Nine Best Spiritual Books
My nine favourite spiritual books serving as a regular source for insight and inspiration.
In Alphabetical Order:
- An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum
Published 1984 by Henry Holt and Company, New York 376 pages
- Bhagavad Gita translated by S. Radhakrishnan
Published 1948 by George Allen and Unwin, London. 388 pages
- Catholic Study Bible
Published 1990 by Oxford University Press, London and New York 476 pages
- Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou
Published 2002 by Verso, London and New York. 166 pages
- Freedom from the Known by J. Krishnamurti
Published 1992 by Krishnamurti Foundation, Madras, India. 124 pages
- I am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Published 1973 by Chetana, Bombay 550 pages
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Published 1987 by Vintage Books, Random House, NY 109 pages
- Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
Published 1995 by Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA 1412 pages
- Mulamadhyamakakarika by Nargarjuna
(Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way)
Translation and commentary by Jay. L. Garfield
Published 1995 by Oxford University Press, Oxford and NY. 372 pages
In my library in my home in Totnes, Devon, England, I keep around 1500 non-fiction books addressing a range of ecological, global, philosophical, political, social, psychological, religious and spiritual issues. I bought many of the books and many were kindly given to me to read. I gave away about 20% of the collection some three years ago. My library includes all 5000 discourses the Buddha found in the Pali Suttas, several translations of the Bible and a shelf full of commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha, Jesus and Nagarjuna. From my bookshelves, I picked out the books that I love the most.
Here is a brief review of each book.
AN INTERRUPTED LIFE AND LETTERS FROM WESTERBORK
by Etty Hillesum
Nothing, not a brutal and barbaric military occupation, not the death squads, not the savage incarceration of an entire nation, nor a community, nor daily humiliations, nor the absolute obscenity of concentration camps, nor extermination, can quench and destroy the human spirit.
Etty Hillesum, a remarkable Jewish woman, embodies the free spirit of humanity to an extraordinary degree. She is a true goddess of the 20th century. Passionate, loving, sensual, fearless and at times a ‘frightened creature,’ Etty remained steadfastly committed to live her life out fully from one day to the next refusing to ’burden today with cares about tomorrow.’(page 178).
Writing from the age of 27, Etty kept her diaries from 1941-43 in her room in 6 Gabriel Metsustraat in central South Amsterdam while the jackboot of the German Fascist Army and the interrogations of the Gestapo ruled outside. Some years ago, I made a short pilgrimage to her house at number 6 and also to Westerbork, the transition camp before she was sent on a train to Auschwitz. I have given talks on Etty and written love poems about her.
On the 27th February, 1942 she was called before the Gestapo, who yelled at her, then the Gestapo officer told her he ‘would deal with her later.’ She said she felt ‘real compassion’ him. ‘The terrifying thing is that systems grow too big for men and hold them in a satanic grip, the builder no less than the victims of the system.’ she wrote in her diary that night.
She refused to hate the Germans since she regarded hate as a ‘sickness of the soul.’ ‘I had a liberating thought’ she wrote’ if there were only one decent German then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang. ‘One moment it is Hitler, the next it is Ivan the Terrible,…pestilence, earthquake or famine. Ultimately what mattes most is to bear the pain, to cope with it, and to keep a small corner of one’s soul unsullied, come what may.”(page 172)
Etty, brave and beautiful, made sure that despite the daily nightmares, the threats, the growing reports of the deportations to the gas chamber, she lived a full daily life with her friends and loved ones remembering to celebrate the ordinary and every day. She developed her erotic, passionate and transforming relationship with Julius Spier, her Jungian psychoanalyst and palm reader (such form of intimacy, of course, is ‘verboten’ in today’s society). She wrote that Julius ‘blames analysts for their lack of real love.’
She ‘soaked up’ the poetic words of Rainer Maria Rilke’ especially Letters To a Young Poet. ‘Let it all soak in, to let it mature slowly inside. (Page 102). Wise advice.
She wrote, ‘Life is a passage from one deliverance to the next. (page 76) ‘We carry everything within us – God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history. The externals are so many props, everything we need is within us.’
When Etty was arrested and sent to Westerbork camp, she displayed her greatest courage through her dedication to all the imprisoned families there rather than avoid the Westerbork by hiding in a ‘safe house.’ She became known as the “Angel of Westerbork.” When she was put into carriage number 12 on the train to Auschwitz, she pushed a postcard card out of the narrow slats of the carriage for a friend, Christina van Nooten in Amsterdam. A farmer found it and had it delivered.. The card said: ”We left the camp singing.” Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.
