Mahāyāna Sūtras

Mahāyāna sutras are a broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that various traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism accept as canonical. They are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in extant Sanskrit manuscripts. Around one hundred Mahāyāna sutras survive in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and Tibetan translations.[1]

History and background

Origins and early history

The origins of Mahāyāna are not completely understood.[2] The earliest views of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the West assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called "Hīnayāna" schools. Due to the veneration of buddhas and bodhisattvas, Mahāyāna was often interpreted as a more devotional, lay-inspired form of Buddhism, with supposed origins in stūpa veneration,[3] or by making parallels with the history of the European Protestant Reformation. These views have been largely dismissed in modern times in light of a much broader range of early texts that are now available.[4] These earliest Mahāyāna texts often depict strict adherence to the path of a bodhisattva, and engagement in the ascetic ideal of a monastic life in the wilderness, akin to the ideas expressed in the Rhinoceros Sūtra.[5] The old views of Mahāyāna as a separate lay-inspired and devotional sect are now largely dismissed as misguided and wrong on all counts.[6] The early versions of Mahayana sutras were not written documents but orally preserved teachings. The verses which were committed to memory and recited by monks were viewed as the substitute for the actual speaking presence of the Buddha.[7] The earliest textual evidence of "Mahāyāna" comes from sūtras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that in some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra use the term "Mahāyāna", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools, and that "Mahāyāna" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha.[8]

There is also no evidence that Mahāyāna ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for bodhisattvas.[8] Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school. This continues today with the Dharmaguptaka ordination lineage in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda ordination lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.[9]

The Chinese monk Yijing who visited India in the 7th century CE, distinguishes Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna as follows:[10]

Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts. These Mahāyāna teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahāyāna sūtras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE.[11]

Scholarly views on historicity

Some scholars take an agnostic view and consider the Mahāyāna sutras as an anonymous literature, since it can not be determined by whom they were written, and only can be dated firmly to the date when they were translated into another language.[12] Others such as A. K. Warder have argued that the Mahāyāna sutras are not historical.[13] Andrew Skilton summarizes a common prevailing view of the Mahāyāna sutras:[14]

John W. Pettit, while stating, "Mahayana has not got a strong historical claim for representing the explicit teachings of the historical Buddha", also argues that the basic concepts of Mahāyāna do occur in the Pāli canon and that this suggests that Mahāyāna is "not simply an accretion of fabricated doctrines" but "has a strong connection with the teachings of Buddha himself".[15]

It should be noted that however weak claim to historicity that the Mahāyāna sutras hold, this does not mean that all scholars believe that the Pāli Canon is historical; some scholars believe that it is not.[16][17][18]

Still others such as D.T. Suzuki have stated that it doesn't matter if the Mahāyāna sutras can be historically linked to the Buddha or not, since Mahāyāna is a living tradition and its teachings are followed by millions of people.[19]

Beliefs of Mahāyāna Buddhists

Some traditional accounts of the transmission of the Mahāyāna sutras claims that many parts were actually written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in the realm of the nāgas (serpent-like supernatural beings who dwell in another plane of being). The reason given for the late disclosure of the Mahāyāna teachings is that most people were initially unable to understand the Mahāyāna sutras at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE) and suitable recipients for these teachings had still to arise amongst humankind.[20]

According to Venerable Hsuan Hua from the tradition of Chinese Buddhism, there are five types of beings who may speak the sutras of Buddhism: a buddha, a disciple of a buddha, a deva, a ṛṣi, or an emanation of one of these beings; however, they must first receive certification from a buddha that its contents are true Dharma. Then these sutras may be properly regarded as the words of the Buddha (Skt. buddhavacana).[21]

Some teachers take the view that all teachings that stem from the fundamental insights of Buddha constitute the Buddha's speech, whether they are explicitly the historical words of the Buddha or not. There are scriptural supports for this perspective even in the Pāli Canon. There the Buddha is asked how the disciples should verify, after his death, which of the teachings circulating are his. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16) the Buddha is quoted as saying:

Earliest extant Mahāyāna sūtras

Some scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā series, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, which were probably composed in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.[22][23][24] Some early Mahāyāna sūtras were translated by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. His first translations to Chinese were made in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE.[11] Some Mahāyāna sūtras translated during the 2nd century CE include the following:[25]

  1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
  2. Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra
  3. Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha Sūtra
  4. Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra
  5. Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā Sūtra
  6. Drumakinnararājaparipṛcchā Sūtra
  7. Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra
  8. Bhadrapāla Sūtra
  9. Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra
  10. Kāśyapaparivarta Sūtra
  11. Lokānuvartana Sūtra
  12. An early sūtra connected to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra

Some of these were probably composed in the north of India in the 1st century CE.[26] Thus scholars generally think that the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north.[27] However, the assumption that the presence of an evolving body of Mahāyāna scriptures implies the contemporaneous existence of distinct religious movement called Mahāyāna, which may be wrong.[28]

Nature of the Mahāyāna sutras

The teachings as contained in the Mahāyāna sutras as a whole have been described as a loosely bound bundle of many teachings, which was able to contain the various contradictions between the varying teachings it comprises.[29] Because of these contradictory elements, there are "very few things that can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism".[30][31]

Collections of Mahāyāna sutras

Bodhisattvapiṭaka

In the 4th century Mahāyāna abhidharma work Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asaṅga refers to the collection which contains the āgamas as the Śrāvakapiṭaka, and associates it with the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.[32] Asaṅga classifies the Mahāyāna sūtras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.[32]

Modern canons

The Mahāyāna sutras survive predominantly in primary translations in Chinese and Tibetan from original texts in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or various prakrits.

Although there is no definitive Mahāyāna canon as such, the printed or manuscript collections in Chinese and Tibetan, published through the ages, have preserved the majority of known Mahāyāna sutras. Many parallel translations of certain sutras exist. A handful of them, such as the Prajñāpāramitā sutras like the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, are considered fundamental by most Mahāyāna traditions.

The standard modern edition of the Buddhist Chinese canon is the Taisho Tripitaka, redacted during the 1920s in Japan, consisting of eighty-five volumes of writings that, in addition to numerous Mahāyāna texts, both canonical and not, also include Āgama collections, several versions of the vinaya, abhidharma and tantric writings. The first thirty-two volumes contain works of Indic origin, volumes thirty-three to fifty-five contain works of native Chinese origin and volumes fifty-six to eighty-four contain works of Japanese composition. The eighty-fifth volume contains miscellaneous items including works found at Dunhuang. A number of apocryphal sutras composed in China are also included in the Chinese Buddhist canon, although the spurious nature of many more was recognized, thus preventing their inclusion in the canon. The Sanskrit originals of many Mahāyāna texts have not survived to this day, although Sanskrit versions of the majority of the major Mahāyāna sutras have survived.

Brief descriptions of some sutras

Proto-Mahāyāna sutras

Early in the 20th century, a cache of texts was found in a mound near Gilgit in Pakistan. Amongst them was the Ajitasena Sūtra. This sutra appears to be a mixture of Mahāyāna and pre-Mahāyāna ideas. The text is set in a world where monasticism is the norm, typical of the Pāli Suttas; there is none of the usual antagonism towards the śravakas (i.e., the early Buddhists) or the notion of Arahantship, as is typical of Mahāyāna sutras such as the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra. However, the Ajitasena Sūtra also depicts an Arahant seeing all the Buddha fields, and it is said[by whom?] that reciting the name of the sutra saves beings from suffering and from the hell realms, and a meditative practice is described as allowing one to see with the eyes of a Buddha and receive teachings from Buddhas. These qualities are more typical of Mahāyāna sutras.

Samādhi sutras

Amongst the earliest Mahāyāna texts, the samādhi sutras are a collection of sutras that focus on the attainment of profound states of consciousness reached in meditation, perhaps suggesting that meditation played an important role in early Mahāyāna. These include the Pratyutpanna-sūtra, Samādhirāja-sūtra and Śūraṅgama-samādhi-sūtra.

