Mar 12, 2007

Reading Suttas

I've been leading a book study once a week on the Sutta Nipata. This is a challenging and fascinating exercise. So I'll share a few general thoughts about reading suttas and post links to some helpful resources.

Why read the suttas? There are hundreds of Buddhist books out there; good, bad and middling. Many western Buddhists have read dozens of them without cracking the scriptures. This is a shame; you want to get the straight goods, you should go directly to the source. The whole sutta pitaka has now been translated, parts of it several times. If you want to have a firm grasp of what the actual historical Buddha taught, as opposed to all the various re-castings, spins and speculations, why not check out his own words? This is especially important because so many people have put their own words into his mouth over the centuries, as discussed by my post Check Your Sources.

How to Read the Suttas. First remember that they were originally oral literature. So don't be put off by all the repetetions and numbered lists; these were aids to memorization. They definitely have a deeper resonance by being heard rather than read and some people like to read them out loud. Some of the beauty of the language is lost in translation; large portions like most of the Sutta Nipata are actually verse although the translations tend to be in a rather dry prose. Stylistically, the suttas are a very rich and diverse collection. There are straight technical sections, devotional passages, myths and stories all intermixed.

Problems of Translation. Never forget that languages are not completely isomorphic. Even the best translation is not completely true to the original, it cannot be. Even if you go to the effort of learning some Pali, you can't escape the problem entirely (although it helps.) It is however important not to become overly reliant on the bare English words which often translate Pali words inexactly. This is not sloppy translation; it is an insoluble problem because some words in Pali have no exact English equivalent. Pali has a very precise technical language for mental states and spiritual phenomena, something which English lacks. To give the most obvious example, dukkha is not the same as suffering. One of the best ways to get around this limitation, at least in part, is to acquire a working vocabulary of technical terms in Pali and refer back to them when in doubt. A very good resource here is the Buddhist Dictionary by Nyanatiloka. (Link is to an online version).

Some More on Translations. The best translations available at present are by Bhikkhu Bodhi and his teacher Nyanamoli. Maurice Walshe's edition of the Digha Nikaya is also very good. Many texts are still only available in the Pali Text Society editions dating to the early years of the last century. These works are generally very good from a purely linguistic point-of-view, but often lack the background in the actual living tradition which informs Bh. Bodhi and M. Walshe. Readers should also be aware that some of the PTS translators imposed their own ideas onto the work. A well known example is the way Mrs. Rhys-Davis and to a lesser degree I.B. Horner translated the particle atta. They wanted to "prove" that Buddha never actually taught no-self, so whenever this particle occurs, they take it as a substantive noun. A close analogy would be the use of the suffix -self in English words like myself, yourself, oneself, which does not imply a metaphysical entity. See this article, anatta6, for a discussion.

What to Read. If you are new to the suttas, or even if you're not, the best place to start would be with Bhikkhu Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words, which is a collection of suttas and sections of suttas arranged thematically and progressively together with copious explanatory notes. Another good overall collection is Nyanamoli's Life of the Buddha which arranges all the narrative sections of the suttas into a chronological sequence, together with some sections which relate the most important teachings.

When you are ready to go to the original texts in whole collections, the best place to start is usually with the Digha Nikaya, and then go on to the Majjhima. After that, you can proceed as your interest goes; deeper into the philosophy with the Samyutta for instance, or get the flavour of the myths and stories with the Dhammapada commentary or the Jatakas.

Resources and Aids. Many of the suttas are now available online at These are mostly in Ajahn Thanisarro's translations. These are quite good, but the novice should be aware that the Ajahn's choice of words is often not standard and this can lead to confusion (example: dukkha is translated as stress)

I've already linked to the indispensible Buddhist Dictionary, another amazing web find is the entire Dictionary of Pali Names, in the hard-cover three fat (and expensive) volumes. This is a real treasure trove of information if you like to dip into the stories behind the names.

Not online, alas, but invaluable nonetheless, is a little booklet from the Buddhist Publication Society called An Analysis of the Pali Canon by Russell Webb which provides handy indices to the various suttas.


jonsweaver said...

Thank you for encouraging practitioners to directly experience the suttas -- they are wonderful! As the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutta "Come see for yourself."

Yuttadhammo said...


Namaste! Happy to see your blog continuing. Here's some of the Analysis of the Pali Canon on-line:

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

Of course, learning a handful of Pali technical terms (as if they were English neologisms) is neither more nor less "isomorphous" than reading English nouns.

Rod said...

I think that reading suttas is fine for those who find them interesting, particularly as an introduction to Buddhism, and for those who are perhaps more attached to reading than actual practice. Personally, I find them somewhat boring, preferring the Abhidhamma as an actual reference (each to his/her own), which focuses upon the core of The Buddha’s teachings.

