The core of a daily sutta reading practice is working methodically through a single book of suttas from beginning to end. Sometimes, though, obstacles may arise that can be overcome by having a backup or alternate text.
A backup text is a second book of suttas, either a canonical collection or anthology, that we have chosen in advance. By choosing this text in advance, we already have a plan in place when we are at risk of missing our daily practice. Of course missing a day or two now and then is not such a big deal, but often external obstacles come many days in a row and internal obstacles remain unless we remove them.
Here are a few cases when a backup text may be helpful:
Time is scarce: If we have committed to reading a substantial amount of text each day, such as a sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya, there may be days when time is scarce. Rather than abandoning reading completely, or just reading part of a sutta, we can read a short passage from our backup text.
Schedule change: From time to time the irregularities of life may necessitate shifting the time of day that we do our sutta practice. If we usually practice in the morning, but have to get out of the house early on a particular day, we can use our backup text at the regular time to guarantee that we get some sutta practice in if plans don’t work out to reschedule the regular practice for later.
Travel: It is certainly possible to stick with our regular text when we travel, but if our schedule will be particularly busy, it may be more reasonable to switch to a text with shorter passages that are easier to digest. Travel presents us with all sorts of interesting experiences and gives the opportunity to find new ways to apply the Dhamma to our lives. There is no need to take a vacation from the suttas when you go on vacation.
Mood: Although we should not let our mood dictate whether we do our sutta practice, we may not have the skill or discipline in that moment to overcome our resistance. In cases like this, we may be able to trick ourselves into reading with the lure of something new and different, a.k.a. our backup text. Using our personal anthology is also a good option for situations like this. After having read a bit, we may even be able to arouse the energy to do our regular reading.
Aversion: Sometimes the hindrance of aversion may arise towards our main text. Ideally, we should work directly to overcome this hindrance through recollecting the benefits we have received from learning the Dhamma, what a rare opportunity we have to hear the Blessed One’s teaching, etc., etc. But if that is not successful, having a backup text to turn to in those situations will keep our practice on track. Again, this is a great time to use our personal anthology. When the aversion has passed, we can return to out main text with new eyes.
What makes a good backup text?
- A canonical text with short and inspirational suttas is ideal, such as the Dhammapada or Itivuttaka. The Theragatha and Therigatha are also good because in these verses arahant monks and nuns often speak of their own difficulties in the training.
- Chanting/pirit books that include translations of popular suttas also work well for several reasons: the texts are usually uplifting and we may have positive memories of using them when doing puja with others.
- Any anthology that includes relatively short passages
Whatever you choose, it should be a book of suttas, not a regular book. It may be tempting to think that you need a “break” from suttas, but there is such a variety of material in the canon, it’s much more beneficial to try a different genre within the Sutta Pitaka.
Consider having a copy of your backup text on a mobile device. Often the situations when the backup text is necessary is when we are away from home, so if we have a text on a device we always have with us, we can be sure to have a text available when time does present itself.
Benefits of having a backup text for Sutta reading:
- Helps maintain continuity of practice
- Removes the burden of decision-making when we are already presented with an unusual or stressful situation
- Gives an opportunity for variety
- There may be unexpected connections between the main text and the backup text. This often has an energizing effect.
- If we are doing a practice with a big time commitment like a daily sutta from the Middle Length Discourses, we can maintain continuity of practice on days when time is scarce.
It’s still a good idea to move methodically from beginning to end of our backup text, just like we work through our main text. Then we can start again at the beginning when we finish.
Have you used a book of suttas as a backup text? How was it helpful? What did you use? You can leave your thoughts in the comments below. (anonymously if you prefer) Your feed back can help all of us in our practice.