Skip to Main Content

Buddhism: General & Introductory

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

Awakenings banner

There was once a young man who grew up in an environment of comfort and privilege, at a high point in the history of civilization, and amidst a great ferment of ideas and beliefs.

One day, despite the best efforts of his family and servants to protect him from it, he accidentally caught a glimpse of life as it really is - a vista far removed from the present security and pleasure he enjoyed. As a result, he suddenly and painfully awoke to the hard facts of human frailty: that even a young, vigorous, beautiful body can grow sick and weak, and must ultimately perish; that the dogged pursuit of even our strongest desires leads them to fade and fail at the very moment of their satisfaction, only to create new, ever more passionate desires in turn; that cruelty, stupidity, violence, and negligence abound when human beings live solely according to the dictates of craving and attachment; and finally, that the more viscerally and passionately we cling to life - to lust, tumult, and gratification, to color, sound, and taste, to love, knowledge, and power - the harder we make it on ourselves to turn to each other in compassion and kindness, and the harder we make it on ourselves to die in peace at last.

So this man found himself and all other human beings tangled in the meshes of suffering, forever renewing the cycle of passion and pain, unable to escape. Nonetheless, through discipline, insight, compassion, and meditation, he awoke a second time - into the highest possible awakening, and discovered what he called "the other shore," the condition beyond impermanence, suffering, and self: enlightenment.

This man, whose given name was Siddhartha Gautama and who lived twenty-five centuries ago, became known as the Buddha - a word in an ancient language of the Indian subcontinent that means "one who is awake."

The Buddha's experience of awakening, and the teaching known as the Dhamma that seeks to communicate that awakening to his followers in order to help them awaken in turn, form the foundation for the system of religious and philosophical beliefs known as Buddhism.

The organized body of individuals who have renounced worldly life in order to place the learning and practice of the Dhamma at the center of their lives is known as the Sangha, the monastic community of the Buddhist faithful, and is the oldest continuously existing institution in human history.

Young Thai monk on the stairs
Above: A young monk descends the steps at Wat Phou, a Buddhist temple in Champasak, Thailand. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Basile Morin. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

Even outside the Sangha, however, many millions of lay people living in the world today either consider themselves Buddhist, practice aspects of Buddhist belief, or live in cultures deeply marked by the ideas and precepts of Buddhism. Buddhism rightly forms one of the world's great religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions: the rich and varied legacy of Buddhist thought and culture stands among the primary treasures of the human experience.

On this page, you can discover a selection of authoritative general and introductory resources, including reference works, historical surveys, and biographies, that offer you a rapid and cogent introduction to the ideas and history of Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon as well as to the events of the Buddha's life. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within each gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right.

What is Buddhism? Introductory Works

In this new edition of his best-selling introduction, Peter Harvey provides a comprehensive introduction to the development of the Buddhist tradition in both Asia and the West. Extensively revised and fully updated, this new edition draws on recent scholarship in the field, exploring the tensions and continuities between the different forms of Buddhism. Harvey critiques and corrects some common misconceptions and mistranslations, and discusses key concepts that have often been over-simplified and over-generalised. The volume includes detailed references to scriptures and secondary literature, an updated bibliography, and a section on web resources. Key terms are given in Pali and Sanskrit, and Tibetan words are given pronounceable transliterations. This is an ideal coursebook for students of religion, Asian philosophy and Asian studies, and is also a useful reference for readers wanting an overview.

Prebish and Keown Introducing cover art Introducing Buddhism, 2nd ed., by Charles S. Prebish & Damien Keown. New York: Routledge, 2010.

This book is the ideal resource for all students beginning the study of this fascinating religious tradition. It explains the religion’s key teachings and traces its historical development and geographical spread of from its foundations up to present day. Charles S. Prebish and Damien Keown, two of today’s leading Buddhist scholars, devote a chapter each to the major regions where Buddhism has flourished - India, South-east Asia, East Asia and Tibet. In addition, contemporary concerns are discussed, including important and relevant topics such as Engaged Buddhism, Buddhist Ethics, Buddhism and the Western World and Meditation. This new edition includes more material on the different schools of Buddhism, monastic life, popular religion, Buddhist ethics, ritual, the Bodhisattva Path, the Jatakas, and other topics. The book includes illustrations, extracts from original sources, summary boxes, questions for discussion, suggestions for further reading and a companion website.

