Early Buddhist Discourses (Book Review)

If you are curious to read where the Buddha’s teachings came from and want a small sampling of discourses, or suttas, that reveal the basic teachings, the book Early Buddhist Discourses edited and translated by John J. Holder may be just the book for you.

This book is similar in organization and breadth as Glenn Wallis’  Basic Teachings of the Buddha. This book covers 20 discourses, while Wallis’ has 16, and there is overlap of a few, but it’s still worth having both books.

Early Buddhist Discourses begins with an interesting introduction about the importance and significance of the Pali Canon within Buddhism, then goes into the historical context in which the Buddha taught, and a bit about his life. From there, Holder explains the religions of that period, without going into overlong details, and how the Buddha’s teachings differed from other beliefs of the time. Holder provides a neat outline of essence of the teachings, beginning with the Noble Four Truths, leading into the Eightfold Noble Path.

Holder called the eightfold path “practical therapy for living by the middle way”, an apt description. I like how he has worded the path so much, I want to share it with you here:

  1. Right View — understanding the Four Noble Truths and the doctrine of dependent arising
  2. Right Intention — abandoning intentions based on attachment to sensual pleasures and selfishness; developing intentions based on benevolence and compassion
  3. Right Speech — avoiding speech that is false, hurtful, or quarrelsome, idle chatter; engaging in speech that is supportive and beneficial to all
  4. Right Action — refraining from killing living beings, stealing, and sexual misconduct; performing acts of kindness and compassion
  5. Right Livelihood — refraining from livelihoods that involve wrong speech and action; engaging in livelihoods that develop right speech and action
  6. Right Effort — putting forth effort to prevent and undermine unwholesome mental states; instigating and developing wholesome mental states (loving-kindness)
  7. Right Mindfulness — developing constant mindfulness, intense awareness, in reference to the impermanent nature of the body, feelings, mind, and mental objects.
  8. Right Concentration — developing one pointedness of mind and the four advanced meditative states (four jhanas)

From there Holder goes onto explain a bit about nibanna, sangha and society, and lastly the aim of the book.

Before each discourse, you get a bit of commentary that helps set up the intent of the discourse, and explanation about some of the people mentioned in the discourse. All discourses focus on the basic teachings of Gotama, and the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold path. The discourses are arranged in sequence according to the main philosophical issues addressed. I’d recommend reading the book cover to cover, then referring to individual discourse as needed from there on out.

Holder has presented a nice selection of discourse from various texts, some of the long, some on the shorter side. I find his translations clear, and easier to read than some of the other translations I’ve read.

No matter whether you are completely new to Buddhism, or have had a practice for years, this book is a great selection of discourses that focus on our practice, and the translations are easy to understand. Holder has also provided some interesting footnotes with explanations for certain terms.

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