What are Suttas?

Suttas are discourses given by the Buddha, but include also stories about the Buddha and other important figures from early Buddhism. Hence, suttas are the closest to the original teachings we have. There seem to be more than 10’000. Their transmission for the first half millennium was mostly by memory, because the equivalent of paper, then palm leaves, had a short life. We imagine suttas to be chanted in monastic communities with group control for trueness. The concept: A core group with stable memorization. Members go and come. As the chanting continues its content will be transferred from the old to the new members, who thus become part of the core group.

The scriptures have it that Ananda, a principle disciple of the Buddha and the second patriarch, had the best memory of all monks. At the First Buddhist Council, soon after the death of the Buddha, he is said to have recited many discourses and checked many others for accuracy. Historians warn, this likely is legend. However, I think monks and nuns, Ananda also is credited for establishing the nun’s order, well understood what the key teachings were and had to be given priority regarding accuracy and continuity of preservation. Thus, I trust the teachings we now receive to be quite correct.

Ashoka, an Indian emperor of the third century BCE who became a Buddhist, left stone pillars with Buddhist inscriptions. They are the first tangible evidence of Buddhism, but not of suttas. The oldest written documentation, the Pali Canon, dates from the turn of eras.

Buddha adapted his teachings to the situation at hand, reflecting the abilities of his audience to understand. In addition, the suttas were often structured in the following way:

1. Place

2. Time

3. Origin of audience

4. Frame of mind of audience

5. The teaching as such

I suggest six suttas to deserve careful study:

The very first teaching

Impermanence, everything is process

No-self, the self is the illusion that matters

The way karma works

Meditation taught by Buddha

Importance of discriminative thoughts and trust in one’s own experience

Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist Mahaniddesa Sutta.

1. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

The very first teaching to five ascetics, his former companions, who after expressing doubts, accepted his insight to be superior to theirs and became his first disciples. The name of the sutta means Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, the occasion of the teaching is referred to as the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. It took place in Isipatana (Sarnath), an open space near Benares (Varanasi).

The sutta, generally known as the Four Noble Truth and the most famous, has a logic: Suffering (called dukkha), is an effect which has a cause and a cure:

1. There is dukkha (suffering)

Suffering is an innate characteristic of all sentient beings

2. Dukkha has a cause

Craving for existence

3. Dukkha has a cure

Letting go of craving

4. The cure

Followig The Eightfold Path

In medicine we follow the same logic to this day:

1. There are symptoms

e.g. pain

2. The symptoms have a cause

e.g. an injury

3. Is there a cure?

Does the illness have a name, a known cure?

4. What is the therapy?

For the illness, or if the illness is unknown, for the symptoms.

This guiding structure can also be found in ancient Egyptian medicine, as documented in the Papyrus Ebers. This is interesting because, to my knowledge, there was no communication of ideas between the old cultures of Indus and Nile then (it seems to have started a century later with Alexander the Great). It looks as if the old Hindus and old Egyptians organized thought around disease and hope for cure the same way, addressing misery of mind and of body with the same structure.

The Eightfold Path

For practitioners of the Dharma, The Eightfold Path is the method, the therapy they strive to implement. The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

1. Right View

2. Right Resolve

3. Right Speech

4. Right Conduct

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Meditation

Right means right motivation to practice as well as the right way to practice. Some hints:

1. View

Can be developed by studying Buddhadharma.

2. Resolve

Dukkha (suffering) is a problem to stay, put effort in resolving it.

3. Speech

Evil thoughts give rise to evil speech, notice and stop.

4. Conduct

Thieves come in many forms and their friends are like them also.

5. Livelihood

Notice the harm your work might generate.

6. Effort

Understand what helps sentient beings and do it.

7. Mindfulness

Know what you are doing.

8. Meditation

Learn how to meditate and do it regularly.

Sounds impossible, hard or even discouraging. Why only hints and not the real deal?

Firstly, all eight practices are interwoven, you work on one you work on all of them. Secondly, each practice progresses from coarse to subtle.

