General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitioner?

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Curious Layperson
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General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitioner?

Post by Curious Layperson » Thu Mar 07, 2013 5:55 pm


I attend Japanese and Korean Zen Centers in the US, but have studied East Asia (including Tibet) and am curious about Tibetan Buddhism. I know enough to know that its practices are closely tied to Tibetan culture, and any assumptions or attempts at understanding that I bring from Zen may not fit at all.

Along those lines, as someone whose classes in Chinese and Tibetan history (at University) completed 20 years ago, I am wondering if there is an intelligent, quality, but non-practitioner oriented book about Tibetan Buddhism in the context of Tibet's history and culture. Something where I can learn a bit more about how Bon practices were incorporated, the value and uses of thangkas, how the visualization practices arose and are observed. I also find the wrathful deities fascinating (from artistic and anthropological perspectives) and would love to learn a bit more of the process of incorporating them as manifestations of the mind, or of other figures and teachers, into practice. Again, as I don't practice in these lineages, a Rinpoche's guide for his sangha and students will go above my head - I'm not ready for Green Tara practice, but I'd sure love to understand White Tara and Green Tara better.

Is there anything out there that fits this topic and orientation? Thank you!

On a related issue - I've always been uncomfortable with sporting the symbols and artifacts of other cultures (it feels like appropriating them, without their meanings). E.g., I'm caucasian, and while I love African textiles, I feel odd in wearing them "because they are pretty" and ignoring the culture and context they come from. The other day I saw a local beading and jewelry maker selling a necklace that incorporated things that look like dzi beads, and featuring a recently made small Tibetan prayer wheel. Wearing it would seem, to me, disrespectful (like the suburban yoga ladies who play at "Eastern mysticism"). Is it actually disrespectful in the Tibetan tradition, or am I being a guilty white liberal?

Thanks to all,


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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by randomseb » Thu Mar 07, 2013 6:23 pm

I've recently read the biography "Life of Milarepa", which might be of some interest to you..

Here's the synopsis for the 2010 translation by Tsangnyon Heruka, released by Penguin Classics
A new translation of the classic biography of the most renowned saint in Tibetan Buddhist history

The Life of Milarepa is one of the most beloved stories of the Tibetan people and a great literary example of the contemplative life. This biography, a dramatic tale from a culture now in crisis, can be read on several levels. A personal and moving introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, it is also a detailed guide to the search for liberation. It presents a quest for purification and buddhahood in a single lifetime, tracing the path of a great sinner who became a great saint. It is also a powerfully evocative narrative, full of magic, miracles, suspense, and humor, while reflecting the religious and social life of medieval Tibet.
You can find this on amazon,for example..

This is the one I read, I don't know it might compare to other translations, but it was pretty good. There's also a movie about Milarepa's descent into evil ways, the first half of his story, but it doesnt quite follow the script, in the way of movies heh

As for zen understanding and tibetan buddhism, my Lama mentioned to me that Mahamudra practice in tibetan buddhism is the equivalent, and from what I've studied on it so far, the same "things" apply, just formulated in different ways, and a lot more structured.. My "understanding" of patriarchal zen certainly helps me get what they are talking about!

There's lots of "dharma gifted" free texts on that subject, online in spiritual text repositories :twothumbsup:

Here's a sample out of "The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition Of Mahamudra [Dalai Lama, Alexander Berzin]", which i've seen as ebook and website documents:
The mahamudra realization is never "Just live naturally like an animal. Just see and hear, and
have no thoughts." That is not it at all. Furthermore, even if we are able, through the initial
mahamudra methods, to achieve the level of attainment at which we are not greatly disturbed
by the contents of our experience, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that mahamudra
practice is so simple, or that this initial level is all that there is. It is a step in the correct
direction - a very big step - but it is not yet a profound understanding of mahamudra. To go
deeper into mahamudra practice, we need to develop shamata, a serenely stilled and settled
state of mind totally absorbed with single-pointed concentration on mind itself, first
specifically on its conventional nature as mere arising and engaging. The First Panchen Lama,
in A Root Text for the Glorious Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, begins his
presentation of mahamudra meditation at this point.
Disclaimer: If I have posted about something, then I obviously have no idea what I am talking about!

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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by justsit » Thu Mar 07, 2013 6:50 pm

You might find The Essence of Buddhism by Traleg Rinpoche helpful. The blurb indicates all three vehicles are covered, which is true, but the emphasis is on Mahayana and Vajrayana. Very nice basic and clear explanation, not too complicated.

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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by Namgyal » Thu Mar 07, 2013 8:06 pm

'Introducing Tibetan Buddhism' by Professor Geoffrey Samuel.

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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by Namgyal » Thu Mar 07, 2013 10:55 pm

Professor Samuel's other book 'Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies' should be compulsory reading for Tibetan Buddhists, and it will answer just about all your questions. However it is quite academic and not exactly light reading, as the reviewer explains it is '...dense but rewarding...'. So perhaps his new book might be better as an introduction.

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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by dakini_boi » Thu Mar 07, 2013 11:45 pm

My two favorite beginners' books are Introduction to Tantra, by Lama Yeshe, and A Beginner's Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, by Bruce Newman. They are both very easy to make sense of for Westerners, IMO.

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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by Lingpupa » Fri Mar 08, 2013 1:10 pm

One that hasn't been suggested yet, but that I would recommend strongly is John Powers "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism".
It's serious, without being killer-academic (although JP could do that if he wanted to) and takes a look at the whole field.
Here's the blurb (lifted from Amazon):
This is the most comprehensive and authoritative introduction to Tibetan Buddhism available to date, covering a wide range of topics, including history, doctrines, meditation, practices, schools, religious festivals, and major figures. The revised edition contains expanded discussions of recent Tibetan history and tantra and incorporates important new publications in the field. Beginning with a summary of the Indian origins of Tibetan Buddhism and how it eventually was brought to Tibet, it explores Tibetan Mahayana philosophy and tantric methods for personal transformation. The four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Bön, are explored in depth from a nonsectarian point of view. This new and expanded edition is a systematic and wonderfully clear presentation of Tibetan Buddhist views and practices.
All the best
Alex Wilding
Stupa in the Snow blog at

Curious Layperson
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Re: General book on Tibetan Buddhism for the non-practitione

Post by Curious Layperson » Sat Mar 09, 2013 4:22 pm

Thank you - very helpful recommendations here.

Bow of gratitude

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