Human beings of the modern age are particularly attached to reading. Looking at the foundation of several religions you find that they are simply collections of stories handed down from generation to generation. Eventually, after several centuries, these stories were written down and the various books became the ‘truth’ for these religions. Interestingly, these stories are neither factually nor historically correct (not a personal opinion, as this is often acknowledged by the concerned religious scholars themselves), but perhaps their real truth is in the value of the morality and lifestyle they pass on. Some of these stories, however, like exhorting followers to kill non-believers, or taking an eye for an eye, have no moral value and are just examples of the barbarity of certain contributors to these stories. Thus, taking such stories as the ‘truth’ for correct living is somewhat primitive to say the least, and reading books should be understood as a general guide rather than anything else.

In general, most religions have believed in a god, either in the form of a universal intelligence, or by making the god like themselves, i.e. human. As for the idea of a son of god, this is an old idea embraced by many religions, most of which are now extinct, but even in the present day is held by several religions including Christianity and the Druze religion, and several smaller sects (cults); all of which choose a different human being as their object of worship. The proof of their beliefs lies in their books, their stories.

While the suttas are not simply stories formulated to inspire belief, as they contain many interesting indisputable factual aspects of existence, the question arises whether these teachings were meant to inspire people to read about them, or practice them.

The most notable difference arising from the existence of The Buddha compared to other world religions, is that what he actually said was secondary and much less important than what he actually passed on to his students (and one can find parallel examples of this in the Ajarns of today).

The Buddha realized the path knowledges, and while the idea of a ‘path’ is often interpreted as a course of action, following a discipline and leading a highly moral lifestyle, what he realized was beyond words or books. What made The Buddha so unique is that he passed on ‘a technique based upon purity of mind’. This technique is a meditative technique, which he managed to pass onto quite a few of his students, mind to mind, without explaining all of the fine details.

In the present day, the agents of The Buddha, the various Ajarns who are adept in this technique, namely those with path knowledges, find it almost impossible to find students who are aware enough to sense this path knowledge (although they may be aware of a change in consciousness). The main reason being that people are more focused upon the intellectual aspects of Buddhism, through reading, rather than the aim of Buddhist practice, which is to get the hell out of here.

One late Thai Ajarn, Ajarn Leuan, was known to have the ability of showing non path meditators the actual position of the path, mind to mind; something that no other Ajarn in centuries could do. This was due to his phenomenal samadhi. He never read any suttas and never gave Dhamma talks; he taught without using words (as did The Buddha when he first began teaching his principal students).

Thus, while reading suttas is useful entertainment for many people, it is not an essential part of Buddhist practice (meaning the one that The Buddha taught, not necessarily the interpretations of today); something to keep in mind as you turn the pages.

Anonymous said...

-The scholars
Rod finds the suttas boring & prefers to refer to the Abidhamma, why? he explains & I quote,
*The suttas are interesting to parvenus who need them as an "introduction" to Buddhism.
*The Abidhamma on the other hand "focuses on the core of the Buddha's teaching"
*The Suttas are a bunch of stories written up by (he does not tell us) a bunch of hangers on otherwise by 'religious scholars', the latter should be acceptable to Rod as otherwise they would not have taken the trouble to write them down, there being a whole lot of them & one needs the time to do so which means not having to be gainfully employed etc.
*To take these Suttas for the truth would be 'primitive' as in contrast to 'cool' I suppose.
Ok let us see where this takes us & damn the torpedoes
1-The Abbidhamma, were Rod to look into it, was a compilation of' 'religious scholars'& commentators with too much time on their hands (pace Nanatiloka), and entirely based on the suttas themselves which means that the 'core' of the teaching that is found in the Abidhamma (which is a mirage) was diligently mined directly from the Suttas themselves, without much stretching it follows that one can acquire this 'core' teaching directly from the Suttas themselves, at first hand.
One does not need to know all the Suttas, one can do the trick, which might save Rod from a lot of reading of the Abidhamma-a malady afflicting "Human beings of the modern age" as he affirms.
2-The Suttas were written then, we suppose by 'religious scholars' for whom they were a vehicle to include their favourite 'exhortations', obviously then these same Suttas were "neither factually or historically correct", well then, there was no Buddha & no Dhamma, & to double check his sources Rod appeals to the same group of scholars for the confirmation.

-Here's the thing, I have this bridge I would like to unload
*In spite of the above, Rod unexpectedly, finds redemption, the Suttas it seems "contain many interesting indisputable factual aspects of existence"!
1-Are there then non factual aspects to existence? what are they? if so are they in dispute, by whom?Are there non aspects?etc.
2-Existence then it seems is an a posteriori judgment by Rod. Now before Rod what was existence? where & for whom.This is what I call creativity.