Gowans Philosophy of Buddha cover artPhilosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction by Christopher W. Gowans. New York: Routledge, 2003.

This is a philosophical introduction to the teaching of the Buddha. It carefully guides readers through the basic ideas and practices of the Buddha, including kamma (karma), rebirth, the not-self doctrine, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, ethics, meditation, non-attachment, and Nibbâna (Nirvana). The book includes an account of the life of the Buddha as well as comparisons of his teaching with practical and theoretical aspects of some Western philosophical outlooks, both ancient and modern. Most distinctively, this book explores how Buddhist enlightenment could enable us to overcome suffering in our lives and reach our full potential for compassion and tranquility. This is one of the first books to introduce the philosophy of the Buddha to students of Western philosophy.

Lopez Story of Buddhism cover artThe Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History & Teachings by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

How and when did the many schools of Buddhism emerge? How does the historical figure of Siddartha Guatama relate to the many teachings that are presented in his name? Did Buddhism modify the cultures to which it was introduced, or did they modify Buddhism? Leading Buddhist scholar Donald S. Lopez Jr. explores the origins of this 2,500-year-old religion and traces its major developments up to the present, focusing not only on the essential elemenmts common to all schools of Buddhism but also revealing the differences among the major traditions. Beginning with the creation and structure of the Buddhist universe, Lopez explores the life of the Buddha, the core Buddhist tenets, and the development of the monastic life and lay practices. Combining brilliant scholarship with fascinating stories - contemporary and historical, sometimes miraculous, sometimes humorous - this rich and absorbing volume presents a fresh and expert history of Buddhism.

Piyadassi Ancient Path cover art The Buddha's Ancient Path by Piyadassi Thera. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996.

Over the years, many expositions of the Buddha’s teachings have been published in English, but many lack authenticity and do not represent what the Buddha taught correctly. Hence the need for this authentic and comprehensive book based on the Four Noble Truths, which are the central conception of Buddhism, and the Noble Eightfold Path, which is Buddhism in practice. This is a book on basic Buddhism with a difference, for it was written by a monk who was a native of Sri Lanka, a scholar and a well-known preacher. He has the Pali Canon and the Commentaries at his fingertips, so that the book is full of apposite stories and quotations of what the Buddha said— many of them hard to find elsewhere in English.

Rahula What Buddha Taught cover artWhat the Buddha Taught, rev. ed., by Walpola Rahula. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

This indispensable volume is a lucid and faithful account of the Buddha’s teachings. "For years," says the Journal of the Buddhist Society, "the newcomer to Buddhism has lacked a simple and reliable introduction to the complexities of the subject. Dr. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught fills the need as only could be done by one having a firm grasp of the vast material to be sifted. It is a model of what a book should be that is addressed first of all to 'the educated and intelligent reader.' Authoritative and clear, logical and sober, this study is as comprehensive as it is masterly." This edition contains a selection of illustrative texts from the Suttas and the Dhammapada (specially translated by the author), sixteen illustrations, and a bibliography, glossary, and index. "[Rahula’s] succinct, clear overview of Buddhist concepts has never been surpassed. It is the standard." - Library Journal

General Works: History, Culture, Philosophy

As an incredibly diverse religious system, Buddhism is constantly changing. This book offers a comprehensive collection of work by leading scholars in the field that tracks these changes up to the present day. Taken together, the book provides a blueprint to understanding Buddhism's past and uses it to explore the ways in which Buddhism has transformed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The essays in the first section examine the historical development of Buddhist traditions throughout the world. These chapters cover familiar settings like India, Japan, and Tibet as well as the less well-known countries of Vietnam, Bhutan, and the regions of Latin America, Africa, and Oceania. Focusing on changes within countries and transnationally, this section also contains chapters that focus explicitly on globalization, such as Buddhist international organizations and diasporic communities. The second section tracks the relationship between Buddhist traditions and particular themes. These chapters review Buddhist interactions with contemporary topics such as violence and peacebuilding, and ecology, as well as Buddhist influences in areas such as medicine and science. Offering coverage that is both expansive and detailed, this volume delves into some of the most debated and contested areas within Buddhist Studies today.

