Befriending the Suttas
Some Suggestions for Reading by John
the Pali Discourses
Revised: 9 November 1998
Canon contains many thousands of suttas (discourses), of which more than 500
are now available in English translation here at Access to Insight. When faced
with such a vast store of riches, three questions naturally spring to mind:
should I read the suttas?
ones should I read?
should I read them?
There are no universal, definitive answers to these questions; ultimately you
have to find your own. Nevertheless, I offer here a few ideas, suggestions, and
tips that I've found to be helpful over the years in my own exploration of the
suttas. Perhaps you'll find some of them helpful, too.
They are the primary source of Theravada Buddhist teachings.
you're interested in pursuing the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, then the Pali
Canon -- and the suttas it contains -- is the place to turn for authoritative
advice and support. You needn't worry about whether or not the words in the
suttas were actually uttered by the historical Buddha (no one can ever prove
this either way). Instead, keep in mind that the teachings in the suttas have
been practiced -- with apparent success -- by countless followers for some 2,600
years. If you want to know whether or not the teachings really work, then study
the suttas and put their teachings into practice and find out firsthand, for
They present a complete body of teachings.
The teachings in the
suttas, taken in their entirety, present a complete roadmap guiding the follower
from his or her current state of spiritual maturity onwards toward the final
goal. No matter what your current state may be (skeptical outsider, dabbler,
devout lay practitioner, or celibate monk or nun), there is something in the
suttas to help you progress further down the path towards the goal. Most
significantly, as you read more and more widely in the Pali Canon, you may find
less of a need to "borrow" teachings from other spiritual traditions, as the
suttas contain most of what you need to know.
They present a self-consistent body of teachings.
The teachings in
the Canon are largely self-consistent, characterized by a
single taste -- that of liberation. As you wend your way through the suttas,
however, from time to time you may encounter some teachings that call into
question -- or outright contradict -- your present understanding of Dhamma. As
you reflect deeply on these stumbling blocks, the conflicts almost always
dissolve as a new horizon of understanding opens up. For example, you might
conclude from reading one sutta [Sn
IV.1] that your practice should be to avoid all desires. But upon reading
LI.15], you see that desire itself is a necessary factor of the path. Only
upon reflection does it become clear that what the Buddha is getting at is that
there are different kinds of desire, and that some things are actually
worth desiring -- most notably, the extinction of all desire. 
At this point your understanding expands into new territory that can easily
encompass both suttas, and the apparent contradiction evaporates. Over time you
can learn to recognize these apparent "conflicts" not as inconsistencies in the
suttas themselves but as an indication that the suttas have carried you to a
frontier of your own understanding. It's up to you to cross beyond that
They offer lots of practical advice.
In the suttas you'll find a
wealth of practical advice on a host of relevant real-world topics, such as: how
children and parents can live happily together [DN
31], how to safeguard your material possessions [AN
IV.255], what sorts of things are and aren't worth talking about [AN
X.69], how to cope with grief [AN
V.49], how to train your mind even on your deathbed [SN
XXII.1], and much, much more. In short, they offer very practical and
realistic advice on how to find happiness, no matter what your life-situation
may be, and even whether you call yourself "Buddhist" or not. Of course, you'll
also find ample instructions on how to meditate [e.g., MN
They can bolster your confidence in the Buddha's teachings.
explore the suttas you'll come across things that you already know to be true
from your own experience. Perhaps you're already well acquainted with the
hazards of alcoholism [DN
31], or perhaps you've already tasted the kind of refined pleasure that
naturally arises in a concentrated mind [AN
V.28]. Seeing your own experience validated in the suttas -- even in small
ways -- can make it easier to accept the possibility that the more refined or
"advanced" experiences that the Buddha describes may not be so unattainable
after all, and that some of the more counter-intuitive and difficult teachings
may not, in fact, be so strange. This validation can generate renewed confidence
and energy that will help your meditation and your understanding forge ahead
into new territory.
They can support and energize your meditation practice.
read in the suttas about other people's meditation experiences, you may begin to
get a feel for what you have already accomplished in your own practice, and what
still remains to be done. This understanding can provide a powerful impetus to
apply yourself even more wholeheartedly to the teachings.
Reading them is just plain good for you.
