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If You Know Nothing About Tibetan Buddhism

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Recently, a kind reader, Linda, wrote us this: “It seems more and more often I find myself visiting your very special website. I have your cookbook and enjoy cooking from it so much. If you were to recommend one book for someone who knows nothing about Tibetan Buddhism, what would it be?

Thank you, and great question, Linda! We realized that though we are deeply familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, we didn’t really have a good answer for you. So we looked through our collection and asked a couple of our friends who teach Tibetan Buddhism at the university level and researched online quite a lot, and came up with the following list.

We are exploring this topic along with you, and reading some of these books for the first time, too, so we would LOVE to hear your favorites, or reasons why you may not agree with including something here. With your help, and further reading, this list will grow and evolve over time.

(Our business is an Amazon Affiliate, so we get a small commission on any books you purchase by clicking on the links below, at no additional cost to you Of course we are only recommending books we believe will be helpful!)

A Concise Introduction To Tibetan Buddhism

By John Powers

If we had to recommend only one book as a clear, concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, this would be it. But be warned that though Powers is an excellent writer, the book is still a fairly academic presentation of a very challenging, esoteric subject. If you want a more accessible or more practice-oriented approach, read on below.

Description1:  “Lucid and economical, this introductory text delivers a brisk, fast-moving survey of Tibetan Buddhism. For many years Powers’s nearly 600-page Introduction To Tibetan Buddhismhas served as the field’s most authoritative and comprehensive overview of Tibet’s distinctive Buddhist tradition...Explains the core Buddhist doctrines and the practices of meditation and tantra and provides a survey of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.”1  (5 stars/5 reviews on Amazon)

Learn more about A Concise Introduction To Tibetan Buddhism >>

The Words of My Perfect Teacher

By Patrul Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama

Words of My Perfect Teacher. Patrul Rinphoche and the Dalai Lama

Our friend, a Buddhist Studies professor in the U.S., notes that this is “an English translation of a Tibetan text on the path to enlightenment. The translation is really good and many Tibetan Studies scholars use the book in their Tibetan Buddhism classes.” 

Description: “A favorite of Tibetans and recommended by the Dalai Lama and other senior Buddhist teachers, this practical guide to inner transformation introduces the fundamental spiritual practices common to all Tibetan Buddhist traditions...Patrul Rinpoche makes the technicalities of his subject accessible through a wealth of stories, quotations, and references to everyday life….quintessential introduction to Tibetan Buddhist practice. ” (5 stars/24 reviews)

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The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of Its Philosophy and Practice

By His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

From Richard Gere’s introduction: “His Holiness offers a clear and penetrating overview of Tibetan Buddhist practice from the Four Noble Truths to Highest Yoga Tantra, with, as always, special emphasis on the practices of love, kindness and universal responsibility.”

Review in Library Journal by David Bourquin: “… a rare and marvelous opportunity … to learn more about the special viewpoints of the religion and the approach of spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The book covers an overview of general Mahayana Buddhism, the importance of an altruistic life for spiritual practice, and the tantric practices of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet. Originally a series of lectures, the three chapters each end with a set of questions from the audience and the Dalai Lama’s answers.”    (4 stars / 6 reviews)

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The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Sogyal Rinpoche

Sogyal Rinpoche: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: The Spiritual Classic & International Bestseller

Through the filter of an exploration of death and dying, Sogyal Rinpoche brilliantly introduces English speakers to many core insights of Tibetan Buddhism. This is an extraordinary book, radiant and clear.  We highly recommend it.

Description: “A newly revised and updated edition of the internationally bestselling spiritual classic, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by Sogyal Rinpoche, is the ultimate introduction to Tibetan Buddhist wisdom. An enlightening, inspiring, and comforting manual for life and death that the New York Times calls, “The Tibetan equivalent of [Dante’s] The Divine Comedy,” this is the essential work that moved Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, to proclaim, “I have encountered no book on the interplay of life and death that is more comprehensive, practical, and wise.” (4.5 stars / 164 reviews)

Learn more about The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: The Spiritual Classic & International Bestseller >>

Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal

Geoff Child

Geoff Child: Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal

We are suggesting this highly readable anthropological work on the recommendation of another friend of ours who teaches Religious Studies at a university on the East Coast of the U.S.. For her classes, she likes to pair Powers’ Concise Introduction and Child’s Tibetan Diary.

