SuttaCentral

Top Ten Suttas (and ten more to read as well)


#1

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.

2. You know: the Mettā Sutta (Snp 1.8 and Kp 9)

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.

3. You know: the Maṅgala Sutta on auspicious blessings (Snp 2.4 and Kp 5)

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.

4. You know: the Ratana Sutta on the triple gem (Snp 2.1 and Kp 6)

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.

Why not read: the Fourfold Assembly (Kd 1 and in Sanskrit SF 259)

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.


Which sutta has had the greatest positive impact on your life?
#2

My top ten are-

1. MN 1 Buddha advised not to objectified Nibbana

He directly knows extinguishment as extinguishment.
nibbānaṃ nibbānato abhijānāti;
But he doesn’t identify with extinguishment, he doesn’t identify regarding extinguishment, he doesn’t identify as extinguishment, he doesn’t identify that ‘extinguishment is mine’, he doesn’t take pleasure in extinguishment.
nibbānaṃ nibbānato abhiññāya nibbānaṃ na maññati, nibbānasmiṃ na maññati, nibbānato na maññati, nibbānaṃ meti na maññati, nibbānaṃ nābhinandati.
Why is that?
Taṃ kissa hetu?
Because he has understood that relishing is the root of suffering,
‘Nandī dukkhassa mūlan’ti

2. MN 60 Guaranteed - I like this Sutta because this gives some certainty to people like me who doubt everything.:grinning:

“Since you haven’t found a teacher you’re happy with, you should undertake and implement this guaranteed teaching.

3. MN 107 Gradual training. I like numbers and calculations.

Among us accountants, who earn a living by accounting, we can see gradual progress

4-5. As a young man, I was inspired by Singalovada Sutta, Mangala Sutta and Parabhava Sutta.

Perhaps I am who is now is a product of those Suttas.

6. SN 22.59 Anatta Lakkhana Sutta.

I was a Buddhist by birth but I started learning Buddhism only about six years ago. I was shocked to read Anatta teaching when I was reading Ven. Narada’s book. So I became a 24X7 Buddhist. Perhaps this should be my number 1.

7. DN 16 Maha-Parinibbana Sutta.

I like this sutta for various reasons. It gives us some description of how an Arahant passes away. Not to mention the dramatic presentation of the Buddha’s Parinibbana. I feel sad even though I should be happy about it. But the most intriguing thing is how Buddha’s knowledge of this world is created. I always thought that water is established upon the earth, atmosphere upon water and space upon the atmosphere. According to Buddha, it is another way around and it is quite the scientific knowledge today.

“This great earth, Ananda, is established upon liquid, the liquid upon the atmosphere, and the atmosphere upon space. And when, Ananda, mighty atmospheric disturbances take place, the liquid is agitated. And with the agitation of the liquid, tremors of the earth arise. This is the first reason, the first cause for the arising of mighty earthquakes.”

8. SN 22.101 Nava Sutta. I like this Sutta because it is funny and deliver a stronge message. Jhana and Nibbana is not something you have to wish for. When you follow the Path, you naturally experience Jhana and attain Nibbana.

"Suppose a hen has eight, ten, or twelve eggs that she covers rightly, warms rightly, & incubates rightly: Even though this wish may not occur to her — ‘O that my chicks might break through the egg shells with their spiked claws or beaks and hatch out safely!’ — still it is possible that the chicks will break through the egg shells with their spiked claws or beaks and hatch out safely. Why is that? Because the hen has covered them, warmed them, & incubated them rightly. In the same way, even though this wish may not occur to a monk who dwells devoting himself to development — ‘O that my mind might be released from effluents through lack of clinging!’ — still his mind is released from the effluents through lack of clinging. Why is that? From developing, it should be said. Developing what? The four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, the noble eightfold path.
8)SN36.21 Not everything this individual experiences—pleasurable, painful, or neutral—is because of past deeds. Many Sri Lankans belive that every thing happens due to Kamma. So they do not make any effort to change the situation.

