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 main 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 overcome any of those listed here? Share your experience in the comments below. Feel free to do so anonymously.

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Benefits of Having a Backup Text

Be prepared for times when reading your regular book of suttas is difficult.

The core of a daily sutta practice is working methodically through a single book of suttas from beginning to end. Sometimes, though, obstacles may arise that can be overcome by having a backup or alternate text.

A backup text is a second book of suttas, either a canonical collection or anthology, that we have chosen in advance. By choosing this text in advance, we already have a plan in place when we are at risk of missing our daily practice. Of course missing a day or two now and then is not such a big deal, but often external obstacles come many days in a row and internal obstacles remain unless we remove them.

Here are a few cases when a backup text may be helpful:

Time is scarce: If we have committed to reading a substantial amount of text each day, such as a sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya, there may be days when time is scarce. Rather than abandoning reading completely, or just reading part of a sutta, we can read a short passage from our backup text.

Schedule change: From time to time the irregularities of life may necessitate shifting the time of day that we do our sutta practice. If we usually practice in the morning, but have to get out of the house early on a particular day, we can use our backup text at the regular time to guarantee that we get some sutta practice in if plans don’t work out to reschedule the regular practice for later.

Travel: It is certainly possible to stick with our regular text when we travel, but if our schedule will be particularly busy, it may be more reasonable to switch to a text with shorter passages that are easier to digest. Travel presents us with all sorts of interesting experiences and gives the opportunity to find new ways to apply the Dhamma to our lives. There is no need to take a vacation from the suttas when you go on vacation.

Mood: Although we should not let our mood dictate whether we do our sutta practice, we may not have the skill or discipline in that moment to overcome our resistance. In cases like this, we may be able to trick ourselves into reading with the lure of something new and different, a.k.a. our backup text. Using our personal anthology is also a good option for situations like this. After having read a bit, we may even be able to arouse the energy to do our regular reading.

Aversion: Sometimes the hindrance of aversion may arise towards our main text. Ideally, we should work directly to overcome this hindrance through recollecting the benefits we have received from learning the Dhamma, what a rare opportunity we have to hear the Blessed One’s teaching, etc., etc. But if that is not successful, having a backup text to turn to in those situations will keep our practice on track. Again, this is a great time to use our personal anthology. When the aversion has passed, we can return to out main text with new eyes.

What makes a good backup text?

  • A canonical text with short and inspirational suttas is ideal, such as the Dhammapada or Itivuttaka. The Theragatha and Therigatha are also good because in these verses arahant monks and nuns often speak of their own difficulties in the training.
  • Chanting/pirit books that include translations of popular suttas also work well for several reasons: the texts are usually uplifting and we may have positive memories of using them when doing puja with others.
  • Any anthology that includes relatively short passages

Whatever you choose, it should be a book of suttas, not a regular book. It may be tempting to think that you need a “break” from suttas, but there is such a variety of material in the canon, it’s much more beneficial to try a different genre within the Sutta Pitaka.

Consider having a copy of your backup text on a mobile device. Often the situations when the backup text is necessary is when we are away from home, so if we have a text on a device we always have with us, we can be sure to have a text available when time does present itself.

Advantages/benefits of having a backup text:

  • Helps maintain continuity of practice
  • Removes the burden of decision-making when we are already presented with an unusual or stressful situation
  • Gives an opportunity for variety
  • There may be unexpected connections between the main text and the backup text. This often has an energizing effect.
  • If we are doing a practice with a big time commitment like a daily sutta from the Middle Length Discourses, we can maintain continuity of practice on days when time is scarce.

It’s still a good idea to move methodically from beginning to end of our backup text, just like we work through our main text. Then we can start again at the beginning when we finish.

Have you used a book of suttas as a backup text? How was it helpful? What did you use? You can leave your thoughts in the comments below. (anonymously if you prefer) Your feed back can help all of us in our practice.

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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.

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Sutta Practice Text Suggestions Based on Available Time

Minimal time commitment

10-60 seconds (including reflection time)

Medium time commitment

1-10 minutes (including reflection time) One Sutta Per Day or a fixed time length

Greater time commitment

15-30 minutes (including reflection time)

  • Majjhima Nikaya, One sutta per day, no more. You may want to first read suttas 21-30, then 11-20, then 1-10. You may want to consider repeating this cycle of the first 30 one or two times before continuing with the rest of the book. This will give you an excellent foundation for all other practice with the suttas. Consider using one of the shorter anthologies above as a backup plan for days when you have limited time for practice.

