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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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 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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When deciding how long to commit to practicing each day, it is important to remember that there is value whatever time you spend each day. The effectiveness comes in having the right attitude and consistent daily contact with the teachings. Even if you were only to read a single verse from the Dhammapadaevery day for the rest of your life, the benefits would be enormous. If you were to read a whole sutta from the Digha Nikaya only once and a while and do it very quickly without reflecting — not so much benefit there.
There are two related factors in deciding how much to practice each day
how much of the text you will read each day
how much time you will spend doing this
Several texts lend themselves to the one-sutta-per-day or one-chapter-per-day method. This is because they tend to be of a consistent length. If you are just beginning to practice with the suttas, these are good because they provide an inherent structure to the practice: one a day, no more, no less.
Some texts are a bit more variable in terms of sutta length. For these collections you may want to have a more flexible amount to read and instead determine a fixed amount of time for reading. Another option is to read a fixed number of pages. Don’t overload on several short suttas, though.
Consider using a timer. This is especially beneficial if you tend to get distracted easily. If you are not in the habit of taking time to reflect on what you read, blocking in time like this can add structure to something that can otherwise be quite formless.
No matter how much you choose to commit to reading each day, or how much time you commit to spend, keep the following things in mind:
Don’t read too quickly.
Pause and reflect on how you have found this teaching to be true in your life.
Reflect on the benefits of keeping this teaching in mind throughout your day.
Overcome the hindrances. If you find yourself spacing out, re-read what you missed. If you are sleepy, stand up and read. If you aren’t feeling motivated or having doubts, read something from your personal anthology instead.
If you miss a day or two, just pick back up where you left off.
If you are running short on time and you don’t have time for your regular reading practice, read from a very short text like the Dhammapada, or simply take a moment to reflect on something useful you have read in the past and resolve to pick up with your regular practice the next day. Remember, having some contact each day is most important.
Non-repetition is the bane of scriptures;
neglect is the bane of a home;
slovenliness is the bane of personal appearance,
and heedlessness is the bane of a guard.
Dhp 241, translated by Achariya Buddharakhitta
Coming to the end of your first book of suttas will likely give you a sense of accomplishment. In fact, you have accomplished a great deal, exposing yourself to the direct teachings of the Blessed One, bringing his wisdom into your daily life. At the same time we cannot think that our work with the text is done. Not by any means.
There is great value in reading through a book at least a second time in the same way, a little bit each day. Don’t hesitate to do this. Begin again with the first sutta the very next day.
The benefits of doing this are many:
You will understand things that you did not the first time you read. Concepts will begin to click.
You will see things that you did not pay attention to the first time.
You will gain a stronger sense of what texts are in the book and easily find them in the future
Having seen the truth of the teachings in your life from the first exposure, they will go more deeply to the heart on the second reading.
Because of the above benefits, your hindrances to reading and understanding will be less than they were the first time.
The second read is when you really begin to establish yourself in the collection. When you read a passage in your second round that you found very helpful in the first, it will immediately bring happiness and will strengthen the application of that teaching in your life. To build a relationship with the texts, repetition is essential.
As you come to the end of your text, you may find some excitement around the idea of reading something new. Now that you feel comfortable reading the suttas you may realize that there is a vast world of sutta possibilities awaiting you. Because of this greater confidence, you may be able to commit to a longer practice period. So start again with the same book and if you like add a passage each day from a second text. If you have time, you could read a sutta per day from the Middle Length Discourses. If not, you could easily do a Dhammapada chapter per day. Or perhaps a passage from an anthology. But in any case, stick with your original text at least for one more complete reading.
How well did you stick to your commitment to read every single day? If you found yourself missing days, on your second round, strengthen your commitment to read every single day by using the Don’t Break the Chain method. Now that you see the value in bringing the suttas into your life, this commitment will be easier.