📖 The Art of Listening: A Guide to the Early Teachings of Buddhism, By Sarah Shaw

New book out in the last week.

From the publisher:

An accessible introduction to the teachings of the Buddha told through the oral tradition of the Dīghanikāya –the preeminent text of the Pali canon.

The Dīghanikāya or Long Discourses of the Buddha is one of the four major collections of teachings from the early period of Buddhism. Its thirty-four suttas (in Sanskrit, sutras) demonstrate remarkable breadth in both content and style, forming a comprehensive collection. The Art of Listening gives an introduction to the Dīghanikāya and demonstrates the historical, cultural, and spiritual insights that emerge when we view the Buddhist suttas as oral literature.

Each sutta of the Dīghanikāya is a paced, rhythmic composition that evolved and passed intergenerationally through chanting. For hundreds of years, these timeless teachings were never written down. Examining twelve suttas of the Dīghanikāya, scholar Sarah Shaw combines a literary approach and a personal one, based on her experiences carefully studying, hearing, and chanting the texts. At once sophisticated and companionable, The Art of Listening will introduce you to the diversity and beauty of the early Buddhist suttas.


PART ONE: Orality and Practice in the Early Buddhist Suttas

  1. What Is an Oral Literature, and How Does It Work?
  2. Of Bards and Bhāvanā:
    Oral Literature and Buddhist Practice
  3. Situating the Dīghanikāya amid the Four Nikāyas
  4. Literary Features of the Dīghanikāya
  5. Number Symbolism and the Dīghanikāya
  6. Myth and the Cardinal Points:
    Creating a Space for “Beings in All Directions”

PART TWO: Exploring the Suttas of the Dīghanikāya

  1. Journeys and the Net of Views: Brahmajāla-sutta— The Discourse on Brahmā’s Net (Sutta 1)
  2. The Fruits of Meditation: Sāmaññaphala-sutta— The Discourse on the Fruits of the Contemplative Life (Sutta 2)
  3. Perception and Its Cessation: Poṭṭhapāda-sutta— The Discourse about Poṭṭhapāda (Sutta 9, Part One)
  4. Self: Poṭṭhapāda-sutta—The Discourse about Poṭṭhapāda (Sutta 9, Part Two)
  5. Repetition and Awakening: Mahāpadāna-sutta—The Great Discourse on the Harvest of Deeds (Sutta 14)
  6. The Buddha’s Last Journey: Mahāparinibbāna-sutta—The Discourse on the Entry into Nirvana (Sutta 16)
  7. How Things Prosper: Mahāsudassana-sutta—The Discourse on the Great King of Glory (Sutta 17)
  8. Establishing Mindfulness: Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna-sutta—The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Sutta 22)
  9. Origins and How Things Get Worse: Cakkavattisīhanāda-sutta—The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel (Sutta 26)
  10. The Great Person: Lakkhaṇa-sutta—The Discourse on the Marks (Sutta 30)
  11. The Lay Life and How to Behave: Sigālovāda-sutta—The Discourse with Advice to Sigāla (Sutta 31)
  12. Magic, Protection, and the Four Kings: Āṭānāṭiya-sutta—The Discourse of Āṭānāṭā (Sutta 32)
  13. Chanting Together: Saṅgīti-sutta—The Chanting Together Discourse (Sutta 33)
    APPENDIX: The Thirty-two Marks of the Great Person


“For many years I regarded the Dīgha Nikāya, the Buddha’s Long Discourses, as of little personal relevance, seeing it as primarily aimed at enhancing the status of Buddhism in the social and cultural milieu of ancient India. Sarah Shaw’s book has radically transformed my assessment of this collection. Beautifully written and rich in observations, her inspired work shows the Digha to be perhaps the boldest and most majestic of the four Nikāyas. In Shaw’s treatment of the text, the Digha merges two contrasting perspectives in a tense but happy harmony: a panoramic vision of the vast cosmic significance of the Buddha and his teaching, and an earthy view of the Buddha’s concrete physical presence in this world. This contrast, she argues, is seen most poignantly in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the long narrative on the Buddha’s final journey and passage into nirvana, where he himself exemplifies his teaching of universal impermanence. I believe that for others, too, this book will have a lasting impact on their appreciation of the Digha, offering many new ways of looking at this fascinating collection of early Buddhist texts.”—Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, author of Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pāli

