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Buddhism: Themes & Issues

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Monk ascends
Above: A monk ascends the stair of a temple along the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image source: Flickr. Image author: Adam Jones. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.
In order to speak the truth, one should speak not of Buddhism, but of Buddhisms, in the plural: beyond the broad and facile separation of major traditions into TheravadaMahayana, and Vajrayana, innumerable historical, national, and local Buddhisms exist, have existed, and will exist - each one with particular foci of practice and devotion, each one evincing different degrees of absorption within, adaptation to, or fusion with other systems of belief, each one arising within a different layer in historical and cultural time, from the ancient to the postmodern, and in a different spatial geography, from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the urban labyrinths of contemporary America. All of them alike, however, stake a claim to represent the authentic teaching of the Buddha and to offer the most promising and effective path to enlightenment.
Buddhism has undergone at least as much proliferation, reticulation, and sectarian differentiation as has Christianity in the West - and it had five hundred years for a head start. The relatively small number of ideas and themes at work in early Buddhism rapidly demonstrated their explanatory power in relation to a vast range of human experience, while the contributions to this edifice made by later thinkers, many of whom belong in the very first rank as philosophical thinkers and writers, only served to deepen the cosmic sweep and intimate force already potentialized in early Buddhist thought.
Even now, talk of a "New Buddhism" - deeply inflected by Western consumerism, individualism, rationalism, and secularism, responding to the erosion of faith in middle-class aspirations and Judaeo-Christian assumptions, and cognizant of contemporary concerns with cultural diversity, moral relativism, and ecological catastrophe - is beginning to question or even supplant the dichotomy of Theravada-Mahayana and signal the full-fledged entry of the West into the mainstream of Buddhist thinking and living. Buddhism may be an ancient religion, but it has proven amazingly versatile in demonstrating its persistent relevance even in relation to those problems that seem most uniquely contemporary. Wherever the thought of the Buddha goes, it will have much to face, but also much to draw on.
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring fundamental themes in Buddhist doctrine and practice. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within each gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. Areas below select galleries highlight a few recent or especially notable works from the gallery immediately above.

Buddhism as Philosophy: Fundamental Themes

This book is a collection of essays by Mark Siderits on topics in Indian Buddhist philosophy. The essays are divided into six main systematic sections, dealing with realism and anti-realism, further problems in metaphysics and logic, philosophy of language, epistemology, ethics, and specific discussions of the interaction between Buddhist and classical Indian philosophy. Each of the essays is followed by a postscript Siderits has written specifically for this volume, which make it possible to connect essays of the volume with each other, showing thematic interrelations, or locating them relative to the development of Siderits’s thought. New works have been published, new translations have come out, and additional connections have been discovered. The postscripts make it possible to acquaint the reader with the most important of these developments.

Emmanuel Companion cover artA Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

This book is the most comprehensive single volume on the subject available. It offers the very latest scholarship to create a wide-ranging survey of the most important ideas, problems, and debates in the history of Buddhist philosophy. Encompasses the broadest treatment of Buddhist philosophy available, covering social and political thought, meditation, ecology and contemporary issues and applications Each section contains overviews and cutting-edge scholarship that expands readers understanding of the breadth and diversity of Buddhist thought. Broad coverage of topics allows flexibility to instructors in creating a syllabus. Essays provide valuable alternative philosophical perspectives on topics to those available in Western traditions.

Arnold Brahmins cover artBuddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion by Dan Arnold. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

This book examines how the Brahmanical tradition of Purva Mimamsa and the writings of the seventh-century Buddhist Madhyamika philosopher Candrakirti challenged dominant Indian Buddhist views of epistemology. Arnold retrieves these two very different but equally important voices of philosophical dissent, showing them to have developed highly sophisticated and cogent critiques of influential Buddhist epistemologists such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti. His analysis—developed in conversation with modern Western philosophers like William Alston and J.L. Austin—offers an innovative reinterpretation of the Indian philosophical tradition, while suggesting that pre-modern Indian thinkers have much to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates.

Burton Knowledge and Liberation cover artBuddhism, Knowledge and Liberation: A Philosophical Study by David Burton. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Buddhism is essentially a teaching about liberation - from suffering, ignorance, selfishness and continued rebirth. Knowledge of 'the way things really are' is thought by many Buddhists to be vital in bringing about this emancipation. This book is a philosophical study of the notion of liberating knowledge as it occurs in a range of Buddhist sources. Burton assesses the common Buddhist idea that knowledge of the three characteristics of existence (impermanence, not-self and suffering) is the key to liberation. It argues that this claim must be seen in the context of the Buddhist path and training as a whole. Detailed attention is also given to anti-realist, sceptical and mystical strands within the Buddhist tradition, all of which make distinctive claims about liberating knowledge.

Ecology, Economics, Globalization, and the Environment

In this study of the place of vegetarianism within Tibetan religiosity, Geoffrey Barstow explores the tension between Buddhist ethics and Tibetan cultural norms to offer a novel perspective on the spiritual and social dimensions of meat eating. Barstow offers a detailed analysis of the debates over meat eating and vegetarianism, from the first references to such a diet in the tenth century through the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. He discusses elements of Tibetan Buddhist thought, but also looks beyond religious attitudes to examine the cultural, economic, and environmental factors that oppose the Buddhist critique of meat, including Tibetan concepts of medicine and health, food scarcity, the display of wealth, and idealized male gender roles. Barstow argues that the issue of meat eating was influenced by a complex interplay of factors, with religious perspectives largely supporting vegetarianism while practical concerns and secular ideals pulled in the other direction.

