Learning the Suttas – A Personal Experience & Approach

The word Sutta is a very ancient literary term in India. The literal meaning is “thread,” and it is applied to a kind of book, the contents of which are, as it were, a thread, giving the substance of more than is expected in words. The word was adopted by the Buddhists to mean a discourse, a chapter, a small portion of sacred book. (Buddhism Its History and Literature by T.W. Rhys Davids).   

“Thread” that is applied to a kind of book

“Thread” that is applied to a kind of book

Thus, Suttas are discourses or Teachings delivered by the Buddha on various occasions, during His forty-five years of ministry, and a few discourses delivered by His disciples such as Venerable Sariputta, Maha Moggallana, Arahant Ananda, Maha Kaccana, female Venerable Dhammadina and others.

Buddha’s disciples blessed with exceptional power of memory preserved the Tipitaka containing the Buddha’s Words for centuries.  These memory experts were described as Digha Bhanakas (those who memorized the Digha Nikaya), Majjhima Bhanakas (those who memorized the Majjhima Nikaya) Samyutta Bhanakas (those who memorized the Samyutta Nikaya), and so on and so forth.  Those who memorized the Tipitaka were described as Tipitaka Dhari (bearers of the Tipitaka in memory). (The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, The Supreme Buddha, by Venerable Weragoda Sarada Maha Thero).

Recorded Text

It was in the Fourth Buddhist Council held in Sri Lanka in 80 B.C. under the patronage of the pious King Vattagamini Abhaya that the Tipitaka (the three baskets) was committed in writing for the first time. Five hundred learned monks assembled and wrote the Buddha’s teachings on ola leaves. This was the greatest step ever taken in the history of Buddhism that preserved the original teachings of the Buddha.

Maha Mangala Suttan written on ola leaves in romanized Pali.

Maha Mangala Suttan written on ola leaves in romanized Pali.

All the texts were recorded in Pali and known as Pali Canon. The Suttas are contained in one of the three baskets known as the Sutta Pitaka. The Suttas are divided into five separate collections known as Nikayas, namely: Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya and Khuddaka Nikaya, However, the four Nikayas that are regularly referred to are Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya and Anguttara Nikaya.    

English Translated Texts …

The three editions of English translated Nikayas, currently available were published at different times of the era reflected the concept and language used at that period of time. The publishers are Pali Text Society, Wisdom Publications and Burma Pitaka Association (later renamed as Myanmar Pitaka Association).

Nikayas by translators, publishers and year

… for Monks and Lay People

The discourses of the Buddha were expounded to suit different occasions, for various persons with different abilities and temperaments. Although the discourses were mostly intended for the benefit of the bhikkhus, there are also several discourses which deal with the material and moral progress of the lay disciples.  Out of about 11,813 suttas contained in the five Nikayas, less than 4 per cent, or 400 suttas are for the lay people.

Source: The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People. John L. Kelly (Equinox Publishing Ltd, UK)

Source: The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People. John L. Kelly (Equinox Publishing Ltd, UK)

The Publishers

The Pali Text Society was founded in 1881 by Thomas William Rhys Davids and the translation of the Digha Nikaya (Dialogues of the Buddha), in three volumes were published between 1899 and 1921; Samyutta Nikaya (The Kindred Sayings) in five volumes were published between 1917 and 1929; Anguttara Nikaya (The Gradual Sayings) in five volumes were published between 1930 and 1935 and Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Sayings) in three volumes were published between 1953 and 1957. All the translators were great experts in the Pali language and their scholastic treatments were academically inclined.  The Pali Text Society editions were the earliest editions available and are still widely used by scholars, practitioners, devotees and students alike.

Wisdom Publications of Boston, USA is a not for-profit publisher dedicated to making available authentic Buddhist works for the benefit of all. Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses) by Maurice O’Connell Walshe published in 1987, and also the first Nikaya published.  Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses) by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi was first published in 1995 and revised in 2001 and 2005. Samyutta Nikaya (The Connected Discourses) published in 2000 by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Anguttara Nikaya (The Numerical Discourses) published in 2012 by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Other than Digha Nikaya translated by a scholar, the other three Nikayas were translated by abled and learned practitioners and reflected on the practices.