Perfection of Wisdom texts


These deal with Buddhist wisdom (prajñā). "Wisdom" in this context means the ability to see reality as it truly is. They do not contain an elaborate philosophical argument, but simply try to point to the true nature of reality, especially through the use of paradox. The basic premise is a radical non-dualism, in which every and any dichotomist way of seeing things is denied: so phenomena are neither existent, nor non-existent, but are marked by emptiness (śūnyatā), an absence of any essential, unchanging nature. The Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter illustrates this approach by choosing to represent the perfection of wisdom with the Sanskrit and Pāli short a or "schwa" vowel ("अ", ]). As a prefix, this negates a word's meaning, e.g., changing "svabhāva", "with essence" to "asvabhāva", "without essence".[33] It is the first letter of Indic alphabets and, as a sound on its own, can be seen as the most neutral and basic of speech sounds.[34]

Many sutras are known by the number of lines, or ślokas, that they contain.

Edward Conze, who translated all of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras into English, identified four periods of development in this literature:

  1. 100 BCE – 100 CE: Ratnaguṇasamcayagatha and the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8,000 lines)
  2. 100–300 CE: a period of elaboration in which versions in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines are produced. Possibly the Diamond Sutra too stems from this period.
  3. 300–500 CE: a period of condensation, producing the well known Heart Sutra and the Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter.
  4. 500–1000 CE: Texts from this period begin to show a tantric influence.

The Perfection of Wisdom texts have influenced every Mahāyāna school of Buddhism.

Saddharma Puṇḍarīka

This sutra is called the Lotus Sutra, White Lotus Sutra, Sutra of the White Lotus or Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma; Sanskrit: Saddharma-pundarīka-sūtra; 妙法蓮華經 Cn: Miàofǎ Liánhuā Jīng; Jp: Myōhō Renge Kyō. Probably written down in the period 100 BCE – 100 CE, the White Lotus Sutra proposes that the three yānas (śrāvakayāna, pratyekabuddhayāna and bodhisattvayāna) are not in fact three different paths leading to three goals, but one path, with one goal. The earlier teachings are said to be skilful means to help beings of limited capacities. The sutra is notable for the (re)appearance of the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who had died several aeons earlier, because it suggests that a Buddha is not inaccessible after his parinirvāṇa and also that his life-span is said to be inconceivably long because of the accumulation of merit in past lives. This idea, though not necessarily from this source, forms the basis of the later doctrine of the three bodies (trikāya). Later it became associated particularly with the Tien Tai school in China (Tendai in Japan) and the Nichiren schools in Japan.

The Ananta-nirdesa Sutra belongs to the Lotus Sutra category as well, and is also known as the Innumerable Meanings Sutra. This text was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmajātayaśas, an Indian monk of the 4th to 5th century. It belongs to the so-called Threefold Lotus Sutra that is also composed of the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. It was and is considered to be the prologue to the Lotus Sutra itself, and is therefore included into the canon of Tendai,[35] some Nichiren Buddhist sects, and also Risshō Kōsei Kai.

Also in the Lotus Sutra category is the Samantabhadra Meditation Sutra, which is also called the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. This Mahayana Buddhist text teaches meditation and repentance practices. It is considered by many Mahayana sects to be a continuation (an epilogue) of the Buddha's teachings found within the Lotus Sutra and is therefore included into the canon of some Nichiren Buddhist sects, and also Risshō Kōsei Kai. The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Universal Virtue) is portrayed in the 28th chapter of the Lotus Sutra as the protector of the Dharma teachings from every kind of persecution.

