Do you want to learn about Buddhist thought without a teacher, but aren’t quite sure where to start?
This guide will give you a systematic, step-by-step roadmap for teaching yourself the basics of Buddhist thought and practice.
To create the roadmap, I rounded up the books and learning materials that I found helpful when I was self-studying Buddhism in college.
Then I organized these resources into a curriculum meant to give a foundational understanding of Buddhism as a life philosophy.
If you follow this guide and read the books, you’ll become knowledgeable about:
- Buddhist philosophy
- Concepts such as detachment, dharma, and nirvana
- Practices like meditation and mindfulness
- Classic texts like The Tibetan Book of the Dead
You can take this self-directed study as far as you want. Some people might want to learn the basics so they can start living their lives according to Buddhist principles. Others might want to study Buddhist thought on a scholarly level.
Wherever you fall, this guide should help you achieve your learning goals. As always, treat it as a guide, not an unbreakable doctrine. Feel free to hop around the steps and pursue what most intrigues you.
1. Learn How Buddhism Can Improve Your Life
Before committing to studying and practicing Buddhism, it’s important that you’re fully convinced about its benefits.
You need to form your “Why” before you take on the tasks of reading Buddhist philosophy and applying practices like meditation to your daily life.
To start, check out this video by psychologist Robert Wright, one of my favorite authors, where he breaks down the practical benefits of adopting Buddhism as a philosophy of life:
Next, read some books about Buddhism’s benefits. I’ve recommended two below that blew my mind and convinced me that Buddhism is something I should seriously consider adopting as a way to live my life.
Why Buddhism is True
In his book, Why Buddhism is True, Yale psychologist Robert Wright argues brilliantly on the side of the Buddhists and attempts to prove that their claim that Buddhism alleviates suffering is true. He uses philosophical arguments and modern-day psychology research to make his case.
One Buddhist belief that he defends is that our misconception about how reality works is the main cause of our suffering.
We think everything is permanent, and then are heartbroken when a friend passes away. When someone tells us the forest is filled with snakes, we struggle to enjoy the hike. We’re on edge.
These illusions lead to uncomfortable experiences, and Buddhism at its core is about seeing through them and attaining a true vision of reality.
This Buddhist idea that our vision of reality is skewed is actually backed by evolutionary psychology. Our minds don’t see reality as it truly exists; it plays tricks on us.
The brain, which evolved in times when humans were under constant threat, shows us what we need to see in order to stay alive and reproduce, not what we need to see to be happy.
There’s a brief example of what you can expect when reading the book. Of course, he writes it much better than I do and did a tremendous amount of research.
I’ve read this book twice now. I find that Wright’s words always remind me of the importance of my meditation practice whenever I break my meditation practice.
Plus I think he has a great sense of humor, and I love refreshing myself on the key Buddhist principles and ideas every now and then.
My girlfriend gifted me this book at a time when I really could’ve used a 10% boost in my happiness. Working in sales in NYC and feeling completely stuck, I needed something other than alcohol to lift my spirits.
10% Happier reminded me of how beneficial meditation, a core Buddhist practice, can be to one’s mental life, and it convinced me to return to the meditation practice that I had stupidly left behind at college.
Written by Dan Harris (Sam Harris’ brother), the memoir records Dan’s personal journey of overcoming horrible stress by using meditation to tame the yabbering voice in his head.
The book also shares findings in neuroscience about the benefits of meditation and gives you a glimpse into America’s spiritual scene.
I highly recommend this book if you’re considering starting a meditation practice or just feeling generally overwhelmed by life and want to find some solace in hearing about one man’s personal struggle to find help.
2. Know the 3 Major Branches of Buddhism
Buddhism is a big word. It’s hard to say anything about Buddhism in general because, like Christianity or any other religion, there are many different forms of Buddhism.
Different branches and experts of Buddhism hold different positions on any particular point. For example, some Buddhists think that enlightenment can be achieved through self-directed practice. Others think you have to go to a monastery and become a monk to do so. Some Buddhists don’t even think enlightenment is even achievable.
For the sake of understanding and appreciating the breadth of the Buddhist tradition, it’s good to know the different branches and their distinctions.
The three most popular branches of Buddhism are Mahayana (the most common today), Theravada, and Vajrayana (aka Tibetan) Buddhism. It’s a good idea to know the differences between these Buddhist schools of thought.
