Books on Buddhism
We are so fortunate in the West to have so many great Buddhist books available for us to read. Over the years I have read many great books from all the three schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana (also known as Tibetan Buddhism). Of course there are many books I have yet to read, so I’m sure the list below is a work in progress.
Meanwhile I have composed this list of books based on ones I felt really stood out from the crowd. Most are Buddhist books, but a few are non-Buddhist which I found helped me to understand (and accept) some important Buddhist themes.
I have always found it is best to read intuitively – that the right book will come along at the right time. So here is a list of publications which I think are definitely worth a read and see what jumps out at you.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught By S.N. Goenka
by William Hart
This is one of my favorite books to lend to people who are interested in Buddhism. It has wonderful and simple explanations on central Buddhist concepts such as karma, morality and meditation. Each chapter begins with an entertaining or insightful Buddhist story to accentuate the teachings of that chapter, and there are great Q and A’s with S.N.Goenka. I am so attached to this book I have two copies of it at home in case I lose one!
What The Buddha Taught
by Walpola Rahula
This is one of the first Buddhist books I ever read. It may be a bit too scholarly for some people, especially with its inclusion of many Pali words and footnotes. However, this book is a classic and can answer many questions that people new to Buddhism are likely to have.
Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Gunaratana
The practice of mindfulness and concentration go hand-in-hand when practising meditation, as one helps to strengthen the other. This book focuses solely on this important topic of mindfulness and clearly explains the difference between mindfulness and concentration. The book is one of the most highly recommended books on this particular subject. I particularly loved the metta meditation at the end (available in their updated and expanded edition). If you’re interested in learning more about the practice of mindfulness, you will find this book very helpful.
If you want to dive right into the Buddha’s teachings and read the actual sutras (discourses) that the Buddha taught to his followers, then you will probably enjoy this book. It is a very substantial book, being 512 pages in length! The sutras are presented in this book in logical order under their appropriate topics, e.g. The Human Condition, Mastering the Mind, etc. However, if you’re completely new to Buddhism, then you might want to read the book recommended above, What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, before reading this one, as What The Buddha Taught reads more like a book than a compilation of sutras, and is therefore much easier to read and follow. I suggest taking a look at the first few pages of both books in Amazon and decide which style seems best for you.
The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation
by Joseph Goldstein
This is another great book for beginners. Joseph Goldstein leads month-long meditation retreats and this book is a compilation of some of the teachings given during his retreats. It covers the basics of practicing meditation and offers simple explanations and stories illustrating the truth and profundity of the Buddha’s teachings. When I first started learning Vipassana meditation I found this book a wonderful guide for establishing and inspiring my own meditation practice.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
by Sogyal Rinpoche
This book is a bestseller and when you read it, it is easy to understand why. As the title suggests, this book deals heavily on the concept of death and all the themes relevant to death in the Buddhist sense, such as: karma, rebirth and how to live well to prepare for the inevitable. Sogyal Rinpoche presents this topic in a wonderful, non-threatening way. I particularly found fascinating the detailed descriptions on the post-death experiences. This book is really thought-provoking and enjoyable to read. It would be an indispensable guide for anyone experiencing death or sickness in their lives.
Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment
by Vicki Mackenzie
This book tells the amazing life story of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a Western Buddhist nun who spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. Along with describing her time in the cave, it also tells of her incredible journey in finding Buddhism, her guru and includes snippets of her teachings. This was a best-seller and for good reason – it’s an incredible book!
Into the Heart of Life
by Tenzin Palmo
The teachings of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo are direct, profound and practical. Taking some of the most central Buddhist themes of impermanence, karma, faith and renunciation, she shows us how to contemplate them and infuse them into our everyday experience so that we can make great spiritual progress. I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you want to understand what the practice of Buddhism is all about, this book shows the essence of it.
