The Mahayana sutras are a broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that various traditions of Mahayana Buddhism accept as. They are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in extant Sanskrit manuscripts. Around one hundred Mahayana sutras survive in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
Mahayana Buddhists typically consider the Mahayana sutras to have been taught by Gautama Buddha, committed to memory and recited by his disciples, in particular Ananda, which were viewed as a substitute for the actual speech of the Buddha following his parinirvana.
History and background
Origins and early historyThe origins of the Mahayana are not completely understood. The earliest views of Mahayana Buddhism in the West assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the Theravada schools. Due to the veneration of buddhas and bodhisattvas, Mahayana was often interpreted as a more devotional, lay-inspired form of Buddhism, with supposed origins in stūpa veneration or by making parallels with the Reformation. These views have been largely dismissed in modern times in light of a much broader range of early texts that are now available. These earliest Mahayana 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 Sutra. The old views of Mahayana as a separate lay-inspired and devotional sect are now largely dismissed as misguided and wrong on all counts.
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.
The earliest textual evidence of the Mahayana comes from sutras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that in some of the earliest Mahayana texts such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra use the term "Mahayana", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahayana in this context and the early schools, and that "Mahayana" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha.
There is also no evidence that Mahayana 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. Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahayana never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early Buddhist schools and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahayana 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, Mahayana was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.
The Chinese monk Yijing who visited India in the seventh century, distinguishes Mahayana from Hinayana as follows:
Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahayana comes from early Chinese translations of Mahayana texts. These Mahayana teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese during the second century.
Scholarly views on datingIt cannot be determined by whom the Mahayana sutras were composed; many can only be dated firmly to the date when they were translated into another language. Andrew Skilton summarizes a common prevailing view of the Mahayana sutras:
A. K. Warder notes that the Mahayana sutras are highly unlikely to have come from the teachings of the historical Buddha, since the language and style of every extant Mahāyāna sūtra is comparable more to later Indian texts than to texts that could have circulated in the Buddha's putative lifetime. Warder also notes that the Tibetan historian Tāranātha proclaimed that after the Buddha taught the sutras, they disappeared from the human world and circulated only in the world of the nagas; in Warder's view, “this is as good as an admission that no such texts existed until the 2nd century A.D.”
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 Mahayana do occur in the Pāli Canon and that this suggests that Mahayana is "not simply an accretion of fabricated doctrines" but "has a strong connection with the teachings of Buddha himself".
Others such as D. T. Suzuki have stated that it doesn't matter if the Mahayana sutras can be historically linked to the Buddha or not since Mahayana Buddhism is a living tradition and its teachings are followed by millions of people.
However weak the claim to historicity that the Mahayana sutras hold, this does not mean that all scholars believe that the Pāli Canon is historical.
Beliefs of Mahayana BuddhistsSome traditional accounts of the transmission of the Mahayana 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. The reason these accounts give for the late disclosure of the Mahayana teachings is that most people were initially unable to understand the Mahayana sutras at the time of the Buddha and suitable recipients for these teachings had still to arise amongst humankind.
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.
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 the Buddha is quoted as saying:
The earliest extant Mahayana sutrasSome scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Mahayana sutras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā series, along with texts concerning Akshobhya, which were probably composed in the 1st century BCE in the south of India. Some early Mahayana sutras were translated by the Kushan monk Lokakṣema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. His first translations to Chinese were made in the Eastern Han capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE. Some Mahayana sutras translated during the 2nd century CE include the following:
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
- Infinite Life Sutra
- Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha Sūtra
- Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Drumakinnararājaparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra
- Bhadrapāla Sūtra
- Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra
- Kāśyapaparivarta Sūtra
- Lokānuvartana Sūtra
- An early sutra connected to the Avatamsaka Sutra
TeachingsThe teachings as contained in the Mahayana 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. Because of these contradictory elements, there are "very few things that can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism".
Central to the Mahayana sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva path, something which is not unique to them however as such a path is also taught in non-Mahayana texts which also required prediction of future Buddhahood in the presence of a living Buddha. What is unique to Mahayana sutras is the idea that the term bodhisattva is applicable to any person from the moment they intend to become a Buddha and without the requirement of a living Buddha. They also claim that any person who accepts and uses Mahayana sutras either had already received or will soon receive such a prediction from a Buddha, establishing their position as an irreversible bodhisattva.
