From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books of Buddhism, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on Buddhism. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or read Buddhist texts themselves.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on Buddhism in no particular order.
What the Buddha Taught – Walpola Rahula
Category: Short Introduction | Length: 151 pages | Published: 1974
Publisher’s description: This comprehensive, compact, lucid, and faithful account of the Buddha’s teachings persistently enjoys great popularity in colleges, universities, and theological schools both here and abroad. “An exposition of Buddhism conceived in a resolutely modern spirit.”—from the Foreword.
“For years,” says the Journal of the Buddhist Society, “the newcomer to Buddhism has lacked a simple and reliable introduction to the complexities of the subject. Dr. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught fills the need as only could be done by one having a firm grasp of the vast material to be sifted. It is a model of what a book should be that is addressed first of all to ‘the educated and intelligent reader.’ Authoritative and clear, logical and sober, this study is as comprehensive as it is masterly.”
A classic introductory book to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, contains a selection of illustrative texts from the original Pali texts, including the Suttas and the Dhammapada (specially translated by the author), sixteen illustrations, and a bibliography, glossary, and index.
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation – Thich Nhat Hanh
Category: Comprehensive Introduction | Length: 304 pages | Published: 1999
Publisher’s description: In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh introduces us to the core teachings of Buddhism and shows us that the Buddha’s teachings are accessible and applicable to our daily lives. With poetry and clarity, Nhat Hanh imparts comforting wisdom about the nature of suffering and its role in creating compassion, love, and joy–all qualities of enlightenment. Covering such significant teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Doors of Liberation, the Three Dharma Seals, and the Seven Factors of Awakening, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is a radiant beacon on Buddhist thought for the initiated and uninitiated alike.
An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy – Stephen J. Laumakis
Category: General Introduction | Length: 300 pages | Published: 2008
Publisher’s description: In this clearly written undergraduate textbook, Stephen Laumakis explains the origin and development of Buddhist ideas and concepts, focusing on the philosophical ideas and arguments presented and defended by selected thinkers and sutras from various traditions. He starts with a sketch of the Buddha and the Dharma, and highlights the origins of Buddhism in India. He then considers specific details of the Dharma with special attention to Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology, and examines the development of Buddhism in China, Japan, and Tibet, concluding with the ideas of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. In each chapter he includes explanations of key terms and teachings, excerpts from primary source materials, and presentations of the arguments for each position. His book will be an invaluable guide for all who are interested in this rich and vibrant philosophy.
A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy – Steven M. Immanuel
Category: Companion | Length: 608 pages | Published: 2015
Publisher’s description: A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy is the most comprehensive single volume on the subject available; it offers the very latest scholarship to create a wide-ranging survey of the most important ideas, problems, and debates in the history of Buddhist philosophy.
- Encompasses the broadest treatment of Buddhist philosophy available, covering social and political thought, meditation, ecology and contemporary issues and applications
- Each section contains overviews and cutting-edge scholarship that expands readers understanding of the breadth and diversity of Buddhist thought
- Broad coverage of topics allows flexibility to instructors in creating a syllabus
- Essays provide valuable alternative philosophical perspectives on topics to those available in Western traditions
Buddhist Philosophy: Selected Readings – Edelglass & Garfield
Category: Anthology | Length: 457 pages | Published: 2009
Publisher’s description: The Buddhist philosophical tradition is vast, internally diverse, and comprises texts written in a variety of canonical languages. It is hence often difficult for those with training in Western philosophy who wish to approach this tradition for the first time to know where to start, and difficult for those who wish to introduce and teach courses in Buddhist philosophy to find suitable textbooks that adequately represent the diversity of the tradition, expose students to important primary texts in reliable translations, that contextualize those texts, and that foreground specifically philosophical issues.
Buddhist Philosophy fills that lacuna. It collects important philosophical texts from each major Buddhist tradition. Each text is translated and introduced by a recognized authority in Buddhist studies. Each introduction sets the text in context and introduces the philosophical issues it addresses and arguments it presents, providing a useful and authoritative guide to reading and to teaching the text. The volume is organized into topical sections that reflect the way that Western philosophers think about the structure of the discipline, and each section is introduced by an essay explaining Buddhist approaches to that subject matter, and the place of the texts collected in that section in the enterprise….
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon – Bhikkhu Bodhi
Category: Anthology | Length: 512 pages | Published: 2005
Publisher’s description: This landmark collection is the definitive introduction to the Buddha’s teachings – in his own words. The American scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, whose voluminous translations have won widespread acclaim, here presents selected discourses of the Buddha from the Pali Canon, the earliest record of what the Buddha taught. Divided into ten thematic chapters, In the Buddha’s Words reveals the full scope of the Buddha’s discourses, from family life and marriage to renunciation and the path of insight. A concise, informative introduction precedes each chapter, guiding the reader toward a deeper understanding of the texts that follow.
In the Buddha’s Words allows even readers unacquainted with Buddhism to grasp the significance of the Buddha’s contributions to our world heritage. Taken as a whole, these texts bear eloquent testimony to the breadth and intelligence of the Buddha’s teachings, and point the way to an ancient yet ever-vital path. Students and seekers alike will find this systematic presentation indispensable.
Category: Classic | Length: 280 pages
Publisher’s description: Dhammapada means “the path of dharma,” the path of harmony and righteousness that anyone can follow to reach the highest good. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses, gathered probably from direct disciples who wanted to preserve what they had heard from the Buddha himself. Easwaran’s best-selling translation of this classic Buddhist text is based on the original Pali.
Easwaran’s comprehensive introduction to the Dhammapada gives an overview of the Buddha’s teachings that is penetrating, and clear – accessible for readers new to Buddhism, but also with fresh insights and practical applications for readers familiar with this text. Chapter introductions, notes and a Sanskrit glossary place individual verses into the context of the broader Buddhist canon.
Easwaran is a master storyteller, and the introduction includes many stories that make moving, memorable reading, bringing young Siddhartha and his heroic spiritual quest vividly to life. This faithful interpretation brings us closer to the compassionate heart of the Buddha.
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment – Robert Wright
Category: Pop-Nonfiction | Length: 336 pages | Published: 2017
Publisher’s description: From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.
Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.
But if we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger, and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only discovering now. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly—and proposes that seeing the world more clearly, through meditation, will make us better, happier people.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Introduction to Buddhist Traditions – Amherst College
- The Buddhist Way – Cornell College
- Buddhist Thought – Smith College
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Buddha
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Buddha
- Buddhism Subreddit Book List
- The best books on Buddhism recommended by Donald S Lopez Jr
- Elizabeth Harris recommends the best Introductions to Buddhism
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on Chinese Philosophy
- The Best Books on Stoicism
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.