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Methodology of Sutta reading
John T. Bullitt
As you read a sutta, keep in mind that you are eavesdropping on the Buddha as he teaches someone else. Unlike many of the Buddha's contemporaries from other spiritual traditions, who would often adhere to a fixed doctrine when answering every question, the Buddha tailored his teachings to meet the particular needs of his audience. It is therefore important to develop a sensitivity to the context of a sutta, to see in what ways the circumstances of the Buddha's audience may be similar to your own, so you can gauge how best to apply the Buddha's words to your own life situation.
As you read, it can be helpful to keep certain questions circulating gently in the back of your mind, both to help you understand the context of the sutta and to help you tune in to the different levels of teaching that are often going on at once. These questions aren’t meant to make you into a Buddhist literary scholar; they’re simply meant to help each sutta come alive for you.
What is the setting?
The opening paragraph of (usually beginning, "Thus have I heard...") sets the stage for the sutta. Does it take place in a village, in a monastery, in the forest? What season is it? What events are taking place in the background? Fixing these details in your mind reminds you that this sutta describes real events that happened to real people - like you and me.
What is the story?
One sutta may offer little in the way of a narrative story (Anguttara Nikaya 7.6), while another may be filled with pathos and drama, perhaps even resembling a short story. How does the storyline itself reinforce the teachings presented in the sutta?
Who initiates the teaching?
Does the Buddha take the initiative, or does someone come to him with questions (Digha Nikaya 2)? If the latter, are there any unspoken assumptions or attitudes lying behind the questions? Does someone come to the Buddha with the intention of defeating him in debate (Madhyama Nikaya 58)? These considerations can give you a sense of the motivation behind the teachings, and of the listener’s receptivity to the Buddha’s words. With what attitude do you approach these teachings?
Who is teaching?
Is the teacher the Buddha (SN 15.3), one of his disciples (SN 22.85), or both (SN 22.1)? Is he or she ordained (SN 35.191) or a layperson (AN 6.16)? What is the teacher's depth of understanding (e.g., is she "merely" a stream-enterer (AN 6.16), or is she an arahant (Thig 5.4))? Having some sense of the teacher’s credentials can help you assess the context of the teachings. Many suttas offer little in the way of biographical details about the participants; in such cases consult the commentaries or ask a Buddhist scholar or monastic for help.
To whom are the teachings directed?
Are they addressed to a monk (SN 35.85), nun (AN 4.159), or lay follower (AN 7.49)? Are they addressed to one group of people, while someone else within earshot actually takes the teaching to heart (SN 35.197)? Is the audience a large assembly (MN 118) or an individual (AN 4.184)? Or are the listeners followers of another religion altogether (MN 57)? What is the depth of their understanding? If the audience consists of stream-enterers striving for arahantship, the teachings presented may be considerably more advanced than if the audience has only a limited grasp of the Buddha’s teachings (AN 3.65). These questions can help you assess how appropriate a particular teaching is for you.
What is the method of presentation?
Is it a formal lecture (SN 56.11), a question-and-answer session (Sn 5.6), a retelling of an old story (AN 3.15), or simply an inspired verse (Thig 1.11)? Is the heart of the teaching contained in its content (SN 12.2) or is the way in which the teacher interacts with his listeners itself part of the message (MN 57)? The great variety of teaching styles employed by the Buddha and his disciples shows that there is no fixed method of teaching Dhamma; the method used depends on the particular demands of the situation and the spiritual maturity of the audience.
What is the essential teaching?
Where does the teaching fit in with the Buddha's threefold progressive system of training: Does it focus primarily on the development of virtue (MN 61), concentration (AN 5.28), or wisdom (MN 140)? Is the presentation consistent with what is given in other suttas (e.g., Sn 2.14 and DN 31)? How does this teaching fit into your own "roadmap" of the Buddha's teachings? Does it fit in nicely with your previous understanding, or does it call into question some of your basic assumptions about the Dhamma?
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