Reading List: classical Buddhist teachings
The discourses of the Buddha offer a vast range of practices, from ethical guidelines for wise daily life and relationships, instructions for meditation and inner cultivation, all the way to descriptions of the deepest truths of reality.
This page offers a selection of core Buddhist texts from primarily Early (Pāli Canon/Theravāda) Buddhist sources, focusing on the foundations of Buddhist practice and the integration of this ancient wisdom into our complex modern lives. Adapted from a syllabus I use in a 4-month sutta study class, it is in four sections:
1: Turning the wheel: Foundations of Buddhist doctrine
2: Living a good life: Instructions for lay people, and social action
3: Embodied inquiry: Meditation and investigation
4: Vast view: Love, emptiness, and liberation
Most of the texts will be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s beautiful anthology: In the Buddha’s Words. Handouts are given here, but the book is wonderful for deeper study. The links that follow here are for further study on your own if you choose, mostly from the website Sutta Central, which has Pāli and Sanskrit Early Buddhist texts in authoritative translations into many languages, and Access to Insight.
Because there are countless good Dharma books out there by contemporary teachers, for these study guides I’m emphasizing the Pāli texts themselves and fairly traditional (and free) commentary by Theravāda monastics. For an accessible contemporary introduction to Buddhist practice by an American lay teacher, I recommend my mentor Jack Kornfield’s book The Wise Heart.
If you’re more of a listener than a reader, you’ll find hundreds of talks on all these subjects on dharmaseed.org (talks by Insight Meditation teachers worldwide), and audiodharma.org (talks from Insight Mediation Center/Gil Fronsdal).
1: Turning the Wheel: Foundations of Buddhist doctrine
This sutta contains the Buddha’s core teaching on the 4 Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the 8-fold Path of training that leads to the end of suffering. Because the 8-fold Path is the primary doctrinal structure for Buddhist practice, this sutta can be said to “contain the entire Dhamma” in the many lists of qualities and teachings it implies. Here are links for study of the all the lists in detail.
Talk by Thai Forest master Ajahn Chah, “Opening the Dhamma Eye“, discussing Kondañña’s realization and the transmission of the Dhamma in this sutta.
The 5 Aggregates
The Eightfold Path
- Wise View: Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View (MN 9) and commentary (Bodhi)
- Wise Intention: Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Kinds of Thinking (MN 19), and an essay on Wise Intention (Thanissaro)
- Wise Speech: Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya (MN 58), and a Wise Speech study guide
- Wise Action: Saleyyaka Sutta: The Brahmans of Sala (MN 41), and a Wise Action study guide
- Wise Livelihood: Anana Sutta: Freedom from Debt (AN 4.62), and 4 essays (Bogoda, Jootla, Walshe)
- Wise Effort: Sabbasava Sutta: All the Taints (MN 2), and a Wise Effort study guide
- Wise Mindfulness: The Way of Mindfulness, The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary (Soma)
- Wise Concentration: Maha-Assapura Sutta: The Greater Discourse at Assapura (MN 39), and a Samādhi study guide
The 3 Marks
Interestingly, the doctrinal list of the 3 Marks (tilakkhaṇa) as a formal structure is somewhat rare in the sutta collections, appearing most famously in verses 277-79 of the Dhammapāda, and in the important Discourse on Not-self (sutta+commentary), where it is the lens through which to understand the 5 Aggregates. The Discourse on Not-self was given by the Buddha to the bhikkhus of the Group of Five shortly after he gave them the Turning the Wheel discourse. The end of the Not-self talk describes all 5 bhikkhus becoming fully realized (arahants).
Where it shows up in full force is in the 5th century meditation manual, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga, chapter 20), in which it is the primary lens through which the meditator analyzes her experience in vipassanā practice. It’s a tremendously important and beautiful teaching. Here’s 3 short books about the 3 Marks, from the Buddhist Publication Society’s “Wheel” series:
2: A good life: Instructions for lay people & social action
The instructions for lay people in the early Buddhist tradition are rooted in Generosity, going for Refuge (in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha), cultivation of the 5 Ethical Precepts, and maintaining wise relationships in all our communities. Based on this solid foundation, the lay practitioner is encouraged to practice toward seeing the truth of impermanence as a doorway to wisdom and liberation.
3: Embodied Inquiry: Meditation and investigation
The meditation part of the path is most commonly represented by a set of texts on Mindfulness (sati). The discourse on Mindfulness of the Body is an elegant example. This text, a less-known sibling to the standard text, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), emphasizes deepening awareness & inquiry into embodied experience as a pathway to deep meditative stabilization and realization. Along with the Ānāpānasati (MN 118), the three texts present the Buddha’s meditative discipline in substantial detail.
4: Vast view. Love, Emptiness, and Liberation.
The beautiful teachings on loving-kindness, or metta, are an important aspect of the path to liberation. Metta is the cornerstone of the four Divine Abodes, or brahmavihara, which combine heart-opening reflection with concentration and insight practice.
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Sutta: Rolling Forth the Wheel of the Dhamma
At one time the Buddha was staying near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana. There the Buddha addressed the group of five mendicants:
“Mendicants, these two extremes should not be cultivated by one who has gone forth. What two? Indulgence in sensual pleasures, which is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And indulgence in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless. Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One woke up by understanding the middle way, which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and extinguishment.
And what is that middle way? It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is that middle way, which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and extinguishment.
Now this is the noble truth of suffering. Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.
Now this is the noble truth of the origin of suffering. It’s the craving that leads to future rebirth, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure in various different realms. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence.
Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not clinging to it.
Now this is the noble truth of the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering. It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion.