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. Around one hundred Mahayana sutras survive in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
History and background
Origins and early history
Modern scholars of Buddhist studies generally hold that these sūtras first began to appear between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. They continued being composed, compiled, and edited until the decline of Buddhism in ancient India.
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, who was the first translator of Mahāyāna sūtras into Chinese during the second century.
The Mahāyāna movement remained quite small until the fifth century, with very few manuscripts having been found before then (the exceptions are from Bamiyan). According to Joseph Walser, the fifth and sixth centuries saw a great increase in their production. By this time, Chinese pilgrims, such as Faxian, Yijing, and Xuanzang were traveling to India, and their writings describe monasteries which they label 'Mahāyāna' as well as monasteries where both Mahāyāna monks and non-Mahāyāna monks lived together.
The 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.
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.
Scholarly views on historicity
Andrew Skilton summarizes a common prevailing view among scholars 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.
Scholars 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.
The earliest extant Mahayana sutras
Some 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
- Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (aka Infinite Life Sutra)
- Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha Sūtra
- Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Drumakinnararājaparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra
- Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra
- Kāśyapaparivarta Sūtra
- Lokānuvartana Sūtra
- An early sutra connected to the Avatamsaka Sutra
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.
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). Some sutras translated by Lokaksema (c. 147-189 CE) also mention a "Bodhisattva Piṭaka".
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.
These Bodhisattva-piṭaka collections are no longer extant, but the texts in these collections may have been subsumed into later collections of Mahayana texts.
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.
The Chinese Canon includes a section on Mahayana sutras that contains the following collections:
- (a) Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom sutras)
- (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)
- Prajñaparamita (the texts on the “transcendent perfection of wisdom”)
- Avatamsaka (the “Flower-Ornament” collection of related sutras)
- Ratnakuta (the “Heap of Jewels” class of sutras)
- 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)
Newar Buddhism: Nine Sanskrit texts
- 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)
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.
The sutras associated with the Yogācāra school emphasize the study of cognition, perception, and consciousness through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices.
The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra ("Sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets"; 2nd century CE), was the seminal Yogācāra sutra and continued to be a primary referent for the tradition.
The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (c. 4th century CE) and the Ghanavyūha Sūtra, are also seen as sūtras associated with the a Yogācāra tradition. However both are somewhat syncretic in nature, combining Yogācāra doctrines with those of the buddha-nature texts. In particular, both sutras associate the tathāgatagarbha (i.e. buddha-nature) with the Yogācāra doctrine of the storehouse consciousness (alayavijñāna). The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was particularly influential for Chan Buddhism.
Amongst the earliest Mahāyāna texts, the "Samādhi Sūtras" are a group of sutras that focus on the attainment of profound states of consciousness reached in meditation (samādhi), perhaps suggesting that meditation played an important role in the development of early Mahāyāna. However, in these texts, the term "samādhi" general signifies a more complex and diverse idea which includes numerous practices that are not pure contemplative.
- Pratyutpannabuddha Saṃmukhāvasthita Samādhi Sūtra (Samādhi for Directly Encountering the Buddhas of the Present Sūtra)
- Samādhirāja-sūtra (King of Samādhis Sūtra)
- Śūraṅgama-samādhi-sūtra (Samādhi of the Heroic Progression Sūtra)
- Sarvapuṇyasamuccayasamādhi (The Absorption that Encapsulates All Merit)
- The Absorption of the Miraculous Ascertainment of Peace (Praśāntaviniścayaprātihāryasamādhi)
The Sutra of the Three Heaps (Sanskrit: Triskandhadharmasutra) and the Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra) focus on the practice of confession of faults. The Golden Light Sutra became especially influential in East Asian Buddhism, particularly because of its teaching on how the Four Heavenly Kings protect the ruler who governs his country in the proper manner and upholds the sutra.
The Sutra of the Three Heaps meanwhile remains an important confession focused sutra in Tibetan Buddhism.
Ethical Discipline Sūtras
These focus on principles that guide the ethical behaviour (Śīla) of bodhisattvas and the bodhisattva precepts, and include the Kāśyapaparivarta, the Bodhisattva-prātimokṣa Sutra, the Upāliparipṛcchā (also known in Chinese as The Buddha Speaks of Decisive Vinaya Sutra) and the Brahmajāla Sutra (or Brahmajāla Bodhisattva Śīla Sūtra). For East Asian Zen monastics, the Bequeathed Teachings Sutra is a widely chanted and studied text on ethical discipline.
