How to Read the Sutras (and Enjoy Yourself), article by Kaia Fischer

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Fischers points are as follows:

  1. Find the time (don’t “make” it).
  2. Don’t read the sutras. (I’m kidding!!)
  3. Read the sutras… slowly.
  4. Be aware of your expectations, and be ready to recalibrate.
  5. Take time to identify with each person in the story, however large or small their role.
  6. Stop While You’re Still Having Fun.

Their first point, “Find the time, don’t make it,” is interesting because they are encouraging people to look for some time that isn’t being used well. I’m not sure I would give this advice since it seems like trying to pack something in to an already busy day. I’m more inclined to suggest giving up something to make time (i.e. renunciation).

The second point, “Don’t read the sutras,” is of course, more problematic. Not because of their main point, but because of what they suggest as an alternative. Now, they are coming from a Mahayana/Tibetan perspective. The general advice is to read a paraphrase or modern adaptation. But are alarm bells going off in your head like they are in mine? One of the books they recommend to get started is Old Path, White Cloud by hich Nhat Hanh. I’ll confess this was the first serious book I read on the life of the Buddha and I really enjoyed it. I don’t recommend it now because of how far it strays from the actual life of the Buddha. But it’s not bad at all compared to their other recommendation, the manga comic Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka. That one is horrible. If I recall correctly, the Buddha becomes enlightened when Maha Brahma comes and taps him on the head.

However, I do think that reading things like the stories of the Dhammapada commentary early on is a really good idea. It does add a richness to the teachings that can infuse the suttas themselves with more realness. Another one of their alternates is The Hundred Deeds. From what I know if it, it’s kind of similar to the DhpA. She was actually one of the translators.

Their last point, “Stop while you’re having fun,” is not a bad idea. By “stop” here they are saying to start with just a little bit at a time, not that one should give up the reading practice.

I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on the article.


As someone who only somewhat recently began reading the suttas directly, I have a couple comments:

When I say find the time, I’m not talking about ridding yourself of other activities.

Eh, I don’t know about this one. I think identifying time that’s not being spent in a skillful way and replacing it (bit by bit, not all at once) with different aspects of Buddhist study and practice can be really helpful. Most people could really benefit from a little (or a lot) less mindless entertainment and social media, but maybe can’t think about how to “fill the time” if they’re not doing these things.

you might be happier beginning with a contemporary paraphrase or adaptation

I have been reading books about Buddhism for six years now. I learned some very good things, but I also learned some very wrong things. I started reading the suttas because, although it’s difficult as a beginner, I had come to a place in my practice where I didn’t want my understanding to be so heavily filtered through other people’s perspectives. I wish I had realized this much sooner.

Read the sutras… slowly.

Learn to pay attention to your mental state, recognize fatigue before it sets in, and go easy on yourself.

Both of these points I totally agree with. Anything I read related to Buddhism I go very slowly and if I notice I’m not paying proper attention, I stop immediately and start again once my focus is sharper. I reread things a lot. I don’t treat it like reading for entertainment and I don’t read just to acquire the information as quickly as possible. “Careful patience is the fastest way.”

Adding on a comment about something else in the article:

I noticed that I was spending ten minutes every day standing slack-jawed in the kitchen, vacantly regarding a cooking pot of oatmeal. I wasn’t doing anything particular during that time, for well or ill. My habit was just to stand there and watch the oatmeal do its thing, and not in a “mindfulness practice” way.

I can understand the author is getting at here, but one of the most profound ways that Buddhist practice has changed my life is that I stopped multitasking. Publilius Syrus said “To do two things at once is to do neither” and this is something I’ve found enormous benefit keeping in mind while doing everyday tasks. I’m not waiting for my breakfast to finish cooking anymore, I’m cooking my breakfast, even if that’s just watching the pot boil. These little gaps in the day where one isn’t actively doing something aren’t wasted time to fill up with something “more productive”… learning how to do just one thing at a time has been an excellent training for learning how to do nothing.


Well, then let us all listen (in our own time) to the hair-raising sutta.

MN12:64.6: “Well, Nāgasamāla, you may remember this exposition of the teaching as ‘The Hair-raising Discourse’.”

:scream_cat: :grin:


Sutras should be read slowly, and you should reread over and over your favourite sutras.

And just like when you do with your favourite movies, you will feel that each line is full of hidden meanings, hidden easter eggs.

You can feel its rich history, its high culture, and the beauty of its language.

You immerse in it, imagine yourself to be a part of it, as if you are listening to the Buddha speaking himself.

His melodious and angelic voice is vibrating into your every vertebrae.

The beating of the Dharma drum in your stomach, its pounding, its rhythm, its magnificent.

You then know that each sutra there, its every line, its every thread, it is in fact hours upon hours of Dhamma Talks given by the Lord Buddha to his live audience, that are now heavily condensed in just very short sutras, that were passed on through generations upon generations, now are spreading its full length and might upon your eyes and mind, like a chromosome spreading its full length of its stored information.

No words can speak it, no books can tell you about it, only you can know it.

Xuanzang once said this when he was paying homage at the Buddha’s stupa in India:

Through countless births,
Without knowing, without realizing,
I took in the dusts.
When the Lord was still in the world,
I was wandering through the endless transmigration.
I have now obtained the human life, but the Lord has now gone.
I cannot see with my own eyes his golden form.
I grieved for myself, whom with many karma.
Now, before the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Each and every of my worldly dust, I repent them all.


The next level of practice is when meanings become revealed. That occurs when the practitioner applies the suttas to their own life. Then they are not an object of awe but a necessary support in the difficult situations to be navigated in daily life. When someone whose dhamma eye is opened like Ajahn Chah discusses things, it can be seen they are able to relate every situation back to dhamma principles. That’s because everything has been overcome with dhamma as the resolving factor in the first place.

"Mental ills are found in each one of us without exception. When
you see these mental ills, does it not make sense to look to the Dhamma
as support, as medicine to cure your ills? Traveling the path of the
Buddha-Dhamma is not done with the body. You must travel with the
mind to reach the benefits. We can divide these travelers into three

First level: this is comprised of those who understand that they must
practice themselves, and know how to do so. They take the Buddha,
Dhamma and Sangha as their refuge and have resolved to practice diligently according to the teachings. These persons have discarded merely
following customs and traditions, and instead use reason to examine for
themselves the nature of the world. These are the group of “Buddhist
Middle level: This group is comprised of those who have practiced
until they have an unshakable faith in the teachings of the Buddha, the
Dhamma and the Sangha. They also have penetrated to the understand-
ing of the true nature of all compounded formations. These persons
gradually reduce clinging and attachment. They do not hold onto things
and their minds reach deep understanding of the Dhamma. Depending
upon the degree of non-attachment and wisdom they are progressively
known as stream-enterers, once-returners and non-returners, or simply,
noble ones.
Highest level: This is the group of those whose practice has led
them to the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. They are above the
world, free of the world, and free of all attachment and clinging. They
are known as arahants or free ones, the highest level of the noble ones."—Ajahn Chah


Those all seem like good points. Here’s my 2 cents:

People should definitely not approach the suttas as if they’re reading a novel. I think the mindset we bring to reading a novel is usually something like, “Right, I start on page 1, read through the whole book, and then I’m done. I enjoy the story, the character development, and the resolution of the conflict. When I’ve finished the novel, I put it aside, don’t really think about it again, and grab another.” That doesn’t work with suttas. Firstly, the suttas aren’t chapters in a novel. There isn’t a single overarching story that builds from one sutta to the next. The groupings of suttas into vaggas is also unrelated to the function of a chapter in a novel. Those groupings usually have nothing to do with an overarching plot. Modern Dhamma books, while also not novels, are still planned out with topics arranged in a certain order that follow some logical progression. While the Anguttara and Samyutta Nikayas have some order to them (numbers of things and topics, respectively), those groupings also don’t function in the same way a chapter in a novel does. If we’re going to relate suttas to fiction, I think the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas are best approached as collections of short stories. The Anguttara and Samyutta Nikayas are different beasts entirely, though. Regardless, the goal isn’t to “finish” a Nikaya and then move onto the next Nikaya like we do a novel. We have to go back again and again and reread the suttas.

People who read modern Dhamma books are used to getting a nugget of information (probably from a sutta), and then many paragraphs or even pages of explanation about the meaning or implication of that bit of information. Suttas don’t work that way. The “explanation” you get in a sutta about a particular practice or concept is just a formulaic list of things that itself might raise even more questions, or be very vague or terse. So I think that’s another thing people new to reading suttas have to keep in mind.

When the author of the article talks about sutras, I’m guessing they are mostly talking about Mahayana sutras, since they are part of the 84000 translation project. I’ve read bits and pieces of some Mahayana sutras, and they are quite diverse in style. So it’s hard to lump them all together and speak about them as if they are all the same. However, I think the Pali suttas are generally more approachable. The Digha and Majjhima Nikayas are especially approachable in that they are the most story-like. So at least you have a setting and characters running around doing things and talking to each other in a way that’s relatable to normal people. In some Mahayana sutras there are pages and pages of descriptions of how wish-fulfilling jewels adorn everything imaginable and emit light and sounds that do this and that, and the light emanating from some Buddha causes this and that to happen, etc., etc. It’s beautiful imagery, but gets tiring quickly. It’s also impossible to see how that relates to practice and daily life.

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Most sutras in the Nikaya and Agama, are likely, in their original forms, were a few hours of Dhamma talks delivered by the Buddha to his disciples. They are now highly condensed, and needs to be explained in much details, greatly.

For example, the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, in our modern time, Mahasi Sayadaw explained it in his single talk is about 420 pages when transcribed from the original tapes, and even after they have condensed them, it’s still 152 pages. I have the download link here:

So you see, to understand one sutra is of no simple matter. BTW, if you can read Classical Chinese, the Chinese Canon has a Sutra Explanation section, and it has a lot of sutras presented in a long form and explained them in details, that might be of your interest.

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Yes, I was wondering about this. I remembering see that the CBETA Tripitaka has a section for sutra
commentaries. I was planning on looking into that. Thanks for reminding me!