If you're looking for a book that clearly explains Buddhism without the trappings -- robes, lotus postures, beliefs about reincarnation, talk of cherry blossoms -- The Heart of Buddhism is the book for you. Guy Claxton is an intelligent writer and the writing is compact, condensed; he says a lot in every paragraph. And the writing is straightforward and easy to follow. If reincarnation exists and if Buddha was reincarnated in some modern, English-speaking country, how would he communicate his message? I think it would be very much the way Claxton has done it in this book.
Claxton clearly explains how our own general agitation and unease and even our self-centeredness has come about -- how it is really inevitable given our approach -- and how it can be alleviated. An interesting idea I got from this book is that a third of our unhappiness is caused by external circumstances. Two thirds is self-created, and that's what Buddhism is designed to cure.
Why is Buddhism becoming more popular? Claxton wrote, 'It is THE 'religion' for a secular age, concerning itself centrally with improving the quality of everyday life, requiring no adherence to obscure or magical beliefs, and offering a penetrating analysis of the condition -- or lack of it -- that we find ourselves in, as well as a powerful and proven set of specific techniques for increasing happiness, kindliness and peace in people's lives.'
He goes on: 'Buddhism is really a deep do-it-yourself kit of ideas and practices for changing in the directions that most people would like: more openness, less defensiveness; more tolerance, less irritation; more ease, less worry; more generosity, less selfishness; more naturalness, less self-consciousness; more equanimity, less frustration.'
In this book you get a thorough understanding of the Four Noble Truths (written from an understanding of their meaning rather than translating an Asian understanding into English), a clear explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts. Claxton describes the different forms of Buddhist meditation and how they work. There is a great chapter near the end of the book on the benefits of Buddhist practice.
On page 168 is a spreadsheet showing a 'brand comparison' of the five most popular kinds of Buddhism (Zen, Tibetan, etc.) which rates each for its emphasis on ten different things like 'moral discipline' and 'reverence for lineage.'
Buddhism is self-help at its finest. I'm the author of the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, and I can tell you this with authority: Buddhism is one of the finest set of practical self-help tools available on the planet, and Claxton clearly explains how these tools can be used by Westerners. I recommend it highly.