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)
The Words of My Perfect Teacher
By Patrul Rinpoche 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)
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)
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
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)
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)
Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Lama Surya Das
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)
The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism – The Three Principal Aspects to the Path and Introduction to Tantra
Lama Thupten Yeshe
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)
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
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)
The Life of Milarepa (Penguin Classics)
Tsangnyon Heruka, Andrew Quintman and Donald S. Lopez Jr.
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)
Essential Tibetan Buddhism
Robert A.F. Thurman
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)
1 All the descriptions and reviews for the books listed here come from the individual Amazon pages for the listed books.
If you are planning a trip to Tibet, we can put you in touch with a reliable Tibetan-owned agent who will plan a non-touristy trip that gives you a real feel for Tibet. Contact us here for Tibet travel help.