Opening the Door of Your Heart
by Ajahn Brahm
Ajahn Brahm is a Theravadin monk and the abbot of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He studied under the great meditation teacher, Ajahn Chah. This book is a collection of stories, mostly anecdotal tales from his life that are often extraordinarily funny and full of Buddhist wisdom. Everyone can take away some wisdom (and a sore stomach from laughing) from reading this book. Regardless whether they are Buddhist or not, every house should have a copy of this book! This is a book I especially recommend to people who are open to learning about Buddhist principles but might be cautious about reading anything with Buddhist terminology (hence, this is something I have lent to non-Buddhist, anti-religious friends of mine, and they loved it).
Working with Anger
by Thubten Chodron
I knew this was a book I should read, but it took several years before I decided to buy it and then it sat on my shelf for months afterwards. I knew it was a good book – I was even buying it as a gift for others even though I hadn’t read it! When I finally started reading it, I was amazed at how multifaceted anger is (how there are so many different reasons that give rise to anger) and how Venerable Thubten Chodron has managed to single-handedly identify them all and their potential antidotes. This book is truly a must-read. From chapter 7: Coping with Criticism and onwards the words really spoke to me. I was enthralled and amazed. Everyone will see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book and with this book you will have an easy go-to book for practical antidotes for preventing or diminishing your anger in the future.
Old Path White Clouds
by Thich Nhat Hanh
This book is a beautifully written account of the meetings and conversations the Buddha had with his followers and the people he met after his Enlightenment. It is basically a collection of the sutras told in story-book like fashion. It is written in a way to suit young and old readers alike. Everyone should read this book – it is beautiful!
Peace Is Every Step
by Thich Nhat Hanh
This is book is short and easy to read, but it is rich with profound, yet simple reminders for us to come back to the present moment. As I started to read this book, I noticeably felt more mindful, aware and calm. The first section of this book is literally a meditation in action. It captures the profound stillness and beauty of living mindfully in the present moment. The second part of the book explores the importance of knowing what seeds we are planting in our minds on a daily basis and how to deal with negative states like anger. While the third part looks at understanding our interconnectedness with each other and our environment, so that we understand our shared responsibility in promoting happiness in this world. This is definitely a very nice, gradual book for beginners to grasp the beauty of mindfulness and gain an appreciation of how it helps us in our daily lives. However, if you’re looking to learn about Buddhist theories and the foundations of Buddhist teachings, you might want to look at the above books already mentioned.
The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness
by Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron is a remarkable Western Buddhist nun who has a great gift of incorporating anecdotal stories into her teachings on Buddhism, and writes in a language that makes Buddhism very accessible and appealing to the masses. This is one of my favourite books of hers. Her teachings really touch one’s heart and show us how to understand the Buddhist teachings from a soft spot in our hearts. Through her gentle guidance, she shows us how we can overcome difficulties on the spiritual path.
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living
by Pema Chodron
Instead of denying the painful aspects of ourselves and our lives, Pema Chodron shows us how to use these in a spiritual sense and cultivate compassion, wisdom and humour. Using the Buddhist teachings called lojong (“mind training”) as the basis for her commentary, she wonderfully shows us how to become more skilful, more compassionate and wise, and teaches us how to practice tonglen meditation as a way to reduce our own suffering, while bringing forth our compassionate heart.
Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master
by Amy Schmidt
This is an inspiring account of the life and teachings of a Dipa Ma, who went from being an ordinary housewife living in Calcutta, India, to an accomplished meditation master with significant spiritual abilities, as well as, a teacher to many of the great Western meditation teachers living in the West today.
Buddhist Offerings: 365 Days
by Olivier Follmi and Danielle Follmi
This book is a work of art. As the name suggests, the book contains 365 wonderful quotes from Buddhist teachers such as: Jack Kornfield, Pema Chödrön, the 14th Dalai Lama and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, to name only a few. These are accompanied by stunning photography capturing the beauty of the Himalayas. This book is perfect to pick up and open randomly for some daily inspiration. Although this book isn’t very portable (it’s really substantial in size; like a small brick!), it’s perfect to place in your living area or bedside table where you can revisit it daily.
This is the first book about Tibetan Buddhism that I ever read. It wonderfully covers the topics of refuge, bodhicitta, karma, and gives an explanation of the Ngondro practices (preliminaries) according to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. There were some chapters that I found difficult to read due to them being of a more advanced nature and/or not being relevant to the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism (of which I study and practise). However, I still highly recommend this book as an introduction to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and would have gladly paid full price just for the first few chapters of this book alone.
