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. 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).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (T224, Xiaopin bore jing)
- Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra (T418, Banzhou sanmei jing)
- Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha (T313, Achu foguo jing)
- The Scripture on the Tusita Heaven (T280, Tou-sha ching 佛說兜沙經), part of the proto-Avatamsaka Sutra
- Kāśyapaparivarta (T350, yiri monibao jing )
- Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā (T458, Wenshushili wen pusa shu jing)
- The Hundred Jewels of the Inner Treasury (T807 Neizang bai bao jing 內藏百寶經)
- Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana (T 626, A-she-shih-wang ching)
- Drumakinnara-rāja-paripṛcchā (T624, Tun-chen-t’o-lo ching )
- 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.
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), 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.
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).
- 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.
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. Asaṅga classifies the Mahāyāna sūtras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- (a) Prajnaparamita ("perfection of wisdom")
- (b) Lotus Sutra
- (c) Avatamsaka
- (d) Ratnakuta
- (e) Mahaparinirvana (on the last days of the Buddha, and Buddha nature)
- (f) Mahasamnipata ("great collection")
- (g) General sutras (mostly Mahayana)
Mahayana sutras in the Tibetan canon
- Prajñaparamita (Perfection of wisdom)
- Avatamsaka (Flower ornament)
- Ratnakuta (Heap of jewels)
- General Sutra Section (the principal collection of 266 sūtras, containing both Mahayana and Sravakayana sutras); this section includes the following collections of Mahayana sutras:
- Thirteen late translated sutras (a group of Theravada sutras; these are not classified as Mahayana)
Nine texts of Newar Buddhism
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
- Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
- Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra
- Samādhirāja Sūtra
- Gandavyūha Sūtra
- Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
- Daśabhūmika Sūtra
- Lalitavistara Sūtra
- Tathāgataguhyaka Sūtra (actually replaced by the Guhyasamaja since the tradition lost the Tathāgataguhyaka Sūtra)
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 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.
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:
- Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra
- Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra
- Ghanavyūha Sūtra
- Abhidharmamahāyānasūtra (This sutras is lost, but it is quoted in other Yogācāra works.)
Texts in this group include:
- The King of Samādhis (Samādhirāja)
- The Samādhi of Valiant Progress (Śūraṅgamasamādhi)
- The Samādhi in which the Buddhas of the Present All Stand Before One (Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi)
- The Absorption that Encapsulates All Merit (Sarvapuṇyasamuccayasamādhi)
- The Absorption of the Miraculous Ascertainment of Peace (Praśāntaviniścayaprātihāryasamādhi)
- The Discourse for Kāśyapa (Kāśyapaparivarta)
- Determining the Vinaya: Upāli’s Questions (Vinayaviniścayopāliparipṛcchā)
- The Sūtra of Brahmā’s Net (Brahmajāla Sūtra)
In addition, the Bequeathed Teachings Sutra is influential in Japan and Taiwan.
Sutras which focus on the practice of confession of faults include:
Pure Land sutras
- Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (The Display of Sukhāvatī, long version)
- Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (The Display of Sukhāvatī, short version)
- Guan Wuliangshou jing (Sūtra on the Contemplation of Amitāyus)
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"
The visualization sutras (guan jing) are a group of six Mahayana sutras in the Chinese canon which contain fantastic visual images. 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.
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.
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" that are not found in the other Mahayana sutras.
- Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, teaches the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, "Om mani padme hum".
- Heart Sutra, teaches the Prajnaparamita mantra
- Kauśika prajñāpāramitā, teaches a mantra
- Śūraṅgama Sūtra, teaches the Śūraṅgama Mantra
Important tantras include:
- Vajraśekhara Sūtra.
- Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi Sūtra.
- Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha (a.k.a. Tattvasaṃgraha).
Other important sutras
White Lotus of Good Dharma
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.
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.
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.
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. These include the Daśabhūmika Sūtra and the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra.
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.
Two compendiums: Ratnakūṭa Sūtra and Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra
There are two important compendiums of Mahāyāna sūtras which are also labelled as "sūtras" themselves. These are:
- Ratnakūṭa Sūtra (Heap of Jewels Sūtra) - a collection of 49 sutras that is included in both the Chinese and Tibetan canons.
- Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra (Sūtra of the Great Assembly) - a collection of 17 sūtras. The only extant copy of the entire collection is found in the Chinese canon, though individual sutras can be found in Sanskrit and Tibetan.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāyāna.
- Skilton 1997, Chapter 12.
- Schopen 2004, pp. 492-493.
- Hirakawa 1993, p. 248.
- Walser 2005, pp. 40–41.
- Nattier 2003, pp. 193-4.
- Nattier 2008, pp. 80-85.
- Hirakawa 1993, pp. 248-252.
- The numbers (such as T224) are index numbers for the Taishō catalog.
- Hirakawa 1993, p. 252.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Bodhisattvapiṭaka.
- Nattier (2003), p. 46.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Kāśyapaparivarta.
- Warder 2000, p. 340.
- Pedersen 1976, p. 25.
- Asanga 2001, pp. 199-200.
- Skilton 1999, p. 635.
- Pettit 2013, p. 44.
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2023, Introduction.
- Inagaki 2003, p. xiii.
- Harvey 2013, pp. 216-217.
- Quinter 2018.
- Deleanu 1992.
- རྒྱུད་, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
- Ganga 2016.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Fahua jing yi ji.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāsaṃnipātasūtra.
- Asanga (2001), Abhidharmasamuccaya: The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy), translated by Boin-Webb, Sara; Rahula, Walpola, Asian Humanities Press
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Deleanu, Florin (1992), "Mindfulness of Breathing in the Dhyāna Sūtras" (PDF), Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan (TICOJ), 37: 42–57
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2023), The Good Eon, 84000 Reading Room
- Ganga, Jessica (2016), Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra, Princeton University Press Blog
- Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press
- Hirakawa, Akira (1993), A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna, translated by Groner, Paul, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0955-0
- Nattier, Jan (2003), A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā): a Study and Translation, University of Hawaii Press
- Nattier, Jan (2008), A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms Periods (PDF), Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica, Volume X, Soka University: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology (IRIAB)
- Pedersen, Kusumita Priscilla (1976), The dhyāna Chapter of the Bodhisattvapiṭaka-sūtra, Columbia University
- Pettit, John W. (8 February 2013), Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 978-0-86171-719-4
- Schopen, Gregory (2004), "Mahāyāna", in Buswell, Robert E., Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Macmillan Reference USA
- Skilton, Andrew T (1999), "Dating the Samādhirāja Sūtra", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 27 (6): 635, doi:10.1023/A:1004633623956
- Skilton, Andrew (1997), A Concise History of Buddhism, Windhorse, ISBN 978-0-904766-92-9
- Quinter, David (2018), Visualization/Contemplation Sutras, Oxford Bibliographies
- Walser, Joseph (2005), Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, Columbia University Press
- Warder, A.K. (2000), Indian Buddhism (PDF) (Third ed.), Dheli: Motilal Banarsidass
- Bingenheimer, Marcus (2023). Bibliography of Translations from the Chinese Buddhist Canon into Western Languages
- Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon
- Mahayana Buddhist Sutras in English
- BuddhaNet's eBook Library (English pdfs)
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