Why should I read the suttas?
Which ones should I read?
How should I read them?
There are no universal, definitive answers to these questions; ultimately you have to find your own. Nevertheless, I offer here a few ideas, suggestions, and tips that I've found to be helpful over the years in my own exploration of the suttas. Perhaps you'll find some of them helpful, too.
They are the primary source of Theravada Buddhist teachings.
If you're interested in pursuing the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, then the Pali Canon -- and the suttas it contains -- is the place to turn for authoritative advice and support. You needn't worry about whether or not the words in the suttas were actually uttered by the historical Buddha (no one can ever prove this either way). Instead, keep in mind that the teachings in the suttas have been practiced -- with apparent success -- by countless followers for some 2,600 years. If you want to know whether or not the teachings really work, then study the suttas and put their teachings into practice and find out firsthand, for yourself.
They present a complete body of teachings.
The teachings in the suttas, taken in their entirety, present a complete roadmap guiding the follower from his or her current state of spiritual maturity onwards toward the final goal. No matter what your current state may be (skeptical outsider, dabbler, devout lay practitioner, or celibate monk or nun), there is something in the suttas to help you progress further along the path towards the goal. Most significantly, as you read more and more widely in the Pali Canon, you may find less of a need to borrow teachings from other spiritual traditions, as the suttas contain most of what you need to know.
They present a self-consistent body of teachings.
The teachings in the Canon are largely self-consistent, characterized by a single taste -- that of liberation. As you wend your way through the suttas, however, from time to time you may encounter some teachings that call into question -- or outright contradict -- your present understanding of Dhamma. As you reflect deeply on these stumbling blocks, the conflicts often dissolve as a new horizon of understanding opens up. For example, you might conclude from reading one sutta [Sn IV.1] that your practice should be to avoid all desires. But upon reading another [SN LI.15], you learn that desire itself is a necessary factor of the path. Only upon reflection does it become clear that what the Buddha is getting at is that there are different kinds of desire, and that some things are actually worth desiring -- most notably, the extinction of all desire. At this point your understanding expands into new territory that can easily encompass both suttas, and the apparent contradiction evaporates. Over time you can learn to recognize these apparent "conflicts" not as inconsistencies in the suttas themselves but as an indication that the suttas have carried you to a frontier of your own understanding. It's up to you to cross beyond that boundary.
They offer lots of practical advice.
In the suttas you'll find a wealth of practical advice on a host of relevant real-world topics, such as: how children and parents can live happily together [DN 31], how to safeguard your material possessions [AN IV.255], what sorts of things are and aren't worth talking about [AN X.69], how to cope with grief [AN V.49], how to train your mind even on your deathbed [SN XXII.1], and much, much more. In short, they offer very practical and realistic advice on how to find happiness, no matter what your life-situation may be, no matter whether you call yourself "Buddhist" or not. And, of course, you'll also find ample instructions on how to meditate [e.g., MN 118, DN 22].
They can bolster your confidence in the Buddha's teachings.
As you explore the suttas you'll come across things that you already know to be true from your own experience. Perhaps you're already well acquainted with the hazards of alcoholism [DN 31], or perhaps you've already tasted the kind of refined pleasure that naturally arises in a concentrated mind [AN V.28]. Seeing your own experience validated in the suttas -- even in small ways -- can make it easier to accept the possibility that the more refined or "advanced" experiences that the Buddha describes may not be so unattainable after all, and that some of the more counter-intuitive and difficult teachings may not, in fact, be so strange. This validation can generate renewed confidence and energy that will help your meditation and your understanding forge ahead into new territory.
They can support and energize your meditation practice.
When you read in the suttas about other people's meditation experiences, you may begin to get a feel for what you have already accomplished in your own practice, and what still remains to be done. This understanding can provide a powerful impetus to apply yourself even more wholeheartedly to the teachings.
Reading them is just plain good for you.
The instructions contained in the suttas are entirely of a wholesome nature, and are all about the development of praiseworthy qualities such as generosity, virtue, patience, concentration, mindfulness, and so on. When you read a sutta you are therefore filling your mind with wholesome things. If you consider all the useless and downright destructive information that modern society -- especially the Internet -- thrusts at our senses, day in and day out, a little regular sutta study can become an island of safety and sanity in a dangerous world. Take good care of your mind -- read a sutta today and take it to heart.
It can be helpful to think of the Dhamma as a multi-faceted jewel, with each sutta offering a glimpse of one or two of those facets. For example, there are teachings of the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path; of dana and sila; of mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness of death; of living skillfully as a layperson or as an ordained monk; and much, much more. No single sutta says it all; each one depends upon all the others to paint a complete picture of the Buddha's teachings. The more widely you can read in the suttas, the more complete your picture of this jewel becomes.
