Suttas are the Buddhist scriptures that contain the teachings of the fully enlightened Buddha, Sidhatta Gotama. Theses suttas have been faithfully passed down to us over 2,500 years and are now available translated into very clear, modern English. There are many different styles of suttas, such as sermons, verses (poems), sermons mixed with verses, detailed analyses, inspired utterances, sayings, birth stories, questions and answers, and marvels. The suttas are grouped into books called nikayas. The entire collection of these scriptures is called the Sutta Pitaka.
If you want to learn what the Buddha taught, the suttas are the place to start. You can make the beauty and wisdom of these ancient scriptures a part of your every day life through a daily sutta reading practice. The truth of these teachings can be applied directly to our lives and help to remove suffering in this life as well as put an end to this long cycle of birth and death.
Sadly, many of the sayings attributed to the Buddha that we find on the internet are either completely fake or inaccurate. A true quote from the Buddha will usually have a citation with a book abbreviation and a sutta or verse number, such as SN 56:11 or Dhp 20. When we see a citation like this we know where we can find the original and check to see that it is accurate.
Very rarely in this world a fully enlightened teacher appears for the welfare of all beings. We are very fortunate to be living in a time when the words of a fully enlightened Buddha are available to us in the Sutta Pitaka.
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.
When we keep certain principles in mind as we read the suttas, we are sure to succeed on our path of practice and understanding.
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 real life 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. As we come across these teachings that have a lot of meaning to us personally, we can collect them in a personal anthology.
If our exploration of the suttas becomes too theoretical, we can spiral into a pit of doubt. This is because so many of the aspects of the Dhamma that are beyond our personal experience are just that: beyond our experience. We don’t have the same wisdom and knowledge as the Buddha. Rather than focus on things beyond our ability, we can focus on those things we can practice right away.
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. If you are new, start with that.
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 we need 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 can understand into practice, our wisdom and faith will grow. If we are patient, deeper 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. This is probably the time when we need the teachings the most. Choose a backup text to read if time is tight or if our interest in our main text is fading. If we need inspiration, we can read from our personal anthology.
If we realize that we have fallen away from our daily reading, we can evaluate what might have gone wrong in a non-judgemental way. Did we bite off more than we could chew? Did our daily routine change and our reading time became impractical? Were we discouraged by not understanding everything we read? Figure out what went wrong and develop a new plan and see how it goes.
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, either rereading the same book or starting on a new one.
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.
Originally the Buddha’s teachings were preserved orally by monks trained in memorization. Listening to recordings of the suttas can put us back in touch with this tradition. Repetitions that are seem unnecessary in print come to life when read aloud. These are resources for free audio book recordings of the suttas. If you know of more, post them in the comments below.
The publishing house for Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monasteries, Mahamegha, has several audio books from the Khuddakanikaya, including The Dhammapada, Therigatha, Vimanavatthu, and Petavattuh. Links to free editions can be found on the main monastery website.
Paliaudio.com has professionally recorded readings of English sutta translations (despite the word Pali in the name) for free download. Translations are by a variety of authors including Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Sujato, and Rupert Gethin.
SuttaReadings.net has dozens of suttas read by monastics and lay teachers. Although there is no new content being added to the site, the recording quality is very high.
Attitude: Humility and patience will help you build confidence (saddhā) which is essential. Do not expect to grasp the meaning of a sutta right away. Continue your engagement regardless of your initial reaction. Eventually you will be able to understand all of the suttas. There will be plenty of suttas that are immediately accessible. Approach the text as a spiritual document. Do not have in mind to collect facts and information or find fault. What is important will naturally go to the heart.
Hindrances: You must actively work to remove the hindrances to sutta practice just as you do for your meditation practice. For example, if drowsiness or doubt are present it will naturally not be possible for the meaning to go to our heart. If you blame the sutta for your hindrances there is no solution to the problem. If you see the hindrances as your own, then a solution is possible.
Physicality: Have a dedicated space used for sutta practice, ideally at your place of meditation if you have one. Keep the book you are working with either on a small stool next to your meditation cushion or in a special place dedicated to the book.
Personal Anthology: Make your own personal collection of suttas that speaks most directly to your defilements. By doing this even if your daily practices becomes non-daily, you will still have something to work with when needed. On a day when the hindrances and defilements are particularly strong, you may want to substitute reading from your personal anthology for your regular text.
Don’t use practice time for reading the general introductions in the book, just as you would not substitute reading a book about meditation for your daily meditation practice.