The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception: A Commentary on The Three Visions
by Deshung Rinpoche
Like the book, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, this is another excellent book that introduces the topics of refuge, bodhicitta and karma, but in some ways takes it to another level by covering these topics in greater depth. It notably has an inspiring biography of Deshung Rinpoche’s life at the beginning and it has sizeable portions devoted to explaining the practice of Calm Abiding meditation and the true nature of one’s mind.
A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
by Shantideva, Translated by Stephen Batchelor
If you want to learn how to practice patience with your enemies, this book has the chapter for you! This is an indispensible book that teaches one how to be the perfect spiritual warrior and train in the six perfections of generosity, patience, morality, diligence, meditation and wisdom. Shantideva was a Buddhist monk studying at Nalanda University in Northern India in the eighth century. When chastised by the other monks for being lazy he gave these wonderful jaw-dropping teachings. His words are as applicable today as they were then. This text is studied extensively by both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist schools and should be read, re-read and studied whenever one has the opportunity to do so!
The Life of Milarepa
by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa (translator)
If you want to know what guru devotion looks like, you will find a remarkable example of it in this book. Set in the eleventh century, this classic and inspiring tale recounts the life of Milarepa who followed the instruction of his guru, Marpa, with utter devotion and ultimately reached the goal of perfect Enlightenment. Milarepa’s songs of devotion and realisation are what make this book a must-read.
The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin
by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, translated by Matthieu Ricard
Shabkar, like Milarepa, was another extraordinary meditation master who showed great devotion to his teachers and sung beautiful songs of realisation. Unlike the book, Milarepa, however, Shabkar’s songs of realisation and advice are written in such a way that you feel he is offering the advice directly to you. It is a powerful, compelling and inspirational book that will definitely boost your motivation to practice the preliminary practices (ngondro) of Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tibetan Buddhism). I really love Shabkar’s poetry. He sings songs of realisation as if a flower is teaching him something or if a bird is giving him Dharma advice. Shabkar’s writing is full of wit and playfulness and there is never a dull moment.
Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
by John Powers
This book focuses largely on the history of Tibetan Buddhism: how it came to be and the distinctions between the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Also, for those who are impatient to know more about the esoteric practices of Vajrayana Buddhism without first needing some initiation into the practices, this book gives some insight which may appease some of your curiosity.
Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun
by Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelley
This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. It was conceived by the actor, Richard Gere, and is a story written by Adelaide Donnelley based on the life of Ani Pachen, a Tibetan Buddhist nun. This book tells of the life of Ani Pachen prior to becoming nun, when she was the daughter of a Tibetan chieftain who died leaving her to lead her people in the fight against the invading Chinese. Eventually captured and taken prisoner, she endured twenty-one years of torture and unimaginable hardships. Besides being an extremely moving tale, it is the faith and commitment to the Buddhist teachings of Ani Pachen and her people, and their ability to integrate the teachings in everyday life, which left a particular lasting impression on me. Her determination to practice the Buddhist practices even in the most pitiful of conditions is truly an inspiration. I highly recommend this book.
Lamdre: Dawn of Enlightenment by Lama Choedak Yuthok
This is an indispensable book for anyone considering attending the Lamdre teachings (the most esteemed teachings of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism). It is a collection of introductory talks given by Rinpoche to help prepare aspiring Lamdre students. His talks on how a disciple moves from impure vision to vision of experience, and finally pure vision; gives clear demarcations on how we are progressing on our spiritual path and is extremely inspiring. Rinpoche has kindly made his book available as an ebook which can be viewed here. The paperback is also available for purchase from here.
