You started meditating, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a way to relax a bit more, to let go of stress, or to make suffering that you have experienced more bearable. Maybe the meditation is driven by the feeling that there is more we can access, or it is part of an investigation of reality.
It could just be that at some point you want to complement your meditation with some book-wisdom. Although absolutely not necessary, from time to time a book can be motivating and inspiring and can help you to put experiences into perspective.
So you have decided to read a book on meditation or buddhism (or both). But where to begin?
Choosing the right book at the right time is not that easy. Many different authors have dedicated many words to the Buddha and his teachings. There are books that might be easier to read first and books for people who want to go even deeper, books about Theravāda, about Zen, about Tibetan buddhism, books that contain translations of ancient writings, and books that mainly contain the authors experiences, opinions or interpretations. And with all books, the question always arises whether the author really knows from his own experience what he/she writes about and whether the content can really be trusted (at least to some extent).
You might even wonder if it is not just best to start with the Pali Canon (the ancient writings that contain the direct teachings of the Buddha). The answer to that is yes and no.
Ahba has indicated that when reading the Pali Canon you are at least sure that the content is good, this cannot always be said with certainty for many other works by modern authors. However, Ahba also gives warnings for delving into the sutta’s as well as the Abhidhamma.
The reason fort his caution is that the sutta’s (teachings of the Buddha) are context-dependent. That is, the Buddha was a master at adapting his message to his audience so that his teachings had the best effect. This also means that the wisdoms in the sutta’s are context-dependent. Without knowledge of the context and the accompanying nuances, one can arrive at wrong insights or interpretations.
Ahba indicates that it is like trying to catch a fish in a very cloudy pond. The fish can’t see you, but neither can you see the fish. All you can do is move your hand haphazardly back and forth in the water, hoping to meet a fish. Maybe you’ll catch a fish, but maybe you won’t, and who knows how long it will take.
Of course it’s fine to read the sutta’s, just be careful with thinking you gained all kinds of true insights from them.
When it comes to studying the Abhidhamma (the teachings on ultimate reality), Ahba also makes it clear that wanting to dive too deeply into the Abhidhamma, i.e. reading the seven books of the Abhidhamma itself, makes no sense without a trained Abhidhamma teacher. The chance of confusion and speculation otherwise is too great.
This warning given by Ahba actually also applies to the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, the summary of the Abhidhamma.
It is like trying to catch a fish in a very clear pond. You can see the fish very well, but they can also see you. Every time you think you can catch a fish it is gone before your hand has reached it.
It’s the same with deeper knowledge of the Abhidhamma, just as we think we can grasp it, it slips away. If we think we can actually understand it through solely studying it we just fool ourselves.
Read for inspiration, for guidance during practice, for reassurance or confrontation with one’s own concepts and ideas, perhaps just to form a small hairline crack in your notion of a ‘self’. Don’t read with the intention of gaining wisdom, that only leads to misplaced arrogance.
True wisdom comes only through direct personal experience, through meditation, by practicing every day. Always keep that in mind.
With that note we’re going to venture into some books.
With these 16 recommended books on buddhism and meditation we hope to show a (in our experience) reasonably safe path in the swamp of choices. Of course the list is not a definitive work. It is just an advice from someone who has read a lot.
This is also just a start, if you want more advice (or personal advice) afterwards you can always contact us.
Please note that there is an order to the list. We start with more accessible works and gradually move to works that may offer more depth to the experienced student. If the book exists as a pdf we will place a link.
There are almost only Theravāda Buddhist books on this list because that is where buddho meditation comes from. That said, we consider this list a nice starting point for practitioners of other traditions as well.
When it comes to books from other lineages, for example, we can warmly recommend the Venerable Shunryu Suzuki (not to be confused DT. Suzuki) for Zen and the Venerable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for Tibetan Buddhism.
Have fun reading!
1. Happiness – Matthieu Ricard
What is happiness? And how can you develop happiness? The title might give the impression that it’s a somewhat woolly, superficial work, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Matthieu Ricard, a monk in the Tibetan tradition for many years and long-time translator to the Dalai Lama, was a scientist before he became a monk and that clearly shows in this book. He writes in a very clear and accessible way about one of the most important but also complex subjects possible.
It could be that some readers might find that the book uses too many quotes from other scientists and philosophers, but as far as we are concerned this is one of the best books to get a feeling for the essence of Buddhism.
2. A Stil Forest Pool – Ajahn Chah
Ajahn Chah is one of the greatest Buddhist meditation teachers of the last century. We heartily recommend all the books with his teachings.
His way of teaching actually resembles the way Ahba teaches.
With simple, loving, humorous, often surreptitiously confronting examples and lessons, he always makes you think. Just like Ahba, he emphasizes time and again that it is really you who, through your own desire, causes all your problems.
At the same time he knows how to convey the feeling of true freedom and inner peace, based on his own experience.
We have placed this specific collection of his teachings in this guide because it is a very nice introduction to the way of a contemporary master teaches, as a counterpart to other more ‘theoretical’ works in this list.
– This specific book is not available online, but you could for example read Stillness Flowing to get a better picture of Ajahn Chah.
3. The Word of the Buddha – Nyanatiloka Mahathera
Nyanatiloka Mahathera was a predecessor of Bhikkhu Bodhi in Sri Lanka and one of the first Western monks of modern times.
His book The Word of the Buddha is exactly what it claims, a small, skillfully chosen collection of quotations from the Buddha’s own teachings (sutta’s), with some explanation here and there.
Here you can read the Dhamma in the words of the Buddha himself, and we think that after the above mentioned books now might be a good time to start with that.
– Read The Word of the Buddha online
4. The Noble Eightfold Path – Bhikkhu Bodhi
Bhikkhu Bodhi is one of our favorite authors, and actually we can recommend all of his books. He is also one of the few authors that Ahba has approved as being trustworthy. Still, many of his writings are very detailed and more suited for the more advanced reader.
This work is an exception in that it contains relevant content for the beginner and the most advanced practitioner alike. As the title suggests, it describes the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to liberation as taught by the Buddha.
But, as already mentioned, do not think that accessible means superficial, because Bhikkhu Bodhi knows how to weave his profound knowledge and experience into his writing.
– Read The Noble Eightfold Path online
5. Dependent Origination I t/m III – Ron Wijewantha
This book, or rather this series of three books, is one of the lesser-known gems of the BPS (Buddhist Publishing Society). In this series, Ron Wijewantha writes about Paṭiccasamuppāda, dependend arising, one of the cornerstones of Buddha’s teaching.
Although it appears to be a theoretical book, this is not the case. The book is written from the practitioner’s point of view and emphasizes useful knowledge for daily practice.
The author knows how to mold this very complicated subject into a useful framework for everyday life.
6. Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization – Bhikkhu Analayo
We could undoubtedly have included this sharp analysis of Satipaṭṭhāna, the foundation of mindfulness, later in this list. Indeed, it is a profound and detailed exposition of a single teaching, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.
However, because the practice of sati (conscious attention or mindfulness) is of great importance for the development of concentration and understanding, and because there are unfortunately many erroneous views on this subject among practitioners, we have chosen to advise this book in this place, in the hope that the reader will be able to develop a clear theoretical understanding of mindfulness early on the path and apply it in practice.
– Read Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization online
7. Meditation – Ajahn Chah
This gem of collected teachings of Ajahn Chah is again a beautiful complement to the previous theoretical works.
It is listed here because it is especially nice to read when you have already meditated a bit more and maybe even participated in a retreat. In that case, the content will connect even more to your experience.
As far as we are concerned, this is a book with insights from which you can benefit in many meditations and retreats afterwards.
– Read Meditation oniline
8. Mind Overcoming its Cankers – Acharya Buddhrakkhita
This book is another possibly slightly lesser-known jewel of the BPS. Acharya Buddharakkhita highlights the unwholesome states of mind in which we almost continuously find ourselves from different angles and provides concrete pointers to deal with them.
It is a book to read and reread again and again.
– Read Mind Overcoming its Cankers online
9. In the Buddha’s Words – Bhikkhu Bodhi
Now we have arrived at the second work by Bhikkhu Bodhi. He is known for his very good translations from Pali, the language in which the original texts have been preserved. This is a collection of sutta’s arranged in ten thematic chapters.
In this work Bhikkhu Bodhi does not just give quotes, but always includes the entire sutta with explanations.