Brown Economics cover artBuddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.

Clair Brown, professor of economics at UC Berkeley and a practicing Buddhist, has developed a holistic model, one based on the notion that quality of life should be measured by more than national income. Brown advocates an approach to organizing the economy that embraces rather than skirts questions of values, sustainability, and equity, and incorporates the Buddhist emphasis on interdependence, shared prosperity, and happiness into her vision for a sustainable and compassionate world. Buddhist economics leads us to think mindfully as we go about our daily activities, and offers a way to appreciate how our actions affect the well-being of those around us. By replacing the endless cycle of desire with more positive collective activities, we can make our lives more meaningful as well as happier. This book represents an enlightened approach to our modern world infused with ancient wisdom, with benefits both personal and global, for generations to come.


Brazier Ecotherapy cover artEcotherapy in Practice: A Buddhist Model by Caroline Brazier. New York: Routledge, 2017.

This book reflects the growing interest and research in this field. Drawing on a diversity of experience from the counselling and psychotherapy professions, but also from practitioners in community work, mental health and education, this book explores the exciting and innovative possibilities involved in practising outdoors. Brazier brings to bear her experience and knowledge as a psychotherapist, group worker and trainer over several decades to think about therapeutic work outdoors in all its forms. The book presents a model of ecotherapy based on principles drawn from Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy which focuses particularly on the relationship between person and environment at three levels, moving from the personal level of individual history to cultural influences, then finally to global circumstances, all of which condition mind-states and psychological well-being. This work will provide refreshing and valuable reading for psychotherapists and counsellors in the field, those interested in Buddhism, and other mental health and health professionals working outdoors.

Marques Business and Buddhism cover artBusiness and Buddhism by Joan Marques. New York: Routledge, 2015.

This work explores alternative ways of leading in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the many stories of fraud and greed that emerged. The book explores shifts in business perspectives as more value is placed on soft skills like emotional intelligence and listening, and introduces the reader to the principles in Buddhist philosophy that can be applied in the workplace. Marques explores the value of applying the positive psychology of Buddhism to work settings. She outlines the ways in which it offers highly effective solutions to addressing important management and organizational behavior related issues, but also flags up critical areas for caution. For example, Buddhism is non-confrontational, and promotes detachment. How can business leaders negotiate these principles in light of the demands of modern day pressures? The book includes end of chapter questions to promote reflection and critical thinking, and examples of Buddhist leaders in action. It will prove a captivating read for students of organizational behavior, management, leadership, diversity and ethics.


Byodo-In Temple, Kaneohe

Above: A moment of stillness at Byodo-In, a non-denominational Buddhist temple located on the island of O'ahu, Hawai'i, in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The temple is a replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple at Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.
Image source: Unsplash. Image author: Christian Joudrey. Image license: Unsplash license.


All the varied forms of Buddhism embody an ethical core that is remarkably consistent. Articulated by the historical Buddha in his first sermon, this moral core is founded on the concept of karma--that intentions and actions have future consequences for an individual--and is summarized as Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, three of the elements of the Eightfold Path. Although they were later elaborated and interpreted in a multitude of ways, none of these core principles were ever abandoned. This work provides a comprehensive overview of the field of Buddhist ethics in the twenty-first century. It discusses the foundations of Buddhist ethics, focusing on karma and the precepts for abstinence from harming others, stealing, and intoxication. It considers ethics in the different Buddhist traditions and the similarities they share, and compares Buddhist ethics to Western ethics and the psychology of moral judgments. The volume also investigates Buddhism and society, analysing economics, environmental ethics, and Just War ethics. The final section focuses on contemporary issues surrounding Buddhist ethics, including gender, sexuality, animal rights, and euthanasia.

Wright Six Perfections cover artThe Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character by Dale Wright. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Here is a lucid, accessible, and inspiring guide to the six perfections--Buddhist teachings about six dimensions of human character that require "perfecting": generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Drawing on the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, and other essential Mahayana texts, Dale Wright shows how these teachings were understood and practiced in classical Mahayana Buddhism and how they can be adapted to contemporary life in a global society. What would the perfection of generosity look like today, for example? What would it mean to give with neither ulterior motives nor naiveté? Devoting a separate chapter to each of the six perfections, Wright combines sophisticated analysis with real-life applications. Buddhists have always stressed self-cultivation and the freedom of human beings to shape their own lives. For those interested in ideals of human character and practices of self-cultivation, this work offers invaluable guidance.

Tsomo Jaws of Yama cover artInto the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death by Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

This book explores the Buddhist view of death and its implications for contemporary bioethics. Writing primarily from within the Tibetan tradition, Tsomo discusses Buddhist notions of human consciousness and personal identity and how these figure in the Buddhist view of death. Beliefs about death and enlightenment and states between life and death are also discussed. Tsomo goes on to examine such hot-button topics as cloning, abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, organ donation, genetic engineering, and stem-cell research within a Buddhist context, introducing new ways of thinking about these highly controversial issues.

