Buddhism by Non-Buddhists?
November 10, 2008 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Whose writing would I benefit most from reading if I'm a non-buddhist who sees some value in buddhist teachings?

In my early twenties, I spent a great deal of time reading buddhist teachings. I believed strongly in their views on the world (impermanence, non-attachment, strength of mind and some monastic beliefs) however I balk at the desire to be enlightened or anything on the mystic end of the spectrum. I am an atheist and believe in this lifetime only.

I'm wondering who (past and present) wrote about real-world buddhist concepts which dealt specifically with contentment and peace in day to day life. I realize this is likely a lot of the new-age writers, but who would appeal to my philosophical side most? Are there philosophers I missed who approached some of the above concepts in real-world terms?

Thanks in advance.
posted by scabrous to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs is precisely what you are looking for.
posted by vytae at 11:49 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Buddhism without Beliefs.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:59 AM on November 10, 2008

Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for nobel peace prize by Martin Luther King. I have benefited from many of his teachings.At Hells Gate is a great read. The author discovered Buddhism as a way of life and dealing with the trauma he experiences in the Vietnam war. There is also the obvious works of the Dali Lama. Although I am not too familiar with her works, this book by Pema Chodron has helped me alot. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a must read. Its author, Paul Reps writes some wonderful Haiku. Gary Snyder may also interest you as well. There are many ways to interpret these works and the many that exist out there. It's perfectly alright that you are not interested in enlightenment, but many buddhist teachings and texts deal with more than just the issue enlightenment. You just have to take the time to read between the lines and open your mind a bit.
posted by scarello at 12:02 PM on November 10, 2008

I recommend What The Buddha Taught as a starting point. Its a no-nonsene Theravadan introduction that's written by a scholar and monk.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always found Pema Chodron's books to be extremely helpful, especially on the subject of contentment and peace in day to day life.
posted by chicainthecity at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Pema Chodron. Also Charlotte Joko Beck. Also also, Hardcore Zen (can't remember the author's name right now, but it's not new-agey at all).
posted by desjardins at 12:23 PM on November 10, 2008

Brad Warner wrote Hardcore Zen. He definitely doesn't fixate on "enlightenment" or the mystical side of things, to put it lightly, but he's not exactly a contentment-peace-and-love guy either. I love his stuff as the flip-side to most Buddhist writing, which is typically pretty serious and buttoned-down, even when it tries not to be.

Buddhism without Beliefs is also highly recommended.
posted by xil at 12:32 PM on November 10, 2008

Alan Watts has a pretty rad take on these issues, and he really opened my mind up.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:33 PM on November 10, 2008

I've always like Cheri Huber.
Her direct, simple language. The handwritten typography and the drawings of her books always seemed to make things a little easier to understand.
posted by willmize at 12:37 PM on November 10, 2008

Seconding Alan Watts. I've been reading his books over and over for 20 years, and I still love them.
posted by velvet winter at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2008

Seconded Hardcore Zen. I greatly enjoyed that book. His blog, and his column at Suicide Girls, are also good reading.
posted by COD at 12:45 PM on November 10, 2008

I like Cheri Huber too... worth pointing out that you may be looking for Zen, distinct from Buddhism.
posted by muscat at 12:46 PM on November 10, 2008

I balk at the desire to be enlightened or anything on the mystic end of the spectrum. I am an atheist and believe in this lifetime only.

I read the Harry Potter books knowing that I didn't believe wizards exist. Still don't after finishing all seven.

Others have suggested good options, but I'd encourage you to be open to reading things that you don't necessarily totally agree with. One of the big values of buddhism for me is its more core principle that personal suffering is a result of attachment, whether that be to things as they are (and change is inevitable) or things as I wish they might be.

One of those wishes for me is that people would focus on existence in this life rather than some future one that might be a fantasy. However a lot of people believe in it, and understanding these people is valuable in learning how to exist in this life with less suffering. Them understanding me is harder for me to change than me understanding them.

Thich Nhat Hanh, mentioned above, said something that captions a picture on my wall: "Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path."

That said, you might enjoy a book where Buddhism is a supporting character. Altars in the Street by Chavis is very interesting and there's several copies for under $1 on Amazon. I don't remember her ever invoking any non-secular aspects of Buddhism.
posted by phearlez at 12:51 PM on November 10, 2008

Seconding What the Buddha Taught as the clearest introduction to Buddhism. I would follow that with Mindfulness in Plain English and Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness both by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. After the introductory texts try The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.
posted by calumet43 at 1:28 PM on November 10, 2008

nthing Pema Chodron.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 1:52 PM on November 10, 2008

I'm too late to be the first with Batchelor's "B w/o B", I see...

