A Personal Anthology Could Take your Sutta Reading Practice to the Next Level

If you’ve been reading suttas on a regular basis, then you know how they can speak to you personally. But we may not always be able to find the passages that speak to us directly when we really need to work with them. That’s why we should create a Personal Anthology. Then we know right where to go. It’s easy and you can start experiencing the benefits right away.

Have you already started making a Personal Anthology but it doesn’t seem to be helpful? Or making it seems stressful? Well check out these tips for overcoming common problems.

Don’t have a regular sutta reading practice yet? Well it’s time to begin!

Have you been using a Personal Anthology? Share your experience in the comments. Never commented on a blog before? Now’s your chance. Your comment could help inspire someone. You can leave your comment anonymously.

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Reflections for Sutta Reading Practice

As we develop a daily habit of reading the suttas it is important that we always remember the reason we are reading the suttas: To develop our faith in the enlightenment of the Supreme Buddha and to put an end to the round of samsara. If we lose track of this purpose, we may not be successful. Below you will find passages that can help us remember the proper attitude to have while reading and listening to the Dhamma. They have been taken either directly from the suttas or modified to turn them into declarations.

You can read them below and download a version that you can use as a part of your daily reading.

Reflecting on the reason we read the suttas.

Downloads of the reading reflections


The Blessed One Is the Teacher, I Am a Disciple: Reflections for Sutta Reading Practice

Before your sutta reading

Recite one or more of the following passages aloud or silently before your daily sutta reading practice. In doing so make the sincere wish to read the Dhamma with complete attention, to reflect on it wisely, and to put the teachings into practice.

Then imagine that you are sitting at the feet of the Blessed One. Read your text as if you were actually listening to him preach.

 After your sutta reading

Make a very brief summary of what you read and insert it for X.

  •  Because of not knowing X I have been reborn again and again in this long round of saṁsāra, creating suffering for myself and countless other beings.
  • May my understanding of X grow. May I always keep this teaching of X in mind and live accordingly, using it to help me realize the Blessed One’s Four Noble Truths in this very life.
  • May all beings have the opportunity to learn about X and realize the Four Noble Truths in this very life.

Translations are from The Word of the Buddha series by Wisdom Publications. Links with a * take you to Bhikkhu Sujato’s translaton.

 The Reflections

“Bhikkhus, for a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, it is proper that he conduct himself thus: ‘The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple; the Blessed One knows, I do not know.’ For a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, the Teacher’s Dispensation is nourishing and refreshing.”

From MN 70.27

“Bhikkhus, there are these five things that lead to the continuation, non-decline, and non-disappearance of the good Dhamma. What five? (1) Here, the bhikkhus respectfully listen to the Dhamma; (2) they respectfully learn the Dhamma; (3) they respectfully retain the Dhamma in mind; (4) they respectfully examine the meaning of the teachings they have retained in mind; (5) they respectfully understand the meaning and the Dhamma and then practice in accordance with the Dhamma.

From AN 5:154*

May I gain inspiration in the meaning! May I gain inspiration in the Dhamma! May I gain gladness connected with the Dhamma!

Based on MN 33*

I have this rare chance to get to see the Tathāgata. I have this rare chance to read the Dhamma and Discipline expounded by the Tathāgata. May I retain it in mind! May I examine the meaning of what I have retained in mind! May I understand the meaning and practice in accordance with the Dhamma!

Based on AN 1:338–342*

May I not read this Dhamma as a denigrator, obsessed with denigration! May I read this Dhamma as one without any intention of criticizing it, not as one who seeks faults! May I not be ill disposed to the teacher and intent on attacking him! May I be wise, intelligent and astute! May I not imagine that I have understood what I have not understood. Possessing these five qualities, may I be capable of entering into the fixed course [consisting in] rightness in wholesome qualities!

Based on AN 5.153*

May I hear what I have not heard before! May what I have heard before be clarified! May I emerge from perplexity! May my views be made straight! May my mind become placid! May I have these five rewards of listening to the Dhamma!

Based on AN 5.202*

While I am reading this Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata, may I heed it! May I give my attention to it! May I engage it with all my mind! May I hear the Dhamma with eager ears!

Based on MN 48*

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Make a wish: Closing our Sutta Practice Session

As we read the suttas, we are always trying to see the truth of the teachings in our own lives. When we finish our practice, we can do a quick reflection to help solidify this intention.

Begin by making a quick summary in your head of the teaching you just read. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive. As you will see, it works best if it is brief and heartfelt. It can even be just one point that you found most helpful. In the text below, this summary will fill in for [X]. If you aren’t able to summarize, just use “this teaching of the Blessed One.”

  • Because of not knowing [X] I have been reborn again and again in this long round of samsara, creating suffering for myself and countless other beings
  • May my understanding of [X] grow. May I always keep this teaching of [X] in mind and live accordingly, using it to help me realize the Blessed One’s four noble truths in this very life.
  • May all beings have the opportunity to learn about [X] and realize the four noble truths in this very life.

