Reading the Suttas
I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and every Sunday we would go to Church. Each week, short passages from the Bible would be read. Even though I was a young boy and didn’t pay too much attention, still there is this memory in my mind of many of the things that are in the Bible. I know about the widow’s two coins, about the flood, about the bread and fishes.
Buddhism lacks this good tradition. Scriptural texts are usually recited in incomprehensible languages. And most of the texts that are studied and recited date from many hundreds, even thousands, of years after the Buddha. In this way the Buddhist tradition loses its sense of genuine connection with what the Buddha actually taught. In every tradition, stories and teachings from much later periods are unquestioningly accepted as the Word of the Buddha. This can lead to great confusion.
Since I started practicing Buddhism, I have found the Suttas to be an invaluable refuge. There is so much wisdom, so many amazing things – they are an inexhaustible trove of Dhamma. I encourage all Buddhists the have the habit of daily, or at least weekly, reading the Suttas.
The Suttas are not immediately striking. They are often repetitive, and can be mundane. But their beauty is a subtle thing. It lies in the balance, the sense of form, the reasonableness, the Buddha’s serenity and wisdom in every imaginable situation.
It’s best to read them a little at a time. One Middle-length Sutta is ideal for one session. Read it slowly, carefully. Notice if there are things that you don’t understand – and beware of what you think you already understand. When you have finished, check any footnotes or other guides to comprehension. Don’t get too analytic about it – try to soak in the whole essence of the teaching. If you read a Sutta before meditation, it can uplift and inspire your mind, and the meaning becomes clear.
Remember you are reading a translation. Don’t get hung up on the specific connotations of terminology – that’s just the choices of the translator. Become familiar, one word at a time, with the Pali/Sanskrit terms that underlie all Buddhist teachings.
Notice your own response to the text: what is inspiring, what is boring, what is dubious. Your responses belong to you, not the text.
Beware of the mind that wants to criticize the text. Even though I myself believe in the importance of text-critical studies, this is after many years of study and reflection. It takes time to get a sense for these things. Have compassion for the text. It was composed in an oral tradition in a far off time and place. It is a miracle that it exists at all, and we should not be put off if some of the modes of expression are alien to us.
Perhaps a bigger problem is the desire to literalize or insist on a particular reading. The Suttas have a word for this: idasaccabhinivesa – the insistence that ‘this alone is the truth’. Any text is open to different readings and emphases. It is easy enough to find cases where modern teachers or traditional schools teach things that differ from the Suttas. It is not so easy, but far more valuable, to understand why these changes came to be made, and to understand what aspect of Dhamma is at stake.
If you are in doubt, remember the poised attitude that the Suttas themselves speak of: ‘Neither accepting nor rejecting, I will inquire about the meaning…’. In Buddhism, we are not expected to believe literally every detail of the scriptures; but if we read them with a fault-finding mind, we will never really get it.
Whatever aspect of Dhamma – whether meditation, philosophy, ethics, or inspiring stories – there’s nothing like the real thing. Take the text, and live it. Try it out and see what it does in your life. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve never been let down. Whatever faults I have, they’re all because of my failing to live up to the Dhamma, not because of the Dhamma itself.