Goonewardene Buddhayana cover artBuddhayana: Living Buddhism by Anil Goonewardene. London: Continuum, 2010.

This long awaited book, from leading expert Anil Goonewardene, is an insightful, lively and readable account of Buddhism. Drawing on over twenty years of teaching experience, Anil sets out to demonstrate that the three key traditions of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) are all rooted in the same foundations and that the central teachings of these different schools are the same. This unique book presents Buddhism as a living, practical religion, giving readers an enlightening insight into an often mystifying tradition. This book offers a fascinating perspective on Buddhism, in all its beauty and nobility, though the eyes of a practising Buddhist born and raised in the tradition that has guided millions of people. Covering all aspects of Buddhism, the book also includes two appendices focusing on the Buddhist view of death, and a case study of Buddhist rebirth.


Reynolds and Carbine cover artThe Life of Buddhism, edited by Frank E. Reynolds & Jason A. Carbine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

Bringing together fifteen essays by outstanding Buddhist scholars from Asia, Europe, and North America, this book offers a distinctive portrayal of the "life of Buddhism." The contributors focus on a number of religious practices across the Buddhist world, from Sri Lanka to New York, Japan to Tibet. The essays highlight not so much Buddhist doctrine or sacred texts, but rather the actual behavior and lived experience of Buddhist adherents. A general introduction by Frank E. Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine provides a historical overview and briefly characterizes the three major variants of Buddhist tradition - Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana - while also taking note of a distinctive form of Buddhism that is now emerging among non-Asian practitioners in the West. The editors introduce each essay with a brief commentary that situates its contents within the Buddhist tradition as a whole. The pieces offer concise depictions and analyses of particular aspects of Buddhist life, including temple architecture and iconography, the consecration of sacred objects, meditative practices, devotional expressions, exorcisms, and pilgrimage journeys. Topics discussed also include the construction of religio-political and religio-social hierarchies, gender roles, the management of asocial behavior, and others.

Gethin Foundations cover artThe Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Buddhism is a vast and complex religious and philosophical tradition with a history that stretches over 2,500 years, and which is now followed by around 115 million people. In this introduction to the foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin concentrates on the ideas and practices which constitute the common heritage of the different traditions of Buddhism (Thervada, Tibetan, and Eastern) that exist in the world today. From the narrative of the story of the Buddha, through discussions of aspects such as textual traditions, the framework of the Four Noble Truths, the interaction between the monastic and lay ways of life, the cosmology of karma and rebirth, and the path of the bodhisattva, this book provides a stimulating introduction to Buddhism as a religion and way of life.

Anthologies of Primary Texts in English Translation

This treasury of essential Buddhist writings draws from the most popular Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese sources. Among the selections are some of the earliest recorded sayings of the Buddha on the practice of freedom, passages from later Indian scriptures on the perfection of wisdom, verses from Tibetan masters on the enlightened mind, and songs in praise of meditation by Zen teachers. The book also includes traditional instruction on how to practice sitting meditation, cultivate calm awareness, and live with compassion. Jack Kornfield, one of the most respected American Buddhist teachers, has compiled these teachings to impart the essence and inspiration of Buddhism to readers of all spiritual traditions. This edition offers a broad array of teachings representing the full spectrum of the Buddhist tradition, including new selections on the role of women in early Buddhism.

Gethin Sayings cover artSayings of the Buddha: A Selection of Suttas from the Pali Nikayas edited & translated by Rupert Gethin. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.

As more and more westerners study and practice Buddhism, reliable modern translations of the Buddha's teachings are increasingly in demand. One of the main sources for knowledge of the Buddhadharma is the four Pali Nikayas or "collections" of his sayings. Written in Pali, an ancient Indian language closely related to Sanskrit, the Nikayas are among the oldest Buddhist texts and consist of more than one and a half million words. This new translation offers a selection of the Buddha's most important sayings, reflecting the full variety of material contained in the Nikayas: the central themes of the Buddha's teaching and the range of literary style. For anyone seeking a more direct encounter with the Buddha's words and teaching, this new translation will prove to be essential reading, rewarding scholars and practitioners alike.

