When we hosted a discussion titled “What Led You to Buddhism?” in 2011, we asked participants to share the stories of how they came to learn more about Buddhism. While reading through the discussion from people of many different backgrounds and traditions, one common theme became immediately apparent: Buddhist books.
As we continued to read through the comments, it occurred to us that we should compile all the Buddhist books for beginners mentioned into a list, and that such a list, composed solely of personal accounts of life-altering realizations, could be quite special. We created that list in 2011 (read the original here), and asked readers to suggest more. Here is an updated list incorporating that feedback:
Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings
by William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield
What is Buddhism? While the diversity of Buddhist schools of thought make it all but impossible to encapsulate the tradition in one book, the new collection. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings is as comprehensive an attempt as any. This is a dense volume, but its coherent presentation of Buddhist philosophy in all its variety makes diving in worth the effort.
Taking the Path of Zen
by Robert Aitken
For Zen students, one the best how-to books is Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen. Aitken (1917–2010), one of the early pioneers of Zen in America, teaches us not only how to sit but also why we do. Replete with practical instructions and advice, including stretching exercises that make sitting easier, there’s no more comprehensive a guide than this. It’s a great place to start.
From its first sentence— “We already have everything we need”—to its last, Start Where You Are stops us in our tracks. An American nun in the Tibetan tradition, Pema Chödrön takes subtle Tibetan teachings and translates them into straight talk. Throughout the book Chödrön confronts the habitual self-help impulses—get thin, get rich, get enlightened—that can drive us. Chödrön’s directives are never strident or judgmental; instead they are reminders conveyed with encouragement, patience, and lighthearted humor.
The Issue at Hand
by Gil Fronsdal
This slim volume is more than just an introduction; it contains gems of insight that will continue to stimulate and deepen your practice as it unfolds. Fronsdal’s training in Zen and Theravada, along with his PhD in Buddhist Studies, have provided him with a thorough grasp of dharma, which he presents clearly and accurately for a modern audience. The sparkling short essays discuss topics from generosity, metta, and karma to working with anger and fear. (A free pdf is available here.)
Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Bhante G.’s instructions are no less inspiring than they are accessible. He makes meditation seem like magic, and then succeeds in convincing us that we’re all capable of wizardry. [The Vipassana Fellowship provides a digital copy of an earlier edition of the book on their website.]
by Herman Hesse
When New Directions decided to publish the first English translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in 1951, it could not have foreseen the enormous impact it would have on American culture. The novel’s ostensibly simple narrative appealed to the restless drifter, the alienated youth, and the political anarchist alike.
Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation
by Jamgon Kongtrul, translated by Sarah Harding
Tibetan Buddhist translator Sarah Harding once noted that despite their best intentions, many Westerners who engage in Vajrayana Buddhist practices don’t understand the nuts and bolts of how these practices work. To fill that gap, she translated 19th-century luminary Jamgon Kongtrul’s Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation. In this book, which also features a commentary from contemporary teacher Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Kongtrul explains the meditative states that are meant to occur beneath the ritualized and explicit actions of body, speech, and mind. For those committed to the path of tantra, Creation and Completion’s practical guidance is indispensable.
Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists
edited by Sumi Loundon Kim
Loundon Kim’s interest in the practice of young American Buddhists was stirred while working in the kitchen of a Buddhist retreat center in New England. It occurred to her that others had very different reasons than she did for practicing Buddhism. So she set out to find other young Buddhists and collected their stories.
The Three Pillars of Zen
by Philip Kapleau Roshi
When The Three Pillars of Zen appeared in 1965, it had a monumental impact on the direction of Buddhism in North America. Zen teacher Philip Kapleau combined a series of talks for beginning students by Yasutani Roshi with classic Zen texts. It offers the first how-to instructions for Western practitioners and remains one of the most influential and inspiring Zen books in the West.
