Top 5 Buddhist Books for Newbies

Photo by Abhishek Sundaram on Flickr

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 Buddhist or interested in Buddhism?  You don’t want to spend your money on a book you didn’t enjoy, and you want to gain insightful information and teachings that can help you.

The books shown in this article are perfect for the new Buddhist who wants to learn and understand about Buddhism, and how to apply it to their daily lives.  They are also especially beneficial if you don’t have a Buddhist teacher already and are attempting to learn this on your own.  

The Top 5 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.  After reading all of my recommendations, you can dive into other books such as those by the school/tradition of Buddhism you wish to follow (each one has specific ‘texts’ and/or ‘sutras’).

 


 

#1:  What the Buddha Taught
By Walpola Rahula
[Learn the basics about Buddhism] This is the first book I’d like you to start off with and read.  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.  You’ll learn about the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and other Buddhist concepts.  Also included are selected texts to include some selections from the Dhammapada. (Theravada Buddhism)

 


 

#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.   (Mahayana Buddhism / Humanistic)

 


 

#3:  For All Living Beings – A Guide to Buddhist Practice
By Ven. Master Hsing Yun
[Learn how to start practicing Buddhism] For those starting a practice on their own, or without constant exposure to a teacher or temple, it can be difficult to know where to begin.  Although this book focuses primarily on Humanistic Buddhism (which I practice, which is a combination of Pure Land and Zen/Ch’an), everyone can find a great start with this book as it focuses on the ‘threefold training’ which all Buddhist branches practice which are: Morality, Meditative Concentration, and Wisdom.  Some things I loved about this book are little info “boxes” that give you more information on topics as you read through the teachings which are truly invaluable.  As with all books by Ven. Master Hsing Yun, it is almost like you are right there with him during a teaching or lecture which includes stories (when needed) to help make a teaching more realistic.  At the end are three appendixes which I loved which are essentially “lists” (and everyone enjoys lists!): The Twenty Greatest Things in Life, Humanistic Buddhism’s Modern Rules of Conduct, and Life’s One Hundred Tasks.  This is a fantastic book to help you with your journey with Buddhism, and yourself, especially if you don’t have a temple or teacher nearby.   (Mahayana Buddhism / Humanistic)


Bonus:  [Learn how to start a home Buddhist practice]

  • Another book you may want to consider for starting your daily practice is by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh called “Making Space“.  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.
  • If cost is a concern, you can download this FREE guide by Ven. Master Hsing Yun which covers how to start a daily practice to include meditation and chanting (Mayahana Buddhism / Humanistic):  http://www.fgsitc.org/starting-a-daily-practice/

 


 

#4:  Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm
By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
[Learn how to transform fear in your life through Buddhism]  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.  While the book’s title and message may lead you to think you don’t need it (perhaps you are saying “I’m not fearful!”), we all have fear (and have been hurt) in different levels and ways which do affect us.  Even the ultimate fear…death…is reason enough to read this book.  We have all been through fear: from birth, through childhood, loss of loved ones, and other experiences.  Understanding fear, and how to avoid having your life shaped and driven by it, will be essential in your practice.  Topics include: original fear, The Five Remembrances, fearlessness, mindfulness, transforming fear, and more.  This book quickly received a lot of “tabs” to help me note many things that helped me learn, grow, and transform my fear. (Mahayana Buddhism / Humanistic)

 


 

#5:  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism
By Gary Gach
[General Reference Regarding Buddhism]  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.  Don’t let the “Idiot’s Guide” title fool you, it’s a book you’ll find not only enjoyable to read, but will provide plenty of insight.  Why should you get this book even though you have my other recommendations?  Simply because this one is going to cover a lot of ground in lots of different topics, without getting overwhelming.  In essence, it is both a book that “introduces” you to various topics in Buddhism (but not all), and also goes in-depth in some places.  Once again, Gary presents the material in a fun way, and also in a “Western” way that won’t alienate you with foreign concepts as he attempts to “bring it home” so you can understand it.  (All Forms of Buddhism:  Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan, etc.)

 


 

Thank you for reading this article and learning about some great books that can help you learn about Buddhism!  Please let me know in the comments what you think of these books after reading them (and give your book suggestions as well).

Article Update Notes:  The order of my top 5 book recommendations were changed and reordered on 7/4/2016 to make the recommendations better in understanding Buddhism, and to reflect availability of the books.  Books #1, 2, and 5 remain from the original article.  If you would like to watch a video with my original recommendations (remember, not all are in print) please click here.