As a starting point, every student of Buddhism should study, reflect upon, and put into practice the Five Precepts and the Five Subjects for Daily Contemplation. Furthermore, we should take to heart the Buddha's advice to his young son, Rahula, which concerns our basic responsibilities whenever we perform an intentional act of any kind. From there, you can follow along with the Buddha's own step-by-step or "graduated" system of teachings that encompasses the topics of generosity, virtue, heaven, drawbacks, renunciation, and the four Noble Truths.
If you're interested in a solid grounding on the basics of the Buddha's teachings, three suttas are widely regarded as essential reading: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN LVI.11), The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN XXII.59), and The Fire Sermon (SN XXXV.28). Together, these suttas -- the "Big Three" of the Sutta Pitaka -- define the essential themes of the Buddha's teachings that reappear in countless variations throughout the Canon. In these suttas we are introduced to such fundamental notions as: the Four Noble Truths; the nature of dukkha; the Eightfold Path; the "middle way"; the "wheel" of the Dhamma; the principle of anatta (not-self) and the analysis of one's "self" into the five aggregates; the principle of shedding one's enchantment with sensual gratification; and the many planes of being that characterize the vast range of Buddhist cosmology. These basic principles provide a sturdy framework upon which all the other teachings in the Canon can be placed.
Furthermore, these three suttas demonstrate beautifully the Buddha's remarkable skill as teacher: he organizes his material in clear, logical, and memorable ways by using lists (the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the five aggregates, etc.); he engages his audience in an active dialogue, to help them reveal for themselves the errors in their understanding; he conveys his points by using similes and imagery that his audience readily understands; and, most significantly, time and again he connects with his audience so effectively that they are able to realize for themselves the transcendent results that he promises. Once we are able to see the Buddha for the extraordinarily capable teacher that he is, we can proceed with confidence through the rest of the Canon, fully trusting that his teachings won't lead us astray.
A few other fruitful points of departure:
Once you've found a sutta that captures your interest, look for others like it. From there, wander at will through the suttas, picking up along the way whatever gems catch your eye.
For these reasons, it is best not to let yourself get too comfortable with any one particular translation, whether of a word or of an entire sutta. Just because, for example, one translator equates dukkha with "suffering" or nibbana with "Unbinding," doesn't mean that you should accept those translations as truth. Try them on for size, and see how they work for you. Allow plenty of room for your understanding to change and mature, and cultivate a willingness to consider alternate translations. Perhaps, over time, your own preferences will change (you may, for example, come to find "stress" and "quenching" more helpful). Remember that any translation is just a convenient -- but provisional -- crutch that you must use until you can come to your own first-hand understanding of the ideas it describes.
If you're really serious about understanding what the suttas are about, you'll just have to bite the bullet and learn a little Pali. But there's a better way: read the translations and put the teachings they contain into practice until you get the results promised by the Buddha. Mastery of Pali is, thankfully, not a prerequisite for Awakening.
It can be helpful to keep certain questions circulating in the back of your mind as you're reading, both to help you understand the context of the sutta and to help you tune in to the different levels of teaching that are often going on at once. Remember: these questions aren't meant to turn you into a literary scholar; they're simply meant to help each sutta come alive for you.
As you read the sutta, ask yourself: Do I identify with any of the situations or characters in the sutta? Are the questions asked or teachings presented pertinent to me? What lessons can I learn from the sutta? Am I doubtful whether I can really do what the Buddha asks of me in the sutta, or am I filled with even greater confidence?
Whatever helpful message you found in the sutta, whatever satisfying taste it left behind, let that grow and develop in the course of your meditation practice and in your life. Don't try to solve or "do" a sutta as if it were a crossword puzzle. Give it time to simmer in the back of your mind. Over time, the ideas, impressions, and attitudes conveyed by the sutta will gradually percolate into your consciousness, informing the way you view the world. One day you may even find yourself in the middle of an otherwise ordinary everyday experience when suddenly the recollection of a sutta you read long ago will spring to mind, bringing with it a powerful Dhamma teaching that's exactly appropriate for this moment.
To facilitate this process, it can be helpful to make plenty of room for the suttas. Don't cram your sutta reading in among all your other activities and don't read too many suttas all at once. Make sutta study a special, contemplative activity. It should also be a pleasant experience. If you find that it's becoming dry and irritating, just put it all aside and try again in a few days, weeks, or months. After reading a sutta, don't just plunge back into your busy activities; take some time out afterwards for a little breath meditation, to give the heart a chance to cool down so that it can more thoroughly absorb the teachings.
Like meditation itself, sutta reading is a skill that can be developed. Allow yourself plenty of time to patiently develop that skill.
1. There are many ways to find related suttas. If you click on the "Context of this sutta" link near the top of the sutta text, you can find suttas that are located nearby in the Canon and which may concern related topics. To find other suttas, articles, or books on related topics, explore the Subject Index. If there is a character or place mentioned in the sutta you'd like to know more about, try the Index of Proper Names. If you'd like to find out where else in the Canon a simile appears, try the Index of Similes.[Go back]
2. For more about learning Pali, see "A Guide to Learning the Pali Language."[Go back]