Recommended books

Featured recommendations:

Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations  {reviewed June, 2017}

The Five Invitations

Buddhism is well-known for its plethora of numbered lists.  To name but a few, we have the three jewels, the three poisons, the four noble truths, the four foundations, the five hindrances, the eightfold noble path, the ten paramis.  Now, to this abundant collection of lists, first-time author Frank Ostaseski has added his own, the five invitations.  It’s a worthy, and a welcome, contribution.

Ostaseski, a cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, has cared for dying patients of all ages and from all varieties of sociocultural backgrounds for over 30 years.  In this book, subtitled “Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully”, he distills half a lifetime’s worth of experiences into nearly three-hundred pages filled with personal anecdotes, patients’ stories, and Buddhist wisdom.

When reading books by authors with backgrounds in the helping professions, I often find myself, with each passing chapter, growing more and more irritated by their excessive (in my opinion) fondness for including lengthy accounts of their past – and, unsurprisingly, nearly always successful – therapeutic interventions with their clients.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I usually can’t help wondering whether these anecdotal passages have been provided not so much to augment the reader’s understanding as to amplify the author’s ego.

But I can happily report that I harbored no such suspicions as I read The Five Invitations.  The numerous personal stories that fill out each chapter prove to be not mere supplemental material, but the vital source from which this book springs to life.  Ostaseski makes this unmistakably clear right from the outset, when he offers his dedication “to the men, women, and children who gave me the blessing of being with their dying.  My true teachers.”

The modesty contained in this opening declaration graces every page that follows.  Time and again, with one dying patient after another, we witness Ostaseski exercising the wisdom to take himself out of the situation and to simply be present with his patients.  He recognizes that the dying that is taking place in his presence belongs to his patient, who needs to experience it on his or her terms alone, without any unhelpful and unneeded counsel from him.  From his example, we begin to grasp the intellectually challenging Buddhist concept of “no-self” in a new experiential sense that goes far deeper than any conceptual understanding we may already have.

This deepened understanding and heightened appreciation of core Buddhist teachings is the extraordinary benefit that this unique book offers its readers.  The five “invitations” themselves (“don’t wait”, “welcome everything, push away nothing”, “bring your whole self to the experience”, “find a place of rest in the middle of things”, and “cultivate don’t know mind”) will be quite familiar to most practitioners.  They are all about embracing impermanence, letting go of grasping, and cultivating equanimity – cornerstones of the dharma.  What makes them resonate in such a new and compelling way as we read The Five Invitations is how we come to see the crucial role they play in dying skillfully as well.

From his decades of compassionate work with the dying, Ostaseski has come to see that the wisdom that can emerge naturally at the end of our lives, in the process of dying, is the wisdom that is available to us at every stage of our lives preceding that final ending.  In the same way that a poet’s gift is to let us see something we already know in a new light that forever transforms our understanding, so too Ostaseski’s gift to readers of this book is to transform forever how we understand the unity of living and dying, and how the dharma teachings speak so powerfully across the entirety of this unified continuum that is our life.

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Andrew Olendzki, Unlimiting Mind  {reviewed April, 2017}

Unlimiting Mind

Olendzki, a Buddhist scholar well known for his exquisite translations and deft interpretations of the original Pali discourses, has been a featured contributor to the magazines Insight Journal, Buddhadharma, and Tricycle since 2002.  In this volume, he collects thirty-two of these previously published essays and organizes them (in slightly revised versions) into eight chapters exploring what he terms in his subtitle “The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism”.

He wastes no time in defining exactly what he means by a “radically experiential psychology”.  The four essays comprising his opening chapter, entitled “The Bigger Picture”, establish the foundation upon which the entire book stands.  In them, Olendzki carefully explains the highly-individualized process by which each of us makes unique sense of the constant stream of experiences we are passing through.  Here’s a reprise, in his own words: from the first essay, “all meaning is locally constructed”; from the second, “the world of human experience is a ‘virtual’ world, constructed each moment by every individual mind and body to patterns of human invention and instinct”; and from the fourth, “each one of us … is planted squarely in the center of a virtual world we create for ourselves every moment”.

This radically experiential perspective will inform every essay in the chapters that follow, as Olendzki explores the key topics in Buddhist teachings about the world we find ourselves in – impermanence, suffering, and most especially the delusion of believing in a fixed unchanging selfhood.  We begin to better understand how the ways in which our minds work are integral and inseparable components of these essential attributes of reality.  And this insight then contributes to a deeper appreciation of the virtues Buddhism encourages us to cultivate in response to this reality – generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

The “unlimiting mind” referenced by the book’s title suggests a way for us to pursue the development of these virtues. In his chapter on meditation practice, Olendzki explains that our minds are naturally limited by our human desire to accrue pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones – a desire that inadvertently, but inevitably, brings us only more suffering.  Through the practice of meditation, we gradually free our mind of these persistent cravings, so that instead of limiting our ability to see things as they really are (and not through the distorting blinders of our wants and aversions), our mind becomes un-limiting, “capable of experiencing a greater freedom through wisdom.  Its freedom comes not from the license to broadly explore a shallow terrain, defined by its likes and dislikes, but rather from the ability to shake off the constraints of desire altogether and plunge deeply into investigating the field of experience as it is.”

Olendzki successfully avoids the pitfall that often afflicts books comprised of previously written pieces – here there is no sense of discontinuity between chapters, and no suggestion of a book being stitched together from discrete parts that bear but a minimal relation to one another. On the contrary, these essays flow smoothly, each one into its successors, and each adding something new to what has been said in the earlier ones.

And yet, while the essays interconnect so effectively with each other to form a cohesive unit in book form, still they retain all the usefulness from their original incarnations as stand-alone articles in the aforementioned magazines.  So that, having read them first in the sequence Olendzki has prepared for us, we can then go back at will and re-read any of them on an individual basis with no depreciation in value.  Each reader will no doubt have his or her own favorite essays to revisit – among mine are “The Non-Pursuit of Happiness”, “Healing the Wounds of the World”, “War and Peace”, “Making the Best of It”, “Self Is a Verb”, “The World Is Not Yours”, and “Homo Sophiens”.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the remarkable prescience on display in this volume.  While all of the essays collected here were originally published between the years 2002 and 2009, there is a timeliness to many of them that could easily have one guess that they were written yesterday.  This is especially the case in the essays included in the chapter entitled “Caring for the World”.  As I write this review in April of 2017, in the week just passed the government of Syria has unleashed a poison gas attack against its own citizens, the United States has responded with a limited missile strike against a Syrian military installation, and the world now debates the consequences of both these actions.  Consider, if you will, these words, written by Olendzki and first published in 2002:

“Once loosed, the dogs of war tend to wreak havoc in unimaginable ways.  Instead of soothing an area of conflict by trying to heal the ruptured relationship, we are inflicting a fresh wound, with its own set of new and expanding dangers.  And this simply does not make us safer; rather it exposes us to greater and often unforeseen hazards.

“A country will be safe from terrorism when its relationships with all parties in all directions are honest, noble, and just.  As the Buddha tells the Brahmin youth, security comes from aligning our attitudes and policies with the behaviors that will bring out the best in others, rather than doing the very things that are sure to provoke or entrench them.”

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Past recommendations:

{You can find my review of every book shown below on either Amazon or Goodreads.} 

Allan Lokos, Pocket Peace, Patienceand Through the Flames


Through the Flames





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Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English

Mindfulness in Plain English

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Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying


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Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the DevilConfession of a Buddhist Atheistand After Buddhism

Buddhism Without Beliefs

Living with the Devil

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist


After Buddhism




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Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Peace Is Every Step

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