 The Burma Pitaka Association, later known as Myanmar Pitaka Association, was founded on 20th August, 1980 with the primary aim to promote through translation in English an understanding of the Pitaka as interpreted and accepted in Theravada Buddhism. They avoid using English words or terms which carry connotation or associations closely connected , especially in the mind of a western reader, with fundamental ideas or practices in another religion of such words as ‘sin’, ‘salvation’, ‘deliverance’ and ‘Heaven’.

Digha Nikaya by publishers. L to R: Pali Text Society, Wisdom Publications & Burma Pitaka Association

Digha Nikaya by publishers. L to R: Pali Text Society, Wisdom Publications & Burma Pitaka Association

Evaluation

The table below gives a glimpse of my evaluation of the contexts based on the various publishers.

Evaluation report

Analysis

  A comparison of the translation and treatment of a selected stanza from Maha Parinibbana Sutta in the Digha Nikaya by the three publishers are as follows:

O brethren, let those of the brethren who have never seen the Tavatimsa gods, gaze upon this company of the Licchavis, behold this company of the Licchavis, compare this company of the Licchavis – for they are even as a company of the Tavatimsa gods.” (Sutta 16: The Book of the Great Decease, PTS).

“Monks, any of you who have not seen the Thirty-Three Gods, just look at this troop of Licchavis.  Take a good look at them, and you will get an idea of the Thirty-Three Gods!” (Sutta 16: The Buddha’s Last Days, WP).

“O Bhikkhus, let those bhikkhus who have never seen the Tavatimsa devas, have a good look at the gathering of the Licchavis: let them take a long look at the assembly of the Licchavis: let the bhikkhus gaze on them as if they were the Tavatimsa devas.” (Sutta III: Discourse on the Great Event of the Passing Away of the Buddha, BTA).

Observation: The first translation by a great scholar used old English, long winded and poetic; and non-Buddhist concept of ‘god/s.’

The second translation, also by another great scholar, used non-Buddhist concept of ‘God/s’; but brevity in text.

The last translation used ‘devas’ is more appropriate as Buddhism does not have God context, although long-winded and poetic.

Another sample for comparison from Maha Satipatthana Sutta in Digha Nikaya, as follows:

“And moreover, bhikkhu, a brother, when he is walking, is aware of it thus: – ‘I walk’; or when he is standing, or sitting, or lying down, he is aware of it.  However he is disposing that body, he is aware of it.” (Sutta 22: Setting-up of Mindfulness, PTS).

“Again, a monk, when walking, knows that he is walking, when standing, knows that he is standing, when sitting, knows that he is sitting, when lying down, knows that his is lying down. In whatever way his body is disposed, he knows that that is how it is.” (Sutta 22: The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, WP)

And again, bhikkus, the bhikkus when walking, is conscious of walking; or when standing he is conscious of standing; or when sitting, he is conscious of sitting; or when lying down, he is conscious of lying down; or in whatever movement or posture his body is, he is conscious of it.” (Sutta IX: Great Discourse on Steadfast Mindfulness, BTA).

Remarks: My favourite choice is the BTA version as it is in simple English and the flow is fluidly smooth when reading the text. The other two versions used the word “disposing” or “disposed” has more than one meaning and leaves a reader to make out the correct meaning.

Yet another comparison stanza from Samannaphala Sutta in Digha Nikaya:

“His very body does he so pervade, drench, permeate, and suffuse with the joy and ease born of detachment, that there is no spot in his whole frame not suffused therewith.” (Sutta 2: The Fruit of the Life of a Recluse, PTS).

“And with this delight and joy born of detachment, he so suffuses, drenches, fills and irradiates his body that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched by this delight and joy of detachment.” (Sutta 2: The Fruit of the Homeless, WP).

“When the concentrated mind has thus become purified, pellucid, unblemished, undefiled, malleable, pliable, firm and imperturbable, that bikhhu directs and inclines his mind to the power of creating a mentally-generated body.  That bhikkhu produces another body out of his own and creates a mentally-generated form complete with all organs, major or minor, without any defective faculties. (Sutta 2: The Fruit of the Life of a Samana, BTA).

