[ I am already dissatisfied with this post. I will leave it as is- but hope to add to it or revise it soon]

There is a tremendous amount of Buddhist literature available in English today across the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. We should be so grateful for this- as it wasn’t always so. However, choice is often a double-edged sword; as choice increases, it seems our responsibility increases as well. The decision what to read (and conversely, what not to read) seems to become a heavy one. What if I am missing something? Am I on the right path? Is this what all Buddhism teaches? Would I be better off reading something else? How does one navigate the available literature without feeling overwhelmed?

As a beginner, I have spent time asking this question and searching out answers. I feel that I now have an answer that worked well for me and thought I would share this in the hope that it may provide some guidance to others if they find it helpful. The approach I take here is to assume the reader is interested in the practice and theory of Buddhism as opposed to its historical development. Also, I assume that the reader values technical accuracy above all else and not simply ease of comprehension; although any reasonable being would welcome both at the same time.

Where should one start?

I found great benefit in reading the classic Western introductory text What The Buddha Taught by the Theravadan scholar monk Walpola Rahula. This book can easily be found on-line used or new. This text lays out fundamental ideas of Buddhism in a clear and incisive way. While the Theravadan interpretation differs from Mahayana in key places – I feel one should not be occupied with these differences at this time (as it might foster ‘narrow-mindedness’- that grave error of partiality to a particular school or tradition- which fosters pride and is a tremendous obstacle along the path). From this work, one gains a firm beginner’s understanding of such key concepts as the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, dukkha (often translated as suffering), tanha (thirst or craving), conditioned genesis (i.e. dependent-arising), anatta and mindfulness.

A large portion of the text is occupied with exposition on the Four Noble Truths.

It is said that the Buddha

… took a few leaves in his hand, and asked his disciples: ‘What do you think? O bhikkhus? Which is more? These few leaves in my hand or the leaves in the forest over here?’
‘Sir, very few are the leaves in the hand of the Blessed One, but indeed the leaves in the Simsapa forest over here are very much more abundant.’
‘Even so, Bhikkhus, of what I have known I have told you only a little, what I have not told you is very much more. And why have I not told you (those things)? Because that is not useful… not leading to Nirvana. That is why I have not told you those things’.

(Simsapa Sutta- SN 56.31)

and also

Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, and what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained?

Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.

(Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta- MN 63)

These quotes show how central to your daily practice the Four Noble Truths will be. In fact, as I have mentioned elsewhere, Geshe Sopa, in his wonderful Steps on the Path to Enlightenment remarks

Everything the Buddha taught unerringly presents the four noble truths…

And this brings me to my second recommendation. My gross understanding of the Four Noble Truths has been furthered significantly by the first volume of Geshe Tsering’s wonderful Foundation of Buddhist Thought series titled The Four Noble Truths (the other volumes, in order, are: Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth; Buddhist Psychology; The Awakening Mind; Emptiness; and Tantra).  It is not only the level of analysis, but the clarity of prose by which this analysis is presented that I feel makes this a wonderful place to begin one’s journey. What is very nice about this text is that Geshe Tsering often draws attention to interpretative differences across the Mahayana and Theravada traditions and asks us to decide for ourselves. Of course, as a child cannot appreciate or decide on theories of metaphysics, so a beginner should not delude themselves into thinking they can decide “this is the right thinking” or “this understanding is better than that one”.

A similar volume also titled The Four Noble Truths from a Theravadan perspective is by Ajahn Sumedho available through Amaravati Press (and can also be downloaded here).

If one is interested in the Mahayana, then an additional text here would be one that outlines The Way of the Bodhisattva since the purpose of Enlightenment is to free all sentient beings from suffering, not just oneself.

Just as all the Buddhas of the past
Have brought forth the awakened mind (3,23)
Likewise, for the benefit of beings,
I will bring to birth the awakened mind (3,24)

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself. (3,8)

(The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva)

Compassion and generousity, alongside knowledge, therefore become central to our practice- an oft used metaphor is likening wisdom (knowledge) and compassion to the wings of a bird. While the original text by Shantideva should be read -one may get more out of it if read via a commentary on the text such as the Dalai Lama’s A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

Buddhism, at core, is not simply knowledge to be accumulated, but knowledge that forms the basis for action. Knowledge of anything is valuable only insofar as it can be transformed into action. In fact, we are transformed by this knowledge. How does this occur? Knowledge is to be considered, analyzed and meditated on until it becomes internalized as part of one’s mindstream . This is the purpose of knowledge- to be put into practice- to effect a change in us. Theory and Practice are therefore one. This is one way in which to appreciate Buddha’s remarks in the Simsapa Sutra above. “And why have I not told you (those things)? Because that is not useful” and “Why… have I explained them? Because it is useful”.

What is useful knowledge? That which propels us further along the path.

How does knowledge propel us along the path? By considering it, analyzing it, meditating on it until it becomes part of one’s mindstream, thereby changing the mindstream.

How does one do this? What knowledge is appropriate at various stages of progression? Where does one start?

This can be daunting and therefore put off. However, this would be quite detrimental. Luckily, we have centuries of tradition that synthesized and structured the teachings into what could be called ‘manuals’ or ‘paths’. One highly prized ‘path’ in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition is Tsong khapa’s Lamrim Chenmo (Great Treatise On the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment)- itself an elaboration of an earlier work by Atisa. However, the text is 3 volumes and difficult to fully understand at times. It would be beneficial to read a commentary on the material (either in lieu of or along with Tsong khapa’s text) in order to glean the most out of it as a beginner. Here I have to mention Steps on the Path to Enlightenment – a wonderful 5 volume commentary by Geshe Lhundub Sopa. However, there are numerous single volume commentaries that most probably would be better introductions to the Lamrim Chenmo. For instance, Practicing the Path: A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo by Yangsi Rinpoche. The Lamrim Chenmo structures the Buddha’s teachings into a cohesive manual for practice- as such, it is indispensable.

Finally, I would suggest a book on meditation. There are a tremendous number of possibilities here and the right one will depend on the person- just as there are different types of meditation- ‘calm abiding’ and ‘insight’ meditation to name two categories you may have come across. There is also a lot of information available on the internet concerning the types and foundations of meditation that will hopefully guide you. I will recommend Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path by  Thubten Chodron as one book (along with 14 hours of mp3 files) in the Mahayana tradition that introduces both aforementioned categories of meditation in the context of the Lamrim ChenmoHer website is also very informative and full of useful knowledge. Another useful lamrim meditation guide is Lam Rim Outlines: Extended Beginners’ Meditation Guide compiled by Karin Valham which can be ordered online from the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition webshop and also available to download in pdf here.

I hope my suggestions are of benefit to some – I think that together they provide a firm grounding in the important concepts of Buddhism across traditions, offer a glimpse into the profound implications of the Four Noble Truths and provide one with the tools necessary to put knowledge into practice and thereby effect changes within ourselves- steps along the path to freedom.

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