Love the book!
posted by IAmBroom at 2:13 PM on November 10, 2008

Kind of "not really about Buddhism at all" rather than "Buddhism by non-Buddhists", but many of Hermann Hesse's works are significantly influenced by eastern though, most notably Siddhartha, and I would assume A Journey to the East (which I haven't read myself). In addition, there's a short segment at the end of The Glass Bead Game called "The Indian Life" which has some Brahmanic influence.
posted by LionIndex at 2:17 PM on November 10, 2008

Thich Nhat Hanh is the bomb diggity. "If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it." I'm often reminding myself, "Smile, dammit! Look around. Smell the air. Isn't it great?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:30 PM on November 10, 2008

I haven't actually read any of Pema Chodron's books, but I downloaded a few audiobooks by her and really enjoyed them. I bought them from iTunes, but the Amazon links are "Getting Unstuck" and "The Pema Chodron Collection". I find her very interesting. Listening to her talks has helped me during some stressful times, when I was letting things make me angry and tense that really shouldn't have.

You might also try Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham. He's the current leader of a particular school of Tibetan Buddhism in America (of which Pema Chodron is also a part, and which was originally founded by Chogyam Trungpa). So it's a little bit heavy on the particularly Tibetan Buddhist version of things, but in general I think it's a good introduction to what Buddhism is about. (It's got a nice intro/instruction to meditation, for instance.)

I also have two little books from the "Shambhala Pocket Classics" series that I like because they are more less "original" Buddhist sources. (The "pocket classics" series are tiny little books, only about 4 inches high - I don't see them around in stores as much as I used to, but they're great for inexpensive versions of great books. Both of these are also available in full-size books, of course.) "Teachings of the Buddha" edited by Jack Kornfield, is a collection of quotations from various Buddhist sources, including older Theravadan works, Chinese works, Zen, and Tibetan works. Also, I really enjoy this translation of The Dhammapada by Thomas Byrom. Some have criticized it for not being too "strict" in translation, but I think the translator's intent was to aim more directly at the meaning/intent of the work than to get too hung up on the particulars of language.
posted by dnash at 3:50 PM on November 10, 2008

I think Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is probably the single best book out there.
posted by luckypozzo at 4:31 PM on November 10, 2008

Not a book, but I always recommend the podcast at Zencast. They directly apply Buddhist concepts to everyday life and generally avoid talk of reincarnation or enlightenment. (The 10/26 podcast, "Patience," is excellent, and really, who can't use more patience in their daily life?)
posted by desjardins at 4:57 PM on November 10, 2008

Adding to the list One City, A Declaration of Interdependence by Ethan Nichtern. He also has a great weekly teaching podcast The ID Project. I'll also nth Brad Warner, especially since you aren't interested in mystical hoo-hah about reincarnation and whatnot.
posted by smartyboots at 6:01 PM on November 10, 2008

Katsuki Sekida
posted by sfenders at 7:08 PM on November 10, 2008

The Wisdom of No Escape, by Pema Chodron.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:12 PM on November 10, 2008

who (past and present) wrote about real-world buddhist concepts which dealt specifically with contentment and peace in day to day life

Hmm. Interesting question. Many Buddhist authors in writing about the path, end up, imo communicating the dangers of this or that and less about peace and contentment in day to day life.

* not novels

Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention

Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Kindly Bent To Ease Us and anything by Herbert V. Guenther

The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings by Gampopa

Buddhahood Without Meditation: A Visionary Account Known As Refining Apparent Phenomena

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
by Chogyam Trungpa

* novels, stories

Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

Any books by Alexandra David-Neel

The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda

Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal (excerpt)

The World in the Evening and Down There on a Visit by Christopher Isherwood

Books by Kate Wheeler
posted by nickyskye at 7:23 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
posted by Bun at 8:02 AM on November 11, 2008

Agree with all the above - Pema Chodron, Cheri Huber, Stephen Batchelor, Suzuki Roshi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn.

Also, try Chris Pauling's (very thin) Introducing Buddhism.

I also like B. Allan Wallace's books a lot - I just looked on Amazon, and he's written quite a few since I last looked. Ah, anitya. (Sigh.)

You really can't beat the Suttas as truth and literature, but it helps to find a good guide - Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations are excellent.
posted by m4nju at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2008

Oh, wait - and read the poetry of Jane Hirshfield (and her excellent book of essays, Nine Gates) and Chase Twichell (especially, especially, especially The Snow Watcher).
posted by m4nju at 12:00 PM on November 11, 2008

The Dhammapada is a must read if you haven't already. It is the sort of very short book that you can read over and over. Tangentially related, but I loved The Dharma Bums.
posted by sophist at 12:03 PM on November 11, 2008

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