Review by Bryan J. Cuevas: “An immensely engaging work that contributes much to our understanding of the social-religious culture of Tibetan village life at the local level, providing a rich and deeply personal account of the ebb and flow of life and death, of communal harmony and discord, of personal conflicts and social resolutions. ” (5 stars / 1 review)

Learn more about Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal >>

Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World

Lama Surya Das

Awakening the Buddha Within. Lama Surya Das.

Review by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “A warm, accessible, deep, brilliantly written exploration and adventure along the Buddhist path.”

Description: Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition, presents the definitive book on Western Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker. …Surya Das shows how we can awaken to who we really are in order to lead a more compassionate, enlightened, and balanced life.  It illuminates the guidelines and key principles embodied in the noble Eight-Fold Path and the traditional Three Enlightenment Trainings common to all schools of Buddhism.  (4.5 stars /  137 reviews)

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The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism – The Three Principal Aspects to the Path and Introduction to Tantra

Lama Thupten Yeshe

Lama Yeshe: The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism - The Three Principal Aspects to the Path and Introduction to Tantra

This slim book offers two teachings from the beloved Lama Yeshe, both based on talks he gave in the early 80’s, “The Three Principle Aspects of the Path,” and “Introduction to Tantra.”

Excerpt from the book:  “Bodhicitta is very practical, I tell you. It’s like medicine. The self-cherishing thought is like a nail or a sword in your heart; it always feels uncomfortable. With bodhicitta, from the moment you begin to open, you feel incredibly peaceful and you get tremendous pleasure and inexhaustible energy. Forget about enlightenment – as soon as you begin to open yourself to others, you gain tremendous pleasure and satisfaction. Working for others is very interesting; it’s an infinite activity. Your life becomes continuously rich and interesting. ” (4.5 stars / 4 reviews)

Learn more about The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism – The Three Principal Aspects to the Path and Introduction to Tantra >>

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron:  When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Library)

An immensely popular and well-regarded spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron is the American Abbot of Gampo Abbey and student of Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche. While not an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, per se, the fresh, frank teachings in this book resonate deeply with many English speaking students of the Dharma, and beautifully manifest Tibetan Buddhist teachings.

Description:  “There is a fundamental opportunity for happiness right within our reach, yet we usually miss it—ironically while we are caught up in attempts to escape pain and suffering. Drawn from traditional Buddhist wisdom, Pema Chödrön’s radical and compassionate advice for what to do when things fall apart in our lives goes against the grain of our usual habits and expectations.”  (4.5 stars / 222 reviews)

Learn more about When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Library) >>

The Life of Milarepa (Penguin Classics)

Tsangnyon Heruka, Andrew Quintman and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Tsangnyon Heruka, Andrew Quintman and Donald S. Lopez Jr.:  The Life of Milarepa (Penguin Classics)

Description: “A new translation of the classic biography of the most renowned saint in Tibetan Buddhist history The Life of Milarepa is one of the most beloved stories of the Tibetan people and a great literary example of the contemplative life. This biography, a dramatic tale from a culture now in crisis, can be read on several levels. A personal and moving introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, it is also a detailed guide to the search for liberation. It presents a quest for purification and buddhahood in a single lifetime, tracing the path of a great sinner who became a great saint. It is also a powerfully evocative narrative, full of magic, miracles, suspense, and humor, while reflecting the religious and social life of medieval Tibet.” (5 stars / 6 reviews)

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Essential Tibetan Buddhism

Robert A.F. Thurman

Robert A.F. Thurman: Essential Tibetan Buddhism

Review by Uma Kukathas:  “In this highly readable collection, Robert Thurman brings together the jewels of Tibetan literature that have made their own distinctive contribution to “the great river of Buddhism.” He introduces the selection with an overview of essential Buddhist thought, …[and] guides readers through selections that speak to the possibility of liberation for all beings. Excerpts culled from the vastness of the Tibetan canon include the hymns to the liberator goddess Tara, pieces from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, writings on mentor worship from the first Panchen Lama, and selections from esoteric tantric practice texts. The volume ends with the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize lecture by Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, illustrating the enduring relevance of this ancient wisdom for modern life.” (3.5 stars / 6 reviews)

Learn more about Essential Tibetan Buddhism >>


 1 All the descriptions and reviews for the books listed here come from the individual Amazon pages for the listed books.


19 responses to “If You Know Nothing About Tibetan Buddhism”

  1. My being had long been drawn to Buddhism, & being raised in the very Christian family from the American South, getting non-biased sources was next to impossible. As I got older, I studied as much as I could about the religions of the world & always it was Buddhism that kept striking something in my being. I was drawn to it like a magnet. Many texts I was referred to where either too academic or a western washing of the religion and it’s practices.

