'Sutta study': misperception of the accessibity of the suttas

I recently noticed that in Western buddhist circles the word ‘sutta’ is almost always associated with ‘study’, hence so many ‘sutta study’ groups.

A few months ago I proposed to play a sutta audio recording at my weekly group sit, instead of the usual ubiquitous Thai forest Dhamma talk (that I like a lot don’t get me wrong)… but the other persons of my group assumed that we would do a sutta study, they did not even consider that it was possible to read or listen to suttas as Dhamma talks.

I have the impression that they are perceived as very difficult to approach and understand. Of course, studying them is great because they are so inter-related and deep and rich. But they are also very enjoyable and a lot of them not so difficult to read!

Hopefully the new translations and emerging awareness of them in the recent years will help change this perception and more people will start reading them as they would the latest best-seller Dharma book.


You don’t study Thai forest Dhamma talks? How would you describe the way you pull information out of such a talk?

A ‘study’ can also be a small room for silence and contemplation of various things; it seems like a good word to use…

I do study the suttas. But they are not so complicated that cannot also just be read on their own, or listen to as Dhamma talks. And I think (but I might be wrong) that lots of people are not aware of this: they perceive the suttas as something very difficult to understand and read, something that can only be read with a study group or a teacher.

I do not study the Thai Forest Dhamma talk as I study the suttas. I listen to them with attention and will reflect on some aspects of them. They give me food for thoughts, food for contemplations.

Sure. But this is not how the word is used and understood most of the time and in this particular context.

Edit: By the way I am not against sutta studies and sutta study groups, I think it is great! I’m just surprised to see that lots of people see them as complicated texts that cannot be approached without expert guidance.

If this isn’t study, it seems passive, treating the Suttas as a mere entertainment.

At Savatthi. Now on that occasion the Blessed One was instructing, exhorting, inspiring, and gladdening the bhikkhus with a Dhamma talk concerning Nibbāna. And those bhikkhus were listening to the Dhamma with eager ears, attending to it as a matter of vital concern, applying their whole minds to it.

In my context it is a polyvalent term that doesn’t necessarily mean “hard work”. Try “the devotion of time and attention to acquiring knowledge on an academic subject, especially by means of books”, which is the Sutta study you’re talking about. Then, there’s “a detailed investigation and analysis of a subject or situation”, which is what those monks up there are up to.

Well, we have to agree that listening/reading is always gonna be a first step, so this doesn’t differentiate anything. So “reflect on” has to mean something different than “study”. Can you say what this is?

Putting aside semantics, I think the issue is as above. I wondered about this as well, at one point. I also think the worries are not without basis- look at the discussion on Asava now, for example. It does require some expertise. However people who have basic concepts down pat, can swiftly go through a sutta without problem, after that. It takes broader familiarity with the suttas to see parallels in words as well as the broader context in dhamma a sutta may be ‘operating’ in, as well as the sociocultural setting at the time. However all that is not necessary to make a start- the knowledge of terminology should be adequate for it to be meaningful.

with metta