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Reading the sutras

KeromeKerome Love, love is mysteryThe Continent Veteran
edited April 30 in Buddhism Today

So after a long period of learning about Buddhism from various books, dhamma talks, magazine articles and so on, I’ve decided to peruse the sources more closely, and have started reading through AccessToInsight’s translated sutras one at a time. More or less at random I have started with the Majjhima Nikaya, just a couple of sutra’s a day.

And I was wondering if others have tried this approach, and have something to say about the method. Is it worthwhile to try and remember the sutras? I doubt whether my memory is up to the task. Should I reflect on each individual Sutra in meditation? It seems difficult to do that because of the length...

Comments

  • BunksBunks Australia Veteran

    Hey @Kerome - I have attempted to read the suttas alone before but generally fail miserably!

    Hard to find a group to study them with but that’s the way to go if you can I think.

    Another good resource for you:

    https://suttacentral.net

    There are also a number of other commentaries online you may find useful:

    http://www.leighb.com/studymn.htm

    https://bodhimonastery.org/a-systematic-study-of-the-majjhima-nikaya.html

    Good luck!

    Kerome
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    @Kerome said:
    So after a long period of learning about Buddhism from various books, dhamma talks, magazine articles and so on, I’ve decided to peruse the sources more closely, and have started reading through AccessToInsight’s translated sutras one at a time. More or less at random I have started with the Majjhima Nikaya, just a couple of sutra’s a day.

    And I was wondering if others have tried this approach, and have something to say about the method. Is it worthwhile to try and remember the sutras? I doubt whether my memory is up to the task. Should I reflect on each individual Sutra in meditation? It seems difficult to do that because of the length...

    When I first became interested in Buddhism, it was through meditation at a local temple. My knowledge of the teachings came mostly from the daily chanting we did. After that, I got curious about the teachings themselves and bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya and found it worth the effort to read. Suttas can be long, repetitive, mostly directed at monastics, and sometimes boring. But keep at it. Read a few and reflect on them, then read a few more. Focus on the ones that really seem to make an impact. There's a lot of knowledge there, and some of it will definitely sink in.

    lobsterKerome
  • DakiniDakini Veteran

    @Jason said:

    When I first became interested in Buddhism, it was through meditation at a local temple. My knowledge of the teachings came mostly from the daily chanting we did. After that, I got curious about the teachings themselves and bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya and found it worth the effort to read. Suttas can be long, repetitive, mostly directed at monastics, and sometimes boring. But keep at it. Read a few and reflect on them, then read a few more. Focus on the ones that really seem to make an impact. There's a lot of knowledge there, and some of it will definitely sink in.

    This is helpful, Jason. I've been wondering, myself, if it would be too overwhelming a task to try to tackle the sutras on my own. I think there's a lot of dry material there, but there are also some very important teachings, that can come up unexpectedly. I've learned a lot just from hanging around on NB a few years, and picking up on sutra quotes and related discussions. There's much to be learned by going to the source, but you have to accept the fact that some of the reading will be dry.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    @Dakini said:

    @Jason said:

    When I first became interested in Buddhism, it was through meditation at a local temple. My knowledge of the teachings came mostly from the daily chanting we did. After that, I got curious about the teachings themselves and bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya and found it worth the effort to read. Suttas can be long, repetitive, mostly directed at monastics, and sometimes boring. But keep at it. Read a few and reflect on them, then read a few more. Focus on the ones that really seem to make an impact. There's a lot of knowledge there, and some of it will definitely sink in.

    This is helpful, Jason. I've been wondering, myself, if it would be too overwhelming a task to try to tackle the sutras on my own. I think there's a lot of dry material there, but there are also some very important teachings, that can come up unexpectedly. I've learned a lot just from hanging around on NB a few years, and picking up on sutra quotes and related discussions. There's much to be learned by going to the source, but you have to accept the fact that some of the reading will be dry.

    Another thing about the suttas I discovered is that there's a lot of humour in them as well. The Buddha was an expert at word play, especially puns (which don't always translate well into English), and many of these were in reference to passages from the Vedas and Upanishads. Much of this was apparently lost on later Buddhist commentators, but has since been rediscovered by modern scholarship and textual analysis.

    lobsterKerome
  • Lee82Lee82 Veteran

    There are so many of them! I think A2I has some 'guided' reading that gives some sort of order if you search it out. I'm not sure the translations on the site are the most modern or exciting but it's hit and miss whether you take benefit from randomly selected suttas.

    I'd welcome some sort of sutta discussion club on here. I know there have been similar things before that fell by the way side for one reason or another. I quite like the "modern translation" books you can find on Amazon that are less dry with more modern language.

