Troubleshooting Your Personal Anthology

Creating a Personal Anthology is extremely simple, but there are still some places we can go wrong. If this happens our Anthology may be less effective. Below are some common problems and suggestions for solving them.

As a reminder, this is the basic method:

  1. Read the suttas on a regular basis taking them to heart as personal advice.
  2. When you find a passage that speaks directly to your defilements or is personally very inspiring, copy it into your Personal Anthology.
  3. In daily life, when the defilements are strong, read the suttas in your Personal Anthology as an antidote.

If you haven’t read the full article in a while, you might want to start there.

Problem: Feeling obligated to fill the book

No where in the instructions is there anything about needing to add a certain number of passages per week or fill all the pages. One passage of Dhamma can be enough to wake us up. Of course it’s unlikely that you will only have one passage, but keeping this in mind will prevent the Personal Anthology from becoming a chore or an obligation. It only matters that we capture passage when we find them.

Problem: Putting passages in that you consider important in a general sense

Truly, all the suttas are important. If the goal was to collect important suttas, then we could simply buy a complete canon and be done. You may very well want to keep a Dhamma notebook where you copy passages of doctrinal importance. No question, that is beneficial. But the principle behind the personal anthology is that there are some passages that take our breath away, touching us deeply. Passages that describe our defilements very intimately. Those are the ones we collect in the Personal Anthology. Then when our defilements are strong, we can read teachings that describes them perfectly and tells us how to remove them—this is the way we can not only overcome them but at the same time develop confidence in the Blessed One’s teachings.

Problem: Not keeping these passages in their own small book

Related to the above issue, if you are collecting these personal passages along with other Dhamma notes, it will be that much harder to find them when the need arises. And if you are traveling or on a retreat, it is less likely that you will take them with you if they are integrated into your main study notebook.

If you are resistant to putting them in their own book, or you haven’t started a book at all yet, you might want to give the quick start method a try.

Problem: Too many less powerful suttas

If you are falling into the attitude of feeling obligated to fill your Anthology, there is a chance that you may start to include too many suttas that you may simply like or find somewhat interesting. It’s good to capture them somewhere, but the idea behind the Personal Anthology is to have a ready collection of suttas that you connect with most deeply.

Problem: Thinking of your Personal Anthology as a project instead of a resource

Some people think of the Personal Anthology as a journal or a project that is going to take up time on a regular basis. This is not the case. It’s possible that you will only add a passage every few months, if that. Remember, it’s not the number of passages that matters, but that we choose them wisely and read them when the need arises.

Problem: Not reading the suttas with an eye for passages to include

If we are not habitually reading the suttas as personal advice from our fully enlightened teacher, it is unlikely that we will find the correct kinds of passages to include in our Anthology. By doing self-examination practices, such as those in the Sallekha Sutta (MN 8) we can gain a greater awareness of our predominant defilements. Then when the Buddha talks about those particular issues as we read the suttas we are more likely to take them to heart and want to contact them again and again.

Problem: Not using it

The last and most important step of maintaining a Personal Anthology is actually reading it when the need arises. This requires that we actually have the awareness of the arising of defilements and remember that we have the Buddha’s instructions available to overcome them.

Have you had problems creating your personal anthology? Have you vercome any of those listed here? Share your experience in the comments below. Feel free to do so anonymously.

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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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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

  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 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.

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.

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 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 do understand into practice, our wisdom and faith will grow. If we are patient, 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.

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.

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Should you take notes during sutta practice?

People often wonder if they should be taking notes while they read the suttas. When doing a sutta practice, we want to make sure that our focus stays on the sutta itself and taking it in to our minds and hearts directly. A new page gives some thoughts on how to handle note taking and your sutta practice.

How To: Using an Anthology for Daily 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.

You can also print out the small version of the Finding Your Way in the Sutta Pitaka chart so you can get a sense of the organization of the canon as you learn the citations.

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

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