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 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: 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. The first time I finished listening to this book, I actually clapped because it was that good and moving thanks in no small part to the narrator. The print version is also important, as it includes maps and special illustrations which are unique to this book. If you have never used Audible.com before, you can actually start a 30 day free trial and get this audiobook for free (click here to try Audible and get two free audiobooks). If you are an Audible member, I recommend using one of your monthly credits for this book (or use the link below to purchase independently).
#4: 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.
- 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: http://www.fgsitc.org/starting-a-daily-practice/
#5: Buddhism for Beginners
By Thubten Chodron
[“Questions and Answers” Regarding Buddhism] 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!
Other Books to Consider
Are five books not enough? 😉 Here are some other books which are great for the new Buddhist that I have read, enjoy, and recommend:
- FREE Buddhism Books! Thanks to the Fo Guang Shan International Translation Center (FGSITC), you can gain instant access to a plethora of free publications, booklets, and even entire books by Ven. Master Hsing Yun and others. I have many of these in print format as well, and enjoy them. For those on a budget, this generous gift of the Dharma is very helpful.
- Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism by Gary Gach: 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.
- 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.
- Questions? If you have any questions on which book(s) would be best for you, feel free to send me a message!
- 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.
- 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“.