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.

Prerequisites

This course requires prior familiarity with Buddhism and its purpose.

Time Requirement

This course is quite long if you hope to complete it. But don’t worry: each of the ten modules (not to mention each sutta) is fairly self-contained 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, there are three basic approaches:

Approach 1: Slow and Steady

Set aside a few hours per week to study the Majjhima Nikaya — perhaps Wednesdays, Sundays, or Uposatha Days. Make these a special “holy” day, dedicated to your practice and study. Read one sutta, listen to (some of) the lecture(s) on it and reflect. Don’t worry about rushing through it… just pick up wherever you like and do what you can. Take your time. Meditate on it. Let this weekly ritual become part of your life. If you keep it up, in a couple years you’ll be sad to know you’ve finished the course… but you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of other suttas to continue with this special way of keeping the holy days.

Approach 2: As a Course

Alternatively, you could do three lectures (5hr) per week (perhaps on Monday-Wednesday-Friday) as if this were a standard university course. The lectures will take about a year at this rate.

Approach 3: Intensively

The other way is to do the course as a series of “sutta study retreats”. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lectures have already been divided into ten parts, and any part might be taken as a “mini course” over a retreat. Do about three lectures (one or two suttas) each day — taking time to meditate in between, of course. Parts one through four are short and can be done in 2-day (weekend) retreats for example. What better way to spend your time than to immerse yourself in the words of the Buddha?

Course Outline

In this course, we study the Early Buddhist Texts by reading half the Majjhima Nikaya and studying, in depth, its similarity to, and differences with, its parallels.

I recommend first reading Ajahn Sujato’s Guide to the Majjhima Nikaya to orient yourself and listen to the introductory lecture by Bhikkhu Bodhi to give you a heads up on what to expect from this course.

Textbook

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 above anthology, or to merely 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.

About the Texts

In addition to the suttas themselves, I highly recommend reading them alongside Bhante Analayo’s comparitive study:

A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya – Bhikkhu Anālayo (PDFs)

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:

Lectures

Bhikkhu Bodhi will be your lecturer for this course. His lectures have been arranged thematically into ten parts and do not go sequentially through the collection.

Look ahead to the next lecture to see what sutta comes next (the first lecture, for example, is “M0001 MN-026 - Ariyapariyesana Sutta - The noble search.mp3” so you know to read MN 26 first). Then follow these steps:

  1. Read (or listen to!) the sutta before class.
  2. Listen to the lecture(s) associated with that sutta.
  3. Lastly, after class, look up the sutta in Analayo’s Comparative Study to see how the Chinese (and other) parallels might enrich (or simplify!) our understanding of the Pāli text.
  4. Cross that sutta off your checklist
  5. 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 and you’ll get a rich grounding in the comparative scholarship too. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed at how little difference there is between the northern and southern versions of the texts, considering the hundreds of years and thousands of miles that separated them.

You may eventually find yourself not needing to rely so much on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s commentary, and understanding the suttas perfectly well on their 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”

Referring Back

As you deepen your study of Buddhism, you may (nay, should!) find yourself referring back to the Majjhima Nikaya often (to look up references or jog your memory). This “course” can also be used in that way: as a reference to be touched as needed.

Either way is an acceptable and 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 simply refer to Bhante Analayo’s notes to see how a curious Pāli passage you came across 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. “MN3” for the third sutta)

And, again, I recommend keeping a checklist (or diary) of what suttas you’ve read, so you know where to come back to later.

Happy Reading!

Advanced Courses

An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy
Continue to study the MN with Bhikkhu Bodhi in this course focused on the Theravada interpretation of the Early Buddhist Texts.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.