“In this quietly revolutionary book, Sarah Shaw shows us that Buddhist sutras are also Buddhist practices, and that listening can be a form of meditation. She shows that our modern habits of skim reading and skipping ahead in texts are very different from the way the sutras have been appreciated in the past, and that if we can better understand the way the dharma has been recited and listened to over so many generations, it will allow us to engage with it more fully. Cultivating a quiet and attentive practice of listening seems more necessary than ever and this is a book that shows us how it can be done.”—Sam van Schaik, author of Buddhist Magic and Tibetan Zen

About the Author

DR. SARAH SHAW is a faculty member and lecturer at the University of Oxford. She has taught and published numerous works on the history and practices of Buddhism, including Mindfulness, An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation, and The Spirit of Meditation.


Sarah Shaw read Greek and English, at Manchester University, where she did a doctorate in English literature.

After studying Pali and Sanskrit at Oxford University, she started writing and researching on Pali literature, particularly jātakas, texts concerned with meditation, and modern practice.

She is a member of Wolfson College and the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford. She is also a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

Her books include (2006) Jātaka Stories: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta; co-authored, with Dr Naomi Appleton and Professor Toshiya Unebe, (2013) Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Eighteenth-Century Siamese Chanting Manual, in the Treasures of the Bodleian Library Series, Bodleian Publications, Oxford; and (2015), with Naomi Appleton, The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha: the Mahānipāta of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (Silkworm Books, Thailand/University of Washington Press, Seattle).

A frequent visitor to South and Southeast Asia, she lectures and writes on Buddhist subjects.

[Gratitude to Ven @Dhammanando for pointing out this video

Also on D&D, another of Dr. Shaw’s books, The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha


I just started reading. Thought others might also be interested and this could be a place to share quotations and comments.

I thought this was interesting. From the intro:

It is worth remembering that for centuries—and indeed now—they have been recited, as group performances, to perhaps a large number of listeners. So there would be no skipping to the end to find out what happens or skimming over repetitions. You would be listening to them in “real” time. A modern reader might not want to read each repetition, but bearing the oral context in mind is helpful and means the process is more leisurely. Just becoming familiar with one text at a time, at your own pace, is really the best way of getting a feel for what it is doing.


She is a great audio book narrator. I have listened to “Mindfulness” and “The Early Teachings of The Buddha.” Both her books. I will check this one out when available.


Perhaps, Part Two could be formed into an interesting collection on Voice ? @sabbamitta , @karl_lew


Inspired by this thread, I’ve just now purchased Art of Listening. I’ve been studying DN34 using Voice for months and I think Art of Listening will be quite complementary.

Perhaps we can interest Dr. Shaw in creating an EBT-Site companion site for her book, especially Part 2.


I just got this book and started reading it. The Digha Nikaya is probably the major Nikaya I’ve had the hardest time fully appreciating, so I like the “help” in understanding it. So far I’m intrigued by what she says about the timelessness of it — that the suttas in the DN tend to be bunched up towards the end of the Buddha’s life, and often have an orientation towards the dissemination of his teachings after his Parinibbana. Perhaps that might shed light on the suggestion made on this forum by Bhante Sujato, about how the DN seems to have more “late” suttas than the other major Nikayas.

I also appreciate the comments she makes about the nature of oral tradition and how sutta recitation/contemplation in an oral cultural context aided meditation (rather than being a distraction from it).


There are lots of journal articles cited in the book, but this one looks especially central.

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It will be interesting to know how the author talks about the 32 marks of the Buddha as a guide to the early teachings of Buddhism.


I don’t know how Shaw herself would handle the marks, but several of the teachers in the group with which she’s involved (the Samatha Trust) are great enthusiasts for the Dīgha Nikāya, and especially for those DN suttas that tend to find little favour among EBT followers in general - the mythical ones. Typically these discourses are treated by them as visually elaborate meditation texts. See, for example, the articles on the Mahāsuddassana and Aggañña Suttas by Rupert Gethin (also a Samatha Trust teacher).