A personal footnote: Beloved Etty was born on January 15, 1914. My grandson. Kye, Christopher Allwood, was born on January 15, 2001. Naturally, I feel a glow of delight about Etty and Kye sharing the same birthday.
In the 700 verses of the Bhavagad Gita, Krishna explained to Arjuna on the battlefield of life the way to liberation. A much-loved text in the Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) is a practical manual for the sincere spiritual seeker who thirsts for truth, transforming knowledge and awakening of the mind.
Krisnha tells a confused and tormented Arjuna that there are fiver primary vehicles for finding the Supreme, namely karma yoga – service to others (chapter three), knowledge (chapter four), renunciation (chapter five) and devotion and meditation (chapter 6). Krishna truly ensured that yoga stays true to its original meaning, namely to be yoked to God, to Truth. Yoga is a way of life, not confined to a series of health giving exercises.
As with many great works of art and religious literature, the author of the Gita is unknown. Nor is it important in the Hindu tradition whether Krishna lived or not. The seeker never concerns himself or herself with the need to validate or invalidate individuals of the past but endeavours to reveal what matters in a sacred text in terms of living today.
Addressing the hesitancy and despondency of Arjuna, Krishna from Chapter 2, verse 11, starts to give his teachings encouraging Arjuna from the outset to turn his mind to ‘know That by which all this is pervaded is indestructible, no one can bring about the destruction.’
He then goes onto speak about the Path (chapter Two, verse 40). ‘In this path, no effort is ever lost, and no obstacle prevails, even a little of this dharma saves from great fear.’
In terms of work and service, Krishna said: ‘Without attachment, perform always the work that has to be done, for one attains to the highest by doing work without attachment.(Chapter Three, verse 19). He encouraged any form of work to be engaged in ‘without seeking for fruits.’ Krishna says this is the sign of a yogi.
Dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Radhakrishnan translated the Gita in 1948 along with a brief commentary on each verse. My well-used copy of this edition (published in 1970) contains my numerous notes and translations of key words when I went through every verse under the guidance of a Sanskrit scholar/yogi in India in the 1970’s.
The depth of practical down to earth wisdom found in the Gita reminds me that truly valid knowledge enables us to respond insightfully to situations we find ourselves in. Throughout the text, Krishna speaks simultaneously as a friend to Arjuna and as Ultimate Truth.
The power of the Gita reveals itself in the embrace of the Indivisible through realising action in non-action and non-action in action. To read and understand the Gita is to place our life in alignment with the way of the Cosmos. What more could we ask for?
CATHOLIC STUDY BIBLE
The weight of religious tradition, endless beliefs and views whether Jewish, Christian or otherwise, continues to block access to the profound and fearless message of Jesus of love and liberation. We have to put aside all of this religious baggage surrounding his name and read sensitively and respectfully what the rabbi from Nazareth is telling us about ourselves, each other and Ultimate Truth (which he called the Kingdom of Heaven).
When one of his students asked Jesus how to pray, he gave the students a reflection, known today throughout Christendom as the Lord’s Prayer. Meditate on every word of this prayer. You will be hard pressed to find such a beautiful statement of Non-Duality. Jesus takes the power of love and selflessness to a completely different level that demands the sacrifice of all self-interest.
My regular visits to Israel and Palestine have helped me understand why Jesus used regularly but not frequently family metaphors – the Father, son, children etc. Mediterranean culture places strong emphasis on family connections. In one village, Beit Sahour, in Palestine that I stayed in one young activist told me he had more than 900 relatives in his village of 4000 people.
Jesus’ breathtaking teachings, stories and metaphors on freeing the spirit (the word ‘spirit’ in Aramaic also means ‘breath’) have as much relevance today as 2000 years ago. He referred to the Spirit or the breath more than 100 times in the four Gospels. He refused to differentiate between himself and others, particularly those who suffered, while having little regard for the hypocrisy and puritanism of authority-burdened religion. The value of the Catholic Study Bible is the wealth of comprehensive references, and cross references, with a glossary of specialised terms, maps and explanations.
Jesus brilliantly interprets the prophets and sages of the Jewish tradition and challenges religious dogma in order to free the spirit for one and all. When Jesus said (John chapter 14, verse 6). “None comes to the Father (Ultimate Truth) except by me, ” he meant every word he said. We have to go through the ‘me,’- that is the self, the ego to reach the Father, (Abba in Aramaic meaning the unshakeable foundation of all things). As he said a few sentences later (John 14.39): “The Father is greater than I”
The Buddha predicted that the next Buddha would be the Buddha of Love (Maitreya Buddha). Was he referring to Jesus’ arrival on earth 500 years later? Sadly, the Church substituted belief in the name of Jesus to achieve salvation instead of encouraging Christians to apply directly the full breadth and depth of his teachings to daily life to release unwavering love until it goes beyond all boundaries.
