SuttaCentral

Anyone not have a problem starting to read the suttas?


#1

I’m curious to hear if there are folks out there who didn’t experience the problems that are often cited by people beginning to read the suttas.

I’m not denying that people have difficulties with the style of the suttas. I’d just like to hear if there are people who didn’t and possibly learn why. It seems to be taken for granted that “obviously” people will be bothered by the repetitions. Like wise that the inclusion of Pali words is a turn off.

I ask because for me I never had issues with the repetitions, use of Pali words, etc, etc. I didn’t come from a real academic background or have much of a history reading translations of ancient texts. The only thing I can figure is that I had enough confidence in the teacher that told me to read them, and that I followed his advice not to be bothered if I don’t understand things.


#2

I loved the repetitions when I first came across the Pāli suttas. Especially when running through the senses or the aggregates, I found that reading the same pearl of wisdom, applied successively to each domain would strike a very different chord within me each repetition, and I became absolutely fascinated. In fact, when I was first getting into the suttas, I was annoyed that so many repetitions were omitted! When I would read them, I would carefully flip back and forth, filling in each ellipsis I came across.

“Whatever form there might be… whatever feeling there might be… whatever thoughts there might be… whatever consciousness there might be…” Slowly I stitched together what had previously been vastly different fields into a coherent whole. It felt like discovering that the strong and weak and electric and magnetic forces were all the same force. It was a thrilling discovery.

It wasn’t until many years later, after I had more deeply internalized this perspective, that I started to gloss over the repetitions: “yeah, yeah… and the same for the other senses, and their objects, and feelings…” Perhaps I’ve already learned what I had to from it. Or perhaps I’ve just grown acclimated to the genre. But I do sometimes miss that sense of reverential wonder I had, when I first learned what all is on fire


#3

I liked “the repetitions”, they had none of the often critizised implications on me.

When -because of frequent discussions- I tried to understand why I didn’t have problems with them: it makes the reading slower. One cannot easily rush through the text like when reading an abstract.

When I collected suttas for my own tiny “favorite sutta index” on my homepage, I even expanded the ellipses to push the reading mind into better calmness and by this into better sensitivity.


#4

I’ve a bit of a language background – i.e. I learned a lot of French, and a little Latin and Greek at school – I’m a programmer by profession though (i.e. “computer programming languages” which are a bit different).

There’s a Christian aphorism, “The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life”. Well I once heard that reversed, perhaps as a “ha-ha only serious” kind of joke, that in translation, “The spirit killeth but the letter giveth life” – i.e. that if you try to translate the “spirit” of what’s said then the translation fails, that instead you should translate the “letter” – even if that more-word-for-word translation doesn’t sound like contemporary English.

Its sounding like contemporary English isn’t especially important to me – if I’m reading a translation it’s because I want to know what the original text says. Sometimes I don’t care much – e.g. if it’s Caesar’s Gallic Wars then it might as well be translated into modern English for all I care – but if it’s important and subtle in meaning and beneficial then I take it it’s worth putting more effort into.

Anyway I had previously read people writing about Buddhism in their own words. And translating texts, perhaps the Dhammapada, for “a modern audience”.

Eventually I was grateful to find (translations of) the suttas (e.g. on Access to Insight). And then translations which expose the Pali, on this site and on buddha-vacana.org also Dharmafarers is thorough if you want access to someone’s studying a sutta, he also pays attention to the page-layout to make the repetition and so on easier to understand, maybe with added section titles and so on, see e.g. http://www.themindingcentre.org/dharmafarer/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/1.1-Dhammacakka-Pavattana-S-s56.11-piya.pdf


#5

I think people’s experiences may vary depending on where they start. If you begin with the Numbered Discourses–and with the Book of Ones–you may start to wonder what the fuss is about. There’s so little to go on! But I started with the Middle-Length Discourses, and there I found that the repetitions were a fascinating part of the journey. As @Khemarato.bhikkhu said, I found that the varying contextualization of each repeated passage gave it a somewhat new meaning on many occasions.

The repetitions exist for many reasons, and re-contextualization is clearly one of them. Another is the preservation of essential information even in a society that had no writing–and this is an amazing quality of the Dhamma. Historians term “prehistoric” any society that doesn’t have writing. And how many ideas have been preserved to us from prehistory? Outside of Buddhism, there are precious few. Within Buddhism, though, a group of highly dedicated prehistoric people devoted their lives to preserving these ideas, and here they are.

That blows my mind. Every. Single. Time.


#6

It’s important to keep in mind that the responses on this thread will have a self selection bias for people that are especially interested in the suttas and early Buddhist scriptures. Because of this, they are probably not a reflection of the “average reader” in a population.


#7

Sure, of course. I don’t expect folks in SC to be average readers. But even here I see a wide range of responses to encountering the suttas for the first time, even from people who are especially interested in the suttas. I don’t think having a strong interest is enough to explain why some people don’t have any resistance to the style of the suttas in a more literal translation.


#8

When I first started reading the suttas, they were crystal clear and actionable. Much of this I attribute to Bhante Sujato’s own translations–I have read other translations that are quite opaque and archaic.

Regarding repetitions, my first inclination was as one dying of thirst encountering an oasis. I wanted more. And I labored quite hard (weeks of work) to expand MN1 for Voice. You will be amused to hear that Anagarika Sabbamitta has quite firmly insisted that we also offer an unexpanded MN1 for the next release. And that makes perfect sense to me. I no longer wish to expand suttas.

:pray:


#9

I distinctly remember reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words and disliking how it was written. The extensive usage of lists, repetition, and so forth were off-putting to the point where I put the books aside for quite a while. I can’t imagine anyone reading Pali suttas with no forewarning and not being put off by the fact that no human speaks like in the suttas.

It was only after listening to quite a few dhamma talks and having heard different monks talk about various small nuggets of different texts that my interest in reading suttas arose again. It especially helped hearing how they incorporated the teachings of the suttas into their daily lives. Because otherwise, while interesting, I probably perceived the texts as abstract philosophical musings that weren’t helpful.


#10

Well, that’s the purpose of this thread, to hear from those people. It is indeed difficult to imagine other people’s experience when it is different from our own. It just doesn’t follow that because we can’t imagine it that it isn’t possible.


#11

Yeah, I should mention that prior to picking up the suttas I had read several introductory books on Buddhism and came to them “primed” quite well. I imagine it would have been quite a different experience if I had first come across the Middle Length Discourses in a hotel nightstand :joy:

Thanks for sharing your story @Ryan :slightly_smiling_face:


#12

When I read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation “In the Buddha’s Words” I found it interesting, although kind of annoying having so much repetition in a long sutta. Although I understand it made it easier to memorize. For example the Qur’an is easy to memorize too since it rhymes in Arabic and has a rhythm to it. The Pali canon on the other hand seems to drill it into you by repeating everything a dozen times in the same sutta, can’t forget what you’re supposed to be chanting since you chanted it last verse and only change a few words for the new verse!


#13

Honestly, even after years of studying and practicing Dhamma, I find it difficult to read Bodhi’s translations for anything other than pure research reasons. It’s just not an enjoyable read. It feels like I’m trying to cut through a dense jungle (sometimes).

Sometimes people discount how important this is but texts should be enjoyable to read if you want large numbers of people to read them.

Not to discount the great service that he did and the importance of his work of course!


#14

To be clear, I’m not trying to discount this. But it’s also been discussed quite a bit already. My thinking is that if it is possible to figure out why some people don’t have a problem with the texts as written, that might help to figure out ways to make the texts enjoyable without altering the texts. I also am not against having different editions out there to help more people.


#15

I didn’t mean you, I was mostly referring to people who are really traditionalist and see anything but a word for word matching translation as an aberration (these people exist in all religions!)


#16

I was a lawyer at one time in my life. Legal documents are often repetitive with only key phrases changed, so it was easy for me to get through repetitive scripture without getting bored or lost, having been familiar with legalese.


#17

Hmm, I’m rethinking about my compatibility with repetitive, slow rythm texts.

It just appears to me that of course I like from my youth singing songs (mostly ballads or folksongs, even gospels) and one constituting element of singing songs is repetitivity, sometimes even just playing with it (repetition becomes one line longer each verse). Think only, how many times you repeat the words “swing low, sweet chariot” and “coming to carry me home” in the timespan that you give this piece of music/of tale.

I don’t mean by this that I would like the chanting-of-sutras: no, it is not that.

But giving a thought, a word, a phrase time to dwell in your mind and soul, just be open to chew on something longer than just swallow it - this is part of why I felt somehow familiar with that (german) translation of sutras which I met initially.

Also I’ve been in rural area in Africa and the evening sitting in the forest at the fire and the telling was also slow and calm, and if teaching were intended, repetitions of phrases/thoughts would surely have fitted the communication. And it was sometimes that I visioned the forestly situation of the flock of monks and the talkings, and the multiple references to the personal names of that ones involved in the discourse. I don’t know the best and appropriate english words for this but may be “serenity” and “seriosity” come to mind. A good example is this MN32 where even the forestly environment has been illustrated - I liked that sutra immediately when I came across it.

