Many people will have the urge to take notes while they are doing their sutta practice. This is not surprising. All our time in school is spent taking notes so we can do well on the test later. If you have especially strong connections between reading and collecting facts, with a sutta practice it is good to find a new way.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking notes we can ask ourselves, “Would I take notes while I am meditating?” “Would I take notes during a conversation with a new friend?” The answer is probably no.
In order to bring a more meditative and contemplative approach to reading the suttas, consider just reading. Don’t worry about collecting the important information. Important things repeat. Guaranteed. And even if something doesn’t repeat throughout the collection you are reading, part of the commitment is to read the collection at least twice through. Better to take a few minutes to repeat a passage in your head, even commit it to memory. Relate it to your own life. Think about all the ways you have already experienced this Dhamma to be true. It is through deeply engaging with the text while practicing that we build a personal relationship with the teachings.
If you really find that there are things you want to take notes on, consider flagging them during your session and once a week sit down and collect things into a notebook. This has nothing to do with being anti-intellectual. A clear grasp of all the important features and structure of the Dhamma is essential. But try to keep the note taking aspect as a separate project from your daily sutta practice.
Of course, we want to be sure to flag passages to include in our personal anthology. Even so, we want to stay with the text we are reading so we can take it in and not get distracted.
Majjhima Nikaya, One sutta per day, no more. You may want to first read suttas 21-30, then 11-20, then 1-10. You may want to consider repeating this cycle of the first 30 one or two times before continuing with the rest of the book. This will give you an excellent foundation for all other practice with the suttas. Consider using one of the shorter anthologies above as a backup plan for days when you have limited time for practice.
Anthologies of suttas from the Pali canon are great for a daily sutta practice. See the list of anthologies for books to use. Here are some tips.
ONE EACH DAY: As with any text for daily practice, read one sutta or passage each day. If it is particularly short, use your extra time to contemplate it more deeply or even commit it to memory. You may even want to copy it right into your personal anthology if appropriate.
MARK YOUR PLACE: Because the passages can sometimes be quite short, there may be several in a set of facing pages where you would normally put a bookmark. To keep track of exactly which one you are on, consider using a post-it flag or a piece of a post it note. That way you won’t need to spend time trying to figure out which passage you should read next. This is especially handy when you miss a day or two of practice.
DIFFERENT MARKS: Because you may also find yourself flagging passages of importance for future reference, or perhaps to include in your personal anthology, you can put the post-it that marks your place in the book at an angle. Other markers can be placed square with the page. This way you can easily tell where you are and which passage are just marked for reference.
LONG PASSAGES: Sometimes a passage in an anthology will be particularly long, longer than you have time to read that day. You can simply divide the passage in half, reading part one day and part the next. Another option is to save that passage for a day when you have more time. Simply mark that passage with another angled post-it flag. Obviously the last angled flag will be your final position in the book, and the earlier one will act as a constant reminder to go back to read the longer passage as soon as you are able.
FLAGS READY FOR USE: If you like using the flags like this, consider sticking several inside the front cover so they are always handy. This will help us avoid the tendency to use a pencil, tissue, or old sock as a book mark.
ANTHOLOGY AS A BACK UP PLAN: If you have committed to reading a larger text as a daily practice, such as the Majjhima Nikāya, consider working with an anthology as a back up plan for days that you don’t have as much time. If you are doing this, it is especially important to keep track of exactly where you are in the book.
PAY ATTENTION TO CITATIONS: Most anthologies will include a citation, or reference, to where the passage is found in the canon. There will be a page in the front or back of the book explaining what the abbreviations stand for. (You can mark this with a flag coming out of the top of the book.) As you are reading, take a moment to look up the abbreviation each time until you have them memorized. This will be quite painless and give you a good sense of where things come from. You may start to develop an affinity to suttas from a particular book such as the Udāna or the Dhammapada. Then when it is time to pick a new book for practice you will know where to head.
EXCERPTS: Often anthologies contain only a portion of the sutta. This is almost always true when the citation is for the Majjhima Nikāya(MN) or the Dīgha Nikāya (DN). If you find one of those passages interesting, consider taking time to look up and read the whole sutta.
DO IT ALL AGAIN: As with any book you are using for daily practice, once you have finished it, consider reading the book a second time in the same way, one passage each day. This will greatly improve your familiarity, understanding and confidence in the teachings.
Have you used an anthology for daily practice? Share your experience or tips in the comments below
It’s great to use a small blank book for your personal anthology. They are easy to carry around and keep near by for when you need to read the teachings. It can be tricky, though, to write neatly on such a small surface. Here are some tips to make things easier.
Pencil or Pen
If you are not a professional scribe, you may make mistakes when you are copying texts into your personal anthology. To make it a more pleasant experience, consider using a soft pencil. This will give you dark letters that are easy to erase. Although the pages touch, they don’t tend to rub back and forth so the pencil won’t smudge much.
When you are writing on the left hand page, it may cause marks to transfer between the touching sides of the previous two pages, especially if you are writing in pencil. Just place a blank piece of paper between the two pages. This will keep the writing from transferring.
