There are thousands of discourses by the Buddha, but only a few that are well known and cherished in the Buddhist traditions. These discourses are chanted, studied, and put into practice, while the rest are often overlooked.
There’s a reason why these discourses are so popular: they are beautiful, powerful, deep texts, with moving and relevant teachings. But there are plenty of equally valuable teachings! In this article I’ll give a list of what I consider to be the Top Ten most popular suttas in Theravada Buddhism, and ten more that deserve to be just as popular.
1. You know: the Buddha’s First Sermon (SN 56.11)
In the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Buddha taught the four noble truths and eightfold path to the group of five ascetics. At the climax of the teaching, Koṇḍañña had a vision of the truth, and the Buddha’s dispensation was first established. This brief teaching, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the “Rolling Forth of the Wheel of Teaching” or Dhammacakka for short, is without doubt the most renowned discourse in Buddhism. It is regularly recited and memorized, and forms the foundation for every serious course on teaching the Dhamma. In a way, every later teaching is just an expansion on the ideas put forth here.
Why not read: the Analysis of the Truths (MN 141)
In the Saccavibhaṅga Sutta, the Buddha recalls the Dhammacakka, and mentions that Venerable Sāriputta is quite capable of teaching the four noble truths in detail—which he then does. Not only does this text make clear the meaning of things mentioned in passing in the first discourse, it shows the maturity of the Sangha, now fully capable of continuing to roll the wheel on their own.
The Mettā Sutta or Karaṇīyamettā Sutta is found at Snp 1.8 and Kp 9. It is a poem on the virtues of mettā, loving-kindness. It is a beautiful set of verses, which within its brief span sets out the ethical foundations for love, shows how to develop it in meditation, and describes what transcendent love feels like. There little wonder that it is perhaps the most popular discourse for reciting, whether in community or as part of one’s own meditation. Many people like to chant it before sitting, or have it on in the background during the day.
Why not read: the Kodhana Sutta on anger (AN 7.64)
If the Metta Sutta’s positive spin is not convincing enough, see what the Buddha said about the opposite: what it’s like to be angry. This short discourse gives a rather devastating description of anger, following up with a vivid and memorable set of verses.
Ahh, it’s good to have a life full of blessings, right? But how to obtain them, that’s the question! Is it a matter of worshipping the right deity, doing the correct rites, or making an offering on the right phase of the moon? None of these, said the Buddha, and set forth 38 “blessings” that consist of ways of living life in accord with Dhamma. As he did so often, here the Buddha is co-opting the language of conventional religion, but applying it in an entirely new way.
Why not read: the Sigala Sutta on lay ethics (DN 31)
When the Buddha encounters the young man Sigala worshipping the four quarters, he asks why. It seems Sigala is honoring the memory of his deceased parents. But the Buddha shows how a life of compassion and restraint will truly honor the memory of one’s parents. Like the Maṅgala Sutta, this shows how conventional religious beliefs could be channelled in a more useful way, but it gives even more clear guidelines on living.
The Ratana Sutta is one of the most famous “parittas” or protection chants, along with the Mettā and the Maṅgala Suttas, that form the cornerstone of Pali chanting in the Theravada world. It details the virtues of the “Triple Gem”: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. In fact the very idea of the “Triple Gem” is probably derived from this sutta, although here the gems are qualities found in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. While full of devotional beauty, the verses also contain many references to profound states of meditation and realizations.
Why not read: the Sela Sutta on devotion to the Buddha (MN 92)
While we often emphasize the rational and empirical nature of the Buddha’s teachings, he was a man of vast charisma who had a deep emotional impact of the lives of those he met. In the Sela Sutta we meet a well-to-do brahmin whose immediate delight and faith in the Buddha spurs him to deep attainment.
5. You know: the Tirokuṭṭa Sutta on offerings (Kp 7)
This is a bit of a wildcard: actually, you probably don’t know this sutta as such, but you will recognize many of the lines. Does this sound familiar: Yathā vārivahā pūrā, paripūrenti sāgaraṃ? Yep, it’s the source for some of the most often recited Anumodana verses, recited as a blessing or celebration by the monastics when a meal is offered. The exact verses used vary somewhat in the traditions, and others are used as well, but this is one of the main sources. Curiously enough, this is not really one of the earlier verses, and the verses that the Buddha himself recited as Anumodana are less often heard; there are some in the Sela Sutta if you want an example. The Tirokuṭṭa introduces the idea of sharing merits with the departed, an idea that is rarely found, if at all, in the early discourses.
