Best Buddhist books of all time: suggested reading

 

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 can offer great encouragement, support and inspiration. Where available, I include recommendations as freely available PDF downloads in a section highlighted by a light blue  Freebie Alert box. 

If you are a secular minded person looking for an intelligent appraisal of Buddhism for our times, I highly recommend browsing the Writers in the Secular Buddhism Space below. In particular I would draw your attention to Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True. The title can be misleading, as Wright is not a Buddhist apologist arguing in favor of such metaphysical claims as karma or rebirth, but simply and elegantly that:

“Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.”

And if you are just getting started with meditation, please see our Guidance in Mindfulness/ Insight Meditation section. If you are on a tight budget, why not have a look at the Freebie Alerts in this section, specifically the free offerings by Gil Fronsdal and the British monk Ajahn Succito.

Please note: If you purchase any book from this list, as an Amazon Affiliate I will earn a tiny commission–and you don’t pay anything extra. This helps me keep the website up and running. Thanks.  

I. Books for Beginners or the Simply Curious  

If you could choose only one book from the above list and you didn’t want to spend much money and wish to get a good feel for the how Buddhist tradition inspires the so-called “Mindfulness revolution” –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.

If you want to see how this stuff applies to our crazy day to day life, and like a few laughs thrown in, please check out Dan Harris (yes, the former anchor of the U.S. news program Nightline) and his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. He also hosts a popular podcast and meditation smartphone application, both called 10% Happier.

A few of the books mentioned above I consider classics in modern Western Buddhism. Comparing them to the classics of contemporary popular music, Shunryu Suzuki’s seminal 1970 collection of informal talks– Zen Mind, Beginners Mind— is analogous to the Beatles’ White Album, while Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism would rank in my book with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

What about Carol King’s Tapestry? I would give that honor to Thich Nhat Hahn’s groundbreaking 1975 The Miracle of Mindfulness, while Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” would definitely correspond to Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.

Have a look and let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Freebie Alert
In each section I try to find free PDF alternatives to the recommended books. In this section, two authors have provided free versions of their works:

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

If you are looking for clear guide for brass-tacks mindfulness meditation, I highly recommend Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. Being a former student of hers, I am a little biased, but honestly Sharon’s book is a down-to-earth, secular and modern modern approach to traditional Buddhist teachings, making them very accessible.

For those with some meditation under their belt, Richard Shankman has written a complete and useful guide for deepening insight and cultivating the deeper stages of concentration known as jhana, which I cannot recommend enough: The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation.

Freebie Alert
The above authors trained under traditional Theravada masters. Here are a few freely available guides to the Insight Meditation methods they teach

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher with four 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.

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.

From the influential Thai Forest tradition, here is an excellent guide by Ajahn Sucitto. Also very highly recommended from this tradition is the very popular British monk Ajahn Bram’s The Basic Method Of Meditation.

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

Again, my teacher Sharon offers crystal clear guidance on this timeless path –>> Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and her latest Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. A very popular and inspirational author, the American nun Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape: and the Path of Loving-Kindness is superb.

Freebie Alert
Here are two traditional PDF books on metta meditation as practiced in Early Buddhism

The British monk 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

A must-have for any Buddhist book collection is the late Ajahn Cha’s Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings, a collection of Dharma talks from one of the great Buddhist teachers of the 20th-century. Ajahn Chah influenced a generation of Western teachers: Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Joseph Goldstein, and many other Western Buddhist teachers were at one time his students. This one has taken semi-permanent residence on my bedside table.

For more in depth readings please see our Resources page and look at section III.

Freebie Alert
You might find these works on the Early Buddhist tradition helpful, provided freely by their author:

Essential reading introducing the value of the Theravada tradition for our times: Gil Fronsdal’s Theravada: the way of liberation, as well as The Treasures of the Theravada.

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:

As mentioned earlier, please have a look at our Resources page and look at section III for additional reading suggestions.

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 core 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.

Freebie Alert
The notion of a Secular Buddhism has raised some traditionalists’ eyebrows while exciting many prominent contemporary thinkers. Here is just a sampling of these ongoing conversations

Stephen Batchelor, a leading voice in contemporary Secular Buddhism, points out in this article that appeared in Tricycle Magazine that

Buddhism is something to do, not something to believe in.

Dale Wright, in Barre Center for Buddhist Studies’ Insight Journal, provides a nuanced interpretation here of this perspective on Buddhist thought and practice.

Writing as the fall guy for the tradition, the German monk Analayo offers sophisticated and in depth critical views of secular Buddhism, s for example in this video and in his 2021 book Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions. And as a counter to his position, Mike Slott wrote the excellent article: Avoiding the conceit of superiority: a cautionary note for secular Buddhists.

VII. People of Color and Buddhism 

VIII. LGBTQ Dharma / Buddhism  and Gender

For more in depth readings on these issues please see our Resources page and look at section IV.

IX. Books for Children

X. Buddhism/ Mindfulness and Parenting

 XI. Books of Interest to Teens and Youth

 

XII. Women and Buddhism 

XIII. Socially Engaged Buddhism 

XIV. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue 

XV. Buddhism and Psychology and Psychotherapy

XVI. Mindfulness and Issues in Medicine, Science & Neuroscience

 

If there is a book or free resource you feel belongs on this page, kindly let me know in the comments section below. Thanks!

 

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5 thoughts on “Best Buddhist books of all time: suggested reading”

  1. Tom,
    A stunning amount of work.
    Glad yours comments point user to specifics so it doesn’t become overwhelming. That and the sectional grouping lead the user to what they might want.

    Glad you included Tr0gyam Trungpa’s book (a major one for me also) and Batchelor and the secularists for completeness.
    Thank you profusely for creating this valuable resource.

    Reply
  2. Aloha Matthew, This is an amazing list. Thank you so much for putting it together and sharing your insight. I appreciate all you do for our local community.

    Reply
      • My goodness. I just posted this about an hour ago!… many thanks Brian for your very kind words which are truly appreciated. By the way, stay tuned, in about 3 weeks will do a 10 day metta meditation challenge….will announce ahead of time here and on Facebook and to the email list. Been working on this a while now…

        Reply
        • Fantastic list and SO well organized, Tom! Thank you so much, this list will probably be used for the rest of my life!!

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