Does the law of diminishing returns apply to reading the suttas?

Diminishing returns

In economics, diminishing returns is the decrease in marginal output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, holding all other factors of production equal.

In everyday language early time management expert Alan Lakein had the “80/20 Rule”.

Basically, for most endeavors, 80% of the value comes from 20% of the time and effort spent on those endeavors.

Would you say this applies to reading the suttas?

After having read up on the four noble truths, the 8 fold path, and the relevant suttas would reading more of the suttas enter the zone of diminishing returns? By diminishing returns I mean learning things that will change your life or improve your practice?

In other words, after having focused on the four noble truths and 8 fold path, reading the suttas will only result in you occasionally finding something moderately useful?


For practical outcomes the practitioner should make as a foundation what the Buddha said was the direct path, the Satipatthana sutta, which is incorporated into the Anapanasati sutta. Both these suttas are practical, and should form the basis for study of other connected suttas. Many suttas are theoretical and intended for debate with Brahmins or wandering ascetics of the time. Lack of knowledge of sutta structure is compounded by the fact that in this computer age it is easy for the learning practitioner to become sidetracked into an intellectual version of the path. The four noble truths form the overarching framework for the Satipatthana sutta, but don’t become relevant until the fourth foundation, so other practical skills have to be first developed. These are contained in the Satipatthana and particularly the Anapanasati sutta which precedes it. There is a further potential pitfall in that the suttas are largely addressed to monks in the perspective of nibbana, whereas the preceding conditioned path is only described in selected suttas including the Anapanasati and Sattipatthana:

“And, in the most general terms, the fact that skillfulness leads ultimately to a dimension where skillfulness is transcended, accounts for a paradoxical dynamic common to all seven sets that form the Wings: the meditator must intentionally make use of qualities from which he/she wants to escape, gaining familiarity with them in the course of mastering them to the point where they are naturally stilled. There the transcendent paths and their fruitions take over. This is the sense in which even the path of right practice must eventually be abandoned, but only after it has been brought to the culmination of its development.

Many people have misunderstood this point, believing that the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment require that one relinquish one’s attachment to the path of practice as quickly as possible. Actually, to make a show of abandoning the path before it is fully developed is to abort the entire practice. As one teacher has put it, a person climbing up to a roof by means of a ladder can let go of the ladder only when safely on the roof. In terms of the famous raft simile [§§113-114], one abandons the raft only after crossing the flood. If one were to abandon it in mid-flood, to make a show of going spontaneously with the flow of the flood’s many currents, one could drown.”

To avoid tragedy, the learner practitioner should therefore be occupied with the development of skills:

“You train yourself, and the first thing you train yourself to do is to be aware of the whole body as you breathe in, aware of the whole body as you breathe out.”—Thanissaro

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I don’t agree at all with the idea that one should necessarily just stick to certain “stock” teachings. For me, some of the most useful suttas are ones I haven’t seen emphasized, and I only learned about from just reading through the Nikayas myself.

Tbh I haven’t gotten a lot of mileage out of the Satipatthana sutta (I prefer the Satipatthana Samyutta), the Anapasati sutta, or the cardinal discourses.

Other people are different, of course. Heck, there’s a great thread going on right now about 1-2 liners that summarize the whole path….maybe for some people just focusing on one of these quotes is enough!


Dunno, haven’t read the 4 nikayas in one go yet, this vassa, I aim to finish one round of them.

For me, it’s not so much the effort of reading sutta, it’s all worth it if I can find something new. And surprisingly it comes quite often.

And many of the suttas are way above comprehension. Until one’s practise is there. Some suttas one didn’t find useful the first round, but then, surprisingly, on reading it again, it applies directly to one’s current situation and problems.

Of course, for beginners, it might be better to keep on reading Buddhist books written for modern readers first, until the point where sutta reading is no longer boring, troublesome, repetative but wonderful, treasure digging activity, and the repeats are opportunities to do real time on the spot guided reflection.