Jesus emphasised liberation through utter selflessness, regardless of personal consequences. It was a tough message and still is. We need the words of Jesus to remind us of the power of love for all humanity, individually and collectively, and the importance of love for our vulnerable Mother Earth. Through abiding in the true nature of things (Kingdom of Heaven), irrepressible love emerges that is unstoppable. Jesus keeps coming back to his point again and again. He brought the Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth. So must we.
If you wish to read only the words of Jesus, then get a copy of the beautifully bound “Holy Bible” – new international version, red letter edition, with all the words of Jesus in red typeface. Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
ETHICS; AN ESSAY ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF EVIL
by Alain Badiou
Outspoken and original contemporary French philosopher, Alain Badiou has written a challenging series of essays on the duality of good and evil with his persistence analysis that evil emerges out of identification with the mental construction of what we believe is good. Badiou advocates a radical dissatisfaction not only with the established order of politics and the nation state, but rightly dismisses the ethics that gets us to rally behind what we believe is good and thereby create the sense of the ’other,’ who are the not good, the wrong, the evil. This view goes on in our personal lives, social lives, in our institutions as well as in the murky and brutal world of politics. Ethics then becomes based on the identity of self and other, effectively splitting the mind into two. We are on the side of what is right and they are on the side of wrong. Hence terror. Both sides believe that absolutely.
In the past year, I have carried this small book with its appropriately black cover around the world – to read and re-read four or five times, as well as take frequent notes to get a handle on Badiou’s complicated analysis that perceives terror as imposing one’s beliefs on others while truth, free from the clinging to concepts to define it, emerges as that which breaks free from this constructed reality, and all the measurement of good and evil that accompanies it. The more I read the more I feel there is something ‘spiritual’ about his analysis. We should sit up and take serious notice of what he is saying
Evil arises through seizing upon the notion of ‘other.’ To label others as ‘evil’ means they have been defined as ‘sub-human,’ said Badiou. Evil exists but the location is not necessarily where we think it is. Authentic inquiry breaks up this seizing upon the notion of ‘other’ so that truth belongs to a living ethic, free from the sense of other.
Badiou feels concern about the betrayal of truth through taking up an ideology, left, right or centre. He criticises – and deservedly so – indecisive Western liberal politics as much, if not more, than the ideologues of the political right with their rigid mind states. In other words, Western democracy, market forces and the belief in consumer choice belongs to the banal mediocrity of our political/corporate establishment, who remain ruthlessly determined to impose theses values on the rest of the world. The pathetic rhetoric of ‘freedom’ employed by our political masters gets short thrift from Badiou. To that, I say AMEN.
Echoing some of the Buddha’s deeper teachings, probably without realising it, Badiou’s inquiry explores transcendent ethics, investigation into views shaping human existence and the liberating force of truth I can’t find anything currently in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy that cuts to the bone in such a way some of the major questions of our time, despite all the analysis since 9/11 on wrong, evil, terror and pain. I have not met Alain Badiou but I regard him as a mentor.
FREEDOM FROM THE KNOWN
by J. Krishnamurti
During the 1980’s. I used to go from time to time to Brockwood Park School, southern England founded by the late J. Krishnamurti and also would attend his annual outdoor summer held in a large marquee in the grounds of the school. A remarkable speaker on spiritual issues, Krishnamurti touched his audience deeply on matters of awareness, love, life, meditation, thought, death and intelligence. Speaking with dignity and eloquence, Krishnamurti communicated great truths that his audience could comprehend or at least start to comprehend. He tended to dismiss formal spiritual practices, methods and techniques as a product of the mind, born of effort and desire.
I had listened to his tapes and read his books since 1968. If I may say, I once travelled 50 hours on a train in India to listen to him give a single talk. It was worth it. Not surprisingly many teachers, gurus, scientists and academics sought him out. I had lunch with him a couple of times at Brockwood Park and interviewed him for one of my books. Gwanwyn (my daughter’s mother) reminded me recently that we had to wait for the interview because he liked to watch cowboy films in the afternoon at Brockwood Park. It was about 18 months before he died at around 90 years of age. When he left to travel to any part of the world, he simply picked up his toothbrush while his supporters took care of everything else.
