Posts

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.

Related Pages

Building a Sutta Reading Library

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.

Building A Sutta Library PDF

The following is the main text of the PDF above:

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.

Canonical Collections

These are books of suttas grouped in the ancient categories. Unless otherwise indicated, they are complete translations.

  • The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, by Maurice Walsh (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861711031)
  • * The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications, ISBN: 978-0861710720)
  • The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, 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)
  • * The Udāna and the Itivuttaka: Two Classics from the Pali Canon, 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 Enlightened Nuns (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)
  • Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology (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.

Sutta Anthologies

These are book that contain selections of suttas based on a particular topic. Anthologies are an excellent way to begin reading suttas.

  • * In the Buddhas Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, 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, Into the Stream, A Mediators Tools, Beyond Coping, A Burden Off the Mind, Mindful of the Body, Recognizing the Dhamma. All translated by Ajahn Ṭhanissaro (Metta Forest Monastery, free)
  • The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon, by Nyanamoli Thera (BPS, BP 101S)
  • Buddha, My Refuge: Contemplation of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (BPS, BP 409S)

 Reference

  • Every sutta library must have a good English dictionary readily available for looking up unfamiliar words. It should be as 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)

Related Articles:

The Five P’s of Sutta Reading 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

""

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.

Related Articles:

Sutta Reading Practice Life List

A sutta reading 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.

Icon

Sutta Practice Life List

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.

Getting started

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.

There are a growing number of complete suttas collections available in audio format. Currently there is a complete Dhammapada by Gil Fronsdal, a complete Udana by Bhante Anandajoti, and a complete Itivuttaka available for download from this site. If you listen to the complete book, mark it with an “L” so you know you listened to it.

Icon

Sutta Practice Life List

Have you used a life list for the sutta collections you have read? Share your experience in the comments below. If you would like your comment to remain unpublished, simply write “Private” at the end.

Related Pages:

Audio Sutta Recording: Itivuttaka, translated by John D. Ireland

Cover of Itivuttaka by John D Ireland

Below you will find complete audio recordings of the four chapters of The Itivuttaka, translated by John D. Ireland as found in The Udāna and the Itivuttaka, Two Classics from the Pali Canon, Translated by John D. Ireland. ©1997 Buddhist Publication Society. Click on the links below to download. You can also download an e-book version of the translation here.

These files are created and distributed with the permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.

If you are listening a little bit each day as part of a regular practice, you may want to use the printable checklist of the Khuddakanikaya found here.

Individual Suttas as Single MP3 Files

The links below are bundled as zip files for each chapter.

56 kbps – Smaller File Size

Icon

Itivuttaka Chap-1-suttas-1-27, John Ireland, 56kbps

Icon

Itivuttaka, Chap 2, suttas 28-49, John Ireland, 56kbps

Icon

Itivuttaka, Chap 3, suttas 50-99, John Ireland, 56kbps

Icon

Itivuttaka, Chap 4, 100-112, John Ireland, 56kbps

Whole Chapters in a Single MP3 File

Icon

Itivuttaka 1:001-027 Ekakanipāto: The Section of the Ones, 42 minutes, 56 kbps MP3

Icon

Itivuttaka 2:028-049 Dukanipāto: The Section of the Twos, 40 minutes, 56 kbps MP3

Icon

Itivuttaka 3:050-099 Tikanipāto: The Section of the Threes, 107 minutes, 56 kbps MP3

Icon

Itivuttaka 4:100-112 Catukkanipāto: The Section of the Fours, 35 minutes, 56 kbps MP3

Related:

Almost Personal Anthology

One of the easiest ways to make a deep connection with the suttas is by creating a personal anthology. If you haven’t read the main article, this involves noticing when sutta passages are particularly meaningful to you and then copying them into a blank book. Then when the hindrances arise, you can quickly turn to that collection of teachings that you easily connect with.

So the basic steps for a regular Personal Anthology are:

  1. Read the suttas and notice passages you connect with.
  2. Copy them into a blank book
  3. Go to these teachings when the hindrances arise.

It’s not so difficult, but step two does take some effort. Once you have experience using the suttas directly in times of difficulty, you will know that it is time well spent. But what to do if you can’t motivate yourself to copy out the text now? Make an Almost Anthology

Basically, you just skip step two, and instead flag them with Post-it markers. This way, the book you are working with will literally have passages that stick out. So you’ve done the reading and noticing of step one, then all you have to do is the “go to these teachings” part of step three. This will work as a substitute as long as you are just practicing with a single book. Because you are going to read this book completely at least twice, that should give you enough experience using it as a go-to source when hindrances arise. By the time you have finished your second cycle with the book you will have seen the advantage of having these passages close at hand and copying them out will be a real joy.

