We are very fortunate to be living in a time when the entire Sutta Pitaka has been translated into clear modern English. As a beginner, one should not be overly hung up on choosing the “best” translation. All of the translators on this page have created texts that you can read with confidence. They are all slightly different, as you will read in the comments below. And as you read and learn, you may develop preferences of one over another. You may even be motivated one day to learn the Pali language. But in the mean time, you can start by choosing any of these translations and not worrying that you are going to be misinformed.
With a few exceptions, this list is restricted to complete translations that are available in print or as a pdf that can be printed.
Translations by Bhante Bodhi are very faithful to the original Pali and are usually in line with what have come to be standard translations of technical terms. His English is fluent if a bit formal. The new reader can benefit from copious footnotes and introductions. (Note: Bhikkhu Bodhi is the editor of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha found under Nyanamoli Bhikkhu) (available from Wisdom Publications)
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya
The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya
The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
The majority of Ajahn Thanissaro’s translations are of the first four nikayas, but none of the nikayas are complete. His anthologies are found in a (now) four volume set titled Handful of Leaves. Although incomplete, for a beginner they contain more than enough to get a solid grounding. He is well known for novel translations of key technical terms, most famously “stress” as a translation of dukkha. If you are a big fan of his voluminous writings and translations of modern Thai teachers, then his sutta translations will be a good fit. He also has five complete translations from the Khuddaka Nikaya. As well, he has many anthologies based on important topics. (Available in print from Metta Forest Monastery and download online.)
Handful of Leaves, anthology from Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas
Khuddakapatha: Short Passages
Itivuttaka: This was said by the Buddha
Sutta Nipata: The Discourse Group
Numerous anthologies on important Dhamma concepts
Published in 2018, this is the first time that the first four nikayas have been translated and published simultaneously by a single author. From the translator: “My goal was to make a translation that was freely available, accurate, and consistent. In doing so, I wanted to make it more readable and approachable than former translations.” There was also an attempt to use gender neutral language whenever possible. When read on-line it is possible to see the original Pali along with the English. (Available for download from SuttaCentral.net. Print publication of the nikayas is pending. Unofficial ebook of the Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya available here. More are coming soon. Theragatha available in paperback and hardback from lulu and as an ebook here.)
Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya)
Middle Discourses (Majjhima Nikāya)
Linked Discourses (Saṁyutta Nikāya)
Numbered Discourses (Aṅguttara Nikāya)
Verses of the Senior Monks (Theragāthā)
The translation Majjhima Nikaya shares many of the qualities of the later works written by the editor, Bhikkhu Bodhi. The language is lucid and slightly formal. The Life of the Buddha translation is distinctive in its drastic reduction of repetitions which may be useful temporarily for beginners. (The Majjhima Nikaya is available from Wisdom Publications; Life of the Buddha is available from the Buddhist Publication Society.)
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya
The Life of the Buddha, According to the Pali Canon
Maurice O’C. Walshe
This is currently the only complete translation of the Digha Nikaya easily available to purchase in print. It is one of the older modern translations. The only shortcoming is found in the footnotes where the author shares more of his own ideas and biases than necessary. But this does not really affect the translation. (available from Wisdom Publications)
The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya
Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero
The translations published by Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery attempt to use as simple and modern language as possible. As such they are well suited to non-native English speakers and those without a background in Buddhism. (Available at their monasteries or Amazon.com)
Dhammapada: What Does the Buddha Really Teach
This Was Said by the Buddha: The Itivuttaka
Stories of Heavenly Mansions from the Vimanavatthu
Stories of Ghosts from the Petavatthu
The Voice of Enlightened Monks: The Thera Gatha
The Voice Of Enlightened Nuns
KR Norman is the only translator in this list who works professionally as a Pali scholar. While his translations are not completely literal, they are as close as possible while still being very readable. He refrains from any innovation in terminology. For these reasons, his translations are great especially for Pali students. (Available from the Pali Text Society)
Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada)
The Rhinoceros Horn and Other Early Buddhist Poems (Sutta Nipāta)
The Udāna and the Itivuttaka, Two Classics from the Pali Canon
The translations below are just a fraction of the work done by Bhante Anandajoti, but they are the only complete works from the Sutta Pitaka. All of his translations are available in line by line Pali and English as well as English only. They are available in many digital formats including audio recording. (Available from ancient-buddhist-texts.net)
The Short Readings (Khuddakapāṭha, Khuddakanikāya 1)
Dhammapada (Dhamma Verses, KN 2)
Exalted Utterances – Udāna (KN 3)
Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita
Although this is Bhante Buddharakkhita’s only complete translation from the sutta pitaka, he was a prolific author of books on the suttas. This translation of the Dhammapada is both fluent, accurate, and poetic—a rare accomplishment. The newest edition is available in print from the Buddhist Publication Society. An older edition is available free on line, including here.
The complete PDF version of Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s anthology Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon is now available as a free download from Pariyatti.org.
This anthology pieces together the biographical information about the Buddha into a continuous narrative from throughout the Pali canon. Several features make this book uniquely valuable
Many books about the Buddha do not make clear where the material is coming from. In this book it gives clear references to the original texts or makes clear that material comes from the ancient commentaries.
Texts from the Vinaya: This is one of the only English sources of text from the Vinaya. Most of the Vinaya is rules for the monks and nuns but there are many important parts of the Buddha’s life explained
There are also texts that explain basic doctrinal information. In many cases repetitions are removed to make it easier for people new to reading suttas.
Be sure to read and understand the explanation of the “cast” of voices that the author uses to present the text, found on the page immediately before the first reading.
Pariyatti is an official publisher of this book (allong with the Buddhist Publication Society) so this is a legitimate offer. Now, if you buy the print edition you get a free copy of an epub and mobi. Or you can buy the epub and mobi alone.
Be prepared for times when reading your regular book of suttas is difficult.
The core of a daily sutta 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.
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.
Advantages/benefits of having a backup text:
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.
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.
Although it is recommended that you do your sutta reading practice from a book and not from the computer, using an e-book reader in some circumstances might work as well as a paper book.
For the purpose of these recommendations, an e-book reader refers to a device that is dedicated to just reading books, such as a Kindle or a Nook. It’s true that you can read e-books on an iPad, iPod, Blackberry, or cell phone, but all of those devices are similar to computers in their connectedness and potential for distraction. Of course, in a pinch, better to read from one of those than nothing at all.
If you don’t already have an e-book reader, then by all means, just stick with paper books. If you begin to do sutta study as well as sutta practice, you will need to work from paper books.
Benefits of using an e-book reader
E-books are hard to navigate. They are really designed for people reading novels, which is always done one page after another. This is, in fact, the way we approach the text as a reading practice, not wanting to get distracted by flipping around here and there.
They are light weight, so if you are walking back and forth when you are reading it is quite convenient.
They are extremely portable, so you can easily take it with you and keep up your practice when traveling.
You can potentially download your text and start right away.
A growing number of texts are available for free.
Checking the hyper-linked footnotes is quick so it doesn’t pull you away from the text for very long.
Some e-book readers have a text-to-speech function that might be helpful if the hindrances are strong. Of course, the reading will be mechanized and is no substitute for listening to actual recordings of the suttas.
Some e-book reading devices allow you to highlight passages and later transfer them to another document. This works well if you do feel compelled to take notes.
You can increase the text size. This is a general quality of all e-book readers but worth mentioning none the less.
E-book readers usually have a built in dictionary. This is beneficial as translators are often forced to use somewhat uncommon English words.
Disadvantages of using an e-book reader
Frequently (especially in the Wisdom Publications Nikaya editions) passages that appear in multiple suttas are left out with a remark such as “as Sutta 4, §27”. It is quite cumbersome, as noted above, to navigate to that passage involving potentially dozens of page turn clicks. It is especially important for the first three or four times we are reading a book to read those missing parts.
Even within a sutta, repetitions are frequently left out and it is not as easy to read them back in as it would be in a paper book.
When a note refers to a previous note, there is usually no hyper link from the footnote itself so looking it up is near impossible.
It is impossible, without lots of clicking, to determine how long a sutta is or how much you have left to read. If you have to modify your reading order slightly to accommodate your daily schedule, this would be very hard in a book like the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.
Unless you have highlighted it, it is nearly impossible to flip back through suttas previously read to find a passage.
You loose the physical reminder of the book in your life. When you have a real book sitting somewhere special in your house you will see it and remember your practice.
You loose the physical memory trigger of where a sutta or passage is located in the book. Because the idea is to work with a text over a lifetime, when you work with a paper book eventually you will have a sense of where a sutta is located, or even where an important passage falls on the page. With an e-book that is not so easy to do. This may be offset by the ability to do a word search if you can remember the exact word used and it doesn’t appear hundreds of times.
Because of the extreme difficulty in navigation to find elided(condensed) text, people just starting out may want to use e-books only as a backup, especially for the Wisdom Publication editions. If you are working with a book that has smaller suttas, such as the Dhammapada or the Udana, this may not be so much of an issue. Similar with an anthology such as In the Words of the Buddha. And having an e-book version of your text as a backup for when you travel is very convenient.
For practice, a paper book is perfect. So if you don’t already have an e-book reader, just stick with the paper versions.
If you do use an e-book reader for your practice, you may want to consider trying the Don’t Break the Chain tool to have a physical reminder of your commitment and history.
The Dhammapada is an excellent text for a daily sutta practice. The verses are packed with material for contemplation as well as implementation. The reading can usually be done in as little as five minutes a day plus as much reflection time as you are able to give. If you do not have an established sutta practice, this is a great text to begin with both because of the breadth and depth of the teaching as well as being very accessible. It is also very easy to commit to reading one chapter a day and develop this habit and hunger for the suttas.
Choosing a translation
If you are a Theravada Buddhist, it is important to use a translation of the Dhammapada that accurately reflects Theravada doctrine. Because of the pithy language of the original Pali text, it is easy for a translator from a non-Buddhist tradition to subtly insert concepts that are incompatible with the Dhamma. Be careful of books called “versions” or “renderings” as they sometimes play fast and loose with important concepts.
The following are good translations to use in terms of adhering to Theravada teachings:
All three are available on-line in some form but, as always, try to work directly from a book for your daily practice. To get a feel for which translation you like, read the same chapter in each one and pick the one that is most appealing. They are all good so there is no need to spend too much time laboring over your decision. Better just to get started. By reading a chapter every day you will be able to complete the book in less than a month so after several cycles of a single translation you can always try another one. If you stick with your favorite over several years you will begin to memorize important verses simply by repeated contact.
The easiest practice is to read one chapter per day. This has several advantages:
You will always have time to do this practice. (See the 2nd P) The only reason to miss a day is if you forget. There is always five minutes to read the Dhamma, no matter what your life is like.
There will always be at least one verse that you understand and connect with. In this way you will always have something to contemplate.
You can read the entire Dhammapada in less than a month, fourteen times in one year.
The last chapter is about twice as long as the rest, so you may want to split that one and read it over two days.
After having done several cycles with one chapter a day, you may want to try reading the same chapter each day for a week. This will allow you to work more deeply with the verses. In this way you will read it a total of seven times in six months.
You could also simply read until you find a verse that strikes you and then contemplate on it for some time. Mark where you stopped with a post-it flag and pick up there the next day. In this way you will be sure to cover everything eventually.
Make it your story
The ancient commentaries contain a record of the events that lead the Buddha to utter each verse. These are an excellent source of inspiration and understanding.
For a sutta practice, however, it is beneficial to imagine how the Buddha might have uttered these verses as a result of events in our own lives. Can you remember a time when you were caught in an argument, causing much suffering for yourself and other people? How would it have been for the Buddha to have appeared and uttered verse number 6:
6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels. A. Buddharakkhita, trans.
Imagine what it would have been like to hear the teachings in that moment. This is how we make the suttas come alive. When we do this, it will be easier to remember to bring these teachings to mind the next time a dispute arises.
Keep it a sutta practice
The Dhammapada is also an excellent text for deeper textual study, Pali language study, and even comparing different translations. However, during your designated practice time, try to work with the text on a personal, experiential level. To this end it is beneficial to:
Stick with a single translation at a time, at least for a year. The translations listed above will be useful to illuminate areas for personal cultivation and reflection.
Just read the text and not the background stories at least for the first three or four cycles.
Focus on implementation not interpretation.
As you are reading you will come across many passages that talk about arahants, fully enlightened beings. This may not always be obvious because the language used is generally non-technical. But it may be clear that it is talking about someone who has reached a high level of perfection. We have to use these verses to lift up our hearts, fill them with happiness knowing that such a state is possible, and that the path leading to that state was taught by the Blessed One. These are our heroes and we need to get to know their qualities very personally.
As with any sutta practice, try to connect it with a regular daily activity. Really commit to reading every day. This will give you a lot of energy for your understanding and keep the Dhamma constantly in your life. Consider using the Don’t Break the Chain technique. And remember this can be a perpetual practice, so always begin again.
