7 Sensational American Buddhist Books You Must Read.

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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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anonymous Dec 8, 2015 7:26am

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

anonymous 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.

anonymous Sep 23, 2014 4:43pm

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

anonymous Sep 20, 2014 6:36am

The Dude and the Zen Master, a sensational Buddhist books? You gotta be kidding. It's luke warm at best. Try Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, John Tarrant… you'll go much deeper.

anonymous Sep 2, 2014 5:40pm

I didn't see 'Thoughts Without a Thinker,' by Mark Epstein.

anonymous Jul 28, 2014 6:08pm

Another Western author that was left out here is Karen Maezen Miller. She has two books that I have read that I recommend. "Momma Zen" and "Hand Wash Cold". These books saved my life after I had my kids. Gave me a bit of mindfulness to bring to my parenting. Otherwise, great list!

anonymous Apr 14, 2014 3:31pm

Wonderful list…thank you for feeding my book worm habit (in a non atached way 😉 ) I would like to add Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali

anonymous Apr 13, 2014 8:49pm

Great list, I would also add:

If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl

anonymous Nov 15, 2013 12:51pm

"In the Buddha's Words" Bikhu Bodhi; "Nothing Special" and "Everyday Zen" Charlotte Beck; "Awake in the World" Michael Stone

anonymous Nov 15, 2013 6:08am

No, Eckhart Tolle? The Power of Now changed my life.

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 6:20pm

Siddhartha by Hesse, The heart of understanding by Thich Nhat Hanhn, The heart of wisdom by Geshe Gyatso, If the Buddha got stuck by Kasl, What makes you not a Buddhist, Khyentse

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 5:01pm

Siddharta – Hermann Hesse . Simple. Beautiful.

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 2:16pm

I'm not sure if anyone mentioned Stephen Batchelor's 'Confession of a Buddhist Atheist', but I would recommend it for a fresh view on Buddhism.

anonymous Nov 5, 2013 2:42pm

I would also include “How to See Yourself as You Really Are” by the Dalai Lama. It is eye opening and challenging (but easy to read).

anonymous Aug 8, 2013 11:46am

Anything by Brad Warner, author of Hardcore Zen and Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate, amongst others.

anonymous Aug 5, 2013 7:38pm

I'd recommend any books by Adyashanti. He makes spirituality accessible — simple to understand and practice.

anonymous Aug 5, 2013 1:12pm

Wilber's Grace and Grit – beautiful piece of work!

anonymous Aug 5, 2013 2:42am

mastering the core teachings of the buddha, by daniel m. ingram.

anonymous Aug 4, 2013 10:27pm

I echo the recommendations for Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg. As far as Ayya Khema's work goes, I actually think BE AN ISLAND would be a great addition to the list. And YES to both Pema and Joko Beck! Oh, and I feel Jon Kabat-Zinn's WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE is an incredibly accessible intro to mindfulness practice. Ok, enough… 🙂

anonymous Aug 4, 2013 5:03am

Great list! My list would also include Jack Kornfield: Buddhism for Beginners

anonymous Aug 3, 2013 9:55pm

I love Jon Kabat-Zinn's books not just for the content but also for his masterly writing. I particularly like Mindfulness for Beginners — it's a pithy little book, easy to read, and in my opinion not just for beginners. The book he wrote with Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Segal, The Mindful Way Through Depression, is a must-read for anybody who struggles with depression. I'm happy to see Pema Chodron mentioned so often on the list and in these comments, and I second the motion for Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg.

anonymous Aug 3, 2013 9:20pm

Ayya Khemma's Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, and Joko Beck's Everyday Zen are two classics that really belong on any list of "must reads."

anonymous Aug 3, 2013 8:29pm

Tara Brach's books are amazing! Also, love Gina Lake, who is a student of Adyashanti. The best book I've read about opening the heart so far is "The Untethered Soul" by Michael Singer. It is an amazing read for sure. Oprah interviewed him. I'll check out some of the other books on this list. and how could I forget, Eckhart Tolle. The first book that helped started waking me up was a New Earth about 8 years ago.

anonymous Aug 3, 2013 7:39pm

Jeff Bridges but not Jack Kornfield? I love the dude, but really?

anonymous Jul 31, 2013 12:37am

I love to see Pema twice on this list <3 Another MUST read is Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa Rinpoche. Pema Chodron was a student of his and mentions his name almost always in her books.

anonymous Jul 30, 2013 8:39pm

The book that saved and changed my life: "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron. Nothing had resonated within like that book did for me. I tingled and shuddered, argued and softened. I grew so much and learned to trust myself and life again.

