- Top Buddhist Documentaries
Here’s a list of some of the more prominent documentaries that I’ve come across that are related to Buddhism. I have to say that there aren’t very many out there and, besides the top ones, the quality isn’t always that great. Please go out there and make documentaries about Buddhism.
1) PBS Documentary (2010)
A superbly-crafted documentary about the Buddha’s life and about Buddhist art and philosophy. It weaves together its own pleasant aesthetic with short animation clips. It features interviews with the Dalai Lama and current US poet laureate W.S Merwin (an inspiring talk given by which can be found here). The best thing about this documentary is that it is available in full for free here. The same site also has links to information about all the art included in the film. Whoever said that the US government never did anything for you?
2) Wheel of Time (2003)
It’s a bit off his usual man in/versus nature themes, which might be why so few people know that Werner Herzog made a film about Tibetan Buddhism. The film follows the Kalachakra celebrations of 2002 in Bodhigaya. The most memorable achievement of this film is how completely it takes you into another culture’s atmosphere. I got the same impression as I get looking at Rennaisance imaginings of all the scholars and philosophers of Athens, suspended in a half-real, half-ideal hazy Parthenon paradise of scholarly atmospheres. Here, we are taken into the medieval-like world of pious peasants and the divine mountaintop of their priestly elite. Mandalas are drawn and destroyed, monks debate slapping their hands against their opponents and kind old men suffuse the screen with their air of kindly wisdom.
3) Amongst White Clouds (2005)
I’ve already reviewed this film on this site. It’s clearly a first-time film from director Edward Burger, but the poetry of what is said and seen takes you into another, possibly wiser, world. Hardly anyone seems to have seen it though. Please watch it. You can see it for free in full on google videos.
4) BBC Documentary (2007)
Quite a bit drier and less inventive than the PBS alternative. Nevertheless a good, solid BBC proper documentary. Informative and with few frills or thrills. In time-honored fashion, the Buddha’s life is faithfully re-enacted according to the most reliable sources, who are interviewed. I remember a huge deluxe box set of this hour-long documentary coming out in department stores in Thailand, which made me wonder if there might be a gap in the market for this sort of thing.
5) Perfect Words of My Perfect Teacher (2003)
A very well-made documentary about the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche , who’s a pretty nutty sort of dude. He loves football and is often shown telling the film-maker how this film about him should be made. He has set up a number of charitable institutions and made two award-wining films, after having acted as an advisor on the Bertuolluci film ‘Little Buddha’ (itself an undeniably mediocre effort but occasionally resplendent with some of Bertuolluci’s sumptuous sets and visuals). Dzongsar seems to delight in vexing his students, frequently canceling appointments, often disappearing from sight for several days and rarely instructing them on anything they might consider ‘spiritual’. Or is he enlightened? It’s rather fun that this age-old Buddhist personality-paradox continues to entertain and fascinate people after so many centuries. The film is quirkily done, which much of the film devoted to demonstrating how frustrated the director was with her subject’s lack of interest in contributing much to it. Stephen Seagal, who is the recognized as the reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje, a 17th-century terton (treasure revealer) of the Nyingma, is interviewed. Two relatively normal people who follow Dzongsar around also feature heavily.
It’s interesting reading the IMDB user’s comments on this film. One woman decries other people’s mixed reviews of the film and says that the only explanation could be that it brings up uncomfortable truths about themselves. Another reviewer – Mike – remarked, ‘These people don’t need spiritual enlightenment, they need therapy and some friends.’
6) A Tibetan Trilogy (1974)
You have to be in the right mood for this. Nothing much happens. Really, it’s just a very slow-paced cut of four or five scenes from everyday life at Dharamsala. If you can calm your mind enough, however, the very slow pace gives you time enough to become absorbed in the delightfully colorful mysteriousness of Tibetan Buddhism. You might not learn much about Tibetan Buddhism from this film, but you might get a glimpse of the feel of it.
7) Buddha’s Lost Children (2006)
A documentary film about Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, a monk who has raised and teaches a group of novices from poor backgrounds in the troubled (though less troubled these days) Golden Triangle region between Thailand, Burma and Laos. It’s certainly very professionally done and Phra Ba’s bombastic personality is intriguing but one feels that there’s not quite enough material here to have been stretched over a feature and it gets a tad dull once it’s reached the mid-way point. Still, a worthy character to be introduced to.
