Sutta Learning Sequence for the Present Day

November 30, 2016; revised October 29, 2019


1. In this critical post, I point out that it is better to study suttā in the order that is the reverse of the time sequence of sutta delivery by the Buddha.

  • As I discussed in the post, “Animisa Locana Bodhi Poojawa – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude,” the Buddha spent the first few years of his ministry “paying back” those who had helped him attain the Buddhahood through numerous previous lives.
  • Those ranged from the five ascetics (to whom the Buddha delivered the first desana) to King Suddhōdana (his father, he went to see in the fifth year after attaining the Buddhahood). They and others in between had fulfilled most of the requirements to achieve the Arahanthood in previous lives. They were “ready” to attain the Arahantship and were able to comprehend the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) reasonably quickly.
Comprehending Tilakkhana Is Not Easy

2. Grasping the Tilakkhana is not easy for a normal human being. It takes many, many lives. In a given Buddha Sāsana (ministry), those who have fulfilled most of the requirements in previous lives attain Arahanthood first, without much effort. For example, the two chief disciples, Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggallana reached the Sotāpanna stage just by listening to a single verse and then attained the Arahanthood within two weeks.

  • Therefore, those discourses delivered in the first several years were “deep.” They could only be comprehended by those who had made progress on the path in previous lives.
  • The first desana, Dhammacappavattana Sutta, was a summary of the “Buddhist doctrine” to put in terms of modern terminology. The second desana was on the anatta nature of the world, Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. The “fire sermon” (Adittapariyaya Sutta) was on the “burning nature” of this world of 31 realms. The word “burning” implies “tāpa” or “heat in mind.” This word “tāpa” was discussed later in the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta; see, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life.”
  • A large number of people (who were ready) attained magga phala within the first few years of the Buddha Sāsana. in the latter years, it took longer and longer for people to reach magga phala.  In those later years, the Buddha delivered more and more discourses that were “less deep” and easier to understand for those who were “less prepared.”
  • For example, Mahā Cattarisika Sutta and Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (which were delivered later) provide detailed accounts of the process, starting with basic concepts. However, those basic concepts have not discussed adequately. In some cases, translations are incorrect.
  • Many suttā clarify even more fundamental aspects.

3. All those “deep desanas” delivered early by the Buddha require detailed explanations. Just word-by-word translations cannot explain the deeper meanings. That is why the meanings of the Tilakkhana remain hidden.

  • Furthermore, understanding Tilakkhana requires some fundamental — and essential — material covered in later suttā by the Buddha.
  • I plan to discuss more of the “less deep” suttā in this section in the future. I realized this point only recently while writing posts in the new “Living Dhamma” section.
Four Categories of People, Based on Their Capabilities

4. As pointed out by Buddha, There are three types of people who can comprehend Tilakkhana, categorized according to their “inherent capabilities.” That has nothing to do with “book knowledge,” but has everything to do with one’s inherent capabilities accumulated over many, many lives.

  • The first category is ugghaṭitañña or “persons with high wisdom”; they could grasp concepts very quickly. Then some belong to the vipañcitañña category, and they needed a bit more explanation to understand the concepts. The third category is neyya; they need detailed explanations (i.e., patiniddesa)  to grasp a concept. People in the last group of “padaparama” are unable to comprehend Dhamma.
  • These categories are listed in the Ugghaṭi­tañ­ñū Sutta (AN 4.133) and discussed in, “Sutta – Introduction.”
  • These days — 2600 years into the Buddha Sāsana of the Gotama Buddha — most people are in the third category of neyya. Therefore, it makes more sense for most people today to start at a more fundamental level and proceed to higher levels.
  • Trying to comprehend those “deep” suttā — without first grasping the material in the suttā that were delivered later in his life by the Buddha — is like trying to pass the university entrance examination without having a good primary and high school education.
“Living Dhamma” Section

5. The “Living Dhamma” section was started to provide a systematic way to proceed to higher levels starting at a fundamental level. I highly recommend to everyone to start there.

