How do *you* question the suttas?

When reading a sutta what kinds of questions do you ask yourself at the end of the sutta to aid your comprehension?

Are there frameworks within other religious or academic traditions which could be applied to aid sutta understanding and memory and to dig deeper?

Today, Bhante @sujato suggested a Jewish framework for examining text which went something like this:

  • Literal
  • Moral
  • Creative/Artistic/Poetic
  • Transcendent
    (I hope I’ve remembered that correctly)

There is a semi-academic (non-buddhist) podcast that I listen to from time to time and the presenter always posts a list of questions which you should be able to answer at the end of the show, in the show notes. I find if I read the notes beforehand then I’m listening in a different way. Has anyone made a study guide of this style for the suttas?


I remember them in daily conversations to important topics that pertain to Buddha and Theravada Buddhism.

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Warning: this is an essay. Read at your own risk.

I’ve never made a study guide, I only have some mudmap thoughts.

If I were reading a sutta, normally I would read it together with Ven. Analayo’s studies (Dharma Drum series: e.g. Madhyama Agama studies), any recordings from Bodhinyana teachers and Bhante Sujato, the recordings from Ven. Bodhi, and Piya Tan’s notes. I would also look up the DPPN for the names.

If I had time, I would also read the Chinese, whatever other parallels are accessible to me, the commentary and the subcommentary as well, and maybe some translations into other languages (I was just given a Tibetan grammar by a friend, so this will be next hahahhahaha). But there is still just a lot in the English material without going to that extent.

I would be a bit scared to read a text without support from others’ notes, as the texts are ancient and I don’t assume I can just read them and they will make sense to me.

I feel lucky that we received a tradition of exegesis from our teachers so there is no need to reinvent the wheel. So most of the time what I am interested is following our teachers in a sutta-based method of explaining the text, not the Abhidhamma method, which makes life so easy.

Anyway, I would be interested in a few basic things, like where does the text occur (traditional reference system, not Wisdom or PTS)? Which edition and translation is being used? Are there parallels?

–>explain the title: is the text named for a person? a concept?
→ who has remembered it? Does it begin with “evam me sutam”?
–>explain the location (google maps and images are helpful, as are maps of the 16 janapadas)
–>explain the people. Who is giving the teaching? Who is being addressed? Do these people have some biodata? What occasion prompted the teaching? When did it occur in the Buddha’s career? Was there a particular lunar date?
→ explain the language. Is it prose or verse? What is the structure? Is there a metre? Are there any words that are difficult on a linguistic level?
→ explain the similes and language features: what does each element of the simile mean? Are there any rhetorical or mnemonic devices or oral features of the text?
→ is this a text with a straightforward meaning, or a symbolic text that requires further explanation or an esoteric explanation? E.g. like the Buddha’s birth story?
–>explain the contents. Are there any core concepts or words that can be picked out for further explanation?
→ explain the conclusion: did the recipient of the teaching go for refuge? Or not?
→ give doctrinal exegesis: how does this teaching fit into the path of awakening as a whole? Are there any doctrinal points that could be confusing, or where people have disagreed? How can we make it easier for people or for ourselves to approach this in a gentle way?

Because my degree was in religious studies, I like to give some sociological, historical or philosophical context, too. If a text goes on to have a varied life in later Buddhist philosophy, it might be relevant. But not always.

If you are studying the text in the original language, I know some people who like to create a glossary for that individual text. There are probably ways to transform the text into a wordlist but I’m not that advanced lol. I would imagine that being “all over” the Pali would help: there are so many great resources like the CSD search function, the Cone dictionary, the PTS dictionary, etc etc…

To make a book recommendation, this is one of my favourite books on the development of vernacular “sanna” literature and its role in monastic education in the Theravada world: Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words
Would recommend any of Justin McDaniel’s work in general- the book explains “lifting words” as a traditional Theravada method of exegesis.

I also like to talk about suttas in a group or with friends, especially from diverse Buddhist backgrounds, as they will often have their own traditions about a text or doctrine. I felt that going to India also helped, as it’s easy to sometimes share an image of the place to give context.


This is a really thought-provoking question. Thank you for asking this and opening the topic for the wonderful answers from people to come in.

I don’t have an immediate answer; I’m going to spend a good while thinking about this. I wanted to express gratitude though.

Briefly, one thing I’ve started doing is adding another dimension to reading the suttas beyond looking at just the various levels of doctrinal meaning. I’ve added in seeing each sutta (or collection, etc. for that matter) as a complex socio-historical text that carries intention in its message as a text that may be motivated by a variety of factors. For instance, asking myself why a sutta is located where it is; why is it set in a certain location or between certain people; what could the editors/composers have been trying to express with the way it is worded (again, beyond the dimension of the standard [potential] meaning(s) of the text); what could the sutta be responding to in regards to intra-Buddhist or inter-faith dialogue; what aspects seem embedded with mythologized material, and what is that trying to convey; what is the history or chronology of the text and how does that relate to its intention/message/significance?