Some of these verses will surely end up in your Personal Anthology. And even if you haven’t started a Personal anthology, you can easily use the Almost Anthology technique with the Dhammapada, simply flagging verses as you find them.
As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study, sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be used as a manual for contemplation. After his initial reading, he would do well to read several verses or even a whole chapter every day, slowly and carefully, relishing the words. He should reflect on the meaning of each verse deeply and thoroughly, investigate its relevance to his life, and apply it as a guide to conduct. If this is done repeatedly, with patience and perseverance, it is certain that the Dhammapada will confer upon his life a new meaning and sense of purpose. Infusing him with hope and inspiration, gradually it will lead him to discover a freedom and happiness far greater than anything the world can offer.
Because there is no single vloume that contains all of the ancient Pali scriptures, it can be a little confusing trying to complete your collection. It can also be difficult to decide which translations are best and whether or not the book is a complete translation or just an an thology.
Below is a link to a two-page PDF that gives book recommendations and sources for building a near complete library of the teachings of the Buddha found in the suttas. It is intended to be a resource for people beginning to explore the suttas as well as people who are tasked with creating an actual sutta library for an organization. It is also very useful for Buddhist families where the parents want their children to grow up in a home that has all of the Blessed One’s teaching.
Use this list to build a basic collection of the discourses of Gotama Buddha that is very accurate and written in clear English. The following is a good foundation for a sutta library; other translations may be obtained later as interest grows. For other reliable translations, visit the Canonical Collections for Practice page at ReadingFaithfully.org. Paperback editions are listed when available. See the second page for useful anthologies and book sources. Those books marked with a * can be given priority for people just starting to read the suttas.
These are books of suttas grouped in the ancient categories. Unless otherwise indicated, they are complete translations.
TheLongDiscoursesoftheBuddha:ATranslationoftheDīghaNikāya, by Maurice Walsh (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861711031)
* TheMiddleLengthDiscoursesoftheBuddha:ATranslationoftheMajjhimaNikaya, by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861710720)
TheConnectedDiscoursesoftheBuddha:ATranslationoftheSaṁyuttaNikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861713318)The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-1614290407)
* The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, by Acharya Buddharakkhita (BPS, BP203S)
* TheUdānaandtheItivuttaka:TwoClassicsfromthePaliCanon, by John D. Ireland (BPS, BP214S)
The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 9781614294290)
Stories of Heavenly Mansions (Vimānavatthu) and Stories of Ghosts (Petavatthu), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thera. Complete translations in simple, modern language. (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com)
The Voice of Enlightened Monks(Theragāthā), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com). For a more literal translation, try Poems of Early Buddhist Monks (Theragāthā), by K. R. Norman (PTS, paperback ISBN 0 86013 339 7)
The Voice of EnlightenedNuns(Therīgāthā), by Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda (Mahamegha Publications, available on Amazon.com) Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therīgāthā), by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids and K. R. Norman (PTS, paperback ISBN 0 86013 289 7)
JatakaTalesoftheBuddha:AnAnthology (three volume set) by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki (BPS, BP 622S / BP 623S / BP 624S) This is a collection of the commentarial stories with the verses included in the prose narration. It is a selection of the most important stories.
*IntheBuddha’sWords:AnAnthologyofDiscoursesfromthePaliCanon, Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861714919) This is the single best starting place for beginning to read the teachings of the Buddha.
Handful of Leaves Volumes 1–4 (an anthology of the suttas), Dhammapada, Itivuttaka, Merit,IntotheStream,AMediator’sTools,BeyondCoping,ABurdenOfftheMind,MindfuloftheBody,RecognizingtheDhamma.AlltranslatedbyAjahnṬhanissaro(MettaForestMonastery,free)
EverysuttalibrarymusthaveagoodEnglishdictionaryreadilyavailableforlookingupunfamiliarwords.Itshouldbeas large as possible.
Concise Pali-English Dictionary, by A.P. Buddhadata Mahathera. Provides simple definitions for thousands of Pali words. Available from Pariyatti.org. (Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN: 978-81-208-0605-4, Paperback)
A sutta practice life list is a record of all the complete sutta collections you have read, either canonical collections or anthologies, including the dates of each cycle.
There are several benefits of doing this.
It acts as an incentive to read a book completely. It only goes on the list if you read every single sutta.
It adds an incentive to read it again. You note each time, and preferably the dates, you read each book.
