Mahayana sutras

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The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. China, 11th century.

The Mahayana sutras are the core texts of the Mahayana tradition, which sets forth the bodhisattva path to buddhahood as the ideal path for the spiritually inclined.[1] These texts appeared in Northern India sometime after the death of the Buddha. They are considered to be the word of the Buddha (buddhavacana) within the Mahayana tradition, but they are generally not considered as authentic teachings of the Buddha within the Theravada tradition.

The Mahayana sutras are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in extant Sanskrit manuscripts. According to Andrew Skilton, around six hundred Mahayana sutras have survived to the present day (in the Chinese, Tibetan or Sanskrit languages).[2]

History and background

Origins and early history

Modern scholars generally hold that Mahāyāna sūtras first began to appear in India between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.[3][4] Much of the early evidence for the origins of these sutras comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts.

Gregory Schopen (2004) states:

The most important evidence — in fact the only evidence — for situating the emergence of the Mahayana around the beginning of the common era was not Indian evidence at all, but came from China. Already by the last quarter of the 2nd century CE, there was a small, seemingly idiosyncratic collection of substantial Mahayana sutras translated into what Erik Zürcher calls 'broken Chinese' by an Indoscythian, whose Indian name has been reconstructed as Lokaksema. [...] But the difficult question remains how long before they were translated into “broken Chinese” had these texts been composed, and here the only thing that can be said with some conviction is that, to judge by their contents, the texts known to Lokakṣema cannot represent the earliest phase or form of Mahāyāna thought or literature. They seem to presuppose in fact a more or less long development of both style and doctrine, a development that could have easily taken a century or more and, therefore, would throw the earliest phase of this literature back to about the beginning of the common era. The emergence of the Mahāyāna has — mostly as a matter of convention — therefore been placed there.[3]

New Mahāyāna sutras continued to appear until the 5th or 6th centuries CE. Andrew Skilton states:

The [Mahāyāna] sūtras appeared over several centuries, from the 1st century BCE through to at least the middle of the first millennium of the common era.

In fifth and sixth centuries, when Chinese pilgrims such as Faxian, Yijing, and Xuanzang traveled to India, and they reported encountering monasteries which they label 'Mahāyāna' as well as monasteries where both Mahāyāna monks and non-Mahāyāna monks lived together.[5]

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.[6]

The earliest translations into Chinese

The earliest known translations of Mahayana sutras into the Chinese language are attributed to a small group of translators during the Han dynasty in the second century CE. Most of these translations are attributed to Lokaksema, and one translation, of the Ugraparipṛcchā, is attributed to both An Xuan and Yan Fotiao.

Lokaksema is credited with the following translations:[7][8][9]

  1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (T224, Xiaopin bore jing)
  2. Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra (T418, Banzhou sanmei jing)
  3. Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha (T313, Achu foguo jing)
  4. The Scripture on the Tusita Heaven (T280, Tou-sha ching 佛說兜沙經), part of the proto-Avatamsaka Sutra
  5. Kāśyapaparivarta (T350, yiri monibao jing )
  6. Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā (T458, Wenshushili wen pusa shu jing)
  7. The Hundred Jewels of the Inner Treasury (T807 Neizang bai bao jing 內藏百寶經)
  8. Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana (T 626, A-she-shih-wang ching)
  9. Drumakinnara-rāja-paripṛcchā (T624, Tun-chen-t’o-lo ching )
  10. Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra (Shou-leng-yen San-mei Ching) - Lokasema's translation is not extant, but a later translation by Kumārajīva is extant

Akira Hirakawa states:

In conclusion, a survey of the works translated by Lokaksema reveals that by the first century C.E. scriptures concerning the following Mahayana topics existed in northern India: perfection of wisdom, Akṣobhya Buddha, the doctrines of the Avataṃsakasūtra, Amitabha Buddha, the śūraṅgama-samādhi, visualizations of the Buddha such as the pratyutpanna-samādhi, teachings concerning Mañjuśrī, the doctrine that the original nature of the mind is pure, and the teachings that typify the Mahāratnakūta collection of sutras. Lokaksema did not translate any works related to the Lotus sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka); but surveys of Lokaksema’s translations reveal that representative works of the other significant varieties of Mahayana literature were found in northern India by the first century C.E.
During the reign of Emperor Ling (168-189), at the same time that Lokaksema was active, Yan Fotiao and An Xuan were translating the Ugradatttaparipṛcchā (T 322, Fa-ching ching), a sutra belonging to the Mahāratnakūta group. Chih Yao, K’ang Meng-hsiang, and Wei-chi-nan were also translating works at this time. Later, between approximately 222 and 253, Chih Ch’ien translated works such as the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa.[10]

The Bodhisattvapiṭaka of early schools

Some Buddhist schools in India referred to their collections of Mahāyāna sūtras as a Bodhisattva-piṭaka (T. byang chub sems dpa'i snod; C. pusazang jing),[11] indicating that these texts were considered on par with the more traditional "three pitakas," and thus were part of their scriptural canon. These Bodhisattva-piṭaka collections are no longer extant, but the texts in these collections may have been subsumed into later collections of Mahayana texts.[11]

Jan Nattier notes that the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra mentions a Bodhisattva Piṭaka (as part of a four part canon that also includes the Sutra Piṭaka, the Vinaya Piṭaka, and the Abhidharma Piṭaka). According to Nattier, schools which maintained a Bodhisattva Piṭaka include the Dharmaguptaka and perhaps the Bahuśrutīya (or whoever authored the Tattvasiddhi-Śāstra).[12]

Some sutras translated by Lokaksema, such as the Kāśyapaparivarta,[13][14] also mention a Bodhisattva Piṭaka.[15] A. K. Warder states:

It appears that the oldest sutras of the Great Ratnakuta in their original form were part of the Bodhisattvapiṭaka of the early school from which the Mahayana arose, probably the Purvasaila.[14]

In the 4th century work Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asaṅga refers to the collection which contains the āgamas as the Śrāvakapiṭaka, and associates it with the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.[16] Asaṅga classifies the Mahāyāna sūtras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.[16]

Scholarly views on the authenticity of the Mahayana texts

Andrew Skilton summarizes a prevailing scholarly view on the authorship of the Mahayana sutras:

These texts are considered by Mahayana tradition to be buddhavacana, and therefore the legitimate word of the historical Buddha. The śrāvaka tradition, according to some Mahayana sutras themselves, rejected these texts as authentic buddhavacana, saying that they were merely inventions, the product of the religious imagination of the Mahayanist monks who were their fellows. Western scholarship does not go so far as to impugn the religious authority of Mahayana sutras, but it tends to assume that they are not the literal word of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha. Unlike the śrāvaka critics just cited, we have no possibility of knowing just who composed and compiled these texts, and for us, removed from the time of their authors by up to two millenia, they are effectively an anonymous literature. It is widely accepted that Mahayana sutras constitute a body of literature that began to appear from as early as the 1st century BCE, although the evidence for this date is circumstantial. The concrete evidence for dating any part of this literature is to be found in dated Chinese translations, amongst which we find a body of ten Mahayana sutras translated by Lokaksema before 186 C.E. – and these constitute our earliest objectively dated Mahayana texts. This picture may be qualified by the analysis of very early manuscripts recently coming out of Afghanistan, but for the meantime this is speculation. In effect we have a vast body of anonymous but relatively coherent literature, of which individual items can only be dated firmly when they were translated into another language at a known date.[17]

John W. Pettit states:

Mahayana has not got a strong historical claim for representing the explicit teachings of the historical Buddha; its scriptures evince a gradual development of doctrines over several hundred years. However, the basic concepts of Mahayana, such as the bodhisattva ethic, emptiness (sunyata), and the recognition of a distinction between buddhahood and arhatship as spiritual ideals, are known from the earliest sources available in the Pali canon. This suggests that Mahayana was not simply an accretion of fabricated doctrines, as it is sometimes accused of being, but has a strong connection with the teachings of Buddha himself.[18]

Collections based on canonical languages

It is believed that most of the Mahayana sutras were originally composed in India in an Indic langauge such as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or various prakrits. These source texts were then translated into Chinese and/or Tibetan during various periods of transmission that spanned many centuries.