8) Angry Monk (2005)
This is a film about the Gendun Choephel, a former Tibetan monk who travelled to India before the Chinese invasion and returned, preaching that Tibet should modernize. For this pains, he was thrown in jail. A nicely-crafted low-budget documentary, it seeks to debunk myths of pre-China Tibet as a Shangri-La of spiritual growth and contemplation. Rather, it was a place riddled with the same contradictions, cruelties and power struggles that make up any other society.
9)Brilliant Moon (glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche)
This is a biopic of the late revered Tibetan Master. It’s very well done, with nicely-crafted animations of Dilgo’s early years in Tibet and features narration by Richard Gere and Lou Reed. The film affords a pleasant visual feast and a pleasing foray into the sumptuous cosmic aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism, but is principally about how wonderful Dilgo was. We learn that Dilgo digested information from every sect of Tibetan Buddhism and wrote dozens of books, yet we learn nothing of his own ideas or teachings. Well-done and pleasant to watch, but ultimately not very informative.
I can’t really say I recommend this. If you watch the trailer, you get hyped about the fascinating controversy that was Chogyam Trungpa. He was founder of several monasteries, the now thriving Shambala press and Naropa University, as well as an endlessly creative and charismatic individual. He was also an open alcoholic, womanizer and, it turns out, a cocaine addict. He died of liver cirrhosis. From the beginning of the actual documentary, however, one begins to worry that a new-age hagiography is about to be spun. We learn of how Chogyam Trungpa understood that the West was too materialistic, that he went to England and various people met him and knew that he was special. Fortunately, the filmmakers were willing to delve into the more controversial aspects of Chogyam’s guru-ship. But the main reason I kept watching was because I started to think that they might not. This film manages to be an occasionally objective, but rather boring paean to a multi-faceted and intriguing character.
Other Documentary Films
This is by far the best film on this list, but it can’t really be said to be a Buddhist documentary in the obvious sense. Still, it has very Eastern mentality versus Western mentality which those interested in Buddhism will probably find interesting. The film is about the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, Erik Weihenmeyer, and his project to get a group of blind Tibetan kids, who are cruelly discriminated against in Tibet due to what is perceived as their obvious bad karma, to climb a nearby mountain. Following him is the leader of the kid’s school, Sabriye Tenberken, a woman who because she was blind was not allowed to join the German equivalent of the Peace Corps to go to China, so she went by herself. Then she travelled around Tibet on a horse – blind – collecting children for her school. The compelling conflict in this film is between the kid’s teacher and the mountaineering feat project leaders. The leaders are portrayed as having a very ‘Western’ mentality, wanting to show these children that they too can be the best and get to the top. However, the leader of the school has the view that these children will never be the best, that she doesn’t want them to try to be, she wants them to enjoy be alive to the feeling of snow, the sound of the bells of passing cattle
The film-makers got access to a fascinating early experiment in teaching Vipassana in Indian prisons. The film includes interviews with Goenka and the Chief Inspector for Prisons, but does not make much use of these as nobody says anything beyond the boundaries of what we would expect them to say. The narrator tells us how to interpret almost every scene, following a rather bland script. Having said that, I thought that some attempts to describe meditation experience were admirable. It would seem that the film-makers had no translator, as virtually everyone they interview is a foreign prisoner or an Indian meditation teacher or member of the prison staff. No Indian prisoners are interviewed. Potential viewers should be warned that the film is done with a distinctly 1980s aesthetic. There is tacky synthesizer music and shameless use of cross-fades and white-outs throughout – all very off-putting. However, a very worthy subject to do a documentary on, which can be viewed in full here.
- Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trunpa (2011)
If you watch the trailer, you get hyped about the fascinating controversy that was Chogyam Trungpa. He was founder of several monasteries, the now thriving Shambala press and Naropa University, as well as an endlessly creative and charismatic individual. He was also an open alcoholic, womanizer and, it turns out, a cocaine addict. He died of liver cirrhosis. From the beginning of the actual documentary, however, one begins to worry that a new-age hagiography is about to be spun. We learn of how Chogyam Trungpa understood that the West was too materialistic, that he went to England and various people met him and knew that he was special. Fortunately, the filmmakers were willing to delve into the more controversial aspects of Chogyam’s guru-ship. But the main reason I kept watching was because I started to think that they might not.
The film is – and I’m sorry to say this – put together in an amateurish sort of way. And I’m not referring to the fact that it doesn’t seem to have been color-graded, for example. It’s the fact that there is no ‘thread’, no central argument that carries the narrative through. Interviews occur with people who we don’t really ever get to know, who say things which do not seem to be relevant to the topic at hand. It’s hard to stay focused. Certain very intriguing subjects pique one’s interest, and are then abandoned. There are interviews with his many former lovers and their feelings towards him, or his creation of a Buddhist military. These are briefly skimmed over before returning to yet another former discipline saying yet another pat thing about how special he was.
