For over twenty-five centuries, Buddhism’s most ancient teachings—the Theravada—were preserved in the dead language of Pali. And so, as a practical matter, direct access to them was largely confined to folks in ocher robes or ivory towers. But no longer. In just the past decade there’s been a flourish of clear, reliable English translations.
Nineteen ninety-five saw the landmark release of Bhikkhus Bodhi and Ñānamoli’s masterful translation of the entire Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Discourses), with hundreds of explanatory notes. Soon after came Bhikkhu Bodhi and Nyanaponika Thera’s concise, well-annotated Anguttara Nikāya (Numerical Discourses) anthology. And then, in 2000, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s complete Samyutta Nikāya (Connected Discourses) arrived on the scene, another milestone.
This development has not gone unnoticed by the legions of vipassana grunts like us. In ever-increasing numbers, we’ve been taking these direct teachings into our own hands, putting them into practice, testing their worth for ourselves, and measuring ourselves against them—a sign that the dharma in the West is maturing.
Adding more fuel to that momentum is Handful of Leaves. It’s a four-volume anthology of the Sutta Pitaka—all of the Buddha’s Pali suttas, which, if unabridged, would fill a small bookcase. The Pitaka is composed of five nikāyas (original compilations), and each nikāya is represented in the Leaves anthology.
Volume One offers teachings from the Digha and Majjhima Nikāyas; Volume Two from the Samyutta Nikāya; Volume Three, the Anguttara; and Volume Four from the Khuddaka (including the complete Udāna and Itivuttaka collections, almost all of the Sutta Nipata, but nothing from the Dhammapada). To my knowledge, Leaves is the only English-language anthology of the entire Pitaka in print, and at over 1,500 pages, it’s quite a handful. (These translations are also available online at accesstoinsight.org.)
The suttas compiled in Leaves were selected and translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in California, who was raised in the U.S. and trained as a Theravada monk in Thailand. He’s a brilliant Pali scholar, meditation teacher and independent thinker, perhaps best known for his book Wings to Awakening.
Ajaan Thanissaro says the suttas he selected for Leaves comprise a fairly comprehensive picture of the Pitaka’s essential teachings. That does not mean every important discourse appears in the set. In fact, even some of the most famous do not. The Simile of the Snake (MN 22) and On Angulimāla (MN 86), for instance, didn’t make the cut. But it’s astonishing how many leaves the set holds. Although some particulars have been hard to track down, I’ve yet to find much of substance that’s missing, outside the Dhammapada. If Thanissaro has managed to pack most of the Pitaka’s significant teachings into the nooks and crannies of this compact anthology, that’s a remarkable achievement.
In his translations, Thanissaro uses a contemporary, accessible style that helps us make sense of these ancient texts. For example:
And how is one afflicted in body but unafflicted in mind? [A well-taught practitioner] doesn’t assume form to be the self, or the self as possessing form [. . .] He isn’t obsessed with the idea that “I am form” or “Form is mine.” As he isn’t obsessed with these ideas, his form changes & alters, but he doesn’t fall into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress
or despair over the change & alteration. [. . . This . . .] is how one is afflicted in body but unafflicted in mind. (SN XXII.1.)
Most of the Pitaka is in prose language, but there’s also lots of verse. Verse, especially from the Khuddaka Nikāya, also pervades this anthology. These poetic teachings glide below the intellect’s radar, aiming straight for
the heart. In the sutta where the following stanza appears, for example, the Buddha targets the process in which pleasure arises from praise, and pain arises from insult:
When in contact with pleasure or pain, in village or forest, one should blame neither oneself nor others. Contacts make contact dependent on a sense of acquisition. Where there’s no sense of acquisition, contacts would make contact with what? (Ud II.4.)
Whether in poetry or prose, the suttas are rendered with skill and great care. Even so, Leaves is not an easy read, partly because, as the Buddha said, the core dharma teachings are hard to grasp (MN 26). Also, some of Thanissaro’s renderings add new twists and turns for sutta readers.
In recent years an informal consensus has begun to emerge on how to translate certain basic Pali terms. But Ajaan Thanissaro seems disinclined to join a consensus for the mere sake of convention or convenience. And so, for example, he translates anicca as “inconstance” (instead of the usual “impermanence”), dukkha is “stress” (not “suffering”), and āsava becomes “fermentation” (rather than “taint”).
Thanissaro has good support for his unorthodox choices, some of which I prefer over the tried and true; and for readers already fluent in sutta lingo, his wording can bring renewed vitality to concepts that may have become calcified over time. But for those who are just beginning to develop an ear for the lingo, his deviations may disguise familiar concepts, making them somewhat harder to recognize.
In that regard, there’s not much help from Leaves’ index. When using the index to find teachings on metta, for instance, you’ll need to look under “good will” rather than “loving-kindness”; to find the Foundations of Mindfulness discourse, you’d best check under “frames of reference.” Because the index omits many of the standardized terms, I found it less useful.
But added guidance is provided by cross-references. They accompany most of the suttas in Leaves and lead us to related discourses throughout the anthology. By following strings of cross-references, we can explore themes and variations that surface among all the teachings in the set’s four volumes. What a great feature! It reflects Thanissaro’s laudable efforts to make Leaves function as a whole, so our understanding of any one sutta can be informed by and enriched within a greater context.
Many suttas include endnotes that explain tricky turns of phrase or provide enriching background information. The notes are clear and helpful, though not abundant. A good number of suttas have prefatory comments, all of which are instructive, and some help us uncover hidden meaning within the text. Some of the endnotes and comments are also used to gently keep us on “the straight and narrow,” as defined by Thanissaro in the set’s introduction.
There Ajaan Thanissaro addresses a topical question: Are the Pali suttas really what the Buddha taught? In his pragmatic view, the proof is in the pudding. Put the suttas into practice and see whether they lead to the end of suffering. If they do, what more need we ask? With that orientation, Thanissaro lays out a personal strategy he derives from the suttas themselves. It’s a comprehensive system for using the suttas as a guide to skillful practice, and for using our practice (guided by “people of integrity”) to ensure our understanding of the suttas is true. From all indications, Thanissaro believes that particular approach produces the best results. But he leaves us free to take whatever we may from the suttas—and from his own estimable work.
Which brings us to how we might use these four volumes of his. First, they could serve as our primary resource for the Pali texts. Remember, though, Leaves is an anthology. Most suttas are missing from the set, the inclusion of any particular sutta is not guaranteed, and a great many of the discourses omitted from Leaves are gems. That’s why, for instance, I wouldn’t trade the complete Majjhima or Samyutta Nikāya for its counterpart in Leaves.
On the other hand, Leaves surveys the entire Pitaka. So now it’s easy for us to acquaint ourselves with each of the five nikāyas’ distinctive qualities, assured that we are sampling much of the best each has to offer. (And notably, some of the Khuddaka’s short collections, full of inspired teachings, were not readily available before Leaves.) If we were to wend our way through the entire anthology, our view of the teachings would be panoramic, and likely spectacular.
Finally, Leaves goes hand in hand with the works of Bhikkhu Bodhi, which some authorities consider the gold standard of English-language sutta translation. By virtue of their superb quality and growing stature, Bodhi’s works risk becoming “The Word.” That would be unfortunate, like having only one eye: things might look pretty flat. Thanissaro (among others), with his unorthodox renderings and informal style, affords us some depth perception. Speaking for myself—as a real Bodhi devotee—Leaves is proving effective in just that way.
By any reckoning, Handful of Leaves is a resource to treasure.