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

I’m a tactile learner: if I want to learn/understand/memorize something, I have to have it in my hands. My purpose for writing isn’t to take notes, it is to aid memorization.


I just remembered a couple of other things that might be helpful if you aren’t going to be reading books cover to cover.

Here are checklists for every sutta in the first four nikayas and several of the books in the fifth. That way you can hop around and always go back later to fill the gaps.

This is a checklist specifically for Bhante Bodhi’s AN reading guide:

The page also includes links to Bhante Sujato’s translations of those suttas included in the guide.


That was my approach when I first endeavored to read the four Nikayas. Like @Jhana4 I had also read In the Buddha’s Words and was immersed in the Goenka tradition. I wanted to go to the source and get a general sense of what the Buddha taught overall since most traditions I had encountered seemed to disagree on significant points.

I think it took me about 2 or 3 years, and I’m very thankful for the experience. I tried to read, and still try to read at least one sutta per day.

This approach is similar to what I was taught in law school. Read a case or law once fairly quickly. Then, go back and re-read it, and re-read it again if needed. I am now in the re-reading phase of sutta study:-)

Systematic sutta (Dhamma) study has been life-changing. For me, I don’t know how I could truly take refuge in the Dhamma if I didn’t study it and thus have an idea of what it is.

Best wishes for you!


Learn what is there, and then go back and understand it more to apply it to a purpose.

My motivation in thinking about doing this is that I found 3 suttas I consider to be “game changers” for how the Buddha’s teachings are viewed and I have not seen those suttas mentioned in any anthologies I have come across.

It makes me wonder what other golden nuggets are buried in the pages.

Per your quote, I discovered those suttas by going to Goenka retreats, hearing some strong statements, and then asking the leader ( westerner, ex-monastic ) of a sutta class about those statements.

That he was able to give me references off of the top of his head was iImpressive. This was before entire translations of the sutta tipitaka were online and searchable with computers.

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Lots, it seems! :smiley:

I began reading out of curiosity. What did the Buddha really say about that? Then I got caught up in finding out more. What does that mean? How does that fit in?
Hmmm. Now how does this tie up with that?

SuttaCentral has been of immense help on my path. There have been so many times when I’ve been pondering some facet of the Teaching… say on the Metro or while shopping. :grin: And some fragment comes to mind. And I can just pull out my phone and Search the site and refresh my memory. Along the way, I can read dozens of other suttas around the same topic through the Search results. I bookmark interesting suttas, organizing the bookmarks topic wise. And it all gets assimilated and pops back into Mind when its needed. :rofl:

Its been four years now since I first started reading, and I find that I’ve read through pretty much the entire tipitaka. My reading has been entirely online.

Now that I think about it, my approach to the suttas has been much the same as my approach to the masses of medical literature that I need to wade through in my professional life! I view the suttas as my master reference library for all my problems concerning Life and How to Live It. The Buddha never lets me down. He always tells it like it is. What an awesome person!!! :pray: :rose: :pray:

I make countless notes too, again using my phone app ( currently SimpleNote). The content is usually my distilled ‘take away’ of an aspect of Teaching or a condensation of a Sutta or a personal dhamma reflection.



FWIW, Angutarra Nikaya has the most suttas aimed at lay people, so I would start with that. Here’s pdf that analyzes the nikayas


I used to do research on the canon by using keywords. Such as all suttas about cetovimutti, or pannavimutti, different formulas about dependent origination, everything about anapanasati, or kayagatasati, and so on. This way, we can get insights about the difference, how different notions evolve, and so on, and even produce many research papers. Each person could have different approaches and we can always adjust the method along the way. I wish your journey to be fruitful and let us know!


Background: I read the DN as part of a formal sutta study program…it was my first foray into this world, and if it hadn’t been supported by a teacher, I probably would have thrown up my hands and walked away. But it got me curious, and a web search turned up ReadingFaithfully…which provided lots of good ideas. Based on their tools and my own inclinations, I began reading the MN…devoting about 30 minutes/day. I just read, and didn’t take any notes. Next came the SN, then the AN, finally the Snp…the pace varied…sometimes 30 minutes/day, sometimes more. It took about 2 years to get through just reading DN+MN+SN+AN+Snp.

I’m not sorry I didn’t take notes in that first pass through the texts–it would have been a burden at that point and I needed to read lots of suttas to find out what I was really interested in. Being time-based (reading a certain number of minutes each day…and it was every single day, except when I wasn’t at home) worked better for the SN and AN. Being sutta-based would probably have given me a better experience with the MN, but I didn’t know that then. I used BB’s translation of Snp, reading the introduction and commentary for each sutta, and that worked well.

A memory just popped up that while it’s true I didn’t take “notes” per se, I did start a notebook of verses that I like. It’s a treasure to have now, even though I wasn’t consistent in adding all the verses that caught my eye.

My sutta study now has two prongs–broad and deep. Reading broadly, I’m finding suttas related to a given topic and reading them at an intermediate depth. Reading deeply, I’m picking out a few suttas (maybe 3-4/month), reading them through several times in a day for 3-4 days, reading them out loud, contemplating them, and then writing up a summary for each sutta in Google Docs.
Key Topic:
Summary: 1 short paragraph…what’s this sutta about?
Ties to 4NT/N8P/7FA:
Key Points:
How to Practice This Sutta/Where the Rubber Meets the Road:

  • What is deeply true in this sutta?
  • How do I put this sutta to work in my life right now?
  • How did this sutta change my understanding/view?
    When and Why Read:

I’m currently going through the whole sutta pitaka in order, that’s what bound to take a while, but previously I found great value in reading anthologies from the Pali canon. Monks who are well versed in the whole canon are able to compile antologies revolving around specific topics. This is a lot more direct and to the point. A favorite of mine is certainly Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Wings to Awakening. It’s conceivable one might read through that, and at the same time look up different translations of each text in the anthology on sutra central.