Big Hands, Small Book
You may find it awkward to be writing on such a small space. There are two problems. First, with a new book the left hand side is higher than the right hand side. Second, your hand and arm won’t always rest on the page you are writing because the book is small. This can be awkward. Solve this problem by placing another small book under the left hand side to even the height, and rest your hand or arm on yet another book to raise it to the page level. CD cases also work well for this, and you can change the height easily by adding or subtracting one.
This will make the process more pleasant and let you focus on the words of the Blessed One and his enlightened disciples.
Do you have tips on writing in a small book? Share them in the comments below.
The Blessed One Is Talking to You: Making Your Personal Anthology
When we read the suttas faithfully, we are going to find passages that strongly resonate with us. We may get a feeling that the Buddha is speaking to us directly, seeing our defilements and giving the precise antidote to our disease of suffering. It is meant for us personally. Although these passages are beneficial to us the moment we encounter them, they will be most useful when our defilements are strongest. However, when our defilements are strong we may not be able to find them quickly. The solution is to create a personal anthology.
A personal anthology is not simply a collection of important suttas. It is your own personal medicine cabinet for your particular disease of suffering. By collecting the suttas that you consider best address your strongest defilements, and having them in one handy location, you will be able to easily find the Dhamma medicine when you need it the most.
For example, you may be strongly prone to anger. One day you may read the following verse from the Saṁyutta Nikaya:
The killing of anger, O devatā, With its poisoned root and honeyed tip: This is the killing the noble ones praise.
You may immediately feel this describes your experience of anger. Anger sometimes has a certain sweetness, doesn’t it? But at its root it is highly poisonous. When you encounter the passage, you may relate it to anger that you have experienced in the past. By including this passage in your personal anthology, when you become angry you can quickly consult it when you need it most. Eventually you may be able to instantly recall the complete passage, but until then your personal anthology will have your cure.
How to create a personal anthology
Find a small blank book. It does not need to be very large. A pocket sized book is easy to keep with you when you travel. Use this book solely to record the suttas.
Only copy the text of the sutta. Do not add your own comments or reflections. You may have powerful insights from the text—which is good—but you need not record these here. If your insights are authentic, you do not need to record them. When we go to these texts in a time of trouble, we want to consult the direct words of the Blessed One without our own interpretation or reflections. Allow the Buddha to speak directly to you each time. If you really want to keep track of your thoughts, consider creating a study notebook.
It is not necessary to copy an entire sutta. You can write down the passages that conveys the essence of the teaching. At the same time, remember that the teachings are always contextual and thus recording some of the background narrative may be helpful. When a repetitive analysis is given for a list of items, such as the five aggregates, you may want to abbreviate it in the way commonly done in published editions. Alternatively, if you find the passage especially helpful you may want to recreate all the repetitions in full so you can use it directly as an aid to contemplation.
Always include the citation of the sutta, whether you include the entire text or just an excerpt. This will allow you to find the original easily whenever you need to. You may even want to note the name of the translator. This is helpful when sharing the merit of the benefit you receive from reading the text.
What kind of suttas to collect
There are several types of relationships you may have with a text. There are some passages where you will have a clear and almost uncanny sense that the Supreme Buddha is giving this teaching to you personally. One of the marvels of the Buddha is that he was able to present the teaching in different ways for different people based on their temperament and social background. Although the Buddha is not physically present with us now, we have an excellent record of these thousands of teachings. While we are reading we must keep in mind this personal nature of the suttas.
One of the main reasons these suttas feel so personal to us is that they act as an antidote to our defilements. Although the roots of our defilements are the same, they may manifest in different ways for each of us. This is why some suttas may resonate strongly with one person but not with another. It is not important to figure out why. It is enough to recognize what suttas really act as a medicine for our own ailment of suffering. Also bear in mind that every single teaching of the Supreme Buddha conveys Dhamma that will liberate some people from suffering. When we recognize this, we will not select suttas for recording with a critical view of those that are less relevant to us in our present conditions.
There are some suttas that we may simply find uplifting regardless of their immediate relevance to our inner struggles. For example, a particular simile may give you clear insight into a subject and leave your mind feeling calm and cool. These are suttas that you will surely want to collect in your anthology.
How to use your personal anthology
Use your personal anthology when you feel distressed. Use it to see more clearly your defilements, which may appear in diverse forms. Think first of the five hindrances. When you are overcome by greed. When you are overcome by ill will. When you are feeling tired and lazy. When you are agitated. And, especially, when you have doubts about the teachings. The Buddha did not tell us to simply put up with these mental states. He wanted us to overcome them, and he gave us specific tools to deal with them. Once you compile a collection of texts, you will be able to take this Dhamma medicine. If you cannot stir up energy on your own, read the Buddha’s words. Reading something so true and clear will wake you up to reality.
By habitually going to the Blessed One’s instructions in times of difficulty, you will develop confidence in the Dhamma, and the suttas will become an integral part of your life.
Step One: Read the Buddha’s discourses.
Step Two: Add the ones you find most helpful to your anthology.
Step Three: Use these suttas as aids when defilements arise.