Holder Discourses cover art Early Buddhist Discourses edited & translated by John J. Holder. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2006.

Twenty discourses from the Pali Canon--including those most essential to the study and teaching of early Buddhism--are provided in fresh translations, accompanied by introductions that highlight the main themes and set the ideas presented in the context of wider philosophical and religious issues. Taken together, these fascinating works give an account of Buddhist teachings directly from the earliest primary sources. In his introduction, Holder discusses the structure and language of the Pali Canon--its importance within the Buddhist tradition and the historical context in which it developed--and gives an overview of the basic doctrines of early Buddhism.

Bercholz and Kohn cover artThe Buddha and His Teachings, edited by Samuel Bercholz & Sherab Chödzin Kohn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002.

This book offers a simple and inspiring answer to the question "What is the Buddha's teaching?" primarily in the words of the Buddha and other masters. This anthology draws on traditional Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan sources as well as teachings by contemporary Buddhist masters. Among the contributors, both classical and modern, are: Ajahn Chah, Pema Chödrön, The Second Dalai Lama, Dogen, S.N. Goenka, Dainin Katagiri, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Milerepa, Padmasambhava, Reginald Ray, Shunryu Suzuki, Nyanaponika Thera, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chögyam Trungpa, and Burton Watson.

Wangyal Door of Liberation cover art The Door of Liberation: Essential Teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, edited & translated by Geshe Thubten Wangyal. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

This book contains seven fundamental Buddhist texts considered essential to Western students by Geshe Wangyal, who first brought Tibetan Buddhism to America. Ranging from early scriptural sources to meditation and visualization guides of Tibetan Buddhist practice, this is indispensible reading for those interested in opening the door to the highest realms of freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

Lopez Practice cover artBuddhism in Practice edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

This anthology illustrates the vast scope of Buddhist practice in Asia. It presents a selection of forty-eight translated texts including hagiographies, monastic rules, pilgrimage songs, apocryphal sutras, and didactic tales from India, China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. These unusual sources provides the reader with a sense of the remarkable diversity of the practices of persons who over the course of 2,500 years have been identified, by themselves or by others, as Buddhists. Demonstrating the many continuities among the practices of Buddhist cultures widely separated by both history and geography, this collection continues to provide an ideal introduction to Buddhism and a source of new insights for scholars.

Great Buddha in Thai Temple

Above: An altar at the Wat Suwan Dararam, a Buddhist temple in Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand.

The Life of the Buddha: Facts, Legends, Approaches

"This book contains the English translation of The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha, a beautiful, devotional epic poem that portrays the major events in the Buddha's life from birth to death. Chittadhar Hrdaya, a master poet from Nepal, wrote it while in prison in the 1940s, smuggling it out over time on pieces of paper. Hrdaya's verses create a sense of a magical environment in which clouds, trees, flowers, and the buzzing of bees all reflect and evoke the full range of emotions, from erotic love to anger to heroism to compassion and peace, experienced by the young prince Siddhartha, as well as by his father, mother, wife, and son. By showing how the central events of the Buddha's life are experienced from different people's viewpoints, the poem communicates a fuller and deeper sense of the humanity of everyone involved and the depth of the Buddha's loving-kindness for all beings. This English translation captures the beauty and flow of the original, and the volume supplements the translation with short essays that both explain the Indic poetry conventions that Hṛdaya employed and provide the political backstory behind the author's imprisonment.

Chögyel Life of Buddha cover artThe Life of the Buddha by Tenzin Chögyel, translated by K.R. Schaeffer. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.

A blueprint for a life of mindfulness, dedicated to the easing of suffering both for oneself and for others. The story of Shakyamuni Buddha's epic journey to enlightenment is perhaps the most important narrative in the Buddhist tradition. Tenzin Chögyel's The Life of the Buddha, composed in the mid-eighteenth century and now in a vivid new translation, is a masterly storyteller's rendition of the twelve acts of the Buddha. Chögyel's classical tale seamlessly weaves together the vast and the minute, the earthly and the celestial, reflecting the near-omnipresent aid of the gods alongside the Buddha's moving final reunion with his devoted son, Rahula. This book has the power to engage people through a deeply human story with cosmic implications.