Take right livelihood and stealing as an example. Nobody steals except thieves, certainly not me. I live in Switzerland, a country with an ecological footprint nearly three times its biocapacity: Simply by existing here I benefit from the communal part of that unacceptable footprint. Thus, I steal from future sentient beings. And then comes my part in mindlessness and unloving action and and and. But I learned to somehow tolerate myself, and I keep practicing.

There are many commentaries on The Eightfold Path. One I found helpful was written by Bhikku Bodhi, a Theravada monk, the tradition that draws its inspiration from the Pali Canon. The title of the commentary is The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering and can be found at accesstoinsight.org.

In summary, The Four Noble Truths teach that we humans suffer because we are delusionary about the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, no-self). The Eightfold Path is the method to reduce these delusions. The annihilation of all delusions ends all suffering.

References and links to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Three more translations are hosted by accesstoinsight.org: Ñanamoli Thera (1993/2010), Piyadassi Thera (1999/2013), Peter Harvey (2007/2013).

Another translation “with the support of Thanissaro Bikkhu’s translation”, sets English side by side with Pali, with info-bubbles on every Pali word.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering“, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist Mahaniddesa Sutta.

2. Anicca Sutta and 3. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta

Buddha concluded that all sentient beings have three things in common called the three marks of existence (tilakkhana). They are impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and no-self (anatta)

For Buddha this was lived reality. For skeptics they are conjectures or working hypotheses, certainly something in need of careful examination. The examination of tilakkhana takes time and effort, not just decades but life after life. Translations and commentaries can be found in the “References and Link” section below .


Impermanence is a universal concept. Permanence means no change. Time is the measure of change the same way length is the measure of space. Thus, the only place of permanence is a somewhere without time. Cosmology teaches the universe to have a starting point, the Big Bang, at which spacetime became. Thus, there was a moment without a past and from that moment on there was impermanence. If everything is process then time has to be. A somewhere without time, a place empty of time, is the precondition for that. In physics this is a mystery as well as a most significant question.

One is tempted to speculate, that this timeless whatever, is the residency of the Buddhas. However, here comes the warning of Buddha himself, no friend of speculation: Forget such nonsense, practice, practice, practice.

The idea that nothing is permanent, that everything is process, also has occidental roots in a fifth century BCE contemporary of Buddha. The Greek Herclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BCE), stated the same, although the expresion παντα ρει (panta rei, everything flows), usually attributed to him, and as far as meaning goes correctly, has been added later. The two could hardly have known of each other. Greco-Buddhism, a meeting of Hellenistic and Buddhist culture, started with Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) who reached the Indus in 326 BCE. Thus, the concept of impermanence has two sources, oriental and occidental. Masterful explorations of process as the fundamental thing to which reality can be ascribed we owe to the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).


Duhkha often is translated as suffering. Most generally it is an all-inclusive not-the-way-we-would-like-to-have-it.

Imagine a fish in an ocean exactly the same everywhere, same temperature, same pressure, same salinity, same sort and same amount of food (e.g. plankton). Wherever the fish goes like and dislike are the same. Bored, the fish may choose to stay put. The reality is different. Temperature, pressure, salinity and so on change constantly. Imagine the fish to be at a place that feels perfect. The next moment, due to impermanence, this place is less than perfect, e.g. too cool. Thus, the fish may try to correct this by swimming and searching for the perfect place, perhaps with no end but death.

We humans know better. We would never be searching and searching for fame or money or beauty or more of everything. We know of their impermanence. Buddha taught avoiding extremes, moderation. Consuming for the sake of consuming results in things way beyond our needs, and then the stress of protecting what we have against potential loss.

Dukkha is an experience, the longer you live the less you can deny it. We get what we do not want and we do not get what we want, and then there is loss of people important to us. We can take note of three pandemics since 2002, SARS, MERS and COVID-19. We can take note of the climatic changes due to burning fossil fuels, the refugees from wars, the suffering of animals for meat production, on and on. Our global culture of consumption is duhkha at all scales.