It’s hard to precisely pin down the thought process and specifics, which is something I now want to do (and make more succinct). Engaging with the living textuality of the suttas, though, and getting to know the personality or character of each one beyond its doctrinal message is another dimension to interpreting them I am still exploring.



Thank you Ayya. I was hoping we would’ve had time this morning to hear from the different nuns and I was especially interested in your perspective.

For me this is something I find so useful, but very rarely get to do.


We used to do Saturday night sutta discussion at NBM, 7pm-8.30pm or later, just doing one MN sutta a week. It was great because it was mostly a monastic group, we did mixed bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (I mean, it was great for me as a participant…who knows what kind of job I did facilitating). I tried replicating it with another group but I think it was really the monastic majority in the group with a few lay guests, and semi-structured discussion-based format where everyone had to read and comment, that made the difference. I also appreciated that there was different facilitation over time, getting to see how other people teach.

Would highly recommend. But it may kind of depend on the group, too, as some groups could probably benefit more from a more traditional “Frontalunterricht”/frontal instruction pedagogical method or a mixture of styles.


Would it make sense to add these as metadata to Suttas?

I do not know if it would indeed help others or instead take away their attention from the actual Sutta, but in case some of these would aid in understanding, I think they should be readily available next to the texts.

Thanissaro points out that basic knowledge of musical concepts is necessary in understanding how the mind works:

“These musical terms recur throughout the Buddha’s discussion of meditation [§§66, 74, 86, 150, 161, etc.]. For instance, in one context the Buddha says that one should establish one’s persistence to the right pitch, attune the remaining faculties to that pitch, and then pick up one’s theme. In other contexts, he says that one should become attuned to a particular theme, or that one should develop meditation in tune with a particular object. Impossibilities are said to be “non-base,” analogous to tones that cannot function as musical notes. There are enough passages to show that the Buddha used this terminology conscious of its musical connotations, and that he wanted to make the point that the practice of meditation was similar to the art of musical performance. We should thus try to be sensitive to these terms and their implications, for the comparison between music and meditation is a useful one.”

“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune[2]the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”—Anguttara Nikaya 6.55

I ask myself what the message is.

Then I ask myself if I didn’t understand any particular passage. I often don’t. Then I open up a translation by another translator

I put a link to the sutta in my Google Docs notes with a few brief bullet points about the message. I have a different Google Doc for each subject.

If I find a sutta particularly compelling I will copy the notes for it into the Google Doc where I keep a listing of my favorites to come back to later.

Why should it be a joke? It’s just a framework for inquiry. A method for increasing your understanding. The difference is that you are questioning your understanding of the BuddhaDhamma rather than some other doctrine.

So you ask, ‘what does this sutta mean on a literal level’? Or ‘how does it have moral implications on how I live my life?’, ‘How does it lead to transcendence?’ All these questions seem very important. Otherwise, you’re assuming you know what the Lord Buddha is talking about, but if you knew then you’d be a stream-enterer at least.


When I’ve read a sutta, one of the first things which come up is a feeling of either familiarity or alienation. “familiarity” means: a) well, this could have been happened this way b) that guy has done/said it really well, c) even surprise is allowed for how could he have found this solution for a problem/this arguments - for instance leading a discourse with some brahmanical priest or adept. “alienation” means: d) the topics dealt with are too mystical to me and I don’t find a hook, with which I could assign meaningful relations in/hints for the world which I live in, e) this doing/saying does not agree with my own moral/ideals.

Fortunately, e) happened so far only in “later texts”, the most prominent ones possibly in the “mahaparinirvana sutra” (the Mahayana version)(*1), but as well in texts which start with assuming/ cementing the framework and reference-system of “merits” to the beginning of the path…

If I feel “familiar” or at least not too alienated I look for parallels, or further info on persons whose names are mentioned(*2); sometimes I consider whether that sutra is perhaps worth to be printed out and be fixed at my bedroom-door or to be given to friends. A certain time years ago I even took the time to reproduce the suttas that impressed me much by their core idea, or by their beauty, in another html-form and put them (together with a short introduction into the “essential” of my encounter with the sutta) in a short “nano-index” on my homepage/Palikanon(german).(*3)

After that, as far as the impression survives, I go for deeper discussion (mostly buddh. forums) and understanding of the surrounding whereabouts of the sutra and/or its teachings, by reading deeply and or by the mentioned discussions.