What the Buddha Taught
by Walpola Rahula
Sri Lankan monk and scholar Walpola Rahula provides a well-rounded tour of the Pali canon, the early collection of Buddha’s teachings that is central to the Theravada tradition. His descriptions of Buddhist tenets are clear enough for beginners but avoid oversimplification, opening the door for future study and a more nuanced understanding.
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is actually four tiny books that include a collection of Zen koans, stories, and teachings. It’s available in a pocket-sized edition that makes it suitable for koan practice or for a flash of Zen inspiration and bewilderment. For meditation instruction, turn to the final section, called Centering, which is a pre-Buddhist text listing 112 ways to reach enlightenment.
The Sound of Silence
by Ajahn Sumedho
Teachings from Ajahn Sumedho, a popular American-born teacher and founder of the first Theravada monastic community in the West, have been hard to come by in print. The talks collected in this volume preserve his warm, humorous style, and reflect his flexible view of teaching as “presenting things for you to investigate.” These spontaneous talks are accessible, but they require attention. The title comes from a meditation practice Sumedho developed on his own over forty years of practice, one not found in the Pali canon. (You can request a free copy of the book on the Forest Sangha website.)
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind
by Shunryu Suzuki
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is one of the undisputed classics of American Buddhism. First published in 1970, the book’s simple approach and plainspoken language have made it timeless. | Read an excerpt here.
Open Heart, Open Mind
by Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson
In Tibetan Buddhism, the words mind and heart are used interchangeably. For Tsoknyi Rinpoche, beloved teacher and co-author of Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love, therein lies the key to one of the tradition’s most cherished concepts, bodhicitta [awakened heart-mind]. The book offers down-to-earth teachings on Buddhist philosophy and psychology as well as practical meditation tips, including a seven-point method for establishing a solid base to anchor you in your body.
MORE BEGINNER-FRIENDLY BUDDHIST BOOKS
(in alphabetical order by author’s name)
Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
A Still Forest Pool by Ajaan Chah
Buddhism for Beginners by Thubten Chodron
The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das
Awareness by Anthony DeMello
Buddhism: An Introduction to the Buddha’s Life, Teachings, and Practices by Joan Duncan Oliver
Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up by Koshin Paley Ellison
The Buddhist Path to Simplicity by Christina Feldman
Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women by Ellison Banks Findly
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Anagarika Govinda
One Breath at a Time by Kevin Edward Griffin
Eight Steps to Happiness by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen
Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide by Christmas Humphreys
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Zen Training by Philip Kapleau Roshi
Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema | Read an excerpt here.
What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar J. Khyentse Rinpoche
The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
Everyday Suchness by Gyomay M. Kubose
World as Lover World as Self by Joanna Macy
How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald
An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra
The Supreme Source by Namkhai Norbu
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Indestructible Truth by Reginald A. Ray
The Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Robinson
Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg
Golden Wind: Zen Talks by Eido Shimano Roshi
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Manual of Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh
Way of Meditation by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
Buddhism: What Everyone Needs to Know byDale S. Wright
Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright
Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor
The Connected Discourses by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Buddhism at Work by George Bond
The Dhammapada by the Buddha
Awakening Compassion by Pema Chödrön
Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön
A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of by the His Holiness the Dalai Lama
One Teacher, Many Traditions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron
Awakening to the Sacred by Lama Surya Das
Shōbōgenzō by Eihei Dogen
The Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Gyurme Dorje
The Buddha, Geoff, and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas
Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein
The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein
Living Buddhist Masters by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield
The Tao of Sobriety by David Gregson
Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Life of Milarepa by Lobsang Jivaka
The New Social Face of Buddhism by Ken Jones
Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism by Kittisaro and Thanisara
Zurchungpa’s Testament with commentary by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Dharma Punx by Noah Levine
The Middle Discourses by Bhikku Nanamoli
The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri by Dosho Port
Secret of the Vajra World by Reginald A. Ray
The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan
The Cow in the Parking Lot by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston
If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Sophia Kasl, Ph.D.
Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
Have one you would like to add? Share it in the comment section below, so we can keep the list updated.
[This story was first published in 2011]
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