Many of the original Indic-languge texts have been lost and are preserved only in the Chinese and Tibetan canons.

The Newar Buddhist tradition of Nepal is also notable for preserving a group of texts in the Sanskrit language.

Mahayana sutras in the Chinese canon

The Chinese Canon includes a section on Mahayana sutras that contains the following collections:

Mahayana sutras in the Tibetan canon

The sutra section of the Kangyur of the Tibetan Canon includes the following sub-sections:

Nine texts of Newar Buddhism

Newar Buddhism preserves a group of nine Mahayana sutras in the Sanskrit language, called the "Nine Dharmas" or "Nine Books." These are the core texts of this tradition. They are:

  1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
  2. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
  3. Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra
  4. Samādhirāja Sūtra
  5. Gandavyūha Sūtra
  6. Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
  7. Daśabhūmika Sūtra
  8. Lalitavistara Sūtra
  9. Tathāgataguhyaka Sūtra (actually replaced by the Guhyasamaja since the tradition lost the Tathāgataguhyaka Sūtra)

Manuscript collections

Over the last century, a number of manuscript collections from earlier periods of Buddhism have been re-discovered by modern scholars. These collections, such as the Gilgit manuscripts, contain a variety of texts, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. However, they include manuscripts of Mahayana sutras written in a variety of languages, such as Sanskrit, Gandhari, Chinese, etc.

In addition, many Sanskrit manuscripts have been preserved within Tibetan monasteries.

Collections based on topics

The deity Prajñāpāramitā holding a Prajñāpāramitā sutra. 18th century, Nepal.

Prajnaparamita sutras

The prajñāpāramitā sutras are a collection of about forty texts composed in India between approximately 100 BC and AD 600. These texts expound on the topic of prajñāpāramitā, the transcendental wisdom that sees things as they are. These are fundamental texts in the Mahayana tradition.

Tathāgatagarbha sutras

The tathāgatagarbha sutras are a group texts that are generally agreed upon as the initial group of literature that developed the concept of buddha-nature as we know it today.

Yogācāra sutras

Yogācāra is one of the two main philosophical schools within the Mahayana tradition (the other being Madhyamaka). Key concepts associated with this school are presented in a number of Mahayana sutras, such as:

Samādhi sutras

The samādhi sūtras are a genre of Mahāyāna sūtras that have the term samādhi in their title, and in which the term samādhi refers to a diverse set of attitudes and practices.[19]

Texts in this group include:[19]

Discipline sutras

The following sutras present principles that guide the conduct of a bodhisattva:[2]

In addition, the Bequeathed Teachings Sutra is influential in Japan and Taiwan.

Confession sutras

Sutras which focus on the practice of confession of faults include:

Pure Land sutras

A group of three sutras describing Sukhāvatī, the pure land of Buddha Amitabha, are the core texts of the Pure Land school. These are:[20][21]

Hagiographical sutras

Notable Mahayana sutras that feature hagiographies include:

  • Lalitavistara (The Play in Full) - tells the story of Shakyamuni Buddha's final birth
  • Karuṇāpuṇḍarīka (White Lotus of Compassion) - tells the stories of the past lives of Shakyamuni Buddha and other buddhas
  • Bhadrakalpika (Fortunate Eon Sutra) describes the lives of over one thousand Buddhas that will arise in this "fortunate aeon"

Visualization sutras

The visualization sutras (guan jing) are a group of six Mahayana sutras in the Chinese canon which contain fantastic visual images.[22] The titles for each of these texts includes the Chinese term guan, which is translated as "visualization," "contemplation," etc. While all of the texts feature fantastic visual imagery, only some include a series of contemplations that could be characterized as visualizations; thus there is no consensus exists on a Sanskrit basis for the term guan.[22]