Settling Back into the Moment
by Joseph Goldstein
This is a pocket-sized book that was created using quotes from Joseph Goldstein’s book, The Experience of Insight. It has wonderful cartoonish-like illustrations that really bring Goldstein’s teachings and instructions to life. This has got to be one of my favorite publications of all time! Since it is pocket sized I would take it everywhere with me and it served as an invaluable tool for continually inspiring me to practise. Although this book was for free distribution, only 3000 copies were made apparently, which makes it a rarity. My copy of it went missing after I loaned it, and it took me 3 years to finally recollect its title! (Pretty bad example for someone who was trying to practice mindfulness!) I finally managed to hunt it down on ebay and gladly paid the $30 USD for it. It’s worth every dollar in my opinion. Fortunately, it’s also available here as a pdf.
Delog: Journey to Realms beyond Death
by Delog Dawa Drolma
Delog Dawa Drolma was an accomplished meditation practitioner who was able to leave her physical body and visit other realms of existence. In this book she describes in vivid detail the pure realms as well as the hells that she visited. While her descriptions and experiences may be difficult to swallow for most Western minds, the main theme of the benefit of practising virtue and the demerit of harmful deeds is resoundingly clear and is likely to sink into the hearts of even the greatest of cynics. The advice that she is given by the Lord of Death and others who she meets is what I enjoyed most about this book and I found it quite inspirational.
Reincarnation: The Boy Lama
by Vicki Mackenzie
This book documents the life of Lama Osel, who was identified as the reincarnation of the much loved teacher, Lama Yeshe (one of the founders of the FPMT, a network of Buddhist centres focusing on the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism). Although Lama Osel is no longer a lama and is pursuing a more conventional life, this book is still a fascinating read and worth reading perhaps when you are simply looking for an interesting, but not life-changing, read.
Living with Kundalini
by Gopi Krishna
Gopi Krishna was an ordinary Indian householder who was fond of his daily meditation. One day, at the age of thirty-four, he experienced an awakening of a spiritual energy within his body. This was to change his life forever. For more than a decade he experienced terrible symptoms of the physical body of which he had no control over. Eventually these passed and the glory of an awakened mind and its new found abilities were realised. (Although this is not a Buddhist book I thought it was a very interesting read and wanted to include it in this list).
Free Online Books
On Buddhanet.net there are two very good (free) ebooks if you’re completely new to Buddhism.
Good Question, Good Answer by Venerable S. Dhammika
The Eightfold Path for the Householder by Jack Kornfield (This is actually worth reading no matter whether you’re a beginner or not.)
Books on Rebirth
Rebirth is an important theme in Buddhism. If you are struggling with the concept of rebirth, or you wouldn’t mind reading some more ‘scientific proof’ of its existence, then this is the book for you. Brian Weiss is a psychiatrist who was an initial sceptic of multiple lives until one of his patients began recalling traumatic events that couldn’t be attributed to her current life, and which seemed to be the cause of her current life’s phobias and anxiety. This patient, who he called Catherine, was also able to remember a state in-between her lives where she would meet with highly spiritually evolved beings. When these beings were able to give her specific details about Brian Weiss’s father and deceased son, his scepticism was diminished. Warning: This book is hard to put down once you start reading. And you will want to read Messages from the Masters by Brian Weiss after this, as it documents many more accounts of people remembering their past lives, and again that is another enthralling read.
Messages from the Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love
by Brian L. Weiss M.D.
As I mentioned above, this book is an enthralling read, whether you’re a believer in rebirth/reincarnation or not. I enjoyed this book even more than Many Lives, Many Masters simply because it has so many accounts of past life recollections, and each recollection seems even more remarkable than the previous one. It also has lovely excerpts of messages from the masters (hence the title) which give great spiritual wisdom and advice on topics such as love, forgiveness etc. I highly recommend reading this book, even if you don’t read Many Lives, Many Masters.
Life Before Life: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives
by Dr Jim Tucker
For many people, personal accounts of past life recollections wouldn’t be considered very conclusive evidence that we have multiple lives. However, some scientists have made it their life’s work to study cases of past life recall and look for evidence that can verify the person’s claims. Dr Jim Tucker’s book, Life Before Life, gives many detailed accounts of past life recollections that have significant evidence that can support the person’s claims. For those of us who are looking for a more scientific approach to the topic of rebirth, this book is definitely a very good read.
I hope you find this list a useful guide. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!