Imagining Karma cover artImagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth by Gananath Obeyesekere. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

With this work, Obeyesekere embarks on the very first comparison of rebirth concepts across a wide range of cultures. Exploring in rich detail the beliefs of small-scale societies of West Africa, Melanesia, traditional Siberia, Canada, and the northwest coast of North America, Obeyesekere compares their ideas with those of the ancient and modern Indic civilizations and with the Greek rebirth theories of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Pindar, and Plato. His groundbreaking and authoritative discussion decenters the popular notion that India was the origin and locus of ideas of rebirth. As he compares responses to the most fundamental questions of human existence, the author challenges readers to reexamine accepted ideas about death, cosmology, morality, and eschatology. Obeyesekere's comprehensive inquiry shows that diverse societies have come through independent invention or borrowing to believe in reincarnation as an integral part of their larger cosmological systems. The author brings together into a coherent methodological framework the thought of such diverse thinkers as Weber, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche. In a contemporary intellectual context that celebrates difference and cultural relativism, this book makes a case for disciplined comparison, a humane view of human nature, and a theoretical understanding of "family resemblances" and differences across great cultural divides.

Gender, Sexuality, Reproduction, and Children

Recent decades have seen a transnational agitation for better opportunities for Buddhist women. Many of the main players in this movement self-identify as feminists, but other participants in this movement may not know or use the language of feminism. In fact, many ordained Buddhist women say they seek higher ordination so that they might be better Buddhist practitioners, not for the sake of gender equality. Eschewing the backward projection of secular liberal feminist categories, this book describes the basic features of the Buddhist discourse of the female body, held more or less in common across sectarian lines, and still pertinent to ordained Buddhist women today. The textual focus of the study is an early-first-millennium Sanskrit Buddhist work, the "Descent into the Womb Scripture" or Garbhāvakrānti-sūtra. Drawing out the implications of this text, the author offers innovative arguments about the significance of childbirth and fertility in Buddhism, namely that birth is a master metaphor in Indian Buddhism; that Buddhist gender constructions are centrally shaped by Buddhist birth discourse; and that, by undermining the religious importance of female fertility, the Buddhist construction of an inauspicious, chronically impure, and disgusting femininity constituted a portal to a new, liberated, feminine life for Buddhist monastic women.

Salgado Buddhist Nuns cover artBuddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renunciant by Nirmala S. Salgado. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Based on extensive research in Sri Lanka and interviews with Theravada and Tibetan nuns from around the world, Salgado's groundbreaking study urges a rethinking of female renunciation. How are scholarly accounts complicit in reinscribing imperialist stories about the subjectivity of Buddhist women? How do key Buddhist "concepts" such as dukkha, samsara, and sila ground female renunciant practice? Salgado's provocative analysis questions the secular notion of the higher ordination of nuns as a political movement for freedom against patriarchal norms. Arguing that the lives of nuns defy translation into a politics of global sisterhood equal before law, she calls for more-nuanced readings of nuns' everyday renunciant practices.

Sasson Little Buddhas cover artLittle Buddhas: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions, edited by Vanessa R. Sasson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Consideration of children in the academic field of Religious Studies is taking root, but Buddhist Studies has yet to take notice. This book brings together a wide range of scholarship and expertise to address the question of what role children have played in Buddhist literature, in particular historical contexts, and what role they continue to play in specific Buddhist contexts today. The volume is divided into two parts, one addressing the representation of children in Buddhist texts, the other children and childhoods in Buddhist cultures around the world. The ground-breaking contributions in this volume challenge the perception of irreconcilable differences between Buddhist idealism and family ties. This work will be an indispensable resource for students and scholars of Buddhism and Childhood Studies, and a catalyst for further research on the topic.

Gross Garland cover artA Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration by Rita M. Gross. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

Rita M. Gross has long been acknowledged as a founder in the field of feminist theology. One of the earliest scholars in religious studies to discover how feminism affects that discipline, she is recognized as preeminent in Buddhist feminist theology. The essays in this book represent the major aspects of her work and provide an overview of her methodology in women's studies in religion and feminism. The introductory article, written specifically for this volume, summarizes the conclusions Gross has reached about gender and feminism after forty years of searching and exploring, and the autobiography, also written for this volume, narrates how those conclusions were reached. These articles reveal the range of scholarship and reflection found in Gross's work and demonstrate how feminist scholars in the 1970s shifted the paradigm away from an androcentric model of humanity and forever changed the way we study religion.

Enlightenment & Enlightened Beings

Young nuns meditating

Above: Young nuns meditate in a temple.
Image source: Pixabay. Image author: truthseeker08. Image license: Pixabay license.

Law, Politics, War, and Violence

Burma and neighboring areas of Southeast Asia comprise the only region of the world to have developed a written corpus of Buddhist law claiming jurisdiction over all members of society. Yet in contrast with the extensive scholarship on Islamic and Hindu law, this tradition of Buddhist law has been largely overlooked. In fact, it is commonplace to read that Buddhism gave rise to no law aside from the vinaya, or monastic law. In this book, Lammerts upends this misperception and provides an intellectual and literary history of the dynamic jurisprudence of the dhammasattha legal genre between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Based on a critical study of hundreds of little-known surviving dhammasattha and related manuscripts, the work demonstrates the centrality of law as a crucial discipline of Buddhist knowledge in precolonial Southeast Asia. Lammerts argues that there were multiple, sometimes contentious, modes of reckoning Buddhist jurisprudence and legal authority in the region and assesses these in the context of local cultural, textual, and ritual practices. Over time, the foundational jurisprudence of the genre underwent considerable reformulation in light of arguments raised by its critics, bibliographers, and historians, resulting in a reorientation from a cosmological to a more positivist conception of Buddhist law and legislation that had far-reaching implications for innovative forms of dhammasattha-related discourse on the eve of British colonialism. Lammerts' book shows how, despite such textual and theoretical transformations, late precolonial Burmese jurists continued to promote and justify the dhammasattha genre, and the role of law generally in Buddhism, as a vital aspect of the ongoing effort to protect and preserve the sāsana of Gotama Buddha.