I like to think that Chogyam Trungpa would himself have preferred to see a film where there were some interviewees who would decry him as a charlatan, because there are plenty of them out there. Also, a film which would have addressed the controversy of his appointed successor knowingly infecting people with HIV. As I understood the closing remarks, Chogyam Trungpa’s life’s work was to encourage people not to limit themselves to ideas of how they want to be or should be. And yet, this film manages to be an occasionally objective, but rather boring paean to a multi-faceted and intriguing character.
- Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Transformation in a Shan Buddhist Community by Nancy Eberhardt
“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”
This sage quotation from Clifford Geertz would be a good standpoint to muse about Nancy Eberhart’s description of another society’s version of ‘self’ and ‘community’. The author spent several years in a rural Shan town near Mae Hong Song in Northern Thailand. The Shan are an ethnic minority, found in greatest numbers in Burma but whose language is much closer to Thai and, one suspects, much of their culture and system of beliefs. The book begins with a summary of theories (amongst them the work of Zaretzky and Demos) of the development of the Western ‘self’, about the polarization of the cold, inauthentic world of work and industry from the authentic, emotional world of home and how this engendered a new way of looking at what the ‘self’ is and new ways of looking at personal development (childhood, adolescence, middle-age etc.)
After a theoretical introduction, we are whisked to Uncle Pon’s, a local alcoholic turned spiritual healer. People can be influenced by two different sorts of beings, phi (bad) and khwan (good). Rituals are employed to scare away the phi by, for instance, waving a sword around the subject’s body, and simultaneously entice it out by laying out sweet meats and such. Khwan, on the other hand, are benevolent spirits that inhabit one’s body and form part of one’s personality. They have to be enticed back to the body. A study done in the 1980s showed how the integration of computers into people’s lives has caused a shift in descriptions of what it means to be human from ‘rational animals’ to ‘emotional machines’. Eberhardt argues that the Shan define themselves in contrast to these Others, the hungry ghosts and the easily-frightened-into-flight better angels of our nature.
Children are thought of as hai, or naughty. Their khan are as yet tentatively attached to their bodies and they are an easy target for phi. A child must gradually be ‘domesticated’, be taught to tame its animal-like desires and instincts. This ties in with the Buddhist-inspired images of the ideal adult, who is calm, centered, gentle.
An interesting idea that emerges is that the Shan do not mark the stages of life according to one’s biological age or medical conditions (back pains etc) but in terms of family position and associated social responsibilities. As one grows older, one is expected to develop in self-mastery and, hence, to see things as ‘they really are’ more clearly.
Essentially, the Shan seem to see ‘selves’ as made up of various element that orbit around, pushing and pulling, frightening and attracting one another across time and dimensions of life and death. Unlike in the West, Eberhart argues, a child does not achieve uniqueness as a mark of personal development into adulthood, but is born as a unique individual who is formed according to exterior things – the influence of others, of ghosts, of unseen karmic forces. The Shan do not seem to find one’s ‘interior’ state interesting and would probably find the neurotic, highly individualistic character of so much Western literature as a person who was ‘still struggling’ to understand and control the karmic forces. For the Shan, true development is rising above these conditions, developing the self-mastery to see them for what they really are.
- Top Buddhist Movies (Fiction)
There are several good lists of Buddhist movies already available on the net, such as this http://suite101.com/article/best-buddhist-movies-a95083 I’ve used these lists myself quite a bit, but hopefully this list will be different enough to be useful to somebody else. What is a ‘Buddhist’ movie? I have quite a liberal definition and that is: any film that can be said depict a ‘Buddhist worldview’ with such themes as re-birth or one that features monks and the Buddha’s teachings directly or any film that is heavily influenced by Buddhist ideas or aesthetics. Fair enough?
Based on the Tibetan Book of the dead. According to one source (wikipedia) the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, spent two years in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal before writing the film (another source says three months). Rubin, who also wrote the script for Ghost, is an interesting man who is quoted as saying, “I don’t think life begins at birth, or even conception, I see us as spiritual beings that come into earthly experience for a reason, and leave it. My movies are kind of polemics on that.” The film’s main character Jacob Singer (Tim Robins) is a Vietnam veteran who starts to see demons. He can be thought to be in a state of ‘bardo’, a sort of dream-like state between life and death when the self’s attachments and desires populate one’s own personal purgatory. The film includes the haunting quote, which is apparently a citation from the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn ‘em all away. But they’re not punishing you,’ he said. ‘They’re freeing your soul. If your frightened of dying, and your holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.” The speech, delivered in the film by Robins’ sage chiropractor, can be heard in full on Thom Yorke’s collaboration with UNCLE, ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’. The film entertains with its horror and frenetic pace and, while it clearly hints at spiritual ideas and has a highly unconventional plot, never comes close to pretention. A perfect feature film: entertaining, fun and poetic.