Dhyāna sutras

The dhyāna sutras (chan jing) are a group of meditation texts which are mostly extant only in the Chinese canon. These texts are mostly based on the meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE. Some of the meditation texts in this group are non-Mahayana, some are influenced by the Mahayana meditation techniques, and some are difficult to distinguish from the Mahayana samadhi sutras.[23]

Sutras that teach mantras

In general, the Buddhist tantras are classified separately from the Mahayana sutras, though both types of text are subsumed within the Mahayana tradition. The tantras are distinguished by "a great variety of techniques of advanced meditations, incorporating rituals, incantations, and visualisations"[24] that are not found in the other Mahayana sutras.

There are, however, some Mahayana sutras that contain some elements of tantric practice, particularly the use of mantra or dharani. Sutras in this category include:

Important tantras include:

Other important sutras

White Lotus of Good Dharma

The floating jeweled stupa; illustrated Lotus Sutra, Japan 1257

The Saddharma-pundarīka-sūtra (White Lotus of Good Dharma Sūtra), a.k.a. Lotus Sutra, is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras, particularly in East Asian Buddhism.

Donald Lopez states:

Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan. In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha. The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[25]

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 Sutra.[26]


In the Vimalakirtinirdeśa, the bodhisattva Vimalakīrti appears as a layman to teach the Dharma.

Andrew Skilton states:

[This text] represents the most extreme assertion of the validity of lay Buddhist practice beside that of the formal Saṅgha and the danger of superficial judgements based on external appearances. Doctrinally it propounds a Wisdom teaching very similar to that of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. It also discusses the purification of the buddha-kṣetra, the Buddha-field, or field of influence of an individual Buddha, and so has some connection with Pure Land teachings. Possibly composed some time before 150CE, it became extremely popular in China and Japan, where it was thought more compatible with the ethics of social duty and filial piety.[2]

Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra

Goryeo Buddhāvataṃsaka manuscript, 14th century

The Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra (a.k.a. Āvataṃsaka Sūtra) is a large composite text consisting of several sūtras, some of which circulated separately as independent Sūtras.[2] These include the Daśabhūmika Sūtra and the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra.[2]

Andrew Skilton states:

The Chinese translations of this work appear to have incorporated a considerable amount of material originally circulating independently, some sections having been translated into Chinese by Lokaksema in the latter half of the 2nd century CE. It is thought to have been collated into its present form by the middle of the 4th century. [...] The Avatamsaka as a whole teaches the doctrine of interpenetration (and the Tathāgatagarbha), and was highly influential in Chinese Buddhism, forming the basis of the Hua-yen School, and hence also in Japan and Korea.[2]

Two compendiums: Ratnakūṭa Sūtra and Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra

There are two important compendiums of Mahāyāna sūtras which are also labelled as "sūtras" themselves. These are:[27]


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāyāna.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Skilton 1997, Chapter 12.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Schopen 2004, pp. 492-493.
  4. Hirakawa 1993, p. 248.
  5. Walser 2005, pp. 40–41.
  6. Nattier 2003, pp. 193-4.
  7. Nattier 2008, pp. 80-85.
  8. Hirakawa 1993, pp. 248-252.
  9. The numbers (such as T224) are index numbers for the Taishō catalog.
  10. Hirakawa 1993, p. 252.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Bodhisattvapiṭaka.
  12. Nattier (2003), p. 46.
  13. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Kāśyapaparivarta.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Warder 2000, p. 340.
  15. Pedersen 1976, p. 25.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Asanga 2001, pp. 199-200.
  17. Skilton 1999, p. 635.
  18. Pettit 2013, p. 44.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2023, Introduction.
  20. Inagaki 2003, p. xiii.
  21. Harvey 2013, pp. 216-217.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Quinter 2018.
  23. Deleanu 1992.
  24. Internet-icon.svg རྒྱུད་, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
  25. Ganga 2016.
  26. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Fahua jing yi ji.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāsaṃnipātasūtra.


External links

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