge was manipulated by the Church, not to mention how it informs our perceptions of Buddhism today, makes for a fascinating read.

How Theravada is Theravada?

books how theravada
Exploring Buddhist Identities

Edited by Peter Skilling, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, Santi Pakdeekham
Silkworm Books

What is Theravada? Seeking to address oversimplified and cliché responses to that question, this collection of articles by scholars challenges our conventional view of Theravada in some pretty radical ways. Beginning with the premise that Theravada is a longstanding form of Buddhism, authors look closely at how Theravada is in fact a twentieth-century invention. This book asks us to reevaluate what we think we know about Theravada, and in fact much of Buddhism.

Open Heart, Open Mind

books tsoknyi
Awakening the Power of Essence Love

By Tsoknyi Rinpoche
Harmony Books

What’s striking about this book is that it’s so personal. Having a Dzogchen master open up about his vulnerabilities and fears, especially in print, is both touching and reassuring. It’s just human. Much of the book is presented in narrative style, teaching on themes that include boundless love, habits of the self, and the subtle body.


To Dispel the Misery of the World

books dispel misery
Whispered Teachings of the Bodhisattvas

By Geshe Chekawa and Ga Rabjampa
Translated by Rigpa Translations and Khenpo Appey
Wisdom Publications

This book inspires the meditator to reimagine herself. Based on the classic Seven Points of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa (1101-1175), with a full commentary by Ga Rabjampa, the text guides the reader through the cultivation of bodhicitta, a heightened sensitivity to the anguish of the world. Utterly practical, these teachings that were once whispered between bodhisattvas are now available for those who wish to undertake the real spiritual work of uprooting self-cherishing.

The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha

books numerical bodhi
A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya

Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Wisdom Publications

A cliché image from the Pali Canon is the Buddha huddled with a group of monks, teaching about the profundities of the universe. This translation of the Anguttara Nikaya brings us a more complete vision directly from the source: Pali suttas that record teachings to laypersons on how to run a household or have a healthy sex life. This is the fourth and final collection from the Pali suttas, including over eight thousand sutta discourses in eleven distinct bundles, arranged numerically.

The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism

Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism
Volumes 1–13

This year marked a major milestone in the translation of Buddhist canonical works with the publication of the thirteen-volume anthology of Korean Buddhism. Encapsulating the Korean Buddhist literary heritage, this collection covers nearly 1,700 years of Buddhist authorship. It includes a wide range of writings from the collected works of the Korean Soen (Zen) masters to writings on the Pure Land traditions, the well-known “doctrinal essentials,” Mahayana commentaries, travelogues, etc. The entire collection is available for free download.

A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom

books dudjom
Complete Instructions on the Preliminary Practices

By Dudjom Rinpoche
Translated by Padmakara Translation Group
Shambhala Publications

Like a coach prepping an athlete for heightened performance, Dudjom Rinpoche leads the practitioner systematically through the ngondro stages of preparing for the Vajrayana practice of deity yoga. Along with the included short liturgy, Heart Essence of the Dakinis, this instruction manual and it’s explanation together make this a sine qua non text for those wishing to seek out and engage in these Nyingma preliminary practices.

The Lankavatara Sutra

books lankavatara
Translation and Commentary

Translated by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press

To have a cup of tea and to taste the tea are not the same. This is a pith way that Chinese Zen masters came to explain the essential teaching of this classic Mahayana discourse—that while reality is nothing other than a projection of the mind (i.e. cup of tea), it remains an experience beyond ideas (i.e. taste of tea). Set during the Buddha’s visit to the southern island of Sri Lanka, it’s filled to the brim with riddles and dictums on emptiness.

Jewels from the Treasury

books jewels treasury
Vasubandhu’s Verses on the Treasury of Abhidharma and Its Commentary Youthful Play by the Ninth Karmapa

By Vasubandhu and the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje
Translated by David Karma Choepel
KTD Publications

There are five textbooks that largely makeup the core curriculum for studying Buddhism in Tibet. We now have one more translation of these textbooks in English—the fourth-century Indian Buddhist master Vasubhandu’s classic Treasury of Abhidharma’s verses paired with the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje’s (1556-1603) commentary on it, Youthful Play. For anyone interested in studying Buddhist philosophy and cosmology, especially within the Kagyu tradition, this book is a welcome addition.

Sky Above, Great Wind

books tanahashiThe Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

By Ryokan
Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala Publications

Some of the greatest Buddhist books are collections of poetry. With this book, one of Japan’s most beloved Zen monks is brought forth graciously. For readers of Buddhist poetry, Ryokan is pure joy. Each verse reflects a different light in the spectrum of this Zen poet’s eccentricity and reclusiveness. Read on, Buddhist poets!

The Treasury of Knowledge

By Jamgon Kongtrul
Translated by Kalu Rinpoche Translation Group
Snow Lion
Vols. 9 and 10

It took nearly three decades, but with the publication of the outstanding volumes, this year marked the completion of the collective effort to translate the Tibetan savant Jamgon Kongtrul’s encyclopedia of Buddhist knowledge. Ten volumes in total, the final two volumes were published this year:

books treasury sixa) Indo-Tibetan Classical Learning and Buddhist Phenomenology
Book Six, Parts One and Two
Translated by Gyurme Dorje

The ten fields of classical science were introduced to Tibet from India. A condensed and refined presentation of these sciences by Jamgon Kongtrul is the subject of the first part of this book. The second part is a synopsis of philosophical systems and abhidharma.

books treasury sevenb) Fundamentals of Buddhist Study and Practice
Book Seven and Book Eight, Parts One and Two
Translated by Richard Barron

There is a range of interpretive tools that are used by Buddhists to understand the teachings. This volume presents these tools via an incredible breadth of discussions on the levels of truth, Madhyamaka philosophy, multitiered meditative absorptions, and the Vajrayana approach.

The Treasury of Knowledge is reviewed in the Winter 2012 Buddhadharma — read an excerpt.

The Ceasing of Notions

books morinagaAn Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments

By Soko Morinaga Roshi
Translated by Venerable Myoko-ni and Michelle Bromley
Wisdom Publications

Every once in a while a book comes along that refreshes our appreciation of a core Buddhist genre. A series of koans like the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate, this book is a dialogue between a novice and his enigmatic Zen master. Translated from a manuscript that was discovered in the Dunhuang Caves along the Silk Road in western China, this ancient text from the early Chinese Ox-Head School is paired with commentary by the late Japanese Rinzai Zen master, Soko Morinaga Roshi (1925–1995).