Krishnamurti never wrote books but his students transcribed his talks and made numerous books out of them. It is generally regarded that Freedom from the Known is the classic. He points out in numerous ways the significance of seeing things clearly – whether it is the constructs of the mind, the appearance of fear, the thought of pleasure or the conflicts that beset our life.
“To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to die to everything of yesterday, so your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion.” page 19
Trying to become like somebody else, or like your ideal, is one of the main causes of contradiction, confusion and conflict.” (page 66).
‘Time is the interval between the observer and the observed (page 75)
‘When you lose someone you love you shed tears. Are your tears for yourself or for the one who is dead?’
When desire and pleasure are not associated with love, then love is intense. It is like beauty, something totally new everyday. It (love) has no yesterday and no tomorrow. (page 91).
I AM THAT
by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
In 1974, I walked up the narrow flight of stairs in his home in the middle of the red light district of Bombay for my first meeting with Sri. Nisargadatta. I had been a Buddhist monk for about four years.
There were perhaps 15 or 20 of us in the room. Sri Nisargadatta pointed his finger over to me, wanting to know in a rather dismissive tone what I had got from becoming a Buddhist monk and engaging in meditation practices.
Eyeball to eyeball, I replied by asking how could “I” possibly get something from a shaved head, robes and meditation techniques? Only a fool believes the “I” can get something from becoming somebody or from meditation. Nisargadatta laughed walked over to me sitting on the floor at the back and insisted I sit in the front row. It was the first of several meetings with him.
Uncompromising and fearless, Sri Nisargadatta pointed in an unwavering manner to That beyond the realm of body- mind that is only discoverable here and now. This book, probably the unsurpassable classic book of Satsang (sat – Truth or Reality, sang – Sangha) consists of 101 chapters of questions and answers, addressing the profound significance of consciousness and the depth of realisation of the Non-Dual.
Q. Can you touch the inner life of people?
Maharaj: I am the people (page 159).
Q. All I see is a very interesting old man.
M.. You are the old the interesting old man. I was never born. How can I grow old? What I appear to be to you exists only in your mind (page 181).
Q. Was your realization sudden or gradual? Neither. One is what one is timelessly (page 223)
Q. I can only act according to my will.
M. You know your will only after you have acted.
Q. I am free to choose my limitations.
M. You must be free first. To be free in the world, you must be free of the world (page 356).
LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell, these letter of the Rainer Maria Rilke to a 19 year-old military student, named Franz Kappus encouraged the young man to pursue solitude as a vehicle for inner transformation, even when in love with another. His 10 letters remind Franz to dig deep into himself to see if he is really wanting to write and then to write about his desires, thoughts, sorrows with “humble sincerity.”
Rilke says a work of art is good ‘if it is written out of necessity.’ He then goes on to tell Kappus to ‘wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to lives an artist: in understanding as in creating. In response to the questions concerning Franz, Rilke wrote that he should ‘try to love the questions themselves. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.” (page 42).
Rilke writes one of the most memorable and powerful statements about authenticity in human relationships which all lovers, friends and family members can take to heart. ‘The love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.’ In other words, true love also protects the solitude of the other.
It is as if within the human being there is endless exploration of the lover and the monk within – enjoying the passion and intimacy of togetherness while recognising and not neglecting the passion for aloneness, for experiencing silence, for the intimacy of our existence between sky above and earth below.
In a simple, thoughtful and nourishing way, Rilke’s advice to the young man reached across the generations so that we feel the value of his message in our lives. To read any biography of Rilke, to dwell on his poems, you realise he walked his talk, never letting fears of the vulnerability of love inhibit him. Etty Hill sum loved this book of letters and Rilke’s poetry, especially The Hours.
Letters to a Young Poet serves as a source for inner nourishment so that we treat life as an adventure, an inquiry and a challenge to consciousness. You can pick up this little book and open any page and find an invaluable truth revealed in the words. It is a masterpiece of insightful writing.
MIDDLE LENGTH DISCOURSES
I recall first picking up this book in 1970 – an earlier translation by I.B. Horner. Middle Length Discourses consists of 152 discourses of the Buddha and around 1000 pages. Initially, I found it virtually unreadable. Words, words, words. No wonder my Vipassana teacher, Ajahn Dhammadaro, forbade reading in the monastery and only permitted practice. I then met Bhikkhu Vimalo who navigated me through the book. Then I started to find the needles in the haystack. What a thrill!. I read a discourse every night by candlelight in my hut in the monastery. It was also mildly subversive given Ajahn’s dismissal of books. (He never wrote one himself).