  • If one is confident of the material in earlier posts in that section, they can proceed quickly to higher levels (later posts). Furthermore, if someone runs into difficulty at a recent post, one needs to go back to earlier posts and clarify those points.
  • The Buddha had a unique ability to “see” the capability of each person. Therefore, he was able to deliver a discourse tailored to each individual. No one today has that capability, despite false claims by some. Thus, each person needs to realize one’s abilities and deficiencies and strive accordingly.
Need to Discuss Simper Suttā in the Tipiṭaka

6. There are hundreds of suttā in the Tipiṭaka that discuss key concepts at a basic level. It is quite unfortunate that even the Theravadins have set aside the Tipiṭaka and are using the Visuddhimagga of the Buddhaghosa as the “base.”

  • With the current revival of pure Dhamma in Sri Lanka — initiated by Venerable Waharaka Abhayaratanalankara Thero — the value of the Tipiṭaka is becoming clear.

7. In the “Sutta Interpretations” section, I plan to discuss some of those long-forgotten suttā to explain key Pāli terms. I will briefly mention some of those suttā below.

  • The Nibbāna Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya clearly describes Nibbāna as, “..rāgakkhayo, dosakkhayo, mohakkhayo, idam vuccati Nibbānanti“.
  • One does not need to examine deep concepts like sunyata initially. However, even though those deeper meanings become clear upon grasping the basic ideas. See, What is Sunyata or Sunnata (Emptiness)?
  • That is why I emphasized this at the beginning of the Meditation section: 1. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. One can experience the “cooling down” as one gets rid of greed, hate, and ignorance (of the true nature of the world) from one’s mind.
More Key Pāli Words

8. Another keyword is anicca, incorrectly translated as “impermanence.” It is very easy to from the Icchā Sutta (in the Samyutta Nikāya 1.69) that icchā or the opposite of anicca has nothing do with “permanence.” The Sutta states,

“..Icchāya bajjhatī loko, icchā vinayāya muccati

Icchāya vippahānena, sabbaṃ chindati bandhanan” ti.“.

  • That means the following. “The world is bound by icchā (cravings), and one needs to get rid of icchā to become disentangled; one becomes free of all entanglements by realizing anicca nature.” Of course, one removes cravings by comprehending the anicca nature, i.e., that it is not possible to maintain things to one’s liking.
  • Icchā (pronounced ichchā) is a perception in one’s mind.

9. The Dasakammapatha Sutta, clearly states how people with similar gati tend to associate with each other and thus make those gati stronger.

10. In the Ginjakavasatha sutta  (Samyutta Nikāya), Buddha tells Ven. Ananda that one can determine for oneself whether one has attained the Sotāpanna stage. Furthermore, one can declare that if one so desires.

  • The deeper meaning of the five precepts discussed in the Sikkapada vibhanga in the Vibhangapakaranaya-2. The deeper meaning of the fifth precept, “surameraya majjapama dattana veramani…” is described as discussed in the post, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them.”
Many Key Words Are Based on “San

11. The Cūḷa­hatthi­pa­dopa­ma Sutta (in the Majjima Nikāya) explains many words associated with “san.” Some of these “san” words are discussed in the section on “san.” More words in the post, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

  • Venerable Mahinda Thero explained that sutta to King Denampiyatissa when they first met.
  • Cūḷa is for “small.” Hatthi is an elephant. Padopama comes from “pada” + “upamā“, or “from an example or simile”.  The simile is about a person who came to the wrong conclusion about the size of an elephant, based on the size of the footprint on the ground left by that elephant.
  • That sutta explains how people come to wrong conclusions about a given keyword by just taking in the “conventional” interpretation (for example, taking anicca to mean “impermanence,” whereas the actual meaning of anicca much more in-depth).
  • I hope to discuss those and other “long-forgotten” and misinterpreted suttā that help us understand basic concepts first. Then it would be easier to tackle those deeper suttā that were delivered very early.
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