Best "General Buddhism" Books?

Which books by modern authors are the best introduction to “general Buddhism,” the teachings common to both Mahayana and Theravada traditions? I have some friends interested in learning more about Buddhism.

Isn’t it the case that only the Pali Canon is common to both. From there on the differences between all branches emerge. :slight_smile:


With thousands of pages of suttas to read, it’s easy for someone new to Buddhism to get lost and overwhelmed.

If you don’t want the influences of anything that relates to specific branches of buddhism EBT’s are really the the thing to go to.

Perhaps a good place to start is Bikkhu Bodhi’s ‘The word of the Buddha’, which is an anthology of suttas :slight_smile:


Here’s a handy link:
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon


I recommend Peter Harvey’s “Introduction to Buddhism”


For most enquirers:
Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP 1998.

For superficial enquirers with short attention spans:
L. S. Cousins’ chapter on Buddhism in The Penguin Handbook of the World’s Living Religions, John R. Hinnells (ed.), 1994.


Less academically, I usually point newcomers to “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and “Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree” by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu which are also both superb books. :slight_smile:


“The Tree of Enlightenment” is a good general introduction to Buddhism, you can download it from Buddhanet.
It provides a good overview of the main Buddhist traditions, rather than focusing on individual teachers.

  1. I like Hellmuth von Glasenapp’s “die 5 Weltreligionen” as overview and separation between the concepts and practices in that 5 religions, which helped me much to get a general scheme of reference. Well, it’s in german but I think likely it exist in english too (Glasenapp has also many nice-to-read english articles on buddhism and comparative religion)

  2. my most preferred introductory book for not-yet-informed people (as I was in the beginning) is Wolfgang Schumann’s “the historical buddha” about that what we know about the person, the dhamma and the sangha; a historical, sociological and as I feel sensical intro in that historical event now called “buddhism”.

  3. For people already nearer to buddhism I think the introductory book of Thich Nhat Hanh is a highly readable and sensical introduction into the arise of the buddha’s enlightening, the teaching and the life of the early sangha (I think “white cloud” or so, I’ve only the german version “Wie siddhartha zum Buddha wurde”)

After that I can only recommend to read occasionally and piecewise into the pali-canon to be able to feel the fresh air from that buddha’s person and his teachings personally, and to get the desire to continue reading and even begin practicing… :slight_smile:


I wondered if these publications deal with rebirth, etc. ?

1 Like

“The Tree of Enlightenment” gives a traditional presentation of rebirth and kamma.

1 Like

I found “The Heart of Buddhas Teaching” Was a great introduction and explains principles in common with Theravada and Mahayana.


I think Early Buddhist Teachings by Y. Karunadasa is very good.

1 Like

For covering multiple traditions the classic A Buddhist Bible seems good.
For Theravada basics, I usually start people with T Y Lee’s Anyone Can Go To Heaven Just Be Good. Just be Good
(Confusingly, the English version comes up on the home page not with one click but by its chapters listed down the left column beneath the word Home.)


The two books I’d recommend to someone new to Buddhism are What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula and the Dhammapada.

Is there any particular translation of the Dhammapada that’s worth recommending?

Especially due to his background in both Mahayana and Theravada, I would recommend In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

1 Like

The book “Why Buddhism is True.” by Robert Wright is also interesting, especially for a skeptic that loves science. It has more to do with Buddhist psychology and meditation than the practice of Buddhism.

“A Concise History of Buddhism” by Andrew Skilton (1997). He covers the birth of Buddhism through the historical Buddha and then goes on explaining its history and expansion and divisions in brief. It is quick and easy read to get you started. I can link the videos if someone wants

I also enjoyed “In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon” Edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. There is also a youtube series by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Brahm where they both cover the same suttas. Ajahn Brahm responds to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations too. I can link them if someone wants.

As for @Kensho asking for a Dhammapada translation I loved Eknath Easwaran’s translation. He was a Hindu professor who taught meditation in America in the 1970’s, if you’ve done any reading on Buddhist thought you can feel his Hindu interpretation in his commentary. He also has good translations of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita if you want to get to pre-Buddhist texts and see the intellectual/religious environment the Buddha was living in.