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 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  

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.

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

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

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: 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

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

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

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:

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.

VII. People of Color and Buddhism 

VIII. LGBTQ Dharma / Buddhism  and Gender

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


 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.  

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

  1. 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.

      • 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…


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