Study Strategies For Reading All Of The Suttas In The Pali Cannon

Years ago another student in a sutta study group told me about some recordings by a bhikkhu she met with some great advice for getting the most out of reading every single sutta.

I’m not yet ready to make that commitment, but I would be interested to read ideas for strategies for getting the most out of such readings.

One sutta a week or more?

Which collection to start with?

Concomitant materials to make sure you understood what you read correctly?

What about taking notes? Yea or Nay?

Is it enough to jot down a paragraph of what you got out of each sutta?

What about labeling and organizing notes? Titling your notes by the subject of the sutta and was unique about the coverage of the subject?

I’ve read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology “In The Buddha’s Words”, so I have a decent overview of what to expect, but having read other suttas over the years I know there are suttas with very interesting ideas not covered in that book.

Any thoughts would be gratefully appreciated.

Update: 2022 May 30:
I’ve started.
I’ve been using daily.readingfaithfully.org and suttacentral.net, for about 2 weeks.
I’ve got an enjoyable note taking system set up for myself in Google Docs.
22 suttas down.

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A long time i made themes; such as, what is asava? Who or what is Mara, is there a Creator in the Pali Canon, what are anusaya’s, what is ignorance, is there a different with delusion?, what does tanha mean, what does Nibbana mean, what are text on kamma etc, many more.

I searched the texts, collected fragments and made a nice overview for myself and others. I have learned a lot by doing that. I shared the material with others.

This way you read a lot of sutta’s, not all, but a lot and because it is thematic you also behold some overview. It is not all over the place.

I collected mostly EBT, although i did not know what that meant at that moment.
Maybe it is not what you are looking for but i liked it.

That is an interesting idea.

Thank you.

I started with the Aṅguttara Nikāya this past year. When I finish that I was going to ask my teacher what he suggested as a next reading.

I decided not to put any specific expectations in terms of note-taking, etc. While a bigger plan can be helpful, it can also create a friction point. Since my goal is to read all the suttas, which will take a few years, I’ve decided to focus on making it as positive an experience as possible to keep going. For me, things that start to feel like assignments can derail me. So I take notes in my Buddhism Journal when that excites me, but I don’t feel the need to for every single sutta I read.

In terms of pace, my goal is daily reading, with no expectation in terms of the amount I read.

Anyway, just what I do. No claim it is the best method. But I am finding it is working for me.

Good luck and enjoy your reading!

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I think that is smart.

Note taking has mostly been transitioned in my mind to no longer have a “should” connotation, but I have abandoned projects where I’ve asked myself too much in that regard.

My idea is to really truly keep it at “jotting down a few lines” per sutta and with a simple system such that I can look up what I read years later when an idea become important to me.

I’m thinking of keeping a list of topics on one page, then reserving a page for item on that list.

I would add new topics to the list as I would find them.

I would then, possibly add the name of the sutta to a sub list on the page for each topic, limiting myself to a sentence fragment what that sutta offers on that topic that others do not.

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Here is an article about taking notes…

My personal experience was that setting a requirement to summarize each sutta I read really killed my enthusiasm for reading.

And here is an article about making a concrete plan for reading.

It has a chart of how many pages each book is in translation. Although setting hard and fast deadlines is not helpful at all there is something to be said for knowing that if you can read X pages a day you will be finished on Y day. Of course with any plan it has to be reevaluated, especially if external circumstances change. But by doing that calculation you can see that it really is possible to eat an elephant if you just know the proper method: One bite at a time.

(Note: No elephants were harmed in the making of this post.)

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I find the site more interesting than the articles.

Thank you for posting the links!

I will be checking out that site more.

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When I first started reading the Canon I went DN>MN>SN>AN. By the end it felt like work and more about putting my eyes on every sutta, though not necessarily understanding the meaning (mostly not back then lol). Now I read verse (Dhp, Snp, Thag, Thig) for inspiration and explore the lion’s share of the main four nikayas according to whatever subject I am investigating. When you’re intent on a particular topic you’ll absorb so much more about what you’re reading. Occasionally, I’ll start with a random sutta, pick term or phrase that is striking (usually the Pali for ease of searching) and explore its other occurrences. Sometimes that leads to a different topic altogether. By the end, I’ve excitedly read upwards of a dozen or so suttas and strengthened, not just my understanding of that particular topic, but of the remarkable consistency across the texts, which is something that will continue to compound.