Pure Land sutras


The Pure Land teachings were first developed in India, and were very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia, where they may have originated.[36] Pure Land sūtras were brought from the Gandhāra region to China as early as 147 CE, when the Kushan monk Lokakṣema began translating the first Buddhist sūtras into Chinese.[37] The earliest of these translations show evidence of having been translated from the Gāndhārī language, a prakrit descended from Vedic Sanskrit, which was used in Northwest India.[38]

The Pure Land sūtras are principally the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. The shorter sūtra is also known as the Amitābha Sūtra, and the longer sūtra is also known as the Infinite Life Sūtra. These sutras describe Amitābha and his Pure Land of Bliss, called Sukhāvatī. Also related to the Pure Land tradition is the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra, which describes the practice of reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha as a meditation method. In addition to these, many other Mahāyāna texts also feature Amitābha Buddha, and a total of 290 such works have been identified in the Taishō Tripiṭaka.[39]

Pure Land texts describe the origins and nature of the Western Pure Land in which the Buddha Amitabha resides. They list the forty-eight vows made by Amitabha as a bodhisattva by which he undertook to build a Pure Land where beings are able to practise the Dharma without difficulty or distraction. The sutras state that beings can be reborn there by pure conduct and by practices such as thinking continuously of Amitabha, praising him, recounting his virtues, and chanting his name. These Pure Land sutras and the practices they recommend became the foundations of Pure Land Buddhism, which focus on the salvific power of faith in the vows of Amitabha.

The Vimalakirti Nirdeśa Sūtra

In the Vimalakirti sutra, composed some time before 150 CE, the bodhisattva Vimalakīrti appears as a layman to teach the Dharma. This is seen by some as a strong assertion of the value of lay practice. Doctrinally similar to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, another major theme is the Buddhafield (Buddha-kṣetra), which was influential on Pure Land schools. This sutra has been very popular in China and Japan where it has been seen as being compatible with Confucian values.

Confession Sutras

The Triskandha Sūtra and the Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra) focus on the practice of confession of faults. The Golden Light Sutra became especially influential in Japan, where its chapter on the universal sovereign was used by Japanese emperors to legitimise their rule and it provided a model for a well-run state.

The Avataṃsaka Sutra

This is large composite text consisting of several parts, most notably the Daśabhūmika Sutra and the Gandavyuha Sutra. It probably reached its current form by about the 4th century CE, although parts of it, such as those mentioned above, are thought to date from the 1st or 2nd century CE. The Gandavyuha Sutra is thought to be the source of a cult of Vairocana that later gave rise to the Mahāvairocana-abhisaṃbodhi tantra, which in turn became one of two central texts in Shingon Buddhism and is included in the Tibetan canon as a carya class tantra. The Avataṃsaka Sutra became the central text for the Hua-yen (Jp. Kegon) school of Buddhism, the most important doctrine of which is the interpenetration of all phenomena.


Third turning sutras

These sutras primarily teach the doctrine of Representation Only (vijñapti-mātra), associated with the Yogācāra school. The Sandhinirmocana Sutra (c 2nd century CE) is the earliest surviving sutra in this class. It divides the teachings of the Buddha into three types, which it calls the "three turnings of the wheel of the Dharma." To the first turning, it ascribes the Āgamas of the śravakas, to the second turning the lower Mahāyāna sutras including the Prajñā-pāramitā sutras, and finally sutras like itself are deemed to comprise the third turning. Moreover, the first two turnings are considered to be provisional in this system of classification, while the third group is said to present the final truth without a need for further explication (nītārtha). The well-known Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, composed sometime around the 4th century CE, is sometimes included in this group, although it is somewhat syncretic in nature, combining pure Yogācāra doctrines with those of the tathāgatagarbha system and was unknown or ignored by the progenitors of the Yogācāra system. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was influential in the Chan or Zen schools.

Tathāgatagarbha class sutras

These are especially the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the Śrīmālā Sūtra (Śrīmālādevi-simhanāda Sūtra) and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (which is very different in character from the Pāli Mahaparinibbana Sutta). These texts teach that every being has a "Buddha nature" (tathāgatagarbha: variously translated as "Buddha nature", "Buddha seed", "Buddha matrix", "Buddha essence" or "Buddha principle"). This aspect of every being is an indwelling potency or element that enables beings to be liberated. It constitutes one of the most important responses of Buddhism to the problem of immanence and transcendence. The Tathāgatagarbha doctrine has been very influential in east Asian Buddhism and the idea in one form or another can be found in most of its schools. The Buddha in these sutras insists that the doctrine of the Tathāgatagarbha is ultimate and definitive (nītārtha)—not in need of "interpretation"—and that it takes the Dharma to the next and final, clarifying step of the teachings on emptiness (śūnyatā).

