Desert Island Dharma Books

Last night I finished teaching an “Introduction to Meditation” evening course (in French) for the University of Ottawa’s Center for Continuing education. I really enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to doing this again next year.

I wrote some notes for the students about the basic instructions on the practice of mindfulness.  Included in those notes was a minimalist bibliography of recommended books that covered some of the basics in:

  1. meditation instructions
  2. the theory and practice of Buddhism
  3. a range of Buddhist traditions

and preferably available also in French.

This is the list I came up with:

In retrospect, I would have done well to add a few more:

Don’t ask me why I don’t have Jack Kornfields “A Path with Heart” or Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You go There You Are” on the list – I’m quite sure I can’t explain that. They just don’t seem to be books I go back to or that have stayed with me.


eco-buddhismIt is so wonderful to at last see a site and a book (“A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency”) and a declaration (which you can sign) that reflects a thoughtful and heart-felt Buddhist response to the climate change problem.  The contributors are so eminent and across all traditions.  Here are a few:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa
Bhikkhu Bodhi
Robert Aitken
Joanna Macy
Joseph Goldstein
Matthieu Ricard
Thich Nhat Hanh

Time, Aging, Renunciation

timeFor Hanukkha / New Year’s, Brenda and I recieved Andy Goldsworthy’s book – TIME.  Andy’s art – in addition to being beautiful and haunting in its own right – is a meditation on change and transformation in Nature.

Earlier today, I was thinking about the inexorable process of aging and this thought that has been floating around in meditation circles that meditation is the process of preparing to die (so that you can live!)  

Being present here and now, is really about the process of accepting the inevitable forces of change. Renouncing the desire to keep things as they are and accepting the  flow of change – embracing whatever there is.  That’s the secret to happiness.

The Green Buddha

I feel grateful to Christopher Titmuss for having planted the seeds of whatever spiritual-ecological consciousness lies in me. I had him as a meditation teacher in Orangeville, Ontario in 1992. I remember him speaking passionately and poetically about water as “the blood of the earth”.

I am only now reading Christopher’s book The Green Buddha, written in 1994. I think many of its observations and sentiments were prophetic. However, I can’t say that I like the dominant tone of this collection of Dharma talks. It is one of righteous indignation about the injustices done to the earth, committed by the capitalist / military western economic consumer machine that manifests “obscene greed” and ignorance writ large. Christopher is right, of course, but does he have to go on and on with the outrage, even if it is outrageous?

Still, I think there are valuable spiritual lessons to be learned from this book. In one passage, Christopher writes:

There are some orthodox Buddhists who voice the rather strange view that the preservation of the teachings comes first. One has to give up “doing good” for others, such as working to end poverty and injustice or attempting to apply environmental ethics. These voices dismiss such issues as nothing more than temporal matters. “Why concern oneself with such passing issues?” they argue. “By being involved in the problems of the world, we get lost in the world.” For them, doing good is like a band aid which block the opportunity for realization of the Ultimate Truth and enlightenment, which is beyond good and evil.

… the great danger with such conservative voices is that they encourage spiritual seekers to lose interest in the fate of people and the earth through clinging to limited standpoints…. Such voices can inhibit a spontaneous predilection to end suffering, as a natural expression of empathy with others, as natural as the responses of an emotionally healthy mother to her child.

I think he is right about this.  When we read the Metta Sutra for instance, and wish all beings to be at ease

The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born…

we really do feel for future generations who will suffer the consequences of our actions today. And if we really wish to be harmless towards all species now and in the future, we have to be moved to act.

At the same time, there is a danger, as Christopher also points out, with ecologists’ preoccupation with the future. Always looking to what dangers are lurking and the possible disastrous consequences of ecological cataclysms: the potential of being pushed and pulled by the burnout cycle of hope and disappointment:

Spiritual wisdom and practices, the capacity to be steadfast in the Here and Now, and to be free from inner [ego] investment safeguard the heard and mind from burnout.


Spiritual awakening, the realization of Ultimate Truth is an indispensable feature for action…. Change comes through people realising what is happening Here and Now. That realization only shows itself in acting for change, not in complaining… This change of consciousness invites a different order of participation in the world…. We must seek fresh and appropriate political forms respectful to the life of our Earth and the experience of living Here and Now.

Buddhist Ethics

My all-time favourite introductory book on Buddhism is Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown. It combines scholarship, brevity, clarity and personal experience into a perfect introductory package.

There is a companion to this book, also from Oxford University Press and also by Damien Keown, called Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.

I haven’t read all 148 pages yet, but the few I have read are exceptional. Keown discusses the precepts and the monastic Vinaya, the Buddhist response to war and terrorism, sexuality, abortion and suicide and euthenasia.

All these subjects are treated sensitively and in a balanced way. For instance, Keown doesn’t shy away from the instance in history where Buddhist countries have been involved in war – he also asks whether there is such a thing as a just war – or indeed the Dalai Lama’s response to the gay community about whether gay sex is in accordance with the Vinaya.

Highly recommended!