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How do you study the Samyutta Nikaya?

I’m looking for advice on how to approach study of the Samyutta Nikaya.

DN and MN are pretty simple. Start at the front, finish at the back. But SN (and probably AN) seem like this method would be a lot of repetition and retention of individual sutta would be less as a result. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I do sometimes want to know where that sutta quote came from!

I found Leigh Brasington’s study guide and would like to know your thoughts on this.

How have you tackled study of the Samyutta Nikaya?
:pray:

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I wish I could remember the details, but Bodhi once gave a guide for the SN. It involved understanding the fourfold structure that was probably the first structure used for the SN.

As I recall, the whole Mahavagga was the fourth section, but the other sections were only certain chapters, or sets of them together.

@Kalia is the one I got it from, in fact, iirc. I wonder if they still know about it, or anyone else here.

But, I just read the thing ‘straight’ through, II-V and then I. Lots of skimming at the end of many chapters.

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Here you go:
https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=345#p88300

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I first went through the SN hand-in-hand with Choong Mun-keat’s “The Fundamentals of the Early Buddhism” (FTEB), his published PhD thesis. That covers the the sutra-anga portion of SN (haven’t counted but it must be about 50% of the entire book). This builds on earlier work by Yin Shun, whose theory was that the sutra-anga part contained the earliest and most important doctrinal core.

The book goes through in order: the five aggregates, the sense spheres, vedana, the dhatus, dependent arising, and finally a chapter on “the path” which covers most of the Mahavagga. These chapters give good encapsulations of the similarities and differences between the Pali and the Chinese parallels. Nice for getting an indication of what aspects may be common and what may be sectarian.

Seemed like a good order in which to cover these topics. Seems natural to do the SN in such themed chunks (given that’s how SN is structured).

Generally, I started by reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s intro to a section twice. Then I’d start reading the suttas in the relevant section. There is a lot of repetition. However, I’d read only these for about 15 minutes in the morning after waking and another 15 minutes at night before sleep. So perhaps short reads often are a good way of reading this. The repetitions do drill in the material pretty well, if nothing else! :wink: However, it has crossed my mind one could probably cover this material well and include almost all relevant points in about 20% of its length! :slight_smile: There are one or two prior anthologies but IMO the SN is crying out for more (some kind of “Word of the Buddha” just for the SN). Finally, I’d read the FTEB chapter twice, which IMO served as a nice recap, and a good way to get one thinking about the material. Plugged away in that fashion for a long time, then branched out to the rest of it (without aid of the FTEB). However, the sutra-anga is, I think, doctrinally the most important core of it.

It’s fairly easy to find a pdf of the FTEB via google. However, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it is under copyright! :frowning: (so am not going to give a link).

As an aside, one can do pretty much the same thing with MN via Analayo’s freely-available “A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya”:



There’s isn’t, of course, the same nice overarching organization by theme (then again it isn’t the connected discourses either).

I probably send more time listening to suttas than reading them (audio suits me better in many ways; can listen when commuting or busy around the house etc.). MN and the early books of the KN are well covered in terms of audio (KN via commercial offerings). Most of the MN is very conveniently available via audtip.org here thanks to frankk. For SN I could really only read (little audio coverage of AN and DN either)! Bhikkhu Bodhi does make liberal use of ellipses for the repetitions. SN probably would be particularly awkward for audio (a format that probably would exacerbate the repetitive feel and perhaps eventually push someone to throwing their headphones across the room). :slight_smile:

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SN is the only nikaya I have read so far so here are my thaugts on it: It should be read from start to finish, starting with chapter 2. It is the only nikaya that is written in a specific order, hence the name “connected discourses”.

More than this, it is the most important of them all and contains the higher dhamma. It is written in the exact same order as Buddha explained the higher dhamma to people, for example to his 5 ascetic friends. First day he explained conditionality, next day the aggregates, then sense bases and only at the end no-self. They have to be explained in a particular order.

As for how the reading goes:

  • Chapter 2, “Book of causation” will explain many things but still the person will not understand too well how things work.
  • Chapter 3, "Book of aggregates"will clear everything out and make the person really understand how things work.
  • Chapter 4, “Book of sense bases” will present things from another angle, that of the sense bases and it also contains the final step: the powerful suttas about no-self.

All suttas in there should be read and contemplated carefully because the goal is not only to understand the technicalities of how things work but also to really see the situation from another angle that one normally sees the world. No sutta there is useless, all useless repetitions have been removed by B.Bodhi who just puts dots instead of them.