-Esoterica & GPS
*It seems the Buddha realised the "path knowledges (sic)"-how many we are not told-and imparted this teaching "mind to mind" (Zap.done,next) to his "agents" the "Ajarns", who the "Ajarns" are I have no idea but they seem to be similar to a franchise, they in turn zap those who are "aware enough to sense this path".
1-To my mind such 'sense' then can not only validate the profitability of the proposed project, but to validate the Buddha himself
*The 'Ajarn leuan' was able to show the "actual position of the path", to his pupils "due to his phenomenal samadhi" This 'Ajarn' never read any of the Suttas.& of course worked "mind to mind"
1-Whatever position (in space?) he gave is obviously not the sublime path leading to the cessation of Dukkha, why? because the path is the practice, and if this 'position' is claimed to parallel the Buddha's path, then leuan would not know it as he had no idea what the Buddha taught, to be parallel is not to coincide & to coincide is to know whose path it is, to see Paticcasammupada is to see the Buddha. Punta. Basta.

Finally, Rod probably not knowing about the first discourse at the deer park in isipatana, Where the Buddha made his first DISCOURSE (look it up) on the Dhamma out of compassion- there were no 'Ajarns', no zapping, no positioning- to say that this is entertainment is Rod's problem.

Hey Rod I could not resist this, Al Hakem Bi Amrallah, the fatimide Caliph of Cairo, the initiator of the druze religion, claimed to be the incarnation of god not his son, the two words are not equivalent, Further the Druze call themselves 'Al Muwahidin' i.e the Unitarians.


Rod said...

One of the problems with the written word is that often, even though people are able to read these words, their interpretation of the meaning is somewhat short of exact. This is simply an example of the general condition of all minds in our human realm; you cannot read your way out of ignorance, no matter how profound and exact the particular written teachings are. Thus, any written teachings in Buddhism can only be taken as a guide and a form of inspiration to practice.

One obvious example of this, in this instance, is that I did not in any way include the suttas in the collection of religious stories and writings that were ‘neither factually nor historically correct’, something which has been pointed out to the contrary. Hence, as a word of caution to would be posters on more or less any subject I suppose, you are liable to be answered by people who have reading problems.

As for the word of The Buddha, I agree that by reading all of the suttas you will get a fairly accurate account of the scope of The Buddha’s teachings. However, there are quite a few books to read if you intend to do this, as there is not just one version of the Pali canon. One single version has, I understand, been agreed upon, but getting hold of this version is difficult, and I understand that so far only a few copies have been available in Thailand.

Then, it should be understood that as these teachings were handed down orally for the first 300 plus years (almost 400), there has to be a certain amount of belief that what was remembered was accurate before it was written down in Pali. Incidentally, The Buddha spoke Maghadi, and it is said that he was against translating his teachings into Pali. Thus, taking his teachings word for word would not be very wise. He taught for many years, probably close to 50, and the idea that anyone would remember all that he said during this time is not even worth considering. I think rather that it was agreed upon by later scholars what he actually said, so as to include the gist of all his teachings in general.

People are entitled to their opinions, and to me the English translations appear to be somewhat like a copy of modern day Christianity. My preference for the Abhidhhama is due to the fact that it contains the core of what The Buddha said anyway, not forgetting that it is much easier to carry around one small paperback copy of the Abhidhamma rather that the 100 plus heavy volumes of the various Pali canons as well as the English translations.

One interesting situation to consider is what The Sangha did for the almost 400 years before the suttas were written down. Being able to read is not a prerequisite for Buddhism.

Finally, R.K. is correct, the founder of the Druze religion did not consider himself to be the son of god, and neither did Jesus for that fact. However, the reality of the situation is that in the present day both religions worship a son of god. As for Buddhism in general, there are many non-factual (aspects to Buddhism, obviously R.K. has little experience of these so elaborating would be pointless.

Rod said...

Out of consideration to R.K., I will give an example of a non-factual aspect of existence and/or Buddhism.

Many years ago, following a vipassana retreat, my Ajarn took a bunch of students along to meet Ajarn Buddhadasa. We spent some time discussing a few important aspects of Buddhism with him, and then he had to leave to give a Dhamma talk. My Ajarn told us all to go along to listen to Ajarn Buddhadasa giving a talk, and one of the students pointed out that this talk would be in Thai, so what was the point of going along to listen.

My Ajarn said that there was no point in going along to listen, but to go along and practice while the Ajarn talked would be an extremely rare opportunity for any meditator. He said that normally one might think that the Thai people there would have an advantage in being able to understand what the Ajarn said, but as reality in the world is often backwards, he said that in truth the Thai people were at a disadvantage and we who could not understand Thai had an advantage.

He said that like ordinary people, many of the Thai people there would attach to sensuality and take what the Ajarn said as being the most important aspect of coming to see the Ajarn, whereas the most important part was actually being in his presence, whether he actually said anything or not. Thus, we all went along and practiced as the Ajarn gave his talk, and for every person there this practice session was something special indeed.

What The Buddha or any other fully aware Ajarn ever said was only secondary to actually being in their presence, and whether they spoke or not, or whatever they spoke about, was not really that significant. What was and is significant is being in the presence of a pure mind.

Anonymous said...

Todo, we aint in Kansas no mo'
"I know what you're thinking about," said Tweedeledum; "but it isn't so nohow."
"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't,it ain't. That's logic."
Through The Looking Glass