The central practice advocated by the Mahayana sutras is focused around "the acquisition of merit, the universal currency of the Buddhist world, a vast quantity of which was believed to be necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood". The most important act for acquiring merit in these sutras is the listening, memorization, recitation, preaching, copying and worship of the Mahayana sutras themselves.
Also, according to David Drewes other important features includes the practice of:
anumodanā, or “rejoicing,” in meritorious actions or the teachings of Mahayana sutras, typically combined with the dedication of the resulting merit either to the attainment of Buddhahood or to all beings.Mahayana sutras also expound on the importance of the six perfections as part of the path to Buddhahood, and special attention is given to the perfection of wisdom which is seen as primary.
Another innovative "shortcut" to Buddhahood in Mahayana sutras are what are often called Pure Land practices. These involve the invocation of Buddhas such as Amitabha and Aksobhya, who are said to have created "Buddha fields" or "pure lands" especially so that those beings who wish to be reborn there can easily and quickly become Buddhas. Reciting the Mahayana sutras and also simply the names of these Buddhas can allow one to be reborn in these places.
Collections of Mahayana sutras
BodhisattvapiṭakaIn the 4th century Mahayana abhidharma work Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asaṅga refers to the collection which contains the āgamas as the Śrāvakapiṭaka, and associates it with the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. Asaṅga classifies the Mahayana sutras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.
Modern canonsThe Mahayana 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 Mahayana canon as such, the printed or manuscript collections in Chinese and Tibetan, published through the ages, have preserved the majority of known Mahayana 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 Mahayana 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 Mahayana 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 Mahayana texts have not survived to this day, although Sanskrit versions of the majority of the major Mahayana sutras have survived.
Brief descriptions of some sutras
Proto-Mahayana sutrasEarly in the 20th century, a cache of texts was found in a mound near Gilgit. Amongst them was the Ajitasena Sūtra. This sutra appears to be a mixture of Mahayana and pre-Mahayana 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 or the notion of Arahantship, as is typical of Mahayana sutras such as the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra.
The Salistamba Sutra has been considered as one of the first Mahayana sutras. According to N. Ross Reat, this sutra has many parallels with the material in the Pali suttas, and could date as far back as 200 BCE. It is possible that this sutra represents a period of Buddhist literature before the Mahayana had diverged significantly from the doctrine of the Early Buddhist schools.
''Samādhi'' sutrasAmongst the earliest Mahayana 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 Mahayana. These include the Pratyutpanna-sūtra, Samādhirāja-sūtra and Śūraṅgama-samādhi-sūtra.
''Perfection of Wisdom'' textsThese deal with Buddhist wisdom. "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, 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. As a prefix, this negates a word's meaning, e.g., changing "svabhāva", "with essence" to "asvabhāva", "without essence". 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.
Many sutras are known by the number of lines, or ślokas, that they contain.
Saddharma PuṇḍarīkaThis 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 - 150 CE, the Lotus Sutra proposes that the three yānas are not in fact three different paths leading to three goals, but one path, with one goal. This doctrine defines the enlightenment of a Buddha as the ultimative goal and the sutra predicts that all those who hear the Dharma will eventually achieve this goal. The earlier teachings are said to be skilful means to teach beings according to their capacities. The sutra is notable for the 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. Later it became associated particularly with the Tien Tai school in China and the Nichiren schools in Japan.
In some East Asian traditions, the Lotus Sūtra has been compiled together with two other sutras which serve as a prologue and epilogue, respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra and the Samantabhadra Meditation Sutra. This composite sutra is often called the Threefold Lotus Sūtra or Three-Part Dharma Flower Sutra.
Pure Land sutrasThe Pure Land teachings were first developed in India, and were very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia, where they may have originated. Pure Land sutras were brought from the Gandhāra region to China as early as 147 CE, when the Kushan monk Lokakṣema began translating the first Buddhist sutras into Chinese. 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.
The Pure Land sutras are principally the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. The shorter sutra is also known as the Amitābha Sūtra, and the longer sutra 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 Mahayana texts also feature Amitābha Buddha, and a total of 290 such works have been identified in the Taishō Tripiṭaka.
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.