Why not read: the discourse to General Sīha on giving (AN 5.34)
A prominent leader of the Vajjian people, General Sīha had many discussions on giving and related matters. Here, he acknowledges that, while many of the benefits of giving are things here can see for himself, as for how it affects his future rebirth, he can only rely on faith in the Buddha.
6. You know: the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta on mindfulness meditation (MN 10)
A famous collection of teachings on how to meditate, this is the basis for modern Theravada meditation techniques, and through them, the global mindfulness movement. It outlines a series of contemplative practices within the four frameworks of body, feelings, mind, and principles. It is has become such a familiar text and technique, it is hard to remember what a radical and innovative approach this is: completely divesting religious contemplation of ideas of the divine or anything that we might consider “spiritual”, it asks us to focus on the most mundane of everyday activities and experiences.
Why not read: the Fruits of the Ascetic Life (DN 2)
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is quite unusual in its emphasis on one specific aspect of the eightfold path. The Buddha more commonly taught what is known as the “Gradual Training”, which outlined an integrated path from the first hearing of the Dhamma to the full attainment of Nibbana. While this is taught many times, the most beautiful and powerful exposition is the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, where the Buddha speaks to the corrupt king Ajātasattu about the point of practising the contemplative path.
7. You know: the Dhammapada (Dhp)
This collection of verses remains a perennial favorite, not just among Buddhists. It has been translated many times, and might be considered as the world’s first collection of inspiring sayings. It is the ultimate source of many of the images and quotes that circulate in Buddhism, and these days, much of it has become absorbed into the world’s spiritual wisdom.
Why not read: the Udāna (Ud)
The Pali Dhammapada, while undoubtedly the most popular, is just one of many examples of a genre of Buddhist text that is widely found across the traditions. SuttaCentral lists twelve Dhammapadas, and this must be just a fraction of those that existed in the old days. But the Dhammapadas are also closely related to another group of texts, the Udānas. Where the Dhammapada, at least in Pali, is in pure verse, the Udāna situates the verses in a story that gives a heightened understanding and impact.
8. You know: the Buddha’s Last Days (DN 16)
The Mahāparinibbāna Sutta is the deeply moving account of the Buddha’s final journey as he travelled, with mindfulness and dignity, to his last rest. Along the way, he was accompanied by his devoted attendant Ānanda, who features in many of the incidents; the power of the story is only amplified when we reflect that the text must have been created by Ānanda himself in the years following the demise of his Master. This is the longest of all discourses, more like a short novel than a brief reflection, and contains within it a variety of teachings and circumstances, many of them unique.
If the Mahāparinibbāna tells of the twilight, this is the story of the dawn. Almost as long and complex as the last journey, this starts with the Buddha’s awakening and tells of how he gradually set up his dispensation. In Pali, this is included as part of the Vinaya, but the Sanskrit version was a discourse in the Dīrghāgama, the equivalent of the Dīgha Nikāya.
9. You know: how the Buddha’s stepmother was ordained (AN 8.51)
While the fact that the Buddha gave women the ordination is something to be celebrated, the circumstances in which it happened are something of a downer. The Buddha is said to have only reluctantly granted this after initially refusing his stepmother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether this is an authentic text, and what it might mean. I think it is a distorted recollection of the ordination of Mahāpajāpatī specifically, and reflects her need to deal with the pride of her position as the Buddha’s mother. But whatever you think of it, it is important to acknowledge that not everything in our tradition is going to be obvious or easy to understand, and there are genuine issues of interpretation.
Why not read: the Therīgāthā
While much ancient literature records the opinions of men about women, few texts record the voices of women directly. And virtually none record so many voices of spiritual women, singing of the their struggles, their bravery, and their triumphs. This is one of the gems of Pali literature.
10. You know: the Kālāma Sutta on free inquiry (AN 3.65)
No discourse represents the spirit of modern reformist Buddhism better than the so-called Kālāma Sutta, sometimes called Kesaputtiya in the texts. A community of doubting laypeople, faced with a stream of teachers all saying different things, ask the Buddha who to believe. The Buddha famously tells them to reject blind belief, as well as mere logic, and observe what leads to increase or decrease of defilements and suffering.
Why not read: the discourse to the brahmin Caṅkī on how to arrive at truth (MN 95)
There are plenty of places where the Buddha addressed similar problems as found in the Kālāma Sutta, and in fact the Buddha was probably the first philosopher to make epistemology, the ways of knowing, such a central concern. In this discourse he problematizes the notion of truth, saying there is a difference between not misrepresenting facts and actually knowing facts. But unlike some modern sceptics, he doesn’t rest with the easy task of dismissing knowledge, but lays out a practical program to find and verify the truth for oneself.