MindValley has a helpful article that breaks down these schools and their central ideas. It also discusses how they differ. Also, in step 6, you’ll read one classic text from each of the three branches.
What About Zen Buddhism?
A fourth system of Buddhist thought that a lot of Westerners, myself included, find at once incredibly insightful and frustratingly mind-boggling is Zen Buddhism.
It’s an offshoot of the Mahayana tradition, and not as widely practiced as the other three listed above, so that’s why it’s not called a main branch. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying.
If you’d like to learn about this school of Buddhist thought, I recommend reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen.
This book, along with a few others, introduced Zen Buddhism to the Western world in the 60s. It’ll teach you about the tradition’s origin and principles.
3. Study the Fundamentals of Buddhist Philosophy
Now that you understand and perhaps accept the promises of Buddhism, start to learn about the philosophical and religious thought that underlies the Buddhist tradition.
Learn about key concepts like the following:
- The Four Noble Truths — aka the disease, the cause, the cure, the medicine
- The Eightfold Path
- The story of the Buddha
- Karma and rebirth
- Non-attachment and impermanence
By forming a foundational understanding of Buddhist thought, the Buddhist practices you apply to your daily life will take on more meaning.
Their purpose will also be supported by logical arguments, so you’ll be more likely to stick with them.
Plus, Buddhist ideas are fascinating in their own right, and will also in most cases change your outlook on life for the better.
Best Beginner Book for Learning Buddhist Philosophy
To learn the basics of Buddhist thought, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin, a Professor of Buddhist Studies.
This is the ultimate introduction to Buddhist thought and will help you learn the core concepts like The Four Noble Truths and Buddha’s story, as well as many other interesting topics.
I like how the author doesn’t shy away from complex topics that are often considered too difficult for a beginner in Buddhist studies to wrap their head around, such as the idea of no-self. He explains everything in an easy-to-understand way.
Alongside philosophy, you’ll also pick up a bit of knowledge about Buddhism as a religious tradition.
My copy is filled with notes, dog ears, underlines, and other markings, and that’s always a sign of a deep, useful, and stimulating book.
4. Learn About Meditation
“Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power. Then, piece by piece,
your own subconscious motives and mechanics become clear to you. Your intuition
sharpens. The precision of your thought increases and gradually you come to a direct
knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and without illusion.” — Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
When the average person hears the word Buddhism they often imagine someone sitting in the lotus position meditating in an open green field.
While meditation isn’t the only important aspect of Buddhism, it certainly is one of the tradition’s most central and beneficial practices.
Therefore, you should learn about meditation, how to do it effectively, and how it works. You should also start a practice of your own, as that’s the best way to learn it.
Many beginners wrongly assume that meditation is just focusing on the breath, but that’s just one way to do it. There are many types of meditation.
Below are the three most common Buddhist meditation techniques
- Vipassana (Insight) Meditation: This is the most widely practiced meditation technique. It’s a form of mental training to help you see the true nature of reality. Through practice you’ll develop your powers of concentration and mindfulness. Beginners in this tradition usually start off learning how to concentrate on one object, often the breath in your chest or nostrils. This is the one I practice.
- Zazen Meditation: This is a form of open-awareness meditation, meaning practitioners simply notice what is happening in the mind without judging it. According to Master Dogen, you are studying yourself. This technique is the key practice of Zen Buddhists. This school of meditation also emphasizes correct sitting and breathing techniques.
- Transcendental Meditation: With TM meditation, meditators are given a mantra (a word) by a teacher. In a session you’ll focus on the mantra, returning your mind to that word whenever it wanders off. A lot of actors and famous people rave about this one.
The philosophy behind each type of meditation is complex and deep. And there is so much written on how to do each type, what the experience of meditation and insight is like, and why meditation works to improve your mental health.
Below I’ve listed three popular and insightful books that really helped me understand and practice Buddhist meditation. Consider them your meditation 101 curriculum:
Mindfulness in Plain English
Mindfulness in Plain English is a great book if you’re an English speaker looking for some practical advice from an expert meditator about how to start a meditation practice — specifically Vipassana meditation.
The book touches a bit on meditation theory at the beginning of the book, but mostly focuses on technique, as stated by its author:
“This is a meditation manual, a nuts-and-bolts, step-by-step guide to Insight meditation. It is meant to be practical. It is meant for use.” — Bhante Gunaratana
It covers what to do with your body, what to do with your mind, what meditation is, what it isn’t, tactics for getting into the meditative state, and much more.
