Make a Sutta Reading Practice Plan

Sutta Reading PlanBy writing down our intentions to engage daily with the words of the Buddha, we increase our chances of success. And when we anticipate what obstacles we might face and strategize ways to overcome them, we can move forward with confidence.

Here are some things to consider when completing your form. Some of them may seem rather mundane and even against the spirit of sutta reading. Remember, If you are able to consistently engage with the teachings on a long-term basis without using any of these tips and tricks, wonderful! But most of us have difficulties along the way. Only apply the techniques that seem helpful after you try them out.

* verses; ** chapters
Pages Suttas
DN 435 34
MN (1029) 152
SN 1512
AN 1439
Khp 9
Dhp 26 **
Ud (98) 80
Itv (76) 112
Snp (127) 71
Vv 134 85
Pv 77 51
Thag 121 1288 *
Thig 64 524 *

Expected End date: Knowing that there is a specific date that we will be finished with the plan if we stay on track can keep us motivated to continue. If you are choosing to read a chapter a day or a certian number of pages per day or a chapter a day, then figuring out when you might finish is easy.

If your plan is to read a certian number of pages per day, simply use the table to the right and  dividede the total number of pages by  how many you will read each day. Then you can use the calculator on TimeAndDate.com to figure out when you will finish. For example, if you are going to read 10 pages of the Samyutta Nikaya each day, take 1512/10=151.2. Then use the calculator to figure out that if you start on June 25th you will finish around November 23rd. If you want to make a more complex calculation, say skipping weekends, use their business day calculator. If you are planning on reading for a fixed amount of time, keep track of how many pages you read for the first 10 days to figure out an approximate reading rate. Then work through the calculations.

Remember, these are just estimates. But here’s how it helps… A book like the Samyutta Nikaya can seem overwhelming. But the fact is, if you just read 10 pages per day, you will finish it in 151 days.

In the chart, numbers that are in brackets are less suitable for a reading plan. For example,  it is preferable to read the Udana and the Itivuttaka sutta by sutta because they are so short. Where a number is missing, it really doesn’t make sense to plan that way.

1.–2. Book, amount to read: Use the various articles on this site to choose a text—

3.–4. When to read and what to connect it to. If you can’t be 100% sure when you will do your reading, write down when you hope to read and when you will read if you miss that time. It’s also good if you can conect your reading to something else you are sure to do every day.

5. Choose a backup text. Deciding in advance what book to read if you are not able to work with your main text will ensure you always read at least some words of the Buddha

6. Expected problems. Think about all the things that may stand in the way of your reading. They could be practical things like an erratic schedule or purely internal things like doubt. You can also add to this list as you work with your text.

7. Ideas to overcome problems. Think up at least one way to deal with each problem. Some of these solutions may directly influence your plan. For example if you have a very erratic schedule, you may decide to do your reading before you get dressed each day to make sure that it always happens. Or you may decide to use the Don’t Break the Chain method, posting your calendar in a very visible place. If doubt is an issue, you could make a list of all the ways the Buddha’s teachings have helped you in the past and read through that list each day before reading. You should add to this section as problems occur. Write in the format “If X happens I will do Y.”

8. When you finish the text. It may seem like putting the horse before the cart, but knowing what you will do when you finish your book can improve your reading attitude and make sure that when you are done you don’t stop practicing.

After you complete the form, you will want to keep it visible. Post it on your wall or sit it next to where you plan on doing your reading each day. And don’t be afraid to re-evaluate it if things go off track. it is important to actually print out the form and complete it by hand in pencil so you can make adjustments. For example, if you aren’t able to read as many pages a day as you thought, then definitely recalculate! You may want to read the articles about the five P’s of sutta reading practice. Remember, Perfection is not one of them.

So, get started by clicking the download button at the top of this article.

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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.

Related Pages

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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Taking Notes While Practicing

Many people will have the urge to take notes while they are doing their sutta practice. This is not surprising. All our time in school is spent taking notes so we can do well on the test later. If you have especially strong connections between reading and collecting facts, with a sutta practice it is good to find a new way.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking notes we can ask ourselves, “Would I take notes while I am meditating?” “Would I take notes during a conversation with a new friend?” The answer is probably no.

In order to bring a more meditative and contemplative approach to reading the suttas, consider just reading. Don’t worry about collecting the important information. Important things repeat. Guaranteed. And even if something doesn’t repeat throughout the collection you are reading, part of the commitment is to read the collection at least twice through. Better to take a few minutes to repeat a passage in your head, even commit it to memory. Relate it to your own life. Think about all the ways you have already experienced this Dhamma to be true. It is through deeply engaging with the text while practicing that we build a personal relationship with the teachings.

If you really find that there are things you want to take notes on, consider flagging them during your session and once a week sit down and collect things into a notebook. This has nothing to do with being anti-intellectual. A clear grasp of all the important features and structure of the Dhamma is essential. But try to keep the note taking aspect as a separate project from your daily sutta practice.

Of course, we want to be sure to flag passages to include in our personal anthology. Even so, we want to stay with the text we are reading so we can take it in and not get distracted.