    I am glad to have found this site. These sources seem very promising. I look forward to reading them. I’ve been seeking to walk this path for nearly my whole life. Finding texts that can teach me about how to walk the path of enlightenment are exactly what I’ve been hoping for. Where I am from, you cannot find any true sources to draw from. These are priceless recommendations.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story and your thoughts, Terra. We hope that you find a path to wisdom and compassion in the teachings!

  2. Jamie Throgmorton Avatar
    Jamie Throgmorton

    wow!! What an impressive list of books! All good ones. I especially second the Words of My Perfect Teacher for a true newcomer. It is fantastic AND accessible, or so it seems to me. Nice job. Always impressed with you and your site and good works.

    1. Thank you so much Jamie! It’s great to hear your kind thoughts!

  3. Harriet Rowland Avatar
    Harriet Rowland

    A fantastic selection of books….well done as usual Yolanda and Lobsang!! Some of them I have read and would definitely recommend….Surya Dass in particular for making it all so relevant to everyday life! Some of them I haven’t read, so shall order as soon as I can wrestle the household credit card from my partner!!!
    I send much joy and blessings to you both as ever and hope that Pa is still doing well!
    Hat in Andalusia xxi

  4. Linda Sperling Avatar
    Linda Sperling

    Very good list. I would add Lama Dudjom Dorjee’s Heartfelt Advice (Snow Lion, available from Shambhala).

    1. Thanks so much Linda. We look forward to reading Lama Dudjom Dorjee’s book 🙂

      1. Thank you for this very helpful list, Wangdu la! I also agree with Linda- Lama Dudjom Dorje’s books are really exceptional, including “Stillness, Insight and Emptiness”. Tashi delek!

        1. You are so welcome, Carolyn, and thanks for the suggestion for Lama Dudjom Dorje’s books 🙂

  5. I recommend What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. Although Amazon says it was originally published in 1974, my Evergreen edition bears a copyright of 1959 and a publication date of 1962. It is brief, but comprehensive. Library Journal says, “Rahula is a scholar monk who trained in the Theravadan tradition in Ceylon. His succinct, clear overview of Buddhist concepts has never been surpassed. It is the standard.
    Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    1. Thanks, Peggy! We will check this out. All the best to you.

  6. Michael Avatar

    Alexander Berzin, a prominent Buddhist scholar, has lots of good resources in different languages. Here is his sight in french to get good articles 🙂


    Hope this helps!!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Michael! This is very helpful 🙂

  7. Ah yes, I have been reading and then practicing Tibetan Buddhism for about 7 years now. I would like to agree strongly on the Lama Surya Das inclusion above – as this is one of the first 6 books I myself read and found extremely helpful.
    I have also read the book listed that was written by HHDL, which i also found useful at a latter stage.
    Both these authors have ,many books well worth reading that I feel would be helpful to someone begining to take an interest in the subject, or as in my case, returning to what they practiced in a former life after rediscovery!

  8. Corinne Avatar

    Hello, I’m belgian , french speaking supporter of the tibetan cause. I find it hard to understand the subtilities of the language (in english). Do you maybe have some french books you could recommend ? Lots of love and peace to the tibetan people all over the world. Corinne

    1. Hi Corinne! Please see:
      Le Livre Tibétain de la Vie et de la Mort, Nouvelle édition augmentée, La Table Ronde, 2003 (LGF poche, 2005).
      Some books on French Amazon by Pema Chodron: http://www.amazon.fr/Pema-Ch%C3%B6dr%C3%B6n/e/B004N76SZM/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1/276-9886678-3467503
      For others, you might try to search for the other authors we list.
      All the best to you!

    2. I recommend to read all the book of Alexandra David-Neel, elle est francaise et apporte une vision profonde et objective du bouddhisme Tibetain. En montrant ses aspects positifs et negatifs sans idealisation excessive. Mais de ses ecrits il est possible de recolter une substance pour son developpement personnel.

      1. Thank you, Marc!

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