Understanding the suttas/Majjhima Nikaya

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    Not sure if this exactly the right place for this, but it seemed the most logical.

    Wondering if anyone else here finds the suttas a little bit less than direct, or really coming through in plain english. I’ve bought a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, and find it somewhat impenetrable. Sure, you can simply read it, but when trying to take it at more than face value, I feel I’m missing something.

    Setting aside all the issues of translation, language, etc, I have difficulty with them. It’s not the incredible amount of repetition either.
    It’s that something about the way they are written, the meaning just isn’t clear. Then there’s the added difficulty of words not meaning what they do for us in usual daily use. One example, from Ajahn Sucitto – the ‘world’ doesn’t mean the what we typically, or usually mean i.e. ‘out there’ the various goings on and doings, and the place where out lives happen. The Buddha meant strictly the information presented at the sense doors. I’ve come across other examples like this.

    So it seems that one has to learn to read the suttas, that it is an acquired skill. I’ve tried various things such as “Befriending The Suttas” from Access To Insight, but it didn’t really help.

    If anyone has any resources, or tips and hints, I’d love to hear them

    • This topic was modified 4 years, 3 months ago by  dcurtis.

    Malte Malm

    Thank you for the very interesting post. I know nothing of this matter, but it was very informative to read your impressions of and thoughts on the matter. I hope you will get good replys in this thread and I’ll follow them with interest, too.

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 3 months ago by  Malte Malm.

    Aaron A

    I recently read “In the Budda’s Words” by Bhikku Bodhi and it helped me better understand the sutras. The book attempts to put an interpretative framework around the suttas and alternates between interpretation and sutta text. In the intro Bhikkhu Bodhi basically says he wrote the book to solve the problem you are describing.



    So the issue is you feel like you’re missing the deeper meaning? I think that they are quite straightforward for the most part. I think the key is to understand that the Pali Canon is a huge body of orally transmitted material, so it’s very conventional and easy to memorise. I often think that the meaning of many suttas could be condensed into a few fairly short sentences. In fact I’d love to be able to buy a book that just translated the meanings of the suttas, with some notes on context, and cut out all of the extraneous stuff. For presentation on a page, it would make much more sense to use clear visual layouts and diagrams rather than burying the information in walls of text.

    Rant aside, I think it’s unlikely that you’re missing out on deeper meanings embedded in the suttas. However I’m sure you can analyse them to find your own interpretation and how the concepts used fit into the wider framework, or you could just read commentaries, but commentaries can give flawed interpretations. You could make considering the suttas into a form of analytical meditation (as described in the appendix of TMI) if you think you’re not ‘getting’ it.

    And of course, I think the largest obstacle to understanding the suttas (or any Buddhist literature) is often the translation of words. I haven’t really done this myself but it might be worth getting a Pali/Sanskrit dictionary and coming to terms with the different subtle connotations of words. Then of course you also need to know which words the translator is using to refer to the originals! Otherwise it’s very easy for the meaning to become obscured or confused, particularly when the Buddha lists five, or nine, or however many different types of fear (or whatever).

    Slightly off-topic, but I do always find it odd how often the Buddha seemed to produce apparently exhaustive lists of quite abstract phenomena. Particularly because of my perspective on non-duality, and the unsatisfactoriness of concepts, it seems peculiar that he makes so many authoritative statements about mundane things. However, the emphasis on non-duality is really a Mahayana doctrine so perhaps that’s why it doesn’t feature prominently in the Pali Canon.



    What edition of MN are you reading? I find it important to find an edition that is translated well. This means that the translator should be not only an expert in reading Pali, but also a seasoned practitioner him/herself. For my money, you can’t beat “The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya,” by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi.

    The repetition you refer to is intentional. You have to remember that the suttas were passed down orally for several hundred years before being committed to the written page. The repetition served as a way for important passages/concepts to be embedded into the collective memory of the sangha, and also aided in ensuring accuracy over the centuries. The book I mentioned above does away with much of the repetition occurring within the same areas of a given sutta. You’ll still encounter a lot of repetition from one sutta to the next, though – which is good, IMHO, since many of the concepts presented (e.g. dependent origination, the five hindrances, voidness, the five aggregates, etc.) are hard to penetrate, and repetition breeds familiarity.

    Another problem is that many phrases in Pali do not have an exact translation into English. The English words chosen by translators often have unintended connotations that were not there in the original Pali; and as a corollary, there were alomost certainly connotations associated with the Pali words that an English word can’t convey. So you’re dealing not only with the language barrier, but a cultural barrier as well – remember that this material was taught to groups of people from India, 2600 years ago, a largely agrarian society with a completely different social structure than we have today.