How can I make clear the importance of this early text, and other Pali suttas? Well, every Buddhist book ever published is in some way a commentary on these Pali discourses of the Buddha. In the past 30 years, I have probably read this book or sections of it, more than any other book. The book sings of the way to liberation and the understanding of the composite of body, feelings, states of mind and Dharma. It is a profound manual for spiritual teachers, meditators, yogis, seekers, psychotherapists and those inquiring into the nature of things not wishing to be caught up in religion, science or secularism.
Superbly translated, edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Middle Length Discourses will serve in time in the same way as the Koran for Muslims. Torah for Jews or Bible for Christians – with one major difference. The reader of Middle Length Discourses has the freedom to explore these discourses and find out for oneself what is insightful and inspirational for daily life and ignore or dismiss what one wishes.
My students in the Dharma Facilitators Programme inquire in depth into a number of the discourses. Initially, you may have the same response as I did, namely that this book is a hard nut to crack. So Insight Meditation teacher, Sharda Rogell, has written an excellent 150-page study guide, a readable and accessible summary of many of the discourses called Pressing out Pure Honey. Available from Barre Centre for Buddhist Studies, Barre, MA, USA.
If was a hermit on a desert island, I would take Middle Length Discourses, if I only had access to a single book.
In the past 30 years, Buddhist writers and scholars have engaged in translation of the “Mulakarika” – as it is often known in Buddhist circles, or given commentary on the text, or both, including K. Venkata Ramanan, T.R.V. Murti, Jeffrey Hopkins, David Kallupahana, Chr. Lindtne, C.W. Huintington and Stephen Batchelor. I have all these versions and commentaries and there is much to applaud. I regard t J.L. Garfields’ translation and commentary in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way as the best, by far, of the translations and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s critique of the middle way
Nagarjuna examines around 60 aspects of familiar dharma teachings including suffering, karma, senses, time, Four Noble Truths, Nirvana, conditions desire, self, elements, notion of same and different about things. With resolute determination, he investigates a theme. For example, let’s take motion. He shows in the space of a handful of four lined verses the emptiness of belief in the notion of a mover and movement.
To paraphrase Nagarjuna:
Is the one who moves different from the movement?
If the mover and the movement is the same, I could not know the difference.
If the mover and the movement are different, there would be a mover without a movement.
Inspired by the Buddha, and especially Middle Length Discourses, Nagarjuna, a 2nd century monk-scholar, demolishes our whole mental construct of views about the way we think things are.
He reveals that Emptiness makes everything possible; he demolishes the notion of any ‘thing’ or ‘view’ as self-existent or self-evident. ‘Subject’ and ‘object’ is merely an interpretation of the mind.
For many centuries, the Buddhist tradition has revered Nagarjuna for his liberating destruction of all standpoints. A view in the mind is only a view in the mind. Nagarjuna gives a remarkable teaching of liberation without allowing any resting on the notion or mental construction of ‘liberation.’ Very, very few meditators let alone pundits, can read Nagarjuna and understand his obtuse verses. You have to be ready to spend years reading and reflecting on these verses. Read a verse or chapter out loud. Then again, And again. Then perhaps the penny will drop and the door into the nature of things will swing open. Be patient. I still cannot comprehend some of his analysis after 30 years, even at an intellectual level, let alone for insight. That’s the challenge. It is worthwhile to persist with exploring his fundamental wisdom.
If Nagarjuna seems far too remote and abstract in the Garfield translation, then initially read the lighter, shorter, reader friendly translation by Stephen Batchelor called Verses from the Centre. Also read The Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree by Ajahn Buddhadasa. (Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA). Sensitively edited by Bhikkhu Santikaro, this book consists of transcribed talks on Emptiness. I can hear Ajahn Buddhadasa’s voice when I read the book. Ajahn Buddhadasa, one of my Thai teachers, who spent more than 60 years in the Thai forest, used the word Voidness, instead of Emptiness, of I’ and ‘my.’ We spent many hours discussing Emptiness. Ajahn Buddhadasa told me to offer in the West only teachings on Emptiness and the nature of things. It was the last thing he said to me. I haven’t forgotten.
In Chapter One on the Examination of Conditions of the Mulakarika, read carefully the indispensable first verse. It is just for starters.
Neither from itself nor from another
Nor from both
Nor without a cause
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.
That opening verse out of a total of more than 400 verses in 54 short chapters gives a taste of the meditative focussed attention and reflection that Nagarjuna demands so that readers uncover insights into the true nature of ’things.’ Good luck.