5 Best Buddhism Books for Beginners (With Reviews)

If you want to learn about Buddhism but have no idea where to start and which books to read, I’ve got you covered: I’ve just went through my personal library to highlight five best Buddhism books for beginners.

I’ve arranged these books in a way that will help you learn all the basics and map out further inquires into more subtle and difficult topics. From the Buddha’s life in his parents’ palace to his renunciation and enlightenment to famous teachings on human condition, these essential reads show us the root of our suffering and a path to true and lasting inner peace.

1. What the Buddha Taught

What the Buddha Taught is a reliable introduction to the complexities of Buddhism. It persistently enjoys popularity in colleges and contains a selection of texts from the original Pali scriptures.

The author of the book, Ven. Walpola Rahula, is a scholar-monk who trained in the Theravada tradition in Ceylon. Through a clear overview of ancient texts, he discovers a kernel of truth hidden beneath the umbrella of teachings, customs, and beliefs that is Buddhism.

Learn it first, then move comfortably on to other Buddhist works.

Reader review:

Upon first starting to read this book, I was a little intimidated. I was worried the material inside would be out of my grasp, seeing as I had very little insight into Buddhism.

But rest assured, if you know enough about true Buddhism to be interested in learning more, this is the book for you. The author breaks original scripts down in a way that is understandable, while not watering it down nor being condescending to the reader.

It brought up questions I already had about the teachings, and slowly filled me in with the answers I was seeking.

The author also wrote the book in such a way that more introductory readers can read the chapters in a different order (outlined in the foreword) and not get lost, while slowly gathering the knowledge you need to understand the earlier chapters.

2. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon

One of the first Englishmen to embrace Buddhism, Bhikkhu Nanamoli wrote a book that contains oldest authentic record of the Buddha’s life.

The Life of the Buddha is told through a unique framework of narrators, rendering ancient texts in a language marked by lucidity and dignity. It illuminates the Buddha’s compassion, lovingkindness, wisdom, and other qualities that informed his long tenure as the teacher of Dharma.

The Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka is pleased to republish this esteemed book for the first time in the Americas to reach a new audience interested in Buddhist philosophy and a way of life.

Reader review

The reason Buddhists don’t have a holy book like the Christians or Muslims is because after 45 years of teaching, the Buddha left what is now a small library.

Even the “core” texts – the Pali Canon – are voluminous and difficult to approach because you don’t know where to start.

Here, the author has gone through those texts, picked out those that contain biographical information on the Buddha, and has put them in chronological order.

The result is a life history that is very accessible and, to my surprise, highly entertaining to read: You suddenly realize just how human the Buddha really was.

3. Dhammapada

The Dhammapada is a collection of verses, gathered from direct disciples of the Buddha who wanted to preserve what they had learned from their master.

Eknath Easwaran’s introduction to the Dhammapada gives an overview of the Buddha’s teachings that is clear and accessible for readers new to Buddhist philosophy.

His translation is based on the original Pali scriptures. Chapter introductions, notes, and a Sanskrit glossary place individual verses into the context of ancient Buddhist texts.

Reader review:

The Dhammapada is considered by many to have the most core elements of the Buddha’s teaching in it.

There are hundreds of thousands of pages of Buddhist texts from numerous traditions all over the world, but this book sums up the Buddha and his teachings perhaps better than any other.

The introduction by Easwaran and the chapter introductions by Ruppenthal make this easy to grasp, even for western readers, and there is also a handy glossary for all the Pali/Sanskrit vocabulary.

[…]

Gandhi said that even if all of the other Buddhist texts were to be lost, as long as humans still had the Dhammapada they would be able to achievement enlightenment.

4. For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life

In this book, Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh argues for the universal applicability of The Five Mindfulness Trainings: not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to take intoxicants.

The author explains how people can come together around these trainings to explore a compassionate and a healthy way of life.

For the Future to Be Possible also includes insights from other Western meditation teachers, such as Jack Kornfield, Joan Halifax, Chan Khong, and others.

Reader review:

From someone who has taught ethics at the college level for forty years, I say this: For a Future to be Possible is the most insightful and humane work on ethics for a general audience that I know. I gifted my granddaughter with a copy on her 16th birthday.

5. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

This book being the last item on this list is not a coincidence. I’ve put it here because it weaves everything you’ve learned from the reads above into an organic structure.

Divided into ten thematic chapters, In the Buddha’s Words reveals the full scope of the Buddha’s teachings: from family life to the path of renunciation and attainment of Nirvana.

And it does so by giving you access to the most important sutras of the Pali Canon — in modern terminology the Buddha’s “greatest hits.”

The author writes:

Though his teaching is highly systematic, there is no single text that can be ascribed to the Buddha in which he defines the architecture of the Dhamma. The purpose of the present book is to develop and exemplify such a scheme. I here attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the Buddha’s teaching that incorporates a wide variety of suttas into an organic structure.

Complement with 3 best books on the history of mindfulness.

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