A curated list of books of interest to the seriously curious
With an undergraduate background in (Western) Philosophy, Andy finds it helpful to contextualize Buddhist thinkers’ work from this perspective. If you do too, some suggested further readings are listed below. For non-academics, readability and clarity are of heightened importance so those qualities are noted:
The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika – Jay L. Garfield (Oxford University Press, 1995). This is the translation of and commentary on the MMK that was the primary reference for Deep Dharma’s practical commentary/practice guide. Garfield’s virtually verse-by-verse discussion can be dense if you are not familiar with the style of Western academic philosophical analysis, but an engaged reading can be very rewarding. Like Westerhoff’s book, this commentary benefits from a singular focus on Nagarjuna (here the MMK exclusively), but it follows Nagarjuna’s Buddhist subject-matter organization rather than Westerhoff’s Western-oriented thematic organization.
Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction – Jan Westerhoff (Oxford University Press, 2009). Understandably written philosophical analysis of Nagarjuna’s system, arranged thematically (e.g., discussions of causation, the Self, epistemology, and other philosophically current categories). The most readable of the “hardcore” philosophical analyses listed here, it benefits from a focus on Nagarjuna’s system in particular, versus the wider Buddhist perspective of the Siderits and Garfield surveys.
Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy – Jay L. Garfield (Oxford University Press, 2015). This is Garfield’s thematic comparison/commentary on Buddhism’s perspective on au courant subjects in Western philosophical circles (e.g., Self, the nature of consciousness, Epistemology, phenomenology, etc.). Garfield’s writing here is, typically for him, very erudite and well-reasoned, and in this case quite readable. Garfield has clearly progressed as a writer between his 1995 MMK translation/commentary and this book. Engaging Buddhism is refreshingly willing to take stands on the issues discussed, versus the common tendency of Western academics to see everything only in comparative perspective. For this reason and because of Garfield’s seemingly unmatched command of the subjects he discusses, Engaging Buddhism has the feel of a Magnum Opus about it.
Nagarjuna: Buddhism’s Most Important Philosopher – Richard H. Jones (Jackson Square Books, 2014). Compendium volume of the author’s translations and commentaries on the MMK, as well as several other works attributed to Nagarjuna. Includes apocryphal works (e.g., “Pulverizing the Categories”) that are interesting and entertaining for the devotee. Also includes Jones’ succinct and readable commentaries.
Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction – Mark Siderits (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007). Like Westerhoff, a thematically-arranged analysis of Buddhist thought, largely from a Western philosophical perspective. Attempts to contextualize several of the subjects (e.g., non-Self, ethics) in a larger Buddhist perspective (i.e., not just Nagarjuna), which is interesting for the avid reader, but it can be easy to get lost in the discussion.
The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way – Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (Shambhala Publications, 2003). This is not a Western philosophical analysis of Nagarjuna or other Buddhist thought, nor is it an exhaustive analysis/summary of the MMK (per Garfield). Nevertheless, it is worth including on this list as the author’s highly readable writing and obvious love for the subject make for a refreshing perspective on the MMK.
The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way: The Mulamadhyamakakarika – Nagarjuna, trans. Padmakara Translation Group (Shambhala, 2016). One of the more readable (and, we presume, reliable) translations of the MMK. Includes the Tibetan text as well, which is beautiful to look at even if not readable for those without Tibetan language skills.
Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide – Ben Connelly (Wisdom Publications, 2016). Verse-by-verse commentary, written in self-reflective and inspirational style, on Vasubandhu’s “Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only.” Connelly’s focus on plain-language interpretation and applying the lessons of the text make this important text accessible to a casual reader, even if leaving aside philosophical depth.
Buddhism (Scriptures) and Buddhist Practice
From the vast Buddhist canon, here are two scriptures with commentaries that are accessible to beginners yet worthy of several lifetimes of study.
Buddhism: One Teacher Many Traditions — Thubten Chodron and His Holiness The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 2017). A very new look at the core teachings by a nun who teaches with freshness and warmth.
The Way of the Bodhisattva — Shantideva, trans. Padmakara Translation Committee (Shambala Classics, 2006). One of the five root texts in Tibetan Buddhism. Everything you need to know to be a Bodhisattva is here, in this gracious and grateful translation. Very readable.
Poetry and other General Interest
Poetry is able to express the dharma in ways that are profound and penetrating, almost beyond words. It can open a dharma door for us that speech and prose cannot.
Canoeing Up Cabaga Creek: Buddhist Poems 1955-1986 — Philip Whalen (Parallax Press, 1996).
The poet laureate of the beat generation and “first wave” American Buddhist; these pages are filled with wisdom and humor, in words, pictures, symbols and space.
Inside the Grass Hut: Living Shitou’s Classic Zen Poem — Ben Connelly (Wisdom Publications, 2004). A (relatively) new translation and commentary on this classic Zen poem, an accessible unpacking of this timeless work. Updated Edition: (Wisdom Publications, 2014), tr. Taigen Dan Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi, commentary by Ben Connelly — Shitou’s 8th century scriptural poem is a short, elegant and readily accessible explication of how to live on the path and how to navigate its weeds. Any serious practitioner will quickly find themselves at home in The Grass Hut!
The Life of Nagarjuna From Tibetan and Chinese Sources – M. Walleser (Nag Publishers, 1979). Short survey of various legends surrounding details of Nagarjuna’s biography. Highly fanciful and serves to remind us of just how little we actually know about the life of this master.
Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun –Venerable Jy Din Sakya (online at http://zbohy.zatma.org/Dharma/zbohy/Literature/xybook/xybook-home.html). A remembrance of Empty Cloud–the great 20th century Chinese practice monk–by his disciple. The Chan teachings and life of this great monk are inspiring and instructive. If you can find a copy of the (out of print) Charles Luk translation Empty Cloud: The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master (Element Books, 1988), several inspiring dharma talks from Empty Cloud are included.