If you’re interested in Buddhism, it might be helpful for you to know if it’s a religion or a philosophy. There are many people holding tight at each end of the spectrum.
“There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion, and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice, like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism. I met a Catholic priest who lives in a Buddhist monastery in France. He told me that Buddhism makes him a better Christian. I love that.” —THICH NHAT HANH, Buddhist Monk
In my experience, people who are interested in Buddhism are interested in learning more about consciousness and enlightenment.
According to the dictionary, “Consciousness refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It’s been defined as subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of self, and the executive control system of the mind.”
“Consciousness is everything that we experience.” —DR. CHRISTOF KOCH
Buddhist philosophy submits that consciousness is the life force that continues across rebirths. It also proposes that there are nine levels of consciousness:
- Levels 1-5 are born from our five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, touch.
- Level 6 resides in our mind. It’s related to ideas and thoughts.
- Level 7 is born from our inner life, our sense of self. It’s associated with emotions and attitude.
- Level 8 is our subconscious. It’s the storehouse of karmic effects that live beyond this life.
- Level 9 is pure consciousness, a life force that creates the harmony of the internal and external; our sense of connectedness or oneness.
Buddhism offers a set of practices that expand or deepen consciousness through meditation and contemplation.
The dictionary tells us that, “Enlightenment is the action or state of attaining or having attained spiritual knowledge or insight, in particular (in Buddhism) that awareness which frees a person from the cycle of rebirth.”
“Enlightenment is recognizing that we are all connected, then consciously living that realization—our thoughts, words, and actions an unshakable reflection of that understanding.” —LAURIE BUCHANAN, Ph.D.
We all know that the best way to learn about a topic is to research and study it. Sometimes the research is hands-on—or feet on, as the case may be. For instance, we can’t learn to skateboard without physically stepping on the board. Other times it’s by absorbing the information—reading about the subject matter.
With that in mind, here’s a list of The Best Buddhist Books for Beginners. They are listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
Table of Contents
- 1. Buddha: A Story Of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra
- 2. Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself by Mark Epstein, M.D.
- 3. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh
- 4. Buddha is a Greeter at Walmart: Using Zen in Everyday Life by Kris Neely
- 5. The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path by Ethan Nichtern
- 6. Your Enlightened Mind Wants to Know: Mahayana's Origins and the Implications for Buddhism by J. M. Walsh
- 7. Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
This book is a novel. Weaving fact and fiction together, it brings to life the circumstances that made a man turn down a kingdom to find enlightenment. It includes the details of Buddha’s early life, subsequent departure from royalty, and his painstaking journey after that.
Laid out in three sections— Siddhartha The Prince, Gautama The Monk, and Buddha — each part is designed to help the reader understand Buddha’s development and evolution during that specific timeframe.
My favorite part of this book came near the end when Deepak Chopra articulates a user-friendly definition of what Buddhism is, and equally important what it’s not.
Sharing Buddha’s story in the form of a novel is genius. It helps people who might not otherwise read a nonfiction book to discover that everyday people can and do become enlightened.
The pages of this book take a concise look at the intersection of psychotherapy and Buddhism. In this self-help guide, psychiatrist and author, Mark Epstein, attempts to find similarities between Buddhism and psychotherapy, though he never tries to equate them, and, in doing so, qualify them as the same practices.
“The ego needs our help,” he writes. “If we want a more satisfying existence, we have to teach it to loosen its grip.” So begins the author’s efforts to understand what practical measures exist in both practices to help us cope with the weight of our selves.
This book may well cause readers to think twice about their actions and potentially opt for a series of different approaches.
The pages of this book explore the connections between Buddhism and Christianity. The author, a Vietnamese monk, considers the similarities between the Christian practice of baptism and the Buddhist practice of taking refuge. He captures his assessment of the two traditions’ compatibility in a culinary metaphor—“A fan of French cuisine can also love Chinese food.”
To support his conclusion that there is “No conflict at all between the Buddha and the Christ in me,” he sometimes describes Christianity in terms that many Christian readers might not recognize, such as when he asserts that “All of us are Jesus.”
The author’s overarching point stands—in today’s world, both Buddhism and Christianity are struggling to maintain a meaningful presence. He suggests that Buddhists and Christians learn from each other, and work together in the pursuit of common goals.
This book is a guide to Buddha and Zen that emphasizes accessibility above all.
It’s as unconventional and different a Zen Buddhism manual as readers are ever likely to encounter.
One aspect that’s similar to other meditation books on the market is the approach to stress. The method Neely advocates for undoing life’s strain is the kind of easily pointed concentration that will be familiar to devotees of Zen. He says, “Focus is an amazingly powerful tool, yet most of us barely learn to harness it in our lives. Focus can be learned, strengthened, and even taught through mindfulness studies and through meditation.”
This book is a warm and disarming approach to embracing Zen in the real world. Its user-friendly approach demystifies the history, worldview, and practice of Zen.
In this book, author Ethan Nichtern poses that karma may not work quite as the majority believe, but what we get out of life certainly depends on what we put into it.
Readers wondering what Buddhism is all about will find delicious food for thought. The pages contain a gentle and user-friendly invitation to explore further. Understanding, of course, that there are many flavors of Buddhism, some of which would reject the author’s interpretations out of hand, others of which would embrace them wholeheartedly.
Note: this book is not to be confused with Jim Harrison’s book of the same name, the product of another bodhisattva, though both are steeped in the same spirit—thoughtful and helpful alike.
The pages of this book reflect J.M. Walsh’s investigation of the origins of Mahayana Buddhism; they’re the culmination of his honest search for truth on this spiritual path.
Where Walsh cannot be sure of a conclusion—for instance, whether Zoroastrianism and Mahayana Buddhism intermingled along the Silk Road in Persia and India—he calmly and rationally states his uncertainties. As such, the numerous fascinating details about the timeline of world religions and the historical figures within the development of various strains of Buddhism are allowed to speak for themselves.
This book is a sincere, penetrating history whose conclusions are both scholastically and spiritually sound.
Related: 21 Best Spiritual Books of All Time
In this book, bestselling author and Pulitzer finalist, Robert Wright, sets out to improve the world by encouraging mindful meditation. By its bold title, WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE, he asserts that “The core of Buddhism’s assessment of the human condition… its conception of certain basic aspects of how the mind works and of how we can change how the mind works… warrants enough confidence to get the label that the title of this book gives it.”
Wright aims to make the doctrines of Buddhism accessible to skeptical and secular readers by offering scientific support for its assertions in easy-to-understand language and an engaging style.
This book is a compelling and approachable argument for a personal meditation practice based on secular Buddhist principles.
Perhaps you’re a bodhisattva— “An ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of Buddha. You and I, actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a Buddha is a bodhisattva.”
Or maybe after reading one or more of the above-listed books, you’ll become a bodhisattva. Regardless of the religion, spiritual tradition, or philosophy, remember this:
“Any belief worth embracing will stand up to the litmus test of scrutiny. If we have to qualify, rationalize, make exceptions for, or turn a blind eye to maintain a belief, then it may well be time to release that belief.” —LAURIE BUCHANAN, Ph.D.