If you are going to use the ebook edition for a daily sutta reading practice, you may want to use a checklist to keep track and have a physical reminder of what you have read. You can download checklists here.
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
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.
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.
This is a quick guide to the Sutta Pitaka as it relates to daily sutta reading practice. You may also want to consult the articles on choosing a text based on your current experience level and time commitment. The list below follows the traditional organization of the canon. See the sources page for information on how to obtain these books, as well as the page Building a Sutta Library. Because it is recommended that we use a printed book for sutta practice, only print books, downloadable PDFs, and some Kindle documents are mentioned. This is not meant to be a comprehensive bibliography. You may want to consult the glossary for unfamiliar terms.
All of the books below contain introductions and/or notes that will allow you to approach the text directly even without much knowledge of Buddhism.
Dīgha Nikāya, Long Discourses (D or DN): Contains 34 suttas that range in length from 5 to 47 pages. Many suttas are readily accessible to a newcomer and many are quite deep and detailed. In terms of a daily sutta practice, this text may be best suited to someone who is already familiar with one of the other nikāyas. Published books:
The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya by Maurice Walsh, Wisdom Publications. Complete text.
Found in Handful of Leaves Volume 1, translated by Ajahn Thanissaro. This anthology contains complete translations of eight suttas, and partial translations of two. Print copies from Metta Forest Monastery. Download E-books from DhammaTalks.org.
Majjhima Nikāya, Middle Length Discourses(M or MN): Contains 152 suttas, most from 5 to 10 pages. This is an excellent text for a newcomer or an experienced practitioner. It is perfectly suited for a one-sutta-per-day practice, about 15-25 minutes each day. For more details, see Majjhima Nikaya as a Daily Practice. Published books:
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications. Complete text.
Found in Handful of Leaves Volume 2, translated by Ajahn Ṭhanissaro. Contains 76 suttas from the Majjhima Nikāya. Print copies from Metta Forest Monastery. Download E-books from DhammaTalks.org.
Saṁyutta Nikaya, Connected Discourses(S or SN): Contains thousands of short suttas grouped by topic. There is a wide variety of genres in this collection: verse, prose, questions and answers, stories, doctrinal analysis, similes, etc. Because most of the suttas are short, if one reads one sutta a day, it may require several years to complete this collection. Instead, a fixed reading time may be more appropriate, say from 10-30 minutes per day. If you have the patience and background to move through long series of analytical suttas, this text would work for a beginner, but it may be better suited to someone already familiar with one of the other nikāyas. If you are using this as your first text for practice, you may want to consider using the Handful of Leaves edition. Published books:
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications. Complete text.
Handful of Leaves Volume 3, translated by Ajahn Ṭhanissaro. Contains 370 suttas from the Saṁyutta Nikāya. Print copies from Metta Forest Monastery. Download E-books from DhammaTalks.org.
Aṅguttara Nikāya, Numerical Discourses(A or AN): Contains thousands of suttas mostly one or two pages long. The suttas are grouped by the number of items around which the exposition revolves. For instance, suttas that cover three items are grouped in the Book of Threes; suttas that cover four items are grouped in the Book of Fours, etc. This collection contains lots of rich advice for practice in daily life. The suttas are generally well suited for a newcomer, especially if you use an anthology. If your time to read is limited, this collection would be well suited for a one-sutta-per-day practice. Otherwise you can read from it for a set amount of time each day. Published books:
The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications. Complete text. Download an index of the English titles here.
Handful of Leaves Volume 3, translated by Ajahn Ṭhanissaro. Contains a collection of 333 suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Print copies from Metta Forest Monastery. Download E-books from DhammaTalks.org.
Khudhaka Nikāya, Short Books: This nikāya is a group of smaller autonomous books, explained individually below. These texts are all good to use for daily practice. You may want to choose one to use as a backup text if you are doing a more involved practice with one of the Nikayas listed above.
Khuddakapāṭha (Khp): This is a collection of 10 suttas. Important to read but perhaps not long enough on which to base a daily practice. Published books:
The Short Readings (Khuddakapāṭha, Khuddakanikāya 1), Translated by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu. Download from ancient-buddhist-texts.net in English (65kb) or Pāḷi and English (146kb). Look for the download link. Complete text. Complete audio recording available.
Khuddakapatha: Short Passages, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Complete Collection. Available from the Metta Forest Monastery as part of the Sutta Nipata publication. Download e-book from DhammaTalks.org.
Dhammapada (Dhp): This is a collection of 423 short verses, grouped into 26 chapters. This is an excellent text for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike. It takes about 4 minutes to read one chapter so it is well suited to someone with a short amount of time available. Even just reading a single verse each day will instill your life with the Blessed One’s wisdom. It is also a good secondary/backup practice text. Be sure to find a translation that is made in line with the tradition that you are practicing. Recommendations for Theravada practitioners are found below. All are complete texts.
Itivuttaka (Itv): This collection contains 112 suttas of prose followed by verse. Most suttas are two pages or less. This is an excellent text for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike. Good for a short one-sutta-per-day practice. It is also a good secondary practice text. If you are new to the sutta, you may want to start with chapter two, read to the end, and then read chapter one. Published Books
The Udāna and the Itivuttaka, Two Classics from the Pali Canon, translated by John D. Ireland, Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) Complete text.
Itivuttaka: This was said by the Buddha, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (revised Jan. 17, 2017) Complete text. Print copies from Metta Forest Monastery. Download E-books from DhammaTalks.org.
Sutta Nipāta (Sn or Snp): Seventy one sets of verses, sometimes preceded by a prose story. Many of these suttas will be easily accessible to the newcomer; many of them are deep and profound. To use as a daily practice this collection may be better suited to someone with a background in the concepts of Theravada Buddhism. Good for a one-sutta-per-day practice. With this text especially, expect to spend some time in contemplation. Published Books:
The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications. Complete text. This edition also contains a translation of the ancient commentary. (This actually take up the majority of the book.)
The Rhinoceros Horn and Other Early Buddhist Poems (Sutta Nipāta), translated by K. R. Norman, with alternative translations by I. B. Horner and Ven. Walapola Rahula, Pali Text Society. Paperback edition available. Complete text.
Vimānavatthu (Vv) and Petavatthu (Pv): Stories of devata mansions and ghosts. Would be a good text for practice by someone with knowledge of Theravada concepts. Published Books:
Stories of Heavenly Mansions from the Vimanavatthu. Mahamegha. This is a new translation in very simple modern language. Available in print and Kindle. Complete Translation.
Stories of Ghosts from the Petavatthu. Mahamegha. This is a new translation in very simple modern language. Available in print and Kindle. Complete Translation.
Minor Anthologies Vol. IV : Vimānavatthu (Stories of the Mansions) and Petavatthu (Stories of the Departed). This is a single volume of both books. ISBN 13: 978-086013073-4 Published by the Pali Text Society. The translation is quite readable. Complete translation including excerpts from the commentary. This translation is closer to the Pali than the two listed above.
Theragāthā (Thag) and Therīgāthā (Thīg): Verses of Arahant Bhikkhus and Bhikkhuṇis. Two excellent collections for practice. The ultimate source for inspiration and reminder of the goal of the practice. Just reading a few verses a day can be beneficial. Consider reading a few verses each day as a supplement to any practice. Published Books:
Poems of the Elders: An Anthology from the Theragatha & Therigatha, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (revised Jan. 17, 2017) Anthology. Print version vailable from Metta Forest Monastery. E-book from Dhammatalks.org.
Jataka (J): The canonical part of this collection are only verses. What are commonly known as the Jataka stories are actually the commentary stories behind them.
The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, edited by E. W. Cowell. This is the only complete translation into English. You can download e-book versions here.
Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology, by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki. Although this is just an anthology, it contains all of the major stories and most of the others.