History of Suttas

What is a sutta and why do they matter?

A sutta or sutra is the recording of a discourse. The culture of the Buddha’s time was an oral one and so all teachings were done orally.  The Buddha taught for 45 years resulting in a whole lot of these discourses.

To me they matter because they are the closest one can get to the Buddha’s words which form the basis behind everything we do here in terms of the way we practice etc.

I personally came to Buddhism through the suttas and found out about the meditation a little later on once I was confident enough in the teachings behind the meditation. I had meditated in the past both in Christian and non-Christian traditions and while seeing the benefits of meditation, I could not get behind the teachings surrounding the practice.  So for me, the teachings came first and with confidence, the meditation. This is not the way most people approach it but that along with my generally scholarly nature, reading of the Bible and other religious texts made me want to sink my teeth in to really understand what I was looking at.

When I started I went to find the earliest, most complete and most comprehensive set of texts I could which is the Pali Canon.  Pali being the language of recording and Canon as in canonical or approved. This also sent me down a largely Theravadan course of study.

This leads me to the next item to address which is a question Gabriel asked me once:

What the heck is the Pali Canon and why is that the end all be all?

The response from an article my meditation group from NC sent to me was the following:

  1. Pali is the closest language to what the Buddha likely spoke, less mistranslation
  2. It is the most complete and earliest group of teachings

There are also the Chinese Agamas translated from Sanskrit into Chinese that have much of the same information but organized in different forms.

How historically did a 21st century English speaking Texan read the discourses of an Indian monastic from 2,500 years ago?

Part A – The Origin of the Suttas

This is the semi-mythical tale of the Buddha’s cousin and attendant for the entire later portion of his life, Ananda. Now being the Buddha’s attendant meant that of all of the monks, it was Ananda who was with the Buddha at all times. He was able to hear everything that the Buddha said and it was his task to remember it. The story of Ananda’s enlightenment revolves around his importance to the texts and the proper memory of the Buddha’s teachings. The culture of the times was purely oral with no written word. It has been proven that human memory can expand enormously when deprived of written words. The Buddha was really not a fan of being misinterpreted so a task of the monastics was to chant the suttas together so that by hearing everyone around you, you would learn and mistakes would be washed out. This is process that continues for several centuries until after the time of Asoka.

Part B – The Spread of Buddhism

King Asoka is largely attributed with the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka which to this day is largely Buddhist.  This is important to the spread of Buddhism because it is from Sri Lanka as a central trading hub of the Indian Ocean that Buddhism reaches modern Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. For our purposes though, it is important that in Sri Lanka around 300 BCE, the suttas were written down for the first time on bamboo sticks in the language Pali. To the knowledge of scholars, the texts have really not changed since this time almost at all.

Part C – The British and Linguistics

The British conquest of India and Sri Lanka is a pivotal moment in the spread of Buddhism and the suttas to the West and it is really the suttas that get here first, long before there would have been anyone calling themselves a practicing Western Buddhist and reason for this is both the Theosophical Society of Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky founded in 1875 which relocated to India and included the study of eastern religious and the PTS the Pali Text Society founded in 1881 by Thomas William Rhys Davids and other British Civil Servants who instructed to learn about the local customs and language of their post in Sri Lanka delved into the Pali texts from a scholarly perspective.  This near simultaneous discovery by the British of the vast literature preserved in an early proto-form of Sanskrit was also interesting from a linguistics perspective and so the popularity of the Pali Canon grew in England. This was right in the middle of the evolution of the Indo-European linguistic theory with first scholarly origins around 1815 and being fully vetted by 1927.

Part D – Bhikkhu Bodhi, the BPS, and Access to Insight

The BPS or Buddhist Publication Society was founded in 1953 by two Buddhist laymen from Sri Lanka and a European-born Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera to publish Buddhist works. Bhikkhu Bodhi

In 1993 with the support from the Barre Center where Bhikkhu Bodhi resides, John Bullit began creating an online platform to store English translations of the suttas starting with two or three and now having a cross-referenced library of over a thousand suttas online sometimes with multiple translations per text online, for free.  It is this resource that I discovered that started my research on Buddhism.

Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)

I have heard that on one occasion the Buddha was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara. There Ven. Ananda went to the Buddha and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Buddha, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Buddha, “This is half of the holy life, sir: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”[1]

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a student has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, they can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

“And how does a student who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path?

There is the case where a student develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. They develop right resolveright speechright actionright livelihoodright effortright mindfulnessright concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.

“And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”