A Note on the Translations
by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu
The translations contained in these volumes are based on the Thai edition of the Pali Canon, although I occasionally made use of variant readings found in other editions.
People who are not familiar with the suttas may find their style difficult to relate to. The Pali Canon was, originally, an entirely oral tradition. As a result, it tends to be terse in some areas and repetitive in others. I’ve made an effort to cut as many of the repetitions as possible, but I’ll have to ask your patience for those that remain. Think of them as the refrains in a piece of music. Also, when the Buddha is referring to monks doing this and that, keep in mind that his audience was frequently composed entirely of monks. The commentaries state that the word “monk” includes anyone—male or female, lay or ordained—who is serious about the practice, and this meaning should always be kept in mind. I apologize for the gender bias in the translations. Although I have tried to figure out ways to minimize it, I find myself stymied because it is so thoroughly embedded in a literature originally addressed to male monastics.
Some of the suttas have their own introductions, and some have explanatory notes, which are placed in each case at the end of the sutta. These notes are based primarily on passages found in other suttas, and occasionally on passages from the extensive commentarial literature that has formed around the suttas over the centuries. Many, but not all, Theravadins regard the commentaries as authoritative, but the questions asked and answered by the commentators often fall into the list of questions that MN 2 classifies as inappropriate for attention. Two examples are the questions of whether or not there is a self; and, if there is no self, what constitutes a human being. To make the suttas answer these questions is like deforming a round peg to fit it into a square hole: You might get something to fill the square, but the whole point of designing the peg in the first place was to make it round. Thus a more reliable way at getting at the meaning of an individual passage in the suttas is first to see what light other passages in the same stratum of literature, addressing the same questions, may throw on it. The commentaries, in the areas where they seem to accord with the line of inquiry in the suttas, can then be consulted as secondary sources. Thus the approach taken here.
The format of the suttas—as dialogues and discourses given at specific times and places—helps to emphasize one of their analogies for the Buddha’s teachings: as medicine for specific illnesses of the mind. To see the teachings applied to specific situations helps give them context, providing a sense of which medicine is appropriate for which disease. However, the weakness of this approach is that overarching principles and interrelationships can sometimes get lost in the particulars. To overcome this shortcoming, many of the suttas here are cross-referenced to other suttas in the collection. I recommend that you follow these cross-references wherever you find them at the end of a sutta that holds special interest for you, to get a sense of the larger patterns among the teachings. This in turn will give you a better perspective on how to put the teachings of the suttas to best use, to see if they can help cure the suffering and stress afflicting your own mind.