However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? ~ Buddha
There are thousands of books about, or related to, Buddhism. Which ones should you read if you are just starting off as a new Buddhist or beginner exploring Buddhism?
My top five Buddhist books for beginners is perfect if you want to learn and understand Buddhism, and how to apply it to your daily life. These book recommendations are also beneficial if you don’t have a Buddhist teacher yet, and are attempting to learn on your own. After reading all of my recommendations, you can dive into other books and scriptures that relate to your branch/school of Buddhism (click here to learn more about Buddhist scripture for Beginners).
Be sure to check out my additional recommendations at the end of this article which include FREE books/resources!
Alan’s Top 5 Buddhist Book List
These five books will be more than enough to get you started in learning about Buddhism, and putting that knowledge into direct practice.
#1: What the Buddha Taught
By Ven. Walpola Rahula
[Learn the basics about Buddhism] This is the first book I’d like you to start off with. Although this book was written in the 1950’s, it’s a fantastic book to start off with for anyone who is new to Buddhism and will give you the good foundation to begin your practice. It is considered a “classic” among many (myself included) in Theravada Buddhism, so it is one you will want to have on your bookshelf (and read!). You will learn about the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and other Buddhist concepts. Also included are selected texts to include some selections from the Dhammapada. Even though the title says “What the Buddha Taught”, it will not contain in-depth information about every topic. This is Ven. Walpola Rahula’s explanation and discussion about the Buddha’s teachings, and he does a great job at it.
#2: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
[Learn the basics, and much more, about Buddhism] While “What the Buddha Taught” was one of my first books, it is still fairly limited in what information you can gain from it. However, my next recommendation is from one of my favorite authors, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, who gives a great review of the Buddha’s teachings. This may seem like a similar book to my first recommendation, What the Buddha Taught, but it’s not. Thay (as his followers call him which means “Teacher”) gives you in-depth information about the Buddha’s teachings, without making it overly complex (not an easy feat!). You’ll gain wisdom from one of the world’s great Buddhist teachers that will help your practice especially if you don’t have a teacher already (I call this book “a teacher in a book”). Topics include the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, other basic Buddhist teachings (such as the three Dharma seals). Throughout this book are helpful diagrams, illustrations, and tables which I felt help ‘visualize’ the concepts and text so you can more easily understand it. I refer to this book often, and recommend it if you can only get one book initially.
#3: Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
[Core Buddhist Scripture For Your Practice] In 2019, I came across this fantastic book and added it to my top 5 list (don’t worry, I added the prior book “Buddhism for Beginners” to my list at the end of this article). This book provides both Theravada Suttas and Mahayana Sutras in one book with great commentary on what it means, and how to apply it to your practice. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh has long articulated that having Theravada and Mahayana scripture has helped to preserve the different teachings of the different schools of Buddhism that existed. In this book, he gives a few of the scripture he says will be the foundation of your practice. While this is a thick book (of course, it has scripture and commentary), I liked how it was laid out and the commentary provided a way for everyone to understand the scripture. I believe scripture is important to practice, yet it can be difficult to figure out (especially without a teacher), so this book is one of my top picks. However, it can wait until later. My first two books will give you a foundation to start understanding Buddhism before you dive into scripture.
#4: Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism
By Gary Gach
[A fun and complete book for beginners] Not only is this a great book for beginners, author Gary Gach provides plenty of humor (at all the right points) to help make learning about Buddhism fun. You will get to explore all the different Buddhist traditions, gain some insightful historical and practical information, and much more. For those who are “just becoming a Buddhist” or “exploring Buddhism”, this is a great way to get not only an overview of the religion, but also very beneficial for those who are new to it.
#5: Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
[Learn about the Buddha’s life and teachings] I am absolutely in love with this story about the Buddha’s life and teachings. Drawn from 24 Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese sources, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh presents the Buddha’s life in a beautiful and meaningful way that has made this book a classic. With any religion, knowing the founder or central figure is important, and that goes for Buddhism as well. By understanding our teacher, the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha), you will understand his struggles, understandings, teachings, beauty, love, and profound impact he has had for over 2,600 years. I enjoyed how you follow this story through both the Buddha, and Savasti (a buffalo boy) who later became a Bikkhu (monk). This helped to nicely balance the story and teachings in a very accessible and enjoyable way. Highly recommended.
Special note: I cannot recommend highly enough to (also) get the Audible “audiobook” version of this. Why? The narrator, Eduardo Ballerini (a frequent narrator of other Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh books) does an amazing job that “pulls” you into the world of the Buddha and you feel very much a part of the story.
Additional Book Recommendations
The following are some of my additional book recommendations if you would like to expand your collection, and learn more about the religion.
- Buddhism for Beginners – By Thubten Chodron. This book made my list because of the wonderfully laid out “questions and answers” format. Having a book in a “Q&A” format makes it highly accessible and understandable to a wide range of people, which also makes it easy to quickly find more information on a topic. Thubten Chodron is of the Tibetan Buddhism faith, and some parts in this book reflect that, however she does a great job being very encompassing of all branches and schools of Buddhism to make this applicable to any new Buddhist. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama wrote a letter of praise for this book which appears in the beginning. Great book for any new Buddhist!
- In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (The Teachings of the Buddha) – By Bhikkhu Bodhi. This is a great book (and he has many others) that takes you right into what the Buddha taught, as explained in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. This is a great book for Mahayana Buddhists as well, as it received praise from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh: “I am sure that many people will benefit from In the Buddha’s Words.”
