I have been sincerely studying Buddhism for the last 6-8 months.

  • I have covered most of the famous authors and teachers namely Ajahn Brahm, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Tenzin Palmo, Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Sharnyu Suzuki.
  • I watched a few youtube videos of Ajahn Brahm to get some idea of Buddhist outlook towards life.
  • I read most of the books available out there to cover the history of the Buddha written for the beginners. But I am not much interested in the history, specifically the progress of sangha and spread of Buddhism in East.
  • I have read a few topics that interest me on this stack.
  • I completed 2 10 days Vipassana retreat and one-month long Zen retreat which included a mini shesshin.

But now as I see the amount of literature is simply enormous. The Tripitaka, itself is massive. For an e.g., I tried reading an article on 12 nidanas on the wiki but it's difficult to read it that ways. It just feels like information overload.

Can you guide me how should I proceed from here studying Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana?

Give an answer based on the school you are following. In your answer also include the source from where to study, for e.g. 'Read about 8 fold path from this website'.

Please answer in the following format:

Theravada

Study in following order.

  1. 4 Noble Truth
  2. 8 fold path
  3. 10 paramis

Also kindly include the recommended retreat and study centers world over that you know of.

Imagine that I will be studying this dedicatedly for the next 3 years or so. Also, include the online resources and paper books if required.

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Maths is a big subject too. And so is German Literature, or Engineering, or Roman History. Perhaps people aim to become competent rather than all-knowing.


I noticed this about the Gelug curriculum (a school of Tibetan Buddhism) -- Geshe:

The Gelug curriculum, which lasts between 12 and 40 years, centers around textual memorization and ritualized debate, and is invariably taught through the medium of the Tibetan language.

And 14th Dalai Lama:

In 1959, at the age of 23, he took his final examination at Lhasa's Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam or Prayer Festival. He passed with honours and was awarded the Lharampa degree, the highest-level geshe degree, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

The Dlaia Lama's training started when he was a young child:

According to the Dalai Lama, he had a succession of tutors in Tibet including Reting Rinpoche, Tathag Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche and lastly Trijang Rinpoche, who became junior tutor when he was nineteen.


After you read an anthology like In the Buddha's Words, I recommend the answers to these questions, about resources for studying the Pali suttas online:

I think of this i.e. the Sutta Pitaka as "elementary Theravada doctrine, for lay people".

If you're interested in studying themes you might like Dhammafarer's Sutta Discovery series -- see SD 1 through SD 50 or so of the navigation bar on the right-hand side of this page. Not everyone agrees with everything he writes, but it is well formatted and annotated and cross-referenced.

I find that enabling the Pali translation/dictionary tools of Ven. Sujato's translations on SuttaCentral is helpful too (because part of my initial confusion is from using English words that have several meanings, and from different translators giving different English words, so being to understand what the Pali says is helpful; for that reason I like buddha-vacana.org too, e.g. here or here).


I wish I could tell you how to approach Mahayana. Some of the changes seem big (e.g. the Heart, Diamond, or Lotus Sutras seem to me very different from the Pali suttas), but some other differences seem to me so slight or incremental as to be hardly noticeable.

I think that the suttas (or the Chinese equivalent, i.e. the agamas) are seen as fundamental (or maybe elementary or introductory) by Mahayana schools.

Since finding the Pali suttas I've tried reading some Tibetan texts, and found that (with some knowledge or understanding of what Buddhism is, from the suttas) the Tibetan doctrine/text seems to be easier to make sense of than I think they would have without that.

Maybe you should beware of modern or semi-modern authors who explain things in their own words (e.g. the popular books which introduced "Zen" to American readers, 50 years ago and more) -- perhaps not as clear as studying earlier/original texts from each school.

Also you might be handicapping yourself by studying alone (without someone else), or by study alone (without 'practice'). The Buddha was explicit about depending on and learning from people you admire -- learning "morality" perhaps, in person -- and even if you only consider doctrine (as if it were a subject like Maths or Latin) people usually say it's beneficial to have a good teacher.

I did once read a (non-Buddhist) aphorism, "Don't just study the subject -- study the teacher."


Having warned against modern authors, the meditation instructions/descriptions I've found have tended to be modern authors (or e.g. the Visuddhimagga which itself must have been relatively modern when it was first authored) -- perhaps details or meditation practice were always meant to be taught person-to-person, or by example, or studied/discovered for yourself, anyway there are suttas which describe meditation, and maybe or maybe not that's enough -- anyway many forms (of meditation) are described in old texts, and there's more than one modern school as you know.

If you're trying to create a new habit (your having completed 10-day and month-long retreats, perhaps you're past that) maybe it's better to practice for 5 minutes every day than to practice for half an hour but only once a week.


Finally sila is important, fundamental. I've seen it described as a basis or root -- I wonder if it's a goal or fruit as well. Anyway not just book-learning, not just teachers, and not just meditation either, IMO.

Maybe not just negative too (e.g. "self-restraint" and "silence" and "harmlessness"), but also positive (e.g. "generosity" and "right speech" and the brahmaviharas).

