SuttaCentral

How to Read the Suttas


#1

Since I started practicing Buddhism, I have found the Suttas to be an invaluable refuge. There is so much wisdom, so many amazing things – they are an inexhaustible trove of Dhamma. I encourage all Buddhists the have the habit of daily, or at least weekly, reading the Suttas.

The Suttas are not immediately striking. They are often repetitive, and can be mundane. But their beauty is a subtle thing. It lies in the balance, the sense of form, the reasonableness, the Buddha’s serenity and wisdom in every imaginable situation.

It’s best to read them a little at a time. One Middle-length Sutta is ideal for one session. Read it slowly, carefully. Notice if there are things that you don’t understand—and beware of what you think you already understand. When you have finished, check any footnotes or other guides to comprehension. Don’t get too analytic about it—try to soak in the whole essence of the teaching. If you read a Sutta before meditation, it can uplift and inspire your mind, and the meaning becomes clear.

Remember you are reading a translation. Don’t get hung up on the specific connotations of terminology—that’s just the choices of the translator. Become familiar, one word at a time, with the Pali/Sanskrit terms that underlie all Buddhist teachings. But beware of over-interpreting individual words: the true meaning of a spiritual text emerges from context and experience, not from etymology.

Notice your own response to the text: what is inspiring, what is boring, what is dubious. Your responses belong to you, not the text.

Beware of the mind that wants to criticize the text. Even though I myself believe in the importance of text-critical studies, this is after many years of study and reflection. It takes time to get a sense for these things. Have compassion for the text. Read it kindly, as if you were listening to a beloved friend. It was composed in an oral tradition in a far off time and place. It is a miracle that it exists at all, and we should not be put off if some of the modes of expression are alien to us.

Perhaps a bigger problem is the desire to literalize or insist on a particular reading. The Suttas have a word for this: idasaccabhinivesa—the insistence that “this alone is the truth”. Any text is open to different readings and emphases. It is easy enough to find cases where modern teachers or traditional schools teach things that differ from the Suttas. It is not so easy, but far more valuable, to understand why these changes came to be made, and to understand what aspect of Dhamma is at stake.

If you are in doubt, remember the poised attitude that the Suttas themselves speak of: “Neither accepting nor rejecting, I will inquire about the meaning…”. In Buddhism, we are not expected to believe literally every detail of the scriptures; but if we read them with a fault-finding mind, we will never really get it.

Whatever aspect of Dhamma—whether meditation, philosophy, ethics, or inspiring stories—there’s nothing like the real thing. Take the text, and live it. Try it out and see what it does in your life. Meditate on it. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve never been let down. Whatever faults I have, they’re all because of my failing to live up to the Dhamma, not because of the Dhamma itself.

Note: This is a revised version of an essay I originally published on my blog.


#2

Good advise Bhante.
I have read most of Suttas English translations at least twice.
Some of them I have read perhaps ten or fifteen times.
I am going to read all the Suttas again when your translation is published. :grinning:
How is it progressing?


#3

The last couple of weeks it’s been on hold, due to Blake’s illness. We need to sort out a couple of things, then we’ll be ready to start the proofreading. I’ve been diverting myself with some other trifles; writing summaries of the suttas of the Anguttara, for example.

Good news is, Blake’s feeling better and hopes to start work again this week.


#4

I think we all can relate to it.
Thankfully it is gradual training and right effort.
:grinning:


#5

Beautifully stated, Bhante.


#6

Hi Bhante,

First can I just say, I love what you’ve written! :rose:

I’d love to have your thoughts on something though. Anything that I see as doctrine, I take quite literally. So I’m not referring to narrative, mythical stuff or anything that is certainly not an EBT. For example the Annatalakkhana Sutta SN 22.59 is full of doctrinal material which I take quite literally. I mean, I don’t understand it and I certainly don’t live it in a way that informs anywhere near enough of my life! But 'am I right in reading such texts in this way?

I understand that they need explaining and I need to understand on deeper levels. But essentially, the Buddha is saying it like he sees it; the fact that I can’t see it right now, doesn’t mean he’s not being quite straight.

I value your opinion on things like this and would love to have your thoughts here.

With many thanks. :pray:t6:


#7

:heart_eyes:
Thanks for writing this, Bhante!


