Top Non-Buddhist Books For Contemplation

Reading Dharma books can get boring pretty quickly – they all say pretty much the same things.  But there are plenty of other books that give one the sense of transformation, of being introduced to a new and uncommon perspective.

1) The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Whatever you might think of his theology, you can’t say that Richard Dawkins doesn’t have a real talent for explaining biological theory to the masses.  The writing is concise, clear and unpretentious yet reveals a fascinating evolutionary landscape, stretching Godlessly over billions of years, seen from the perspective of a divinely rational eye.  Learn how amino acids formed to make self-replicating strings, which later formed protective shells to make cells, which later ganged-up to make organisms, which later developed nervous systems to survive in a complex ecosystem.  The book gives one an increased awareness of the genius of nature and of one’s own body and mind.

2)  Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

A dilettantish man travels to the Northern regions to visit a fiery geisha who had once had an affair with.  The book is embued with the Japanese, haiku spirit.  Kawabata believed that the novel should, or could, replace meditation as the road to enlightenment.  Snow Country is a decent attempt at this, and a masterpiece of literature.  Rather than simply a novel of characters, we are presented with a novel of impressions, a sense of the blurring of the outer and inner, past and present.


3)  A Brief Introduction to… Hiedegger and Wittgenstein

Reading their actual books was a bit beyond me.  Essentially, Heidegger believed that our world was made up of ‘Care’, objects and ideas only existed in so far as we cared about them.  Wittgenstein is famous for his ‘Tratacus’, but its his later philosophy that is really worth looking into.


4) The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene

I find theoretical physics difficult to grasp, but he has made a good job of explaining quantum to dummies.  It turns out that we can prove that space is non-local.  Two electrons shot from the same source have an inextricable link to one another that seems to exceed Einstein’s caveat that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  An electron can suffer from interference not only from another electron interfering with it, but also the mere potential for another electron to come and interfere with it.  Mind-bending stuff which is often particularly popular with Buddhists in that it presents a counter-intuitive view of reality that they can perhaps recognize.

5)  Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho

Basho’s masterpiece.  What on the surface is a whimsical trip to visit famous areas of Japan, is in fact a deep philosophical journey through time, the meaning of life and poetry and being.  No need to know much about Japanese literary aesthetics or Buddhism – you can feel the depth, both aesthetic and philosophical, on the first reading.

Note well that the Penguin edition is not a very good translation and I would recommend people read the translation by Lesley Downer instead.

7) The Karma of Words by William LaFleur

This is an academic book, but so lovely that I have to mention it here.  Sifting through arcane lore of medieval Japanese poetry and religious history, one feels one starts to have a sense of how people of that age actually thought – and it is quite different to how we think now.

8) A Preface to Chaucer by D.W. Robertson Jr.

Another worthy academic book.  What LaFleur does for medieval Eastern thought and literature, Professor Robertson does for the Christian imagination of the middle ages.  The book is not so much about Chaucer’s works but the whole scope of the medieval worldview.  The philosophy of St Augustine is linked to the symbolic meaning of Gothic cathedrals, to morals and to the evolution of the idea of love from warnings about the perils of sexual infatuation into the glory of ‘true’ love.


9) The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

This book was so successful that Steven Pinker is now famous as the popularizer of linguistics and psychology.    He explains what real grammar is, how Chomsky discovered that there is a natural embedded instinct for language within us.  He developed his own system of grammar – using an ever-so-clever-looking system of symbols that you can learn how to read in this book – and found that all languages have the same structure.  Get a keener grasp of how, although you think you control the puppet (words), it is the puppet that controls you.

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