French and Nathan cover artBuddhism and Law: An Introduction, edited by Rebecca Redwood French & Mark A. Nathan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

As the first comprehensive study of Buddhism and law in Asia, this interdisciplinary volume challenges the concept of Buddhism as an apolitical religion without implications for law. This collection draws on the expertise of the foremost scholars in Buddhist studies and in law to trace the legal aspects of the religion from the time of the Buddha to the present. In some cases, Buddhism provided the crucial architecture for legal ideologies and secular law codes, while in other cases it had to contend with a preexisting legal system, to which it added a new layer of complexity. The wide-ranging studies in this book reveal a diversity of relationships between Buddhist monastic codes and secular legal systems in terms of substantive rules, factoring, and ritual practices. This volume will be an essential resource for all students and teachers in Buddhist studies, law and religion, and comparative law.


Jerryson and Juergensmeyer cover artBuddhist Warfare, edited by Michael K. Jerryson & Mark Juergensmeyer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Though traditionally regarded as a peaceful religion, Buddhism has a dark side. On multiple occasions over the past fifteen centuries, Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence, and even war. The eight essays in this book focus on a variety of Buddhist traditions, from antiquity to the present, and show that Buddhist organizations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout history. Buddhist soldiers in sixth century China were given the illustrious status of Bodhisattva after killing their adversaries. In seventeenth century Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama endorsed a Mongol ruler's killing of his rivals. And in modern-day Thailand, Buddhist soldiers carry out their duties undercover, as fully ordained monks armed with guns. This work demonstrates that the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can no longer exclude Buddhist traditions. The book examines Buddhist military action in Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and shows that even the most unlikely and allegedly pacifist religious traditions are susceptible to the violent tendencies of man.

French Yoke cover artThe Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet by Rebecca Redwood French. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2002.

The "golden yoke" of Buddhist Tibet was the last medieval legal system still in existence in the middle of the twentieth century. This book reconstructs that system as a series of layered narratives from the memories of people who participated in the daily operation of law in the houses and courtyards the offices and courts of Tibet prior to 1959. The practice of law in this unique legal world, which lacked most of our familiar sign posts, ranged from the fantastic use of oracles in the search for evidence to the more mundane presentation of cases in court. Buddhism and law, two topics rarely intertwined in Western consciousness, are at the center of this work. The Tibetan legal system was based on Buddhist philosophy and reflected Buddhist thought in legal practice and decision making. For Tibetans, law is a cosmology, a kaleidoscopic patterning of relations which is constantly changing, recycling, and re-forming even as it integrates the universe and the individual into a timeless mandalic whole. This work causes us to rethink American legal culture. It argues that in the United States, legal matters are segregated into a separate space with rigidly defined categories. The legal cosmology of Buddhist Tibet brings into question both this autonomous framework and most of the presumptions we have about the very nature of law from precedent and res judicata to rule formation and closure.

The Literature of Buddhism

Buddhism and Jainism share the concepts of karma, rebirth, and the desirability of escaping from rebirth. The literature of both traditions contains many stories about past, and sometimes future, lives which reveal much about these foundational doctrines. Naomi Appleton carefully explores how multi-life stories served to construct, communicate, and challenge ideas about karma and rebirth within early South Asia, examining portrayals of the different realms of rebirth, the potential paths and goals of human beings, and the biographies of ideal religious figures. Appleton also deftly surveys the ability of karma to bind individuals together over multiple lives, and the nature of the supernormal memory that makes multi-life stories available in the first place. This original study not only sheds light on the individual preoccupations of Buddhist and Jain tradition, but contributes to a more complete history of religious thought in South Asia.

Kim Receptacle of Sacred cover artReceptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia by Jinah Kim. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

In considering medieval illustrated Buddhist manuscripts as sacred objects of cultic innovation, this book explores how and why the South Asian Buddhist book-cult has survived for almost two millennia to the present. A book "manuscript" should be understood as a form of sacred space: a temple in microcosm, not only imbued with divine presence but also layered with the memories of many generations of users. Kim argues that illustrating a manuscript with Buddhist imagery not only empowered it as a three-dimensional sacred object, but also made it a suitable tool for the spiritual transformation of medieval Indian practitioners. Through a detailed historical analysis, she suggests that while Buddhism’s disappearance in eastern India was a slow and gradual process, the Buddhist book-cult played an important role in sustaining its identity. In addition, by examining the physical traces left by later Nepalese users and the contemporary ritual use of the book in Nepal, Kim shows how human agency was critical in perpetuating and intensifying the potency of a manuscript as a sacred object throughout time.

Berkwitz Manuscript Cultures cover artBuddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art, edited by Stephen C Berkwitz, Juliane Schober, and Claudia Brown. New York: Routledge, 2010.

This work explores how religious and cultural practices in premodern Asia were shaped by literary and artistic traditions as well as by Buddhist material culture. This study of Buddhist texts focuses on the significance of their material forms rather than their doctrinal contents, and examines how and why they were made. Collectively, the book offers cross-cultural and comparative insights into the transmission of Buddhist knowledge and the use of texts and images as ritual objects in the artistic and aesthetic traditions of Buddhist cultures. Drawing on case studies from India, Gandhara, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mongolia, China and Nepal, the chapters included investigate the range of interests and values associated with producing and using written texts, and the roles manuscripts and images play in the transmission of Buddhist texts and in fostering devotion among Buddhist communities. Contributions are by reputed scholars in Buddhist Studies and represent diverse disciplinary approaches from religious studies, art history, anthropology, and history.

