How to Read and Study Buddhist Teachings

There is such a wealth of Buddhist books and teachings to consume. Where do you start? Here are some tips on how to tackle your reading list.

Sam Littlefair
11 June 2021
Wall of books with door.
Photo by Eugenio Mazzone.

A lot of people think Buddhism is all about sitting in silence and finding inner wisdom. When you start practicing Buddhism, it’s easy to carry that stereotype onto your spiritual path. But any teacher will tell you: At some point on the path, it’s important to balance your practice with cold, hard study.

The Buddha stressed the importance of studying — and even memorizing — Buddhist teachings. Practically speaking, in the modern world there is a wealth of misinformation about Buddhism. Fake Buddha quotes are as common as authentic ones. One of the core goals of Buddhist practice is the cultivation of wisdom, or prajna, which requires dedicated study along with meditation practice.

Read more: Four Teachers Discuss the Importance of Study

Here is a short guide to working with Buddhist teachings to develop prajna, along with further resources to go deeper with your study.

Choosing Something to Study

Sometimes, the first step is the hardest. There are countless Buddhist teachings, books, classical texts, commentaries, memoirs, and investigations. Where do you start?

If you have a teacher or a community, the obvious place to start is with the teachings they recommend. If you’re not sure, you might want to ask a teacher or an instructor for some suggestions. If you can’t get a recommendation, Zenkei Blanche Hartman suggests studying the teachings of contemporary teachers in your tradition.

If you don’t have a specific tradition to dive into, not to worry. Judy Lief suggests that you “notice what you are drawn to reading and reflecting upon.” See where those teachings come from. If you’re committed to a Buddhist path, ensure that the teachings come from an authentic, unbroken Buddhist lineage. Explore the essential texts of that tradition.

Read More: Ten Buddhist Books Everyone Should Read

How Much Should You Study?

This is completely subjective. Some practitioners love to read Buddhist texts and neglect practice in favor of reading. Others refuse to read, instead opting to sit in silent contemplation indefinitely.

Study and practice are both important. For a simple rule of thumb, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal recommends:

Whatever meditation practice you commit to, your study should support that, so that in your practice you know what you are doing and you have a reference for your experiences. Your study guides your practice, and your practice validates your study.

Judy Lief advises, “study yourself.” Get a sense of where you are in your practice, what your challenges are, and how you feel about reading and meditating. Knowing that studying and practice support each other, try to find your own balance. Lief writes:

No matter how much you read, how many talks you hear, or how many websites you visit, there is no guarantee that there will be any real benefit. It is good to accumulate knowledge, but it is better to let that knowledge transform you. The benefit comes in the meeting point between you and the dharma, when a seemingly outer teaching strikes a deep inner chord.

Read More: How I should balance practice and study?

How to Let Wisdom Penetrate

In general, teachers recommend that you take the time to let yourself absorb what you’re reading or listening to. This means different things to different people. You might read a chapter and then meditate on what you’ve read. You might read slowly and thoughtfully. Maybe you read one paragraph over a few times and then contemplate it for the rest of the day. Maybe you tape a favorite paragraph to the bathroom mirror and contemplate it regularly for years. “Each time you go over it,” writes Lief, “question what is really being said, its relevance, how it can be applied, and whether it rings true to your own experience and observation of the world.”

Are you the kind of person who wakes up and immediately checks Twitter, Instagram, and CNN? Bhante Gunaratana suggests replacing that morning routine, instead listening to a teaching of the Buddha, then keeping the wisdom with you throughout the day.

Read More: How to Start Studying Buddhist Teachings

Going Deeper with the Three Prajnas

Some schools of Buddhism break the development of wisdom down into three steps, as described expertly by Reggie Ray. These are: the first prajna, hearing; the second prajna, contemplating, and the third prajna, meditating.

The first prajna, hearing, deals with literally studying texts. This might mean reading a text over repeatedly, memorizing, or studying the meaning of the text in depth. In the second prajna, contemplating, as Ray explains, you look at the teaching in the context of your own experience. How does it feel? The third prajna, meditation, follows the teaching into the unconditioned experience of meditating on ultimate truth.

Read More: How to Study the Dharma



Book Recommendations

Specific Traditions

A selection of commentaries on texts and studies from various traditions:

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair is the former editor of He has also written for The Coast, Mindful, and Atlantic Books Today. Find him on Twitter, @samlfair, and Facebook, @samlfair.