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Books on Buddhism and Yoga. What one needs to know as a beginning practitioner and how to choose books to read

We are often asked questions about which book should one begin with to study the teachings of the Buddha or how to structure the information about yoga. Which books should be read by a person who is beginning their self-development path and only getting acquainted with the various movements and traditions in the world of self-improvement? How should one begin studying yoga and Buddhism?

In fact, today there is a lot of literature which provides important information that can help address the issues mentioned above. This article provides a brief review of the literature, which would be relevant for beginners or those who want to understand yoga and Buddhism in more detail.

However, before we begin, it should be mentioned that all beginners have various levels of perception; therefore, the books described in this article may not fit everyone. This is up to you to decide.

Two categories have been assigned for describing the books on yoga and Buddhism: for beginners (i.e. those who only recently heard about Yoga and Buddhism and are not very familiar with the terminology), for advanced (i.e. those who are already familiar with the initial terminology and material from the first category).

To learn more about the philosophy of yoga.

FOR ADVANCED. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
Easy-to-understand commentary on the ancient Indian treatise Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (which is considered the original source of hatha yoga). The book contains Sanskrit terms, which are included in the sutras, and their dictionary definitions.

FOR ADVANCED. Yoga Vasistha
The plot of the book revolves around a conversation of the sage Vasishta and Prince Rama. Vasistha’s doctrine concerns all questions related to the inner knowledge of one’s own nature, as well as cycles of creation, maintenance and destruction of the world.

FOR ADVANCED. The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy by Max Muller.
The book provides information on the development of ancient Indian philosophy beginning with the period prior to the Upanishads and discusses its history during Buddhist and Vedic periods, the main philosophies and common ideas. The book was translated into Russian in 1901 and since then it has been considered a fundamental work on Indian philosophy and religion.

Hatha Yoga, to understand the structure of this tradition.

FOR BEGINNERS. Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarama.
The ancient text of hatha yoga. It describes asana, Shatkarmas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas and meditation techniques, as well as lifestyle of the followers, their food, obstacles on the path of self-development and practical advice for an easier exploration of yoga.

FOR BEGINNERS. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K. Desikachar.
The book describes all the elements of yoga: asanas, conscious breathing, meditation and philosophy. It describes how to build a personal practice. A lot of attention is paid to explaining the eight limbs of Yoga of Patanjali (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi). It describes the obstacles to yoga and methods to overcome them. It studies the known types of yoga, such as jnana, bhakti, mantra, raja, karma, kriya, hatha, kundalini. The book includes "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" with translation and commentary by Desikachar. The appendix contains 4 basic hatha yoga sequences.

To learn more about the practice of hatha yoga

FOR BEGINNERS. Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika by B.K.S. Iyengar.
The most complete, illustrated encyclopedia which allows one to practice on their own. There are more than 600 drawings, as well as unique descriptions of 200 yoga postures, 14 breathing techniques, bandhas, and kriyas in the text. The 300-week course of lessons, exercise programs for the treatment of various diseases, and a glossary of Sanskrit terms are published in the appendix.

FOR BEGINNERS AND ADVANCED. The Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. Bihar School
Comprehensive manual (in three volumes) developed by Bihar School of Yoga. It describes the different traditions of yoga - Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Kriya Yoga. It offers a coherent system of developing yoga practice with particular emphasis on practice and application of yoga in daily life. The first volume is devoted to beginner practice and is designed for consistent development of the mind and body for the more advanced practices which are described in the second volume, and, ultimately, to the highest practice of Kriya Yoga, which constitute the third volume. The ultimate goal is to gradually, step by step, introduce to the practitioners various techniques.

Buddhism, to understand the structure of this doctrine.

FOR BEGINNERS. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path by Sangharakshita
Very detailed description of the fourth noble truth - the Buddha's teachings of the Eightfold Path. Clearly and thoroughly describes each of the eight stages.

FOR BEGINNERS. Buddhism For Beginners by Thubten Chodron.
It is a narrative about the basic principles and key ideas of Buddhism in the form of questions and answers: what is the need for Buddhism, who was Buddha, what is the meditation for, how does one determine karma, and much more.

FOR ADVANCED. The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche.
One of the best introductions to the basics of Tibetan Buddhism. It provides detailed guidance for the use of the methods by which the ordinary man can transform their consciousness and enter the path of Buddha. The first part of the book contains a series of reflections about the collapse of hopes and deep suffering in samsara, the whirl of life generated by ignorance and misleading emotions; and the immense value of human life, which creates a unique opportunity to attain Buddhahood. The second part provides explanations given to the first steps on the path of Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) with effective methods for transformation of consciousness which are the hallmark of Tibetan Buddhism.

To learn more about practice in the teachings of Buddha: meditations and retreats

FOR BEGINNERS. How to meditate by Sentier Khadro. Tips of spiritual friend by Atisha. 
The book consists of two parts. The first part will be interesting for novice practitioners. It examines the questions on what the mind and meditation are, how to organize the practice of meditation, the types of meditation (meditation on the mind, analytical, visualization-meditations). It also provides dictionary of the used terms. The second part will be relevant for those who are already familiar with the basics of meditation. It describes the life of the great master Atisha and several important texts. The instructions cover the topics on the transformation of thoughts, working with the mind, the transformation of adverse circumstances to help on the path of self-development. The value of these instructions is realized through their application and analysis in real practice.

FOR ADVANCED. Middle-Way Meditation Instructions by Khechen Thrangu Rinpoche
Middle way is one of the key Buddhist concepts which indicate a middle ground between the physical and the spiritual world, between asceticism and pleasure without falling into extremes. This book examines the three fundamental conditions of the Middle Way Meditation: empathy, enlightened thought (Bodhicitta), wisdom (Prajna). It also explains the nine stages of concentration of the mind, highlights the obstacles in meditation and their corresponding antidotes, and provides techniques for working with thoughts.

FOR ADVANCED. Tibetan Hermits Revelations
This is a collection of texts by the great masters of Vajrayana Buddhism, which are devoted to meditation practices in a secluded retreat. The book gives an idea of what the retreat is, what its meaning and purpose are, how the structure of seclusion is determined, how to prepare for practice, how to maintain and bring back the motivation, how to choose and prepare for the start of the retreat, how to exit the retreat and summarize its results. The book talks about the significance of the blessing by the Guru (teacher) and the importance of the dedication of merits and testing one’s meditations. In this book you will learn about the rules of eating during the retreat. You will also receive information about the importance of privacy to advance on the path of self-improvement and other inspirational teachings from accomplished masters.

FOR ADVANCED. Heartfelt Retreat Advice
The book describes the essential aspects of the retreat and how to create the causes for enlightenment. It covers the following questions: what is the retreat, the main objectives of the retreat, necessary motivation for the retreat. It gives instructions on analytical meditation, how to develop spiritual comprehension related to the right service to the spiritual master, how to plan your daily practice, example of the schedule for those who are not accustomed to long seated meditation, how to ensure the results from chanting mantras, what meditations can be done during breaks.

Important texts among the teachings of the Buddha (Sutras and original sources)

FOR BEGINNERS. Jataka tales
Stories of past reincarnations of the Buddha. After reading Jatakas, understanding of ethics and morality becomes deeper. They describe social order very well, which helps to understand how to build relationships between parents and children, between teacher and students, between the rulers and the ruled.

FOR ADVANCED. Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra, also known as the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma).
The series of sermons pronounced by Buddha Sakyamuni on Mount Gridhrakuta. The essence of the Sutra is that attainment of enlightenment and escape from suffering can be done by all living beings, even the most immoral. The Buddha uncovers how to achieve this through the stories of his past lives: about the path to enlightenment, about his disciples and followers who seek happiness and wisdom, about monks and ordinary people, kings and workers. In addition, the concept of nirvana (it is described as a moment that sooner or later will end) is broken and predictions that in the future all disciples of the Buddha will become Tathagattas are given in the text.

FOR ADVANCED. Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra
Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra is one of the oldest Mahayana sutras. Vimalakirti is a great Bodhisattva who lived as an ordinary layman. He had a home, family, work - all like ordinary people. But this is just a phenomenon of a skillful means by which enlightened beings guide others to awakening. In Sutra we find the most profound philosophical descriptions of the Buddha's teachings, remarkable dialogues between the main disciples of the Buddha and realized Bodhisattvas, deep and accessible explanation of the Buddha's teachings and clarification of important concepts that are found on the path of self-development.

FOR ADVANCED. Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva) by Shantideva
This is the most important classic text which reveals one of the highest spiritual ideals of mankind - the Bodhisattva ideal, a being who fully devoted himself/herself to the service of others and strives to achieve full Enlightenment, Buddhahood, for this good purpose. The main theme of the text is the notion of bodhicitta (state of mind that leads us to enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings). The book describes the types of Bodhicitta and gives different descriptions of such stages of the practice as self-control, vigilance and patience, as well as diligence, meditation and wisdom.

Autobiographies of yogis for inspiration

FOR BEGINNERS. The great teachers of Tibet
This book contains biographies of Marpa and Milarepa. Marpa was a great yogi, layman-Lama who lived the life of a rich family-man judging by his outside appearances; at the end of his life he became one of the most competent translators and teachers in Tibet. Milarepa was a famous yogi-practitioner. His path to enlightenment was not easy. In his youth, under the pressure of his mother, Milarepa learned the black magic and killed thirty-five people using the witchcraft. Soon he regretted what he had done and began looking for a way to get rid of the accumulated negative karma. Following the advice of his first teacher, Milarepa went to the translator Marpa. Marpa was very strict with him, forced him to do hard labor, and outright refused to give him Buddhist initiation. After several years of severe trials, Marpa took Milarepa as his apprentice and gave him instructions on meditation. Milarepa diligently had practiced the received instructions for twelve years. Milarepa was the first person to reach such a high level of comprehension in a single life without having any merits from the previous births.

FOR BEGINNERS. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
Paramahansa Yogananda's autobiography is a fascinating story about the individual search for truth and a comprehensive introduction to the science and philosophy of yoga.

FOR ADVANCED. The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava by Yeshe Tsogyal
Biography of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). Padmasambhava was born from the lotus flower, which is why he received his name. Being a prince like Buddha Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, again, like the Buddha, leaves the palace and becomes a hermit. During meditation in cemeteries and inaccessible caves he receives secret tantric initiations from dakinis and becomes a great yogi and miracle worker.

FOR ADVANCED. Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal by Gyalwa Changchub
Biography of Yeshe Tsogyal, the spiritual wife of Padmasambhava and enlightened Dakini. She is believed to have lived about 250 years. Together with Guru Rinpoche she spread the Buddha Dharma in Tibet.

I hope this information will help you understand the issues that were identified in the beginning of this article.
With deep devotion to the Guru, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for the benefit of all sentient beings,

Katerina Androsova (author)

Translated by Maria Asadov