Humphries Reading Emptiness cover artReading Emptiness: Buddhism and Literature by Jeff Humphries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

This work connects ancient Buddhist attitudes and ideas with postmodern theory and aesthetics, concluding that the closest thing in Western culture to the Middle Way of Buddhism is not any sort of theory or philosophy, but the practice of literature. The book draws on scholarship and criticism in literary theory, philosophy, and science to speculate about the possible common ground between literary and Buddhist practices, aiming not so much to elucidate the ancient traditions of Buddhism as to seek ways in which literature might be integrated into a truly Western practice of Buddhism that would remain philosophically true to its Eastern roots.

Language, Logic, and Semiotics

Image from Burmese Life of the Buddha

Above: This image from a Burmese manuscript depicts an episode in the birth-story of the Buddha. On the left side of the illustration, King Suddhodana, with Queen Maha-Maya to his right, asks brahmins to interpret the Queen's dream, which had shown a white elephant being born from her side. They predict that the child conceived by the King and Queen will become either a Universal Monarch or a Buddha. On the right side of the illustration, Queen Maha-Maya, escorted by noblemen and woman sets out on the road to her home, Devadaha, to bear her child ten lunar months after the Buddha's conception.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Insight

Western society has never been more interested in interiority. Indeed, it seems more and more people are deliberately looking inward—toward the mind, the body, or both. Pagis’s book focuses on one increasingly popular channel for the introverted gaze: vipassana meditation, which has spread from Burma to more than forty countries and counting. Lacing her account with vivid anecdotes and personal stories, Pagis turns our attention not only to the practice of vipassana but to the communities that have sprung up around it. This work is also a social history of the westward diffusion of Eastern religious practices spurred on by the lingering effects of the British colonial presence in India. At the same time Pagis asks knotty questions about what happens when we continually turn inward, as she investigates the complex relations between physical selves, emotional selves, and our larger social worlds. Her book sheds new light on evergreen topics such as globalization, social psychology, and the place of the human body in the enduring process of self-awareness.

Kucinskas Mindful Elite cover artThe Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the Inside Out by Jaime Kucinskas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Mindful meditation is now embraced in virtually all corners of society today, from K-12 schools to Fortune 100 companies, and its virtues extolled by national and international media almost daily. It is thought to benefit our health and overall well-being, to counter stress, to help children pay attention, and to foster creativity, productivity and emotional intelligence. Yet in the 1960s and 1970s meditation was viewed as a marginal, counter-cultural practice, or a religious ritual for Asian immigrants. How did mindfulness become mainstream? Kucinskas reveals who is behind the mindfulness movement, and the engine they built to propel mindfulness into public consciousness. Drawing on over a hundred first-hand accounts with top scientists, religious leaders, educators, business people and investors, Kucinskas shows how this highly accomplished, affluent group in America transformed meditation into an appealing set of contemplative practices. Rather than relying on confrontation and protest to make their mark and improve society, the contemplatives sought a cultural revolution by building elite networks and advocating the benefits of meditation across professions. But this idealistic myopia came to reinforce some of the problems it originally aspired to solve. A critical look at this Buddhist-inspired movement, this book explores how elite movements can spread and draws larger lessons for other social, cultural, and religious movements across institutions and organizations.


Arbel Early Jhanas cover artEarly Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight by Keren Arbel. Basingstoke, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2017.

This book offers a new interpretation of the relationship between 'insight practice' (satipatthana) and the attainment of the four jhanas (i.e., right samadhi), a key problem in the study of Buddhist meditation. The author challenges the traditional Buddhist understanding of the four jhanas as states of absorption, and shows how these states are the actualization and embodiment of insight (vipassana). It proposes that the four jhanas and what we call 'vipassana' are integral dimensions of a single process that leads to awakening. This book demonstrates that the distinction between the 'practice of serenity' (samatha-bhavana) and the 'practice of insight' (vipassana-bhavana) – a fundamental distinction in Buddhist meditation theory – is not applicable to early Buddhist understanding of the meditative path. It seeks to show that the common interpretation of the jhanas as 'altered states of consciousness', absorptions that do not reveal anything about the nature of phenomena, is incompatible with the teachings of the Pali Nikayas. By carefully analyzing the descriptions of the four jhanas in the early Buddhist texts in Pali, their contexts, associations and meanings within the conceptual framework of early Buddhism, the relationship between this central element in the Buddhist path and 'insight meditation' becomes revealed in all its power. This book will be of interest to scholars of Buddhist studies, Asian philosophies and religions, as well as serious practitioners of insight meditation.

Shankman Samadhi cover artThe Experience of Samadhi: An In-Depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation by Richard Shankman. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

Dharma practice comprises a wide range of wise instructions and skillful means. As a result, meditators may be exposed to a diversity of approaches to the core teachings and the meditative path--and that can be confusing at times. In this clear and accessible exploration, Dharma teacher and longtime meditator Richard Shankman unravels the mix of differing, sometimes conflicting, views and traditional teachings on how samadhi (concentration) is understood and taught. In part one, Richard Shankman explores the range of teachings and views about samadhi in the Theravada Pali tradition, examines different approaches, and considers how they can inform and enrich our meditation practice. Part two consists of a series of interviews with prominent contemporary Theravada and vipassana (insight) Buddhist teachers. These discussions focus on the practical experience of samadhi, bringing the theoretical to life and offering a range of applications.


