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:
Dhammapada Dhp 44, Dhp100
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
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
Sutta on a particular subject :
Suttas about particular people:
Suttas around similes:
EBT based subject study guides:
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 Pali Reading Club | Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
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: Pali Chanting in Theravada Buddhist Tradition
Some websites also allow you to listen to the suttas read out loud: http://www.suttareadings.net/audio/
Wishing you wisdom and joy!