I would also add that in order to make oneself to read such a long book that has to be read in a slow way in order to contemplate what is written, one has to browse the contents of the book and curiosity will arise. That is how I did it, I kept browsing the contents from time to time.

Also, it is important to simply lay on the coach from time to time and contemplate things. It is difficult to really understand something while reading cause that takes some mental energy away, therefore from time to time one has to contemplate things on the coach.

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It seems to me there is some difficulty (unlike during the Buddha’s time) about what the technical terms (such as aggregates) meant. Without this knowledge, reading the Samyutta nikaya will be dreadfully boring I think.

The need is, to be clear about how sense doors, elements and aggregates relate to real lived experiences… Otherwise they will be just words on paper- a useful exercise- apply the aggregates x 6 sense doors and be clear in how they apply to each kind of sense stimulus.

Getting a sense of the DO by contemplation (yonisomanasikara) is important. Know that the DO in the forward order is the 2 Noble Truth (- how suffering comes into being), and the ceasing order is the 3rd Noble truth (-how suffering ceases).

How a perception arises needs to be known, as this is the entry point into EBT vipassana, when these factors will be verified without the need for the word of another. This sutta is a very useful one:

"‘The six classes of craving should be known.’ Thus was it said. In reference to what was it said? Dependent on the eye & forms there arises consciousness at the eye. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. Dependent on the ear & sounds there arises consciousness at the ear. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. Dependent on the nose & aromas there arises consciousness at the nose. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. Dependent on the tongue & flavors there arises consciousness at the tongue. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. Dependent on the body & tactile sensations there arises consciousness at the body. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. Dependent on the intellect & ideas there arises consciousness at the intellect. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition there is feeling. With feeling as a requisite condition there is craving. ‘The six classes of craving should be known.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said. This is the sixth sextet. MN148

When you know these factors thoroughly, let the Samyutta Nikaya open where it may- or you can choose a sutta that you prefer- and start reading. Add the other suttas on to it and extend the ramifications and extent of your understanding in an organic way, no need for any pattern or order- if you kamma is on-point, penetrate the Dhamma, you will! :eye: :yoda_sw:.

with metta,

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XIV. Vangisa (2)

Intoxicated with skill in the poetic art, formerly we wandered from village to village, from town to town. Then we saw the Awakened One gone to the far shore beyond all phenomena.

The sage gone to the far shore beyond suffering taught me the Dhamma. On hearing the Dhamma we gained confidence in him; faith arose in us.

Having heard his word and learnt of the aggregates, bases, and elements, I went forth into homelessness.

Indeed Tathagatas appear for the good of the many men and women who practice their teaching.

Indeed the sage attained enlightenment for the good of those monks and nuns who see the course to be undergone.

Well taught are the Four Noble Truths by the Seeing One, the Awakened One, the Kinsman of the Sun, out of compassion for living beings.

Suffering, the origin of suffering, the overcoming of suffering, and the noble eightfold path leading to the allaying of suffering.

Thus these things, thus spoken of, have been seen by me as they really are. The true goal has been reached by me; the Awakened One’s instruction has been done.

It was good indeed for me, my coming into the presence of the Awakened One. Among things shared out I obtained the best.

I have attained the perfection of the direct knowledges, I have purified the element of hearing, I have the threefold knowledge and obtained supernormal powers and am skilled in knowing the minds of others. Thag 21

The EBT above shows how the five aggregates etc, the so called deep Dhamma were taught to laymen and women, allowing them to reach into deeper insight into the teachings.

with metta

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Interesting Q and interesting contributions, thanks all!

As a little footnote:

In a way this strikes me as a pretty essential point to consider when answering the posed question in general terms. We don’t pick up the texts starting from the same place (with respect to spiritual development and, for that matter learning styles and whatever else) and we may need to individually adjust our focus accordingly.

Of course, it’s great for whomever to reflect on what you quite nicely call “the so called deep Dhamma”, Mat, but I’m always keen to keep in mind that the EBTs make it extremely clear one’s ability to directly see the Dhamma at that level has silā as a non-negotiable foundation.


In answer to the Q: I wouldn’t necessarily promote (nor criticise) it, but I personally follow something quite along the lines of Mat’s “organic way” and that seems to work for me (however, as a disclaimer I probably need to add that I am dyslexic and read so desperately slowly that I genuinely find the prospect of a cover to cover approach with a book that size off-puttingly intimidating :laughing:).