Mythology as Meditation: From the Mahāsudassana Sutta to the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra

Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña-Sutta to the Mahāyāna

In the case of the Lakkhaṇasutta, the thirty-two marks (and their past kammic causes) are used by Samatha Trust teachers as the basis for buddhānussati, cāgānussati, sīlānussati or kāyānupassanā.


Here is a direct download link for a pdf of their book called The Suttanta On The Marks translated by Usha McNab and friends.

I haven’t gotten to the section in The Art of Listening where Shaw goes in depth with the marks, but she does cover it in the section on number symbolism.

Her PhD is in English Literature, I believe, but she has extensive academic experience in Pali texts. I don’t have any background in “big L” literature, so I’m not really qualified to know, but so far in the book it feels like she is making lots of speculation/conjectures about things. And none of it is really wrong or even unorthodox, because she clearly knows her subject matter. Just a lot of things impossible to prove. I’ll try to find an example. But I’m guessing this is what would need to happen in an English literature class. Kind of making up theories and pulling out more meaning.

In any case it is clear that Dr. Shaw is a super fan of the DN. Her enthusiasm and love for the text comes through on every page. That alone will be really helpful for many people.


Also in the Zoom talk she gave on it back in February.


I’ve been listening to Dr. Shaw narrate her book on my daily walks. She’s a wonderful narrator and her book is best listened to–the space of listening affords time and mindfulness for insights that elude that grasping sense of sight.

Indeed she does discuss myths. Myths formalize key experiences. We have, for example, the myth of Icarus with its ominous warning against hubris. And it is that very formalization of key experiences that Dr. Shaw celebrates in the Digha Nikaya. These myths are not for entertainment. These DN myths are intended for learning and should be heard as such. We don’t need to prove Icarus, but we do need to heed that warning against hubris.

Other than the suttas, there are few books that I would listen to on my walks. And “The Art of Listening” is quite worth that time and attention.


Reading it more now — Shaw seems to take a more maximalist approach to the DN than what I’ve read here on SuttaCentral, saying that it doesn’t really seem to have any more late material than the other major Nikayas. She acknowledges that 1 or 2 suttas have some late poetic forms, but that’s still less that what folks like Bhante Sujato have argued for here. She seems to find a lot of significance in the numbers 31, 32, and 33 and believes the DN was deliberately structured to have about that many suttas (there are 34…she offers some theories as to why the number is 34 instead of 33, such as that 16 and 17 were originally together but later split into 2).

It’s nice to have another perspective on the DN’s composition. I don’t have nearly the expertise to come to a judgement on where I stand.


I’m just now getting to part two (using an ebook) and can confirm that the book doesn’t actually have any sutta translations. She just talks about them.

I’m wondering if the term “maximalist” is a standard one and if so what it means. Google isn’t much help.

As a lead in to part 2, where she picks suttas to comment on in detail, she says:

page 106
In Part Two, we will explore twelve suttas from the Dīghanikāya. They are treated in the order in which they occur in the collection. The selection is intended to be broadly representative of the range of texts the Dīghanikāya has to offer and suggests some approaches that may help when encountering them. Many of the texts have been discussed fully elsewhere; the intention of the upcoming chapters is to communicate a sense of the diversity of the material involved, not to be representative or exhaustive. The approach is part literary and part observational. Work is still ongoing on ways that these texts evolved and were shaped into collections. Part Two attempts to appreciate these suttas just as they are and identify ways they can be applied in the “now,” when human life spans are short.

So from this comment and previous ones (that I can’t find at the moment) she seems open to the fact that the texts have been constructed and that they may not have originally been what we see today. However in this book she treats them as-is.

When she does talk about the suttas on a time line, it seems that she is mainly talking about where they fit in the narrative arc. For example suttas that take place after the Buddha’s passing (DN 16) are what she calls later.