The work gives a nice overview of the scope of the sutta’s and thus offers even more insight into how the words of the Buddha have been passed down through the centuries.
10. The Life of the Buddha – Bhikkhu Nanamoli
This work is a ‘Biography’ about the Buddha written by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. Bhikkhu Nanamoli only uses original texts from the Pali Canon to describe the life of the Buddha.
The book does not describe the usual legend, but only that which is actually preserved in the sutta’s and the Vinaya (the collection of monk rules and stories about these rules).
With this work the reader can also become acquainted with the great disciples of the Buddha and the time and environment in which he lived. As far as we are concerned the best ‘biography’.
– Read The Life of the Buddha online
11. Just Seeing – Cynthia Thatcher
This book is an introduction to the thoery, or rather the way of thinking, of the Abhidhamma, the teaching about the ultimate reality. Cynthia Thatcher, a meditation teacher herself and pupil of the renowned Mahasi Sayadaw, uses this book to explain the way the Abhidhamma looks at the process of consciousness.
It is a nice stepping stone for those who want to learn more about the Abhidhamma later on in this list because a feeling of how the process works breathes more life into the dry theoretical framework of the Abhidhamma.
– Read Just Seeing online
12. Abhidhamma in Daily Life – Nina van Gorkum
This is a real Abhidhamma textbook, complete with questions at the end of each chapter to test whether you understood the content.
Yet it is not an exasperatingly dry reading. Nina van Gorkum knows how to keep the content accessible and still deep enough.
The art of reading this book, as with most theoretical works, is to test and validate the information you read with your daily experiences, both during meditation and in regular life.
– Read Abhidhamma in Daily Life online
13. Abhidhamma studies – Nyanaponika Mahathera
Nyanaponika Mahathera is the direct predecessor of Bhikkhu Bodhi and is equal to the latter when it comes to understanding the deep layers of the Pali Canon.
This is a truly phenomenal work in which the first wholesome citta (moment of consciousness) from the first book of the Abhidhamma is explained.
For those who already have some knowledge and experiencewith Pali texts, it can be humbling to see how much more wisdom can be extracted from the Pali Canon than initially seems possible. We advise you to read the book if you already have some knowledge about Buddhism, especially the Abhidhamma, so that you can enjoy it to the fullest.
For those who can’t wait and want to read it sooner, please do so and then just read it again a few years later! It will be worth your while. The introduction alone is worth reading repeatedly.
– Read Abhidhamma Studies online
14. The Requisites of Enlightenment – Ledi Sayadaw
Ledi Sayadaw is one of the greatest Theravāda monks of the last century, praised for both his enormous knowledge and insight. He was one of the first Burmese monks who was convinced that attaining enlightenment was still possible today and stands at the foot of modern vipassanā meditation method for both lay practitioners and monks.
but be warned, this work is not suitable for the fainthearted. This work requires courage. Not so much because of the enormous information density that can certainly be found in this relatively short work, but mainly because of the rock-solid style of Ledi Sayadaw from which an enormous energy emanates and no escape is possible.
Even more than the content, it is this energy that gives the work a place in this list. There really is no escape from it, the time for practice is now, the time to liberate is now, no excuses. Period.
– Read The Requisites of Enlightenment online
15. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma – Bhikkhu Bodhi
We have arrived at the first Buddhist standard work in this list, a translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi with short explanations of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Achariya Anuruddha.
It is a summary of the seven books of the Abhidhamma written around the 11th to 12th century. Today this is the standard text when beginning to study the Abhidhamma.
This is a translation approved by Ahba and, according to him, embodies just the right amount of knowledge to be useful for meditation without being overly overwelming.
– Read A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma online
16. Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification – transl. Bhikkhu Nanamoli
The second standard work in this list and also the last book we will recommend is Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.
The Visuddhimagga is an epic summary of the entire Buddhist teaching in three chapters, namely morality, concentration and wisdom. Ahba has sometimes said that reading the Visuddhimagga is very, very good.
This is because the essence of the Pali Canon is explained in (sometimes agonizing) detail. It is a largely dry work, so we do not advise to read this book before going to sleep, unless you have trouble falling asleep.
But if you put in the effort, in the end it will be worth your while.
– Read Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification online
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276