So in the meantime the process for the Almost Anthology is this:

  1. Read the suttas and FLAG passages you connect with.
  2. Go to these teachings when the hindrances arise.

It’s important that you physically flag them. Underlining won’t work so well because the passages won’t stick out. You could dog ear the pages, and underline, but that’s not so good for the book.

You can make your own Post-it flags by cutting up an ordinary Post-it. Remember to keep a stash of flags stuck to the inside front cover so you always have them handy.

Now, if you are also marking passages for putting in your study notebook, you’ll need to make sure they are clearly different. Perhaps mark study notebook passages with the flag barely visible and the Almost Anthology passages with the flags sticking far out. You may even want to draw a star at the end of those. This is a good technique even if you are actively making a real Personal Anthology because you won’t always be able to transfer them right away.

Have you experienced using a Personal Anthology? How has it connected you with the teachings? Have you created an Almost Anthology? Share your experience in the comments below. All comments are screened, so simply include the word “Private” if you would prefer not to have them published.

Related Pages:

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.

chain-1742943

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

Related Pages:

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.

Walking Sutta Reading Practice

You’ve probably heard of walking meditation. And we know reading the suttas is meditative. So why not do the two together?

beautiful-1868725_1920

If you have a safe place to walk unobstructed, try doing your sutta reading practice while walking. It has lots of benefits:

  • Helps to overcome drowsiness.
  • Can keep you focused on the text.
  • It makes it more difficult to take notes if you find this a compulsive but unbeneficial habit.
  • Can be easily done outside.
  • If you are a student or any one who works at a desk, walking and reading may be seen as a welcome change of pace from your usual work.
  • It puts your reading practice into a new context.
  • When you have finished reading your text for the day, you can continue to do contemplation while walking.

Instructions:

  • Find an area free from distractions and dangers.
  • Pick a set path, don’t just wander around the house or yard. Back and forth, back and forth.

Cautions:

  • Make absolutely sure that your walking path is clear both on the ground and near your head

Related:

Living with the Sallekha Sutta: Effacement, Majjhima Nikāya 8

One by one, little by little,
moment by moment,
a wise man should remove his own impurities
as a smith removes the dross from silver.

Dhammapada verse 239
Translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita

Icon

Living with the Sallekha Sutta, MN 8 PDF Worksheet

One of the ways the suttas come alive is by working to overcome specific unwholesome character traits. For example, when we make a wholehearted commitment to examine greed in our lives, as we read the suttas that talk about greed will really stand out. When we are examining greed very personally, then the suttas that deal with greed also become very personal, very urgent. As we put these teachings into practice we gain confidence in the Blessed One’s Dhamma.

One sutta we can use to guide this practice is the Sallekha Sutta, number 8 from the Middle Length Discourses. It contains over forty unwholesome characteristics and their wholesome counterpart. The method is very straightforward. You pick some of the unwholesome characteristics to examine in your own life using the method spelled out in the sutta. As you come across other suttas that deal with the same unwholesome qualities you can add them into your reflection.

The instructions below are from a worksheet you can download and print out. In addition to being a summary of the Blessed One’s method for overcoming the unwholesome qualities, the worksheet acts as a tangible reminder of your process of examination.

1. After reading MN 8 Sallekha Sutta, choose three of the unwholesome qualities that you will examine in your life for the next three months. Fill in the blanks in each section taking the wording from the sutta. For easy reference, include the number from the sutta for each quality. This will also remind you that you have only taken a selection of qualities to work with.

2. Determine a time each day to do the reflections on these qualities using the method found in the sutta itself. Work with them in exactly the way that they are given in the sutta using each of the five methods reading the introduction to each section as well as the conclusion. At the beginning and at the end of each day may be most effective. You may also want to do this reflection before or after meditation. Place this worksheet in a conspicuous spot such as your pillow or meditation cushion so you are constantly reminded.

3. Once a week, read the entire sutta again so you do not loose touch with the fact that the Blessed One pointed out many unwholesome qualities to abandon and many wholesome qualities to cultivate.

4. As you actively and faithfully explore the teachings of the Blessed One in other texts, you will naturally pay special attention to teachings that relate to the wholesome qualities you are now trying to cultivate. Consider putting particularly helpful passages into your personal anthology.

5. At the end of the three month period, choose another three qualities to examine and begin the process again.

The excerpt of Sallekha Sutta in this worksheet from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2001. A translation of this sutta by Venerable Nyanaponika Thera can also be found on accesstoinsight.org. Verse numbers (indicated with the § symbol) are the same for both versions.

Icon

Living with the Sallekha Sutta, MN 8 PDF Worksheet

Majjhima Nikaya as a Daily Sutta Reading Practice

Majjhima Nikaya Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi Reading

If you have an interest in learning what the Blessed One taught and you can devote 20–30 minutes to daily sutta reading 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. A PDF is included so if you wanted to you could easily print it, although it is quite large.

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 not always 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.

End Notes

Whether or not you find the end notes 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.

Related: