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Befriending the Suttas

Some Suggestions for Reading
the Pali Discourses

by John Bullitt
Revised: 9 November 1998

The Pali 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:
Why should I read the suttas?

    Which ones should I read?

        How 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.

Why should I read the suttas? [go to top]

They are the primary source of Theravada Buddhist teachings.
If 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 yourself.

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 another [SN 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. [1] 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 boundary.

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 118, DN 22].

They can bolster your confidence in the Buddha's teachings.
As you 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.
When you 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.

Which suttas should I read? [go to top]

The short 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 and sila; of mindfulness 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, virtue, heaven, drawbacks, renunciation, and the four Noble Truths. (You will find each of these topics explored in some detail in the "Path to Freedom" pages of this website, with links to the relevant passages in the Canon.)

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 appears.

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:

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.

How should I read a sutta? [go to top]

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.

a. Some general principles [go to top]

b. Questions to keep in mind [go to top]

As 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.


1. The distinction between the various kinds of desire is made clearer when reading the Pali text. [Go back]

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 back]

Revised: 9 November 1998