When You Complete a Book of Suttas

Non-repetition is the bane of scriptures;
neglect is the bane of a home;
slovenliness is the bane of personal appearance,
and heedlessness is the bane of a guard.

Dhp 241, translated by Achariya Buddharakhitta

Coming to the end of your first book of suttas will likely give you a sense of accomplishment. In fact, you have accomplished a great deal, exposing yourself to the direct teachings of the Blessed One, bringing his wisdom into your daily life. At the same time we cannot think that our work with the text is done. Not by any means.

There is great value in reading through a book at least a second time in the same way, a little bit each day. Don’t hesitate to do this. Begin again with the first sutta the very next day.

The benefits of doing this are many:

  • You will understand things that you did not the first time you read. Concepts will begin to click.
  • You will see things that you did not pay attention to the first time.
  • You will begin to identify favorite passages to put in your Personal Anthology.
  • You will gain a stronger sense of what texts are in the book and easily find them in the future
  • Having seen the truth of the teachings in your life from the first exposure, they will go more deeply to the heart on the second reading.
  • Because of the above benefits, your hindrances to reading and understanding will be less than they were the first time.

The second read is when you really begin to establish yourself in the collection. When you read a passage in your second round that you found very helpful in the first, it will immediately bring happiness and will strengthen the application of that teaching in your life. To build a relationship with the texts, repetition is essential.

As you come to the end of your text, you may find some excitement around the idea of reading something new. Now that you feel comfortable reading the suttas you may realize that there is a vast world of sutta possibilities awaiting you. Because of this greater confidence, you may be able to commit to a longer practice period. So start again with the same book and if you like add a passage each day from a second text. If you have time, you could read a sutta per day from the Middle Length Discourses. If not, you could easily do a Dhammapada chapter per day. Or perhaps a passage from an anthology. But in any case, stick with your original text at least for one more complete reading.

How well did you stick to your commitment to read every single day? If you found yourself missing days, on your second round, strengthen your commitment to read every single day by using the Don’t Break the Chain method. Now that you see the value in bringing the suttas into your life, this commitment will be easier.

If you haven’t been making a dedication of merit and setting an intention at the end of your reading, this is a great way to go further with your practice.

It is important that we not think that our practice is over after finishing a book. It’s really just the beginning.

Related

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.

How To: Using an Anthology for Daily Sutta Reading Practice

Anthologies of suttas from the Pali canon are great for a daily sutta practice. See the list of anthologies for books to use. If you aren’t sure which one to pick, you can’t go wrong with In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you are reading.

AllCovers-Anthologies

ONE EACH DAY: As with any text for daily practice, read one sutta or passage each day. If it is particularly short, use your extra time to contemplate it more deeply or even commit it to memory. You may even want to copy it right into your personal anthology if appropriate.

MARK YOUR PLACE: Because the passages can sometimes be quite short, there may be several in a set of facing pages where you would normally put a bookmark. To keep track of exactly which one you are on, consider using a post-it flag or a piece of a post it note. That way you won’t need to spend time trying to figure out which passage you should read next. This is especially handy when you miss a day or two of practice.

DIFFERENT MARKS: Because you may also find yourself flagging passages of importance for future reference, or perhaps to include in your personal anthology, you can put the post-it that marks your place in the book at an angle. Other markers can be placed square with the page. This way you can easily tell where you are and which passage are just marked for reference.

LONG PASSAGES: Sometimes a passage in an anthology will be particularly long, longer than you have time to read that day. You can simply divide the passage in half, reading part one day and part the next. Another option is to save that passage for a day when you have more time. Simply mark that passage with another angled post-it flag. Obviously the last angled flag will be your final position in the book, and the earlier one will act as a constant reminder to go back to read the longer passage as soon as you are able.

FLAGS READY FOR USE: If you like using the flags like this, consider sticking several inside the front cover so they are always handy. This will help us avoid the tendency to use a pencil, tissue, or something laying around as a book mark.

ANTHOLOGY AS A BACK UP PLAN: If you have committed to reading a larger text as a daily practice, such as the Majjhima Nikāya, consider working with an anthology as a back up plan for days that you don’t have as much time. If you are doing this, it is especially important to keep track of exactly where you are in the book.

PAY ATTENTION TO CITATIONS: Most anthologies will include a citation, or reference, to where the passage is found in the canon. There will be a page in the front or back of the book explaining what the abbreviations stand for. (You can mark this with a flag coming out of the top of the book.) As you are reading, take a moment to look up the abbreviation each time until you have them memorized. This will be quite painless and give you a good sense of where things come from. You may start to develop an affinity to suttas from a particular book such as the Udāna or the Dhammapada. Then when it is time to pick a new book for practice you will know where to head.

You can also print out the small version of the Finding Your Way in the Sutta Pitaka chart so you can get a sense of the organization of the canon as you learn the citations.

EXCERPTS: Often anthologies contain only a portion of the sutta. This is almost always true when the citation is for the Majjhima Nikāya(MN) or the Dīgha Nikāya (DN). If you find one of those passages interesting, consider taking time to look up and read the whole sutta.

DO IT ALL AGAIN: As with any book you are using for daily practice, once you have finished it, consider reading the book a second time in the same way, one passage each day. This will greatly improve your familiarity, understanding and confidence in the teachings.

Have you used an anthology for daily practice? Share your experience or tips in the comments below

Related:

Developing Your Sutta Practice

General Approach

Attitude: Humility and patience will help you build confidence (saddhā) which is essential. Do not expect to grasp the meaning of a sutta right away. Continue your engagement regardless of your initial reaction. Eventually you will be able to understand all of the suttas. There will be plenty of suttas that are immediately accessible. Approach the text as a spiritual document. Do not have in mind to collect facts and information or find fault. What is important will naturally go to the heart.

Hindrances: You must actively work to remove the hindrances to sutta practice just as you do for your meditation practice. For example, if drowsiness or doubt are present it will naturally not be possible for the meaning to go to our heart. If you blame the sutta for your hindrances there is no solution to the problem. If you see the hindrances as your own, then a solution is possible.

Physicality: Have a dedicated space used for sutta practice, ideally at your place of meditation if you have one. Keep the book you are working with either on a small stool next to your meditation cushion or in a special place dedicated to the book.

Commitment: Choose one book and stick with it until you reach the end. Start at the beginning and read the amount you have committed to each day. When you complete the book, start again at the beginning and read it at least a second time. Familiarity is powerful.

Personal Anthology: Make your own personal collection of suttas that speaks most directly to your defilements. By doing this even if your daily practices becomes non-daily, you will still have something to work with when needed. On a day when the hindrances and defilements are particularly strong, you may want to substitute reading from your personal anthology for your regular text.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Don’t use practice time for reading the general introductions in the book, just as you would not substitute reading a book about meditation for your daily meditation practice.
  • Don’t do your sutta practice in front of the computer. Print out a text if necessary. There are many texts you can download and print out to start using right away.
  • If you are doing your practice at the end of the day, consider spending a few moments the next morning trying to recollect what you read the night before.
  • Do your practice every single day. Don’t break the chain!
  • Consider not taking notes for your first read through the text. Remember that you will be reading it a second time. If you do take notes, consider marking passages and making notes later.
  • Footnotes may or may not be helpful. Read as appropriate.
  • Consider chanting the qualities of the Triple Gem before practice (i.e., Iti pi so… Svākkhāto… Supaṭipanno…) in Pāḷi or English.