You’ll also learn how Vipassana meditation differs from other types, and how to do the two different parts of the Vipassana practice — 1) concentrating on one thing (often the breath), and 2) open awareness and insight.
It’s written in an extremely accessible style — thus the name, in plain English. I can’t recommend this book enough to the person considering taking up meditation as a daily practice.
Waking Up, by Sam Harris
This book was my gateway into all things meditation. I read it during my first year of college and it sent me on a year-long journey of obsessively reading about Buddhism and meditation.
Confronted with such novel ideas, my curiosity broke out of the cage that high school formal education had secured so tightly. I again felt the urge to learn and read.
In Waking Up, Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, makes a case that people can have spirituality without religion and shows us how to go about doing it.
Along the way, he shares stories from his time in India and Nepal studying Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as recent scientific findings in neuroscience that underpin spirituality. I definitely recommend giving this one a read.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
A widely beloved book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the go-to guide for learning about Zen meditation. The writer’s goal is to help you begin and develop a Zen meditation practice. For many practitioners, this book marks their initiation into Zen meditation.
The book not only covers meditation techniques like posture and breathing. It also teaches you a bit about Zen meditation theory.
Knowing the theory helps you trust in the practice. Understanding why it’s important to sit in a certain posture, for example, will increase your determination to sit in that posture even if it’s uncomfortable at first.
I’d recommend this book to people who aren’t interested in Zen. I do Vipassana meditation but still found this book incredibly useful. I discovered many ideas and tactics that I could apply to my Vipassana practice.
5. Start a Meditation Practice (Do Alongside Step 4)
A meditation practice will give you insight into the workings of your mind. By practicing every day you’ll also gain benefits like reduced stress, stronger concentration, and improved emotional wellbeing.
I recommend practicing meditation while you’re reading about it. When you can apply what you’re learning to a skill it’s more likely for that knowledge to stick.
Plus, you’ll be extra motivated to practice because you’ll want to try out the techniques you read about. And you’ll be excited to read because you’ll want to improve your practice and solve the troubles you’re bound to have as a beginner.
My Meditation Experience
When I first started meditating, I did 5 minutes per day, seated in an office chair. During a session, my goal was to focus on my breath as I felt it leave and enter my nostrils.
Whenever my attention wandered, which happened often when I was starting out, I’d simply notice the deviation and bring my attention back to my breath. Sometimes I’d quickly notice that my mind had wandered. Other times I’d be lost in thought for minutes.
Gradually, over the course of years, I increased the session duration, until during the pandemic I was regularly doing 60-minute sessions.
That was a cool experience, but the sessions ended up being too long for me. I was skipping them too often.
Plus, sitting for that long hurt my back. I’d often end up lying on my bed at the 45-minute mark. So I’ve since returned to a nice steady state of 12 minutes every evening.
Over the last year, I’ve actually been pretty bad at keeping my practice. I’ve been traveling around the US Airbnb-hopping, so I lack a steady environment, which is extremely important for establishing habits.
Writing this post is actually reminding me how crucial it is to my well-being, so I intend on re-establishing a consistent practice, rather than just doing it every few days when I feel like I need it.
How to Self-Learn Buddhist Meditation
Most of your learning will come from actually practicing meditation. Like any skill, you’ll become better with practice. After a few months, for example, you’ll find that your mind wanders less frequently than it did during the first week.
Here are some steps for teaching yourself Buddhist meditation:
- Pick Your Meditation Technique: Choose between Zen and Vipassana meditation. Many beginners start with the focused breathing part of Vipassana before moving onto open awareness, which is a bit harder. Or you could learn transcendental meditation.
- Learn the Meditation Technique: I’ve already mentioned two meditation books in this article — Mindfulness in Plain English teaches you how to do Vipasanna meditation, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind teaches you how to do Zazen.
- Pick a Time and Place: Choose where and when you’re going to do your meditation practice. Doing it at the same time in the same place every day will help it become a habit.
- Practice Your Technique Consistently: Every day do what the book has taught you. A good way to make meditation, and anything a habit is to start small. Do 3 minutes for a week then 4 minutes the next week until you’re up to 10 minutes. From there you can keep going up if you want.
- Use a Meditation Journal: After each session, use a journal to explore your feelings, insights, and perceptions. By reflecting on each practice session you’ll form a deeper connection with your practice. You’ll also notice improvements, which is motivating.
When I started out I mostly just used my phone timer and some scented incense, which I’m sure my hallmates just loved. But many people feel more comfortable with a guide. So let’s cover that briefly.
What About Guided Meditations?
Sometimes beginners benefit from guided meditations, where someone walks you through the meditation and tells you what to focus on.
You can find plenty of these on meditation apps or YouTube. The Headspace app has a lot of great guided meditations.
Sam Harris, author of Waking Up, offers a free 5-session meditation course for beginners.
Here’s the first video:
You can pay for his Waking Up app to gain access to the full introductory course (28 guided meditations), as well as other features, such as his video lessons on meditation, mindfulness, and the nature of the mind.
YouTube has a bunch of free guided meditations too, for all types of meditation. I used to listen to this one by Alan Watts a lot when I was first starting out. It has you pay attention to sounds:
Some people will tell you not to use guided meditation. Maybe that’s good advice for intermediate meditators, but I think it’s a bad thing to say to a beginner.
The one thing beginners should be working on is their consistency of practice. When you’re starting out you want to ritualize the meditation experience so you’re happy to do it. I like to burn incense and light a candle.
If guided meditations make you want to sit down and meditate, then use them. If you prefer some light ambient music as opposed to silence, use that.
Also, you can always use a combination of guides and silence in your practice. For example, do a five-minute guided meditation to get you into the mindset, and then do the next five minutes in silence.
6. Read a Few Classic Buddhist Texts
At this point you know the basics of Buddhist philosophy and have established a meditation practice. Now it’s time to read some foundational texts of Buddhist thought.
According to MindValley’s article, three of the most sacred core Buddhist texts are the Tripitaka (aka Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
- The Pali Canon: This collection of Buddhist scriptures is widely considered the earliest and most accurate record of Buddha’s teachings that we have today.
- Mahayana Sutras: These classic Buddhist writings are considered to be “words of Buddha” texts by the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead: This book was published in English in 1923 and is the translation of classic Tibetan Buddhist texts known as the Bardo Thodol. It’s a guide for achieving liberation at death and having a successful rebirth.
These texts will help you understand the roots of the Buddhist tradition, and become familiar with the Buddha’s teachings.
For more on the classic texts of Buddhism, a topic which I’m honestly pretty uninformed about, check out this article on the Buddhist History Society’s website.
You could also read the book What the Buddha Taught, which introduces you to some of the most important classical Buddhist texts and describes in simple language the teachings of the Buddha. I just added it to my list because I feel I’m a bit ignorant in this regard.
7. Continue Learning About Buddhism
Buddhism is a complex and deep intellectual and religious tradition, meaning there is a lot more to learn than what we’ve covered in this self-education guide.
For other Buddhist books, check BookRiot’s article “25 Must-Read Books on Buddhism”. It divides books into the following categories — beginner books, classic texts, Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist poetry, and Buddhist memoirs.
A fun way to continue your self-directed studies could be to read one book from each category. This should help you deepen your understanding of the tradition.
Also, consider joining a Buddhist temple or community or finding a teacher to take your learning to the next level and further develop your Buddhist practice within a supportive environment.
Can You Self Teach Buddhism?
You can self-learn Buddhist concepts and practices without a teacher by reading Buddhism books, practicing meditation, and living according to Buddhist principles. That’s how I learned the basics of the tradition. There are also courses and guided meditations online to help you learn.
Of course, some people will do better with a teacher or community because it holds them accountable. Some people also do a lot of learning on their own at first. Then, once they’ve reached a sufficient level of curiosity they decide to attend a Buddhist temple or get a teacher to further their studies. There are also many practicing Buddhists who have never had a teacher.
Bottom Line: Teaching Yourself Buddhism
After reading about Buddhism, studying its philosophy, and practicing meditation, perhaps you’ve decided that this is a philosophy you want to build your life around.
If that’s the case, continue studying the subject. Perhaps make Buddhism a part of your day. For example, consider reading a Buddhist text every morning and then doing a short meditation. And try your best each day to live by the principles you’ve learned through your reading.
And if you want to spend some time studying another subject alongside or in place of Buddhism, consider checking out my self-education roadmaps page on the blog.
There you’ll find step-by-step guides for teaching yourself various subjects, from economics and English Literature to classical music and US politics.