The instructions contained
in the suttas are entirely of a wholesome nature, and are all about the
development of praiseworthy qualities such as generosity, patience,
concentration, etc. When you read a sutta you are therefore filling your ears
and your mind with wholesome things. If you consider all the useless and
downright destructive information that modern society -- especially the Internet
-- thrusts at our senses, day in and day out, a little regular sutta study can
become an island of safety and sanity in a dangerously insane world. Take good
care of your mind -- read a sutta today and take it to heart.
answer is: Whichever ones you like.
It can be helpful to think of the Dhamma as a multi-faceted jewel, with each
sutta offering a glimpse of one or two of those facets. For example, there are
teachings of the four Noble
Truths and the Eightfold
Path; of dana
of breathing and mindfulness
of death; of living skillfully as a layperson
or as an
ordained monk. No one sutta says it all; each one depends on all the others
for balance. The more widely you can read in the suttas, the more complete your
picture of this jewel becomes.
As a starting point, every student of Buddhism should study, reflect upon,
and put into practice the Five
Precepts and the Five
Subjects for Daily Contemplation. You can then follow along with the
Buddha's own step-by-step or "graduated" system of teachings that encompasses
the following topics: generosity,
and the four
Noble Truths. (You will find each of these topics explored in some detail in
to Freedom" pages of this website, with links to the relevant passages in
If you're interested in a solid grounding on the basics of the Buddha's
teachings, these three suttas are widely regarded as essential reading:
Together, these suttas -- the "Big Three" of the Sutta Pitaka -- define the
essential themes of the Buddha's teachings that reappear in countless variations
throughout the Canon. In these suttas we are introduced to such fundamental
notions as: the Four Noble Truths; the nature of dukkha; the Eightfold
Path; the "middle way"; the "wheel" of the Dhamma; the principle of
anatta (not-self) and the analysis of one's "self" into the five
aggregates and the six sense media; the principle of shedding one's enchantment
with sensual gratification; and the many planes of being that characterize the
vast range of Buddhist cosmology. These basic principles provide a sturdy
framework upon which all the other teachings in the Canon can be placed.
Furthermore, these three suttas demonstrate beautifully the Buddha's
remarkable skill as teacher: he organizes his material in clear, logical, and
memorable ways by using lists (the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the
five aggregates, etc.); he engages his audience in an active dialogue, to help
them reveal for themselves the errors in their understanding; he conveys his
points by using similes and imagery that his audience readily understands; and,
most significantly, time and again he connects with his audience so effectively
that they are able to realize for themselves the transcendent results that he
promises. Once we are able to see the Buddha for the extraordinarily capable
teacher that he is, we can proceed with confidence through the rest of the
Canon, fully trusting that his teachings won't lead us astray.
Once you've found a sutta that captures your interest, look for others like
it. Look in the Subject
Index for suttas or books on related topics. Look for other suttas that are
located nearby in the Canon (click on the "Context of this sutta" link
near the top of the sutta text). If there is a character in the sutta about whom
you'd like to know more, try the Index
of Proper Names to see if there are any other suttas in which he or she
From there, just jump in anywhere and wander at will through the suttas,
picking up whatever gems you find along the way and leaving the rest behind for
the next person to discover. There are countless points of departure: if you
enjoy poetry, try the Dhammapada
or the Therigatha;
if there's a particular topic that you'd like to learn more about, try the Subject
Index; or if you just want to jump in somewhere at random, try the Index
of Similes and see what catches your eye.
Other fruitful starting points include:
- The Dhammapada.
This much-beloved collection of 423 verses has been learned by heart over the
centuries by millions of devoted Buddhists around the world. The beautiful
kernels of wisdom it contains are just as relevant for each one of us today.
These short verses are to be sipped slowly, like a cup of fine tea.
Metta Sutta -- the Buddha's instructions on developing a heart of loving
Sutta -- the Buddha's essential teachings on the practice of breath
Sutta -- the Buddha's basic instructions on the practice of mindfulness
Sutta -- Ven. Sariputta's explanation of how to introduce the Buddha's
teachings to inquisitive, intelligent people -- people like you.
Sutta -- Are you confused by the assortment of teachings available in
today's "spiritual marketplace"? How does one decide which spiritual paths are
worth following and which are not? These are ancient dilemmas for which the
Buddha here offers some valuable advice.
Sutta -- a superb "instruction manual" that shows laypeople how to live
happy and fulfilling lives.