Remarks:  My obvious choice if the WP version which is short and sharp (brevity) and used contemporaneous English.

As the saying goes: One man’s meat is another man’s poison”, I will leave it to the readers to decide, what is his or her preference? If you have any opinion or view to share do login on to  https://buddhismanddailyliving.wordpress.com provide your comment.

Approach

My experience in reading the Nikayas tells me that all the three editions are essential working tools in the learning of the suttas. There is no single edition that prevails over the other and my approach and preference which edition to refer is dependent on the needs.  When reading early Buddhist texts, the PTS edition is inevitable as all the citations were derived from this edition. The recommended textbook “The Buddha and His Teachings” by Naranda Maha Thera is an example which makes reference to PTS texts. As mentioned earlier, the PTS texts used old English, therefore the WS or BTA edition would come in handy for cross-reference to establish and clarify any doubt or ambiguity.

However, the collection of the BTA edition is incomplete and they translated only 85 suttas from two Nikayas. When I visit Myanmar in early January next year and I will acquire the entire collection, if available.

In my writing when I need to make citations from the Nikayas, I will pore through the three editions and select the most appropriate verse or stanza from the relevant suttas.

In order to be able to cite any verses or stanzas of the sutta from the Nikaya in one’s writing, one has to have clear comprehension of the suttas and I subscribed fully to the stance of Bhante Raja on “Why Sutta Reading?” is essential. With clear comprehension, right understanding and right view will enable one to interpret the verse or stanza of the sutta correctly to effectively elucidate and illuminate the subject or topic.

I would like to share with readers an excerpt of the mantra of Bhante Raja on “Why Sutta Reading?’

1. Reading the Sutta is like learning directly from the Buddha.

During the Buddha’s time His Teachings were through oral. When we read the Sutta it is like listening to the Buddha giving us the discourses, as if we are learning directly from Him.  And we should, because the Buddha is a Fully Enlightened Being. We should learn from someone who is Fully Enlightened.

 2. Most of the Buddha’s Teachings are found in the Sutta Nikaya or Sutta Pitaka.

We can find a complete range of Buddha’s teaching in the Sutta Nikaya or Sutta Pitaka. His teachings are directed to different temperaments of the Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, lay male and female disciples. You will find some Suttas that are inclined to your temperament too.

3. A lot of things not taught are found in the Suttas.

No one teacher can teach you everything that you need or want to know, and that is why you are encouraged to study the Suttas. Currently what you had learned is just a handful of the Suttas that are common to everyone. But when you go into depth, you may be surprised to learn that many of the things that not taught are found in the Sutta Nikaya which is relevant to your practice in daily life.

4. Some Suttas provide an answer to another Sutta.

Some Suttas are very brief, others are in detail.  Some Suttas which explain in detail provide an answer to another Sutta which is in brief.  As such you cannot be satisfied with reading just a few Suttas alone because one Sutta can be the explanation to another Sutta.

5. Better to learn from the Sutta than being led astray by others.

Nowadays, there are many who proclaimed to be ‘Dhamma Teachers,’ be he or she, a monk, nun, male or female lay-Buddhist. They may be very popular or renowned, but somehow along the way they may add in their own interpretation according to their opinion and concept.  Sometimes what they taught might not be in line with the Buddha‘s Teachings. Thus, Sutta Reading can help us to dispel wrong views and wrong teachings of the others. So it is wise to study the Sutta by ourselves to know whether what is being taught to us is in line with the Buddha‘s Teachings. Beside the whole Sutta Nikaya or Sutta Pitaka is the collection of Buddha’s teachings and Buddha who is a Fully Enlightened Being.

 6. Buddhism will decline if Buddhist shows no interest in the Sutta Study.

If no one is interested in the learning and teaching of the Suttas, then Buddhism will decline more rapidly. Why?  Because nobody really knows what the Buddha had taught in the Suttas. What is being taught now is the ‘True Teachings’ of the Buddha and you don’t realise until you have read the Sutta Nikaya. Therefore, as a Buddhist we should learn the Suttas and then share with others. Promoting and propagating Sutta Reading help to support Buddhasasana so that it will last longer.

