SuttaCentral

Reading the suttas


#1

A brief introduction to reading the word of the Buddha.

The Buddha was born in the 5th or 6th century BCE., in Lumbini, in modern day Nepal. He discovered a path to the cessation of suffering and he taught it to his disciples over 45 years. His disciples in turn memorised these teachings (suttas) which were later written down in the Pali and Sanskrit languages and subsequently translated into English and many other languages. These suttas are accounts of individual occasions the Buddha or one of his senior disciples taught monks, nuns and lay people, as well as followers of other religions. These sublime teachings of the Buddha, which are the also known as Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs), are made available free, on SuttaCentral.

It can be difficult to know where to start as the entire collection of suttas, number in their thousands. There is no set order to start. If you are new to the suttas or have only a little time to spare, a shorter sutta from the Dhammapada, Itivuttaka, AN or SN might be a good place to start. Shorter and more aesthetically pleasing stanzas are found in the utterances of the disciples, Thig and Thag. However for in-depth study the MN and DN are useful to peruse. In any part of the Pali Canon ancient wisdom from the Buddha and his disciples can be found. Sometimes the entire teaching can be found summarised in one sutta. Often however comprehending a few suttas around a particular topic is required to arrive at a fuller picture.

We offer a few example suttas to get you started:

Short suttas:
Dhammapada Dhp 44, Dhp100
Thig 13.5
SN 22.7
Thag1.22

Medium length suttas:
Kalama sutta AN3.65
Magga Vibhanga sutta SN45.8
Assuming forcefulness Snp4.15
Metta sutta SN1.8
Sikkha sutta AN3.88
Anattalakkhana sutta SN22.59

Longer suttas:
Satipatthana sutta MN10
Anapanasati sutta MN118
Cula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta MN14

If you like to explore further the suttas are structured in the following structure:

Digha nikaya- Long discourses
Majjima nikaya- Middle length discourses
Anguttara nikaya - Numerical discourses
Samyutta nikaya- Connected discourses
Khuddaka nikaya- Short discourses
https://suttacentral.net/

Sutta on a particular subject :
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-subject.html2

Suttas A_Z:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-sutta.html

Suttas about particular people:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-names.html1

Suttas around similes:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-similes.html1

EBT based subject study guides:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/index.html

It is helpful to remember that the Buddha lived thousands of years ago. He was from a different culture. Seeing the suttas through the prism of time and culture it can be difficult to fully grasp the suttas. Mnemonic devices to help monks remember them, such as repetitions (which can be skimmed over if what is meant is understood) add to the difficulty. However it will be apparent that some teachings are timeless and applicable to our modern lives. Modern translations have minimal repetitions, clarifying meaning. Some suttas have myth, metaphor and metaphysics at their core and it might help the reader to draw out and benefit from the meaning behind the apparently concrete words. You may need some knowledge of technical terms (e.g: ‘aggregates’, ‘jhanas’, etc.) to fully appreciate some suttas, whilst others are easy to understand. Read with compassion for the people in the story. Try to understand their pain and their happiness, and what they get out of the teaching. Then ask yourself, “Might this apply to me, too?

It also helps to have the support of a community of spiritual practitioners to fully appreciate their nuances, to learn from each other. This is possible here on the Discuss and Discover and many other Buddhist forums as well as your local sangha. Also consider https://ocbs.org/courses/pali-reading-club/.

Sometimes the suttas are recited in the Pali language. The Buddha does not speak of sutta as mantras but rather instructions to practice in one’s life to best realise their benefits. The Buddha always said to rely on one’s actions to overcome difficulties and not reciting the suttas. However some people benefit from recitation of the suttas and resources for that could be found on-line: http://santifm.org/santi/downloads/

Chanting the ‘Three Refuges’ in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, as well as observing the 5 precepts is often carried out as a pali chant. Memorising and chanting the Mahamangala sutta, Ratana sutta, and Metta sutta is also common practice: http://www.buddhanet.net/pali_chant.htm

Some websites also allow you to listen to the suttas read out loud: http://www.suttareadings.net/audio/

Wishing you wisdom and joy!

tb_item_8684_1


#2

What a wonderful thing to initiate, Mat!

I really think its a lovely piece and please don’t let my few notes give any alternative impression.

1) “The Buddha was born in 6th century B.C.” To the best of my knowledge a question mark remains over this, and the prevailing inclination of scholars is currently C5th BCE.

I don’t want to be at all finicky, but I did get a bit upset as I arrived to Buddhism and was told ‘facts’ that later turned out to not necessarily be true. I know simplicity is key, but I don’t think putting it as “in the 6th or 5th century BCE” intrudes a great deal on this goal.

2) “written down in the Pali language … which are the also known as Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs)” As noted in other conversations they were also written down in Sanskritic languages (preserved in the Chinese) and these are have just as much claim to being EBTs as the Pali texts.

To me that the Āgamas and the Nikayas more or less corroborate each other, is an incredibly powerful detail that testifies to the fact that the contained teachings are in fact those of the Buddha and it’s just not proper to leave it out. Further SuttaCentral is not only concerned with the Pali texts.