    Kerome
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    It is, I daresay, for those wishing to adhere as closely as possible, not only to the original text, but its intention and meaning, a difficult thing to balance. Making it easily digestible without adulterating the original lesson must be very hard.
    I remember when I was a student at a Catholic Convent, that one of the nuns literally shuddered at the modern version of a verse which originally read:

    "Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven."

    The 'new updated' version - mercifully never put into general circulation - ran:

    "So Jesus told his mates, "honestly fellas, it's really hard for someone with loads of money to go through the Pearly Gates".
    Thank goodness the text was rejected - !

    Bunks
  • Lee82Lee82 Veteran

    Yes @federica I can imagine that wouldn't go down to well.

    I was thinking more along the lines of books by well respected Buddhist practitioners and academics that stay true to the original text but use more modern terminology. English language has changed a lot even in the last 50 years and older texts are often harder to read or don't flow as well.

    OT but I tried to find a version of Dante's Inferno to read earlier this year and there's loads of them, all very different. I couldn't decide on one and still haven't read it.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited May 1

    As far as intros go, Bhikkhu Bodhi has a decent one called In the Buddha's Words. Access to Insight has a number of them too, such as this one. They also have a number of topic-specific study guides, as well.

    BunksBuddhadragonKerome
  • BuddhadragonBuddhadragon Carpe Diem Samsara Veteran
    edited May 1

    The problem I have found when tackling the suttas is that different traditions have different suttas that they deem important, and the literature that applies to one school helps you little with others, @Kerome.

    I began very slowly with Bikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Majjhima Nikaya because I was told it was the best selection for laypeople and the one that covers the widest themes.

    Yet, Mahayana, Pure Land, Chan or Zen have very different selections of suttas and the Theravada are but a tiny portion of the rich spectrum of Buddhism.

    I have found that compilations are very helpful to cover more ground.

    Nyanatiloka Thero's "The word of the Buddha," Henry Clarke Warren's "Buddhism in Translations," F.L. Woodward's "Some Sayings of the Buddha" and Ananda Coomaraswamy's "Gotama the Buddha" are excellent for the Theravada tradition.

    Christmas Humphreys' "The Wisdom of Buddhism," Dwight Goddard's "A Buddhist Bible" and Edward Conze's "Buddhism through the Ages" aim to be more comprehensive, including suttas and explanations of most Buddhist schools.

    And when all else fails, I have found that the Dhammapada and the Sutta Nipata are the most representative books of the Buddha's philosophy.
    Though a bit dated, I have Max Müller's "Dhammapada" and Fausböll's "Sutta Nipata" in one volume, and it is the one I carry with me everywhere.

    The Chinese Dhammapada is more comprehensive -and rather different- to the traditional version.
    The only translation I know was published in the 1870s by Samuel Beal ("Texts from the Buddhist Canon or Chinese Dhammapada"), but there could be others.
    I like it because it includes stories and background information that is not included in the Theravada Dhammapada.

    lobsterKerome
  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited May 1

    @Jason said:
    Another thing about the suttas I discovered is that there's a lot of humour in them as well. The Buddha was an expert at word play, especially puns (which don't always translate well into English), and many of these were in reference to passages from the Vedas and Upanishads. Much of this was apparently lost on later Buddhist commentators, but has since been rediscovered by modern scholarship and textual analysis.

    Oh, THIS explains why Stephen Batchelor says that the Buddha tended to take Vedic/Hindu concepts, and turn them upside down, or give them a completely different meaning! Some of this must have been what got his attention! That's fascinating! Too bad I'm not fluent in Sanskrit--I'd love to be able to enjoy that! Thanks for this insight! :)

    lobster
  • BuddhadragonBuddhadragon Carpe Diem Samsara Veteran

    @Jason said:
    Another thing about the suttas I discovered is that there's a lot of humour in them as well. The Buddha was an expert at word play, especially puns (which don't always translate well into English), and many of these were in reference to passages from the Vedas and Upanishads. Much of this was apparently lost on later Buddhist commentators, but has since been rediscovered by modern scholarship and textual analysis.

    In late 19th century and early 20th century translations, academics such as Rhys-Davids, Burnouf, Max Müller or Samuel Beal were surprisingly very painstaking in their explanations of images and puns.
    They have very interesting footnotes, though translations now strike as dry and dated.

    Keromelobster
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    @Buddhadragon said:

    @Jason said:
    Another thing about the suttas I discovered is that there's a lot of humour in them as well. The Buddha was an expert at word play, especially puns (which don't always translate well into English), and many of these were in reference to passages from the Vedas and Upanishads. Much of this was apparently lost on later Buddhist commentators, but has since been rediscovered by modern scholarship and textual analysis.

    In late 19th century and early 20th century translations, academics such as Rhys-Davids, Burnouf, Max Müller or Samuel Beal were surprisingly very painstaking in their explanations of images and puns.
    They have very interesting footnotes, though translations now strike as dry and dated.