"Some feelings stem from phlegm disorders … wind disorders … their conjunction … change in weather … not taking care of yourself … overexertion … Some feelings are the result of past deeds. You can know this from your own personal experience, and it is generally agreed to be true. Since this is so, the ascetics and brahmins whose view is that everything an individual experiences is because of past deeds go beyond personal experience and beyond what is generally agreed to be true. So those ascetics and brahmins are wrong, I say.”
9) MN22 The simile of the snake.
This Sutt has two great similes. The simile of the snake (wrong grasping of Dhamma) and the simile of the raft. (Dhamma is for crossing over not for holding on)
10)Tipitaka

So. What is your top ten?


#3

Is this good clickbate?? Or the best clickbate? :rofl::pray::heart_eyes:

Thanks for this Bhante! How long before it gets syndicated in Tricycle? :joy:


#4

Thank you bhante! :pray:t4:


#5

@sujato Many thanks. This will help me structure an intensive practice period I’m organizing.


#6

Thanks for the suggestions bhante.


#7

After reading Sela’s verses in praise of the Buddha, the Lotus Sutra’s lengthy verse sections don’t seem so out of place after all. While the Mahayana sutras might seem verbose to those new to reading them, the Pali suttas can use grandiose language as well.

The first Western scholars who assessed the Buddhist scriptures preferred the Pali suttas for supposedly being “simpler” and therefore more historically accurate. It’s a double standard which has continued to this day.


#8

@Kensho, in fairness, it’s not the “simplicity” that makes the Pali and Chinese suttas more historically accurate. And, I don’t think the Lotus Sutra us judged unfairly relative to the Suttas with respect to authenticity. It’s a later Mahayana composition, though it is a beautiful work of narrative. The parable of the jewel in the robe is a favorite of mine, though I recognize that this was not taught by the historical Buddha. That these Mahayana Sutras are late Asian compositions does not take away from their beauty or value, but it’s best not to suggest that their historicity as Buddhadhamma is unfairly judged. That’s my two baht, anyway.


#9

I don’t believe the Lotus Sutra is word-for-word a discourse of the historical Buddha, and it may very well contain literary embellishments. The same, however, can be said of the Pali suttas.

My personal judgment as to a Buddhist scripture’s authenticity is whether or not its essential concepts go back to the historical Buddha, and that answer everyone must find for themselves.

For millions of East Asian Buddhists to this day, the validity of the Mahayana sutras has been more than just an academic inquiry.

These millions have staked their lives and spiritual destinies on the Mahayana being the teaching of the historical Buddha.

It’s also worth noting that the favorite scripture of Dogen and Hakuin, the most important Zen masters in Japanese history, was the Lotus Sutra. Hakuin even experienced satori while reading it.

I don’t expect those outside the Mahayana to accept the authenticity of Mahayana sutras, much like one shouldn’t expect non-Muslims to accept the validity of the Koran.

I assume that Mahayanists and Theravadins in the Asian world tend to get along with each other. The validity of one Buddhist scripture over another is more of an academic debate.


#10

Most Indonesians are very lazy to read books, especially the thick one. But with this book (and Theragatha too) can stimulate peoples to read more and more… :grin:

Indeed… :grin:


#11

This translation was a delight to read. I find it quite amazing that the Buddha, in addition to teaching the deep stuff, takes the time to basically give some life coaching advice to Sigala, and you read it 2500 years later and you’re like, yeah, that’s really good advice actually.


#12

I find it interesting to note how the popularity of certain suttas has changed over the millennia. For example, MN 135 must have been extraordinarily popular in the past given how many versions of it exist in all sorts of languages, including obscure ones. Yet it doesn’t seem to be mentioned by anyone here. Is it because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the more egalitarian ethos of Western Buddhists in modern times?

I’m curious — is there any scholarly work done on what were likely the most popular suttas in early times?


