Majjhima Nikaya as a Daily Sutta Reading Practice

Majjhima Nikaya Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi Reading

If you have an interest in learning what the Blessed One taught and you can devote 20–30 minutes to daily sutta reading practice, the Majjhima Nikaya will be an excellent text with which to work. It is especially suitable for people with an interest in applying the teaching to their lives, either through meditation or contemplation. Most of the suttas have a story that connects the teaching with a time and place. You will get to know many of the Buddha’s prominent disciples, both monastics and lay people. The topics covered have a wide range. Examples include: meditation, kamma and rebirth, overcoming personal defilements, the five aggregates, the sense bases, and the brahma viharas.

Which edition to use

The best complete translation available is The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. It has an excellent introduction as well as over a thousand end notes to help you along the way. This is published by Wisdom Publications and can be ordered on-line through the publisher or purchased at your local bookstore. There is also an e-book version available directly from the publisher’s website. Now about a third of the book is available as a free sample here.

Ajahn Thanissaro has an anthology of more than 80 suttas from the Majjhima Nikaya in the second volume of A Handful of Leaves, available to order free in print from Metta Forest Monastery or  for download as an e-book in multiple forms. Although this is not the complete collection, it offers plenty of material with which to work. If you write to request a copy, consider asking for the entire four-volume set so you can practice with the other texts later.

The latest translation of the Majjhima Nikaya is by Bhikkhu Sujato on SuttaCentral.net. This translation is not yet available for print, but you can download an ebook version from this site. A PDF is included so if you wanted to you could easily print it, although it is quite large.

The practice

The practice is simple: read one sutta each day, not more, not less. At the outset, don’t be concerned with whether or not you fully understand the meaning of the discourse, but on the next day, go on to read the next sutta. This is not to say that understanding what you read is not important, but only that your progress should not depend on understanding what you had read the day before. Don’t get discouraged. The more suttas you read, the more you will understand. For the time being, focus on what you do understand. Bring those teachings deep into your life. Understanding the rest will come later.

If you do your sutta practice at the beginning of the day, you may find that the teachings naturally come to mind later in the day. This is because the suttas are relevant to our everyday lives. If you have a daily meditation practice, reading before or after meditation, when the mind is calm and receptive, will help you better absorb the content of the text. For more on when to read, check out the article When to Do Your Sutta Reading Practice.

What order to read

Although the suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya are not always grouped by topic, you may read them in the order in which they were arranged by the compilers. There are 152 suttas and most are between four and six pages in length. A few are slightly longer, so you may want to read these over two days or mark them for reading on a day that you have more time. Apart from dividing longer suttas over two days, try to stick to reading one per day, one after another.

That being said, if you are new to the suttas, you may want to proceed in the following order:

Suttas 21-30 (third division)
Suttas 11-20 (second division)
Suttas 1-10 (first division)
Suttas 31-152 (the rest)

While this order is not essential, it is helpful for beginners in a couple of ways. First, by using this order you will initially encounter many beautiful similes that can be understood immediately. You will also avoid beginning with sutta 1, which is one of the most difficult in the entire canon. If your commitment is strong and you have a faithful attitude, it doesn’t really matter what order you read. But reading either in the order suggested above or from first to last will simplify your practice.

The introduction

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha edition has an excellent introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi that could almost stand on its own as an introduction to Theravada Buddhism. For someone new to the suttas, reading the introduction is especially recommended. However, read the introduction outside of your regular practice session. You can start right off by reading the suttas even before you read the introduction, using the beginner’s order suggested above.

End Notes

Whether or not you find the end notes in this volume helpful to your practice with the sutta is partly a matter of personal temperament. Some people find them essential, others find them to be a distraction, still others are divided between these two attitudes. You will soon enough find out to which group you belong.

There are several types of notes:

  • Basic explanations of new concepts offered by the translators. These can be very helpful to the beginner.
  • Information from the commentary, prefixed with “MA,” and from the subcommentary, prefixed “MT.”
  • Notes by the translator about why a certain Pali word was translated in a certain way. These notes may not be of much interest to someone new to the suttas.
  • References to other suttas that explain the highlighted point in greater detail. Many concepts touched on briefly in one sutta are explained in detail in other suttas. You can mark these passages to read later if you are interested.

Personal anthology

As you are reading, you want to look out for suttas to include in your personal anthology. Because the suttas in the Majjhima are relatively long, you will probably just want to include shorter excerpts. By creating your personal anthology and using it for reflection when you meet difficulties, you will begin to appreciate the relevance of the suttas to your life. Once you have compiled a substantial anthology, even if you fall away from a daily sutta practice, you will still have a way to quickly reconnect with the teachings.

