The logistics of a sutta practice are fairly straightforward. Choose a text and read some of it every day. Below you will find more specific suggestions for the basic aspects of a sutta practice. Be sure to tie it all together with a written sutta reading plan.
Step 1: Choose a Text
The text you already have on hand may be the best one. If you own a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, that is probably an indication of where your interests lie and your current level of understanding. If you have kept a copy of the Dhammapada on the shelf for years, there was probably a point in time that you found it useful. Go with that. If you are new to sutta reading, In the Buddha’s Words is a perfect anthology to get you started. Check the following pages to see recommendations on different text to use. Some texts are well suited to reading one sutta a day, others may work better reading for a fixed amount of time each day.
- Canonical Texts for Practice
- Anthologies for Practice
- Texts Based on Available Time
- Texts based on experience level
- How much to read each day
Step 2: Choose a Time and a Place
Reading the suttas consistently over a long time is what is most important, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. Your understanding will grow and compound, and at the same time so will your love of the Dhamma and your confidence in it. Pick a location free from distractions. Pick a time that is not likely to be eaten up by something else. If you already have a daily meditation practice, seriously consider connecting it with your sutta practice. For more tips on these topics, see:
Step 3: Make a Commitment, Begin, and Begin Again
At first, you may need to make a strong resolution to do your daily reading. The hindrances will be at their worst when beginning a sutta practice. We will be encountering lots of new information and will surely come across things that we do not understand at first read. If we stick with it, these problems will naturally fade away. Suttas reinforce each other and you will learn what you need to know for understanding through continued practice and reflection.
To end your reading session, make an aspiration to put what you have read into practice.
If you are committing to a time intensive practice, such as reading one sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya each day, consider having a shorter text as a plan B for those days when time is tight. At a minimum, pick up your text and recollect a meaningful passage and commit to starting up your practice again on the following day. Always begin again.
Once you have worked through a book completely, consider starting over from the beginning and reading it again one more time, day by day, before you start in on a different book. The familiarity gained through a second reading will be very powerful.
- Basic principles of sutta practice
- Benefits of reading a text a second time.
- Closing a sutta practice session.
Step 4: Overcome the Hindrances
The Dhamma is both subtle and deep. If we are accustomed to mental stimulation that requires very little effort on our part, such as television or novels, we may easily project our difficulties in reading upon the suttas themselves. If we think that the difficulties we encounter when reading are caused by the suttas, it is very easy to fall away from the practice. In fact, the difficulties we have are due to very common hindrances that exist within our own minds. Without removing the hindrances, a sutta practice will always be difficult and marginally beneficial.
Remember: your commitment is to read each day. You may or may not understand a text at first. This doesn’t matter. Sometimes you will understand a text immediately, sometimes only after a long time. In any case, read the next sutta the next day.
- Motivate with Links of Dhamma: The Don’t Break the Chain method can help keep you reading every day.
- Bring the suttas alive by reading aloud.
- Living with the Sallekha Sutta: Effacement, Majjhima Nikāya 8: A way to make the suttas more personal
Bonus Step: Create and Use Your Personal Anthology
Creating and using a personal anthology is one way to guarantee that the suttas that you are reading get tied in intimately with your live. Even if you fall away from your sutta practice for a period of time, having made a personal anthology, you will always be able to tap into the teachings that you have connected with the most.
And be sure to tie it all together with a written sutta reading plan.