A nice basic introduction and guide to the Suttas?

Hi everyone. I’m wondering whether you can help me out. I’m looking for an introduction to the suttas. The plan is to either host it or link to it on the new version of SC. It’s to be targeted for absolute beginners, with no assumed knowledge of Buddhism or the suttas. It need not be written: a video would be great, too.

The classic essay on Access to Insight called Befriending the Suttas is a pretty good example of what I’m after. But for a few reasons I’m not 100% happy with it; for example, it focuses on Theravada, which is something I’d like to avoid.

Anyway, if you know of something like this, I’d appreciate if you let me know.


I’ve written an introduction to Buddhism that is based entirely on the EBT, though not specifically an systematic overview of the suttas. Maybe you are looking for something like U Ko Lay’s Essence of the Tipitaka (I don’t know if that is on-line). Anyway, my book is Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path. I wrote it over many years as I’ve repeatedly taught a 12-week class and could only find Theravada sources. My book follows the gradual instruction.


In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi or the Dhammapada.

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There’s nothing entirely suitable out there on the internet at least that I would consider a good introduction. Considering it is aimed at newcomers (intelligent, young people who are spiritual seekers) would need a few characteristics like:

  1. Appealing and not dry - perhaps with links to videos, stable wiki content, etc to make it varied and interesting; not secularized, but accessible as is possible.
  2. Authoritatively cover a range of EBT concepts, which would cover most of the dhamma, ie leaving out minor points (eg: the ogha- repetitive conceptual categories come to mind…). An overall framework (eg: the Four noble truths or other simple format would help structure it so it aids retention)
  3. Not wordy but delivers the main concept quickly, in conjunction with the selected sutta. Maybe one concept per page if possible? It might be helpful to assume that time is at a premium.

with metta


Let me offer a mini, and very preliminary, review:

From the preface to the book released under a Creative Commons licence by @cintia :

In spite of such variation, the development of sects has not always meant distortions of the intent of early Buddhism. In fact, it is striking that the brilliance of the Buddha’s insight seems to shine through most of the historical sects, even while each presents it in a sometimes rather unique way . This I view as a strength of Buddhism and a testament to the firm roots, planted in early Buddhism, that have permitted so much variation without > losing sight of its original mission, much like a tree that remains firm even as its branches grow this way and that. I am convinced that there are many perfectly good variations of Buddhism. Nonetheless, our concern here will be with early Buddhism, the common historical root of all of Buddhism.

I’m encouraged by the thought that the “the brilliance of the Buddha’s insight … have permitted so much variation without losing sight of its original mission”. Let is be so and more so.

This textbook is accordingly divided into two books: Buddhist Life for the foundational teachings and Buddhist Path for systematic training in the higher path leading to awakening. Each book can be studied independently and in either order.

I appreciate the writing style which is natural or conversational . As a sometime writer I found pleasure in reading Bhikkhu Cintita prose. For most writers this is probably the result of some pre-existing skill combined with much diligence and practice. If Bhikkhu Cintita scholarship matches what I’ve seen of his writing then this shapes up to be a fine book. Perhaps the bhikkhu has a good role model:

The Buddha is particularly renowned for his unique skill as a teacher, as is abundantly evident in the earliest discourses. Particularly noteworthy are his many apt metaphors and similes, often tuned specifically to his target audience to convey quite vividly some very subtle or sophisticated realization, and his common technique for teaching those trained in non-Buddhists systems by initially adopting their perspective, but then reinterpreting their terminology …


Thanks venerable and everyone for suggestions. But it’s not quite what I was after—I should have been more specific!

If you check the “Befriending the Suttas” page, it’s more about why and how to read the suttas, not so much a summary of the content. I’m not opposed to having some summary of content, but in general on SC itself we try to avoid interpretations and dealing with content, as we don’t want to be a commentary on the Suttas.

Even the “Befriending” essay is probably more than what I’d like. Something that someone can comfortably read or watch in a few minutes, that gives them an idea what to expect, addressing things like repetitions, and so on. Also, a friendly but somewhat neutral tone would be good: it’s not just for Buddhists, so should lean towards being objective in position.

We can of course link to more substantial content, but for this piece in particular I was thinking one not very long page.


@dougsmith does some really nice videos. Maybe he could be a resource.


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:anjal: Thank you for the confidence, although I am sure Bhante @sujato will not want a resource associated with the moniker of secularism, and it sounds as though he is looking for something written.

That said I do have a video: What Are Buddhism’s Key Texts; I am sure it is imperfect in many respects and therefore could stand updating by someone with @sujato’s knowledge.

I would of course be happy to oblige in whatever respect I could.

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Hi, Bhante.
I hate reading long introductions. I like to dig in straight away. (That is me) So the best thing you write something yourself. Perhaps you can ask the forum to come up with some suggestions what to include in your writing. So following is my suggestion.
Many people think Buddhism is all about suffering. But I think Buddhism is all about happiness. If I write something I will highlight this point.


Buddha taught that all beings are fear of death and seek happiness.
So in the following text Buddha offer some reason for the death and offer the path to deathless and achieve the highest happiness.
Unfortunately, this is not a quick pill it requires patience and serious practice and to be realized by oneself.

Some more good points are in the following video.
My suggestion is you write the introduction and give this as a talk to a group of people about an introduction to Sutta. It will give the casual and nonrigid introduction. Perhaps you can incorporate both the transcript and the video into new introduction.

PS. Spooky! I thought about this yesterday when I was attending a Christian wedding ceremony while awaiting to bride to arrive. I just start watching your video while I am writing this and still not finished it yet.

