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Ten Great Buddhist Books for Beginners

best buddhist books for beginners

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For years, people have asked me where to start with an accessible book for modern people to practically apply the teachings of Buddhism. I’ve never been able to suggest one single book that clearly describes how to practice an authentic Buddhist path for non-religious readers, which is why I eventually wrote How to Train a Happy Mind.

How to Train a Happy Mind by Scott Snibbe with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Inspired by the ancient Buddhist path to enlightenment yet firmly grounded in modern science, How to Train a Happy Mind is the first mainstream book to show how you can go beyond the calm-inducing practice of mindfulness to actively train the brain toward happiness, fulfilling relationships, and a better world. Available in print, e-book, and audiobook from Amazon or anywhere you buy books.

For those wishing to dive deeper into accessible discussions of how Buddhism is relevant to a modern life, I wanted to share my top ten recommended Buddhist books for beginners. Some of the most popular books on Buddhist philosophy like The Art of Happiness and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind don’t explain how to practice Buddhist meditation, but make you curious to learn more about it. Ancient texts like The Dhammapada which records the Buddha’s words, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead that shares the mystical Buddhist understanding of what happens when you die, are deeply authentic yet difficult for Western beginners to penetrate.

Ten Buddhist Books for Beginners

The Buddhist tradition has its Theravada origins in India. Buddhism later spread to Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, and Tibet. As it expanded beyond its Indian origins, Buddhism elaborated upon the the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama’s core ideas from the Pali Canon like the Four Noble Truths to encompass Japan’s Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva, a being who lives only to benefit others, and the koan paradoxes of Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Each culture’s time and tradition offered its own best books for its practitioners. Today we have modern masters like Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Gunaratana, Walpola Rahula, and Shunryu Suzuki who adapt Buddhism’s core teachings through contemporary bestsellers that share the dharma with Westerners.

Below, I share some powerful books that emphasize the entire Buddhist path for beginners. I have deliberately left out many of the outstanding books on mindfulness, like Mindfulness in Plain English, because they are already well-known. Instead, I focus on lesser-known books that go beyond mindfulness to explore the entire path the Buddha taught: from embracing the impermanent nature of reality to lovingkindness, the heart-opening practice of wishing all beings to be happy—even your enemies.

Beyond Religion

Beyond religion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that goes beyond religion.“

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

On many occasions, I have heard The Dalai Lama say, “Don’t become a Buddhist.” He is the only religious teacher I know of who recommends people not to follow his religion. Instead, he says that whether you were raised as a Christian who believes in God or an atheist or who doesn’t, you can augment your life with Buddhism’s practical philosophical and meditative tools.

Beyond Religion served as my inspiration to share Tibetan Buddhism’s ancient wisdom in the Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment podcast and the How to Train a Happy Mind book through clear, non-religious instructions that help people learn how to live a happy, meaningful life, deepen their relationships, and build a better world.

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

Buddha's Brain by Dr. Rick Hanson

“The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences—and in particular, to take them in so they become a permanent part of you.”

Dr. Rick Hanson

Buddha’s Brain is the best book I know of that shares the evidence neuroscience and psychology offer for meditation’s beneficial effects on the mind. Drawing on his deep personal experience as a psychotherapist and Theravada Buddhist practitioner, Dr. Hanson shows how the principal of neuroscience allows us to steer our own mind and brain toward its greatest potential for positivity and connection.

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh has written numerous beautiful books on Buddhism including The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings and The Miracle of Mindfulness. I recommend starting with Peace Is Every Step because it emphasizes bringing Buddhist philosophy into everyday life to compassionately navigate everyday conflicts with family, co-workers, and even your enemies. From being stuck in traffic to the anguish of war, this book shows you how to use problems as productive fuel for a compassionate heart and a stable mind.

Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment by robert wright

“Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point.”

Robert Wright

The bestselling Why Buddhism Is True show how non-believers can prove to themselves that Buddhism’s ancient philosophy is true. Offering abundant evidence from evolutionary psychology and scientific studies, Wright emphasizes that the Buddha’s path is one simply to see reality more clearly, offering readers a secular path to become free of our personal and collective delusions that cause harm to ourselves, our species, and our planet.

Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame

radical acceptance by tara brach

“Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns… We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”

Tara Brach

Before having compassion for anyone else, you must have compassion for yourself. But how do you do that? Tara Brach’s Radical Self Acceptance is a guide to take that first step of fully accepting and loving yourself, so it then becomes possible to more fully connect and love others. I have brought the audiobook for Radical Self Acceptance on my personal retreats more than once to gradually build this sense of self-acceptance and become my own best friend.