Personal Anthology

The Blessed One Is Talking to You: Making Your Personal Anthology

When we read the suttas faithfully, we are going to find passages that strongly resonate with us. We may get a feeling that the Buddha is speaking to us directly, seeing our defilements and giving the precise antidote to our disease of suffering. It is meant for us personally. Although these passages are beneficial to us the moment we encounter them, they will be most useful when our defilements are strongest. However, when our defilements are strong we may not be able to find them quickly. The solution is to create a personal anthology.

A personal anthology is not simply a collection of important suttas. It is your own personal medicine cabinet for your particular disease of suffering. By collecting the suttas that you consider best address your strongest defilements, and having them in one handy location, you will be able to easily find the Dhamma medicine when you need it the most.

For example, you may be strongly prone to anger. One day you may read the following verse from the Saṁyutta Nikaya:

The killing of anger, O devatā,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:
This is the killing the noble ones praise.

SN 1:71*

You may immediately feel this describes your experience of anger. Anger sometimes has a certain sweetness, doesn’t it? But at its root it is highly poisonous. When you encounter the passage, you may relate it to anger that you have experienced in the past. By including this passage in your personal anthology, when you become angry you can quickly consult it when you need it most. Eventually you may be able to instantly recall the complete passage, but until then your personal anthology will have your cure.

How to create a personal anthology

Find a small blank book. It does not need to be very large. A pocket sized book is easy to keep with you when you travel. Use this book solely to record the suttas.

Only copy the text of the sutta. Do not add your own comments or reflections. You may have powerful insights from the text—which is good—but you need not record these here. If your insights are authentic, you do not need to record them. When we go to these texts in a time of trouble, we want to consult the direct words of the Blessed One without our own interpretation or reflections. Allow the Buddha to speak directly to you each time. If you really want to keep track of your thoughts, consider creating a study notebook.

It is not necessary to copy an entire sutta. You can write down the passages that conveys the essence of the teaching. At the same time, remember that the teachings are always contextual and thus recording some of the background narrative may be helpful. When a repetitive analysis is given for a list of items, such as the five aggregates, you may want to abbreviate it in the way commonly done in published editions. Alternatively, if you find the passage especially helpful you may want to recreate all the repetitions in full so you can use it directly as an aid to contemplation.

Always include the citation of the sutta, whether you include the entire text or just an excerpt. This will allow you to find the original easily whenever you need to. You may even want to note the name of the translator. This is helpful when sharing the merit of the benefit you receive from reading the text.

What kind of suttas to collect

There are several types of relationships you may have with a text. There are some passages where you will have a clear and almost uncanny sense that the Supreme Buddha is giving this teaching to you personally. One of the marvels of the Buddha is that he was able to present the teaching in different ways for different people based on their temperament and social background. Although the Buddha is not physically present with us now, we have an excellent record of these thousands of teachings. While we are reading we must keep in mind this personal nature of the suttas.

One of the main reasons these suttas feel so personal to us is that they act as an antidote to our defilements. Although the roots of our defilements are the same, they may manifest in different ways for each of us. This is why some suttas may resonate strongly with one person but not with another. It is not important to figure out why. It is enough to recognize what suttas really act as a medicine for our own ailment of suffering. Also bear in mind that every single teaching of the Supreme Buddha conveys Dhamma that will liberate some people from suffering. When we recognize this, we will not select suttas for recording with a critical view of those that are less relevant to us in our present conditions.

There are some suttas that we may simply find uplifting regardless of their immediate relevance to our inner struggles. For example, a particular simile may give you clear insight into a subject and leave your mind feeling calm and cool. These are suttas that you will surely want to collect in your anthology.

How to use your personal anthology

Use your personal anthology when you feel distressed. Use it to see more clearly your defilements, which may appear in diverse forms. Think first of the five hindrances. When you are overcome by greed. When you are overcome by ill will. When you are feeling tired and lazy. When you are agitated. And, especially, when you have doubts about the teachings. The Buddha did not tell us to simply put up with these mental states. He wanted us to overcome them, and he gave us specific tools to deal with them. Once you compile a collection of texts, you will be able to take this Dhamma medicine. If you cannot stir up energy on your own, read the Buddha’s words. Reading something so true and clear will wake you up to reality.

By habitually going to the Blessed One’s instructions in times of difficulty, you will develop confidence in the Dhamma, and the suttas will become an integral part of your life.

  • Step One: Read the Buddha’s discourses.
  • Step Two: Add the ones you find most helpful to your anthology.
  • Step Three: Use these suttas as aids when defilements arise.

Personal Anthology article as a pamphlet

* “The killing of anger, O devatā,…” is from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2000.

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