How to Read the Suttas

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.


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


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


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…


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!


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


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!


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:


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.

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.

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.


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:


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
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
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.

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.


The above article from The Dharmafarers | Suttas with commentaries (Early Buddhism) quotes relevant suttas on the distinction. I’m sorry if I’ve misinterpreted it. I don’t want to misrepresent their article.

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The reference to “relative” and “absolute” or “ultimate” truth is from the commentary:

The essay’s author, Piya Tan, draws parallels with ideas presented in the suttas. But these are not the same. The sutta concepts are “teachings whose meanings require drawing out” and “teachings whose meaning is fully drawn out”. This refers to the distinction between things such as verses, similes, allusions, or brief statements, which require interpretation or further explanation, and passages that are fully explicit and require no further explanation. This is a practical distinction, whose purpose is to help better understand the kinds of sayings we find in the suttas.

The abhidharma notion of “absolute” truth is a metaphysical concept. It is based on the idea that the description of dhammas as found in the abhidharma is ultimate, in the sense that there is no further analysis of reality possible. Things have been understood down to their primary elements, their ultimate constituents, and this reality is expressed in the terminology of the abhidharma.

Many people, even excellent teachers like Piya, conflate the two, but if you see the function that notions of absolute truth play in the abhidharma, you’ll see that they are quite different. Without getting into too much detail, the idea of “absolute” truth is a philosophical quagmire, which ends up creating all sorts of unwanted problems.

Better to stick with the Buddha’s words in Snp 4.12 Culavyuha:

Ekañhi saccaṃ na dutīyamatthi,
For the truth is one, there is no second,
Yasmiṃ pajā no vivade pajānaṃ
regarding which people argue with each other.


In order to avoid a confusion it should be mentioned here that there are two kinds of truths: conventional truth (sammuti-sacca, Skt. samvṛti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca, Skt. paramārtha-satya).[126] When we use such expressions in our daily life as ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘being’, ‘individual’, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But the ultimate truth is that there is no ‘I’ or ‘being’ in reality. As the Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṅkāra says: ‘A person (pudgala) should be mentioned as existing only in designation (prajñapti) (i.e., conventionally there is a being), but not in reality (or substance dravya)’.
The Doctrine of No Soul - Walpola Rahula: What the Buddha Taught

Now, what is Absolute Truth? According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is
that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned
and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance
like Self, Soul or Atman within or without. This is the Absolute Truth. Truth is never
negative, though there is a popular expression as negative truth.

    The realization of this Truth, i.e., to see things as they are without illusion or

ignorance is the extinction of craving ‘thirst’ and the cessation (Nirodha) of dukkha,
which is Nirvana. It is interesting and useful to remember here the Mahayana view
of Nirvana as not being different from Samsara. The same thing is Samsara or
Nirvana according to the way you look at it - subjectively or objectively. This
Mahayana view was probably developed out of the ideas found in the original
Theravada Pali texts, to which we have just referred in our brief discussion.
Chapter 4 - What The Buddha Taught

The above passages are from What the Buddha Taught by Rev. Walpola Rahula. They are very similar to Nagarjuna’s writings on emptiness, that the ultimate truth is the emptiness of everything, including of emptiness itself.

In the Madhyamaka philosophy, to say that an object is “empty” is synonymous with saying that it is dependently originated. Nāgārjuna equates emptiness with dependent origination in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24.18-19;[69]

Whatever arises dependently

Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.

Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.[70]

In his analysis, svabhāva is somewhat redefined from the Sarvastivada-Vaibhāṣika interpretation to mean: inherent existence or self-characterization. Nagarjuna notably rejected the idea of dharmas containing svabhāva, meaning ‘a self-sustaining, permanent, or unchanging identity.’ If a dharma was inherently what-it-was from its own side, what need would there be for causes and conditions to bring that object into being? If any object was characterized by ‘being-itself,’ then it has no need to dependently rely on anything else. Further, such an identity or self-characterization would prevent the process of dependent origination. Inherence would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been, and things would always continue to be. Madhyamaka suggests that uncharacterized mere experiences—with no specific qualities—are designated by conceptual labels, and this brings them into being (See Prasaṅgika Merely Designated Causality). According to Nagarjuna, even the principle of causality itself is dependently originated, and hence it is empty.
Pratītyasamutpāda - Wikipedia

If all things are empty of independent existence, then the ultimate truth is non-duality, that Nirvana and samsara are inseparable, as Rev. Rahula noted above.

Hello Nadine,

Well, as a longtime blogger, I have written a couple of pieces about this process of discernment, though at this point I feel like I could write an entire book about it! :sweat_smile:

After decades of Mahayana practice, I found that I had to go through a detailed process of examining views and assumptions, and leaving many of them behind. I’m reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe saying,

I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me - shadows and ideas so near to me - so natural to my way of being and thinking…’ I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.

So, if you would like to read the blog posts, you will find them here:

Konin’s blog post “Thoughts on the Bhikkhuni Life”


Konin’s blog post “Not by an Act of Will”

The second one is the more recent one.

I’d be interested to hear what you think and how it relates to your own path, @Nadine