Top-5 anthologies of the Buddha's discourses
Updated: Oct 15
The Pāli discourses of the Buddha are roughly two-and-half millennia hold, and yet they still provide an incredibly precise guide to better understand the basic grammar of experience. Despite being transmitted in an old Indian language, and conceived in a society surely very different from our today's world, they describe basic structures, fundamental problems, and forms of training that still potentially fit everybody's situation.
For one committed to translate the discourses into a lived practice, there is no way around reading them. And possibly one should read enough to get a sufficient sense of the variety of topics and approaches they cover. Luckily, today plenty of resources are easily available in English, and there are also plenty of resources that help navigating the original Pāli versions. Here a few suggestions:
(1) The Wings to Awakening is an open access anthology composed by Ajhan Thanissaro, a leading Western representative of the Thai Forest tradition (a branch of the Theravāda tradition in Thailand). Ajhan Thanissaro organizes the discourses according to the traditional sets of qualities that a practitioner is supposed to develop. The anthology is complemented with helpful introductions and essays that focus on various aspects of the Buddha's teachings, with a strong emphasis on the notion of action (kamma) and the idea of learning how to become 'skillful' in practice.
(2) The Island is another open access anthology, composed by Ajhan Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, which collects various texts and fragments on nibbāna, mostly from the discourses. It also includes an extensive final section on the first stage of awakening (sotāpatti).
(3) In the Buddha's Words is an anthology authored by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a leading Western Theravāda monk who is responsible for a series of very valuable recent translations of the main collections of discourses. His approach and commentary usually gives a fair overview of the standard commentarial interpretation of the discourses.
(4) The discourses are divided into four major groups (Nikāyas): the Long, Middle-Length, Connected, Numerical. A further fifth collection (the Minor discourses) include many popular and shorter anthologies, like the Udana or the Dhammapada. For those who wants to read one of these collections, it is advisable to begin with the Middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikāya), which provides a good and encompassing overview of the main topics covered in the rest of the corpus.
(5) For those interested in getting a flavor of the original Pāli versions, Bhikkhu Bodhi has recently published an anthology derived from the Connected Discourses, Reading the Buddha's discourses in Pāli, arranged thematically around the main themes of the Buddha's teaching, and presented in Pāli version, word-to-word English translation, and more colloquial translation, with grammatical explanations and a helpful synthesis of the main features of Pāli grammar.