Discourse Scholarship

“On Reading the Suttas”, Marc Akincano Weber

Akincano is sharing his essay “On Reading the Suttas”. Dharma PhD approved!

Greetings, Friendlies!

The Bodhi College Committed Practitioners course material includes an essay by Akincano, “On Reading the Suttas”. The author encouraged me to share, so here ya go!

In the recent post on Subhūti, I briefly mentioned Akincano’s 4-level framework for reading a sutta (repeating here so you don’t have to click through):

i) Level of understanding – Here the task of reading is my honest attempt to communicate with the literal statements of the text: … What does the text literally state? … Can I paraphrase what I have understood in my own terms?

ii) Level of meaning – Here I adopt for my reading the perspective of the characters in the text: … How do the participants of the situation understand the statements made?

iii) Level of personal perception – What do the statements I have understood in the foregoing steps mean to me and in my time?

iv) Level of interpretation – … What practical effect has this text on my understanding, my actions and behaviour?

The essay expands on this framework but also offers further thoughts:

As readers we often fall into two camps: Those who agree readily with a text, … and those who easily disagree and distance themselves from statements felt to be incongruent. The former are inclined to downplay their own experience … the latter readily drop the text and its statements to assert the supremacy of their own perceptions and understanding.

Both approaches are, at best, of limited use. Taking the text seriously means that I at least allow for the possibility that in my current understanding I may be deficient, off the mark, may have grasped something incompletely. Taking my own experience seriously means that the text could be wrong, deficient, off the mark or incomplete in its statement. …

Engaging honestly with a text means allowing ourselves to be challenged by it and be willing to hold the dissonance its statements create within our own perceptions … The key questions are not “Does this support or contradict what I already believe?” but “What can I learn here?” Even better: “How does debating with ancient (or modern) texts invigorate my current understanding?”

(Emphasis added)

I have had many discussions with folks re: struggles over sutta reading. For me, this essay is enormously helpful in legitimizing a structural and philosophical (rather than solely devotional) engagement. Much angst relieved.

With friendliness!

2 replies on ““On Reading the Suttas”, Marc Akincano Weber”

Thank you, Shannon, for the share. You mention three types of engagement – structural, philosophical, and devotional. Lately I’ve been focused on what I might call “embodied engagement” or “experiential engagement”. Have you seen The Chosen, a crowd-funded serial Jesus story? (I think only the first two seasons have been produced and released.) Anyway . . . Jesus’ followers include some women, who have not been schooled in the Bible, as have all the men. When the women ask to be taught, they are given passages to memorize. On their face, the passages are not meaningful, and the recitation is rote. The women stick with it – memorizing just to memorize. Then they have life experiences that give meaning to the memorized passages. I loved watching that sequence because it illustrates my own experience with the dhamma. The “same old sutta” reads differently each time because of what I bring to it – how it relates to my ever-changing life experience as well as intellectual growth. I like to think of it as the inherent impermanence of the dhamma itself. It is ever-fresh! LOL! My perspective is also impermanent. Again, THANK YOU for the share.


Thanks very much to Shannon for sharing this, to Akincano for proposing the share, and to Sharon for her comment. Shannon, I find this very helpful as well – it is useful for reading any text, it seems to me, and not just the Suttas – and seems to be a typically pragmatic and useful Akincan-esque approach.
Sharon (my Zoom group dhamma friend), I hear what you’re saying, but I would hasard the guess that if you are watching a series about Jesus, it may be that you are already pretty comfortable with faith-based experiences. For me, these suggestions made by Akincano are precisely the kind of advice that can help me – as someone who approaches any kind of ideology, and particularly religion, with a pretty high level of skepticism – to develop some form of confidence in what I’m looking at *before* deciding it’s worth potentially taking the plunge (and the time, energy and effort) of giving over enough faith to start letting the texts wash over me and seeing what happens, which seems to me to be what you may be suggesting.
That’s my take for today. Maybe it’ll be a different one tomorrow.


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