#8

That is brilliant! Your experience and the skilful way you handle the suttas shine through. I like what you said about its interaction with meditation. I certainly hope that you will continue to write to inspire and encourage. Just the other day someone was saying how dry she thought the forum could be at times. I think the technicalities or source code needs a really good graphical user interface. Good work!

With metta,


#9

See, the thing is, technically speaking, literal schmiteral.

We use the word “literal”, but what does it mean? Does it mean that there’s a one to one absolute correspondence between the word and the thing?

“God gave names to all the animals”* Okay, so that one is a cat. :cat: Fine. But what about that other one? :cat2: Is that a cat, too? Sure, why not! Is this one a cat? :tiger: Okay, fine, that one too. What about this:

It’s a cat o’ nine tails: but is it a cat?

The point is that language is built up from metaphors, from the ground up. Even a neanderthal grunt is a kind of metaphor: “Uggh!” means “Heck, this bison tastes good!” but “Ahhh!” means “Sabre-tooth, run!” They’re just one thing that points to another thing, which is really all a metaphor is.

So what do we mean when we speak of literal and metaphorical usages? We’re talking about shades on a spectrum, not absolute differences. The same text can have both literal and metaphorical senses; this is, in fact, the primary conceit of most poetry.

But we must be careful not to erase the difference. When we speak of “dark” and “light”, it’s never absolute dark or absolute light. As intelligent and reflective people, we can live in a world without absolutes. But our philosophical sophistication doesn’t save us from bumping into things at night! The distinction is meaningful and relevant, it’s just not absolute.

Now, when it comes to the suttas, they are typically fairly clear and explicit when it comes to such matters. Similes are formally introduced as such. Poetic conceits, narrative play, and other non-literal forms are usually easy to identify. When it comes to doctrinal passages, on the whole it is clear they were meant literally. But nuance and context are everything, especially when reading an ancient sacred literature.


* According to Bob Dylan. The Bible says it was Adam who did the naming. But I’ve always found Bob to be more reliable than the Bible!


#10

:rofl::joy:

Thank you for these gifts of laughter and guidance! I will heed this advice as I continue to work my way through the Nikayas. I hope to finish the Bhikku Bodhi translations before your new translations are finished, and reading before I sit will be an excellent way accomplish this aspiration! Thank you kindly, @sujato, once again, for your benevolence and willingness to offer such relevant and illuminating advice despite your mountainous workload!

:anjal:


#11

Beautiful! Thanks Bhante :pray:t6::sparkles:


#12

This sounds like it must be correct. Even someone like God cannot do everything - Adam needs to pitch in. Also there is parallel: Buddha taught 82,000 and Ven Ananda (and others) did 2000. So it must be true!


#13

Your logic is compelling, I admit!


#14

This is a main reason why I prefer, as a literary form, reading the Mahayana sutras to the Pali suttas. At the same time, I’m sure there are many people who would regard the Mahayana sutras as boring, repetitive, and mundane.

I also read the Pali suttas, since they are equivalent to the Mahayana Agamas, but usually as compiled in anthologies.

I am currently reading The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, and I’ve read In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi as well as the Dhammapada.

I feel that the Pali suttas are easier to read and digest when already chopped up and put back together in an anthology by someone who is expert in them.

When I read an anthology of suttas, I trust that the compiler is fairly and accurately presenting the Buddha’s teachings, though I’ve heard that the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha are the best introduction to the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali canon, because of the topics they cover.

The Majjhima Nikāya might be concisely described as the Buddhist scripture that combines the richest variety of contextual settings with the deepest and most comprehensive assortment of teachings.
http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/middle-length-discourses-buddha


#15

As a beginner is really important to find good advises and to be able to understand them So thank you, your advises are the best! I have some health problems related to depression and i think that this can help me somehow. Actually it already helped me, as i started to be more interested in it, and to spend more time searching info about this, and spending less time on https://onlinepharmacyreviews.org


#17

I am also a beginner, so please take my words as such! I was watching a dhamma talk by Bhante Sujato a while back where he said that Metta meditation helped with nightmares. I have been playing a guided meditation by Ajahn Brahm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Jb72-QgXOc every night at bedtime and anytime I wake up in the middle of the night. It has really helped! I thought it might also help with depression, so I decided to tell you about it. Another thing that has helped me immensely with negative thoughts is impermanence meditation. It takes a while for it to sink in, but it really puts a perspective on what is and is not important.