Does anyone know what an “observational” approach is? I know what observational comedy is, but I’m guessing this isn’t the same. :grin:


I understand Dr. Shaw’s “observational approach” to map exactly to “direct knowledge”. In other words, instead of trying to grab the slippery fish of insight, one observes mindfully to understand and practice. This observational approach also maps exactly to the scientific method, which is essentially an observational approach that leads to exclamations of “Eureka!”. One approaches insight via observation.

Indeed we have:

DN34:1.6.76: What five things should be directly known?
DN34:1.6.77: Five opportunities for freedom.

And the main thesis of The Art of Listening explores how the suttas guide our practice with an observational approach towards freedom:

DN34:1.6.87: That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how they recite it in detail as they learned and memorized it.
DN34:1.6.87: That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how they recite it in detail as they learned and memorized it.
DN34:1.6.88: Feeling inspired, joy springs up. Being joyful, rapture springs up. When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil. When the body is tranquil, one feels bliss. And when blissful, the mind becomes immersed.
DN34:1.6.89: This is the third opportunity for freedom.

An observational approach requires two things:

DN34:1.3.2: What two things are helpful?
DN34:1.3.3: Mindfulness and situational awareness.
DN34:1.3.5: What two things should be developed?
DN34:1.3.6: Serenity and discernment.

Having listened to DN34 on my own for months and months, that would be my understanding of Dr. Shaw’s “observational approach”. My approach has, indeed, been observational. And what I have observed is that my own observations of DN match Dr. Shaw’s. Indeed, Dr. Shaw’s observations have addressed gaps in my own understanding, providing additional insight into how the suttas are crafted to be studied and practiced.

The word “observation” is normally associated with sight, that grasping sense of vision. Here, in The Art of Listening, Dr. Shaw deftly inclines our own understanding of that very visual word towards another sense. Dr. Shaw calls our attention to the sense of hearing as the primary vehicle for understanding the Dhamma. She invites us to listen to the Dhamma. And that listening is key to the observational approach to the Dhamma. Sight is for gleaning. Listening leads to insight.


Using this approach, how one is able to lead to “direct knowledge” (insight) regarding the 32 marks of the Buddha?


:laughing: touche. You can’t.

However, my own personal goals are much more modest so I’m not checking my heels anytime soon. There is a large part of the Dhamma that has no personal relevance to me (e.g., flying cross-legged through the sky). But the stuff that remains is incredibly helpful. So I just use the part of the Dhamma that makes sense to me and is personally verifiable. Y’all can fly through the sky happily as you wish counting marks of great men.



Yes, happily. Sumaṅgala-vilāsinī “Auspicious-pleasant” is the title of Buddhaghosa’s commentary on DN.


I was thinking in regards to Biblical minimalism/maximalism (which is generally more about historicity than dating texts, but the two are intertwined). But it wasn’t a term I gave much thought to, and I’d be happy to use a different one if it’s more appropriate.

Yeah, she definitely offers room for literary construction…I don’t deny that. When I suggested that she might be a bit more “maximalist” than the perspective I’ve read here on SC, I was mostly referring to this passage:

The Dīghanikāya comprises three sections, and we cannot tell with any certainty the date of the collection as a whole. Like the other nikāyas, it is somewhere around the fourth century B.C.E. The verses, in the vatta style, are close in structure to the Brahmaṇas and the early Upaniṣads.8 Various critics also have observed some comparability between the prose style of the Dīghanikāya and that of, for instance, the Śatapathabrāmaṇa, a Vedic commentary,9 most of which is usually dated sometime from the eighth to the sixth century B.C.E. Oskar von Hinüber has notably demonstrated archaic language and place-name forms in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta (D 16).10 Conversely, K. R. Norman, noting that the verses of the Lakkhaṇa-sutta are of a much later style, suggests these were a later insertion to a perhaps earlier sutta.11 Scholarly and philological work continues on such dating. It appears, however, that the Dīghanikāya is, broadly speaking, of much the same date as the other major nikāyas.

Excerpt From: Sarah Shaw. “The Art of Listening.” Apple Books. ‎The Art of Listening on Apple Books

…though, to be fair, she does leave the door open to research on dating and doesn’t seem all that committed to a particular idea.


and she mentions Sutta Central in the talk as a place to go to find all the suttas