- Making Space – By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Another book you may want to consider for starting your daily practice is by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. In his signature style, the book is very welcoming and covers all the topics needed to start a safe, comforting, and familiar practice at home. Of course, each Buddhist tradition may want you to apply certain rituals, customs, and other things that this book won’t cover. However, it is a good place to start by one of the world’s most respected Buddhist teachers.
- For All Living Beings – A Guide to Buddhist Practice – By Ven. Master Hsing Yun. This book helps you start your practice by focusing on the “threefold training”, which all Buddhist schools follow. Although Mahayana Buddhism in nature, this is one of my favorite books about getting started on the path, so it should not be overlooked by those practicing Theravada Buddhism.
- The Core Teachings – By Ven. Master Hsing Yun. This is One of my “go-to” books, the title explains it all as it covers all the necessary topics in Basic Buddhism which include the life of the Buddha, how to study Buddhism, dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, Karma, the Three Dharma Seals, emptiness, mind, the Three Bodies of the Buddha, Buddha Nature, Nirvana, the Triple Gem, the Five Precepts, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Becoming a Bodhisattva.
- Essence of Buddhism – By Ven. Master Hsing Yun. This is my little “travel” book (it’s tiny!) but it is chock full of the basics of Buddhism. Why I like this, and recommend it for new Buddhists, is that you can take it with you! It fits in a pocket, so I keep one in my bag so I can always get some Buddhist teachings wherever I am, whenever I need it.
- Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm – By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. I actually ran across this book by accident in 2016, and quickly recognized it as a very important book to read in order to understand fear and how it plays a very important role in our practice with Buddhism. Understanding fear, and how to avoid having your life shaped and driven by it, will be essential in your practice.
- Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life – By Ven. Master Hsing Yun. This was one of my first books by the author, and brought me into his many works since. What I enjoyed about this book was the mixture of Buddhist scripture, and how to apply it to everyday life in various aspects. Each little chapter is broken up nicely so you can jump to a situation you are facing, or easily include one in your daily practice very easily and quickly.
FREE Buddhism Books and Booklets!
Several organizations offer free online versions of their publications, such as the Fo Guang Shan International Translation Center (FGSITC), Buddhanet, and more. The following are some publications I believe will be helpful to you and are FREE!
- Good Question, Good Answer: A favorite among Buddhists that provides a question & answer format to many of the Buddhist teachings, beliefs, and other topics that many who are new to Buddhism will appreciate.
- Eightfold Path for the Householder: Those who are not monastics are ‘householders’ (laypersons, like you and me). This is a nice little book that shows you how to follow the Eightfold Path as a layperson.
- Buddhism in a Nutshell: A classic! And as it is termed, it gives you a variety of explanations about Buddhism and the various topics.
- What Buddhists Believe: A great explanation of what Buddhists believe which can help you as you navigate Buddhism as a religion.
- Faxiang: This is a Buddhist practitioners encyclopedia. I have the printed version, although you can get the eBook format online. It’s perfect for introducing you to a variety of topics, terms, and words you are likely to experience as a Buddhist.
- Starting a Daily Practice: Learn how to begin practicing Buddhism in this short booklet.
- The Five Precepts: This is what all Buddhists strive to follow in their path towards awakening. Moral precepts (rules) that help you stay focused on the path towards liberation.
- The Triple Gem: Learn about the three faiths in Buddhism of the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (monastic community).
- The Four Noble Truths: The basis of Buddhist belief and practice are the Four Noble Truths.
- Meditation: Learn how to start your mediation practice in the spirit of Chan (Zen)
- Visiting a Buddhist Temple: Ready to visit a temple for the first time? This particular booklet focuses on Mahayana, and specifically Chinese Buddhism, but can be great overall insight when going to a temple.
- The Short March to Wisdom: For young children, this eBook provides moral explanations, and some study/exercises, to help teach Buddhism and Buddhist concepts in an easy to understand manner.
- Another resource is the Buddha Educational Foundation which has many publications online, and that can also be sent to you.
While all the books in this list are not sutras/scriptures, it was recommended to include some sutras/scriptures. Great idea!
- My Article: As mentioned at the beginning of this article, check out my article devoted to Buddhist Scripture for Newbies for some great selections. The books listed here are to get you an “introduction” to Buddhism without having you dive right into reading scriptures. You can also find a copy of the Dhammapada (Buddha Dharma) in this article.
- Sutta Central: Gain access to early Buddhist texts and insights. Offers a variety of scripture you can’t find elsewhere.
- Access to Insight: Popular resources with lots of scripture and articles that is Theravada specific, but Mahayana recognizes all of these texts as well (learn more about that here and here).
- Diamond Sutra: One of the two classic and important scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, which is very important to Chan/Zen Buddhists.
- Heart Sutra: The other classic Mahayana Buddhism scripture which is loved by Buddhists worldwide. This version by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh works to give a modern version of the Heart Sutra along with commentary and is recommended. For the original text, you can find it here on Buddhanet.
- Article’s Main Featured Photo: CC 2.0 Photo by Abhishek Sundaram on Flickr
- Questions? If you have any questions on which book(s) would be best for you, feel free to send me a message!
- Recommended Reading: For some other lists for new Buddhists, consider Lions Roar “10 Buddhist Books Everyone Should Read“, and Barbara O’Brien’s “Recommended Books for Buddhist Beginners“.
- Updates: The order of my top 5 book recommendations were changed and reordered a few times since the creation of this article to make the recommendations better in helping people with understanding Buddhism, and to reflect availability of the books (some of my original recommendations went out of print). If you would like to watch a video with my original recommendations (remember, not all are in print) please click here.
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