Much Metta


#18

Bhante, thank you for all of your translation work making the teachings accessible, and these pleasant and helpful words of advice. I wonder if you would answer a question about something you wrote toward the end of this piece. You suggest, as the Buddha himself did, that we should live the texts and see what they do in our lives. My question is, do you think it is possible for laypeople or wayward folks like us Zen practitioners to live the texts, or is that really the domain of monasticism, in your view? I am not talking about the particular suttas aimed at the daily life of lay folks, but specifically the doctrinal suttas on awakening through insight into the 5 kandhas, dependent origination, satipatthana, the 7 factors and so on. Asking for a friend…


#19

Hi Konin, I am so pleased to hear from you!

I have heard similar questions many times, and I think that it’s perhaps not quite the right question. The reality is that, wherever we are, whether lay or monastic or something in-between, practice is hard, keeping sight of the dharma is hard, and straying from the path is easy.

I don’t think the real reason we pursue a monastic lifestyle is because it’s a better way of practicing. It’s because we love living this way. I love being a monk. I just came back from alms-round on King Street in Newtown, Sydney. It’s a famous street, and as a boy from Perth, I first heard about it in a song by Paul Kelly back in the 80s. Now I walk along it and kind people give me food! So good! Then I come back here to the Buddhist Library, eat my meal, help a plumber fix a hot water system, and chat with you. I like living this way, and I am so happy that I don’t have to worry about clothes and mortgages and all the rest.

Oh, and it’s good for practicing, too! So there’s that. But for me these things are not differentiated; my life is my practice, so if I love my life, I love my practice.

If I was slogging away trying to be a monk, hating every minute of it, maybe it would still be valuable in the long term, but it’s a hard thing to do.

So to me the main thing is always, what can I let go of? What’s causing me, and others, suffering? How an I be wiser, more peaceful, more loving? And if there are things in the suttas to help with that, great!


#20

If I might add to @sujato’s answer, monasticism is very conducive to practicing the path, but for lay folk with children and families to look after, the path is open too! For us our daily interactions with others provide a great opportunity to practice morality and working through our defilements in our minds. Also places of study and practice can help us learn the Dhamma and more importantly develop Right view which informs our practice and the life which we then lead. This covers Right view up to Right effort, in the Noble Eightfold Path. The question you asked is about (aggregates, DO, bojjanga, etc) is found in the 7th step, which is Right Mindfulness (…foundations of). It is possible to start this practice at home- (Pessa?) the elephant cartaker’s son said that they would practice the four foundations of mindfulness at home from time to time. Ideally going on retreat would help with calming the 5 hindrances (usually takes about 5 days in my estimation- developing the jhanas is also a great way to do this) and then doing a practice looking at how perception arises ie rupa giving rise to consciousness, in turn giving rise to contact, feelings, identification (sanna) and sankhara would help identify the aggregates along with their cause and effect mechanism of arising (and passing away).

with metta


#21

Me too. I was ordained a Zen nun 11 years ago, and I love being a nun - living on the basis of dana, helping people discover goodness in themselves and the world, and having a much more varied and wholesome life than I did as a householder. I’ve lived in temples and monasteries for a long time, and enjoy it! And yet…I live by the 8 precepts plus the 16 bodhisattva precepts but, in recent years, am feeling called to the Theravada. Still, I am concerned about the patriarchy built into the patimokkha. So, yes, the question is a bit off, and it’s not one that you can answer for me.

By the action of kamma, I suppose, in the form of a note from my Sister in the Theravada on another topic, I chanced upon the sutta AN 11.2 “Not by an act of will” that describes a kind of dependent origination that “naturally” leads to liberation and knowledge, and begins with “consummate virtue” and “freedom from remorse.” So I am sitting with the question of virtue and its various manifestations in the world. I suppose I was just hoping to hear a bit from you about the connection between what the Buddha defined as virtue and its expression in the world in the form the patimokkha, and the unfolding of the path to liberative insight.

So glad to hear that you are enjoying life, Bhante. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to visit the Buddhist library in Sydney one day. Cheers!