Of course you can use whatever language you feel comfortable with, but the main point is to make a quick recollection of what you just read and have a sincere aspiration that you will try to put the teachings into practice. Remember, the recollection does not need to be comprehensive. Don’t get hung up on making a perfect summary. That’s not what this is about. As different things come to mind you could even change what [X] is as you go through the recollection. Focus on what you understood and found meaningful.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the language, come up with something that works for you, keeping these basics in mind:

  • Summarize the main points that you found valuable.
  • Make the aspiration to understand and live by these teachings.
  • Make the wish for liberation.
  • Cultivate thoughts of good will for all beings.

If you understand the practice of sharing merit, you may also wish to share the merit you have made through reading and reflecting on the Dhamma with all beings or specific people like your teachers and spiritual friends.

Having done this reflection it will be easy to keep in mind the purpose of reading the suttas, namely, liberation from samsara. It will also make it easier to bring the teachings to mind throughout the day.

Do you have a habit you find helpful to close your reading of the suttas? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Benefits of Having a Backup Text

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.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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.

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Using an E-book Reader for Sutta practice: Kindle, Nook, etc.

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.

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Have you used an e-book reader for a sutta reading practice? Share your experience in the comments below.

Dhammapada As a Daily Practice

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.

Regardless of the translation you use, at some point read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction (available on line at accesstoinsight.org)

How much to read.

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.

Lofty language

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.

Conclusion

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.

In his excellent introduction to Ven Buddharakkhita’s translation of the Dhammapada, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes a wonderful case for using the Dhammapada as a constant companion in your sutta practice:

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.

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Have you read the Dhammapada as a daily practice? Share your experience in the comments below.

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The Five P’s of Sutta Practice

When we keep certain principles in mind as we read the suttas, we are sure to succeed on our path of practice and understanding.

  1. Pragmatic Practice
  2. Possible Practice
  3. Patient Practice
  4. Persistent Practice
  5. Perpetual Practice

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1. Pragmatic Practice

First and foremost, we must establish a practice with the suttas that is pragmatic, applying the teachings to our own lives. It is not enough to merely read the suttas. We must relate these teachings to our lives directly at the very moment we are reading the words. Then as we go about our day the teachings will naturally come to mind and we will continue to apply them to our real life experiences. When we read about defilements of the mind, we must ask ourselves if they are present in our own minds. If so, we must see the danger directly and put into practice the teachings that will help remove them. When we read about wholesome qualities we have developed already, we must rejoice in this merit.

When our focus is on putting the teachings into practice — whatever small part we understand — our faith in the enlightenment of the Buddha will grow. And we won’t be obsessed and depressed by not understanding everything we read because we see for ourselves how beneficial even the smallest bit of Dhamma is. As we come across these teachings that have a lot of meaning to us personally, we can collect them in a personal anthology.

If our exploration of the suttas becomes too theoretical, we can spiral into a pit of doubt. This is because so many of the aspects of the Dhamma that are beyond our personal experience are just that: beyond our experience. We don’t have the same wisdom and knowledge as the Buddha. Rather than focus on things beyond our ability, we can focus on those things we can practice right away.

2. Possible Practice

We must make sure that the practice we choose is possible. We can do this by choosing a text that is both suitable for our knowledge level as well as suitable for the amount of time that we can realistically dedicate on a daily basis. It may be good to start with a practice that only takes a few minutes each day, such as reading a chapter from the Dhammapada or a single sutta from the Itivuttaka. These texts are both suitable for beginners as well as possible to do in about five minutes. By establishing a practice that is totally possible, we painlessly build up the habit and begin to see directly the benefit of encountering the suttas every single day. It’s hard to imagine anyone not having five minutes each day to dedicate to experiencing the suttas. If you are new, start with that.

3. Patient Practice

The Dhamma is both subtle and profound. We must be patient as we read, not getting discouraged if we come across passages that we do not understand. In fact, we can surely expect to read things that we do not understand completely. The skill we need to develop is the ability to focus our attention on the parts we do understand and put those into practice. As we put what we can understand into practice, our wisdom and faith will grow. If we are patient, deeper understanding will come with time.

4. Persistent Practice

We get the most benefit from reading the suttas when we do it every day or nearly every day. Far better to read for only five minutes a day than to read for a half an hour once a week. If our life situation changes and we become more busy, we need to reevaluate how much time we can give to the practice and perhaps shift to a practice that takes less time. But it is essential that when our life gets crazy we continue to engage with the teachings. This is probably the time when we need the teachings the most. Choose a backup text to read if time is tight or if our interest in our main text is fading. If we need inspiration, we can read from our personal anthology.

If we realize that we have fallen away from our daily reading, we can evaluate what might have gone wrong in a non-judgemental way. Did we bite off more than we could chew? Did our daily routine change and our reading time became impractical? Were we discouraged by not understanding everything we read? Figure out what went wrong and develop a new plan and see how it goes.

5. Perpetual Practice

It is important to see our relationship with the suttas as an ongoing one. They are not something that we read once and are done with. Reading the suttas every day is a habit that can bring benefits as long as our lives last. As our wisdom grows, we will understand more and more. But we need to be engaged with the teachings over the long term to see this benefit. When you finish a book, begin again the very next day, either rereading the same book or starting on a new one.

