Many folks I speak with say their first taste of Buddhism came from a book they read out of curiosity. This was the case with me in 1972 when I found What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula in my high school library. I must have read it six times, cover to cover, each time gleaning a new insight into the remarkable teachings of the Buddha.
These suggestions I am modestly calling the best Buddhist books of all time.
Seriously…these Buddhist books are a source of inspiration and support. I also include freely available resources I feel are both authoritative and clear in most of the sub-topics below.
I. Books for Beginners or the Simply Curious
Start Where You Are, by by Pema Chödrön
Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck
Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up by Koshin Paley Ellison
That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, by Silvia Boorstein
Buddhism Plain and Simple, by Steve Hagen
Cutting through spiritual materialism, by Chogyam Trungpa
Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor
The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hahn
If you could choose only 1 book from the above list and you didn’t want to spend much money–I would suggest Mindfulness in Plain English. The author, A Sri Lankan monk his Western students call “Bhante G.” offers straightforward, accessible and inspiring meditation guidance. Highly recommended.
The issue at Hand, by Gil Fronsdal, is a s short, clear and helpful introduction to Buddhist meditation. The author has made it available as a free download in seven languages here–> The Issue At Hand.
The number 1 recommendation in this section, Mindfulness is Plain English, is also available in an early version as a free download from the excellent online library at A Handful Of Leaves –> Mindfulness in Plain English.
II. Guidance in Mindfulness/ Insight Meditation
Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Sharon Salzberg
The Experience of Insight, by
A Wise Heart, by Jack Kornfield
Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation, by Larry Rosenberg
The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation, by Richard Shankman
Mindfulness For Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life , by Jon Kabat-Zinn
It’s Easier Than You Think, by Sylvia Boorstein
Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity, by Shaila Catherine
Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm
The late Sayadaw U Pandita of Burma presents the essentials of this practice in this article on Lion’s Roar, and he gives an excellent summary of this very popular form of Early Buddhist meditation here: https://www.lionsroar.com/inner-victory/. A short description by his teacher, Mahasi Sayadaw, is here. For more elaborate presentations, see these two free books by U Pandita: Timeless Wisdom and Freedom Within.
Gil Fronsdal, a teacher with several decades of experience with this practice offers these clear and short introductory essays: Meditation instructions, Mental noting, Mindfulness as a Buddhist Practice, and Walking meditation instructions.
From the influential Thai Forest tradition, here is an excellent guide by Ajahn Sucitto.
Lastly here are some classic sets of instructions attributed to the historical Buddha: Anapana Sati, as well as The way to practice anapanasati; and from the systematic practice taught by Sayadaw Pa-Auk of Burma here is the very clear and helpful Instructions on Ānāpānasati Meditation for Beginners.
III. Guidance in Metta Meditation
Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta, Bhante Gunaratana
Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, by Sharon Salzberg
The Wisdom of No Escape: and the Path of Loving-Kindness, by Pema Chodron
Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg
A Heart as Wide as the World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness, Sharon Salzberg
Bhante Sujiva has dedicated his life to Buddhist teachings. He has been teaching and leading retreats since 1984 in Malaysia, and internationally since 1995. This clear book on the practice of metta can be a very helpful companion in developing this practice.
Venerable Dhammarakkhita is an Australian Buddhist monk of the Myanmar Theravada tradition. He offers an engaging book for free distribution on many fascinating aspects of metta meditation.
IV. The Theravada, or Early Buddhist, tradition: a sampling
What the Buddha Taught, by
What the Buddha Thought, by Richard Gombrich
The Dhammapada, by Gil Fronsdal
Being Dharma: A Sampling of the Buddha’s Teachings, by Ajahn Chah
The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, by Gil Fronsdal
Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, by Ayya Khema
Theravada Buddhism, by Richard Gombrich
How Buddhism Began: The conditioned genesis of the early teachings, by the respected professor Richard F. Gombrich. Well-written and authoritative, it presents the Buddha’s ideas in their historical context.
Another celebrated professor, Rupert Gethin, has made his imminently readable book The Foundations of Buddhism available as a PDF. This volume was on by bed-stand for many years.
The late professor J. N. Jayatilleke, of the University of Sri Lanka, wrote a clear and thorough introduction the the Buddha’s teachings–>The Message of the Buddha.
V. The Suttas of Early Buddhism
This section presents what I consider are accurate and readable translations of the suttas–an immense collection of about 10,000 discourses by and narratives about the Buddha.
Only about 1,000 of these texts are currently available in English translation–see Befriending the Suttas Tips on Reading the Pali Discourses for an introduction to this fascinating literature.
The discourses of the Buddha offer a vast range of practices, from ethical guidelines for wise daily life and relationships, instructions for meditation and inner cultivation, all the way to descriptions of the deepest truths of reality. As a general introduction see–> Introduction to Sutta Central.
Here are a few timeless and priceless suggestions to get you started:
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed.
Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, by various editors.
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: The Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi
VI. Writers in the Secular Buddhism space
While some traditionally-minded Buddhists might argue the term secular Buddhism is an oxymoron, the authors below present the cor teachings of the Buddha that does not offend the more scientifically inclined reader. I recommend the first book below as a starter as a way to understand the big picture and helps in appreciating where the well known writes in this space are coming from, such as Stephen Batchelor, Robert Wright and Sam Harris.
Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, Mark Epstein, MD
Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris
Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, by Stephen Batchelor
Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are, by Andrew Olendzki. (While not explicitly secular, its inclusion here makes sense).
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor
VII. People of Color and Buddhism
Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, by Ruth King
Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, by Lama Rod Owens & angel Kyodo williams
Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
VIII. LGBTQ Dharma / Buddhism and Gender
Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices, by
My Buddha Is Pink: Buddhism from a LGBTQI perspective, by Richard Harrold
This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are, by
IX. Books for Children
Moody Cow Meditates, by Kerry Lee MacLean
A Pebble for Your Pocket: Mindful Stories for Children and Grown-ups, by Thich Nhat Hahn
Peaceful Piggy Meditation, by Kerry Lee McLean
My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing, by Nick Ortner
Listening to My Body, by Gabi Garcia
Meditation Is an Open Sky, by Whitney Stewart
X. Buddhism/ Mindfulness and Parenting
Everyday Blessings: Mindfulness for Parents, Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn
XI. Books of Interest to Teens and Youth
Buddha in Your Backpack: Everyday Buddhism for Teens, by Franz Metcalf
Blue Jean Buddha : Voices of Young Buddhists, Sumi Loundon
Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, Maura O’Halloran
XII. Women and Buddhism
The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, by Matty Weingast
The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon
Dipa Ma: A Legacy, Amy Schmidt
Buddhism through American Women’s Eyes, Lekshe Tsomo
Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism, Christina Feldman
In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads, by Christine Toomey
XIII. Socially Engaged Buddhism
Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace, David Chappell
Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times, by Stephanie Kaza
XIV. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue
The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, Dalai Lama and T. Jinpa
Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian, Paul F. Knitter
Living Buddha, Living Christ, by
Thich Nhat Hanh
XV. Buddhism and Psychology and Psychotherapy
The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, David Kalupahana
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing,
David A. Treleaven
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,
Christopher Germer (Ed.)
Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective, by
XVI. Mindfulness and Issues in Medicine, Science & Neuroscience
Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience, by Matthieu Richard
Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism & Neuroscience Converge, by B. Alan Wallace
The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, by Daniel J. Siegel M.D.
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