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Choong Mun-keat’s “The Fundamentals of the Early Buddhism” (FTEB) seems to follow the same suggested ordering as Bhikkhu Bodhi (BB) with the following Samyuttas (SYs). Its ordering is:

  • SN 22 (Khanda Aggregates SY)
  • SN 35 (Salayatana Six Sense Spheres SY)
  • SN 36 (Vedana Feelings SY)
  • SN 14 (Dhatu Elements SY)
  • SN 12 (Nidana Causation SY)

and then all of the Mahavagga (except SN 52 and 53):

  • SN 45-51 (Magga, Bojjhanga, Satipatthana, Indriya, Sammappadhana, Bala and Iddhipada SYs): basically the 37 wings to awakening.
  • and finally SN 54-56 (Anapana Breathing, Sotapatti Stream-Entry and Sacca Truths SYs).

If one is only going to read only some of this, IMO probably SN 12 on dependent causation is the most important, followed by the Mahavagga. Of the rest of the list, I personally thought SN 36 on Vedana was rather nice (and it has the advantage of being quite short compared to the remaining Samyuttas).

I tend to the systematic with these kinds of things, but nice to see suggestions for the more free-wheeling free-form approach also. Probably as many approaches are there are people! :laughing:

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If you’re reading Bodhi’s translation, here’s one piece of advice. Remember that there are 56 samyuttas. Bodhi numbers everything with different kinds of brackets, representing different organization systems, so it’s incredibly confusing keeping track of where you are within SN if you’re reading all the 56 samyuttas though from beginning to end of book. If you remember there are 56 samyuttas (see sutta central SN). And once you’re within a samyutta, for example, SN 54 is the anapanasati samyutta, he won’t label each sutta as SN 54.1, SN 54.2, etc, it’s just #1, #2, #3, and then in brackets there’s a numbering for the archaic SN numbering system.

My second piece advice, because I assume you’re reading it with the same intent I did, which is to understand all 56 samyuttas, don’t expect to understand it on the first pass. Expect to read much of the SN with multiple passes/reads.

So if I were doing it again, reading SN for the first time, this is how I would do it.

Keep notes , 1-56 for each samyutta, and then notes for each suttas within the samyutta. And for eah of the 56 samyuttas, right off the bat write down how many suttas are in there, so you know what you’re dealing with and have a rough idea where you are as you’re reading through bodhi’s book. Not full summaries to start off with, just little helpful notes like “this sutta is just a repeat of that one”, “this one is really important has to do with 12ps”, etc. So for exampe, there are two “jhāna” samyuttas among the SN 56. One is just straight standard jhana formula with repetition series, another is an abhidhamma style that doesn’t make any sense. So in my notes, I note that, and I don’t have to read those samyuttas ever again because in one pass I already got everything that can be gotten. Whereas some samyuttas are really important and you have to read over and over again before you start to get it. And with those, I would just keep expanding my notes on those suttas until I comprehend them.

And I don’t feel there’s a need to read in order 1 through 56. I would probably start with maha vagga, the later part of the 56 SN’s, they cover 37bp, 8aam.

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So far, I haven’t tackled any nikaya in a particularly distinct way from one another.

What works for me is to first read all four nikayas once, cover to cover, like any other book. Doing this, I gain a certain idea of scope and a certain sense of what things are covered in which nikaya. I started with Majjhima and soon realized I’d like to bookmark certain suttas in certain groups, so I did the same with Samyutta (starting from II, like dave) and the rest. After reading them cover to cover, I sometimes re-read all the bookmarked suttas of a nikaya, specially of the Samyutta.

But, in parallel to reading them, I started writing on a blog the doctrine “from the start” and looked for a place where I could share what I’ve been reading. I found that Q&A sites (like stackexchange, quora and the one here) are great for this and decided to only answer questions with quotes from suttas (or as much as possible). Same for the blog posts, which are almost 50% sutta quotes.

While a blog and participating in Q&A sites can benefit others in some way (though I’m quite uncertain in the case of the blog), as far as learning goes, I found four interesting things with that.

First, that questions in Q&A would trigger the “I read that recently somewhere”. A few times digging suttas to answer questions and I found that I was developing some strategies to find suttas – what keywords to look for, pali terms associated with passages, etc – and how to bookmark them. I also started having a sense of where important suttas in specific topics are found.

Second, that formulating answers in the Q&A sites and writing blog posts is an emulation of one of the best strategies for learning and retention: which is teaching (Of course, as bonus, one also gets knowledgeable people pointing out where we might be mistaken in our interpretations). In my case, I don’t have any friends or family who are interested in Buddhism, and I’m not participating in any sangha, so I had to resort to the internet.