The self

The self is difficult, the more you look for the self the fuzzier it gets There are quarrels about the self, the old Hindus thought there is such a thing, the semitic traditions believe likewise, but with an everlasting soul at its core, the agnostics claim it is unknowable. Buddha taught there is a self, but illusionary by nature, and exactly by this illusionary nature cause for existence, and thus for the experience of dukkha: The self the problem that needs to be addressed. And by that he meant practicing The Eightfold Path. Do not worry about the self, but do something to reduce its grave and burdening consequences.

References and links to the Anicca and Anatta-lakkhana Sutta

Anicca Sutta: Impermanent” (SN 36.9), translated from the Pali by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 June 2010.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta” (The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic” (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 13 June 2010.

Two more translations are hosted by accesstoinsight.org: Thanissaro Bikkhu (1993/2013), N. K.G. Mendis (2007/2010).

The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence (Anicca)“, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

The Three Basic Facts of Existence: III. Egolessness (Anatta)“, with a preface by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

4. Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta - Analysis of Dependent Co-Arising

This is the core of Buddha Shakyamuni’s insight. What this  transforming experience was, we cannot know. What we know are the words in this sutta.

Here we have to trust Buddha as the teacher: To trust his explanation how karma works. If he got that wrong we have a major problem. He was no friend of blind belief or speculation of any kind, he made this clear again and again. He was a friend of practice. The confidence a practitioner can attain by practicing The Eightfold Path is through an ongoing stream of no contradiction. One can say, the path seems to work, why not continue as long as it works, one can do things more stupid. Buddha thought that nobody will understand this core insight and thought of The Noble Four Truth, the last being The Eightfold Path, as expedient means to explain himself. I also look at the teachers I had the privilege to meet, all had many decades of practice and were talking from experience, all had a deep honesty about them.

Buddha formulated the sutta as a sequence of processes where the former always is a requisite for the latter and which together form a circle, a bit more precise, a spiral about the axis of time, from A follows B, from B follows C, and so on until from L follows a new A. We spiral about this axis of time on and on to Buddhahood or to the end of time (whichever comes first, we are very ignorant here, the physics of the end of the universe is far more speculative than the physics about the beginning). However, crawling on from L (death) because of A (ignorance), then this new A, call it A’, differs from the original A by a lifetime of experience and reflection. The sequence looks like this:


from ignorance





from fabrications





from consciousness


name and form



from name and form


the six senses



from the six senses





from contact





from feeling





from craving





from clinging/sustenance





from becoming





from birth


aging, joy/sorrow, death


From death, due to ignorance, follows new birth, human or otherwise, with fabrications and so on. Due to ignorance we dive into the ocean of existence, experience joy and sorrow, both forms of misery, and leave this ocean to continue the spiral of dependent origination until we resolve the ignorance of not knowing how to end this, of not knowing how to practice the way that leads to liberation.

I asked Shifu Sheng Yen: “What is the requisite condition for sentient?” Answer: “A nerve system.” In order for a nerve system to be, a neuron has to be. Neurons do not leave fossil evidence directly, but coordinated movement does: Yilingia spiciformis, a worm from the Ediacaran Period (circa 600 million years ago) shows fossilized patterns corresponding to movement. Coordination of movement needs a nerve system. In short, there is evidence for sentient capability to exist on earth for more than half a billion years.

This explains why it is precious to be born human. It took evolution a long time to arrive where we are today.  Most of the sentient beings today are animals with minds more limited than ours. This explains why it makes egoistic sense to be altruistic: To protect our world with all beings, and to be kind to them, is prudent because we may have to come back and be one of them.

Dharma masters have been pondering dependent co-arising for millennia. Certainly we can decide to practice Buddhadharma while we are here, but what about when we are gone to elsewhere? The Tibetans have an account, certainly colored by their culture, the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. It is said to have been revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326-1386). Its very first English translation, by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, compiled and edited by W. Y. Evans- Wentz, 1927, is online available. A newer translation, 1975, we owe to Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987).

References and links to Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta

Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising” (SN 12.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Another translation of the sutta can be found at  dhammatalks.org by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist Mahaniddesa Sutta.

