The Pali Canon is divided into three large groups of books (literally, “baskets”). The first group is the monastic Discipline (Vinaya Piṭaka). The second group is the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Piṭaka). This group is divided into five collections of discourses, of which the Long Discourses of the Buddha is the first collection. And the third group is the higher teaching (Abhidhamma Piṭaka).

This is a very short introduction to the Long Discourses of the Buddha. In the Pali language, it is called the Digha Nikāya, meaning the long (Digha) collection (Nikāya). But since it is in the group of books known as the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Piṭaka), it is clearer to call it the Long Discourses rather than the Long Collection.

What is a Discourse?

The oldest translation into English was published in 1866 by T.W. Rhys Davids, in three volumes. This was entitled “Dialogues of the Buddha.” The word being translated as “dialogue” or the more modern “discourse” is the Pali word sutta. You might be more familiar with its Sanskrit version, which is sutra.

What is a discourse? In the Christian context, we would call it a sermon. In an educational setting, we would call it a lecture. In some Buddhist meditation centers, they would call it a dharma talk. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “discourse” as a “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.” I think this charaterises the Buddha’s teachings quite well.

Five Collections of Discourses

There are five collections of discourses in the discourses group of the Pali Canon. They are (1) the Long Discourses (Digha Nikāya), the Middle-Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikāya), the Connected Discourses (Saṁyutta Nikāya), the Numerical Discourses (Anguttara Nikāya), and the Minor Collection (Khuddaka Nikāya). The so-called Minor Collection is the largest collection and is a miscellaneous collection of books that didn’t fit anywhere else.

The discourses were arranged into sections based upon their size. The Long Discourses are generally the longest in length. The Middle-Length Discourses are the next longest. And the smaller-sized discourses were divided into one of two collections, the Connected or the Numerical. The Connected are organized by theme and the Numerical by the number of points dealt with (the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Aggregates, etc.).

Three Sections

Now collection known as the Long Discourses of the Buddha contains thirty-four long discourses of the Buddha. It is arranged into three sections (vaggas). The first (discourses 1-13) is the section concerning morality (Silakkhandha). The second (discourses 14-23) is just called the large section (Maha). And the third (discourses 24-34) is the section dealing with Pathika, who was a naked ascetic (Patika). This last section deals primarily with meditation.

What Version Should I Read?

So what version of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya) should I read? For those who prefer a free version, the best is the translation by Bhikkhu Sujato. Another good, but partial translation of the Long Discourses, is by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The best print version is by Maurice Walshe (see references).

My advice is to first read an online version before you buy a print version. Most people struggle with monotonous repetition. This is there because the discourses were memorized and chanted since written books were unknown at the time. The repetition is great for memorization but makes for lousy reading. This is why I recommend the Dhammapada as the first book a new Buddhist buys.

References

  • Davids, T.W. Rhys. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translation from the Pali of the Digha Nikāya, 3 volumes. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2016.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Dīgha Nikāya,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=D%C4%ABgha_Nik%C4%81ya&oldid=1066709277 (accessed February 25, 2022).
  • Lay, U Ko. Essence of Tipitaka. Maharashtra, India: Vipassana Research Institute, 1998.
  • Meghaprasara, Matthew. New Guide to the Tipitaka: A Complete Reference to the Pali Buddhist Canon. A Sangha of Books, 2013.
  • Webb, Russell. An Analysis of the Pali Canon. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2011.
  • Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikāya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1995.