7. If you are not sure which is the best method to practise read the Sutta.

You will be surprised to find the answer that is already there.  Why? Because there are more than 10,000 over Suttas collected in the four Nikayas. These Suttas were taught by the Buddha to the listeners of different temperaments. Are you telling yourself, among the 10,000 suttas, none of them suits your temperament?  You can be assured that at least one of the Sutta, if not a few, is very suitable to your temperament and you will find it very much appealing to you. Then, that one certainly is for YOU! And that one will inspire you to practise.

8. Learning the Sutta provides Check and Balance on our practice.

In the course of our practice how do we know whether we are practising correctly?  And in the Sutta Study how do we know they are the true Buddha’s teachings? This is where the check and balance come in. We check our practice against the Suttas and we check the Suttas against our practice, whether they are in line with each other along the Buddha’s teachings. If they are, then we are in the correct Path. If not than we must double check our practice, where it goes wrong. Are we practising accordingly to what Buddha taught in the Suttas?

 9. Knowing the importance of Sutta Study will encourage more people to read the Sutta.

We want to encourage more Buddhists to read the Suttas and realized for themselves how they really benefitted and the importance to the Buddhasasana.  And when they have an interest in learning the Suttas and put into practice in their daily life, then we have achieved our objective. It is our aim and objective that Sutta Reading will ultimately form its own self study group among themselves in the future.

 10. It is the duty of the monks and lay Buddhists to propagate the Buddha’s Teachings.

As a Buddhist it is our duty to continue propagating the Dhamma to the next generation so that the next generation will benefit from it. And again through them they will pass down to the next generation. By doing so, Buddhism will not decline so fast. Also, bearing in mind that somebody in the future generation could be related to you in this life. It may be your parents, brothers, sisters, spouse and children. It will be beneficial and good for them to have an opportunity to learn the Buddha’s Teachings. And that because of YOU! You pass down the teachings to them.

Some citations from Suttas to illustrate and illuminate the points of the mantra. 

Samyutta Nikaya SN16.S3How is one teaching of the Dhamma impure and how is one teaching of the Dhamma is pure?

          Once Buddha said to the monks :

“What do you think, bhikkhus, how is a bhikkhu’s teaching of the Dhamma impure,

and how is his teaching of the Dhamma pure?”

  “A bhikkhu teaches the Dhamma to others with the thought:

        ‘Oh, may they listen to the Dhamma from me! Having listened,

        may they be pleased with the Dhamma! Being pleased,

        may they express their appreciation to me!’

Such a bhikkhu’s teaching of the Dhamma is impure. 

 “But a bhikkhu teaches the Dhamma to others with the thought:

 ‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One, directly visible, immediate,

 Inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise.

        Oh, may they listen to the Dhamma from me!

Having listened, may they understand the Dhamma!

Having understood, may they practice accordingly!’

 Thus he teaches the Dhamma to others because of the intrinsic excellence of the Dhamma;

 he teaches the Dhamma to others out of compassion, out of kindliness, out of sympathy

 Such a bhikkhu’s teaching of the Dhamma is pure.

Anguttara Nikaya AN 5, the Chapter of Five, The Right Way of Teaching Dhamma.

Buddha said to Ananda:

         “It is not easy, Ānanda, to teach the Dhamma to others. To teach the Dhamma to others one should set up in oneself five standards for doing so. What five?

1. I shall give a gradual discourse’: in that way should the Dhamma be taught to others.

2. I shall give a well-reasoned discourse’: in that way should the Dhamma be taught to      others.

3. Moved by sympathy I shall speak’: in that way should the Dhamma be taught to others.

4. Not for the sake of worldly advantage I shall speak’: in that way should the Dhamma be taught to others.

5. Not to extolling oneself and disparaging others I shall speak’: in that way should the      Dhamma be taught to others.

Point number 4 reflects on some ‘Dhamma Teachers’ who teach out of fame, gain or reward, while point number 5 reflects on some ‘Dhamma Teachers’ extolling oneself and disparaging others like: ‘My meditation method is right and your is wrong.’