Recent years have seen heightened interest in the ritual, juridical, and generally practical aspects of the Buddhist tradition. The contributions to this edited volume build on this trend while venturing beyond the established boundaries of discourse in specialized academic disciplines, presenting state-of-the-art research on the vinaya in all of its breadth and depth. They do so not only by tracing Buddhist textual traditions but also by showcasing the vast variety of practices that are the object of such regulations and throw a new light on the social implications such protocols have had in South, Central, and East Asia.

Bodiford Going Forth cover artGoing Forth: Visions of Buddhist Vinaya, edited by William Bodiford. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005.

Vinaya, one of the three main categories of Buddhist scripture, functions not only as a type of canon law, but also as a founding charter for Buddhist institutional practice in East Asia. In its role as a scriptural charter, vinaya has justified widely dissimilar approaches to religious life as Buddhist orders in different times and places have interpreted it in contradictory ways. In the resulting tension between scripture and practice, certain kinds of ceremonial issues acquire profound social, psychological, doctrinal, and soteriological significance in Buddhism. This collection focuses on these issues over a wide sweep of history--from early fifth-century China to modern Japan--to provide readers with a rich overview of the intersection of doctrinal, ritual, and institutional concerns in the development of East Asian Buddhist practices. Despite the crucial importance of vinaya, especially for understanding Buddhism in East Asia, very little scholarship in Western languages exists on this fascinating topic. The essays presented here, written by senior scholars in the field, address how actual people responded to local social and cultural imperatives by reading scripture in innovative ways to give new life to tradition. They place real people, practices, and institutions at the center of each account, revealing both diversity and unity in Buddhist customs.

Wu Yin Choosing Simplicity cover artChoosing Simplicity: A Commentary on the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha by Bhikshuni Wu Yin, edited by Thubten Chodron, translated by Bhikshuni Jendy Shih. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001.

This work discusses the precepts and lifestyle of fully ordained nuns within the Buddhist tradition. The ordination vows act as guidelines to promote harmony both within the individual and within the community by regulating and thereby simplifying one's relationships to other sangha members and laypeople, as well as to the needs of daily life. Observing these precepts and practicing the Buddhadharma brings incredible benefit to oneself and others. Since the nuns' precepts include those for monks and have additional rules for nuns, this book is useful for anyone interested in monastic life. As a record of women's struggle not only to achieve a life of self-discipline, but also to create harmonious independent religious communities of women, this volume is a pioneering work.

Wijayaratna Monastic cover artBuddhist Monastic Life, according to the Texts of the Theravada Tradition by Mohan Wijayaratna. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

This book provides a vivid and detailed picture of the daily life and religious practices of Buddhist monks and nuns in the classic period of Theravada Buddhism. The author describes the way in which the Buddha's disciples institutionalized and ritualized his teachings about food, dress, money, chastity, solitude, and discipleship. This tradition represents an ideal of religious life that has been followed in India and South Asia for more than two thousand years. The introduction by Steven Collins describes Theravada Buddhist literature, discusses the issue of the historical reliability of the texts, and offers extensive suggestions for further reading. The book will be of interest to scholars and students in Asian studies, religious studies, anthropology, and history.

Medicine & Health

Monks gathering alms at Luang Prabang, Laos

Above: Monks gather alms from laypeople at Luang Prabang in Laos.
Image source: Unsplash. Image author: Daniel Marchal. Image license: Unsplash license.

Pluralism & Tolerance: Buddhism & Other Religions

Though a minority religion in Vietnam, Christianity has been a significant presence in the country since its arrival in the sixteenth century. In this volume, Tran offers the first English translation of the recently discovered 1752 manuscript Tam Giao Chu Vong (The Errors of the Three Religions). Structured as a dialogue between a Christian priest and a Confucian scholar, this anonymously authored manuscript paints a rich picture of the three traditional Vietnamese religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. The work explains and evaluates several religious beliefs, customs, and rituals of eighteenth-century Vietnam, many of which are still in practice today. In addition, it contains a trove of information on the challenges and struggles that Vietnamese Christian converts had to face in following the new faith.

Nicholson Contradiction cover artThe Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism by Hugh Nicholson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

The cognitive science of religion has shown that abstract religious concepts within many established religious traditions often fail to correspond to what the majority of their adherents actually believe. Yet the cognitive approach to religion is largely silent on the question of how the doctrinal views developed in the first place. Nicholson aims to fill this gap by arguing that such doctrines can be understood as developing out of social identity processes. He focuses on the historical development of the Christian doctrine of consubstantiality, the claim that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, the claim that the personality is reducible to its impersonal physical and psychological constituents. Nicholson argues that that these doctrines were each the products of intra- and inter-religious rivalry, in which one faction tried to get the upper hand over its ingroup rivals by maximizing the contrast with the dominant outgroup. Thus the theologians of the fourth century developed the concept of consubstantiality in the context of an effort to maximize, against their rivals, the contrast with Christianity's archetypal "other," Judaism. Similarly, the no-self doctrine stemmed from an effort to maximize, against the so-called Personalist schools of Buddhism, the contrast with Brahmanical Hinduism with its doctrine of an unchanging and eternal self. In this way, Nicholson shows how religious traditions can back themselves into doctrinal positions that they must retrospectively justify.

Hershock Valuing Diversity cover artValuing Diversity: Buddhist Reflection on Realizing a More Equitable Global Future by Peter D. Hershock. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012.

Diversity matters. Whether in the context of ecosystems, education, the workplace, or politics, diversity is now recognized as a fact and as something to be positively affirmed. But what is the value of diversity? What explains its increasing significance? This book is a groundbreaking response to these questions and to the contemporary global dynamics that make them so salient. Peter D. Hershock examines the changes of the last century to show how the successes of Western-style modernity and industrially-powered markets have, ironically, coupled progressive integration and interdependence with the proliferation of political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental differences. Global predicaments like climate change and persistent wealth inequalities compel recognition that we are in the midst of an era-defining shift from the primacy of the technical to that of the ethical. Yet, neither modern liberalism nor its postmodern critiques have offered the resources needed to address such challenges. Making use of Buddhist and ecological insights, Hershock's book develops a qualitatively rich conception of diversity as an emerging value and global relational commons, forwarding an ethics of interdependence and responsive virtuosity that opens prospects for a paradigm shift in our pursuits of equity, freedom, and democratic justice.

Baek Nothingness cover artNothingness: Tadao Ando's Christian Sacred Space by Jin Baek. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Based around an interview with Tadao Ando, this book explores the influence of the Buddhist concept of nothingness on Ando’s Christian architecture, and sheds new light on the cultural significance of the buildings of one of the world’s leading contemporary architects. Specifically, this book situates Ando’s churches, particularly his world-renowned Church of the Light (1989), within the legacy of nothingness expounded by Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), the father of the Kyoto Philosophical School. Linking Ando’s Christian architecture with a philosophy originating in Mahayana Buddhism illuminates the relationship between the two religious systems, as well as tying Ando’s architecture to the influence of Nishida on post-war Japanese art and culture.

Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy

Mindfulness and yoga are widely said to improve mental and physical health, and booming industries have emerged to teach them as secular techniques. This movement is typically traced to the 1970s, but it actually began a century earlier. Hickey shows that most of those who first advocated meditation for healing were women: leaders of the "Mind Cure" movement, which emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instructed by Buddhist and Hindu missionaries, many of these women believed that by transforming consciousness, they could also transform oppressive conditions in which they lived. For women - and many African-American men - "Mind Cure" meant not just happiness, but liberation in concrete political, economic, and legal terms. In response to the perceived threat posed by this movement, white male doctors and clergy with elite academic credentials began to channel key Mind Cure methods into "scientific" psychology and medicine. As mental therapeutics became medicalized and commodified, the religious roots of meditation, like the social-justice agendas of early Mind Curers, fell by the wayside. Although characterized as "universal," mindfulness has very specific historical and cultural roots, and is now largely marketed by and accessible to affluent white people. Hickey examines religious dimensions of the Mindfulness movement and clinical research about its effectiveness. By treating stress-related illness individualistically, she argues, the contemporary movement obscures the roles religious communities can play in fostering civil society and personal well-being, and diverts attention from systemic factors fueling stress-related illness, including racism, sexism, and poverty.

Cooper Zen Insight cover artZen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting by Paul C. Cooper. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Drawing from original source material, contemporary scholarship, and Wilfred Bion’s psychoanalytic writings, this book introduces the Zen notion of gūjin, or total exertion, and elaborates a realizational perspective that integrates Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Developed by the thirteenth-century Zen teacher and founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school, Eihei Dogen, gūjin finds expression and is referenced in various contemporary scholarly and religious commentaries. This book explains this pivotal Zen concept and addresses themes by drawing from translated source material, academic scholarship, traditional Zen kōans and teaching stories, extensive commentarial literature, interpretive writings by contemporary Soto Zen teachers, psychoanalytic theory, clinical material, and poetry, as well as the author’s thirty years of personal experience as a psychoanalyst, supervisor, psychoanalytic educator, ordained Soto Zen priest, and transmitted Soto Zen teacher. From a realizational perspective that integrates Zen and psychoanalytic concepts, the book extends the scope and increases the effectiveness of clinical work for the psychotherapist, and facilitates deepened experiences for the meditation practitioner.

Ivtzan and Lomas cover artMindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Well-Being, edited by Itai Ivtzan & Tim Lomas. New York: Routledge, 2016.

This collection brings together the latest thinking in these two important disciplines. Positive psychology, the science of well-being and strengths, is the fastest growing branch of psychology, offering an optimal home for the research and application of mindfulness. As we contemplate mindfulness in the context of positive psychology, meaningful insights are being revealed in relation to our mental and physical health. The book features chapters from leading figures from mindfulness and positive psychology, offering an exciting combination of topics. Mindfulness is explored in relation to flow, meaning, parenthood, performance, sports, obesity, depression, pregnancy, spirituality, happiness, mortality, and many other ground-breaking topics. This is an invitation to rethink about mindfulness in ways that truly expands our understanding of well-being. The work will appeal to a readership of students and practitioners, as well as those interested in mindfulness, positive psychology, or other relevant areas such as education, healthcare, clinical psychology, counselling psychology, occupational psychology, and coaching. The contributors explore cutting edge theories, research, and practical exercises, which will be relevant to all people interested in this area, and particularly those who wish to enhance their well-being via mindfulness.