Three, that, by answering similar questions and writing about them over and over, I noticed I was developing and retaining some stock explanations for doctrines quoting a set of suttas which I often re-read. And when a new sutta was brought to my attention, or a point was raised, or the same topic would show up again, I could revise and expand the explanations I’ve written in the past, but always driven by the suttas and quotes from them. Then the passages gets easier and easier to memorize. The net result is that as explanations become more robust, so does understanding.

Finally, that by bringing up different discourses in difference places to explain something, a fresh new perspective on the dhamma often appears, showing how things relate to each other in all sorts of different ways. Also, there are many subtle sentences that pass by unnoticed when just reading a sutta but, when putting them next to other suttas (distant in pages, or in different nikayas), they become very meaningful.

In summary, I think finding creative ways of explaining and teaching is a very good approach of studying.

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Brilliant! For quick reference:

First Truth:
SN 22; 35; 36

Second/Third:
SN 12; 43; 44

Fourth:
SN 45-56


I used post-it notes to set these aside, once I’d heard of this organization. Also, if you have the 2-volume SN set, you can basically leave the first volume untouched, at first.

The Agamas have all the poetry at the back of the SN, not at the front, which does seem to be a better layout, which is why skipping Part I seems like a good choice.

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I haven’t read the entirety of the Samyutta nikaya myself- but if I did, I would use the ordering according to the Four Noble Truths, as mentioned by Bhikkhi Bodhi, above. I think this again points to the fact that by the time the different school emerged true understanding of the teachings were fast vanishing…

with metta,

Some excellent advice. Thanks everyone.
I will be reading electronically. I’m too nomadic to own print copies of anything! I have the Bhikkhu Bodhi translations of the suttas (without intros, with footnotes) as HTML files.

I think @Aminah makes a good point about learning styles. I’m a slow reader too but if I just set my task as to ‘speed’ read through as a first pass taking overview notes as @frankk suggested then I might have some hope. @tsilva I agree with teaching as a method of retaining information. Right now I have some stuff from SN in my data-bank but being able to locate it is rough. I just have ‘it’s somewhere in the Samyutta Nikaya’ :smiley:

I wonder whether there is already a spreadsheet overview of the SN, like Leigh Brasington’s chart of Gradual Training. I will try and collate one along the way.

Why is everyone skipping the Devata samyutta?

Thanks again everyone

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In case of interest, Wisdom Publications do at least freely offer Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductions to the whole collection and to the separate parts of the Saṃyutta.

Much less scary than a massive book! :wink:

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I found it obscure and unhelpful. Just now, I randomly dove into the thing and got this:

SN 1.72

Chariot

“What is the token of a chariot?
What, the token of a fire?
What is the token of a country?
What, the token of a woman?”

“A standard is the token of a chariot;
Smoke, the token of a fire;
The king is a country’s token;
A husband, the token of a woman.”

So, yeah… not really my style of Dhamma instruction, you know?

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I know the problem.
I tried to read SN few times. Half way I just lost interest.
This is my plan of attack.

First round : Start from the beginning and try to read to the end.
Second round: Start from the end and try reading towards the beginning.
Third round: Start from the middle and read towards the beginning.
Fourth round : Start from the middle and read towards the end.
Fifth round: Random reading
and so on …

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That’s an interesting chart, thanks! Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could log into suttacentral and it would know all our personal notes, and tags and so on, even show it like this chart? We could even share them with each other :sunny:

I read they had plans for bookmarks, but not sure about storing your own highlights, notes, and tags.

I guess I was too excited to go to the “bulk” and the verses seemed less appealing. So I left it for a later time.

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I suggested this as a feature a while ago. I think the idea is rattling around. One day! In the meantime we just tag things up in here and find the tags in the sidebar/draw (except that isn’t working right now).

They seem to carry the typical characteristics of very condensed questions and replies that conversations with devas generally seem to posses.

I don’t think a student would miss out a lot if they were skipped- with the sole exception of the Mahamangala sutta, in the DN.

They are poetic almost playful exchange of question and answer, clearly to delight much in the dhamma. Devas are meant to know the meaning directly from the mind of bhikkhus immersed in the dhamma- so there’s no need for real verbal exchange, except for delighting in the dhamma -maybe a form of playfulness at clever answers or well known themes, like a ‘greatest hits’ being replayed!

Compare with the Abhidhamma, which is meant to be recited to devas, which is dry as bone in the Sahara.

with metta

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