Early Buddhist meditation in theory and practice: a ten-day residential study retreat: course curriculum

This course has been previously announced.

Here is the detailed curriculum for the course, including the readings.

This course is designed to be relatively demanding, and to build on knowledge of Buddhism and meditation practice. We assume a capacity for learning and critical understanding, and a willingness to dedicate time and effort to learning.

However, we also acknowledge the differences in individual learnings. Nothing on the course is mandatory, and if at any time you feel uncomfortable or at a loss, please let us know. We are here to help!


Each day will provide the following learning opportunities.


These will cover the main topics for the day. The main teachings will be by Bhante Sujato.

Phones, laptops, and other devices are not to be used during the teachings. If you want to take notes, use pen and paper. If you want an exemption, ask first.


Students are encouraged to ask relevant questions. But what, you might wonder, is a question? A question is not a life story or a discussion or a reflection.

Perhaps we could take a note from the Buddha on how to ask questions.

“What do you think? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

A question is short, clear, and purposeful. It aims to elicit meaningful information. It begins with a question word such as “what”, “how” or “why”; it contains one short sentence without subsidiary clauses; and it ends with a question mark. If you are not sure what your question is, try writing it down first: it helps to clarify your thoughts.

Background reading

Try to complete the readings for the entire course before the start of the course. There will be some time for reading during the course, but your comprehension will be improved by the work you put in beforehand.

The teachings will not necessarily cover all of the readings, depending on time.

All readings from the Pali canon are based on the translations by Bhante Sujato at SuttaCentral.

Take your time. Read slowly and reflectively. Focus on absorbing the text you are reading, not on getting the readings done. Better to read one sutta deeply than skim the surface of a dozen.


The capacity to listen to others and to articulate our own understanding is an essential part of learning. Each day there will be a discussion with an assigned task, and the goal will be to work together to achieve the task.

The daily task will usually be to write a short passage, around 2–500 words. Invite the perspectives of each of the students in your discussion group. The purpose is not to get the one right answer, but to reflect the experiences of each student.

Make sure to listen to each each other. Don’t speak too much, and encourage those who are quiet—they are often the ones with something to say.

Each group should select one group leader who guides the discussion and writes the assigned passage. Any device or medium may be used for writing. Everyone on the course should take a turn at being group leader.

The final passage must be copy-edited by at least one other group member for spelling and grammatical errors! It’s the Dhamma, don’t be sloppy!

Application of the teachings in meditation

There is time set aside for meditation. This may be in a group or alone.

Meditate in any way that you like. We assume students already have some background in meditation. If you don’t, let us know.

See if you can apply the learnings of the day in your meditation. Obviously this will be more relevant on some days than others.

During the meditation periods, stay silent out of respect for yourself and others.

1. Introduction

Early Buddhism is studied through the early texts of the Pali canon, together with the parallels in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. It aims to clarify and deepen our understanding of the Buddha’s teaching through careful and critical textual study. Such study reveals a teaching that is simple, profound, practical, and rational. Students of early Buddhism apply this teaching to understand their own minds and find freedom from suffering.



Get to know each other. Tell your story, and how it has led you to early Buddhism.

Learning outcomes

We will learn how to study early Buddhist scripture:

  • Objectively—setting aside our own personal interests
  • Empathetically—entering into the minds and emotions of the Buddha’s contemporaries
  • Holistically—seeing each aspect of the path and teaching as reflecting the whole
  • Analytically—teasing apart individual words and phrases to find layers of meaning

In addition, we will learn the scope of the content of what is considered “Early Buddhism” and how it fits into the historical context of ancient India.

  • Archeological context—Indus valley, Asoka
  • Non-Buddhist religious texts—Brahmanical and Jain
  • The early texts in Pali
  • Parallels in Chinese and other languages

Memorization: Name the five Pali nikāyas, the four main Chinese Āgamas, and the 6 early books of the Khuddhaka Nikāya. (Pali/Sanskrit and English.)

2. Historical context: who was the Buddha speaking to?

Considers the nature of pre-Buddhist contemplative practices. Ancient scriptures, such as the texts of Brahmanism and Jainism, need to be read with an empathetic heart. If we read defensively—to show why they are wrong and we are right—we are not seeing those people with compassion, and we will never understand them.



