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.
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.
- 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.
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.