Some final thoughts

If you like to take notes, you may want to read this article on taking notes and sutta practice.

Because reading a complete sutta each day is a big commitment, you probably want to choose a backup text in advance, such as an anthology of shorter suttas to practice with on days when you can’t give the full period to the Majjhima. This ensures that you will have daily contact with the Blessed One’s teachings every day. It will also broaden your experience with the suttas.

When you finish the book

When you finish the last sutta, start again at the beginning on the very next day. On this second reading, start with the very first sutta in the collection. It’s not possible to absorb everything in a single reading. By the time you reach the end, almost six months will have passed and your understanding of the Blessed One’s teaching will have increased tremendously. Reading all the suttas again will take your practice to an even deeper level. For the advantages of reading a book a second time or more, see the article When You Complete a Book of Suttas.

Have you read the Majjhima Nikaya as a daily practice? Share your experiences in the comments below. If you would prefer not to have them published, simply write “private” in the first line.

Related:

Texts for Sutta Reading Practice Based on Your Current Knowledge Level

If you have a strong commitment and the proper attitude, it doesn’t matter so much what text you choose to work with. While you are beginning to develop the proper attitude and commitment, you may want to take the following into consideration. See which section describes your experience. When you decide what to read, increase your chance of success by making a Sutta Reading Practice Plan.

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Little to no experience with the Dhamma:

You’ve heard about Buddhism, but don’t know much about it. What better place to start your experience of Buddhism that to read exactly what the Buddha said? Almost all the books of suttas published today contain good introductions that will give you what you need to start reading the suttas right away.

Without question the best book to start with is In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi. It organizes suttas and excerpts of suttas in a way that is easy to understand and make meaningful in your life right away. Many people have had very profound experiences reading with this book. You will probably find yourself going back to this collection again and again.

Other suggestions:

  • The Dhammapada and the Itivuttaka are traditional collections that will give you a good sense of the style of the canon. There is a lot of variety in these two texts, so it is easy to stay engaged. And they are both available to download and print out right now.
  • The anthology Merit, by Ajahn Thanissaro, starts with suttas the cover basic concepts and builds up to suttas that explain merit all the way to the attaining of Nibbana. This is available free on request from Metta Forest Monastery.

And remember if you are new at reading suttas, you may be tempted to take lots of notes while you are reading. This works for many people, but some people find it distracting. Here are some thoughts on how to work with note taking.

Some experience:

You are familiar with basic Buddhist concepts. You may have read lots of books about Buddhism, but have not read a complete collection of the suttas themselves. You are more than ready to jump right in. If you are committed and have a skillful attitude, any of the texts listed on this site could work for you. Below are some to consider.

  • Any of the texts listed above
  • The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon will give you a great sense of the variety of styles found in the canon as well as give you a sense of the whole of the Buddha’s life as found in the most ancient texts.
  • Ajahn Thanissaro’s anthology from the Majjhima Nikaya found in Handful of Leaves Volume 1 will expose you to lots of important suttas.

Lots of experience:

You’ve read some suttas already. You are comfortable with Pali words. There’s really no limit to the texts you could work with. Just develop a skillful attitude and make a firm commitment to read from your chosen text every day.

  • The complete translation of The Middle Length Discourses is a wonderful text to establish yourself in. You will gain a realistic sense of the breadth and depth of the Buddha’s teachings.
  • If you are already familiar with many of the main themes in the Dhamma, the Samyutta Nikaya will give you a detailed analysis of important topics such as the five aggregates, dependent origination, the six sense bases, etc. Committing to read from this book for 15-30 minutes a day would work well.
  • Don’t forget about the books in the Khuddaka Nikaya such as the Dhammapada, the Itivuttaka, and the Udana. These work very well as a sutta (or chapter) a day practice and could even be done in addition to one of the texts above.

And no matter what your experience level, be sure to start your personal anthology right away.

Related Articles

How To: Sutta Reading Practice Basics

The logistics of a sutta practice are fairly straightforward. Choose a text and read some of it every day. Below you will find more specific suggestions for the basic aspects of a sutta practice. Be sure to tie it all together with a written sutta reading plan.

Step 1: Choose a Text

The text you already have on hand may be the best one. If you own a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, that is probably an indication of where your interests lie and your current level of understanding. If you have kept a copy of the Dhammapada on the shelf for years, there was probably a point in time that you found it useful. Go with that. If you are new to sutta reading, In the Buddha’s Words is a perfect anthology to get you started. Check the following pages to see recommendations on different text to use. Some texts are well suited to reading one sutta a day, others may work better reading for a fixed amount of time each day.

