Can we learn just from Suttas?

This is an interesting question: What is the meaning of Nama in Nama Rupa?

In my experience, people come to the Dhamma in different ways. Some have read a lot of different material and decided that the Buddha-Dhamma appeals to them better than others. Others, such as myself, come to it in a more personal way.

I turned up at my local Thai Wat 11 years ago, in a slightly sorry state. I liked the friendliness, and the calmness of the Bhikkhus. For several months I hang out, did some chanting, too precepts, and helped with the gardening. A few months later, a Bhikkhu who spoke Enlish well enough to teach turned up (he happened to be from Bangladesh, by way of Sri Lanka and Thailand - another teacher I had was American, ordained in Bangkok some time after a rather debilitating brain surgery).

It was a year or so after I started hanging out that I actually read any suttas in detail (though of course I was familiar with Noble Truths, Hindrences, Anatta, etc, from talks). The first Suttas I read were Narada’s Dhammapada collection. Then I picked up Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “In the Buddha’s Words”, and worked through that, and then his first sequence of lectures on the MN which I supplemented by talks from the Perth Bhikkhus and Bhikhunis and other sources.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I certainly didn’t learn about Dhamma from reading the Suttas. The sutta study has certainly deepened my practice but, for me, personal instruction and example was much more important.

In fact, my reading of the suttas is that it is very important to have some personal teaching. The background story of the Anapanasati Sutta MN 118, for example, has the Bhikkhus being instructed by various teachers, with the Buddha bringing them together for a summary talk, not to instruct them on the basics. The Gradual Training laid out in suttas such as MN 107 involves a teacher, and suttas such as AN 4.94 instruct Bhikkhus to seek clarification from those with more experience.

My impression, in fact, is that the suttas do not contain particularly detailed instructions, leaving plenty of room for teachers to provide alternatives for students with different disposions. What they do contain is detailed explanations of the results of the practice.


“The great book” from SN contains more than enough details about practice. It contains basically every possible detail about practice than exists. It is so long and in such detail that it requires many re-readings to get the full picture and get all the aspects in our heads. It contains detailed instruction up to the highest levels of training possible. For example the section about the 4 bases of spiritual power describes how to practice mindfulness at an advanced level.

Not only does it contain every possible detail that can exist, but the reading itself rises strong desire to practice in the reader. Monks from the past used to MEMORIZE the nikayas and recite them in a group every day.

There is nothing I found more energizing in my practice than reading the suttas. I have not finished reading the whole nikayas but I intend to re-read them over and over for the rest of my life because this is practice itself. We see in the nikayas that constantly reciting or remembering suttas was considered practice in those early days of Buddhism. Today, because a lot of time has passed since the death of the Buddha, the idea of practice has changed. Practice today is different than the practice done in those times, and the results are different. Practice today has much slower results because people do not do it in order. They usually try to practice advanced stages of the path without having any foundation, sometimes without even reading the nikayas at all. Because of not practicing the right step at the right time, progress today is much slower than in the past.


Besides strongly arousing ardor and improving our knowledge, reading suttas is practice itself. We have many suttas describing practice by way of recollecting the memorized suttas, such as this:

Or this:

It is also a strong and effective way or practice, particularly good for those who are not in advanced stages such as non-returning. But even for such people this practice would be useful. For monks in the first hundreds of years of Buddhism, this was basically their main way of practice.

Hi Maiev,

Clearly our discovery of Dhamma happned in different ways, and our reading of the suttas is quite different. It may also be that we have a different defintion of “details”.

I agree that the important signposts about practice are in the suttas, but as far as I can tell, there are not the sort of details that one gets from, books by modern teachers such as Ajahn Brahm or Thanissaro Bhikkhu, or the ancient practitioners whose experience is recounted in the Viusddhimagga and other ancient books.