If one were to go in depth to the Suttas one may find that there were many Buddha’s disciples who gained enlightenment through different methods according to their temperaments. There is no ‘One size fixes all’ method. No one standard formula for all. In the Sutta Reading we learn to be more open and exception to others of their different inclinations. The world will be more peaceful to live in if they can understand this point. After all even the right method of meditation is just a bridge for one to cross over to the other shore. One does not need the bridge anymore after crossing and one does not carry with them wherever they go. So why hold on to it. If one still holding on to it, it shows that one is still have not crossed the bridge.

Samyutta Nikaya SN20.57 The Drum Peg

 “Bhikkhus, in the future. As to those suttas spoken by the Tathagata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness: when these are being recited they will not be eager to listen to them, will not lend an ear to them, will not apply their minds to understand them; and they will not think that those teachings should be studied and mastered.

 But as to those suttas which are mere poetry composed by poets, with beautiful words and phrases, created by outsiders, spoken by (their) disciples:  when these are being recited, then they will be eager to listen to them, will lend an ear to them, will apply their minds to understand them; and they will think that those teachings should be studied and mastered.

 In this way, bhikkhus, those suttas spoken by the Tathagata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, will disappear. 

 “Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus:

‘When those suttas spoken by the Tathagata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, are being recited, we will be eager to listen to them; we will lend an ear to them; we will apply our minds to understand them; and we will think that those teachings should be studied and mastered.’ Thus should you train yourselves.”

Here again some ‘Dhamma Teachers’ teach Dhamma quoting from other sources that are not the teachings of the Buddha, while others interpret according to their opinions and concepts. Thus not only the teaching become impure but the decline will ensue.

Samyutta Nikaya SN16.S13, The Counterfeit of the Dhamma

     

On one occasion the Venerable Mahakassapa approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, what is the reason, what is the cause, why formerly there were fewer training rules but more bhikkhus were established in final knowledge, while now there are more training rules but fewer bhikkhus are established in final knowledge?”

 “That’s the way it is, Kassapa. When beings are declining and the true Dhamma is disappearing there are more training rules but fewer bhikkhus are established in final knowledge. Kassapa, the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world. But when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

 “Just as, Kassapa, gold does not disappear so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, but when counterfeit gold arises then true gold disappears, so the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

 “It is not the earth element, Kassapa, that causes the true Dhamma to disappear, nor the water element, nor the heat element, nor the air element. It is the senseless people who arise right here who cause the true Dhamma to disappear.

 “The true Dhamma does not disappear all at once in the way a sink ships. There are, Kassapa, five detrimental things that lead to the decay and disappearance of the true Dhamma. What are the five? Here the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunis, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers dwell without reverence and deference towards the Teacher; they dwell without reverence and deference towards the Dhamma; they dwell without reverence and deference towards the Sangha; they dwell without reverence and deference towards the training; they dwell without reverence and deference towards concentration. These, Kassapa, are the five detrimental things that lead to the decay and disappearance of the true Dhamma. 

 “There are five (other) things, Kassapa, that lead to the longevity of the true Dhamma, to its non-decay and non-disappearance. What are the five? Here the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunis, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers dwell with reverence and deference towards the Teacher; they dwell with reverence and deference towards the Dhamma; they dwell with reverence and deference towards the Sangha; they dwell with reverence and deference towards the training; they dwell with reverence and deference towards concentration. These, Kassapa, are the five things that lead to the longevity of the true Dhamma, to its non-decay and non-disappearance.”

The few verses or stanzas from the various Suttas cited as illustrations to the various points clearly show their nuances and elucidations.

I would encourage readers to learn the suttas and would request you to refer to To know the TRUTH or myth … attend Sutta Study Class or Sutta Reading Club for details.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Contributor: Chin Kee Thou

English Dhamma Class

Sutta Study Class

Sutta Reading Club

September 22nd 2013

Disclaimer: The views are expressly of the contributor who takes responsibility for the contents, factual of otherwise and any inadvertence. They do not represent the editorial team, who edits the text only.  

About Chin Kee Thou

Reading Buddhist scriptures and writing articles for the blog and newsletters.
This entry was posted in Sutta in Daily Life. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Learning the Suttas – A Personal Experience & Approach

  1. Corrigendum: The table on Suttas to Laypeople by Nikayas, under the column “Digha” the correct total should read as “15”. Regret for the inadvertence.

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