- Pragmatic Practice
- Possible Practice
- Patient Practice
- Persistent Practice
- 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 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.