I’m inclined to think that those details that are not discussed in the suttas are optional. Out of the many possibilities the practitioner either contructs an approach for themselves, or learns one from an experienced teacher. For example, if one choses to use anapanasati (out of the dozens of possibile meditation subjects), should one focus on a particular spot, or on the general feeling of breathing? Should one control the breath or just let it change naturally? If one gets distracted should one investigate the distraction or return immediately to the breath? I haven’t found those questions discussed in any sutta, and so, of course, different modern teachers give a variety of advice (which also depends on the student, and on what they are trying to achieve at the time).

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In my opinion, the idea is not to “focus” on a particular spot to begin with.

To properly understand how to practice anapanasanti, we need to understand things in context, to have a good general understanding about practice. If we take one sutta out of context and try to make sense of it without knowing the relationship of anapanasanti with the practice as a hole, we will interpret it in a wrong way or simply not know how to interpret it. And from this, we might get the idea that the nikayas do not explain things well. It is like taking a page out of a book about a complicated field like quantum physics, not manage to make any sense of it without reading the whole book and then conclude that the book does not provide enough details.

Clearly our discovery of Dhamma happned in different ways,

For many years, I had not read the nikayas either after becoming a Buddhist. I think there are quite few today that start by doing that like people did in early Buddhism. Even B.Sujato has an article where he explains how he even became a monk without reading more than a couple of suttas out of context. But look at him now.

It would be interesting to find someone who did just read suttas, with no instructions from others, to see how they progressed. My experience in reading the suttas (and the Visuddhimagga) was one of reinforcing what I’d already learned. I.e. I saw in the suttas what I had been experiencing. Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising if my teachers where teaching Dhamma… :thaibuddha:

I did know someone who got quite deep into meditation without any particular instruction (he subsequently became a Bhikkhu for a few years and I lost contact), but at that point I don’t think he had read much Dhamma, and he had developed a very absorbed method of practice.

There are certainly people on Forums such as this who went on a spiritual quest by reading about a variety of paths before settling on Dhamma. As I said, that’s the opposite of my journey. It’s wonderful that people can take different arcs…

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Another problem of rely on Sutta only is that a person can be very dogmatic with his ideas.
I like monks like Ven Thanissaro or Ajahn Braham who teach somewhat unorthodox.
I learn more from the people who oppose to me than the people who approve of me.
These various point of views may lead to a agitated mind.
I see this as a positive outcome than a negative.
Because agitated mind can lead you to Nibbana by letting go of all views.
Once you master in all views, you will be neither her nor there nor in between!

Another point is we should not limit our knowledge to one source. We should learn about other religions and science and other ideas. Even Buddha had a very good general knowledge. He knew his opposition very well.
I know we all have very limited time but there is no short cut to Nibbana.

At Bhavana Society when people walk in without any experience in meditation they give them Mindfulness in Plain English, and once they have read that they start you on the Majjhima Nikaya - or at least that is what happened for me. So I went home and read the entire Majjima like it was a novel. :slight_smile: Great book, by the way!

In meditation what happened is that though I thought I was practicing mindfulness, in fact I was getting a very tightly focused concentration, with a lot of special effects happening. I got scared, and signed myself up for a retreat at IMS where they indoctrinated me on the Mahasi method. I think I’ve finally recovered from that. :unamused:


For me, it was the opposite, the first time I delve into the suttas I was surprised to see so many things not mentioned in the Dhamma books and talks I read and heard before. It was like :astonished:… big surprise.

I relate a lot to that. Feelings of joy and faith arising while reading, strong desire to practice… it’s like magic!

So regarding the OP’s question: my take for now is that it might be possible to use only the suttas to practice, because they seem to contain an answer to most questions… And when something is ‘missing’ in them, I start to feel that it’s maybe because it’s not really needed rather than anything else. As an example, I was surprised to see so few ‘proper’ descriptions on how to meditate and so much things on virtue and not-terribly-exciting suttas about discriminating kusala/akusala states, guarding the sense-doors etc… But now I understand (I hope at least), meditation and samadhi unfold naturally once all the causes and conditions are in place, it’s not so much about closed or opened eyes, focus on the nostrils or on the abdomen, but much more about working on our sila and cultivating joy… and the rest will unfold all by itself. Just an example about something I assumed was missing, but it was my assumptions that were wrong.

