These suggestions I am modestly calling the best Buddhist books of all time.
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 Buddhist books can offer great encouragement, support and inspiration. Where available, I include recommendations as freely available PDF downloads.
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.
I. Books for Beginners or the Simply Curious
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by by Pema Chödrön
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: 50th Anniversary Edition, by Shunryu Suzuki
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chogyam Trunngpa
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
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, by Dan Harris
Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, by Rinpoche Dzogchen Ponlop
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Kornfield
Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, by Mark Epstein
Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor
True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, by Tara Brach
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, by Thich Nhat Hahn. Gentle anecdotes and practical exercises for learning the skills of mindfulness–being awake and fully aware in the midst of daily life.
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 book 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.
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, 10th Anniversary Edition: A 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation, Sharon Salzberg
The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Joseph Goldstein. Presented as a 30 day retreat, this is a classic of Buddhist meditation advice by a modern master.
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
A Practical Guide to Awakening Through Mindfulness, by Joseph Goldstein, who shares a foundational Buddhist teaching he learned over five decades of dedicated practice.
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
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.
[su_box title=”Freebie Alert” style=”default” box_color=”#b3e5fc” title_color=”#37474f” radius=”3″ class=”” id=””]The above authors trained under traditional Theravada masters. Here are a few freely available guides to the Insight Meditation methods they teach[/su_box]
The teachings of the late Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw helped to spearhead the modern popular revival of mindfulness meditation in the world. Having combined extensive knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures with practical experience, he organized the complex workings of mindfulness meditation into a systematic method that is now widely taught and practiced at lay retreat centers around the world.
The well-known Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, was founded in 1975 by three Americans who studied and practiced this method in Burma–Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.
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 Buddhist meditation here: 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 four decades of experience with this practice offers these clear and short (and free) 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. Also very highly recommended from this tradition is the very popular British monk Ajahn Bram‘s The Basic Method Of Meditation.
Another influential lineage of meditation and teaching was introduce to the West by the late S. N. Goenka Born in Burma to an Indian business family, he moved to India in 1969 and started teaching meditation. As of this writing, Goenka’s Vipassana courses, in the tradition of his Burmese teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin, are held at 341 locations in 94 countries, of which about 202 are permanent Vipassana meditation centers! This is rather amazing.
Lastly here are some classic sets of instructions found within the modern Burmese meditation lineage founded by Pa-Auk Sayadaw: Anapana Sati, The way to practice anapanasati, as well as 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
Beginning Instructions for Lovingkindness Meditation: The Buddha’s Fast Track to Happiness, Bhante Vimalaramsi
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
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.
[su_box title=”Freebie Alert” style=”default” box_color=”#b3e5fc” title_color=”#37474f” radius=”3″ class=”” id=””]Here are two traditional PDF books on metta meditation as practiced in Early Buddhism[/su_box]
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
What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula
What the Buddha Thought, by Richard Gombrich
The Dhammapada, by Gil Fronsdal
Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings, by Ajahn Chah
A meditator’s life of the Buddha based on the early discourses, Bhikkhu Anālayo.
The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, by Gil Fronsdal
Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, by Ayya Khema
The Art of Listening: A Guide to the Early Teachings of Buddhism, by Sarah Shaw
Theravada Buddhism, by Richard Gombrich
A must-have for any Buddhist book collection is the late Ajahn Chah’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.
[su_box title=”Freebie Alert” style=”default” box_color=”#b3e5fc” title_color=”#37474f” radius=”3″ class=”” id=””]You might find these works on the Early Buddhist tradition helpful, provided freely by their author:[/su_box]
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.
A fascinating a study of the transmission of the Mahāsī method of meditation from Burma to the West–> Strong roots. Liberation teachings of mindfulness in North America, by Jake Davis.
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:
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
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi
The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, by Gil Fronsdal
The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses, Bhikkhu Bodhi
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.
No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners:Clear Answers to Burning Questions About Core Buddhist Teachings, by Noah Rasheta
Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright
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.
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor
[su_box title=”Freebie Alert” style=”default” box_color=”#b3e5fc” title_color=”#37474f” radius=”3″ class=”” id=””]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[/su_box]
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
Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, by Ruth King
Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journe, by Jan Willis
VIII. LGBTQ Dharma / Buddhism and Gender
Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices, by
My Buddha Is Pink: Buddhism from a LGBTQI perspective, by Richard Harrold
Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community, by Larry Yang
This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are, by
For more in depth readings on these issues please see our Resources page and look at section IV.
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
X. Buddhism/ Mindfulness and Parenting
Everyday Blessings: Mindfulness for Parents, Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn
The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate, Susan Greenland
Momfulness, by Denise Roy
Mindfulness for the Next Generation, by Holly Rogers
Buddhism for Mothers, Sarah Napthali
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
Dharma Punx, Noah Levine
Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens, by Diana Winston
Just Say Om!, Soren Gordhamer
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
The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, by Donald Rothberg
Ecodharma, David Loy
A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy on the Work of Our Time.
XIV. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue
The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, Dalai Lama and T. Jinpa
The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, R. Kamenetz
Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity, B. Alan Wallace
Enlightenment by Trial and Error: Ten Years on the Slippery Slopes of Jewish Spirituality & Postmodern Buddhism, by Jay Michaelson
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
Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, by Mark Epstein
Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals & Western Psychology, by Harvey Aronson
The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, David Kalupahana
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing,
David A. Treleaven
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, by
Christopher Germer (Ed.)
Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective, by Mark Epstein
XVI. Mindfulness and Issues in Medicine, Science & Neuroscience
The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, Dalai Lama
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.
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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