5. Anapanasati Sutta

This sutta bridges the last two practices of The Eightfold Path, mindfulness and meditation. Meditation are methods to be applied mindfully.

The method here consists of observing the breath, breathing in and breathing out. It may be that it is one of the methods Buddha himself learned before he was a Buddha, it may be one of the oldest methods if not the oldest still practiced. Today it is often instructed as counting the breath, Count in your mother tongue breathing out, from one to ten and again and again. Sounds boring. Most meditation methods are boring. If concentration fails you, try counting from ten down to one, and repeat….

References and links to Anapanasati Sutta

Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing” (MN 118), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Another translation of the sutta can be found at  dhammatalks.org by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

6. Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas

This advice is probably unique in the spiritual teachings of mankind, it certainly would be foreign to faith religions. It teaches to follow the teachings, but to verify for yourself the validity of the teachings.

The Kalamas may have had a hard time with teachers. Their minds may have been in the haven’t-we-seen-such-before mode. It seems Buddha reached them by firstly confirming that it is important to doubt, then to rule out certain ways knowledge has been obtained and lastly to trust one’s own experience.

1. Learned along / hearsay

2. Repeated / transmitted by tradition

3. What one would expect

4. Handed down as texts

5. Logical reasoning

6. Basis of inference

7. Reflection of appearances

8. Belief after pondering

9. Possible

10. Venerated teachers

Serious scientists may shrug their shoulders, they do it in that way anyway. Spiritual seekers may say, it doesn’t seem to matter how I do what and when. That would be an erroneous stance, not what Buddha meant. He taught a method, The Eightfold Way, and when applying this method a practitioner will experience something. Let’s say leg pain in meditation. Then this is the experience that has to be acknowledged and to be dealt with.

Look and judge for yourself. If confused ask a Dharma teacher, the advice will be in agreement with this teaching. If not in agreement, then it could be a sign of a false Dharma teacher.

References and links to Kalama Sutta

Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Another translation of the sutta can be found at  dhammatalks.org by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Another version is hosted by accesstoinsight.org: Soma Thera (1994/2013).

Key Insights

The above suttas cover the key insights of Buddha Shakyamuni. They express his understanding on how the universe works for us sentient beings, how karma works: existence is the consequence of ignorance about impermanence, suffering and no-self. The Eightfold Path is the journey to liberation.


What are Sutras?

In Sanskrit sutra means thread. In Master Sheng Yens words “… as in a string of pearls forming one complete necklace. Sutras are thus pearls of the Buddha’s wisdom (prajna) threaded to form a vast, cohesive body of recorded teachings …”. In the Buddhist tradition the sutras are commentaries by practitioners subsequent to Buddha Shakyamuni, in contradistinction to the suttas, which are his most original teachings. The authors of the sutras, to my knowledge unknown with the exception of Huineng, the sixth chan patriarch, who is author of the Platform Sutra. The study of sutras leaves no doubt, these authors have been outstanding practitioners with deep insight.

One topic stands out, sunyata, emptiness, the major focus of Nagarjuna (ca. 150 – ca. 250 CE). Buddha emphasized that all phenomena, dhammas, and not just living beings, were without any underlying essence, empty of independent existence, empty of self-nature. Nagarjuna, a most important Buddhist philosopher and founder of madhyamaka, the middle-way, stressed logic, in particular a method called reductio ad absurdum (Imagine someone claiming that “1 not equal to 1”. OK, you are tolerant and willing to examine. After careful inquiry you conclude that “1 not equal to 1” is absurd, therefore it is false.).

All phenomena are always interdependent. A phenomenon comes into existence because there were conditions that made it possible. Scientist may say: “OK, OK, we have no evidence against an all permeating interdependence, we see this-is-because-that-is everywhere, but what about the initial condition, the very first condition before there were any?” To this, being a scientist myself, I say there is no answer. And the painful quality of this questions fades with practice. In my opinion it is a gongan (koan), a question with no answer, in particular no conventional answer.

