An observation on modern laypeople's access to the nikayas

I’m sure this idea has been discussed and pointed out but I’m not quite sure how to search for it.

I recently had the thought that for the first few hundred years of Buddhism, laypeople would not have had access to all of the suttas that we all do here, and the Buddha and Sangha were basically like doctors treating the current ailments of any laypeople coming to them with questions and advice rather than teaching an entire course.

I think us now having access to an entire canon is both good and bad. Good because in ancient India laypeople’s progress would be limited by their access to the Dhamma to their time directly spent with a monk or nun, but bad because we can read about topics that are advanced beyond our current capabilities and cause confusion and doubt.

One way we can all see this negative aspect manifesting is people arguing over concepts like “anatta” here when they’re clearly not understanding (I for one have not realized/internalized that idea, I’m definitely not criticizing or looking down on people that also haven’t), or the many metaphysical debates also taking place. I feel like the wisest way to address this on a personal level is to accept “concepts” like that as pure information and not demand understanding of ourselves, but keep them in mind while practicing meditation so the ideas are available when we can make use of them.

Hopefully this sort of “musing” is appropriate here. I’m absolutely not qualified to be teaching anybody anything but I do think that this is a useful thing to keep in mind so any fellow beginners/intermediates don’t get bogged down.


I agree with this. Western converts especially have this compulsion with “understand/agree with or reject”. It’s not useful.

I also think that what you say about lay people’s access to the complete body of suttas also holds for the vast majority of monastics throughout time. If we accept the canonical narrative, I think it’s hard to believe that most monks would have had access to all four teams of bhanakas/memorizers to be able to touch all of the teachings.

Our modern situation of having direct, unmediated access to all of the texts, limited only by our ecconomic status and language ability it unprecedented. It’s something so obvious that I think it often gets ignored.


Wow that is incredibly interesting. And if that’s so then it’s clearly not necessary to have the entire teaching available to attain Nibbanna or the Buddha would have made it essential for every Sangha to have that access.

I’ve always taken that as axiomatic. From the earliest days we see people attaining enlightenment from a single phrase of Dhamma. Obviously, though, these noble ones would have had a storehouse of merit to make sure their minds were ready for such a thing (although that specific concept is not explicit in the EBT).

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I would frame it a little differently. I think the real issue is “context collapse”.

It’s not so much about whether certain things are too advanced or not, but about developing an understanding of Dhamma within a holistic context. We should be developing our speech, our bodily actions, the way we interact with people, growing our sense of kindness and compassion, learning wisdom through meditation, and our understanding of suttas grows through that journey.

And these things only really come through personal connections, through a way of living, and through community.


Yeah, that resonates with me. I didn’t really start to understand the Suttas until I began studying them with monastics.


I wonder if this is related to a type of ‘sutta-jockeying’ we see on internet forums, where suttas are called up and juxtaposed at high speed, sort of like an internet ‘Glass Bead’ game.

I seem to remember Ven. Dhammanando writing here recently that Aj Chah did not know the Samyutta Nikaya at all.
Prob most of us would do just fine with a few suttas, even in the older PTS translations.
(I enjoy IB Horner’s Edwardian English very much)


Ain’t that the truth. Community is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of being truly human. This applies whether one is spiritual/religious or an atheist. Sadly, especially here in the US, community has been dissolved and broken into these strange pieces of what once was. Buddhism seems to be, historically at least, practiced with such a focus on community; nonetheless, I see so many people here fall into the trap of bedroom Buddhism and focusing very heavily on themselves, and almost foregoing a connection to what is happening out there.

Another truth. To me, going back to the basics sometimes is the easiest way. 4NT, 8FP … to me the necessary contents are in there.


There were likely monastics for centuries without complete access to the Sutta Pitaka.

I recently experienced a good deal of emotional pain from reading a thread that some claim was about various posters exchanging hair splitting misunderstandings about a major concept that I was emotionally invested in.

I still think it is amazing ( thank you Ajahn Sujato ) that I can read the Sutta Pitaka on my phone while riding on a train.

We just have to have more support for monastics so they can offer more guidance.

I wish I could have had a more realistic view of what Buddhism is when I started out. My belief is that I might have gotten a correct view of Buddhism sooner with the access to writings and discussions available in 2022.



The buddha seems to have agreed and even taken it further.

This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

Sadly this has been mostly my entire experience of Buddhism but thankfully I found this site where I can get at least some of that communal aspect.


I would also like to share how happy I am to have found this community. It is as imperfect as we all are, but I have yet to find a saner place on the internet to discuss the suttas seriously. As there is no Theravada sangha within reach, this has been invaluable to my practice, along with other online discussion groups and the like.


Yes to everything Bhante @sujato said!

I would also add that there is less scholarship (and presentation of scholarship to a general audience) than in, say, Christianity. I joined this site a little over two years ago. Two years into my serious study of Christianity I had accessed a range of books on source, textual, form, and literary criticism. I had read a number of books on the thought-world of the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, 2nd Temple Judaism, the New Testament, and the Ante-Nicean periods. And there were multiple authors in each of these areas, so if a given author didn’t speak to me I was able to try others. I felt I had a relationship (a love-hate one, but an intense one) with the Bible.

Two years into my study of the EBTs I don’t feel I have a relationship with the EBTs. I have some passages I like, and some factoids. And I certainly have heard teachers who make really cool connections - who have that deep relationship with the EBTs. But my relationship with the EBTs feels very distant.

Sadly, funding plays a role in this lack of context.


My impression from the suttas is the Buddha never intended to teach anatta to most laypeople. The suttas say:

Ascetics and brahmins served by a gentleman in these five ways show compassion to him in six ways. They keep him from doing bad. They support him in doing good. They think of him with kindly thoughts. They teach him what he does not know. They clarify what he’s already learned. They explain the path to heaven.

DN 31

So far as I know, we don’t really have anything at all on the theory of text criticism in Buddhism. Essays and remarks, sure, and people use the different approaches, but no real systematic understanding of the principles underlying text-critical readings. What little I know about these things I too learned from Bible studies.


I was thinking a bit about this the other day, as in, sans a text critical literature what is the best way to build a relationship with the EBT’s?

I feel like the essential core for me is

  1. The first 3 of the 4 principle Nikayas.
  2. The early Upanishads.
  3. The early Jain literature.

This occurred to me as I have started reading Jacobi’s Jain sutra translations and had the experience of suddenly realising I had completely misconstrued a huge amount of the Buddhist literature, and had to sort of internally recontextualise a whole aspect of early Buddhism given the expanded context that the Jain material provides.

I think too often people come to Buddhism and just read Buddhist book after Buddhist book, and never look at the literature that was “either side” of the Nikaya material at the time it was formed.

I have certainly gotten a great deal more perspective on the EBT’s from reading Olivelle and Jacobi than from Abhidhamma or Prajnaparamita material.

Here’s me hopping on to a “maybe we read too much” thread with the advice “read more!” Oh well, I’m ever the contrarian.



Thank you! That’s a really helpful insight!

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