Most contemporary teachers of Theravada meditation tend to circle around (and pretty much beat to death) a few popular suttas (from the Pali Canon or maybe even unreferenced suttas from commentarial works, such as the Visuddhimagga), such as the:

This is all well and good, as long as they don’t make two hard-to-catch, and hard-to-correct mistakes:

  • Adding details which aren’t there, and failing to qualify that those additional details are additions of their own (which personally worked for them). I have a name for this mistake, as it happens so often. It’s called “conflating the descriptive (citing something which was written as a requirement, as in, it must be done) with the prescriptive (suggestively offering a personal opinion, which is merely something which could be done, and was not written as a requirement in the source material)”.

  • Failing to mention that there are many other helpful and relevant suttas found throughout the Pali Canon, and especially Early Buddhist texts, which also explain how to meditate.

Here are a some very helpful meditation-related suttas (which are totally orthodox Theravada suttas), which rarely get mentioned:

  • My Favorite: SN 47.8 - “The Cook”. This sutta recommends varying your technique periodically, always tuning into, and selecting that object of meditation which will work best for you, at any time and place. Here are printable copies of this sutta in English and Chinese.

  • AN 3.102 - A Goldsmith

  • MN 127 - Anuruddhasutta: Anuruddha. Rare space-element object of meditation

  • SN 35.134 - At Devadaha. A rare six-sense-base object of meditation sutta:

    “Bhikkhus, I do not say of all bhikkhus that they still have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact, nor do I say of all bhikkhus that they do not have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact.

    “I do not say of those bhikkhus who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge, that they still have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact. Why is that? They have done their work with diligence; they are incapable of being negligent.

    “But I say of those bhikkhus who are trainees, who have not attained their mind’s ideal, who dwell aspiring for the unsurpassed security from bondage, that they still have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact. Why is that? There are, bhikkhus, forms cognizable by the eye that are agreeable and those that are disagreeable. [One should train so that] these do not persist obsessing one’s mind even when they are repeatedly experienced. When the mind is not obsessed, tireless energy is aroused, unmuddled mindfulness is set up, the body becomes tranquil and untroubled, the mind becomes concentrated and one-pointed. Seeing this fruit of diligence, bhikkhus, I say that those bhikkhus still have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact.

    “There are, bhikkhus, sounds cognizable by the ear … mental phenomena cognizable by the mind that are agreeable and those that are disagreeable. [One should train so that] these do not persist obsessing one’s mind even when they are repeatedly experienced. When the mind is not obsessed, tireless energy is aroused, unmuddled mindfulness is set up, the body becomes tranquil and untroubled, the mind becomes concentrated and one-pointed. Seeing this fruit of diligence, bhikkhus, I say that those bhikkhus still have work to do with diligence in regard to the six bases for contact.”

  • MN 19 - Two Kinds of Thoughts, where the simile of the cowherd is of extreme utility in setting up the right causes and conditions which lead up to successful meditation, on a regular and recurring basis, being highly integral to one’s longer-term lifestyle. The value of the ease which the cowherd enjoys when the “crops” are removed cannot be understated:

    “Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of sensual desire, he has abandoned the thought of renunciation to cultivate the thought of sensual desire, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of sensual desire. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of ill will…upon thoughts of cruelty, he has abandoned the thought of non-cruelty to cultivate the thought of cruelty, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of cruelty.

    “Just as in the last month of the rainy season, in the autumn, when the crops thicken, a cowherd would guard his cows by constantly tapping and poking them on this side and that with a stick to check and curb them. Why is that? Because he sees that he could be flogged, imprisoned, fined, or blamed if he let them stray into the crops. So too I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation, and defilement, and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of cleansing.

    “As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of renunciation arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of renunciation has arisen in me. This does not lead to my own affliction, or to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbāna. If I think and ponder upon this thought even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.

    “As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of non-ill will arose in me…a thought of non-cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of non-cruelty has arisen in me. This does not lead to my own affliction, or to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbāna. If I think and ponder upon this thought even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.

    “Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of renunciation, he has abandoned the thought of sensual desire to cultivate the thought of renunciation, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of renunciation. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of non-ill will…upon thoughts of non-cruelty, he has abandoned the thought of cruelty to cultivate the thought of non-cruelty, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of non-cruelty.

    “Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been brought inside the villages, a cowherd would guard his cows while staying at the root of a tree or out in the open, since he needs only to be mindful that the cows are there; so too, there was need for me only to be mindful that those states were there.

    “Tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified.

    “Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna … as Sutta 4, §§23—32 … I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’

  • This dovetails with a profound verse from AN 6:63, “A Penetrative Discourse”:

    “The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality, not the beautiful sensualities found in the world. The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality.” 

  • SN 20.1 - The Roof Peak

    “Mendicants, the rafters of a bungalow all lean to the peak and meet at the peak, and when the peak is demolished they’re all demolished too. In the same way any unskillful qualities are rooted in ignorance and meet in ignorance, and when ignorance is demolished they’re all demolished too.

    So you should train like this: ‘We will stay diligent.’ That’s how you should train.”

  • AN 10.106 - Wearing Away (Gradual path…)

  • I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the portions of the Saṃyutta Nikāya which have lots of suttas explaining many details and aspects about meditation. My favorite Saṃyuttas (Connected Collections) about meditation are the:

    • Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta. The object of meditation, on “the six sense bases” (or “six sense doors”) gets explained from many angles here. This object of meditation tends to work well for me, personally.

    • Satipaṭṭhāna Saṃyutta. Yes, it’s not just a single sutta, but a whole bunch of suttas!