Pure Land sutras
- The Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life (also known as the Larger Sutra on Amitāyus, abbreviated to Larger Sutra; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra )
- the Sutra on Amitāyus Buddha (also known as the Amida Sutra or the Smaller Sutra on Amitāyus, abbreviated to Smaller Sutra; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra|Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra )
- Guanwuliangshoufo Jing (Kuan-wu-laing-shou-fo Ching)
Some Mahayana sutras focus on the hagiography of the Buddha, other Buddhas, or even tell stories of numerous Buddhas. The Lalitavistara Sūtra is one of the most important of the hagiographical sutras. It focuses on the story of Shakyamuni Buddha's final birth.
The Bhadrakalpika Sūtra give a list of over one thousand Buddhas which will arise in this "fortunate aeon".
Visualization and Dhyāna Sūtras
There is also another genre of Mahāyāna meditation texts called Visualization Sutras (Chinese: 觀經, guan jing). A key feature of these sutras is their promotion of visual meditation practice. Perhaps the most popular of these is the Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Guan Wuliangshoufo Jing). Others include the Sutra on the Sea of Samādhi Attained through Contemplation of the Buddha (Guan Fo Sanmei Hai Jing), and the Sutra on the Contemplation of the Cultivation Methods of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Guan Puxian Pusa Xingfa Jing), commonly known as Samantabhadra Contemplation Sutra.
Esoteric Sūtras and dhāraṇī
Esoteric Sūtras comprise an important category of works that are related to magical and esoteric Buddhist practices. Many of these are often devoted to a particular mantra or dhāraṇī, or simply contain passages which teach these magical spells or chants. One of them, the Atanatiya Sutra, is also included in the mikkyo (esoteric) division of the standard modern collected edition of Sino-Japanese Buddhist literature.
Well-known esoteric sūtras or dhāraṇīs include:
- Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtra.
- Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī.
- Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra.
- Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Heart Dharani Sūtra.
- Mahāpratisarā – mahāvidyārājñī.
- The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, which teaches the "Sitātapatra Uṣṇīṣa Dhāraṇī" (Ch. 大白傘蓋陀羅尼) and is included in the Taisho Tripitaka's Esoteric Sutra category.
- The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, known for teaching the famous mantra of Avalokiteśvara, "Om mani padme hum".
- Vajraśekhara Sūtra.
- Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi Sūtra.
- Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha Sūtra.
- Sūtra of the Whole-Body Relic Treasure Chest Seal Dhāraṇī.
- Pure Land Rebirth Dhāraṇī.
Other important sutras
White Lotus of Good Dharma
The Saddharma-pundarīka-sūtra (White Lotus of Good Dharma Sūtra) is a very influential Sūtra, especially in East Asian Buddhism, where it is considered the supreme Sūtra by many East Asian Buddhists (especially in the Tiantai and Nichiren schools).
This sutra is commonly known as the Lotus Sutra. Probably written down between 100 BCE –150 CE, the Lotus Sūtra states that the three yānas (śrāvakayāna, pratyekabuddhayāna and bodhisattvayāna) are not real paths leading to different goals, there is in fact only one path (ekayāna), with one goal - Buddhahood. 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 idea that a Buddha is not inaccessible after his parinirvāṇa since a Buddha's life-span is incalculably long. Instead of passing into a totally transcendent state, a Buddha remains to help all sentient beings in countless ways, like a great spiritual father that has been around for eons and will continue to teach for many more eons to come.
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.
In the Vimalakirtinirdeśa, composed some time between the first and second century 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. The sutra teaches, among other subjects, the meaning of non-dualism, the doctrine of the true body of the Buddha, the characteristically Mahāyāna claim that the appearances of the world are mere illusions, and the superiority of the Mahāyāna over other paths. It places in the mouth of the lay practitioner Vimalakīrti a teaching addressed to both arhats and bodhisattvas, regarding the doctrine of śūnyatā. In most versions, the discourse of the text culminates with a wordless teaching of silence. This sutra has been very popular in China and Japan.
There are also "sūtras" which are actually collections of other sutras that circulate as one "sutra". One quite influential Sūtra collection is the Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra (The Buddha Wreath Sūtra), 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. The Buddhāvataṃsaka probably reached its current form by about the 4th century CE and this compilation may have happened in Central Asia.
Williams notes that the Buddhāvataṃsaka sutra includes both the yogacara mind-only teaching and the emptiness doctrine, but does so mainly from the perspective of highly advanced beings who have spiritually realized these teachings through deep meditative absoprtion, and thus have all sorts of magical powers which they use to help others. The Buddhāvataṃsaka is therefore a text that depicts various mystical visionary scenes, with countless world systems and countless Buddhas and bodhisattvas who travel freely throughout this multiverse helping all beings out of compassion. One of the most important Buddhas in this text is Mahāvairocana ("Great Illuminator"), who fills the entire cosmos with his light, his omniscient awareness and his magical emanations (one of which was Shakyamuni Buddha). In China, the Buddhāvataṃsaka became the central text for the Huayen (Jp. Kegon) school of Buddhism, which later went on to influence Chinese Chan Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism.
Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra and Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra
Two other important Mahāyāna "sūtras" which are also collections of smaller independent sūtras are the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra (The Heap of Jewels Sūtra) which contains 49 individual sūtras, and the Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra (Sūtra of the Great Assembly) which is a collection of 17 sūtras. Important sutras in the Mahāratnakūṭa include the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra, the Longer Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sutra, the Akṣobhya-vyūha, Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra (The inquiry of Ugra), the Saptaśatikā (700 Line) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and the Tathāgataguhya Sūtra (The Secrets of the Tathāgata).
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāyāna.
- Skilton 1997, p. 101.
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 293
- Akira, Hirakawa (translated and edited by Paul Groner) (1993). A History of Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass: p. 252
- "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." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 492
- Walser, Joseph, Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 29.
- Walser, Joseph, Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 40–41.
- "As scholars have moved away from this limited corpus, and have begun to explore a wider range of Mahayana sutras, they have stumbled on, and have started to open up, a literature that is often stridently ascetic and heavily engaged in reinventing the forest ideal, an individualistic, antisocial, ascetic ideal that is encapsulated in the apparently resurrected image of “wandering alone like a rhinoceros.” Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 494
- Nattier 2003, pp. 193-4.
- Skilton 1999, p. 635.
- Pettit 2013, p. 44.
- Suzuki 1908, p. 15.
- Groner 1993, pp. 253, 263, 268.
- "The south (of India) was then vigorously creative in producing Mahayana sutras" – Warder, A.K. (3rd edn. 1999). Indian Buddhism: p. 335.
- Groner 1993, p. 248-251.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Bodhisattvapiṭaka.
- Nattier (2003), p. 46.
- Kusumita Priscilla Pedersen (1976). The "dhyāna" Chapter of the "Bodhisattvapiṭaka-sūtra" p. 25. Columbia University.
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- Tzohar, Roy (2018). A Yogacara Buddhist Theory of Metaphor. p. 15. Oxford University Press.
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- Skilton, Andrew. State or Statement?: "Samādhi" in Some Early Mahāyāna Sutras. The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2002), pp. 51-93 (43 pages). Eastern Buddhist Society.
- Gomez, Luis O; Silk, Jonathan A. (1989) Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahayana Buddhist Texts, pp. 15-16. Ann Arbor.
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- Inagaki 2003, p. xiii.
- Harvey 2013, pp. 216-217.
- Peter Alan Roberts and 84000 translation team. "The White Lotus of Compassion". 84000 Translating The Words of The Budda. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
- Soper, Alexander Coburn. Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China. Artibus Asiae Supplementum 19. Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1959.
- Quinter, David; Visualization/Contemplation Sutras, Oxford Bibliographies, Last reviewed: 08 MAY 2017. Last modified: 26 FEBRUARY 2013,http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393521/obo-9780195393521-0137.xml#obo-9780195393521-0137-bibItem-0014
- Soper, Alexander Coburn. Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China. Artibus Asiae Supplementum 19. Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1959.
- Skilling, Mahasutras, Volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster
- Taisho 945 is found in Volume 19 of the Taisho Tripitaka."Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō" 大正新脩大藏經 [Taishō Shinshū Tripitaka]. CBETA 漢文大藏經 (in 中文).
This is an index to the Taisho Tripitaka - nb Volume 19 is listed as 密教部 or Esoteric Sutra Section is where Taisho 945 (Surangama Sutra) is located.
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- Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature, Mouton, the Hague, 1960, p. 72; Rgyud is Tibetan for tantra
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- Williams (2008), pp. 156-157.
- Buswell, Robert Jr; Lopez, Donald S. Jr., eds. (2013), Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 290, ISBN 978-0-691-15786-3
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- Williams (2008), pp. 134-135.
- Williams (2008), p. 140.
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- Nattier 2003, pp. 10.
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- Hirakawa, Akira; Groner, Paul (1993). A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-0955-0.
- Kanno, Hiroshi (2003). Chinese Sutra Commentaries from the Early Period, Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, IRIAB, vol VI, 301-320
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Macmillan, 2004.
- McMahan, David (1998). "Orality, writing and authority in South Asian Buddhism: visionary literature and the struggle for legitimacy in the Mahayana". History of Religions. 37 (3): 249–274. doi:10.1086/463504.
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