Penner Rediscovering cover artRediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation by Hans H. Penner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hans Penner takes a new look at the classic stories of the life of the Buddha. In the first part of the book, he presents a full account of these stories, drawn from various texts of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia. Penner allots one chapter to each of the major milestones in Buddha's life, with titles such as: Birth and Early Life, Flight from the Palace, Enlightenment and Liberation, Last Watch and Funeral. In the process, he brings to the fore dimensions of the myth that have been largely ignored by western scholarship. In Part II, Penner offers his own original interpretations of the legends. He takes issue with Max Weber's assertion that "Buddhism is an other-worldly ascetic religion," a point of view that remains dominant in the received tradition and in most contemporary studies of Buddhism. His central thesis is that the "householder" is a necessary element in Buddhism and that the giving of gifts, which creates merit and presupposes the doctrine of karma, mediates the relation between the householder and the monk. Penner argues that the omission of the householder - in his view one-half of what constitutes Buddhism as a religion - is fatal for any understanding of Buddha's life or of the Buddhist tradition. This boldly revisionist and deeply learned work will be of interest to a wide range of scholarly and lay readers.

Armstrong Buddha cover artBuddha by Karen Armstrong. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Karen Armstrong's portrait of the Buddha explores both the archetypal religious icon and Buddha the man. Armstrong follows the Buddha - born Siddhama Gotama - as he leaves his wife, his young child, and his comfortable life and eminent social status for an arduous quest for spiritual enlightenment. The book brings to life the Buddha's quest from his renunciation of his privileged life to the discovery of a truth that he believed would utterly transform human beings and enable them to live at peace in the midst of life's suffering. The narrative also expands to focus and meditate on the culture and history of the time, as well as the Buddha's place in the spiritual history of humanity and the special relevance of his teachings to our own society as we again face a crisis of faith.

Reference Works

With more than 5,000 entries totaling over a million words, this is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of Buddhism ever produced in English. It is also the first to cover terms from all of the canonical Buddhist languages and traditions: Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Unlike reference works that focus on a single Buddhist language or school, this work bridges the major Buddhist traditions to provide encyclopedic coverage of the most important terms, concepts, texts, authors, deities, schools, monasteries, and geographical sites from across the history of Buddhism. The main entries offer both a brief definition and a substantial short essay on the broader meaning and significance of the term covered. Written and edited by two of today's most eminent scholars of Buddhism, and more than a decade in the making, this landmark work is an essential reference.

This volume provides a unique introduction to Buddhism by examining categories essential for a nuanced understanding of its traditions. Each of the essays here shows students how a fundamental term - from art to word - illuminates the practice of Buddhism, both in traditional Buddhist societies and in the realms of modernity. Apart from Buddha, the list of terms in this collection deliberately includes none that are intrinsic to the religion. Instead, the contributors explore terms that are important for many fields and that invite interdisciplinary reflection. Through incisive discussions of topics ranging from practice, power, and pedagogy to ritual, history, sex, and death, the authors offer new directions for the understanding of Buddhism, taking constructive and sometimes polemical positions in an effort both to demonstrate the shortcomings of assumptions and the potential power of revisionary approaches.

With over 2,000 wide-ranging entries, this dictionary is the most up-to-date and comprehensive of its kind. Written by a leading expert in the field and incorporating research by regional specialists, this new dictionary covers both historical and contemporary issues in Buddhism and includes all Buddhist schools and cultures. Elegantly illustrated with line drawings of religious structures, iconography, and ritual objects, this work includes entries on the history and doctrines of the major Buddhist schools, information on the spread of Buddhism in Asia and the West, and coverage of issues of contemporary concern. It also contains appendices that include a chronology of important dates, a guide to canonical scriptures, and a pronunciation guide for difficult names and terms. Beliefs, doctrines, major teachers and scholars, place names, and artifacts are all covered in a clear and concise style.

Osamu Tezuka's Buddha: A Japanese manga retelling the Buddha's life

Buddhas with Umbrellas, Borobudur

Above: A relief at the Borobudur temple complex in Java, Indonesia, depicts past and future Buddhas gifting umbrellas to shade the new Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.