Just one word more on repetition: in a german buddhist newsgroup we had some fierce (and sometimes nearly mad) discussion on the words of the buddha, its translation and understanding. To conclude one aspect of this discussion I wrote a “fake” sutra and used the tool of repetition myself as central element in that sutra (which I gave loosely the form of an original discourse in the pali-canon). This was to “drum” some aspect (that of doubly-understandable phrases and the need of training of letting go automatical prejudices) into the reader. That “sutra” has been a great success in that discussion, btw.! But surely, that is of course only one form of repetitivity and not all of the repetitivity in the sutras /EBT’s is of this form and of this aspect… (see “the birth of the Ariyoyana at the Geierberg” in my collection of stories about (the fictional) Ya-Nun (sorry, only in german so far)


#18

No, no, I was just speaking in general and trying to frame my question better. I’m curious to hear from folks who had no automatic averse reaction to the style of the suttas. Of course those folks may overlap with the “hands off my suttas” crowd. And there may even be some causation. But that’s not the point I’m interested in exploring.

Ah, yes. Exactly what I was after. That makes perfect sense.

And yes, another. I also had quite a bit of music, both formal and informal in my background. I think this is a good point.

So far it seems we have:
Support

  • Having the direct support of a teacher

Method

  • Starting with texts that were not so difficult stylistically, thereby easing in (@gus)

Attitude

  • Seeing value in the repetitions (@Khemarato.bhikkhu)
  • Appreciates that the style slows down the reading (@Nessie)
  • Recognition that the text is a translation and valuing a closer connection with the original text, therefore willing to endure a different style (@ChrisW)
  • Appreciating/knowing the reason for the repetitions (@gus)

Results

  • Getting immediate benefit from what was read (@karl_lew)

Desire

  • Wanting something different than writings “about” Buddhism (@ChrisW)
  • Very strong desire to learn (@karl_lew)

Background

  • Background with knowledge in Buddhism (@Khemarato.bhikkhu)
  • Background in legal field (perhaps that could be expanded) (@Charlotteanun)
  • Background in music (@Nessie)
  • Background with oral culture (@Nessie)
  • Background in Indian culture
  • Background in Languages (@ChrisW)

I’ve @'d people in in case they wanted to clarify if I’m getting their point.
Any other thoughts?

Obviously some of these points may be more actionable and some less. I wouldn’t want people to become lawyers before they read suttas, no offense meant to lawyers :-). But things like starting with texts whose style is more approachable (as opposed to starting with texts based on perceived importance)

Now that we have the beginning of a list, it would be interesting to hear from people that meet some of these criterion but still had an averse reaction.


#19

I’ve always been in to Buddhism, even as a child and so was curious to know what the Buddha’s words were, rather than coming from later writers, and I haven’t been disappointed. Though having said that I started with a free copy of the Dhammapada, from a Tai wanese printing company. It had simple verses, which makes it easy to read.

The next step was Itivuttaka. A paragraph (or a few small paragraphs) followed by a simple verse.

Then a deep dive into the Majjima Nikaya on-line on www.metta.lk, was when I actually got to taste it, well. Also finding from the practice resonates well with what’s written so I was happy, despite minor translational niggles occasionally - I’m concerned when things are added that aren’t in the pali and when it’s ‘watered down’ so much it points only to mundane experiences and not what’s sublime.


#20

When I was a teenager I loved to read books about Taoism and Zen, but they were popular books, not original texts. When I was in college a professor chided me for reading popular books on these subjects and urged me to read the original texts. So I began to read the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Sun Tzu, the Unfettered Mind, etc. (I was a serious student of gung fu, hence some of the martial texts). I couldn’t understand much of what I read, but I couldn’t dismiss them – they’d been venerated for so long that I felt they must contain some really valuable wisdom. I began to see them like a puzzle to figure out. Reading commentaries on them was helpful, as it gave me a handle on the concepts being used in the texts.

Whatever little I understood from each text, I would try to apply in real life. Every year or two I would re-read a particular text and would find that I understood a little more than I did the last time. Gradually, the meanings became clearer and more profound. I would later use this same approach with the suttas too.

I began to read the suttas because I felt I’d had enough of reading later traditions’ interpretations of what the Buddha taught and wanted to get as close as I could to the source itself. Because of my past history working with these other texts, I wasn’t daunted by the way the suttas were written. I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said, not knowing a lot of the terminology and concepts (like aggregates, sense bases, cessation, etc.), but I approached it like a puzzle to figure out. Each time I came across something unfamiliar, I would research it until I had a basic grasp of the concept or term.

One thing I noticed when I began to read the suttas, something that I didn’t experience with the other texts I mentioned, is that, even if I didn’t understand a sutta, my mind felt calm, clear, and peaceful afterward. This wasn’t from faith, as I didn’t have any at that time. I hadn’t even started practicing yet.

One little off-topic side note in case some might find it useful: Venerable Anālayo once recommended that when I read a sutta, I read it out loud. I tried it and have been surprised by how much more depth and texture it adds to the experience of reading a sutta. It helps me notice subtle nuances that I may otherwise have missed. I have to admit that I sometimes even adopt different voices for each speaker, as if I’m telling a story. :nerd_face: