The best books on Theravada Buddhism

Who am I?

I’m a Buddhist teacher and author of six books. I started practicing Buddhist meditation in 1980 and then got sober in 1985. The fact that I needed the 12 Steps when I was already a serious meditator gives you a clue about what a mess I was. Besides addiction, I’ve struggled with depression as well. All of this makes me feel like something of an outsider in the “happy, happy” world of mindfulness and meditation. Much of my work comes from that outsider’s perspective. While five of my books focus on connecting Buddhism and recovery, the sixth comes out of my study of the suttas of the Pali Canon, the earliest preserved Buddhist teachings.

I wrote...

Living Kindness: Buddhist Teachings for a Troubled World

By Kevin Griffin,

Book cover of Living Kindness: Buddhist Teachings for a Troubled World

What is my book about?

Living Kindness: Buddhist Teachings for a Troubled World gives a different perspective on the Buddhist teaching of loving-kindness. The book blends my personal experience with stories from the suttas. As the title suggests, I want to take this teaching out of the realm of meditation alone into the practical issues of lived application. It covers the broad elements of “metta,” the Buddhist term for lovingkindness: love of self; living with others; the poisonous nature of hatred; the struggle to maintain spiritual balance in our troubled world; traditional practices of loving-kindness; the development of concentration and mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation; working with fear and the Five Hindrances; and finally, the relationship of these teachings to environmentalism. My writing is straightforward, friendly, and tries to be practical and even entertaining.

The books I picked & why

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The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering

By Bhikkhu Bodhi,

Book cover of The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering

Why this book?

The Eightfold Path is the road map to freedom laid out by the Buddha. From this derives the mindfulness and concentration practices, as well as guidance on wisdom, ethics, and morality. Bhikkhu Bodhi packs more wisdom into this short book than any other Buddhist text you will read. So dense that a single sentence can send you off on days of reflection, I come back over and over to this book for guidance and inspiration.

Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization

By Bhikkhu Analayo,

Book cover of Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization

Why this book?

The first of this great scholar’s series on the Buddha’s instructions for mindfulness, this sits as perhaps the greatest modern commentary on what has become a worldwide phenomenon. Building from the core “Satipatthana Sutta,” or “The Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” Analayo draws from his extensive translations and studies of both the Pali Canon and the Chinese versions of suttas that branched off long ago. While the footnotes sometimes take up more space than the text itself, every digression is worth following for those who want to truly understand what the Buddha taught. Warning: most of this book will only make sense to you if you have sat for at least a couple of ten-day meditation retreats.

The Life of the Buddha

By Bhikkhu Nanamoli,

Book cover of The Life of the Buddha

Why this book?

The early Buddhist texts do not follow any narrative or chronological order. Their purpose was not to tell us about the Buddha, but only to preserve and convey his teachings. This seminal figure of twentieth-century Buddhist scholarship takes those texts and organizes them as a story. The result is a biography infused with Theravada Buddhist teachings. This book is a great one for meeting the suttas in a more conventional form than the seemingly random order in which they are found in the Canon. Plus, you get to see the Buddha and his followers as human beings living in a particular place and time. 

Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah

By Ajahn Chah,

Book cover of Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah

Why this book?

Ajahn Chah was a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest Tradition who taught and influenced a generation of Western Buddhist teachers, from Jack Kornfield to Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, and Ajahn Passano. Combining the commitment of an ascetic monk with the clarity of a Zen Master, Ajahn Chah’s teachings here are rich and alive. Far from the drier suttas of the Pali Canon, here we see Buddhism coming alive in practical and inspiring ways. Everything from how to meditate to how to be mindful in daily life is covered in stories and pithy teachings. Easy to pick up and read short passages.

The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha's Teachings of Nibbana

By Ajahn Passano, Ajahn Amaro,

Book cover of The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha's Teachings of Nibbana

Why this book?

These two students of Ajahn Chah, one Canadian, the other English, felt that there wasn’t enough focus in Western Buddhism on enlightenment. They set about compiling and doing commentary on a wide range of suttas from the Pali Canon. The result is perhaps the most extensive and detailed explanation of the why, what, and how of awakening through the lens of the Theravada tradition. Their encouragement for students to strive to at least attain the first stage of enlightenment (of four), will have you rethinking your meditation and spiritual practice.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Theravada buddishm, Buddhism, and dharma?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Theravada buddishm, Buddhism, and dharma.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Dharma Art, and Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening if you like this list.