Epstein Psychotherapy Without Self cover artPsychotherapy Without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Immersed in Buddhist psychology prior to studying Western psychiatry, Dr. Mark Epstein first viewed Western therapeutic approaches through the lens of the East. This posed something of a challenge. Although both systems promise liberation through self-awareness, the central tenet of Buddha's wisdom is the notion of no-self, while the central focus of Western psychotherapy is the self. This book, which includes writings from the past twenty-five years, wrestles with the complex relationship between Buddhism and psychotherapy and offers nuanced reflections on therapy, meditation, and psychological and spiritual development. A best-selling author and popular speaker, Epstein has long been at the forefront of the effort to introduce Buddhist psychology to the West. His unique background enables him to serve as a bridge between the two traditions, which he has found to be more compatible than at first thought. Engaging with the teachings of the Buddha as well as those of Freud and Winnicott, he offers a compelling look at desire, anger, and insight and helps reinterpret the Buddha's Four Noble Truths and central concepts such as egolessness and emptiness in the psychoanalytic language of our time.

Philosophical Psychology & Philosophy of Mind

The idea that the self is inextricably intertwined with the rest of the world―the “oneness hypothesis”―can be found in many of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. Oneness provides ways to imagine and achieve a more expansive conception of the self as fundamentally connected with other people, creatures, and things. Such views present profound challenges to Western hyperindividualism and its excessive concern with self-interest and tendency toward self-centered behavior. This anthology presents a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary exploration of the nature and implications of the oneness hypothesis. While fundamentally inspired by East and South Asian traditions, in which such a view is often critical to their philosophical approach, this collection also draws upon religious studies, psychology, and Western philosophy, as well as sociology, evolutionary theory, and cognitive neuroscience. Contributors trace the oneness hypothesis through the works of East Asian and Western schools, including Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Platonism and such thinkers as Zhuangzi, Kant, James, and Dewey. They intervene in debates over ethics, cultural difference, identity, group solidarity, and the positive and negative implications of metaphors of organic unity. Challenging dominant views that presume that the proper scope of the mind stops at the boundaries of skin and skull, this work shows that a more relational conception of the self is not only consistent with contemporary science but has the potential to lead to greater happiness and well-being for both individuals and the larger wholes of which they are parts.

Siderits Personal Identity cover artPersonal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons, 2nd edition, by Mark Siderits. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2016.

Since the publication of Mark Siderits' important book in 2003, much has changed in the field of Buddhist philosophy. There has been unprecedented growth in analytic metaphysics, and a considerable amount of new work on Indian theories of the self and personal identity has emerged. Fully revised and updated, and drawing on these changes as well as on developments in the author's own thinking, the second edition explores the conversation between Buddhist and Western Philosophy showing how concepts and tools drawn from one philosophical tradition can help solve problems arising in another. Siderits discusses afresh areas involved in the philosophical investigation of persons, including vagueness and its implications for personal identity, recent attempts by scholars of Buddhist philosophy to defend the attribution of an emergentist account of personhood to at least some Buddhists, and whether a distinctively Buddhist antirealism can avoid problems that beset other forms of ontological anti-foundationalism.

Coseru Perceiving cover artPerceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy by Christian Coseru. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

What turns the continuous flow of experience into perceptually distinct objects? Can our verbal descriptions unambiguously capture what it is like to see, hear, or feel? How might we reason about the testimony that perception alone discloses? Coseru proposes a rigorous and highly original way to answer these questions by developing a framework for understanding perception as a mode of apprehension that is intentionally constituted, pragmatically oriented, and causally effective. By engaging with recent discussions in phenomenology and analytic philosophy of mind, but also by drawing on the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Coseru offers a sustained argument that Buddhist philosophers, in particular those who follow the tradition of inquiry initiated by Dignaga and Dharmakirti, have much to offer when it comes to explaining why epistemological disputes about the evidential role of perceptual experience cannot satisfactorily be resolved without taking into account the structure of our cognitive awareness. This work examines the function of perception and its relation to attention, language, and discursive thought, and provides new ways of conceptualizing the Buddhist defense of the reflexivity thesis of consciousness--namely, that each cognitive event is to be understood as involving a pre-reflective implicit awareness of its own occurrence. Coseru advances an innovative approach to Buddhist philosophy of mind in the form of phenomenological naturalism, and moves beyond comparative approaches to philosophy by emphasizing the continuity of concerns between Buddhist and Western philosophical accounts of the nature of perceptual content and the character of perceptual consciousness.

Stambaugh Formless Self cover artThe Formless Self by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Gathering and interpreting material that is not readily available elsewhere, this book discusses the thought of the Japanese Buddhist philosophers Dogen, Hisamatsu, and Nishitani. Stambaugh develops ideas about the self culminating in the concept of the Formless Self as formulated by Hisamatsu in his book The Fullness of Nothingness and the essay "The Characteristics of Oriental Nothingness," and further explicated by Nishitani in his book Religion and Nothingness. These works show that Oriental nothingness has nothing to do with the 19th- and 20th-century Western concept of nihilism; rather, it is a positive phenomenon: enabling things to be.

Science: Mind & Universe

Images of the Buddha at Gal Vihara

Above: Pictured here at night, two images of the Buddha carved from the same massive piece of granite form the central feature of the ruined temple at Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka. At more than 46 feet (14.12m) long, the recumbent statue on the right is one of the largest sculptures in Southeast Asia and depicts the Buddha at the moment of final enlightenment just before his death, or parinibbana.
Image source: Unsplash. Image author: Eddy Billard. Image license: Unsplash license.