You can see at a glance what books you have not yet read. This is especially valuable for the main books in the Khuddaka Nikaya as they can be easily overlooked.
If you fall away from a text, the unfinished entry on the list reminds you to go back and give it another shot. Often the hindrances will be less acute on our second reading of a text.
Of course, simply reading lots of suttas in and of itself is not enough. It must be done with faith and wisdom, always trying to bring the teachings deeply into our lives. Even so, it is beneficial to be able to look back on a tangible record of all the effort you have made to connect with the teaching. As long as you don’t go around bragging about all the complete sutta collections you have read (either out loud or in your mind) you won’t have problems.
There are two methods for recording. Either filling in a pre-made list of all the possible collections(as in this Sutta Practice Life List form PDF above), or a chronological list that you add to each time you start a book. Using the form has the advantage of reminding you of collections you have not yet worked with. In this way it becomes like a to-do list, although of course, you will want to do them again and again.
To begin, go ahead and record complete reads that you have done in the past. Just take a guess at the year. Then write in any sutta books you are currently reading from beginning to end. Estimate the month and year that you began. Put a dash so you can see that it is not complete. So it would start out something like “March2011 – ” You might even want to pencil in an empty box in the space for the completion date. When you finish the book, write the month and year. For a book like the Dhammapada that you may read hundreds of times using the chapter a day practice, you can just use tick marks to note each complete read. Consider including the initials of the translator for the different versions you read.
You may also want to note when you read a canonical anthology completely, such as all the Majjhima Nikaya suttas included in the Handful of Leaves series. In that case, either note the anthology name or just mark it with an “A” so you know it was not an entire nikaya.
In the same way, many anthologies of suttas based on a particular topic are worth recording on your life list. Some of the more popular anthologies are included on page two of the form below with space to include others. Remember this reminds us of the value in reading the book completely and then re-reading it again and again. With anthologies especially, the suttas near the end may be dealing with some of the highest and noble qualities of the Dhamma, so we want to be sure to read about them even if we are not able to manifest them in our lives right away.
If you have an interest in learning what the Blessed One taught and you can devote 20–30 minutes to daily sutta practice, the Majjhima Nikaya will be an excellent text with which to work. It is especially suitable for people with an interest in applying the teaching to their lives, either through meditation or contemplation. Most of the suttas have a story that connects the teaching with a time and place. You will get to know many of the Buddha’s prominent disciples, both monastics and lay people. The topics covered have a wide range. Examples include: meditation, kamma and rebirth, overcoming personal defilements, the five aggregates, the sense bases, and the brahma viharas.
Which edition to use
The best complete translation available is The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. It has an excellent introduction as well as over a thousand end notes to help you along the way. This is published by Wisdom Publications and can be ordered on-line through the publisher or purchased at your local bookstore. There is also an e-book version available directly from the publisher’s website. Now about a third of the book is available as a free sample here.
Ajahn Thanissaro has an anthology of more than 80 suttas from the Majjhima Nikaya in the second volume of A Handful of Leaves, available to order free in print from Metta Forest Monastery or for download as an e-book in multiple forms. Although this is not the complete collection, it offers plenty of material with which to work. If you write to request a copy, consider asking for the entire four-volume set so you can practice with the other texts later.
The practice is simple: read one sutta each day, not more, not less. At the outset, don’t be concerned with whether or not you fully understand the meaning of the discourse, but on the next day, go on to read the next sutta. This is not to say that understanding what you read is not important, but only that your progress should not depend on understanding what you had read the day before. Don’t get discouraged. The more suttas you read, the more you will understand. For the time being, focus on what you do understand. Bring those teachings deep into your life. Understanding the rest will come later.
If you do your sutta practice at the beginning of the day, you may find that the teachings naturally come to mind later in the day. This is because the suttas are relevant to our everyday lives. If you have a daily meditation practice, reading before or after meditation, when the mind is calm and receptive, will help you better absorb the content of the text. For more on when to read, check out the article When to Do Your Sutta Reading Practice.
What order to read
Although the suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya are generally not grouped by topic, you may read them in the order in which they were arranged by the compilers. There are 152 suttas and most are between four and six pages in length. A few are slightly longer, so you may want to read these over two days or mark them for reading on a day that you have more time. Apart from dividing longer suttas over two days, try to stick to reading one per day, one after another.
That being said, if you are new to the suttas, you may want to proceed in the following order:
While this order is not essential, it is helpful for beginners in a couple of ways. First, by using this order you will initially encounter many beautiful similes that can be understood immediately. You will also avoid beginning with sutta 1, which is one of the most difficult in the entire canon. If your commitment is strong and you have a faithful attitude, it doesn’t really matter what order you read. But reading either in the order suggested above or from first to last will simplify your practice.
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha edition has an excellent introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi that could almost stand on its own as an introduction to Theravada Buddhism. For someone new to the suttas, reading the introduction is especially recommended. However, read the introduction outside of your regular practice session. You can start right off by reading the suttas even before you read the introduction, using the beginner’s order suggested above.
Whether or not you find the endnotes in this volume helpful to your practice with the sutta is partly a matter of personal temperament. Some people find them essential, others find them to be a distraction, still others are divided between these two attitudes. You will soon enough find out to which group you belong.
There are several types of notes:
Basic explanations of new concepts offered by the translators. These can be very helpful to the beginner.
Information from the commentary, prefixed with “MA,” and from the subcommentary, prefixed “MT.”
Notes by the translator about why a certain Pali word was translated in a certain way. These notes may not be of much interest to someone new to the suttas.
References to other suttas that explain the highlighted point in greater detail. Many concepts touched on briefly in one sutta are explained in detail in other suttas. You can mark these passages to read later if you are interested.
As you are reading, you want to look out for suttas to include in your personal anthology. Because the suttas in the Majjhima are relatively long, you will probably just want to include shorter excerpts. By creating your personal anthology and using it for reflection when you meet difficulties, you will begin to appreciate the relevance of the suttas to your life. Once you have compiled a substantial anthology, even if you fall away from a daily sutta practice, you will still have a way to quickly reconnect with the teachings.
When you finish the last sutta, start again at the beginning on the very next day. On this second reading, start with the very first sutta in the collection. It’s not possible to absorb everything in a single reading. By the time you reach the end, almost six months will have passed and your understanding of the Blessed One’s teaching will have increased tremendously. Reading all the suttas again will take your practice to an even deeper level. For the advantages of reading a book a second time or more, see the article When You Complete a Book of Suttas.
Have you read the Majjhima Nikaya as a daily practice? Share your experiences in the comments below. If you would prefer not to have them published, simply write “private” in the first line.
If you have a strong commitment and the proper attitude, it doesn’t matter so much what text you choose to work with. While you are beginning to develop the proper attitude and commitment, you may want to take the following into consideration. See which section describes your experience.
Little to no experience with the Dhamma:
You’ve heard about Buddhism, but don’t know much about it. What better place to start your experience of Buddhism that to read exactly what the Buddha said? Almost all the books of suttas published today contain good introductions that will give you what you need to start reading the suttas right away.
The Dhammapada and the Itivuttaka are traditional collections that will give you a good sense of the style of the canon. There is a lot of variety in these two texts, so it is easy to stay engaged. And they are both available to download and print out right now.
The anthology Merit, by Ajahn Thanissaro, starts with suttas the cover basic concepts and builds up to suttas that explain merit all the way to the attaining of Nibbana. This is available free on request from Metta Forest Monastery.
You are familiar with basic Buddhist concepts. You may have read lots of books about Buddhism, but have not read a complete collection of the suttas themselves. You are more than ready to jump right in. If you are committed and have a skillful attitude, any of the texts listed on this site could work for you. Below are some to consider.
Ajahn Thanissaro’s anthology from the Majjhima Nikaya found in Handful of Leaves Volume 1 will expose you to lots of important suttas.
Lots of experience:
You’ve read some suttas already. You are comfortable with Pali words. There’s really no limit to the texts you could work with. Just develop a skillful attitude and make a firm commitment to read from your chosen text every day.
The complete translation of The Middle Length Discourses is a wonderful text to establish yourself in. You will gain a realistic sense of the breadth and depth of the Buddha’s teachings.
If you are already familiar with many of the main themes in the Dhamma, the Samyutta Nikaya will give you a detailed analysis of important topics such as the five aggregates, dependent origination, the six sense bases, etc. Committing to read from this book for 15-30 minutes a day would work well.
Don’t forget about the books in the Khuddaka Nikaya such as the Dhammapada, the Itivuttaka, and the Udana. These work very well as a sutta (or chapter) a day practice and could even be done in addition to one of the texts above.
And no matter what your experience level, be sure to start your personal anthology right away.