 

Even my cat Bella loves reading about Buddhism! You can check out the book she is reading, The Essence of Buddhism, by clicking this link.

Even my cat Bella loves reading about Buddhism! You can check out the book she is reading, The Essence of Buddhism, by clicking this link.

 



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Have a question, insight, or additional information? The comments section is where you can discuss this article. Comments are moderated. Please no off-topic, rude, abusive, or offensive comments.

  • Jendhamuni

    Great books, Alan. I enjoy the one by Ven. Master Hsing Yun a lot. I have one on tape I bought in California.

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  • Emily

    Such a great list. I’ve been looking for somewhere to start for a while. Thank you so much!

    • I’m glad to hear that Emily! 🙂

  • I’v been looking for English books about Buddhist for a long time, thank you so much for providing these precious materials for us ! (*^__^*)

    • Welcome Chelsea! I’m happy to hear these will help you 🙂

  • Srinivasan

    Alan, thanks a million for these recommendations. I’ve bookmarked this page and will follow the sequence. Also, could you tell me about how to formally become a Buddhist. Like, if there is an initiation ceremony, who to get in touch with and how do I qualify. Thank you.

    • Awesome I’m glad they will be of help! Yes, but it depends on what branch or group of Buddhism you choose. Unlike other religions, you do not have to be “officially” made into a Buddhist. But traditionally, a popular and formal process is known as the “Triple Gem” ceremony (where you take refuge in the Dharma – the teachings, the Sangha – the monastic order, and the Buddha – the Historical Buddha and teacher). You can do it on your own (just commit to all three, and you’re on the path!), or often local Buddhist temples and groups have ceremonies you can participate in. Here’s a little FAQ on it from my refuge temple: http://www.hsilai.org/en/faq_subpages/refuge_faq.html

      Please let me know if you have any questions 🙂

      • Srinivasan

        Thank you again, Alan for this precious insight. It seems like a good idea to commit to all Three Gems on a personal level for now until I find a Buddhist temple in my country which will accommodate me.

  • arnold

    hi i just want to learn about Buddhist wat is a good book to srart with

  • Hi Nik, I’d recommend Gary Gach’s book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism”. Despite the title, it’s a informational book, while also being fun to read. It’s a great overview, but also gives you enough information.

  • Andrew

    Any recommendation for a book to read instead of Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everday Life? I can’t seem to find a copy for less then $75 right now

    • Hi Andrew, yes absolutely. You can always get it straight from the publisher for the actual selling price: http://blpusa.com/being-good
      I’ll update my link above with this also.

      They are very fast in shipping, and you’ll be getting is straight from the temple…so it helps keep them going 🙂

      I can recommend other books (or more specific ones from my list above) if you’re looking for something specific? Just let me know!

      • Andrew

        Thanks! I’ll have to keep checking their site. It say they are temporarily out of stock right now. I just finished the first book you recommended, but it looks like I may have to skip to #4 (I have the 3rd one ordered).

  • NaphiSoc

    I would go with #4 as the very first read on Buddhism – not only is TNH awesome but also he is very “fair” to his approach to sutras vs suttas and Mahayana vs Theravada – he does not have an agenda. I own #5 as well but it is like how to lay out a “church like” service for a Buddhist order.

    I would also rec (I have bought fr Amazon) so cut and paste from prior deliveries

    ==

    The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering

    Bodhi, Bhikkhu

    ==

    Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom

    Joseph Goldstein

    ========

    The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English

    Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola

    =============

    Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self

    Smith, Rodney

    ====

    Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With

    Ferguson, Gaylon

    ============

    Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 5

    Tsering, Geshe Tashi

    ===

    The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind

    Wallace, B. Alan

    ==

    Stillness, Insight, and Emptiness: Buddhist Meditation from the Ground Up

    Dorjee, Lama Dudjom

    ===

  • nicki

    So cool. Thanks for the recs! Can’t wait to order and start reading!

  • Jack Stockton

    What would you recommend after you read all these books to learn about the different sects or schools of Buddhism?

  • Rafael

    I’ve not gotten around to actual reading yet, but this seems a really helpful list to get started, so I wanted to drop a comment just to say thanks. I especially appreciate the clear descriptions and also explicitly mentioning the branch each of the books associates to. Thanks, Alan!

    • Welcome Rafael 🙂 Let me know what you think about the books after you start reading them!