Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

In the Buddha’s Words - Preface

An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

The Buddha’s discourses preserved in the Pāli Canon are called suttas, the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit word sūtras. Although the Pāli Canon belongs to a particular Buddhist school—the Theravāda, or School of the Elders—the suttas are by no means exclusively Theravāda Buddhist texts. They stem from the earliest period of Buddhist literary history, a period lasting roughly a hundred years after the Buddha’s death, before the original Buddhist community divided into different schools. The Pāli suttas have counterparts from other early Buddhist schools now extinct, texts sometimes strikingly similar to the Pāli version, differing mainly in settings and arrangements but not in points of doctrine. The suttas, along with their counterparts, thus constitute the most ancient records of the Buddha’s teachings available to us; they are the closest we can come to what the historical Buddha Gotama himself actually taught. The teachings found in them have served as the fountainhead, the primal source, for all the evolving streams of Buddhist doctrine and practice through the centuries. For this reason, they constitute the common heritage of the entire Buddhist tradition, and Buddhists of all schools who wish to understand the taproot of Buddhism should make a close and careful study of them a priority.

In the Pāli Canon the Buddha’s discourses are preserved in collections called Nikāyas. Over the past twenty years, fresh translations of the four major Nikāyas have appeared in print, issued in attractive and affordable editions. Wisdom Publications pioneered this development in 1987 when it published Maurice Walshe’s translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom followed this precedent by bringing out, in 1995, my revised and edited version of Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s handwritten translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, followed in 2000 by my new translation of the complete Saṃyutta Nikāya, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. In 1999, under the imprint of The Sacred Literature Trust Series, AltaMira Press published an anthology of suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, translated by the late Nyanaponika Thera and myself, titled Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. I am currently working on a new translation of the entire Aṅguttara Nikāya, intended for Wisdom Publication’s Teachings of the Buddha series.

Many who have read these larger works have told me, to my satisfaction, that the translations brought the suttas to life for them. Yet others who earnestly sought to enter the deep ocean of the Nikāyas told me something else. They said that while the language of the translations made them far more accessible than earlier translations, they were still grappling for a standpoint from which to see the suttas’ overall structure, a framework within which they all fit together. The Nikāyas themselves do not offer much help in this respect, for their arrangement—with the notable exception of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, which does have a thematic structure—appears almost haphazard.

In an ongoing series of lectures I began giving at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey in January 2003, I devised a scheme of my own to organize the contents of the Majjhima Nikāya. This scheme unfolds the Buddha’s message progressively, from the simple to the difficult, from the elementary to the profound. Upon reflection, I saw that this scheme could be applied not only to the Majjhima Nikāya, but to the four Nikāyas as a whole. The present book organizes suttas selected from all four Nikāyas within this thematic and progressive framework.

This book is intended for two types of readers. The first are those not yet acquainted with the Buddha’s discourses who feel the need for a systematic introduction. For such readers, any of the Nikāyas is bound to appear opaque. All four of them, viewed at once, may seem like a jungle—entangling and bewildering, full of unknown beasts—or like the great ocean—vast, tumultuous, and forbidding. I hope that this book will serve as a map to help them wend their way through the jungle of the suttas or as a sturdy ship to carry them across the ocean of the Dhamma.

The second type of readers for whom this book is meant are those, already acquainted with the suttas, who still cannot see how they fit together into an intelligible whole. For such readers, individual suttas may be comprehensible in themselves, but the texts in their totality appear like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered across a table. Once one understands the scheme in this book, one should come away with a clear idea of the architecture of the teaching. Then, with a little reflection, one should be able to determine the place any sutta occupies in the edifice of the Dhamma, whether or not it has been included in this anthology.

This anthology, or any other anthology of suttas, is no substitute for the Nikāyas themselves. My hope is twofold, corresponding to the two types of readers for whom this volume is designed: (1) that newcomers to Early Buddhist literature find this volume whets their appetite for more and encourages them to take the plunge into the full Nikāyas; and (2) that experienced readers of the Nikāyas finish the book with a better understanding of material with which they are already familiar.

If this anthology is meant to make any other point, it is to convey the sheer breadth and range of the Buddha’s wisdom. While Early Buddhism is sometimes depicted as a discipline of world renunciation intended primarily for ascetics and contemplatives, the ancient discourses of the Pāli Canon clearly show us how the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion reached into the very depths of mundane life, providing ordinary people with guidelines for proper conduct and right understanding. Far from being a creed for a monastic élite, ancient Buddhism involved the close collaboration of householders and monastics in the twin tasks of maintaining the Buddha’s teachings and assisting one another in their efforts to walk the path to the extinction of suffering. To fulfill these tasks meaningfully, the Dhamma had to provide them with deep and inexhaustible guidance, inspiration, joy, and consolation. It could never have done this if it had not directly addressed their earnest efforts to combine social and family obligations with an aspiration to realize the highest.

Almost all the passages included in this book have been selected from the above-mentioned publications of the four Nikāyas. Almost all have undergone revisions, usually slight but sometimes major, to accord with my own evolving understanding of the texts and the Pāli language. I have newly translated a small number of suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya not included in the above-mentioned anthology. I have also included a handful of suttas from the Udāna and Itivuttaka, two small books belonging to the fifth Nikāya, the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Minor or Miscellaneous Collection. I have based these on John D. Ireland’s translation, published by the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka, but again I have freely modified them to fit my own preferred diction and terminology. I have given preference to suttas in prose over those in verse, as being more direct and explicit. When a sutta concludes with verses, if these merely restate the preceding prose, in the interest of space I have omitted them.

Each chapter begins with an introduction in which I explain the salient concepts relevant to the theme of the chapter and try to show how the texts I have chosen exemplify that theme. To clarify points arising from both the introductions and the texts, I have included endnotes. These often draw upon the classical commentaries to the Nikāyas ascribed to the great South Indian commentator ficariya Buddhaghosa, who worked in Sri Lanka in the fifth century c.e. For the sake of concision, I have not included as many notes in this book as I have in my other translations of the Nikāyas. These notes are also not as technical as those in the full translations.

References to the sources follow each selection. References to texts from the Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya cite the number and name of the sutta (in Pāli); passages from these two collections retain the paragraph numbers used in The Long Discourses of the Buddha and The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, so readers who wish to locate these passages within the full translations can easily do so. References to texts from the Saṃyutta Nikāya cite saṃyutta and sutta number; texts from the Aṅguttara Nikāya cite nipāta and sutta number (the Ones and the Twos also cite chapters within the nipāta followed by the sutta number). References to texts from the Udāna cite nipāta and sutta number; texts from the Itivuttaka cite simply the sutta number. All references are followed by the volume and page number in the Pali Text Society’s standard edition of these works.

I am grateful to Timothy McNeill and David Kittelstrom of Wisdom Publications for urging me to persist with this project in the face of long periods of indifferent health. Sāmaṇera Anālayo and Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano read and commented on my introductions, and John Kelly reviewed proofs of the entire book. All three made useful suggestions, for which I am grateful. John Kelly also prepared the table of sources that appears at the back of the book. Finally, I am grateful to my students of Pāli and Dhamma studies at Bodhi Monastery for their enthusiastic interest in the teachings of the Nikāyas, which inspired me to compile this anthology. I am especially thankful to the monastery’s extraordinary founder, Ven. Master Jen-Chun, for welcoming a monk of another Buddhist tradition to his monastery and for his interest in bridging the Northern and Southern transmissions of the Early Buddhist teachings.

Bhikkhu Bodhi


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© Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words (Wisdom Publications, 2005)

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