Neither the particular suttas you read nor the order in which you read them
is nearly as important as the way in which you read them. If you read
them hastily -- as you might a popular novel -- you'll miss out on the most
important message they contain: that these teachings are just as relevant and
effective today as they were when the Buddha first taught them 2,600 years ago.
It's up to us to take these teachings to heart, put them into practice, and
verify for ourselves the truth of that message.
To get the
most from your sutta studies, it can be helpful to consider a few general
principles before you actually begin reading and, once you've begun reading
a sutta, to keep a
few questions in mind as you read.
- Something is always lost in translation.
Never forget that the
Pali Canon was recorded in Pali, not in English. Not once in his career did
the Buddha speak of "suffering" or "enlightenment"; he (probably) spoke
instead of dukkha and nibbana. Every English translation has
been filtered and processed by a translator; it's inevitable that some things
will be lost -- and others added -- in the process. (It's like map-making: it
is physically impossible to project the round Earth onto a flat sheet of paper
in such a way that all the angles and proportions are accurately preserved.)
If you're really serious about understanding what the suttas are about, you'll
just have to bite the bullet and learn
Pali. But there's another way: read the suttas and put the teachings they
contain into practice until you get the results promised by the Buddha.
Fortunately, mastery of Pali is not a prerequisite for Awakening.
- There is no such thing as a "definitive" translation.
translator is inextricably embedded in his or her culture and has his or her
own experience, understanding, and preferences that color the translation.
British translations of the suttas from the late 19th and early 20th century
often sound dreary and leaden to us today; a hundred years from now, the
translations that we enjoy now will probably sound equally archaic. Read a
variety of translations. The "best" translation is the one that inspires you
to practice correctly. But don't let yourself get too comfortable with any one
particular translation, whether of a word or of an entire sutta. Just because,
for example, one translator equates dukkha with "suffering" or
nibbana with "Unbinding," doesn't mean that you should accept those
translations as truth. Try them on for size, and see how they work for you.
Allow plenty of room for your understanding to change and mature, and
cultivate a willingness to consider alternate translations. Perhaps, over
time, your preferences will change -- e.g., you may find "stress" and
"quenching" more helpful. Remember that any translation is just a convenient
-- but provisional -- crutch that you must use until you can come to your own
first-hand understanding of the ideas it describes.
- No one sutta contains all the teachings.
To reap the greatest
reward from the canon, explore many different suttas, not just a select few.
The teachings on mindfulness, for example, although valuable, represent just a
small sliver of the entirety of the Buddha's teachings. Rule of thumb:
whenever you think you understand what the Buddha's teachings are all about,
it's a good sign you need to dig a little deeper.
- Don't worry about whether or not a sutta contains the actual words
uttered by the historical Buddha.
There is no way to prove it one way
or other. Period. Just read the suttas, put the teachings into practice as
best you can, and see what happens. If you don't get the promised results,
you've lost nothing; if you do, you've gained everything.
- If you like a sutta, read it again.
Sometimes you'll come across
a sutta that just grabs you in some way when you first read it. Trust this
reaction and read it again; it means both that the sutta has something
valuable to teach you and that you're ripe to receive the teaching it offers.
From time to time re-read the suttas you remember having liked months or years
ago. You may discover in them some nuances now that you missed earlier.
- If you dislike a sutta, read it again.
Sometimes you'll come
across a sutta that is just plain irritating. Trust this reaction; it means
that the sutta has something valuable to teach you, although you may not be
quite ready for it yet. Put a bookmark there and put the sutta aside for now.
Pick it up a few weeks, months, or years later, and try again. Sooner or later
you'll connect with it.
- If a sutta is boring, confusing, or unhelpful, just put it
Depending on your current interests and depth of practice, you
may find that a given sutta just doesn't make sense or seems utterly tedious
and boring. Just put that one aside for now and try another one. Keep trying
until you find one that makes a direct, personal connection.
- A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.
whole point of reading suttas is to inspire you to live an upright life and
meditate correctly. So if, as you're reading, you feel a growing urge to put
down the book, go sit in a quiet spot, close your eyes, and attend to the
breath, do it! The sutta will have then fulfilled its purpose. It will
still be there when you come back to it later.
- Read the sutta aloud, from beginning to end.
This helps on
several levels: it forces you to read every single word of the sutta, it gives
your mouth some practice with right speech, and it gives your ears some
experience listening to Dhamma.
- Listen for teachings at different levels.
