Best Classic Beginner’s Buddhist Books Ever?

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Best Beginner’s Buddhist Books (we’re all beginners).

Growing up, I was (as are most young punks) half-crazy with hormones, thoughts, adrenaline, ambition and insecurity.

What got me through those days? A great mom. Some great, patient girlfriends. Basketball, and baseball, and anything that tired me out. Meditation.

And, reading the “profound, holy Dharma”—a series of Buddhist books that, better than any would-be mentor, connected with my heart and mind and experience—and fomented an inner dialogue that helped me to grow up, relax, and think about others (almost) as much as myself.

My Favorite Buddhist Books*

*for newer Dharma titles, see Shambhala Sun’s recommendations here and be sure to read the comments) like Turning the Mind Into an Ally or Ruling your World (great for business types) or excellent books by Sharon Salzberg, Robert Thurman, and a certain ‘simple monk.’

PS: back in the day, I used to read a page of Training the Mind—it’s so practical and helpful. Finally, it fell apart and I bought another, which now sits on my office desk.

What are your favorite Dharma books, that you’d recommend for others? All traditions welcome! Thich Nhat Hanh? Zen? Insight?

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Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view.


38 Responses to “Best Classic Beginner’s Buddhist Books Ever?”

  1. marin says:

    Two of my favorite books, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson, tiptoe the subject of Zen Buddhism. They move beyond abstract allusions and delve into the authors’ practices and reflections–I find them to be excellent introductions to Buddhism, via the influence a sincere practice can have on one’s work in the world. Matthiessen is a world-class mountaineer and author, and Jackson makes his living coaching the creme of professional basketball. They prove you can experience Buddhism from more places than a meditation cushion.

  2. Todd says:

    Shambhala was actually the book that started me down the Buddhist path, so great choice on that one… the others I haven't read (yet).

    I would also recommend Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das (great explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path), and Phillip Moffitt's Dancing With Life for a good intro to the Four Noble Truths and how to make them a part of one's life.

    • Robin says:

      I agree with Todd about Awakening the Buddha Within. It was the first book I read that really made sense to me. After that I was able to read anything and have things become more clear to me.

  3. Hillary says:

    I really think What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is a great beginner’s book. It simply explains the Four Seals (or Four Pillars) of Buddhism and basically tells you the difference between being a Buddhist and any other religion (any why Buddhism is often referred to as a philosophy instead of a religion)… Khyentse gives very clear, current examples that keep the reading light and entertaining. I highly recommend it to any one: old Buddhist/ new Buddhist/ non-Buddhist.

    • janelle says:

      I agree, Hillary, What Makes You Not a Buddhist was one of the first books I read. The difference between being a Buddhist and other religions and the concept of Bhddhism being referred to as a philosophy has helped me explain my path to others.

  4. […] schools, urban centers and rural retreats. But now, 40 years after Suzuki Roshi published Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Buddhism is widely thought of only as a vague, Eastern lifestyle that has something to do with […]

  5. […] Seven Points of Training the Mind are a brilliant contemplative practice—you can buy a little blue book that has all 15 kajillion of his slogans, read one every morning with commentary, and I guarantee […]

  6. […] the Shambhala Sun, which once was called the Vajradhatu Sun, and was edited by my first editor idol Rick Fields (who died of Cancer a while back, but not before penning a final book of poetry entitled […]

  7. gary gach says:

    am prejudiced but Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism, updated 3rd edition (June 2009) … and as it ain't out yet … then in my opinion the real Buddhism ain't in books …

  8. Pat Smith says:

    I've reread Nothing is Special and Everyday Zen by Joko Beck many times (and LOVE Zen Mind/Beginner's Mind!

  9. stephcarter says:

    The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh….

  10. MCarter says:

    I've always though Siddhartha by was a good place to start

  11. Alli says:

    Anything by Lama Surya Das (someone mentioned "Awakening the Buddha Within") and for the secular folks I also really like Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs."

  12. jude says:

    WOW….like Alli above, "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor and "Awakening the Buddha Within" ( & "Awakening to the Sacred" also by Lama Surya Das) were some truly great reads. Have read them all a couple of times…. However….my very first read in was in 1990 when I began my practice and it was "The Buddhism of Tibet" by HH Dalai Lama. It's yellowing but it's still holds a place front & center in my bookcase ! 😉

  13. Anon says:

    Something I think Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a bit much at the beginning. Pema Chodron's books are my go to for beginners. She offers a raw and personal experience to the reader, making it available especially to Western students.

  14. jeremymeyers says:

    I got started with "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach, then moved on to "The Joy of Living" by Rinpoche Yongey Mingyur. Currently reading "Thoughts without a thinker" by Dr Stephen Epstein. All are recommended.

  15. Greg says:

    Here are a few I did not see noted:

    Luminous Emptiness by Fremantle (tutored by Trungpa)
    The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
    Transformation of Suffering by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche
    The Universe in an Atom by HH Dalai Lama
    Eight Steps to Happiness by Geshe Kelsan Gyatso

    And some titles by B. Alan Wallace.

  16. janelle says:

    (spell check : Buddhism not Bhddhism) YIKES!

  17. Brandon says:

    My favorites so far are Dharma Punx and Against The Stream by Noah Levine…I'm new.

  18. Diane Marie says:

    "Nothing Special: Living Zen" by Charlotte J. Beck The principles of Zen, in a plain -jane format. Zen for Dummies, you might say. Simple, and hits you like a velvet hammer!

  19. Helen says:

    Any recommendations for Beginner’s Buddhist Books for children: tweens/pre-teens/teens? Thank you!

  20. oneunitysourceyoga says:

    I've had a meditation practice for years, which came from my yoga practice that started in 1999. But I'm a Buddhism newbie. I'm reading everything I can find time for, especially Pema Chodron. Last weekend, I read "The Accidental Buddhist". I loved it! Great for beginners IMHO.

  21. […] beyond superstition. But whatever he means, I agree with it—he’s the author of one of my favorite Buddhist books, like, ever. Waylon Lewis, founder of and host of Walk the Talk Show with […]

  22. […] similar list, but more in depth, from elephant’s early days […]

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  24. […] the Introduction to Crooked Cucumber, The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki By David […]

  25. KristaO. says:

    From the Theravada tradition: "With Each & Every Breath: A Guide to Mediation" and "The Wings to Awakening" both by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraaf), are very good beginner's books.

  26. Michael says:

    Everyday Suchness by Gyomay Kubose.

  27. Diane says:

    For something a little different, you might want to try In the Lap of the Buddha by Gavin Harrison. The author is a Buddhist living with HIV/AIDS- it is a powerful story. I also love the very old, epic poem In the Light of Asia, by Edwin Arnold, about the Buddha's life. More current books that I've read include Mindfulness in Plain English and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, by Bhante Gunaratana. Excellent!

  28. may says:

    don’t forget The Dude and the Zen Master. very accessible for beginners.

  29. Rachel Sun says:

    My first Dharma book was Myth Of Freedom. It is simple, clear and pithy. Trungpa NAILS it with this one. Trungpa is genius when it comes to turning western mind to dharma.

    Karmapa seemed to want to balance Trungpa’s crazy wisdom with some traditional wisdom, and he could not have done us a bigger favor by sending Kalu Rinpoche to the west when he did. These two teachers gave us a balanced take on Dharma. “The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon” was compiled for the western reader. Of all of the books on Dharma I have ever read, this is the ONE I Reccommend to my friends just stepping onto the path.


  30. Brianna says:

    The Spirit of Zen by Alan Watts is a great one!

  31. Yes excellent choices, also like to add Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner for a slightly different angle .

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