A few days ago I sent a newsletter about how to read spiritual books where I quoted Mortimer Adler who wrote, “The problem of reading the Holy Book — if you have faith that it is the Word of God — is the most difficult problem in the whole field of reading.” When translated into Buddhist terms, the Holy Book stands for the Triple Basket (Pali: Tipitaka), and the Word of God stands for the Word of the Buddha (Pali: buddhavacana).
When noting how to approach a “canonical” or “holy” text, Mortimer Adler also wrote that we “have to find it true in one or another sense of ‘true'” and that we essentially “read without freedom.” However, life is full of paradoxes and contradictions and so there are exceptions to exceptions and active reading questions do apply to Buddhist scriptures. So writes Buddhist Monk Venerable Sumedho Thera in the introduction to the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Pali: Digha Nikaya):
Even though Pali scholars have produced quite accurate literal translation of the Pali Canon, one often feels the lack of profound insight into these remarkable scriptures. The Suttas need to be studied, reflected on, and practiced in order to realize their true meaning. They are ‘Dhamma discourses,’ or contemplations of the ‘way things are.’ They are not meant to be ‘sacred scriptures’ which tell us what to believe. One should read them, listen to them, think about them, contemplate them, and investigate the present reality, the present experience with them. Then, and only then, can one insightfully know the Truth beyond words.
What follows is the best English translation of the Basket of Discourses (Pali: Sutta Pitaka). It represents the Tipitaka’s middle “basket” and contains the four main collections (Pali: nikayas) of the Buddha’s teaching. These collections are regarded as canonical by the Theravada school of Buddhism which is found today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and until recently quite strong in Laos and Cambodia. It is now also well established in Western countries.
1. Digha Nikaya: The Long Discourses of the Buddha
The present work offers a complete translation of the Digha Nikaya, the Long Discourses of the Buddha, the first of the major collections in the Sutta Pitaka or “Basket of Discourses” belonging to the Pali Canon. These suttas reveal the penetrating wisdom of the Buddha and include teachings on mindfulness (Mahasatipatthana Sutta); on morality, concentration, and wisdom (Subha Sutta); on dependent origination (Mahanidana Sutta); on the roots and causes of wrong views (Brahmajala Sutta); and a long description of the Buddha’s passing away (Mahaparinibbana Sutta); along with a wealth of practical advice and insight for all those on the Buddhist spiritual path. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
The Digha Nikaya is largely governed by the aim of propagating Buddhism within its cultural milieu. Its suttas attempt to establish the supremacy of the Buddha and his Dhamma over their competitors on the Indian religious and social scene. Thus, the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya surveys the philosphical views that the Buddha flatly rejected, the second repudiates the teachings of six contemporary teachers, while many of the following texts pit the Buddha in debate against brahmins and members of other sects; other suttas serve the purpose of glorifying the Buddha and demonstrating his superiority to the gods, the nature spirits, and the ascetics and contemplatives who traveled over the Ganges plain.
2. Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
The Majjhima Nikaya is the second collection of the Buddha’s discourses found in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon. Its title means literally the Middle Collection, and it is so called because the suttas it contains are generally of middle lenght, compared with the longer suttas of the Digha Nikaya, which precedes it, and the shorter suttas making up the two major collections that follow it, the Samyutta Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Naturally the greatest number of discourses in the Majjhima are addressed to the bhikkhus — the monks — since they lived in closest proximity to the Master and had followed him into homelessness to take upon themselves his complete course of training. … But in the Majjhima we do not meet the Buddha only in his role as head of the order. Repeatedly we see him engaged in living dialogue with people from the many different strata of ancient Indian society with kings and princes, with brahmins and ascetics, with simple villagers and erudite philosophers, with earnest seekers and vain disputants. It is perhaps in this scripture above all others that the Buddha emerges in the role ascribed to him in the canonical verse of homage to the Blessed One as “the incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, the teacher of gods and humans.
3. Samyutta Nikaya: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha
The Samyutta Nikaya is the third great collection of the Buddha’s discourses in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the compilation of texts authorized as the Word of the Buddha by the Theravada school of Buddhism. Within the Sutta Pitaka it follows the Digha Nikaya and Majjhima Nikaya, and precedes the Anguttara Nikaya. The word saṃyutta means literally “yoked together,” yutta being etymologically related to the English “yoked” and saṃ a prefix meaning “together.” In this collection suttas are yoked or connected together. And what connects them are the topics that give their titles to the individual chapters, the samyuttas under which the suttas fall. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Because Samyutta Nikaya brings together in its major samyuttas the many abstruse, profound, and delicately nuanced suttas on such weighty topics as dependent origination, the five aggregates, the six sense bases, the factors of the [eightfold] path, and the Four Noble Truths, it would have been perfectly suited for those disciples of intellectual bent who delighted in exploring the deep implications of the Dhamma and in explaining them to their spiritual companions. The second type of disciples for whom the Samyutta Nikaya seems to have been designed were those monks and nuns who had already fulfilled the preliminary stages of meditative training and were intent on consummating their efforts with the direct realization of the ultimate truth. Because the suttas in this collection are vitally relevant to meditators bent on arriving at the undeceptive “knowledge of things as they really are,” they could well have formed the main part of a study syllabus compiled for the guidance of insight meditators.
4. Anguttara Nikaya: The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha
The Anguttara Nikaya is the fourth of the four major Nikayas making up the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the collection of texts that Theravada Buddhists regard as buddhavacana or “word of the Buddha.” This work is arranged according to a scheme in which the number of items in the suttas of each successive part increases incrementally over those of the preceding part. The collection contains eleven nipatas or “books” named simply after their numerical basis: the Ekakanipata, the Book of the Ones; the Dukanipata, the Book of the Twos; and so forth up to the Ekadasakanipata, the Book of the Elevens. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Because the short suttas that explain the [Buddhist] philosophical “theory” and the main methods of training found their way into the Majjhima and the Saṃyutta, what remained to be incorporated into the Aṅguttara were short suttas whose primary concern is practical. … It would be unrealistic, however, to insist that a single criterion has governed the compilation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, which includes material from the Vinaya, lists of eminent disciples, cosmological ideas, and odd registers of terms that defy easy categorization. What can be said with confidence is that a broad survey of its contents would show a preponderance of texts dealing with Buddhist practice. Their subjects range from the basic ethical observances recommended to the busy layperson, through the pillars of mind training, to the highest meditative state, the samādhi or concentration of the arahant.
5. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
In the Buddha’s Words includes selected discourses of the Buddha from the Pali Canon — in modern terminology his “greatest hits” from all the Nikayas mentioned above (and more). Divided into ten thematic chapters, In the Buddha’s Words reveals the full scope of the Buddha’s discourses, from family life and marriage to renunciation and the path of insight. This collection allows even readers unacquainted with Buddhism to grasp the significance of the Buddha’s contributions to our world heritage. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Though his teaching is highly systematic, there is no single text that can be ascribed to the Buddha in which he defines the architecture of the Dhamma. The purpose of the present book is to develop and exemplify such a scheme. I here attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the Buddha’s teaching that incorporates a wide variety of suttas into an organic structure.
To learn more about this particular anthology, complement with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on uncovering the structure of the Buddha’s teaching and three kinds of benefits that it brings.