Best Famous Buddhism Books

Appropriate gifts for Buddhists

Great Books To Read About Buddhism, Katinka Hesselink 2015

Have you been searching for the best Buddhist books to read? These books will inspire you to learn more about the teachings of Buddha. It will give you ways find peace, compassion and patience.

The teachings of Buddhism are based on the spiritual direction first given by Gautama Buddha who lived roughly between the time of 563 BC to 400 BC, although the exact time of his passing is not documented very well. He lived and taught for the most part in India and is known as the Gautama Buddha. Buddha is a title given to the one who is the first enlightened one of an era.

I have organized this page by tradition. In each case I list one book aimed at beginners and another suitable for people who know a bit about Buddhism and meditation.
See also the amazon top ten.

Mindfulness without Buddhism books

Mindfulness is growing so rapidly, it is fast coming into 'hype' territory. There are good reasons for this popularity. One is that mindfulness meditation works for stress reduction, lowering blood pressure and helping people deal with their issues. However, it is not a one size fit all solution to all problems. Nothing is.

The books in this category have all been written from the perspective of secular mindfulness. MBSR and MBCT are ways in which meditation has found a place in modern psychology.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
Secular Mindfulness
My phrase for mindfulness outside a Buddhist context. Usually combined with a variation of Cognitive psychology. MBSR and MBCT are the most prominent examples of this trend.

For absolute newbies I recommend: Mindfulness for Dummies (my review)

Mindfulness books
Books about learning to be in the moment - Buddhist mindfulness books, Mindfulness exercise books Meditation books for children
Coloring books for Buddhists
Suitable for children and adults

A Great Book For The Beginner To Read

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment--and Your Lifeby Jon Kabat-Zinn

The first steps in living a life of mindfulness are outlined in this book. You learn ways to deal with your emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness is not easy, but for those who stick with it, the results are often dramatic. Many find contentment and an inner peace that you might not have even realized was possible.

Jon Kabat-Zinn was instrumental in popularizing mindfulness for a general audience through his MBSR system. The book is available in hard cover, paperback and also a digital version.

Is your brain the same as the Buddha?

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

Rick Hanson is both a neuroscientist as well as a mindfulness teacher. He is specialized in neuroplasticity: the ability of our brains to change through our experiences.

This is a wonderful book that explains that spiritual teachers like Jesus, Moses and Buddha were all born with the same brain that we each have.

The book explains how we can make changes in our own brains to have a better wisdom about us, a greater love within us and enjoy more happiness.

The science of neuroplasticity explained in laymans terms. It means that, through meditation, we CAN improve our concentration, our resilience and our patience (among other things).

Vipassana and Theravada Buddhism Books

The Vipassana movement is close to the Mindfulness movement. The main difference is in labelling: the Vipassana movement is explicitly Buddhist. This means that, depending on the teacher, Buddhist doctrine and texts will find their way into the meditation hall. Sometimes there may even be lectures on Buddhist concepts.

However, most Western Vipassana teachers, though strong on meditation, are light on Buddhist doctrine. They will have taken refuge and perhaps practice lay vows. However, chances are they aren't interested in rebirth. Many even identify themselves as 'Buddhists without beliefs'.There is nothing wrong with this. The question is: what is Buddhist about it?

Some of my university teachers insist that such Western Buddhists aren't Buddhists at all. I think that is taking it a bit far, but it is true that Western Buddhism is very different from traditional Buddhism as practiced in Buddhist countries over the past 2000 years.

In the Vipassana movement the main criterium for becoming a teacher is meditation practice. They see this as the center of the Buddhist path. Many distrust textual and historical study.

Sometimes We Cripple Ourselves

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

We cripple ourselves with self judging which creates problems in our relationships. We become addicted to things that are unhealthy for us. Perfectionist behaviors stifle our souls. We work too hard and are lonely beyond belief. This book offers a guide to break away from these sufferings to a way of living that will free us from the bindings of these behaviors.

Tara Brach is a mindfulness meditation teacher in the tradition of  Jack Kornfield Vipassana. Her book helps us accept ourselves as we are - not the perfect machines we think we ought to be. And that opens a door to a whole different way of life.

What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada

Great summary of Theravada Buddhist doctrines taken from the earliest known Buddhist texts: the Pali Canon and Dhammapada.

I have this book. It's very good as an introduction, but also useful when you need to look up just what the Buddha said about a topic you're interested in.

Also available on kindle

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English, Henepola Gunaratana

Gunaratana tackles the main sutra the whole Vipassana movement is based on: the  Satipatthana Sutta (available online, not in this book). He explains what meditations have been culled from the sutra and how to apply them in your daily practice.

As one reader notes: he does NOT explain how these meditations should be ordered. This makes sense: the sutra doesn't say.

The general Buddhist tradition recommends first samatha (concentration) meditation and then, when full on concentration is achieved, moving on to vipassana (insight) meditation. In that tradition Vipassana meditation includes a lot of thinking: analysing the Buddhist teachings and applying them to your life.

Modern Vipassana teachers interpret the relationship between shamata and vipassana in diverse ways. Gunaratana is wise to sidestep the issue.

Like all his books, this is well written and easy to understand. It is a good book to read after you have done your first retreat. Not for absolute beginners, but for people who have taken their first steps in meditation.

Most Read Tibetan Buddhism Books

Tibetan Buddhism is the first Mahayana tradition on this list. As I am primarily a Tibetan Buddhist myself, I have reviewed a lot of books from that tradition. Most of these are suitable for beginners.

Still, if you are only just getting to know the Buddhist tradition I would always recommend reading one of the books by Pema Chodron or one of the best sellers by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Both are known for their accessibility.

Buddhism for Beginnersby Thubten Chodron

Introduction into Buddhism that takes up contemporary themes like euthanasia, abortion, the environment and animal rights - as well as day to day practice.