3) “It can be difficult to know where to start as the entire collection of suttas, number in their thousands. There is no set order to start.” Might it be worth adding one simple sentence explaining that they give self-contained accounts of individual occasions the Buddha or one of his senior disciples taught monks, nuns and lay people, as well as followers of other religions?

4) “Dhammapada Dhp Blossoms Dhp 44-59” Totally a personal taste thing, but I might suggest Dhp100 as a counter-balance to the overwhelming wall of stuff the new reader is presented with.

5) “It also helps to have the support of a community of spiritual practitioners to fully appreciate their relevance, to learn from each other.” Now, this is probably just one of my own idiosyncrasies that does not and should not apply more broadly, nevertheless, while it is such an important encouragement, I’ve always found notes like this only serve to underscore ones isolation - those that have such a community available to them don’t need this reminder, those that don’t, only have the point highlighted.

I hope something or other might be useful, please ignore the rest (or all). Again, much thanks for taking the initiative, very recently I was looking for something simple I could point someone with a new interest in Buddhism towards, but everything seemed to fall foul of one complication or another. I went with In the Buddha’s Words, but it would have been nice to have something much simpler available too.


#3

If it not personal could you tell us what they are?
It helps us to understand why people attracted to Buddhism.


#4

Off the top of my (just about to turn of my computer and call the time of death of another day) head, the only ‘fact’ fact I can presently remember being a bit miffed about, was being told that ‘Pali’ was the language the Buddha spoke - okay, it’s no big deal and I wasn’t bothered that he actually spoke a very closely related but different language, I was bothered by the assertive (untrue) fact claim. Of course, that teacher clearly didn’t know any better, and I don’t mind that people get things wrong.

Then there is the much trickier grey area of ‘narrative spinning’ and I want to be as careful as I can here as I know the various stories with in the traditions are very valuable and meaningful to many, and further that without them it is unlikely the Buddha’s teachings would have been carried so successfully throughout the ages. All I can say, is that for me personally, it didn’t do me any favours to be told the eg. 4 heavenly messengers story for which, as far as I know, there is no supporting evidence.

Alas, to my own discredit, I have to fight a niggling irritation when I hear the tales of how the Buddha didn’t leave his palace until he was 29, or that he went on a walk and encountered the four people or whatever. I totally get the value of these stories, and can be very sympathetic to them particularly through the lens of metaphor, but for me they just dilute these incredibly grounded, ‘of real life’ collections of teachings.

I remember a little way into my travels in to Buddhism, I came across Snp4.15 and in a way I felt a kinda discussed that tradition carriers had let all this fanciful junk (in my eyes, and again with really no wish to be disrespectful, but just describe what my experience was) obscure this extraordinary (although, yes of course, brief) renunciation narrative; one that I immediately connected with in the heart.


#5

Thanks, @Aminah. I can relate to you. Even many Buddhist do not believe many stories in Buddhist teaching. That could be one reason why many Buddhist like me was distant from Buddhist teaching.
Even though I was a born Buddhist I discover Buddhism only about a few years ago. Many Buddhist do not understand the core Buddhist teaching. It is like eating the coconut husk not knowing what is in the middle, coconut water, and coconut fiesh. Many people give up because they can’t bother cracking the coconut shell.


#6

@Mat, I agree with @Aminah that this is a lovely idea for a post.

I remember reading, (I think in a publication of @sujato’s, or it may have been listening to it a the Early Buddhism Course with Bhante Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali) that the Samyutta Nikaya and Agama are likely to be among the earliest EBTs, along with sections from the Kuddaka Nikkaya. So I would suggest that it is not the length of a text that makes for it’s usefulness for indepth study, as some of the earliest Suttas are very short and very full of meaning.

@Aminah, thanks very much for the link to Snp4.15, it’s beautiful.


#7

I’m editing…! Please send in any suttas you found inspiring, meaningful or helpful when you first started reading the suttas. Also think of what you would have told your former self about reading them.

With metta


#8

There’s a lot of really good points there, Mat. I particularly like the mention of community: encountering the suttas was, in the first place, a meeting between people, and through the ages it has usually been a communal activity. These days, finding a sutta reading group is a great help.

BTW, not strictly relevant, but I just came across this Pali reading club at Oxford.

https://ocbs.org/courses/pali-reading-club/

Mention of recitation is also important, as it has always been, and continues to be an important medium for encountering suttas.


#9

As the tradition holds, the first 3 discourses of the Buddha:

SN 56.11
SN 22.59
SN 35.28


#10

Thanks for all the suggestions- I have incorporated many if not all of them. If you come up with anything else please do let me know!

with metta


#11

Thanks @sujato. Your points are very valid and it is valuable to hear from a monastic and scholarly view point.

with metta


#12

Thanks James. Sermon 1 and 3 felt a bit difficult to get through for someone new to the Dhamma. Sermon 2 was simpler, logical and shorter and included the important not-self doctrine so I chose that.

with metta