Talk:Mahayana sutras

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Theravada school

Buddhaghosa (c. 5th century) presenting three copies of the Visuddhimagga.

The Theravada school is based on the Theravadan Pali Canon and its commentaries. In this school, the Pali Canon is considered to be the original "words of the Buddha". The commentaries were written by later scholars to help organize the teachings of the canon into a coherent system of thought. Both the Pali Canon on the commentaries are written in the Pali language.

The most important commentary in this school is the The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) by Bhadantácariya Buddhaghosa. Regarding this commentary, contemporary Theravada scholar Bhikkhu Naoamoli states:

It systematically summarizes and interprets the teaching of the Buddha contained in the [Pali Canon]... As the principal non-canonical authority of the Theraváda, it forms the hub of a complete and coherent method of exegesis of the [Pali Canon]... And it sets out detailed practical instructions for developing purification of mind.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states:

[The Path of Purification] organizes its material broadly under three headings: sila (morals), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom), but it also comments on and explains a wide range of details of Buddhist doctrine through the use of narrative and by means of direct quotation from and explanation of the canonical texts of the [Pali Canon], presenting Theravada doctrines as a systematic whole. In addition, the Visuddhimagga contains a detailed description of Buddhist meditative techniques and can be regarded as a general reference work on Theravada doctrine.[web 1]

The theory and practice outlined in the The Path of Purification provides the textual foundation of the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia.

Mahayana school

Statue of Nagarjuna from Samye Ling Monastery, Scotland. Nagarjuna was one of the great scholars of the Mahayana school.

Mahayana literally means Great Vehicle. The early Mahayana adherents used this term to distinguish themselves from other early buddhists, who they described as followers of the Hinayana (Basic Vehicle) tradition.

Thus, the texts of the Mahayana school include:

  • Hinayana (Basic Vehicle) texts
    • These texts are roughly equivalent to the texts of the Theravadan Pali Canon; though the Mahayana school relies on the Sanskrit versions of these texts
    • These texts include the teaching on the Four Noble Truths and other sutras that are accepted by all traditions as authentic teachings of the Buddha[note 1]
  • Mahayana (Great Vehicle) texts
    • These are the Mahayana sutras and their commentaries.
    • The Mahayana sutras are based on the texts of the Hinayana (Basic Vehicle), but they were first recorded several hundred years after the Hinayana texts were recorded.
    • The Mahayana texts accept the validity of the Hinayana texts, but they assert that the Hinayana texts present a limited point of view, and that the Mahayana texts present the higher point of view for beings of superior capacity.
    • The Mahayana texts emphasize training in bodhicitta (limitless wisdom and compassion)
    • Note that the Mahayana sutras are generally not considered as authentic teachings of the Buddha within the Theravada tradition

The texts of the Mahayana school were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. The Chinese translations were then translated into Korean and Vietnamese. The Korean translations were then translated into Japanese. At a later period, the texts were also translated from Sanskrit directly into the Tibetan language.

The Mahayana path is described as a “gradual path” of the perfections and bhumis as taught in the Mahayana sutras. Generally speaking, this path emphasizes the gradual development of the six perfections of generosity, discipline, diligence, patience, meditative concentration and wisdom. The first five perfections are focused on the development of compassion and love on both an aspirational and a practical level. The final perfection of wisdom focuses on development of direct insight into the true nature of reality.

Thus, the Mahayana school emphasizes both:

  • direct insight into the nature of reality, and
  • limitless love and compassion for all sentient beings.

The Mahayana view of the true nature of reality is that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. A common way of expressing this view in the Mahayana tradition is to say that all appearances are illusory or dreamlike. This view is expressed in the Diamond Sutra as follows:[web 2]

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.

The aspiration for limitless love and compassion for all beings is expressed in the following prayer from the Bodhicaryavattara:[1]

May I be a guard for those who are without protection.
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
A lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For those who need a servant, may I be their slave.

May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power and the supreme healing.
May I be the tree of miracles,
and for every being a source of abundance.

Thus for every thing that lives,
As far as are the limits of the sky,
May I provide their livelihood and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering

Mahayana school provides the textual foundation for:

  • The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam
  • The Tibetan tradition (which practices a form of Vajrayana that is based in the Mahayana school)


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  1. Translation by the Padmakara Translation Group