#13

Its more than that, since determining what the Buddha is likely to have taught is central to practicing dhamma.


#14

The spiritual fruit of a Buddhist scripture is more important than whether it can win an academic debate. I would provide you references to the Pali suttas on this if I weren’t at work right now.


#15

Perhaps off-topic, but there are the suttas King Asoka recommended in his edicts


#16

I think the popularity of Sutta change by person to person or even country to country.
When I was young my best Suttas was Parabhava Sutta and Singalovada Sutta. (That’s all I knew)
The popularity of Sutta changes with your development of practice and knowledge.
I post this question in Dhamma Wheel and see how the top 10 change with each person even though there is a common element such as gradual training.

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=34540


#17

Interesting point, and I’m not sure whether this has been studied in detail.

Some suttas, like the Dhammacakka, can be safely assumed as perennial favorites. But say the Kalama Sutta was basically unknown and was only popularized in the 20th century. Or say the Satipatthana Sutta: it was clearly popular through the ages, but it really took off when it became the foundation for modern Theravada meditation in the 20th century.

Incidentally, I discussed this in a Sri lankan dana the other day, and asked people what their top ten was. The first half was pretty much identical with what I put here, then it varied somewhat. There’s definitely a case for including the second and third sermons!

Parabhava Sutta seems to have been very popular in Sri Lanka, but you don’t hear much of it elsewhere. Another interesting case is the Atanatiya, which is well known for chanting, despite its lack of doctrinal content.


#18

Cool, thanks. It’s interesting that scholars aren’t sure of the identity of some of the passages Asoka recommended. I guess that only demonstrates how much Buddhist tradition has changed!

Interesting point. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of the Nikayas off-an-on for some time now, and I’ve come to realize that the ones that “stick” the most with me over time are the ones with nice imagery, such as the foam sutta, the sermon of the seven suns, the Rohitassa sutta (which I remember as the “hologram sutta”), and the simile of the parrot tree. I think Suttas like these are helpful for people who are more visual thinkers.

Also, some of the practical ethical teachings in the Anguttara Nikaya are nice, as they go beyond the standard “5 precept” stock formula; it reminds me of the book of Proverbs in the Bible (vs. the Ten Commandments, which I find boring). The Horn Blower is another favorite of mine, due to its more nuanced take on ethics and kamma, and the way it emphasizes the sheer power of the brahmaviharas.

On the other hand, I find the Satipatthana Sutta as exciting as watching paint dry, but I wonder if that’s because it’s written to teach a technique rather than to inspire. And its a technique I have a hard time relating to, perhaps because I’m not an advanced enough of a practitioner.

I can’t even remember what the first, second, and third sermons are even about lol. I guess it’s because I find their content expressed in more interesting ways elsewhere in the nikayas.

I’m curious to see how my opinion on suttas changes over time.

Good to know! Yeah, I did kinda wonder about the Kalama sutta — it seems very suited to more “modernist” sensibilities. Interesting that the first half of the list seems to have more cross-cultural penetration than the second.


#19

Here are the scripture references I had in mind.

The validity of a Buddhist scripture is determined by the spiritual fruits it encourages in its readers:

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”
Gotami Sutta: To Gotami

The Buddha also discouraged endless and fruitless debates:

Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to debates such as these — ‘You understand this doctrine and discipline? I’m the one who understands this doctrine and discipline. How could you understand this doctrine and discipline? You’re practicing wrongly. I’m practicing rightly. I’m being consistent. You’re not. What should be said first you said last. What should be said last you said first. What you took so long to think out has been refuted. Your doctrine has been overthrown. You’re defeated. Go and try to salvage your doctrine; extricate yourself if you can!’ — he abstains from debates such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.
Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life


#20

Its not a fruitless debate, since it concerns what is Buddhavacana or not, and thus what is the teachings of the founder or not.

The Buddha was clearly concerned with being misquoted, as in the mahaparanibbana sutta he says:

Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.

So no, its not just “academic”.