Many suttas offer
teachings on several levels simultaneously, and it's good to develop an ear
for that. For example, when the Buddha explains to a disciple the finer points
of right speech, notice how the Buddha himself uses speech [MN
58]. Is the Buddha "practicing what he preaches"?
- Don't ignore the repetitions.
Many suttas contain repetitive
passages. Read the sutta as you would a piece of music: when you sing or
listen to a song, you don't skip over each chorus; when you read a sutta, you
shouldn't skip over the refrains. As in music, the refrains in the suttas
often contain slight unexpected -- and important -- variations that you don't
want to miss.
- Discuss the sutta with a friend or two.
By sharing your
observations and reactions with a friend, both of you can deepen your
understanding of the sutta. Consider forming an informal sutta study group. If
you have lingering questions about a sutta, ask a member of the Sangha for
guidance; monks and nuns often have a unique and invaluable perspective on the
teachings that can help you break through your bottlenecks of confusion.
- Learn a little Pali.
Once you've read a few
suttas, or a few different translations of the same sutta, you may find
yourself puzzled over particular choices of words. For example, why does this
translator use the word "foundations of mindfulness" while that one uses
"frames of reference"? What are these phrases really getting at? Turning to a
Pali-English dictionary and looking up the word satipatthana (and its
component elements) can help shed new light on this word, and can help pave
the way to an even more rewarding study of the suttas. (For more about
learning Pali, see "A
Guide to Learning the Pali Language.")
- Read what others have to say about the sutta.
helpful to read what commentators -- both contemporary and ancient -- have to
say about the suttas. Some people find the classical Tipitaka commentaries --
particularly those by the medieval writer Buddhaghosa -- to be helpful. A few
of these are available in English translation from the Pali
Text Society and the Buddhist
Publication Society. Other people find contemporary commentaries to be
more helpful. You can find many such commentaries among the Wheel
Publications of the Buddhist
Publication Society. Many outstanding booklets and articles have been
written by authors such as Vens. Bodhi,
You may also enjoy reading the excellent introductions and endnotes to Bhikkhu
Bodhi's "The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha" (Boston: Wisdom
Publications, 1995) and Maurice Walshe's "The Long Discourses of the
Buddha" (Boston: Wisdom
Publications, 1987). Also read from the masters in the Thai
forest traditions, as they offer refreshing and unique perspectives on the
suttas that are based on deep meditative experience.
you read a sutta, keep in mind that you are eavesdropping on the Buddha as he
teaches someone else. Unlike many of the Buddha's contemporaries from other
spiritual traditions, who would often adhere to a fixed doctrine in answering
all questions [AN
X.93], the Buddha tailored the basic principles of his teachings to meet the
particular needs of his audience. It is therefore important to develop a
sensitivity to the context of a sutta, to see in what ways the situation of the
Buddha's listeners are similar to your own, so you can gauge how to apply the
Buddha's words to yourself.
It can be helpful to keep certain questions circulating in the back of your
mind as you're reading, both to help you understand the context of the sutta and
to help you tune in to the different levels of teaching that are often going on
at once. Remember: these questions aren't meant to turn you into some sort of
literary scholar; they're simply meant to help each sutta come alive for you.
- What is the setting?
The opening paragraph of most suttas ("Thus
have I heard...") sets the stage for the sutta: does it take place in a
village, in a monastery, in the forest? What season is it? What events are
taking place in the background? Fixing these details in your mind can help you
remember that this sutta describes real events that happened to
real people -- like you and me -- and so can help make the sutta come
- What is the story?
One sutta may offer little in the way of a
narrative story [AN
VII.6], while another may be filled with pathos and drama, even at times
resembling a short story [Mv
X.2.3-20]. How does the story line itself reinforce the teachings
presented in the sutta?
- Who initiates the teaching?
Does the Buddha take the initiative
X.69], or does someone come to him with questions [DN
2]? If the latter, are there any unspoken assumptions or attitudes lying
behind the questions? Does someone come to the Buddha with the intention of
defeating him in debate [MN
58]? These considerations can give you a sense of the motivation behind
the teachings, and of the listener's receptivity to the Buddha's words. With
what attitude do you approach these teachings?
- Who is teaching?
Is it the Buddha [SN
XV.3], one of his disciples [SN
XXII.85], or both [SN
XXII.1]? Is he or she ordained [SN
XXXV.191] or a layperson [AN
VI.16]? What is the teacher's depth of understanding (e.g., is she
"merely" a stream-enterer [AN
VI.16], or is she an arahant [Thig
V.4])? Although it may often be difficult to ascertain this from reading
the sutta, having some sense of the teacher's background and credentials helps
us gauge the level of the teachings they have to offer. Commentaries and
discussions with members of the Sangha or scholars can be helpful here.
- To whom are the teachings directed?
Is it to a monk [SN
XXXV.85], nun [AN
IV.159], or lay follower [AN
VII.49]? Is it a large assembly [MN
118] or an individual [AN
IV.184]? Or are they followers of another religion altogether [MN
57]? What is the depth of their understanding? If the audience consists of
stream-enterers striving for arahantship, the teachings presented may be
considerably more advanced than if the audience has never had any prior
acquaintance with the Buddha's teachings [AN
III.65]. This can be helpful in assessing how appropriate the particular
teachings are for us.
- What is the method of presentation?
Is it a formal lecture [SN
XLVI.11], a question-and-answer session [Sn
V.6], a retelling of an old story [AN
III.15], or simply an inspired verse [Thig
1.11]? Is the teacher giving instruction only with the content of the
XII.2] or is the way he treats his listeners part of the message
The great variety of teaching styles employed by the Buddha and his disciples
shows us that there is no fixed method of teaching Dhamma; the method used
depends on the particular demands of the situation and the spiritual maturity
of the audience.
- What is the essential teaching?
Where does the teaching fit in
with the Buddha's threefold progressive system of training: Does it focus
primarily on the development of morality [MN
61], concentration [AN
V.28], or wisdom [MN
140]? Is the presentation consistent with what is given in other suttas
II.14 and DN
31)? How does this teaching fit into your own "roadmap" of the Buddha's
teachings? Does it fit in nicely with your previous understanding, or does it
call into question some of your basic assumptions about the Dhamma?
- How does it end?
Does the hearer attain Awakening right then and
XXXV.28], or does it take a little while after hearing the teachings [MN
57]? Does someone "convert" to the Buddha's way, as evidenced by the stock
passage, "Magnificent! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what
had been overturned..." [AN
IV.111]? Sometimes the simple act of snuffing a candle is enough to bring
someone to full Awakening [Thig
V.10]; sometimes even the Buddha himself can't help someone overcome their
past bad kamma [DN
2]. The various outcomes of the suttas help illustrate the extraordinary
power and complexity of the law of kamma.
- What does this sutta have to offer me?
This is the most
important question of all, as it challenges you to take the sutta to heart.
After all, it is the heart that is to be transformed by these teachings, not
As you read the sutta, ask yourself: Do you identify with any of the
situations or characters in the sutta? Are the questions asked or teachings
presented pertinent to me? What lessons can I learn from the sutta? Am I
doubtful whether I can really do what the Buddha asks of us in the sutta, or
am I filled with even greater confidence?
Whatever helpful message you found in the sutta, whatever satisfying taste
it left behind, let that grow and develop in the course of your meditation
practice and in your life. Don't try to solve or "do" a sutta as if were a
crossword puzzle. Give it time to simmer in the back of your mind. Over time,
some of the ideas, impressions, and attitudes conveyed by the sutta will
gradually percolate into your consciousness, informing the way you view the
world. One day you may even find yourself in the middle of an otherwise
ordinary everyday experience when suddenly the recollection of a sutta you
read long ago will spring to mind, bringing with it a powerful Dhamma teaching
that's exactly appropriate for this moment.
To facilitate this process, it can be helpful to make plenty of room for
the suttas. Don't cram your sutta reading in among all your other activities
and don't read too many suttas all at once. Make sutta study a special,
contemplative activity. (It should also be a pleasant experience. If you find
that it's becoming dry and irritating, just put it all aside and try again in
a few days, weeks, or months.) After reading a sutta, don't just plunge back
into your busy activities; take some time out afterwards for a little breath
meditation, to give the heart a chance to cool down so that it can more
thoroughly absorb the teachings.
Sutta reading is -- like meditation -- a skill that can be developed. Allow
yourself plenty of time -- and patience -- to develop that skill.
1. The distinction between the various kinds of
desire is made clearer when reading the Pali text. [Go
2. This is also a great way for you to help
proofread the sutta translations here at Access to Insight. If you encounter any
errors or typos in your readings, please
let me know. [Go
Revised: 9 November 1998