In the West, summer months evoke images of straw hats and beaches, hammocks under shady oak trees, and neighborhood cookouts. We hope you have the good fortune and ability to experience the R&R this summer that all of us deserve.
The Buddha didn’t spend the summer months in a hammock (at least, we haven’t seen any iconographic evidence of this). Summer in south Asia means monsoons, and the Buddha and his sangha spent the rainy months in retreat. This period, which usually falls from July to October on the lunar calendar, is called Vassa, or “Rains Retreat.” It was during this time that the Buddha gave many of his sermons, and the monks lived in one place in an effort to not damage farmers’ crops during their wandering.
So whether you’re spending your summer traveling the world or upping your practice at home—or if it’s not even summer where you live right now—here are some books to enjoy this season. — Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
Let’s stay in the rainy summers of the Buddha’s lifetime. The Jataka Tales, ancient stories about the Buddha’s past lives that illustrate moral lessons, are available in numerous translations and formats. Wat San Fran, a Thai Buddhist temple in San Francisco, has a very cool and extensive video series of more than 100 animated Jataka Tales and stories from the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha. — Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
If you prefer text-based reading, here are a few stories to get you started:
- Jataka Tales: The Birth Story of the Great Monkey (Mahavanarajatakam)
- Jataka Tales: The Elephant
- Jataka Tales of the Buddha: Part I (Access to Insight)
There are also many books translating the Jataka Tales, but a good one to start with is Jataka: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta, by Sarah Shaw.
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies
By Tsering Yangzom Lama
In this debut novel, Tibetan writer Tsering Yangzom Lama follows a Tibetan family through exile, capturing the nuances of the refugee experience through the lives of four people over 50 years. The book begins with Lhamo and her younger sister, Tenkyi, fleeing Tibet for a refugee camp in Nepal after the Chinese invasion in 1950. The sisters’ parents die on the journey, but they find comfort in a young man named Samphel, who they meet at the camp, and the mysterious reappearance of a statue last seen in their home village. The story then skips ahead to Tenkyi living in Toronto with Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, an aspiring scholar. Dolma comes across the statue that her mother encountered in the refugee camp all those years ago, and, pulled between her academic ambition and her family heritage, Dolma must decide what comes next. Published in May, this is the new piece of fiction that belongs on your summer reading list. — Alison Spiegel
By Julie Otsuka
For the perfect poolside read, Julie Otsuka’s latest novel, The Swimmers, published in February 2022, chronicles the obsessive habits and routines of a group of swimmers who find refuge in their daily laps at an underground pool. Outside the pool, members occupy a range of roles and professions, but at the pool all these identities drop away. Momentarily free from the precarity of their lives above ground, the swimmers thrive on the fleeting ecstasy of weightlessness as boundaries between them and the water dissolve. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, the swimmers are forced out of their underground sanctuary. With characteristic humor and grace, Otsuka catalogs the members’ responses to an abrupt, inexplicable loss of control, and the novel morphs into a quietly devastating portrait of one swimmer’s mind unraveling. Tender, gripping, and at times hypnotic, this short volume offers a profound meditation on the ways we structure our lives—through laps, through communities, through our very sense of self—and what happens when those structures disappear. — Sarah Fleming
Read more in this review of the novel from the Summer 2022 issue.
The Lightness: A Novel
By Emily Temple
For a still-new but slightly older selection, this 2020 novel is set at a summer camp high in the mountains and nicknamed the “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” The Lightness is written by Emily Temple, who grew up in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala community, and this fictional work addresses familiar themes of power, sexuality, and youth. Two years after reading it, I maintain it is smart and 100 percent bingeable. — Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
Read more in this Q&A with Temple and historian Maya Rook about growing up in Shambhala.
The Dharma Bum’s Guide to Western Literature: Finding Nirvana in the Classics
By Dean Sluyter
Author, meditation teacher, and former English instructor Dean Sluyter is the impassioned teacher you wish you’d had back in high school. In his new book, The Dharma Bum’s Guide to Western Literature, published in March 2022, Sluyter invites readers to lighten up, have some fun, and look anew at the classics of Western literature to discover that, they too, offer valuable spiritual lessons. With wit and humor, Sluyter guides readers through the canon of required reading and reveals how their contents contain hints of the light of enlightenment—even if the authors didn’t use those terms explicitly. Like Jay Gatsby pining for Daisy in The Great Gatsby or Vladimir and Estragon for Godot in Waiting for Godot, Sluyter shows how we are all seekers of the infinite, of nirvana. — Amanda Lim Patton
Focused and Fearless
By Shaila Catherine
If you’re looking for a practice-oriented book, try this 2008 guide to the jhanas by meditation teacher and author Shaila Catherine. It might be easy to get lost in the technical descriptions of the jhanas, the deep meditative states the Buddha was said to move through before his enlightenment, or in the argument of whether they are necessary for insight and realization. Yet anyone who has spent time in concentrated, meditative practice will recognize the factors that strong meditation brings about—joy, mindfulness, and equanimity—and the power of cultivating an ever-deeper meditation practice. Catherine’s book is an excellent guide, serving to demystify the jhanas and bring them within reach of ordinary practitioners committed to liberation. — Vanessa Zuisei Goddard
An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables (Plus a Zen Recipe!)
By Deborah Madison
Memoir fans should try An Onion in My Pocket, by cookbook author and chef Deborah Madison, a longtime authority on vegetarian cooking. Before Madison changed the conversation around vegetarian cooking, she was a Zen priest for almost 20 years. Her memoir is personal, inspiring, and may leave you eager to get into the kitchen. — Alison Spiegel
If you worked up an appetite from all that reading, or need to fuel up on an easy summer recipe, try Madison’s four-minute “One-Zucchino Lunch for One.” Madison, the founding chef of San Francisco Zen Center’s Greens Restaurant and a New York Times bestselling author, has us reconsidering zucchini in general with this elegant take on a ribbed variety, dressed with pine nuts, fresh herbs, and the invitation to invite other veggies and cheese to the dish. — Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar