So, @Mat, would you say this is a summary of your experience?
- Long time interest in Buddhism
- Desire for original material (primary texts)
- Starting with accessible text
- Material being read matched with personal experience
- High value for accuracy
So, @Mat, would you say this is a summary of your experience?
Yes, accurate. I might add that I am not entirely dependent on EBTs (or their translations) for accuracy. As they can be vague enough to not provide a perfect guide to buddhist enlightenment. For my practice, they inform the skeletal structure of it, while contemporary teacher’s flesh it out, and I ‘experience it ‘in the body’ in my personal practice. However (showing the limitations of that simile) if something a teacher says or something in my practice crops up I tend to keep it within the boundaries of the EBTs.
When I was a complete newbie the structure of the suttas with all the repetitions drove me away. After I had absorbed more Dhamma I started to love them. Now, I sometimes fill in the printed ellipses just for fun and sometimes skim read over them.
If it’s not too personal, would you be willing to say if you had any of the factors that I’ve bulleted out in my posts above? Or at least if you could mention the texts you started with if you can remember? I know that many people have problems with the style of the texts as written. I’m curious to find out if there are factors present that contribute to someone not being put off by them. So if people have a bunch of these factors and are still turned off, then maybe these factors aren’t correct.
More broadly, “technical writing” – which isn’t always conventionally entertaining to say the least, nor even well-written, but somebody was trying to explain precisely how to do something.
When you first read a technical manual (e.g. “How to design and build a radio”) you barely understand 10% of it – then if you read it again you’ll understand 15%, and so on.
I personally define a technician as “rare: someone who is willing to read the manual”.
If it’s technical writing then I’m used to having to study it, and not necessarily for hours but for days, weeks, and years.
The suttas are relatively rewarding (“gratifying”?), compared to e.g. the first book I read about electronics: a) in their goal; b) in being understandable on first reading – not perfectly understandable, but more than 10% on first read. One good thing about the suttas (which is unlike perhaps e.g. electronics or e.g. another religion) is that it resonates (“makes sense”) somewhat given one’s personal experience (e.g. the Buddha can expect the Kalamas to understand what he’s saying from their own experience).
So I guess I see myself as a technician (a technology-student and -practitioner) rather than a linguist. I was also taught algebra and other maths, and so e.g. “What is the value of X in this equation?” can have me asking questions like, “what is dukkha exactly?” and so on.
Conversely my mum for example wouldn’t be keen on any doctrine that required her to learn a foreign language – one foreign language is almost more than enough for her, and it (the other language she’s acquainted with) isn’t Pali. I suppose that any foreign word – nibbana, kamma – is likely to be a turn-off, “eyes glaze over”.
I think that’s OK, you have to assume there’s more than one “dhamma gate”, that virtue is virtue in any language.
No, I don’t mind at all.
Phew! That took a while. Do you mind me asking what you’re hoping to do with the information you collect? It’s interesting.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do that. I appreciate your thoroughness and specifics.
I have an interest in helping people read the suttas. I know that the style of the suttas is often an obstacle. One solution is to produce translations that change the style to suit the reader’s temperament (or need, or however you would call it). I’m not necessarily opposed to people trying to do that. And of course I don’t begrudge anyone finding a way into the Dhamma that works for them.
While you can see a lot of people complaining (or just talking, although it often does sound like complaining) about the suttas, and you also hear from the “purists” who want literal translations, I wanted to hear from people who were able to find success right away with reading the suttas. Because for them there is nothing to complain about or for them to defend against, I feel like we don’t hear about their experiences. And my theory is that by looking at the situation these folks were in, it might be able to help more people succeed with the suttas sooner.
Obviously some things aren’t easily replicated, like someone having a background in technical writing. But others like attitudes and especially starting with the right text are.
By the way, there are very few cases where I think starting off with Walsh’s DN would be the right move. It’s not quite at the level of “If it were the last book on the planet then I guess it’s ok,” but it comes close. I probably wouldn’t recommend the whole DN as a collection as a first text even with a much better translation like Bhante Sujato’s.
And a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their experiences. I’d love to hear more‼
Support SuttaCentral and Bhante Sujato’s translations
Method Voice search (yes, that’s why Voice search does what it does)
… and DN33
Attitude “Let’s try this and see if it works.”
Results “OMG it works!”
Desire “Why am I feeling so disillusioned?..oh. That’s why.”
Background Terrified of heights. Studied climbing to develop equanimity.
The best way to read IKEA manuals is after you’ve tried to assemble the furniture. This leads to 100% comprehension upon first reading.
“Oh that’s what the screw was for…”
So if you REALLY want to understand the suttas, make all the mistakes and learn from them first. Try it. You’ll like it. 100% comprehension.
Ven. Bodhi’s translation of MN1 as “delight is the root of suffering” was my first AHA! That phrase is now lasered into my skull, uncompromising and total in its emphasis.
Not relishing, but delight.
And yes, relishing is quite totally fine as is. It’s the heated swimming pool version of the nordic plunge into a hole in the ice. You can’t cross the stream until you get…wet.
Thank you @Christopher. Would you agree with this as concise summary?
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 think you bring out a very important point. For people who come to Buddhism through the “Don’t believe because someone else said it” door, it seems like your attitude may not only be absent, but that people might be hostile to it. You mention that early on you didn’t have shraddha, but I think that your attitude is actually a kind of faith or confidence.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Was your annoyance enough to prevent you from reading, or do you feel like you had enough patience to continue since you understood the reason behind it. Do you feel like you had any of the supporting factors that are bulleted out in this thread?
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you for the careful consideration, Snowbird, and thank you for raising such an interesting topic. I would agree with your summary, but, after reading it, I thought of a few other points:
Under Attitude: “High tolerance for not understanding” is correct in one way – I was willing to keep reading despite not understanding. But on the other hand, “low tolerance for not understanding” — being haunted by these puzzles — is what motivated me to read and research (externally and internally) whatever I didn’t understand.
Under Attitude: In the beginning, there was an appeal to reading these ancient, esoteric texts. This was fascinating in itself but was also tied in with a created identity that became more special and unique by being someone who studies ancient, esoteric texts.
Under Method: stopping to research terms and concepts I don’t understand has always been a big part of reading the suttas for me.
You’re right, of course. I was pointing to the fact that I had the typical Western scientific materialism view that was skeptical of whatever didn’t fit into my worldview. But, fortunately, I had enough openmindedness to be curious about all of the Dhamma and not just those things that fit my worldview. And I think an open-minded, curious attitude is the best kind of faith for a beginner.
Can you say if this is because of his writing style? Or do you think it has to do with his inclusion of repetitions. I will admit that there are some passages that kind of make me dizzy. Like the first sentence…
Bhante Bodhi: “What should be done for his disciples out of compassion by a Teacher who seeks their welfare and has compassion for them, that I have done for you, Ānanda. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, Ānanda, do not delay, or else you will regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”
Bhante Sujato: Out of compassion, I’ve done what a teacher should do who wants what’s best for their disciples.
But I really love the way Bhante Bodhi wrote it.
I guess my question is, do you think your non-enjoyment (sometimes) has to do with his writing style in general, or if it is more because he keeps more repetitions in? Is it a very different experience when you read other translators?
If one were to look at the texts simply as dialogues, without knowing and taking into account that its a translation of orally transmitted texts, I would say the issues include a sentence structure/syntax that can be quite unnatural sometimes. Probably because of overly literal translation of the Pali. Unnecessary repetition of phrases also makes this more difficult to read.
It just doesn’t read like a normal dialogue. This is not how people speak to each other. It reads like a highly artificial text. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. The suttas are artificial texts, they aren’t meant to be written as naturally sounding dialogues. They were constructed for optimal memorization. And that’s great and we should respect that. However, we need to also understand it is not optimal for readability.
See, I had quite a different reaction to the texts. My thought, in my early contact, was that the texts were unbelievably readable considering that they were 2500 years old.
It is true that no one says “thus,” and when I am training monks to preach in English I have to stop them from using it.
I wonder if people exposed to Bible English early on—not even King James, but still very formal—have an easier time connecting with an overly formal writing style. I mean, “Don’t kill” just doesn’t have the weight of “Thou shalt not kill.”
Once I went down an internet rabbit hole where I was reading Christian sermons from the mid 1800’s. One prominent feature was that when they were quoting the Bible it was very obvious because of the Early Modern English, still very distinct from the English of the day. This was a normal thing for generations of people. So I wonder if people are kind of “primed” to think of religious text being written in their own style, then it becomes a feature, not a bug.
And I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to having a wide variety of translation styles. I’m thinking more along the lines of “if you can just wear shoes, no need to cover the world with leather.” If people can be prepared well to read the suttas, then they may have a broader range of acceptable styles. Don’t know if that makes sense. And I certainly don’t think that this would be possible for all people. But as we are attempting to translate into more modern styles, I believe it’s good to be aware that not everyone has a problem with more formal (or whatever you want to call it) writing styles. And that this isn’t merely a function of fundamentalism.
Oh no I enjoyed the repetition since it did its job helping me remember what’s being discussed in the sutta. I’ll just add my list to the thread.
I get you, and this is why its good to have a variety of different translations in different styles.
Getting off-topic, when I learned the Liturgy that was in Latin not in English.
I don’t remember reading a Bible – it was read from (in the vernacular), out loud, during Mass.
Of 17th/18th century sermons, by the way, this one (“we are all thieves”) by Margaret Fell is more or less famous – as an adult I read that as being “marvellously expressive” not as “overly formal”.
One consideration might be, how fast is someone trying to read – i.e. are they trying to devour a book, or, to study a single sutta?
Once in a hotel room in Singapore I found three books – some kind of bible, an English-language Koran … and a “Life of the Buddha”, which told the story of his leaving home and so on.
Back when I was a software technical writer, they’d publish (and write) several “books” for even one product – e.g. an introductory overview (what it does), an introductory tutorial (how to do something), a user’s guide (the whole user interface), and reference manuals (for deep dives into specific topics) – different books for different readers or purposes.
I don’t know – if Ven. Sujato’s or Piya Tan’s translations each act like a “reference manual” for one reason and another, a new complementary publication could be something else entirely, could it? Perhaps a sketch or paraphrase, a summary of each sutta rather than a translation.
When I did have “a problem starting to read the suttas” one of my first problems was, what sequence should I read them in? Why is the first sutta numbered SN 56.11 and what’s the sequence after that?
The suttas recommend applying yoniso manasikaro (eg. AN 10.61; MN 95) to reading the teachings rather than taking refuge in ‘works of disciples’ (‘sāvakabhāsitā’). I have noticed on the internet how relatively little yoniso manasikara often occurs and how coping & pasting often occurs. I get the impression some people think they are making merit by simply copying & pasting links to their favourite local gurus. To myself, I often call these folks ‘Dhamma Librarians’. Recently, I read AN 2.47 below, which I found to be not only a very powerful sutta in its message but it also highlights the challenge, effort & yoniso manasikara required for reading the suttas.
There are, mendicants, these two assemblies. What two? An assembly educated in fancy talk, not in questioning, and an assembly educated in questioning, not in fancy talk.
And what is an assembly educated in fancy talk, not in questioning? It is an assembly where, when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited the mendicants do not want to listen. They don’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor do they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. But when discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases, composed by outsiders or spoken by disciples—are being recited the mendicants do want to listen. They pay attention and apply their minds to understand them, and they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. But when they’ve learned those teachings they don’t question or examine each other, saying: ‘Why does it say this? What does that mean?’ So they don’t clarify what is unclear, or reveal what is obscure, or dispel doubt regarding the many doubtful matters. This is called an assembly educated in fancy talk, not in questioning.
And what is an assembly educated in questioning, not in fancy talk? It is an assembly where, when discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases, composed by outsiders or spoken by disciples—are being recited the mendicants do not want to listen. They don’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor do they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. But when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited the mendicants do want to listen. They pay attention and apply their minds to understand them, and they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. And when they’ve learned those teachings they question and examine each other, saying: ‘Why does it say this? What does that mean?’ So they clarify what is unclear, reveal what is obscure, and dispel doubt regarding the many doubtful matters. This is called an assembly educated in questioning, not in fancy talk.
These are the two assemblies. The better of these two assemblies is the assembly educated in questioning, not in fancy talk.
Hello Snowbird. In my experience, identifying the core message of the Teachings was useful and then working outwardly from there. I found the sutta MN 117 most helpful in distinguishing different types of teachings found in the suttas, i.e., (i) morality teachings and (ii) transcendent teachings. Thus, there is the core message of non-attachment (as described in MN 37 or SN 56.31) and then there are teachings to help people with morality (such as ‘kamma & rebirth’).
@Snowbird - Sharing my journey below.
My earnest interest started after my first meditation retreat with Ajahn Brahm. Throughout the retreat, I had referenced his book “Happiness through Meditation” (US version: “Mindfulness Bliss and Beyond”); his book was peppered with references to the suttas, and he also mentioned them a lot during his retreat. He also kept saying that one should read the suttas.
On the plane back from the retreat, coincidentally I was seated next to Ajahn. I asked him where I should start, as the MN looked quite thick. He said “just start anywhere”, and also suggested listening to the sutta podcast talks from the BSWA website.
So I started reading the suttas, primarily to fact-check Ajahn’s references in “Happiness through Meditation”… The mindset I had was that of skepticism: while I trusted Ajahn Brahm, I took a Ronald Reagan/Russian approach of “trust but verify”.
I started finding discrepancies between what Ajahn said vs what Bhikkhu Bodhi translated. So I listened to sutta talks by Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali and Ajahn Sujato, which were incredibly helpful in clarifying Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations. Along the way, I also discovered Ven Analayo’s works, and have been using his Agama translations to understand the direct Chinese Agamas in Suttacentral.
What was a constant motivation was the blissful meditation I experienced through Ajahn Brahm’s instruction. That got me to wonder if this meditation instruction was truly the Buddha’s method, which propelled me on the journey to read more about it. It helped that the texts were truly entertaining at times (e.g. the Buddha’s epic roast of the Jains in MN14, which made me LOL)
To summarize my journey,