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Motivate with Links of Dhamma

There is a very simple motivational technique that has become popular on the internet called “Don’t Break the Chain,” and it is perfectly suited for a daily sutta reading practice.

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You take a one year calendar, either poster size or a single sheet (see below for sources) and you mark an X each day you do your sutta reading practice, however much you have committed to do. You can also write the number of the sutta you read. In this way you start to make a chain of days that you have done your practice. Then you Don’t Break the Chain.

That’s it. Could not be any simpler. It doesn’t add more than 10 seconds to your practice time. But here’s what it does. It gives you a tangible indicator of what you are doing. Every day you are bringing the Blessed One’s teachings into your life. On days when the hindrances are strong and the joy of reading the suttas is not enough to motivate you, the satisfaction of knowing that you have this unbroken practice might be enough to help you pull out your main text or your backup text and practice for a few minutes. Then before you know it, you haven’t broken the chain. Hindrances overcome for one more day, and you make your X.

Any time we spend with the teachings of the Blessed One is beneficial. And this unbroken connection, day after day, is especially beneficial. We may need the teachings the most on those very days that we don’t think we have enough time to read. And making daily contact keeps things familiar and in the front of our mind.

Post the calendar in a prominent place in your home. That way if you haven’t been able to link your practice to a regular daily activity, or if your schedule gets disrupted, you will have a reminder. When you travel, take your text and your calendar with you. And Don’t Break the Chain.

Year Calender resources

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To find out more about the Don’t Break the Chain technique in general, just do a web search for “Don’t Break the Chain” and you’ll find lots of articles and even some computer tools to do tracking.

Have you tried this technique with your sutta reading practice? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Majjhima Nikaya as a Daily Practice

Majjhima Nikaya Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi ReadingIf 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 latest translation of the Majjhima Nikaya is by Bhikkhu Sujato on SuttaCentral.net. This translation is not yet available for print, but you can download an ebook version from this site.

The practice

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:

Suttas 21-30 (third division)
Suttas 11-20 (second division)
Suttas 1-10 (first division)
Suttas 31-152 (the rest)

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 introduction

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.

Endnotes

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.

Personal anthology

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.

Some final thoughts

If you like to take notes, you may want to read this article on taking notes and sutta practice.

Because reading a complete sutta each day is a big commitment, you probably want to choose a backup text in advance, such as an anthology of shorter suttas to practice with on days when you can’t give the full period to the Majjhima. This ensures that you will have daily contact with the Blessed One’s teachings every day. It will also broaden your experience with the suttas.

When you finish the book

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.

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When to Do Your Sutta Reading Practice

When is the best time to do your sutta practice? It will probably be different for everyone, but here are some suggestions. You may want to first decide how much time you will need to spend each day.

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Schedule a regular time

Try and find a time that will work every day or almost every day. Get into a routine.

If you can, read early in the day

If possible, find a time to do your reading practice early in the day. This has several benefits:

  • Most importantly, you will have the rest of the day to contemplate the sutta that you read and see its truths in your own life. This is an incredibly powerful experience that builds faith and confidence quickly.
  • Even if you don’t consciously think about the sutta, it may naturally come to mind when the teaching you read are needed.
  • If you plan to read early but you miss your scheduled time, you still have the rest of the day to fit it in.

If you have a meditation practice

Although you can certainly read the suttas without having a daily meditation practice, if you do, try to link them up. You could either read before or after meditation. Both have advantages.

“There are these five rewards in listening to the Dhamma. Which five? One hears what one has not heard before. One clarifies what one has heard before. One gets rid of doubt. One’s views are made straight. One’s mind grows serene. These are the five rewards in listening to the Dhamma.”

The Buddha—AN 5:202

  • Reading the Dhamma calms and concentrates the mind if you do it before meditation.
  • If your mind is calm and concentrated from meditation, then what you will read after will surely go to the heart.
  • If your daily meditation practice is not quite daily, then make a commitment to read even if you do not meditate. After reading you may decide to meditate after all.

Link it to another activity

If you don’t meditate every day, link your sutta practice to something else that you do every single day. Be creative. A peaceful, quite time is best, but that may be hard to find. Don’t let the “perfect time” that never happens keep you from reading in a less than perfect time that happens every day.

Determine to do it before X

If your daily schedule is not so consistent, try linking your sutta practice to a time period before you do something. For example:

  • Before eating any food for the day
  • Before getting dressed
  • Before going on line for the first time each day
  • Before touching your phone
  • Before getting out of bed
  • Before leaving the house

If you must read late in the day

If your mornings are very rushed (although it’s hard to imagine not having the time to read at least single Dhammapada verse) or if you are not a morning person, you may only be able to find a consistent time in the evening.

  • Bring to mind your day’s activities when reflecting on the sutta that you read. How could you have applied the teachings in your life that day?
  • Consider taking just a moment the next morning to try and remember and review in your mind what you read the night before.

Don’t break the chain

Reading every single day is extremely beneficial even if it is just for a short time. Try using the Don’t Break the Chain technique to make it happen.

When do you find is best to read every day? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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