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July 28, 2013

7 Sensational American Buddhist Books You Must Read.

With all due respect—and much is due—to Eastern Buddhist authors whose writings are probably more authentic by virtue of being closer to the source, for those of us who were born in the USA, there is something special about how American Buddhist teachings reach the modern American (expats, too!) by filtering the dharma through the lens of our inimitable popular culture.

Here is a list of seven indispensable, accessible, relatively recent American Buddhist books that I highly recommend for meditators and mindful folks of all levels of experience, whether you self-identify as Buddhist or not.

1. Insight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom by Joseph Goldstein

I smuggled this book into my first Vipassana course, because ten days of silence and intense meditation felt like too much to bear without reading and writing a little bit each day, although books and journals are prohibited. I am so glad that I did. It helped alleviate my confusion and served as a salve for my mental woes during those ten days. With a no-nonsense, concise, direct voice, Goldstein addresses many of the issues that come up for meditators of all ages.

2. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

At the one class I was able to attend this summer vacation at my all-time favorite yoga studio, Dharma Yoga in Austin, Texas, my teacher held up a copy of this book. I read it a couple of years ago and found Tara’s style so therapeutic and helpful. As the title implies, it is all about accepting the situations life brings with openness and compassion. This book is offers thorough explanations of how to accept without being a doormat and includes many useful guided meditations.

3. Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chodron

One of Pema’s more recent works, this volume focuses on the Tibetan Buddhist teaching of shenpa and how to get unhooked or unstuck when we find ourselves ruminating and stewing in negativity and fear. I read it as 2011 came to a close, during the fateful week that I happened to spend with a new friend, the man who would eventually father my child and become my husband, at a time in which I needed to unhook from future expectations more than ever. Unhooking is tough, but Pema’s clear teachings show the way with humor, candor and brilliance.

4. The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

Thanks to this timely Elephant post, I learned about the existence of  this new book. It consists of one long, meandering conversation between actor Jeff Bridges and Jewish Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman. The two pals riff on everything from love and marriage to earthquakes and movie-making, all within the framework of the many Zen-like quotes uttered by The Dude, the classic character Bridges portrayed in the Cohen brothers film, The Big Lebowski.

5. The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Yes, Pema made the list twice. She is that good. She has written many books of great value, but this is probably my personal favorite. Reading it is like taking medicine. As Pema non-preachily preaches, we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Her work in this book shows us just how to avoid the former and do the latter.

6. Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber by Ken Wilber

The great philosopher Ken Wilber has published many thick volumes, many of which are esoteric, dense and difficult for the layperson to really absorb. Not so with this touching book, published in the early nineties after the death of his wife Treya of breast cancer. It is a unique book, in that it intersperses Treya’s personal diary entries from before, during and after her five year battle with cancer with Ken’s amazing writings on spirituality, Buddhist teachings and the struggles and joys of being a caretaker of a terminally ill person.

7. Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment by Lama Surya Das

This book elaborates on the key principles outlined in the Buddha’s noble Eightfold Path and covers Wisdom Training (developing clear vision, insight, and inner understanding — seeing reality and ourselves as we really are), Ethics Training (cultivating virtue, self-discipline, and compassion in what we say and do) and Meditation Training (practicing mindfulness, concentration, and awareness of the present moment). It is full of prescient teachings that are well worth reading and re-reading.

Bonus—Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

I include this title as a bonus because I know for non-parents, blog posts and books about babies, kids and parenting are bo-ring! This one is fantastic though, with lots of useful anecdotes and lovely, practical teachings from mindfulness mogul Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wife Myla, who have raised five children of their own.

Obviously, this list is only the beginning. What other American Buddhist books would you include? Please leave a comment below and share your favorite title(s).

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{photo: via Shutterstock}

Ed: Sara Crolick

Relephant bonus: a famous meditation practitioner and writer:

Sakyong Mipham:

Reggie Ray:

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Paolo Dec 8, 2015 7:26am

What about the two books of Charlotte Joko beck?? Simply amazing with her unique soft touch :)))

A Jolly Nerd Jul 28, 2015 9:45am

I'd recommend a book that makes no claims to be a buddhist text, but captures much of the spirit of zen, IMO. (It's also not terribly recent, but it *is* American). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I know, I know, even he says (in the book's introduction) that it doesn't have much to do with zen, but I'd argue that it kinda does, unintentionally.

Theja Sep 23, 2014 4:43pm

What would Buddha do? By Franz Metcalf is one great book.

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Michelle Margaret Fajkus

Michelle Margaret is a heart-centered writer, teacher and creator of Yoga Freedom. She has been a columnist on Elephant Journal since 2010 and has self-published inspiring books. She incorporates dharma, hatha, yin, mindfulness, chakras, chanting, and pranayama into her teachings and practice. A former advertising copywriter and elementary school teacher, she is now a freelance writer and translator. Michelle learned yoga from a book at age 12 and started teaching at 22. She met the Buddha in California at 23 and has been a student of the dharma ever since. Michelle is now approaching her forties with grace and gratitude.

Join Michelle for a writing and yoga retreat this summer at magical Lake Atitlan in the western highlands of Guatemala!