Step 2: Choose a Time and a Place

Reading the suttas consistently over a long time is what is most important, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. Your understanding will grow and compound, and at the same time so will your love of the Dhamma and your confidence in it. Pick a location free from distractions. Pick a time that is not likely to be eaten up by something else. If you already have a daily meditation practice, seriously consider connecting it with your sutta practice. For more tips on these topics, see:

Step 3: Make a Commitment, Begin, and Begin Again

At first, you may need to make a strong resolution to do your daily reading. Our hindrances are strongest when beginning a sutta practice. We will be encountering lots of new information and will surely come across things that we do not understand at first. If we stick with it, these problems will naturally fade away. Suttas reinforce each other and you will naturally learn what you need to know for understanding through continued practice and reflection. To end your reading session, make an aspiration to put what you have read into practice.

If you are committing to a time intensive practice, such as reading one sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya each day, consider having a shorter text as a plan B for those days when time is tight. At a minimum, pick up your text and recollect a meaningful passage and commit to starting up your practice again on the following day. Always begin again.

Once you have worked through a book completely, consider starting over from the beginning and reading it again one more time, day by day, before you start in on a different book. The familiarity gained through a second reading will be very powerful.

Step 4: Overcome the Hindrances

The Dhamma is both subtle and deep. If we are accustomed to mental stimulation that requires very little effort on our part, such as television or novels, we may easily project our difficulties in reading upon the suttas themselves. If we think that the difficulties we encounter when reading are caused by the suttas, it is very easy to fall away from the practice. In fact, the difficulties we have are due to very common hindrances that exist within our own minds. Without removing the hindrances, a sutta practice will always be difficult and marginally beneficial.

Remember: your commitment is to read each day. You may or may not understand a text at first. This doesn’t matter. Sometimes you will understand a text immediately, sometimes only after a long time. In any case, read the next sutta the next day.

Bonus Step: Create and Use Your Personal Anthology

Creating and using a personal anthology is one way to guarantee that the suttas that you are reading get tied in intimately with your live. Even if you fall away from your sutta practice for a period of time, having made a personal anthology, you will always be able to tap into the teachings that you have connected with the most.

As your sutta practice develops, return to the Start Here page to be reminded of the important principles of daily sutta practice. You can also visit the What’s New or subscribe to e-mail updates in the box on the right.

Be sure to tie it all together with a written sutta reading plan.

Sutta Reading Practice Text Suggestions Based on Available Time

Minimal time commitment

10-60 seconds (including reflection time)

Medium time commitment

1-10 minutes (including reflection time) One Sutta Per Day or a fixed time length

Greater time commitment

15-30 minutes (including reflection time)

  • Majjhima Nikaya, One sutta per day, no more. You may want to first read suttas 21-30, then 11-20, then 1-10. You may want to consider repeating this cycle of the first 30 one or two times before continuing with the rest of the book. This will give you an excellent foundation for all other practice with the suttas. Consider using one of the shorter anthologies above as a backup plan for days when you have limited time for practice.

Related Articles

Sutta Reading Book Sources

This page contains contact information specifically for print copies of sutta texts, either for purchase, free distribution or PDF Download. You may also be interested in the document Building a Sutta Library.

Sources: Printed books, commercial

Wisdom Publications

Wisdom Publications logo

wisdompubs.org. All of these books are available in both print and e-book (epub, Kindle, pdf) without DRM. Wisdom publishes:

  • In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Read a book review, or read the same suttas in a free translation)
  • The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya by Maurice Walsh
  • The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (free sample)
  • The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (free sample)
  • The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A (complete) Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (free sample)
  • The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
  • The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Buddhist Publication Society (BPS)

Buddhist Publication Society logo

www.bps.lk Publishes:

  • The Udāna and the Itivuttaka, Two Classics from the Pali Canon, Translated by John D. Ireland (download complete Itivuttaka for free)
  • Aṅguttara Nikāya Anthology, translated by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi.
  • The Dhammapada, translated by Āchariya Buddharakkhita (download for free)
  • The Life of the Buddha, According to the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (download for free)
  • Buddha, My Refuge, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo

The North American distributor for BPS is Pariyatti.org. For people in Canada, Source Vipassana carries many of these books.