As far as I understand, Nagarjuna explained this dilemma like this. Svabhava, meaning own-becoming, is the unconditioned, the intrinsic nature of all entities. Call it the highest truth, paramartha. The conditioned, that which exists because the way we see it to exist, we call conventional truth, samvriti. Now the two truths cannot be the same, an absurd standpoint. But they cannot be independent from each other either, because the conventional has to be somehow contained in the highest truth.

Because intrinsic means not dependent on other entities, unconditioned, it looks like intrinsic cannot be. Thus svabhava looks impossible. We ordinary beings are limited in our experience to the conditioned. Therefore this is all we can see as possible. Buddha saw beyond, he saw in the way karma works, the motor which keeps suffering going. We have the choice to trust or not to trust him on that.

How many Sutras are there?

Buddhasutra.com , a site dedicated to preserve all known sutras, lists 499, a large body of knowledge. The site also is an attempt to heed a warning: We live in the Dharma Ending Age. The disappearance of sutras is bad news, the disappearance of all of them, it is said, is the beginning of an age where violence and cruelty rule.

I prefer the optimistic view, at least for now, because the spread of knowledge has never been easier than today and many of us try to understand. However, this body of knowledge is that huge, that study completed, life may be over. For this reason, as well as for the way Buddha attained his deepest insights, chan emphasizes meditation over book study.

Mahaprajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra: The Heart Sutra

Maha means great, prajna wisdom, paramita perfection, hridaya heart, thus the translation Large Perfection of Wisdom Heart Sutra. Despite its forbidding name, it is my sutra of choice to begin. It is short, concise, an unequaled summary of the core teaching. It does blend into the tradition founded by Nagarjuna. It is part of a large sutra, the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, where it occurs in three places. Most scholars agree to an Indian origin. It often is chanted daily, by many practitioners and in many centers.

The other 498 sutras are indicative of a complicated debate over two millennia. Chan kept distance from this: Sit down and meditate. Some say the Chan Schools rejected all scriptures, following a path “outside of the scriptures”. True insight can never be put down in writing, it can only be experienced. Chan is a school like any other, Master Sheng Yen always expressed this opinion. We all practice following the advice given by the scriptures, we all can have deep experiences. Independent of the school, these experiences can be beyond words and concepts. We may call these experiences “seeing the nature of the mind”. They happen and they are usually examined and confirmed in teacher-student relationships.

Compared to such experiences the importance of doctrine and ritual fade. Doctrine and ritual are expedient means. Once insight deepens their importance fades. However, not to forget, the necessity for discipline stays on, to the end of life, Master Sheng Yen and his teachers are examples to that.

Heart Sutra, written by Ouyang Xun, a Tang Dynasty calligrapher.

A short commentary by Master Sheng Yen on The Heart Sutra from 2001 is available on ddmbanj.org. The full text was published in 2001: There Is No Suffering. Dharma Drum Publications, Elmhurst, New York. 133 p.

The first English translation, a masterpiece in scholarship, we owe to Edward Conze (1904-1979), first published in 1958: Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond and the Heart Sutra. The book can be borrowed for free for 14 day from INTERNET ARCHIVE.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteens Dalai Lama, published in 2005: Essence of the Heart Sutra. Translation from Tibetan by Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA, USA. 179 p. This work is important because the Tibetans have a tradition of most careful translation for more than a millennium. Their seeking precision through philosophical reasoning and dialogue hardly has equals. There are three Buddhist Cannons, the Pali, the Chinese and the Tibetan. Neither is complete, they complement each other.

The Dalai Lama also is an outstanding scholar. I know a bit about that, I met him, but more important, I met Tsenshab Rinpoche. My late wife, being Chinese, wanted to learn not only Pali and Sanskrit, but also Tibetan, another living Dharma language. Around 1989 she discovered Tsenshab Rinpoche, a Tibetan living near Zürich. She started learning, and then we both learnt from him. It turned out that, more precisely, he was the Sixteens Tsenshab Rinpoche, the would have been dialogue partner to the Dalai Lama had history been different. What a privilege to have met such a person.

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