Collected Sutras

These two large sutras are, again, actually collections of other sutras. The Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra contains 49 individual works, and the Mahāsamnipāta-sūtra is a collection of 17 shorter works. Both seem to have been finalised by about the 5th century, although some parts of them are considerably older.

Esoteric Sūtras

Esoteric sūtras comprise an important category of works that are esoteric, in the sense that they are often devoted to a particular mantra or dhāraṇī. Well-known dhāraṇī texts include the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtra and the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra.

Transmigration sutras

A number of sutras focus on actions that lead to existence in the various spheres of existence, or expound the doctrine of the twelve links of dependent-origination (pratītyasamutpāda).

Discipline sutras

These focus on principles that guide the behaviour of bodhisattvas, and include the Kāshyapa-parivarta, the Bodhisattva-prātimokṣa Sutra, and the Brahmajāla Sutra. For left home persons, the The Bequeathed Teachings Sutra is a necessary manual that guides them through the life of cultivation.

Sutras devoted to individual figures

TA large number of sutras describe the nature and virtues of a particular Buddha or bodhisattva and their pure land, including Mañjusri, Kṣitigarbha, the Buddha Akṣobhya, and Bhaiṣajyaguru, also known as the Medicine Buddha.

Vaipūlya Sūtras devoted to all Tathāgatas

The most widely used (in liturgy) of these is the Bhadra-kalpika Sutra, available in various languages (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc.) in variants that differ slightly as to the number of Tathāgatas enumerated. For example, the Khotanese version is the proponent of a 1005-Tathāgata system. There is in use in the Shingon school a sutra naming some 10,000 Tathāgatas, distinguishing the ones longer-lived after enlightenment (the same as in the approximately 1,000 in the Bhadra-kalpika) as "Sun-Buddhas", and the shorter-lived ones as "Moon-Buddhas".

See also

References

  • Bareau, André, Recherches sur la biographie du Buddha... les derniers mois, le parinirvana et les funérailles, PEFEO, vol. LXXVII, 2 vol, Paris, 1970 et 1971
  • Bareau, André, Les récits canoniques des funérailles du Buddha et leurs anomalies : nouvel essai d'interprétation, BEFEO, t. LXII, Paris, 1975, pp. 151–189.
  • Bareau, André, La composition et les étapes de la formation progressive du Mahaparinirvanasutra ancien, BEFEO, t. LXVI, Paris, 1979, pp. 45–103.
  • Nakamura, Hajime. 1980. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. 1st edition: Japan, 1980. 1st Indian Edition: Delhi, 1987. ISBN 81-208-0272-1
  • Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 3rd revised edition: 1999.
  • Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India, Motilal Banararsidass, Delhi, 2nd Edition, 1978
  • Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Macmillan, 2004.
  • Thich Nhat Hahn, Venerable 1987. The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, Parallax Press, ISBN 978-0-938077-07-7.
  • Peter Pfandt: Māhāyana Texts Translated into Western Languages – A Bibliographical Guide. E.J. Brill, Köln 1986, ISBN 3-923956-13-4

Notes

External links

  • Mahayana Sutras
  • Sutras with commentaries
  • Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon
  • Buddhist Scriptures in Multiple Languages
  • Mahayana Buddhist Sutras in English
  • BuddhaNet's eBook Library (English pdfs)
  • Translations of major Tathagatagarbha sutras
  • PDF
  • Bhadra-kalpika Sūtra [4]
  • Sūtras
  • 基督新教與人間佛教的現世關懷:經典編纂的比較研究
  • Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Berkeley provides some English translations (pdf)
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
 
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
 
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.