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I just started about week or so a go. :slight_smile:

Maybe I will reply to this thread every half year or so just to say I am still going.

I’ve read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “In The Buddhas Words” and Thanisarro Bhikkhu’s “Wings To Awakening”.

Someday I would like to read Thanisarro Bhikkhu’s anthology on The Noble Eightfold Path ( “On The Path” ).

I read “Wings To Awakening” shortly after it came out in the 1990s.

Thankfully computers and word processors had just become thing so I was able to type up and hold onto the extensive notes I made. Great book. I still have those notes in multiple electronic forms and I still look things up in those notes every few years.

I still have the printed book I sent away for too. Holding onto it all of these years has been a good lesson about the value of quality printing. The paper is still white, and doesn’t have that acid “old book smell” when the paper starts to deteriorate.

I’ve had plenty of life experience with abandoning projects after killing all of the joy out of them with perfectionist self made rules.

I’m at a pretty good place now with note taking. I’m just doing 2-3 lines per sutta with the idea that I can always go back.

Seems to be working well so far.

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I think a thread like this is certainly worth bumping more often than that!

BTW, It is very easy to reply to multiple people in a single post instead of a new post for each. Just place your cursor at the end of your post, go up to the person you want to quote, select the text and then click the quote button. By quoting them they automatically get a ping. Othewise you can always type @ and their user name should pop up. This will also ping them.

I mention it because I have seen others doing the same thing of creating many posts at once.


I don’t know how interesting it will be to read “I’m still at it” more often than that. :slight_smile:

I’ll be around. My presence has already increased as I’m posting questions about what I read.

I didn’t know that I could that! Thank you.

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Well said, indeed. I’d like to add two more aspects, triggered by the “… seeking out …” .

I’ve spent time with suttas partially randomly, until finding one which has something in it… For me it is helpful for immersion to copy&paste and format it with my intentions; paragraphs, underlines, make it readable. This could really take some -fruitful!-time to let the content touch my mind&heart. (Example from a very intense time: PC nano-index)

(1) But after that I had always to “go out” and reflect it with my life; reading about “metta” say, and let my playing&struggling in my life be reflected. Perhaps visiting friends and see whether it fits with my behave, relation, or reflect some incidence in the tram when the whole cloud of “metta”-implications has been raised by the previous reads. So I stopped the idea completely to read the full canon sequentially and sutta-by-sutta. If I may have read four or five, then -with good heuristic- there comes one which I can’t chew at all: it’s too high for me, too far away from my experiences or out of radius of my imagination… so another day, another sutta will do…

(2) Moreover, I felt a good time has been when I’ve been involved in a discussion group in the “usenet” years ago. This was a “hell” full of trolling and nonsense and shorttime-hate&anger - but still there were a handful of more serious searchers or contributors, and the involvement even in this harsh forum gave good conditions to grow/to learn: because contents and practice/experience were “entangled” , for instance I had enough reason and opportunities to observe my own anger and my own resource to calm down and get a stance, so, I might possibly say today, it was a good room for “learning-by-doing”, and I love it really when today I read a bit through (my small collection of) printed threads in there.

So: the intense reading needs concentration, immersion; but it needs as well breaks, time to go out, to verify (or at least reflect) in nature or social context what I did understand (or not); and this “time to go out” means not one afternoon, but sometimes phases. “Life” might be one of the experts to be sought- and still better if one finds even experts, or wise people as snowbird mentions, in that life… :slight_smile:


Per your first point, yes, you need time to digest some suttas.

I’ve been doing a random sutta a day. Thankfully, some of the more substantial suttas are followed by quick ones that don’t have much to say. That gives me time to digest the others. I’ve found that not stopping a random-sutta-day has actually helped me to digest suttas I am more interested in. The latter read suttas will often expound further on a topic that peaked my interest in suttas I read earlier.

I’ve also been pasting links to ones I want to mull over into a “favorites” list, with one or two bullet points on what it is about. I can relax knowing it will “be there” for repeated reviews, and further digestion.

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I too used Usenet in the 1990s - talk.religion.buddhsim.

It turned out that one of the more prolific, hostile, and obnoxious trolls there was a classmate of mine. He has also been in my extended social circles. Years later I can’t say he has made much progress. He is still trying to impress people with how well read he is and he is still pushing them away at the same time. A living hungry ghost.

I’ve never had trouble starting a conversation here about Buddhism or suttas. Discuss & Discover manages to be educational,positive, and peaceful where earlier Buddhist forums have failed.

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I recently started to just go to and taking number between 1-4, and going to SuttaCentral

Then, if it’s for example 2 - it’s Majjhimanikāya this time (1-4 as the 4 Nikayas), then going back to random number between 1-152 (total number of MN suttas) until an absolutely random sutta is ready to explore :slight_smile: been very fun so far, maybe someone would find it fun this way too!

In this way it often turns into more than just that one sutta, for example SN 51.45-54 :smiley: Also, I get to re-read suttas over and over or explore Pali if I already know the sutta.

I’ve been getting random daily suttas to read in a similar, but much nicer way through

If you don’t like daily emails, there are also feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.