So for now my approach is using the suttas/EBTs as the foundation and the yardstick; and then trying to find fellow practitioners more advanced on the path to get some inspirations and tips. But the suttas come first.


I started by reading the Anguttara Nikaya on my own. Eventually, I found teachings on the suttas, and now I am part of a traditional temple with a monk who is a friend of mine.


It was the same for me. Quite a shock. It is quite shocking to find out most of the famous teachers have not read the suttas themselves and are more like self-help gurus. In this field, been famous is not at all an indicator of wisdom, it’s actually the opposite. The system functions more like politics. If the majority of people know little about the suttas, they will gravitate towards monks that know little too and say things that they like to hear.

This is why Buddha said that when quality of people will decrease, quality of monks will decrease too. People will not lend year to real dhamma but will lead year to self-help gurus type of monks. People low in wisdom will become famous because they are sustained by low in wisdom followers.

They — being undeveloped in body, undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment — will take on others as students and will not be able to discipline them in heightened virtue, heightened mind, heightened discernment.

They — being undeveloped in body… virtue… mind… discernment — when giving a talk on higher Dhamma or a talk composed of questions and answers, will fall into dark mental states without being aware of it. Thus from corrupt Dhamma comes corrupt discipline; from corrupt discipline, corrupt Dhamma.

They — being undeveloped in body… virtue… mind… discernment — will not listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, profound, transcendent, connected with the Void — are being recited. They will not lend ear, will not set their hearts on knowing them, will not regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping and mastering. Thus from corrupt Dhamma comes corrupt discipline; from corrupt discipline, corrupt Dhamma.

2500 years after the Buddha, the shanga continues to drop in quality. The more time that passes, the lower shanga quality becomes. Most famous monks today are only capable of giving talks on lower dhamma (rebirth, doing good deeds, been a nice person, calmness etc.), very few are capable of giving talks on higher dhamma.

“These, monks, are the five future dangers, unarisen at present, that will arise in the future. Be alert to them and, being alert, work to get rid of them.”

Yes, I had the same experience. Once I began reading the suttas, I realized how different the Buddha’s actual teachings and attitudes toward life were from the highly selective and re-packaged kinds of worldly Buddhism that are sometimes imparted from western meditation centers or “dharma centers”, and in the numerous popular books on Buddhism. Western Buddhist teachers sometimes have very conventional, pre-Buddhist views about what constitutes a mentally healthy life, a moral life and a socially responsible life, and they import those attitudes into their Buddhism. Also, many of them appear to be psychotherapists of some kind, whose “day job” consists in helping people fit in and “function” better as members of ordinary samsaric society, although with less stress and anxiety than they currently feel. So I try to spend extra time with the suttas that are most shocking to conventional US and western attitudes.

I also try to make myself read at least a couple of suttas every night, even when I am not in the mood. The Buddha’s path runs decidedly against the current of worldly life. As a lay Buddhist, if I do not continually reacquaint myself with the spirit and inspiration of the path as conveyed in the suttas, it is all too easy to get swept downstream by worldly passions. Maybe this is especially important for me, since I am a westerner, and so I am not surrounded by any of the other kinds of reminders that might be present in a predominantly Buddhist society. I feel a strong need to continually remind myself what I am doing.

The meditation practices, way of life, and wisdom teachings constantly reinforce each other. For example, if you do not internalize the spirit of right speech, and practice it during the day, then when you sit down to meditate later in the day, you are going to be so suffused with the rotten, freshly-harvested kamma from your unwholesome speech that you spend a lot of time just doing basic pacification. I think of that as the “throwing out the garbage” stage of meditation. The less basic garbage you have to throw out, the sooner you get to working on deeper levels. At the same time, the insights and the deepening of peace and non-hatred that are realized as one goes deeper into meditation reinforce the sila dimension of practice and the understanding of the teachings gained by reading a reflection.

I find that even suttas I have read often give me new insights as I deepen my understanding, or sometimes just little hints from a particular phrase that I had overlooked. For example, I always thought of metta as an opposite of hatred - which it is. But it took me some years to realize that the Buddha frequently emphasized the importance of metta as an opposite of fear. Also, it wasn’t until I became acquainted with the authentic tradition that I began mixing contemplation of death and decay in with my other meditation practices. For example, I began doing a practice which I would vividly imagine the faces or bodies of my wife and son, aging, growing still, then rotting and decaying. (Or I would imagine my own face, as though I were looking in a mirror: skin peeling off, eyeballs falling out - the whole deal! :slight_smile: ) I found this practice to be very powerful and revealing. But I think a lot of western Buddhists regard this kind of meditation as “unhealthy” or “morbid” or just too weird - and too monastic. There is a strong tendency in the insight or vipassana tradition to see the point of meditation to lie entirely in the investigation, study or examination of one’s mind in order to learn something. I think that’s a big part of it, but other techniques are aimed at a more active kind of self-transformation. Also, it seems to me that in the suttas, the boundary between practices of self-cultivation and self-transformation that are “meditation” and those that aren’t is much less sharp than subsequent interpretations made it out to be.

Western Buddhists also have some weird ideas about the importance of impermanence in the teachings. If you listen to typical western “dhamma talks”, you are likely to run across the following sentiment: “Do you feel bad? Well just reflect on impermanence! Then you will remember that everything changes, and so you will probably feel better later!” This seems to miss the point to me of the role of impermanence in the Buddha’s teaching. His point, I take it, was that we have a deep tendency to disregard and forget the impermanence of everything we care about, and that this persistent and fundamental cloaking of things as they are in an illusion of permanence is what keeps us bound to them.


As far as learning the technical points of the doctrine, the suttas are enough. It’s all in there. But as far as effective practice goes, interaction with the Sangha and lay community is invaluable.


Thanks for the various reflections. As I said in the OP, I didn’t start with any famous teachers, and I started with monastics, not lay teachers, and with community, not meditation, so perhaps that’s why I didn’t see any particular disconnects when I started reading suttas.

As I indicated, it’s interesting to see how different the paths of different practitioners is.

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I was surprised after I began in the same way (practice first, reading non-Sutta Buddhist books, then reading Suttas later), and found that much of what lay buddhist teachers had been teaching is very much so not rooted in what the Buddha taught. And I don’t mean small variations but fundementals. That, and I found myself after reading the Suttas, very convinced that this practice was possible, and that I too could follow this path and progress significantly along it, if I applied myself. Nothing else I had heard or been taught before reading the Suttas brought that kind of “faith” forward. That was huge for me.


When we say Sutta, does that include commentaries?

Perhaps this is why Buddha said that Kalyanamitta is the all of the holy life not half.

[quote=“SarathW1, post:16, topic:4623, full:true”]
When we say Sutta, does that include commentaries?
[/quote]IMO, no. A fair amount of people here, possibly including myself, he admitted, self-deprecatingly, are “Early Buddhism” reconstructionists, so by referring to “suttas”, they absolutely do not mean “also commentaries”, IMO.

Where can I find commentaries in Sutta Central?

From what I’ve seen by reading the notes sections of the nikayas, some commentaries are bad while others are just like the suttas and provide good details helping to understand them. This is because commentaries are not one big entity. A part of them are of early origin created at the same time as the suttas and are really good at providing further details, while others are of very late origin and are of bad quality written by people with primitive understanding. It is very easy to see the difference cause those that are bad are like a gorilla trying make sense of a computer. As for how much % of them are good and bad, I have no idea.