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Hey Doug,

Thanks for the tip. I’m watching the video now, it’s nice, thanks for your work. I’m sorry if my sometimes immoderate take on secular Buddhism is distressful!

This is a helpful explanation, but it’s more a history of the origin of the texts, whereas I’m looking for a more basic how and why to read read them. Still, it’s a really nice introduction to the history.

The only point I can see as for accuracy is regarding the Pali canon and the Agamas. The Pali suttas weren’t taken to China; it was other early texts comparable to the Pali, but stemming from other early schools. Thus the organizational differences between the two stem mainly from differences that evolved among the schools in India.

It’s also, I think, important to mention that there’s no intrinsic difference in the reliability of oral transmission vs written. Some of the well-known corruptions in the Chinese agamas—the insertion of a passage of the Asokavadana into the Samyukta for example—happened in the written tradition. The different manners of transmission can affect the manner of errors that occur, but the primary factor in the reliability of transmission is the care and attention given by the people involved, not the medium they’re working in.


A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard:

A wide selection of readings from Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and modern sources intended to provide the reader with a foundation in classical Buddhist thought.

One American who attempted to establish an American Buddhist movement was Dwight Goddard (1861–1939). Goddard was a Christian missionary to China when he first came in contact with Buddhism. In 1928, he spent a year living at a Zen monastery in Japan. In 1934, he founded “The Followers of Buddha, an American Brotherhood”, with the goal of applying the traditional monastic structure of Buddhism more strictly than Senzaki and Sokei-an. The group was largely unsuccessful: no Americans were recruited to join as monks and attempts failed to attract a Chinese Chan (Zen) master to come to the United States. However, Goddard’s efforts as an author and publisher bore considerable fruit. In 1930, he began publishing ZEN: A Buddhist Magazine. In 1932, he collaborated with D. T. Suzuki, on a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra. That same year, he published the first edition of A Buddhist Bible, an anthology of Buddhist scriptures focusing on those used in Chinese and Japanese Zen.[17]

Thank you for your reply, Bhante and for your kind words. And thanks as well for the corrections, I knew there would be a few.

Yes, the character of the texts taken to China is something of a question mark for me. I’m not sure how far back the Pāli language itself goes, but I was assuming it went back to before the Common Era. Would the texts taken to China have been therefore in Sanskrit, or another (lost?) Prakrit? (Perhaps these are unanswered or unanswerable questions. I don’t know).


Yes, presumably. The most obvious hypothesis is that it was the version of standard Indic prevalent around Avanti around the time of Ashoka; and while it’s not really certain, I think the obvious thesis is probably the correct one in this case.

They were mostly Sanskrit, but there would have been a variety of dialects. The later Mahayana and Abhidhamma texts would have been mostly or entirely in Sanskrit. The early texts of the (Mula-)Sarvastivadins would also have been in Sanskrit. Some, such as the Mahasanghika Vinaya, were presumably in Hybrid Sanskrit, the standard language of that school. The Gandhari texts that have been identified from manuscripts belong to the Dharmaguptaka school, so it’s plausible that the Dharmagupataka texts in Chinese were from that language; that includes their Vinaya, and maybe DA.

We don’t know, however, that each school consistently used one language. And it is difficult and uncertain to infer back from ancient Chinese to specific Indic forms. We have to look at a specific Chinese character—typically used in a name—and infer back from the pronunciation of that to a specific Indic dialect. But knowledge of ancient Chinese pronunciation is often derived from Indic translations, so it gets circular very quickly. And there are all kinds of complications, like regional variations in Chinese pronunciation, and so on.

It’s possible that some of the Chinese texts were translated from otherwise lost dialects. However, so far as I know, there isn’t any compelling evidence that this is the case. Bear in mind that most of these languages are very similar anyway; so far as I know, the Chinese texts themselves just refer to the Indic languages under one generic name, usually translated as “Sanskrit”, but perhaps meaning simply “Indic”.

Note that I said earlier that the Chinese texts weren’t translated from Pali. This is certainly the case for the nikayas, but it is a little more complicated than that. Several texts were brought from Sri Lanka to China for translation, including a Samyukta Āgama. However, these were, for the most part, not Pali or Theravadin texts at all, but manuscripts from other schools that just happened to be sourced in Sri Lanka, at the Abhayagiri Vihara. However there are perhaps a few later texts that were in Pali: the Vimuttimagga, and the Sudassanavinayavibhasa, the Sinhalese Vinaya commentary. We can’t be sure, but Pali is a possible candidate for the originals of these (although they may have been in Sinhala Prakrit. Did I say it’s complicated?)



Now I’ve got to try to fit my mind around that. Will take awhile. Meanwhile, thank you Bhante. :anjal:

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A few considerations:
Nikaya structure of the suttas
Links to 10 basic/key suttas
Why they are EBT/authentic- the reason to read/remember
Not magical incantations- just dialogue
Dealing with repetitions
Not extrapolating over and above the basic reading of the sutta

With metta


Hi Bhante
The answer to me would seem obvious although I know you are very busy :smiley: :anjal:


The reason I suggested you, @dougsmith:

I don’t think a secular view would be out of line as long as the requirements were fulfilled.


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I jotted something down so that anyone can work on it :slightly_smiling_face:. I will put it up on the Wiki forum. Please feel free to edit as needed. A video would be welcome too!

With metta

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As you were hoping to avoid Theravada-focused material I am a little hestitant but I found U Ko Lay’s Guide to Tipitaka (Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, useful early on. Not sure if titles like Westward Dharma and The Awakening of the West are suitable for absolute beginners. Might depend on what they’re looking for.

Nice, thanks, Mat.

Yes, also a nice guide, but as you say, perhaps a little too “Theravada” in approach for what I’m after.

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