  • Thank you for answer. The place where I live does not have any Buddhist monasteries or Theravada or Mahayana teacher. In India we have a different school of Buddhism called Navayana, but it is more of a political offshoot rather than a tradition practicing for nirvana. So I am seriously handicapped on that part. I was hoping to read all this stuff because many questions pop up in day to day life, many are also related to the environment and society you are from, for e.g. the answer I received about the rihnocerous sutra cleared many doubts, otherwse it was difficult to find those answers. – user13135 Aug 21 at 17:25
  • @FriedrickNietzsche Have you been to panditarama-lumbini.info ? One of my current teachers (see my post) lives there for most of the year. – Medhiṇī Aug 24 at 9:46
  • @Medhiṇī thankyou for the link. I haven't been there, but it's still too far away from me. It's in Nepal, do you live there, in Nepal? – user13135 Aug 24 at 11:42
  • 1
    @Friedrick You could always mail them. Maybe they no someone near you. :) – Medhiṇī Aug 24 at 18:59
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    This directory lists 400+ centres in India. – ChrisW Aug 24 at 19:07

For those (relatively) new to Buddhism here is what I'd (generally) advise in order:

  1. Read Bikkhu Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon as this will ground you in the Buddha's own words.
  2. Read HHDL and Thubten Chodron's Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions which will give you a respectful overview of the different traditions extant today and where they agree and where they disagree. Note this book is product of extensive consultation with experts in other traditions and their viewpoints are included. Among those other experts are some that you cite above such as Bikkhu Bodhi, Thich Nhat Hanh.
  3. Find a local community of practitioners and sangha that follow one of the traditions outlined in #2 that fits your interests and predilections. In particular, research the community and the teachers to make sure they are valid. After you've made some investigation you can ask others here which communities do a good job representing the various extant traditions.
  4. Really buckle down and try to understand whichever tradition you've picked in #3 and concentrate on that tradition. Don't go picking different ideas from different traditions until you've first really grokked your own tradition otherwise this will likely lead to a lot of confusion.

I am partial to the Mahayana as taught by the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that is authentically taught in the West by the FPMT community and the community at Sravasti Abbey in Washington State. However, there are very good Theravada traditions and teachers and some individuals will be better off with them. Not everyone is the same and you'll have to make your own decisions as what is best for you. Trust yourself to do so.

Hope this helps!

  • As an aside, this is the course that I followed with the exception of #2 since it was written much later. However, I think I lucked out in finding the community I did as it really was a very good fit. I think #2 is good because it will let you know what you are getting into with #3 with some foresight. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 19 at 15:52
  • Great post, thanks. – Lanka Aug 21 at 16:19
  • 1
    Thank you for the answer. It provided a lot of resources. – user13135 Aug 21 at 17:29
  • You are quite welcome @FriedrickNietzsche and best of luck. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 21 at 17:33

It will be a short answer to your question about studying Vajrayana, but I will tackle it fully only theory-wise. Practise bit will be more relaxed advice.

If you'd like to study Vajrayana step by step, there isn't a better single source than:

Order of steps I won't provide here since it has order formulated there in form of a designed path of learning.

Practise-wise, it depends where are you based. I could help more with London, I presume you're not UK based so I will list some global communities options. So, there are many global organisations, world-wide, some controversial ones due to past/recent misconduct, like Shambhala or Rigpa, and others controversial due to the nature of teachings (or unclear transmission), like Diamond Way. I would possibly stay away to be on the safe side and pick something authentic that is local.

In terms of the latter, in Vajrayana, it is generally speaking best to get involved in a place with a resident Lama that at the same time also conducts plenty of teachings and events, courses. You will always start from a generic course on meditation and then continue on developing Shamatha, then after some time proceed into Vajrayana refuge, and then preliminaries. It takes a couple of years to finish prelims until you start doing some real deal stuff, so be warned.

I hope it helped.

Theravada

In the first year I read a lot. Nowadays, practice comes before study. My advice would be do practice and look into the texts to figure out what you experienced in practice, if need be. Don't read and try to experience what you've read. That will only lead you to wrong places and will become a hindrance on the path.

Literature

The Noble Eightfold Path, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Just Seeing, by Cynthia Thatcher

Amazing book which I've read several times already. Cynthia Thatcher was also a meditation teacher.

A Discourse on the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, by Mahāsi Sayādaw

Well, basically all books by Mahāsi Sayādaw are advisable since he was not only a meditation teacher but also a scholar. Good combo, imho.

The Tree of Wisdom, the River of No Return, by Bhante Sujiva

He was one of my first teachers. He is amazing and incredibly wise.

One of my current teachers is Venerable Vivekananda. Very wise, a lot of humour. Great teacher. As far as I know he didn't write anything yet. But a lot of talks can be found here.

Practice

I practice a lot, three retreats a year and of course daily meditation at home. Reading comes second. Further daily practice includes taking and practicing the five precepts. In addition I cultivate the ten parami and watch one of the four satipatthana in daily life. That's about it.

  • Thanks for all the great info. I'll go through all of it. – user13135 Aug 24 at 11:44

If you do not wish to become a Buddhist scholar, I would suggest to stay away from too much literature.

You do not need retreat centers and gurus either. If you are interested in practical Buddhism, i.e., personality change, I suggest you focus on meditation.

Talking about meditation, again, it is easy to get caught up on technique and irrelevant details. Try to remember that you should not look for anything complicated. True revelation is subtle, simple, calm, and mostly independent of the method.

Meditation is the mind observing how the mind works. There is nothing more to it. It thus follows that there are many ways of meditation. Sooner or later, all of them leads to insight. The trick is to be efficient enough so that it happens within your lifetime.

This is the guy who kickstarted my investigation. I recommend him for beginners, because of his no-nonsense, to-the-point attitude. Expect that your path will diverge after a while but that is OK.

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