By Peter Carlson
It’s critically important to understand the concepts that the Buddha taught. These teachings are found in the Nikayas. The teachings are called “suttas” (sutras in Sanskrit); the term comes from the same root word as the English word “suture”, which is the thread that binds up wounds. Other major sources of Buddhist Wisdom are the commentaries, which began after the Buddha’s death, and continue until this day. In order to deepen our understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, it is, of course important to meditate daily; this is how to build spiritual “muscle”. In fact, modern neuroscience reveals that dedicated meditation practice increases the number of connections between neurons, particularly at the juncture between the emotional (limbic) and executive (preorbital cortex). This means that experienced meditators are more aware of emotions, and more able to manage them.
During the life of the Buddha, his teachings were not systematized–there was no curriculum or lesson plan. People would consult with him and he would assess what their level of awareness was and what sort of response would be most understandable and applicable for them. After many years of dialogues, his cousin Ananda agreed to become his personal attendant. We don’t even know if the Buddha could read or write. It seems that Ananda was one of those exceptional people with a photographic memory; apparently Ananda wouldn’t agree to be his attendant unless the Buddha agreed to tell him what he taught during one of the infrequent times when they weren’t together. Ananda is, I believe, underestimated regarding his contribution to the creation of the system that we call Buddhism.
For several centuries after the time of the Buddha, the suttas were passed down orally. Generations of Buddhist monks and nuns memorized the teachings and regularly chanted them together. This is how the accuracy of the teachings was maintained. In order to make the memorization easier, the suttas are somewhat poetic, with repeated phrasing. What’s remarkable from my perspective is the highly integrated cognitive coherence that is apparent after nearly 30 years of reading the suttas, the commentaries and many intensive retreats.
Practice deepens when we cycle between the internal work of meditation and the informational benefits of reading the commentaries. In my research on the internet, I’ve found numerous websites that offer free translations of the suttas. What I want to do here is to provide some sites I’ve discovered with some comments about the different collections. I hope they’re interesting and helpful!
https://www.palicanon.org/ This site contains a translation of the majjhima nikaya, translated as The Middle Length Discourses. There are 152 discourses, almost entirely attributed to the Buddha, while a few are attributed to chief disciples. Some of the most important suttas are in this collection.
- My personal favorite is the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (To find it at the site, it’s MN 10). It contains many of the major conceptual elements and concise descriptions of the practice of mindfulness of breathing.
- Another favorite is the Anapanasati Sutta, Mindfulness of Breathing In and Breathing Out (MN 118). It’s also a very comprehensive description of breath awareness; the progression of practices leads all the way to enlightenment (Easier said than done!)
- Another useful sutta is the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, The Relaxation of Thoughts (MN 20), which provides useful strategies for overcoming the hindrances.
- Here’s another: the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, The Greater Craving-Destruction Discourse (MN 38), during which the Buddha describes the futility of pondering rebirth or other metaphysical concepts, focusing instead on the nature of consciousness and the concept of dependent origination. A useful introduction by the translator is provided at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html
- The Sekha-patipada Sutta, The Practice for One in Training (MN 53), focuses on the qualities of an awakened person as a model for the rest of us.
- The Kayagata-sati Sutta, Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (MN119), explores how dedicated awareness of the first foundation of mindfulness leads to enlightenment. This sutta is a much more comprehensive exploration of the first part of the Satipatthana Sutta.
- The Salayatana-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Six Sense-media (MN137), is an expansive exploration of how to pay attention to the way the mind conditions what comes through the “six sense doors”, i.e., eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and the brain.
The site also contains the Digha Nikaya, translated as THE LONGER DISCOURSES, which has 34 suttas. I haven’t reviewed this collection very thoroughly, but here are some that caught my attention with a quick review:
- The Potthapada Sutta, About Potthapada (DN 9), describes a dialogue with an ascetic, during which the Buddha talks of the attainments associated with jhana practice, and the futility of pondering metaphysical concepts. A useful translation with introduction is also found at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.09.0.than.html.
- The Maha-nidana Sutta, The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15), provides a comprehensive exploration of dependent origination and the absence of a self separate from causes and conditions. A useful introduction is found at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.15.0.than.html.
- The Maha-satipatthana Sutta, The Great Frames of Reference (DN 22), which is almost identical to the Satipatthana Sutta described above. What makes it longer is a detailed description of the Four Noble Truths. Once again, a useful introduction is found at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.22.0.than.html.
This site also offers a free download of the Samyutta Nikaya, translated as THE GROUPED DISCOURSES, the third division of the Sutta Pitaka, contains 2,889 suttas, arranged into 5 sections. These are shorter discourses, most of which I’m totally unfamiliar with. Here are some that caught my attention:
- The Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta, Analysis of Dependent Co-arising (SN 12.2), is just what it suggests, a fairly comprehensive discourse on a core concept of Buddhism.
- The Nagara Sutta, The City (SN 12.65), describes the realization of dependent origination that occurred during the night of the Buddha’s awakening.
- The Nalakalapiyo Sutta, Sheaves of Reeds (SN 12.67), is a discourse of one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputta, who describes dependent origination the mutuality of creation. The analogy is the standing up of two sheaves of reeds; if either is removed, the other falls down, therefore they are mutually supported. This counters a linear, cause-and-effect conception, instead offering a non-linear view of reality.
- The Phena Sutta, Foam (SN 22.95), describes the functioning of the five aggregates as transient, ephemeral moments that arise and pass away like the bubbles of foam.
- The Adittapariyaya Sutta, The Fire Sermon (SN 35.38), is an often quoted sutta in which the Buddha describes craving and clinging as burning like a fire.
- The Malunkyaputta Sutta, To Malunkyaputta (SN 35.95), contains the often quoted:…in the seen, there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard…” to describe the selfless nature of experience.
- The Na Tumhaka Sutta, Not Yours (SN 35.101) during which the Buddha admonishes to let go of all attachment to form and mind-conditioners to be truly happy.
- The Kotthita Sutta, To Kotthita (SN 35.191), during which Sariputta admonishes another monk to realize that, although an enlightened one sees and thinks about what he sees, there is no suffering, because there is no attachment to the link between the seeing and thinking, using the example of two oxen yoked together; what binds them is the yoke (clinging), not the oxen themselves.
- The Kimsuka Sutta, The Riddle Tree (SN 35.204), provides similes for how the combination of concentration and insight guard against suffering.
- The Ahara Sutta: Food (For the Factors for Awakening) (SN 46.51), during which the Buddha describes how attention to the hindrances builds suffering, while attention to the seven awakening factors feeds freedom from suffering.
- The Sedaka Sutta, The Acrobat (SN 47.19), I call this the “codependency discourse”, because the Buddha advises two acrobats that they’ll be more successful tending to their own minds than each other’s.
- The Dipa Sutta, The Lamp (SN 54.8), this is another thorough description of the progression through the practice of anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing.
- The Ananda Sutta, (On Mindfulness of Breathing) (SN 54.13), this discourse combines the instructions from the anapanasati sutta, and the satipatthana sutta in ways that might give the reader a more revealing view of the practice.
- The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56.11), this is the discourse on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path that tradition places as the first one the newly awakened Buddha presented to his companions, beginning the 25 century tradition we call Buddhism.
- The Simsapa Sutta, The Simsapa Leaves, (SN 56.31), in this discourse, the Buddha points out that wisdom isn’t about acquiring all the knowledge in the world, but that the concepts and practices presented in the Four Noble Truths.
I hope that the downloading of the Nikayas and your studies, combined with diligent practice, brings ease to your life and those lives you touch. I wish you well.