    As you said, learning the suttas is a skill. You can take the approach of just reading them (which is admirable, but difficult). Or you can try to learn from someone else’s attempts at translating the meaning. Probably the best approach is to combine those two, and also start listening to dhamma talks. A book like What The Buddha Taught or In The Buddha’s words is also a good place to start for learning concepts. And of course there is a wonderful series of audio teachings called “A Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikaya” that is available here: https://bodhimonastery.org/a-systematic-study-of-the-majjhima-nikaya.html.

    I do not recommend the commentaries (e.g. Visuddhimagga or Vimuttimagga) for trying to comprehend the Buddha’s words. They are texts written nearly a thousand years after the original tipitaka was laid down. They do not represent the true word of the Buddha in many important aspects. They can be important resources for advanced practitioners, but I don’t feel they represent the Buddha’s teachings accurately, and they outright contradict them in many places.

    Here are some additional resources you might want to look into:

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 3 months ago by  JavaJeff.
    • This reply was modified 4 years, 3 months ago by  JavaJeff.



    Recently I had been reading a great online book by Kenneth Folk called “Contemplative Fitness” and in there he refers to Buddha as “Pali Buddha” and he explains this distinction as such on page 32 in the notes:

    “Although both the Pali and Sanskrit texts are ostensibly about the same historical figure, the pictures painted by these collections of stories diverge; the Buddha of the Pali Canon is fierce, clear in his communication, and uncompromising in his dedication to excellence while the Buddha of the Sanskrit texts often appears easy-going and vague. This is what I mean when I say “Pali Buddha” or “Sanskrit Buddha.””

    Hope this helps


    Alex K

    I have found this manual to the MN quite helpful: http://www.shardarogell.com/reading-and-resources/pressing-out-pure-honey



    Thanks to everyone, this has been quite helpful.

    Aaron A – I’ll check that out, hopefully it will prove helpful.

    Jamie – After listening to many talks by various trust worthy teachers, and working with an ex-monastic as my actual teacher for two years, one thing I’m fairly sure of is that the suttas are written in a kind of a code. Not a literal, actual code. The teacher I worked with (Dhammarato, student of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa) said as much to me. Other monastics have made this point indirectly. There’s what can be understood at the surface level, but there are other levels of meaning for some of the language used, I gave one example in my original post. Some of the difficulty is, as you describe, in the mass of verbiage. Someone should just distill the suttas down, if possible.

    JavaJeff – That the version of MN I purchased.

    Tony James – That’s helpful but also raises other issues. It’s certainly very interesting.

    Alex K – Thank you. I’ve downloaded it to send to my e-reader.



    I highly suggest the audible book series “Abiding in Mindfulness” by Joseph Goldstein. 3 books, 46 dharma talks. Breaks down the Satipatṭhāna Sutta. I know this is only one of many Suttas, but Josheph’s comprehensive breakdown helped not only my meditation and understanding TMI better, but also gave me insight in how one might approach the suttas.
    I also agree with Aaron that “In the Budda’s Words” by Bhikku Bodhi was a big help.



    Ajahn Buddhadasa had a nice contribution with his 2 languages. The people language and dhamma language the Buddha seemed to be speaking. So discerning when he is speaking which and to whom can be helpful.

    Sutta has a relation to suture. Santikaro once advised to follow a thread within the suttas to gain understanding. I found that helpful. With this in mind its helpful to ground your understanding in your own practice. This way you have threads that are worth following. This is how the suttas can ‘come to life’ and inform your practice.

    When I first started reading the suttas I shelved whatever I did not understand and would come back to it periodically.

    Reading different translations of the same sutta is helpful. You see that everyone is coming to their interpretation with their own personal understanding.

    I read Kalupahana’s “The Buddha’s Philosophy of Language” recently. He said the Buddha had a language of becoming while his culture had a language of existence. I would say that most of us have a language based in existence (ontology) so it takes some time to consider what a language of becoming would be like. Culadasa talks about ‘process’.

    I once heard that each and every sutta is only about emptiness…it’s fun to try and discern how emptiness is in each sutta.

    To the folks that want to change the suttas to fit a modern understanding like Batchelor’s ‘Beliefs without Buddhism’ (hahaha). Would you go into an art museum and want to redo works of art from antiquity because they did not agree with your modern aesthetic? I’ve found putting myself into the shoes of who the Buddha is addressing to be helpful i.e. do I posses a similar belief or perspective to who he is teaching. Then ask, ‘what is he trying to tell me’? So I literally don’t have to be a cow or dog ascetic but do I posses forms of ‘magical thinking’, etc.?

    If you want to find a deeper dhammic meaning the tendency to literalize needs to be kept in check when reading the suttas. Ajahn Buddhadasa’s seeing jati (birth) as the birth of ego is a case in point.

    mucho metta,

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