Updated: January 17, 2022
Table of Contents
- What is the Majjhima Nikāya?
- Time Requirement
- Course Content
- Referring Back
- Advanced Courses
What is the Majjhima Nikāya?
The Majjhima Nikāya (or Middle Length Discourses) are a canonical collection of stories about early Buddhism preserved in the Pāli Canon of the Theravada tradition. These stories are neither as condensed as the poetry collections or Connected Discourses (which were stripped of much of their narrative context by the redactors) nor are they as elaborate as the (more mythological) Lengthy Discourses.
Traditionally, the Majjhima Nikāya (or MN for short) would have been a primary subject of study for new monks. The first ten discourses in particular would have been memorized (!) and analyzed in depth to form the foundation for the novice’s continued study and practice. As such, the MN strikes a nice balance between assuming intelligence and spiritual earnestness on the part of the reader (unlike, for example, the more family-friendly Jataka tales) without assuming too much in the way of prior doctrinal knowledge (unlike, for example, the more pithy Connected Discourses).
As Western-educated rationalists, The Middle Length Discourses are also an excellent place for us to lay our foundation, as their “middle length” provides us with enough narrative framing to imagine the Buddha in his cultural and historical context, without being so mythologically grandiose as to be unpalatable to modern ears.
Finally, in addition to striking such delicate balances, the Majjhima Nikāya also contains many individual suttas of such extraordinary depth and profound beauty as to be worth reading and rereading, pondering and savoring again and again, strictly on their own literary merits, let alone for the critical part they serve on the path to Awakening.
This course is quite long if you hope to complete it. But don’t worry: each of the modules (not to mention each sutta) is a fairly self-contained unit and can be studied independently based on your interests. Feel free to pick and choose as you like!
For those looking to take the entire course, I recommend setting aside a few hours per week to study the Majjhima Nikaya — perhaps Wednesdays, Sundays, or Uposatha Days — whatever works for you. Make these days a special “holy” day, dedicated to your practice and study. Read one sutta, listen to the lecture(s) on it and reflect. Take your time. Meditate on it. Let this weekly ritual become part of your life. If you keep it up, in a few years you may even be sad to know that you’ve finished the course!
In this course, we study the Early Buddhist Texts by reading the Majjhima Nikaya.
I recommend first reading Ajahn Sujato’s Guide to the Majjhima Nikaya if you haven’t already, to orient yourself, and listen to the introductory lecture by Bhikkhu Bodhi to get a sense of what to expect from this course.
The main text for this course is The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi published by Wisdom Publications, some of which has been released for free:
A Creative Commons licensed selection of suttas from Wisdom’s celebrated translation, representing about a third of the full book.
It’s still highly recommended that you get the monograph though, as many important suttas are missing from this anthology and the endnotes and introductions in the original are quite helpful.
For the suttas not included in the free anthology above, or to get an alternative translation, please also refer to the complete, free translation by Bhante Sujato:
All of which can be accessed online at SuttaCentral.net.
Optional: About the Texts
Advanced students, interested in engaging with the history and Northern versions of the texts, may want to read Bhante Analayo’s comparitive studies after each sutta:
A thorough examination of each discourse in the Majjhima-nikāya in the light of its parallels.
In this thousand-page tome, Bhikkhu Analayo goes systematically through the MN, one sutta at a time, and explains how the Pāli text differs (or not) from its parallels preserved in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. Perhaps surprisingly, they don’t differ all that much, though in some places the differences do shed light on the original teaching and shows what kinds of changes occurred to the texts during the process of transmission.
The book begins and ends with Bhikkhu Analayo’s reflections on the EBTs and the process of oral transmission, and while the book could certainly be read cover-to-cover, the primary way to use this book is as a reference work alongside the Majjhima Nikaya.
You can also download the book for free at the University of Hamburg website:
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed at how little the recensions differ, despite the thousands of miles and many hundreds of years between them. This striking congruence gives us solid confidence that the Majjhima Nikaya was well preserved.
Bhikkhu Bodhi will be your lecturer for this course. His lectures have been arranged thematically into nine parts and do not go sequentially through the collection— until parts 10 and “11” (on YouTube), which do go back and cover all the skipped suttas.
Look ahead to the next lecture to see which sutta comes next (the first lecture, for example, is called “M0001 MN-026 - Ariyapariyesana Sutta - The noble search.mp3” so you know to read the 26th discourse first). Then follow these steps:
- Read (or listen to!) the sutta before class.
- Listen to the lecture(s) associated with that sutta.
- Optionally, look up the sutta in Bhikkhu Analayo’s Comparative Study to see how the Chinese (and other) parallels might enrich (or simplify!) our understanding of the Pāli text.
- Cross that sutta off your checklist
- Repeat the above for the next sutta in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lecture series.
In this way, you’ll start to develop the ability to read and understand the suttas independently.
You may eventually find yourself not needing to rely so much on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s commentary, and understanding the suttas on your own. If so, congratulations! You’re reading the suttas! Feel free to drop the lectures if they cease being useful. That means you’ve “graduated”
As you deepen your study of Buddhism, you may (nay, should!) find yourself referring back to the Majjhima Nikaya often. This “course” can also be used in that way: as a reference to be touched as needed. The lecture series (and Bhante Analayo’s comparative study) contains every sutta, so whichever you’re interested in learning more about, you’ll find above.
Either (as a course or as a reference) is an appropriate use of this material. Feel free to jump in directly to the section of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lectures relevant to your current interests, or refer to Bhante Analayo’s notes to see how a curious Pāli passage compares to its parallels. There are many uses for this material and I encourage you to make it your own!
In case it’s useful for such referencing, here’s an index of the suttas by their Pāli name:
- Many suttas in the MN are often referred to by their Pali name. If you have trouble finding them, here is an index from Pāli names to their traditional placement within the Majjhima Nikaya (usually noted as “MN #”, e.g. “MN 3” for the third sutta)
Congratulations on finishing the course!
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