Some people hate this for the obscurity of its plot, which takes places over three different dimensions (or past lives). Or something. One is about a scientist trying to discover the cure for his wife’s disease, the other about some sort of spirit that lives in on a deeply-symbolic island that floats in space and the other about a conquistador battling his way into a Mayan temple. I can’t help but suspect that that the vitriol spat out against this film comes from the fact that it doesn’t have a clear narrative and that makes people feel stupid. If you read it as a philosophical diatribe on the importance of accepting death then, yes, I think you are bound to find its conclusions facile. But, while I generally enjoy looking for hidden meanings and morals in a film, I find that this film favors a more intuitive and (dare I say it?) open-to-the-mystery sort of viewing. The film has a highly-artificed style, almost like a storybook for adults, a spiritualy-pleasing dim phosphorescence pervading throughout. I feel that Aronofsky intended this to be his masterpiece and clearly put a great deal of creative energy and thought into it. It is filled with symbolism (an imperfect introduction to which can be found here: http://www.lariat.org/AtTheMovies/new/fountain.html) There’s some discussion on the internet as to what makes this a Buddhist flick and it certainly also contains Christian themes. The Buddhist themes that I see are that it it seems to say that life can be seen to be occurring on many levels on the level of different ‘lives’, different realms (the ‘real’ realm, the realm of imagination, the symbolic realm). The causes of our suffering will keep recurring until it eventually comes to be vanquished by a certain self-understanding. Until we perceive that it is attachment to life that causes death (our dread of which is caused by our failure to see that life is always ongoing beyond the death of an individual’s body), we will not be released from death. Anyway, as I say, I think it’s a film that is best enjoyed by momentarily suspending the interpretative faculties.
This is a bizarre dream of a film, full of slow scenes and surreal humour. The director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, creates a particular sense with visuals and tone – rather than with his narrative, which is often particularly non-linear – and it is this sense, this atmosphere which is a uniquely rewarding use of the medium of film. As Boonmee’s soul prepares for its flight from his body, he makes a journey to a cave studded with sparkling lights. Director Apichatpong Weerasakul’s style is one that seems to be operating on many symbolic layers, always suggesting something darkly beautiful that defies re-telling or literal interpretation, that can only be felt with full force on film. The cave scene is perhaps the finest representation of this style yet. Boonmee remembers that he had once lived in that cave. We understand that, like the film itself, the cave is a microcosm of the inter-connected universe and, as Boonmee journeys through it, he journey through past and future, through time and the different dimensions of sentience, simultaneously a dying man walking as a tourist through a cave and as a sentient form like any other traversing the mundane and the eternal. That said, the film (perhaps inevitably) sometimes irritates under the weight of its own unconventionality. A scene in which Boonmee recalls what his future life will be, as a monster that joins an army and then suddenly disappears, frustrates as it hints at some profound meaning but doesn’t actually seem to have one. Overall, the film represents a rare and brave attempt at depicting a different worldview, one in which the animal realm connects with the human realm and the ghostly realm, where tales from past lives inform us of the true meaning of the present.
‘How do you lose a drop of water?’ a rock asks. A monk, after years of meditation in an isolated cave, returns to find that he is still encumbered by sexual desire. He goes and gets married and finds life in a small village oppressive and dull. So he returns to the monastery and looks at the other side of the rock and finds the answer to his question. A film as nicely done as this neat little narrative gimmick.
In Kaneto’s Shindo’s Buddhist parable, samurai fleeing a far-off war stumble about in suggestively swaying grass, only to be murdered by two women living alone. They are then dumped into a suspiciously vulvic hole. The frenzy and hysterical jealousy engendered by sexual desire is creatively evoked in this film. A scene that always springs to mind is of a man lying entranced, stroking the dirt at the entrance to the dark and suggestive hole like a rabid dog in a moment of delirious rest. I can’t really do any better than this review: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/317-onibaba-black-sun-rising
The highly-ornate style of the Noh theatre – which, to the practiced observer, is said to be able to draw one into a deep and profound sense of peace and a sense of the inter-connectedness of things - is replicated in this motion-stop puppet animation. A lovely, skillfully-crafted piece. Unfortunately, few of Kawamoto’s other works live up to this standard. Okay so, at under twenty minutes, it isn’t a feature. But you can watch it in full for free here.
A charming film by the multi-talented, eccentric monk Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. It is the first feature film to be shot in the reclusive Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. A trendy young government official decides to up and leave the sleepy backwater he has been stationed at to respond to an American woman’s invitation for him to live and work in America. On the way, he meets a monk, an attractive woman and various other characters. The monk tells him the story of a restless young man who is transported by magic to where a woodsman lives in isolation with his tempting wife, a parable about the dangers of desire and restlessness. The open-ended ending which relates to the nature of story-telling itself is one that often doesn’t work. But here it works beautifully. It’s quite low budget and slow-paced, which is all part of its charm.
A high-budget feature from Martin Scorcese about the Dalai Lama. It’s superbly made and sumptously-designed but, towards the end, the film seems to be lacking something. Possibly Scorcese floundered with the intrinsic unsexiness of making a film about the life of a monk.
A film by Kon Ichikawa based on Michio Takeyama’s novel Harp of Burma. The film follows the exploits of a renegade Japanese soldier towards the end of the war. Having almost died in an unsuccessful attempt to stop a fanatical Japanese captain from needlessly killing himself and his men, he is rescued by a monk whose robe he promptly steals. Later, Burma, which is here the land of the Buddha and of timelessness and pagodas, as well as the carnage he sees around him, makes him into a real ascetic who opts not to return with his regiment to Japan. The understated ending is particularly effective.
What’s nice about this film is that it doesn’t lure us into the moral cliches that often crop up when a film conforms to an arc. It’s just sort of a bunch of stuff that happened. Ayoung boy is adopted by his rich uncle. His uncle is a jerk. In an American film, his mis-treated nephew would, Cinderella-like, magically transform into a noble-hearted gentlemen. But, as would probably happen in real life, he doesn’t. His uncle’s a jerk and treats his nephew badly and his nephew becomes a jerk who treats people badly. What goes around comes around. I guess that’s sort of Buddhist, right? It’s worth checking out another one of Nonzee Nimbutr’s films, Nang Nak (1999), which is a dramatization of a popular Thai myth about a soldier who returns to live with his wife, unaware that she has turned into a murderous ghost and is later exorcised by a magic monk.
A faithful not-to-bad film version of Herman Hesse’s thought-provoking book. A young man alive during the time of the Buddha follows his own spiritual path, first as a saddhu then as a successful but principled merchant, then as a corrupted lover of courtesans and gambling, then as a wise old ferryman. There’s not too much more to say about it other than it’s not bad and you’re likely to enjoy it more if you’ve read the book first.
Tropical Malady (2004)
Tropical Malady is, again, questionably Buddhist, which is why it’s not in the top-ten. But it’s one of my favorite films of all time, so I’m going to try to make you believe it’s about Buddhism. A slow-moving story about a soldier who tries to seduce a young man who works at an ice-cutting factory. We sense that the ice-cutter has undergone some dark past, but this is only ever hinted at. Just as thing start coming to a head, the movie abruptly changes into a legendary story about a soldier searching searching for a malevolent shaman who has disguised himself as a tiger in the jungle. A monkey tells the soldier, ‘you think that you chase the tiger, but really the tiger chases you.’ As he moves through this confusing and occasionally breathtaking jungle of earthly delights, we are genuinely uncertain of the conclusion – will it lead to his doom or will he be a feted conqueror of the evil wizard? The end seems to reveal a common enough Buddhist sentiment. Desire becomes you, absorbs you, causes you to die. In addition, the ambiguity of the jungle creates that beautiful feeling of foreboding, that mystery and charm and also that minor element of horror, that is a rarely so passionately eulogized part of falling in love.
Enlightenment Guaranteed (2000)
A low-budget German feature about two brothers who travel together to stay at a Zen temple in Japan. Much of the comedy of the film revolves around the bizarreness of Japan and a lot of time is devoted to how the brothers cope with not being able to find their hotel. One brother is quite lax in his general attitude towards life, the other quite precious. It is the former who seems to thrive more at the temple. Quite obviously low-budget with an imperfectly drawn plot, the subtle dialogue, convincing characters and superb acting is what makes this film a decent watch.
- 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.
Now Mostly Enjoying:
Chogyam Trungpa. The bad boy of Tibetan Buddhism, provides a new perspective perhaps, particularly for those accustomed to learning that the Spiritual Warrior is a defilement-warrior.
Zizek. Makes philosophy challenging but also quite fun.