As we all know, it is easy to fall into the trap of reading to waste time or out of obligation, and while it is more wholesome than tv or music, we don’t want to get into a routine of treating the Canon that way. It is easy to burn out on it like that. Something that has always worked for me, especially when I’m unsure about what I should read on a given day, is to start with something very familiar. Something I relate to very easily. Verse always sets me straight, so to speak. A few lines from the Thera/Therigāthā can usually bring my mind together and from there I can more easily read for a meaningful reason.

Good luck!

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For me it’s just pure interest, pick up a book of a nikaya and just read every day in the morning, then I’d think about a topic I’m not fully clear on, maybe organize my thoughts in a notebook, go on suttacentral look up the pali and parallels of the same topic, look up discussions on the web and different interpretations by different authorities.

E.g. I noticed pamojja (joy) being a recurring theme and link to jhana so I looked up all the suttas that use the term pamojja and found that it always comes up before piti and the main cause of it is seeing that the 5 hindrances are not present after dhamma-vicaya (investigation), which is much different than the typical mainstream advice of focusing on your nostrils until something happens.

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Several years ago I tried to make my way through the MN following BB’s recorded classes on YT. While it wasn’t a waste of time, it wasn’t as helpful as reading by topic/theme. I wouldn’t recommend trying to follow each of his classes, but it can be a resource for specific suttas.

That said, can anyone suggest a list of topics to explore? I’ve applied for an extended residency at a monastery, and I’d like to devote some of that time to more rigorous, organized sutta study. Obviously I can choose topics organically, but I thought it might be helpful to have a list to fall back on. [If this is too off topic, I can start another thread.]

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cc @NgXinZhao - Any thoughts?

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One of the more difficult things to accomplish when reading the suttas is to understand that they are direct challenge to wrong view, which is to say, the suttas are about “us”. Either what is understood about suffering or not. The meaning is not something we add to our lives. It is already about our lives, and it is up to the reader to figure out how deep they are willing to let that sink in.

Look for terms such as generosity, refuge, faith, virtue, urgency, endure, patience, sense restraint, “subject to change”, renunciation. Focus on themes that do not let you forget what it is that want from your practice of the Dhamma. Clear intentions are always meaningful.

Best of luck!

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Depends on your goal.

I know that i would revisit the sutta and I had developed the skill of listening to high speed audiobook 3.5 times speed, so I rushed through the 4 nikayas audio in 3 months.

Actually, quite decently relaxed.

If you use the audible audiobooks on the suttas, the 4 nikaya plus 6 books of KN, Total time: 216 hours 4 mins. 1 hour per day is 7 months. Normal speed.

MN: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Middle-Length-Discourses-of-the-Buddha-Audiobook/B07W6K1JV1?qid=1642772022&sr=1-3&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_3&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=7MT58V307SGW6Y8QB2M9
SN: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Connected-Discourses-of-the-Buddha-Audiobook/B08JMBBHCW?qid=1642772022&sr=1-5&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_5&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=7MT58V307SGW6Y8QB2M9
AN: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Numbered-Discourses-Audiobook/B09MV1RY8W?qid=1642772022&sr=1-6&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_6&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=7MT58V307SGW6Y8QB2M9
DN: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Long-Discourses-of-the-Buddha-Audiobook/B0958R4WDZ?qid=1642772022&sr=1-7&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_7&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=7MT58V307SGW6Y8QB2M9
Dhammapada, Udana, and Itivuttaka: https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Dhammapada-The-Udana-The-Itivuttaka-Audiobook/B014TJCN8Y?qid=1642772183&sr=1-26&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_26&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=J9E6ZYSSPV6HX4K40DQT
Sutta Nipata: https://www.audible.com/pd/Sutta-Nipata-Audiobook/B019P8XFOK?qid=1642772183&sr=1-28&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_28&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=J9E6ZYSSPV6HX4K40DQT
Therigatha: https://www.audible.com/pd/Therigatha-Audiobook/B0149LZM2Q?qid=1642772183&sr=1-31&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_31&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=J9E6ZYSSPV6HX4K40DQT
Theragatha: https://www.audible.com/pd/Theragatha-Audiobook/B06WWMHKK4?qid=1642772183&sr=1-34&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_34&pf_rd_p=83218cca-c308-412f-bfcf-90198b687a2f&pf_rd_r=J9E6ZYSSPV6HX4K40DQT