Write a letter from a brahmanical renunciate to their mother, explaining why it is they they have decided to go forth.

Learning outcomes

  • Familiarity with the sources for pre-Buddhist religious practices
  • Empathetic appreciation of the contemplative practices found therein.
  • Understanding the learnings and the limitations of ancient scripture.
  • What the Buddha learned from them, and what he rejected.

Memorization: Know and be able to explain these terms: brāhmaṇa, samaṇa, upaniṣad, jaina, tapas, veda, yajña.

3. The purpose and method of the Buddha’s teaching

Survey the outlines of the Buddha’s teaching with a special eye to the question: what problem was the Buddha trying to solve? Meditation is a critical aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, but its meaning and method emerge from context. We will briefly survey a range of significant teachings on the path of practice. The Buddha was rational and pragmatic in his teachings. His goal was to encourage students to move from suffering to freedom.


  • MN 26: Ariyapariyesana Sutta
  • MN 141: The four noble truths and eightfold noble path
  • AN 3.89: Ethics, meditation, wisdom
  • MN 53: The gradual training
  • SN 48.9: The five spiritual faculties


How would I explain suffering to a fourteen year-old? Develop a class guide or outline for young teens. Make sure it is based on, not what you think they need to understand, but on what they actually can understand. Hint: listen to what the mothers say!

Learning outcomes

  • How meditation relates to the Buddha’s understanding of suffering.
  • The rationality of the path: cause and effect.
  • What problems meditation solves—and doesn’t solve.
  • The place of meditation: what comes before, and what after.

Memorization: List the four noble truths, eightfold noble path, and spiritual faculties. (Pali and English.)

4. Establishing a meditation practice (effort)

The Buddha taught a “doctrine of doing”. He insisted that he was only the teacher, that each of us had to walk the path for ourselves. Right effort is what launches and sustains meditation. It is grounded on our own experience of suffering; our desire to escape; and our understanding of the path.



Develop a program for supporting meditators to establish a regular practice. What is it that you find useful, or what leads away from practice? Are there any specific practical measures you could implement? What about working together as a group? How do we maintain long-term motivation? What do we do when we drift away from practice?

Learning outcomes

  • Recognize main terms and synonyms for effort in Pali: vāyāma, padhāna, viriya.
  • Understanding both “striving” and “letting go”.
  • Physical and mental aspects of effort.
  • Know how to set up sustainable and progressive effort in practice.

Memorization: Learn the detailed formula for the four right efforts. (English, and Pali if you wish.)

5. Undertaking meditation (mindfulness)

Mindfulness is essential in every aspect of the path. Nevertheless, it comes to the fore in meditation, and to begin meditation is to “establish mindfulness”. Mindfulness knits together awareness, unifying the past and the future in the present. It is the presence and continuity of reflective awareness.

Reading is the Satipaṭṭhānasutta. However, bear in mind that this is a composite sutta that reached its current form some centuries after the Buddha.



Develop practical applications of mindfulness in three contexts:

  • here in this class
  • in meditation
  • at home

Learning outcomes

  • Understand the relation between memory and awareness
  • Distinguish “mindfulness” in contemporary language from sati as used by the Buddha.
  • Understand some basic methods of developing mindfulness in meditation.

Memorization: Learn the detailed formula for the four satipaṭṭhānas. (English, and Pali if you wish.)

6. Samādhi: immersive stillness

The final factor of the eightfold path, samādhi is a profound state of deep meditative stillness and immersion. It emerges as the result of letting go, when all the other path factors are present and mature. Samādhi has a particular meaning in early Buddhism, namely the four jhānas, that may be different from non-Buddhist ideas, as well as later Buddhism.



Imagine an experience of stillness, whether in meditation or not. It doesn’t have to be real. Try to convey that experience without using any terms or ideas from Buddhism or any other spiritual teaching. Use words, drawing, performance, or whatever you like.

Learning outcomes

  • Understand the psychology of jhāna
  • Know the place of jhāna within the path
  • Relate jhāna to other states of samādhi

Memorization: Learn the detailed formula for the four jhānas. (English, and Pali if you wish.)

7. Obstacles: how the mind trips us up

The progress of meditation may be described in positive terms, as the progress through different stages, or in negative terms, as the abandoning of unwholesome qualities. The unwholesome or unskillful is just as natural and normal as what is good; it is just that it leads to suffering. The obstacles or defilements of the mind are overcome in different stages. They are managed through behavior (sīla), removed through meditation, and uprooted once and for all through realization or awakening.



You are Māra. Your goal is to keep people wrapped up in suffering. How do you do it?

Learning outcomes

  • Three levels of defilement: behavioral, psychological, and existential.
  • Understand the relation between positive and negative qualities
  • Coarse and subtle defilements
  • What is the value of defilements? Why are they so persistent?

Memorization: Learn the five hindrances. (English and Pali.)

8. Deepening wisdom through contemplation

The early Buddhist texts include many contemplations whose purpose was to invite reflection and deepen wisdom. Such contemplations are less well-known today, but they provide an essential bridge between the theoretical teachings and the profound realizations. They begin by taking a simple idea or observation, and holding it and reflecting on it until deeper understanding emerges.


  • AN 5.57: Five everyday reflections
  • AN 10.48: Ten reflections for a renunciate
  • AN 6.19: Mindfulness of death
  • AN 8.30: The eight thoughts of a great man
  • AN 7.52: Contemplations while giving


Create a guided meditation for an app. Formulate a short contemplation to help meditators reflect with wisdom. Don’t simply repeat or paraphrase what the Buddha said, but express your own insight in a way that is meaningful for you. Draw on individual insights to find something that resonates with the group.

Learning outcomes

  • Know how to use contemplations, both in meditation and outside
  • Relation between words and meaning

Memorization: Memorize the five everyday reflections

9. Liberating insight

Clarity and stillness of mind lead to a deepening of wisdom. This process is discussed mainly in the passages on the five aggregates, six senses, and elements. Contemplation and reflection leads to a deepening of wisdom, the outcome of which is letting go.


  • SN 22.1: The aggregates—Nakula’s Father
  • MN 152: The development of the six senses
  • MN 28: The elements—The Longer Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint


There are many people in the world who think they are enlightened, and few who really are. How do we know if our own experience is genuine?

Learning outcomes

  • Understand the process of meditation involved
  • Know the difference between theoretical understanding, contemplative wisdom, and liberating insight.

Memorization: List the the aggregates, senses, and elements. (English and Pali.)

10. Serenity and discernment (samatha and vipassanā)

Samatha (serenity) and vipassanā (discernment or insight) are the two great wings of Buddhist meditation. While contemporary Buddhism often treats them as two separate kinds of meditation, in early Buddhism they are not kinds of meditation but qualities of the mind that are developed through meditation. We will review the contents of the course through the lens of this pair of qualities.



Summarize the learnings of the course through the lens of samatha and vipassanā.

Learning outcomes

  • know the difference between “qualities of mind” and “meditation methods”
  • appreciate the qualities of harmony and balance in the path
  • recognize aspects of samatha and vipassanā in the different teachings on the path
  • understand the specific functions of samatha and vipassanā

I’m going to copy this one later to use with the kids.


Dear Bhante,

I’ve just submitted my application/registration via the google form link provided. I promised my late daddy before he shed his mortal body (Jan. 23rd) that I would represent him to visit Sri Lanka when conditions arise. I believe this is it.

As this is my first time taking on such a challenging dhamma task, I would appreciate some guidance and advice. Perhaps from a volunteer who had been on such a retreat? I’m going to email suttacentraldevelopmenttrust@gmail.com for some finer details and wise advice.

With gratitude and metta,


You’re most welcome to ask any questions here!


Bhante silly question here it says.

Does this mean we have to make up a short passage or we have to memorise a passage from the suttas?

Thank you :anjal:

Compose a passage. Yes, you’ll have to create something!


Will there be recordings?


Thank you very much Bhante for laying out your course here. I cannot attend the lectures, but I am studying according to this page. A couple days ago, I started to memorise the task (right effort in English and Pāli) on Day 4. Pāli memorisation was really good because I found the passage was so closely related to four iddhipādā (chandaṁ janeti, viriyaṁ ārabhati, cittaṁ paggaṇhāti). This realisation explained clearly why four iddhipādā contemplation is useful when one is doing metta meditaion for neutral people. Thank you Bhante.
Sadhu sadhu sadhu. :pray: :pray: :pray:


That’s a really great idea Kaz. I think I will investigate doing the same.