Pali Text Society (PTS)

Available directly from www.palitext.com. The North American distributor for PTS is Pariyatti.org. For people in Canada, Source Vipassana carries many of these books. NOTE! Be very, very clear that you want to purchase the English translation, otherwise they may send you the Pali. Publishes:

  • The Rhinoceros Horn and Other Early Buddhist Poems (Sutta Nipāta), translated by K. R. Norman, with alternative translations by I. B. Horner and Ven. Walapola Rahula
  • Poems of Early Buddhist Monks (Theragāthā), translated by K. R. Norman, Pali Text Society. Paperback edition available. Complete text.
  • Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therīgāthā), Translated by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids and K. R. Norman
  • Minor Anthologies Vol. IV : Vimānavatthu (Stories of the Mansions) and Petavatthu (Stories of the Departed). ISBN 13: 978-086013073-4

Printed books, Free Distribution

Metta Forest Monastery

dhammatalks.org/Metta Forest Monastery logo

They now provide a list of currently available books.

Distributes all of Ajahn Ṭhanissaro’s sutta translations as well as short anthologies. Books are published when someone donates the printing cost, so not all titles may be available. All are available as ebooks from dhammatalks.org  Note: The Handful of Leaves anthology has recently been reorganized.

  • Handful of Leaves Vol 1: Dīgha Nikāya, selected suttas
  • Handful of Leaves Vol 2: Majjhima Nikaya, selected suttas
  • Handful of Leaves Vol 3: Saṁyutta Nikāya, selected suttas
  • Handful of Leaves Vol 4: Aṅguttara Nikaya, selected suttas.
  • Dhammapada, complete
  • Udana, complete
  • Itivuttaka, complete
  • Sutta Nipata (contains Khuddakapāṭha), complete
  • Theragāthā & Therīgāthā, anthology

Other Books

Other books featured on this website, unless otherwise noted, are available through your favorite local or online book seller.

Sources: Web

Ancient-Buddhist-Texts.net logo

ancient-buddhist-texts.net Complete Udāna as well as many other important suttas. Everything is available as a PDF. English translations now available as .epub and .mobi e-books on the Download Page.

E-books

Visit the Sutta E-books page to see sources for e-books specifically.

Related Pages:

Anthologies for Sutta Reading Practice

An anthology is a collection of ancient scriptures organized around a topic. This is a great way for people new to reading the suttas as well as more experienced readers to delve deeply into a single concept. We recommend all of the anthologies below. You may want to print out the simple chart of the Sutta Pitaka so you understand where the scriptures you read fit in to the canonical collections.

Check out How To: Using an Anthology for Daily Practice

In the Buddha’s Words

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In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications. This is a comprehensive anthology of suttas, covering the whole range of the Buddha’s teachings. An excellent text for anyone regardless of experience level. This book will serve well as a foundation for your practice with the suttas as well as provide a lifetime of teachings. This is certainly a text to be read repeatedly. You can down load an e-book with all of the chapter introductions  here. This book is available in print form as well as on the Kindle. (If you are going to get the electronic version, be sure to do it from the Wisdom website because you get a Kindle, epub, and pdf all for one price)

Short topical anthologies by Ajahn Thanissaro

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Free print copies are usually available from Metta Forest Monastery. All of his anthologies begin with basic concepts as a foundation for the main topic. Suitable for newcomers. They are anthologies in the sense that they contain suttas from throughout the canon, and sometimes only excerpts. Several of these books have counterparts in the Study Guide section of Access to Insight so you could check them out there before requesting them. They are now all available from the dhammatalks.org  website in multiple formats.

  • Merit, suttas that explain the three types of merit created through giving, being virtuous and cultivating the mind.
  • Into the Stream, suttas that explain the first stage of enlightenment and the path.
  • A Meditator’s Tools, suttas that explain the ten subjects for meditation. (Previously titled Recollections)
  • Beyond Coping: A Study Guide on Old Age, Illness and Death.
  • A Burden Off the Mind, suttas that explain the five aggregates.
  • Mindful of the Body
  • Recognizing the Dhamma, suttas based on the practice advice the Blessed One gave to his step mother, Mahā Pajāpatī.
  • The Sublime Attitudes: A Study Guide on the Brahmaviharas

Other anthologies

The Life of the Buddha, According to the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, Buddhist Publication Society and Pariyatti. Suttas and passages from the Vinaya placed in an approximately chronological order. The repetitions have mostly been removed. Ad excellent way to experience the Canon. There is a free PDF download available from Pariyatti, although it is not printable.

Buddha, My Refuge, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo, Buddhist Publication Society. Suttas that teach the qualities of the Buddha. Very useful if you would like to develop a Recollection of the Buddha meditation practice.

Related Articles

Have you used an anthology of suttas for daily practice? Share your experience in the comments below. Feel free to comment anonymously.