I advice for quick read first round to just get the impression of what is in the sutta and what’s not. There can be a vague sense of I read this before And one just have to develop the memory of where to search it.

Taking notes, have too much cross references can really drain the momentum. Might be good for second round reading, since one roughly knows the whole stuffs now, it’s time to dig deeper.

A lot of stuffs will be not understandable in first read, so can use notepad app or excel to keep track which suttas that one doesn’t understand. Instead of digging into additional resources to understand it there and then, keep on reading to not break momentum.

A lot of the deeper teachings only makes sense when one has deeper meditation states. So might consider having lots of retreats too, like 4 per year. Devote holidays for retreats.

I would go from: DN to MN to SN and AN, last 2 together. Or SN first. AN might be the hardest due to not being theme and short. At least DN and MN are longer, and SN are themed. So AN needs to read and listen at the same time. Do not start with AN. It can be the hardest to read through. After reading the other 3, one can try AN to see interesting lists not found in other 3 books. So it’s a rare treasure hunting to find out new stuffs.

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My advice would be to even skip this step to keep even more momentum. Because, despite what people often say, there is some level of grouping by topic even outside of the SN. So it is possible that a sutta you read soon after will help you to understand.

As well, I believe that ones goal should not be to read all the suttas in the Pali Canon … and then stop. I believe that we should constantly be spending time with the suttas so that once we finish a complete read we need to do it again. And again.

All that being said, there is nothing wrong with seeking out wise people to ask them to explain to us the things we don’t understand.

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My motivation in potentially setting a goal to read the entire sutta tipkata is to find suttas that anthology makers don’t think are important, but that I do.

Years ago, inquiring about particular subjects as many here have suggested, I came across these 3 suttas that I consider to be game changers:

  1. The Peg (Ani Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XX.7)
  2. Unconjecturable (Acintita Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya IV.77)
  3. To Sivaka (Moliyasivaka Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XXXVI.21)

Since I have never seen those suttas in the well known anthologies, it makes me wonder what other golden nuggets are out there waiting for me to discover them by the very long term process of reading all of the suttas.

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Thank you for bringing that up! I had forgotten about that excellent resource.

I agree, that going through those recordings would be hard work, and dry. Enough to send a graduate student running and screaming. :-).

The dominant answer, which makes sense, seems to be to find a topic of interest and enjoy the 21st century benefit of being able to run a web search on the sutta tipikata.

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So far, everyone has made sense by suggesting to look up suttas by interesting topics.

I am curious about note taking strategies from those who climbed the mountain of reading the whole thing. Things they did or wish they did to get the most out reading the entire sutta tipikata.

I don’t want to leave home for a long trip and forget to bring my camera. :slight_smile:

I have experience with long term commitments to studying a subject.

What people say about schedules killing joy and a large task turning into drudgery is true.

That is why I am thinking of only taking 1-3 lines of notes per sutta and not putting a schedule on myself.

That is a good idea.

I could make a short system of flags for notes, something like “N” for not understood, “V” for particularly valuable, etc.

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Thank you!

That is one of the kinds of suggestions that I was looking for.

I read it in the order of SN, AN, MN, DN. I chose that order more or less randomly. I think it was a good order. It should be noted that there were individual suttas that I read out of order, tho. Like, even though I didn’t complete the DN until last, DN 1 was probably the first sutta I was really exposed to.

I do take notes, though that wasn’t my original intention. It just helped me stay engaged with the suttas.

I recently decided to “re-do” the DN, only listening (while meditating) rather than reading this time. I liked it better that way.

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