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide

how to meditate by kathleen mcdonalad

“According to Buddhism there is lasting, stable happiness, and everyone has the potential to experience it. The causes of happiness lie within our own mind, and methods for achieving it can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, in any lifestyle—living in the city, working an eight-hour job, raising a family, playing on weekends. By practicing these methods—meditation—we can learn to be happy at any time, in any situation, even difficult and painful ones.”

Ven. Kathleen McDonald

How to Meditate is my favorite book on meditation. Its author, Ven. Kathleen McDonald, is a lifelong Tibetan Buddhist nun and a student of the wild, compassionate pioneering teacher Lama Yeshe. Inspired by him, she takes the ancient practices of Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation and distills them to their essence in short, powerful practices. The meditations are based in the Tibetan Buddhist worldview of karma and past and future lives, but she works hard to adapt these lessons to Western practitioners who aren’t Buddhist. She invites readers to try the full range of meditations Buddhism offers: from practical psychological meditations on eliminating anger to mystical devotional practices like meditating on Tibetan Buddhism’s deity of female power and protection, Tara.

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.

the universe in a single atom: the convergence of science and spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been meeting with scientists for many decades. These meetings inspired thousands of scientists to seriously investigate Buddhism’s claim that the mind can be trained toward its better nature. This book captures the lessons about the natural world, psychology, and biology that His Holiness has incorporated to modernize Tibetan Buddhism’s feudal practices. And it also shows us how science has learned from Buddhism’s ancient, precise insights into how the mind can be steered toward happiness, connection, and a better world.

How to See Yourself as You Really Are

How to see yourself as you really are by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“Some people think that cultivating compassion is good for others but not necessarily for themselves, but this is wrong. You are the one who benefits most directly since compassion immediately instills in you a sense of calm (nowadays medical researchers have shown in scientific studies that a calm mind is essential for good health), inner strength, and a deep confidence and satisfaction, whereas it is not certain that the object of your feeling of compassion will benefit. Love and compassion open our own inner life, reducing stress, distrust, and loneliness.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

How to See Yourself as You Really Are is the most accessible book I know of on Buddhism’s most advanced topic of emptiness: the ultimate, interdependent nature of reality. In How to See Yourself As You Really Are, His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches how our mistaken sense of separateness is at the root of our suffering. He offers practical tools to understand and meditate on our ultimate physical and mental interdependence with all of life and everything in the universe.

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening

Buddhism without Beliefs: A contemporary guide to awakening by Stephen Batchelor

“One of the most difficult things to remember is to remember to remember. We forget that we live in a body with senses and feelings and thoughts and emotions and ideas. We get caught up in rumination and fantasy, isolating us from the world of colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations constantly bombarding our input sensors. To stop and pay attention to the moment is one way of snapping out of these mindscapes, and is a definition of meditation. This awareness is a process of deepening self-acceptance. Whatever it observes, it embraces. There is nothing unworthy of acceptance.”

Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs is a courageous work by former Tibetan Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor who came to question whether the doctrines of karma, rebirth, and other realms are really what the Buddha taught. His book advocates an agnostic approach to Buddhist teachings in which we practically apply the core teachings of the Buddha to achieve a life of meaning and satisfaction. Batchelor invites each of us to understand the nature of mental anguish, let go of its origins, and discover a healthy, alive way of life available to us all. Buddhism, says Batchelor, is not something to believe in but something to do.

Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment

Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment by Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden

“Mind in its lesser moments is captured by greed, anger and stupid self-obsession. With exceptional power, such a mind sets about ruthlessly destroying your happiness and that of those around you. It leads you to actions which hurt others. This inevitably brings down a rain of suffering and miserable experiences on you, all the while establishing patterns of behaviour that recur almost endlessly without any hope of control. The same continuum of mind, however, is capable of the greatest and most far reaching love. Free of anger, at­tachment and ignorance, mind fused with compassion and wisdom is an unstoppable wellspring of happiness, peace and contentment. Such a mind has no boundary to its ca­pacity to produce joy, and your actions bring the bountiful circumstances reflecting that joy.”

Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden

Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment is my favorite book on the Tibetan Buddhist lamrim, the thousand-year-old sequence of the Buddha’s teachings that inspires my book, How to Train a Happy Mind. Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment, though authentic to its Tibetan Buddhist worldview, modernizes the lamrim in fresh, contemporary terms. Its author, an accomplished student of Tibet’s most realized Rinpoches, elucidates not only the philosophy of Buddhism, but how to meditate effectively on each topic in order to achieve its realization.



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