When I first heard of this 4-step stair of analysis on the Hamburg-teaching of Ven. Sujato, I felt alienated, even after question & discussion of it - especially I still can’t make myself familiar with the interpretation of the “transcendence” approach as given there. So I apparently approach and reflect the suttas in a different way, and possibly not useful to be taught for training.(*4)

(*1) from the (2006)-page of Dr. Tony Page on that sutra, citing it: " ‘The Tathagata also teaches, for the sake of all beings, that there is, in truth, the Self in all phenomena’ (The Buddha in The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Three)". We had a long and more detailed controversy about this sutra in a german buddhist forum (see google.groups))
(*2) Just recently I encountered a talk (of some course) by Alfred Weil, where he most nicely collected infos about a certain person, for instance about Mallika, the wife of King Pasenadi, from many places in the palicanon and built a rich and lively encounter with that person from that infos. When my fitness allows I’ll try to do similar things now with persons of my interest - biografies/biografical records have always been a favorite of mine…
(*3) If it is of even more interest, “how I question the sutta”, the introduction to the scroll to DN8 (“lions roar”) is perhaps a good example for what I typically take with me after reading a nice sutta. It’s in german, I could translate it if requested
(*4) This is similar with understanding/interpretating poems in school - I never could make myself happy with the analytic schemes expected of us pupils, so this seems to be my and not the buddha’s/sutta’s failing…

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Adding the metrical analysis might be helpful. (But I’m making an observation, not a suggestion.)

Anything more than that kind of gets into the area of “new commentary”.

I once recall someone saying that their favourite Quran translations are the ones that don’t try to interpret the text for you…I think the same thing could be said of Buddhist translation.


What always seemed reasonable to me was the premise that there should be some aspect of my experience that corresponds with what is being described in the suttas. At the outset, this can be both encouraging and problematic. For instance, with an undeveloped aggregate of virtue - and just a general lack of experience with terminology - there is not necessarily going to be a strong enough foundation for most of what is being described to apply. It might be pleasing to the extent of inspiration; tangible on account of faith, but without gradual training there will be no further basis for those things to begin to mean more. So, for those who are approaching the suttas for the first time, there should be an open and honest approach, but one that bears in mind that the meanings are not clearly available for mere intellectual purposes. There is certainly the option to accept or reject what is being read, but considering that the understanding is going to be gradual - based on establishment and effort of a lifestyle - a reasonable individual would be wise to accept that there is going to be a whole lot they cannot outright and justifiably accept or reject.

As troubling and unsatisfying as that may be, at least it is a position for growth. So, far from being an issue to resolve immediately, that lingering uncertainty that remains after the inspiration runs out is an opening for something new that is able to support or - more accurately - not obstruct what is being described in the suttas. I like to think of this as “poise”: it is a humble attitude that does not disregard further potential for understanding. And it is a sliding scale, constantly shifting depending on effort and understanding. This is the attitude I’ve been reading with for many years, and what I’ve come to realize is that it is in the refinement of that very attitude that reveals a direction of change. Because buried within that attitude is the intention to understand Dhamma, and the idea of what I hope to gain from it. Ensuring that these are seen with clarity, and are also practically accurate, keeps the trajectory consistent.

So, the questions are often: How much of this applies to my situation; to my understanding of suffering; to the direction currently being supported by my actions; to the measure of success currently valued? In other words, is my lifestyle in line with what I’m reading? Are my ideas of what Dhamma is comparable to what the suttas are describing?


On a more technical note, there is often the case when reading where it seems as though a better word or phrase is needed for the meaning to be more clear. In these cases, I think it is safe to say we’re either uncertain about how to make use of the translation to discern the intended meaning, or just plain incapable of discerning it. Neither is the end of the world, because neither assumes nor conceives a hard line that would be difficult to overcome later on. This is rather common when dealing with descriptions of the Buddha, cessation or nibbana, where some degree of uncertainty is expected, but is less confining when dealing with meanings that correspond with the current degree of wisdom. We should be willing to back off from meanings that are too specific in cases where there is the potential for inaccuracies. Working around designations to get at what the suttas truly mean can be an art form as long as there is just enough room to adjust footing. Lastly, we cannot forget the gradual training. If virtue is not upheld and lifestyle is not inclined towards wholesome, even the most accurate translation won’t mean anything. A cake won’t bake in a cold oven.

In the end, there is no guessing when it comes to knowledge. Either it has been acquired and there is no doubt, or it hasn’t, and the situation remains uncertain. Again, not the end of the world - knowledge of “not knowing” is far more valuable than merely being discouraged on account of it.


It is about using secular techniques for learning that can be used for any subject.


because of DN 29

‘Seeing, one does not see,’ it’s of this that it should be said.