Listed here because Thubten Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun. However, this book is very suitable for people interested in Buddhism in general, not just Tibetan Buddhism.

Also available on kindle

Letting Go Of Fear Based Living

Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron

Many of us hold on to stability. This is fine when things are going smoothly, but in times of change it just won't work. The surprising thing is that when we embrace the inherent uncertainty in our lives, we will be able to deal with it better. The result is not merely that we become happier ourselves, but that we also become more compassionate towards others.

Dealing with stress by accepting that it is a part of life is an essential skill in this fast-moving world.

Pema Chodron is a famous Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, and a student of the renowned Trungpa Rinpoche. She is an expert in translating Buddhist practices and concepts into practical wisdom that can help us transform our lives - Buddhists or not.

How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, H.H. the Dalai Lama

This is aimed at people who loved his book The Art of Happinessand want to develop a daily practice to really transform their lives.

In 'How to Practice..' His Holiness explains the basics of the Mahayana path to enlightenment and the way it helps make your life meaningful. Thankfully, a meaningful life is also a happier one. 

More popular books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: The Spiritual Classic & International Bestseller

This book by Sogyal Rinpoche is perhaps as famous as the first (Jung sponsored) translation of the The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Does this book need an introduction? Sogyal Rinpoche's commentary on the 'Tibetan Book of the dead' (as it's usually referred to) is a classic already.

It has instructions on meditation as well as descriptions of the phases (bhardo's) consciousness goes to after death according to the Tibetan tradition.
This book has been read and enjoyed by millions.

Work, Sex, Money: real life on the path of mindfulness, Chogyam Trungpa

Rebel Buddha: on the road to freedom, Dzogchen Ponlop

Goddesses of the celestial gallery, Romio Shrestha

Guided meditations on the Stages of the Path, Thubten Chodron

Work, Sex, Money: real life on the path of mindfulness, Chogyam Trungpa

Lam Rim Books (recommended & introduction)

When the chocolate runs out, Lama Yeshe

MoreTibetan Buddhism Books

Most Popular Zen Buddhist Books

Zen Buddhism is also a form of Mahayana Buddhism. However, in the way it is practiced in the West, it is closer to Mindfulness and Vipassana than to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The reason they are considered Mahayana, like Tibetan Buddhism, is because Zen Buddhists are trained in the Bodhisattva vow: the aspiration to help all beings.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Chan Buddhist, but since he is from Vietnam, his historical lineage is very different from that of other prominent Zen Masters. He is however one of the most popular Buddhist teachers of our time because of his ability to make Buddhism useful in our daily lives.

The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
The core teachings of Buddhism are introduced by Thich Nhat Hanh in this wonderful book. We find that those teachings are just as accessible and applicable to our own daily lives as they were when Buddha taught them. The book covers some of the significant teachings of Buddhism like:
  • Four Noble Truths
  • Noble Eightfold Path
  • Three Doors of Liberation
  • Three Dharma Seals
  • Seven Factors of Awakening
Buddhism Plain and Simple

This is one of the best selling Buddhism books of our time. In it Steve teaches Buddhism as we many people love to see it: as a practical spiritual system, not a belief system or a religion.

Protestant Buddhism

Steve Hagen's version of Buddhism is an exponent of a 19th century development: Buddhism without beliefs and rituals. In Steve's case, as a practicing monk, the rituals can't have totally disappeared. After all Zen Buddhism includes ceremonies like the Tea Ceremony, the Bodhisattva Vow, Monk vows etc.

Still, Steve's Buddhism is one without beliefs. It ignores the long tradition of miracle attributed to the Buddha, downplays things like reincarnation and karma and stresses only the here and now.

Perhaps there's nothing wrong with that: Buddhism has developed techniques that have a long history of helping people deal with their lives and becoming happier and more balanced. Though that path does contain more pitfalls than most people usually realize.

Why is this version of Buddhism referred to as 'Protestant'? Because Protestantism got rid of a lot of Catholic beliefs and rituals as well. In fact, it's the reason 'ritualistic' sounds denigrating to our ears. Also, like protestantism, many 'protestant Buddhists' feel they're going back to the Buddhism the Buddha taught, or would teach if he were alive today.

Master Tang Hoi: First Zen Teacher in Vietnam and China

This is not one of Thich Nhat Hanh's most famous books. However, I found it  interesting because it gives us an insight into the history of Buddhism in Vietnam.

It is also helpful as an insight into Thich Nhat Hanh as a Buddhist teacher. In some ways he is very revolutionary. This book shows that however revolutionary he may be, he does ground himself in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition and texts.

Tang Hoi was a 3rd century Mahayana Buddhist with a strong interest in the practice of the 6 paramitas as well as mindfulness of breath. The book gives a historical introduction as well as a translation and commentary on Tang Hoi on both topics.

Thich Nhat Hanh books
Zen Buddhism and mindfulness books

My reviews of Zen Buddhist Books:

Best Zen Buddhism Books, recommended by readers

General Academic Buddhism

The following two books are in another category altogether. They'll help you understand Buddhism from the Buddhist perspective: it's philosophy, history and wisdom.
The Foundations of Buddhism
Scholars of Buddhism are getting a bit tired of the 'Buddhism is not a religion' routine of Western Buddhists. This book is an introduction to the history of Buddhism that gets into just what is known from archeology and textual sources about Buddhism as it developed in the centuries right after the Buddha up to today.

And that includes a LOT that can only be called 'religion'. Like belief in gods (yes, plural), karma, reincarnation, rituals etc.

Recommended by Leiden University for the 2011 introduction into Buddhism course.
Available on Kindle

Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, Edward Conze

Karma: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality

Best books on Emptiness

See also: Buddhist books recommended by my readers