    Yeah, I think that was one of the positives of Buddhism coming to the west. For whatever reason, Buddhists began to become very sectarian, and they lost a lot of perspective in their quest for ultimate right view vis a vis the traditions they were competing against. And when western commentators came onto the scene who were interested in Asian philosophy in general and started translating these texts into English, they could begin to see these connections. While they are dry, I often enjoy the notes of translators like Bodhi et all who occasionally argue with ancient commentaries on the meaning of certain words by reconnecting them to their roots and showing the Buddha's subtle genius in redefining them or giving them new meanings, as well in his introduction of new ideas, such as dependent co-arising.

    KeromelobsterBuddhadragon
  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    @Jason said:
    Access to Insight has a number of them (intros) too, such as this one. They also have a number of topic-specific study guides, as well.

    This is actually really interesting, I hadn’t spotted these before. It’s making me wonder whether instead of my current project of making my way through the Majjhima Nikaya one sutra at a time I might not be better off just doing the intro and the study guides, one-by-one. It sounds a little more achievable and less likely to miss important high points.

    Thanks for the tips, everybody! :) :3

    lobsterBuddhadragon
  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    A beautiful story...

    Then the Blessed One, having encompassed the awareness of the entire assembly with his awareness, asked himself, "Now who here is capable of understanding the Dhamma?" He saw Suppabuddha the leper sitting in the assembly, and on seeing him the thought occurred to him, "This person here is capable of understanding the Dhamma." So, aiming at Suppabuddha the leper, he gave a step-by-step talk, i.e., a talk on giving, a talk on virtue, a talk on heaven; he declared the drawbacks, degradation, & corruption of sensual passions, and the rewards of renunciation. Then when he saw that Suppabuddha the leper's mind was ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated, & bright, he then gave the Dhamma-talk peculiar to Awakened Ones, i.e., stress, origination, cessation, & path. And just as a clean cloth, free of stains, would properly absorb a dye, in the same way, as Suppabuddha the leper was sitting in that very seat, the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye arose within him, "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."

    — Ud 5.3

    Interesting how even a leper can find the dhamma...

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    I might not be better off just doing the intro and the study guides, one-by-one.

    Just the beginning of the intro is giving me considerable new material to chew on, in terms the consequences of sensuality and the arousal of dispassion. I get the feeling I might be revisiting this material a few times.

  • TsultrimTsultrim Hawaii Veteran

    @Kerome said:

    A beautiful story...

    Then the Blessed One, having encompassed the awareness of the entire assembly with his awareness, asked himself, "Now who here is capable of understanding the Dhamma?" He saw Suppabuddha the leper sitting in the assembly, and on seeing him the thought occurred to him, "This person here is capable of understanding the Dhamma." So, aiming at Suppabuddha the leper, he gave a step-by-step talk, i.e., a talk on giving, a talk on virtue, a talk on heaven; he declared the drawbacks, degradation, & corruption of sensual passions, and the rewards of renunciation. Then when he saw that Suppabuddha the leper's mind was ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated, & bright, he then gave the Dhamma-talk peculiar to Awakened Ones, i.e., stress, origination, cessation, & path. And just as a clean cloth, free of stains, would properly absorb a dye, in the same way, as Suppabuddha the leper was sitting in that very seat, the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye arose within him, "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."

    — Ud 5.3

    Interesting how even a leper can find the dhamma...

    To me and i believe the Buddha, the leper was especially suited to hear and experience the Dharma. He had the great advantage of being a leper with all the psychological and physical suffering that entails, and that suffering and the insight it brings made him a perfect candidate for the Dharma. How wonderful he and the Buddha met.
    Great spiritual beings understand the suffering of lepers. Christ healed a leper who became instrumental in spreading the word about him.
    Thank you for the story. I hope you find more.

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    The benefits of generosity...

    "Without abandoning these five qualities, one is incapable of entering & remaining in the first jhana... the second jhana... the third jhana... the fourth jhana; incapable of realizing the fruit of stream-entry... the fruit of once-returning... the fruit of non-returning... arahantship. Which five? Stinginess as to one's monastery [lodgings], stinginess as to one's family [of supporters], stinginess as to one's gains, stinginess as to one's status, and ingratitude. Without abandoning these five qualities, one is incapable of entering & remaining in the first jhana... the second jhana... the third jhana... the fourth jhana; one is incapable realizing the fruit of stream-entry... the fruit of once-returning... the fruit of non-returning... arahantship.”

    "With the abandoning of these five qualities, one is capable of entering & remaining in the first jhana... the second jhana... the third jhana... the fourth jhana; capable of realizing the fruit of stream-entry... the fruit of once-returning... the fruit of non-returning... arahantship..."

    — AN 5.256-263

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