Seeing what does one not see?
One sees this: a spiritual path endowed with all good qualities, complete in all good qualities, neither too little nor too much, well explained, whole, full, and well propounded.

One does not see this: anything that, were it to be removed, would make it purer.

One does not see this: anything that, were it to be added, would make it more complete.

Thus it is rightly said: ‘Seeing, one does not see.’

Sutta is not a doctrine, it is complete. Problem is have you developed your faculties to understand the knowledge yet or not.

If that is what you want, then you should look at your own experience and analyze your own experience with Sutta or against the other ariya experience. If you can’t, then find one who can analyze your experience for you. :slight_smile:

So you ask, ‘what does this sutta mean on a literal level’? Or ‘how does it have moral implications on how I live my life?’, ‘How does it lead to transcendence?’ All these questions seem very important. Otherwise, you’re assuming you know what the Lord Buddha is talking about, but if you knew then you’d be a stream-enterer at least.

Just look at 4 factors of stream enterer. SN 55.5.

One who sees and know other ariya personally (+know/hear true dhamma) will become an ariya at that point right away, no need to wait.

Well, if you never see one (and hear true dhamma) until end of life, then there is no chance to enter the stream unfortunately.

Good luck.

No matter what, a person will start with an outsider’s view. That is a guarantee. That step cannot be miraculously skipped. Even if a person were to become immediately uncertain about a previous view on account of reading the suttas, that is still very much the beginning of development. Nothing has actually changed…yet. A former view should only be critiqued to the extent of its insufficiencies, so then it can be developed into something more. Too much emphasis on that former view being wrong and useless seems risky, and may inadvertently leave a person in a state of being enamored and obsessed with the prospect of Dhamma rather than actually developing it. One thing I find fascinating about the Thera/Therigāthā verses is how willing those arahants are to freely admit their former wrong views, and occasionally describe in detail what was most wrong about them. To that extent the former view can be very useful, and there should be no shame in acknowledging it.

This goes hand in hand with how the suttas read and understood, and I think it can be valuable to acknowledge uncertainty and be honest about how much of the current view may still not yet be right. In the very least, it gives an idea of what is left to strive for until it is clear that things have shifted far enough to where the view is now unmistakably right.


My method these days is basically this:

  1. Forst read the sutta in @sujato 's translation with the pali line by line.

  2. Then for any phrase or term of interest i cut and palste the relevent pali into the digital pali reader and note the ditributuin of the twrm or phrase across the whole of the tripitaka plus vissidhumagga.

  3. Then i hone in on the 4 principle nikayas and try and get a sense of the representitive teachings on a given formula, phrase or term.

  4. Then returning to the original sutta i tey and read the text again, this time with an eye to the pali rather than the english.

  5. I then check put the chinese parallels using the machine translations recently made a available, this blunt tool sometimes being sufficient to at least establish the presense or absense of a formula in the parallels.

  6. Finally i apply a sort of hermeneutics of suspicion, something i cant easily explain, but to give one example, if a sutta starts with a monk rather than the buddha, and especially if that monk is not sariputta or ananda, and a twaching is given, and then the interlocutors seek to confirm the teaching with the buddha, but the buddha is plunged deep into the woods, and the interlocutors go into the woods, and the buddha then repeats the teaching verbatum, then i suspicious that the text is recording a new teaching, perhaps originating in the liniage of the monk who first gives it in the sutta, and seeking to justify it by having the “buddha in the woods” validate it.

There are lots of places where this hermeneutics of suspicion has helped me deepen my understanding of the buddhas teaching and deepend my appreciation of the complex literary nature of the sutta literature.

  1. Finally I take my ideas and understandings and discuss them here on sutta central! Although this is perhaps happening for me less often recently as i come to a fuller understanging of the perspectival differences between my approach to buddhism and the approach that is becoming de-rigeur here.

  2. Lastly i spend a lot of time, especially recently, thinking about how to make sense of the buddhas teaching using the language and intellectual resources of the contemporary world i actually live in. I find myself increasinglt revolted by the sort of buddhist religiosity that builds an ever more elaborate and insular system that seems to take certain practitioners furthur and furthur away from any meaningful contact with people who do not share thier exact views and commitments, so finding the connections between say Platonism, or Physics, or Politics or Psychology and Buddhism is simething that has become important to me, as well as being able to talk to non buddhists in a way that makes sense to them, and convinces them of the value and legitimacy of the buddhsit approach, without alienating them with arcane doctrine and twrms of art.

Basically if you cant explain it to a 10 year old in a way that makes semse to them at a “gut level” then you probably dont understand it at all.


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Thank you for your answer :pray:

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My test for understanding is to be able to put it in my own words and in plain English, which I think is basically what you are after.

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Hi Joe,

Based on your response, I doubt you even read my whole post. All the best to you.