As a monk in Thailand in the early 1980s, I wanted to read the Buddha’s original words in English but I could only find two choices locally. Both were by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli : The Life of the Buddha, which excerpted small samples of key teachings, and an anthology of suttas (discourses) from the Majjhima Nikāya, a central collection in the Pāli Canon. The first I found inspiring but incomplete, an appetizer when I wanted a full meal. The second was more satisfying but hard to penetrate, like a Thai rain forest without a trail.
Then in 1995 Bhikkhu Bodhi brought out The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a full translation of the Majjhima Nikāya (nikāya being Pāli for “collection”), based partly on Ven. Ñāṇamoli’s earlier texts. This was a revolutionary work. In one stroke it brought the Pāli Canon out of a largely monastic circle and introduced it to a much wider reading public. Ven. Bodhi’s translations were clear and elegant, accessible yet faithful, modern and timeless, precise without being stuffy. To them he added a readable and informative introduction, copious notes and thorough indexes. For the first time, the serious student of Buddhism had in English a friendly and reliable guide to the treasures and mysteries of the Pāli discourses. Ven. Bodhi followed this with a full translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (“connected discourses”) in 2000.
The new rendition of The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, continues the same high quality of translation and commentary as the first two. His work on the suttas may now be complete.
The Aṅguttara Nikāya is a vast, sprawling work comprising five volumes in the Pāli edition. It is organized not by themes but simply by the numbers used in the Buddha’s ubiquitous lists—four of these, seven of those, etc. (The title literally means “increasing by a factor.”) It lacks the dramatic interchanges found in the Dīgha and Majjhima, and is not as technical as the Saṃyutta, which may have formed the basis for the Abhidhamma. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that the orientation of the Aṅguttara is chiefly practical, as opposed to theoretical, with advice on conduct, meditation and the development of wisdom for both monastic and lay communities. Because of the seemingly random order of the suttas, Ven. Bodhi has introduced what he calls a “thematic guide,” a conceptual grouping of discourses into fourteen topics such as the nature of the Buddha, meditation and types of persons. In this approach a reader new to the Pāli discourses will be led through the collection in a rational, progressive way.
The Aṅguttara is rich with gems not found elsewhere in the Canon. More discourses are spoken to laypeople here than in any other nikāya, making it especially relevant for modern Western communities. These discourses include the Kalāma Sutta (3:65), where the Buddha instructs a group of laypeople not to accept a teaching (presumably on ethics) until they have verified it for themselves. Some of the most comprehensive teachings the Buddha gave laypeople on a wise relationship to money are here as well (e.g., 4:61). A definition of “against the stream” is found in 4:5: “And what is the person who goes against the stream? Here, someone does not indulge in sensual pleasures or perform bad deeds. [but] Even with pain … lives the complete and purified spiritual life.”
The Buddha’s unique teaching that volition is the key to kamma is found at 6:63, and as far as I can tell, nowhere else in the discourses. His famous statement on the radiant mind is at 1:6.51/52: “Luminous, bhikkhus, is this mind, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements. The instructed noble disciple understands this as it really is; [so for them] . . . there is development of the mind.” The origination story of the nuns’ order, which some modern scholars regard as largely apocryphal, is recounted in the Vinaya and also in 8:51 of the Aṅguttara Nikāya.
In these renditions of the Majjhima, Saṃyutta, and Aṅguttara, Bhikkhu Bodhi has published a total of 5,448 pages of sutta translation and commentary. Each volume has set a new standard for that text and is the version that Buddhists are still likely to be reading a generation or two from now. If one had to choose just one volume to begin with, I would recommend the Majjhima for its combination of depth and storytelling. Next, the Saṃyutta will appeal to those seeking more technical detail. The Aṅguttara will satisfy those who want the broadest possible range of teachings with an emphasis on advice for laypeople.
Be aware that there is an earlier volume with a similar name, also with Bhikkhu Bodhi as an author, published by AltaMira Press as Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. That volume is only an anthology of suttas from the Aṅguttara and not the entire collection.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is already one of the most esteemed figures in modern Buddhism. Now with this complete translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, he has completed a monumental work that ranks as one of the greatest scholarly contributions yet to the growth of Dhamma in the West.