SuttaCentral

How to Read the Suttas

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!

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: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:

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

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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!

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Your logic is compelling, I admit!

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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

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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

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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 YouTube 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

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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…

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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!

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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

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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!

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Venerable @Konin,

If you are ready to share more of your experience with shifting calling, I would happily read the essay. :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:

Hi,

Bhikkhus, for a virtuous person, one whose behavior is virtuous, no volition need be exerted: ‘Let non-regret arise in me.’ It is natural that non-regret arises in one who is virtuous, one whose behavior is virtuous.
(Bodhi)

For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
(Thanissaro)

Sīlavato, bhikkhave, sīla­sam­pannassa na cetanāya karaṇīyaṃ: ‘avippaṭisāro me uppajjatū’ti. Dhammatā esā, bhikkhave, yaṃ sīlavato sīla­sam­pannassa avippaṭisāro uppajjati

Ānanda, one who keeps the precepts need not think: “May I be free from regret!” Ānanda, it is a law of nature that those who keep the precepts will be free from regret.
MA 43 (Bingenheimer).


Thus, Ānanda, the purpose and benefit of wholesome virtuous behavior (kusalāni sīlāni) is good conscience [ non-regret] (avippaṭisāro)
AN 11.1

Vippaṭisāra,[vi+paṭisāra] bad conscience, repentance. [Sk. - prati-√ smṛ ]
a+vi+paṭisāra = good conscience - non-repentance.

Why say or add more ?
Anything that does not bring repentance, is virtuous.

We’re working on it! Just to note, the patimokkha also contains patriarchy-busting ideas, like ordination of nuns by nuns alone; or the prohibition on monks against getting nuns to do their laundry; or the requirement that a complaint by a laywoman against a monk regarding sexual impropriety be properly investigated and the monk dealt with accordingly. :fist:

A “bit”? That’s the hard part. But to keep it as brief as I can, one of the things that sustains me is that the framework of the patimokkha, in defining a mendicant community, creates a communal space, a social expectation, for living a devoted spiritual life. All of the rules about contentment—eating before noon, having only three robes, not asking for things—are constant reminders and supports for me. I still frequently come up against situations where I’m like, “Hey, maybe I should ask for XYZ.” (XYZ is usually coffee. But I digress!) But a short reflection, a bit of silence, and the moment passes and I’m free. It’s fantastic! Each thing I leave behind makes me feel lighter and more at ease. And because of the legacy of the robe, people actually support me to do this. They think it’s admirable, and get inspired by it. So what makes me happy helps make others happy, too.

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Okay, now we’re getting a bit warmer…the relationship of mutual support that the Buddha set up and the way that that is communicated through the commitment and the robe is lovely and supportive. I agree. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved is learning to let go in different ways. That very issue, e.g. the lack of understanding of the role of dana, value for a life of renunciation, and support for monastics in Zen tradition, was one of the reasons I became interested in exploring the Theravada further.

Funny about the coffee! I heard about your search for coffee early one morning in a dhamma talk you gave that was posted online. I really enjoy coffee too, and it’s one of the things I thought about, and let go of, when I sat my first solo retreat this winter.

You’re collectively working on the patriarchy. I’m aware of that. Thank you! :fist:

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Is there a suggested order, a curriculum per se, of suttas to be read? I have an understanding of the basics, and I’d like to progress through some of the more well known suttas.

Thank you in advance

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In order to better understand the scriptures, we need to learn the Buddha’s distinction between relative truth and ultimate truth:

4.3.1 Language: relative and ultimate. The Dharma, as we have discussed [4.2] is transmitted both
in the letter and in the spirit. The “letter” (vyañjana) here refers to the Dharma being presented to us in a
language and manner that are generally understandable to us—that is, in the conventional way—so that
we are moved to work to realize its spirit for ourselves. In a sense, the teaching can only be transmitted by
conventional means, that is, a kind of bridge that links those unawakened to the awakened. On a simple
level, this is language, that is, words and figures, explicitly and implicitly, the letter and the spirit [3].
The word and the letter of the Dharma, explicit as they may be, are our initial opening to the Dharma.
However, if we take the Dharma only on this level, we might only see our own ideas and biases superimposed
onto them: a heavily edited, even bowdlerized version, that only reinforces our views and ego, and
is as such not helpful at all in self-liberation, even a hindrance to it.
Having read or heard the letter of the Dharma, we need to let it go, as it were. If we are learning to
drive a vehicle, we might start off by reading all the required readings and guides on it. Having read them,
we must then have a coach to teach us how to drive correctly and safely. In due course, we would be able
to drive a vehicle on our own. To be able to drive properly comes with personal practice and experience:
so, too, the Dharma must be self-realized so that we attain some level of liberation, at least from wrong
views.61
In the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (D 9.53), the Buddha reminds us of the priority of the spirit of the Dharma
over its letter:
Loka,samaā loka,niruttiyo loka,vohārā loka,paattiyo yāhi Tathāgato voharati aparāmasan
ti.
For, Citta, these are merely common names, common expressions, common usages, common
designations in the world that the Tathāgata [Thus Come] uses without attachment to them.
(D 9,53/1:202)
These two levels of language are described in the Sumagala,vilāsin, the Dgha Commentary, as
“conventional speech” (sammuti,kathā) and “speech of ultimate meaning” (param’attha,kathā)
62 [5.2].
They are clearly a version of the teaching “to be drawn out” and “that which has been drawn out,” as we
have noted, in the Neyy’attha Nt’attha Sutta (A 2.3.5) [3.1], the Buddha declares:
There are these two who misrepresent the Tathāgata. Which two?
One who represents a sutta of indirect meaning (neyy’attha) as a sutta of direct meaning
(nt’attha), and one who represents a sutta of direct meaning as a sutta of indirect meaning.
(A 2.3,5/1:60) [3.1]
As long as we take the two kinds of speeches as explaining or elaborating on the two methods of
teaching, they are acceptable means of clarifying the sutta teachings. The explicit teachings basically employ
“ultimate speech,” appealing to the immediate senses of words, as it were, while the implicit teachings
resort to “conventional speech.” Here, “ultimate” or more fully, “ultimate meaning” (param’attha)
means that the words explain themselves, at least as far as words go. The “conventional speech” is only
provisional, and acts as a skillful means to hone the listener’s spirituality, so that he is able to look deeper
and directly into the Dharma.
http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/40a.4-Levels-of-learning-piya.pdf

I would suggest a better way to start is by setting aside our preconditions and approaching the suttas with an open mind. The Buddha never, in fact, never spoke of a distinction between “relative” and “absolute” truth. This was a distinction introduced in the abhidhamma period. If we approach the early texts with presuppositions from later Buddhism, we will end up read our existing ideas into the texts, instead of listening to what they have to say to us.

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