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 8:11pm

I believe the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn are not on here because this was a list of books by "Western" authors. Thank you for the list, and I agree with many of your choices! Especially happy to see Pema twice, as well as the Kabat-Zinn's book…but I agree with much of the above, Jack Kornfield in my humble opinion should be somewhere on the list, as well as Natalie Goldberg's Long,Quiet Highway, Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity…oh, and Pema has an AMAZING new book outr called, simply, "How to Meditate"…life-changing!

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 2:46pm

There was a time when I burned the Buddhist books up. I read a huge stack of them. Then one day I read a book that said you can read all these books but, at some point, it stops being helpful and you gotta strike out on your own. So, seeing the wisdom in that I loaded them all in a big black garbage bag and gave them away. It forced me to practice meditation and presence with a new energy. Books had become Buddhist mental masturbation for me and I discovered that it had become a feel good fantasy. Obviously, I do some reading on line and think that the books I read were indispensable on my path, at that time. Perhaps one day, when I realize that my addiction to books (living someone else's reality) is broken I'll buy a few Buddhist books. For now I'll sit and lose myself in the present moment.

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 2:13pm

Any and all of Stephen Batchelor – start with the new one, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and check out Buddhism Without Beliefs"; Reggie Ray's books on Tibetan Buddhism, begin with recent "Touching Enlightenment"; Ken McLeod's "Wake Up To Your Life" for a practice curriculum that will carry you for several years; and David Loy's work – you could start with the provocatively titled, "Money, Sex, War, Karma"

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 1:48pm

I just read Goldstein's Insight Meditation, and I must say, it's the best Buddhist text I've read yet. I'm in awe of how fluidly Goldstein moves between difficult concepts. I followed the book with Lame Yeshe's Introduction to Tantra, another good text, though moving from a sutrayana text to a tantrayana text in short order is dizzying.

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 10:21am

You missed the best one!
A Heart Blown Open by Keith Martin Smith.

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 7:58am

the book of not knowing by peter ralston
nice antidote to the soft stuff above

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 7:53am

I'm surprised not to see any of Robert Thurman's or the Dalai Lama's books on this list. I would recommend Thurman's Inner Revolution, which is incredibly insightful and inspiring, as well as his Why the Dalai Lama Matters. As for His Holiness, the Art of Happiness or Ethics for a New Millenium are great books!

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 7:37am

Awakening the Buddha Within was my first buddhism book 7 years ago! And I never looked back…amazing read. Tara Brach is amazing as well. All the books listed are great suggestions. I would add a few from Jack Kornfield as well.

anonymous Jul 29, 2013 6:19am

Great list of books! Have read some and now find a couple of new books just when I needed them!


anonymous Jul 29, 2013 3:14am

Great list! I'd like to offer Geri Larkin, "Stumbling Toward Enlightenment"-great for the beginning seeker; Jack Kornfield, "A Path with Heart"-beautiful, indepth study of the path; Thich Nhat Hanh "Awakening of the Heart-Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries-his gathas are now a daily part of my meditation practice; and Sharon Salzberg, "Loving-Kindness".

Sarah Wilson Sep 13, 2018 6:10pm

I read "Grace & Grit" in 1994. It's still the first book I name when asked about favorite books, and, it's the only book I've ever read twice--as soon as I finished the last page, I immediately began rereading it.

Parvati Markus Sep 13, 2018 12:52pm

Lama Tsultrim Allione's new book, Wisdom Rising, and Joan Halifax's Standing at the Edge.

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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 written and self-published several inspiring books. She incorporates yoga, dharma, hatha, yin, mindfulness, chakras, chanting, pranayama and more into her teachings and personal practice.

Join Michelle on retreat this July 20-27 at magical Lake Atitlan in Guatemala!