The discourses transmitted in the Pali Canon (and in other canonical collections as well) are known as suttas (Sanskrit sudra), a word that’s cognate with our modern English “sew” and “suture”; its literal meaning in Pali is “thread” or “string”.
John Bullitt, at Access to Insight, has an exceptionally good essay on the suttas, explaining what they are, which ones to start with, and how to read them for greatest enjoyment and understanding. The following is a similar take on the suttas, especially relevant to those on the Dhamma.now website.
What the suttas are
The suttas collected in the Pali Canon present themselves as records of teachings delivered by the Buddha himself or by his most senior and accomplished followers—the bhikkhus and bhikkunis who were leaders of the Buddha’s Sangha. I think that it’s safe to say that the suttas are not perfect recordings of the discourses delivered by Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago. But it’s also probable that, en masse, they represent his teachings with some fidelity. There are a lot of suttas, and they present a remarkably coherent and strikingly original view of how things go in the world and how we might practice so that we’re ready to respond skillfully to whatever experience the world delivers. Each sutta is self contained, although in some sections of the Pali Canon the suttas are grouped thematically—as varying lessons on a single topic, for example, or as different ways of explaining a common idea. There is no particular order in which the suttas must be studied. The more suttas you read, the more clearly you realize that each one sheds light on the others.
How to approach the suttas
The first thing to remember is that most of the suttas have their origin in the spoken word. Some are in the style of lectures or sermons, teachings delivered by the Buddha to the community of monks and nuns. Others record dialogues or debates; back-and-forth discourse between the Buddha and someone else—a member of the Sangha, a lay follower, a Brahmin, a member of some other renunciant order, or just anyone with a question. Those discussions were held in public, with an audience listening in, and each one was almost certainly followed, although we have no record of this, by further discussion among the audience, reviewing what was said and working to make sense of it. There was probably some more or less formal protocol observed in approaching the Buddha. Since the Buddha was almost always accompanied by members of the Sangha, it’s likely that those monks and nuns handled Q&A sessions following a discourse. Again, we have no record of any of that.
What we do have, then, is texts that are brief, not usually discursive, almost always limited to a single theme. They are not, by and large, informative in content. They cover ideas that would have been familiar to their audience, but each sutta presents a distinctive take on the idea it presents; they are texts to stimulate thinking, texts to ponder.
The second thing to remember is that the texts were transmitted orally for several centuries before they were written down and compiled into canonical form. That doesn’t mean that the transmission was unreliable. See the section on Context and the FAQ entry on The Pali Canon for more detail on how that oral transmission might have happened. But the requirements of oral transmission influenced the form that the texts assumed through time. When a given idea came up again and again, it evolved to assume a consistent form, so that a reciter could just drop the formula in each time it was needed. There is also a lot of verbatim repetition in the original texts, which not only aided memorization but also increased the chances that each time the words were repeated the audience would find new meaning in them. And it may very well be that a skilled reciter would change the import of a repeated phrase slightly with each repetition through body language, intonation, or phrasing.
These texts originated in the Fifth Century BCE. It is remarkable that they speak to our current condition so convincingly, that they remain so relevant to the problems we confront today, and that they continue to be so helpful in cultivating an engaged and fulfilling way of life in the presence of those problems. In order to hear their message, experience the relevance, and find a good way of living in the suttas, it is necessary to approach them imaginatively.
There is no Truth here to be accepted on authority; nothing here that must be believed; no gods that must be accepted into your life, no prayers, no salvational formulas. But if you make an effort to understand your experience in the light of the teaching to be found in the suttas, and to act on that understanding with purpose, vigor, honesty, and constant awareness, you may find, as others have found, that you are calmer, more tolerant, less prone to impulsive action, less self-conscious, less subject to anxiety and anger, quicker to help others and better able to accept help when you need it, less easily distracted and better focused—you get the idea. Will you become enlightened? Who knows.
Where to begin
Perhaps the best general approach to the suttas of the Pali Canon is through the Access to Insight website; read John Bullitt’s introduction, and begin browsing. If you find yourself confronted with something that bores or confuses you or contains stories or ideas that you can’t accept, set it aside and try something else; the Pali Canon is not Holy Writ. But the texts are rich and varied, and if you take a few stabs at it, you’re likely to find something appealing there, and to find a way of approaching the texts that allows them to speak to you.
The following list of suttas are those that we’ve studied in connection with the classes I’ve taught at UC’s OLLI program over the past five years. All of the translations I’ve adapted or written make an attempt at presenting the teachings in a way that’s clear and readable, without distorting the message of the original. In every case, I’ve provided links to other translations that may be more complete or literal and that can, in any case, give you a slightly different take on the meaning of the original Pali text. And all of the suttas presented here are supported by notes that attempt to expand on some of the more difficult ideas, cultural references, and disputed terms. I’m in the process of revising all of the suttas I prepared for the OLLI classes over the years. The following links are either to the revised version, when I’ve completed that, or to the version on the dharmastudy.org site, which I’ve used to support the classes I’ve taught.