Buddhist texts

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Chinese Song Period Maha-prajna-paramita Sutra Page

Buddhist texts can be categorized in a number of ways. The Western terms "scripture" and "canonical" are applied to Buddhism in inconsistent ways by Western scholars: for example, one authority[1] refers to "scriptures and other canonical texts", while another[2] says that scriptures can be categorized into canonical, commentarial and pseudo-canonical. A rather more definite division is that between Buddhavacana (the Word of the Buddha) and other texts. The former, including the Sutras (Sanskrit) or Suttas (Pali), are held to be the literal words of the historical Buddha or close approximations thereof. The latter are the various commentaries on canonical texts and other treatises on the Dharma, as well as collections of quotations, histories, grammars, and other texts. Sometimes texts that are considered commentaries by some are regarded by others as Buddhavacana.[3] Within Buddhavacana, there is a chronological difference between the early Buddhist texts (e.g. the Pali Canon and the Agamas), and the Mahayana sutras. Whereas some scholars believe that some portions of the Pali Canon and Agamas could contain the actual substance of the historical teachings (and possibly even the words) of the Buddha,[4][5] this is not the case for the Mahayana sutras, for which only adherence to the spirit of the Buddha would be claimed by non-fundamentalist Mahayanists.[6]

Some of these distinctions are arbitrary, and some texts fall between categories or can be associated with more than one. Many later Chinese scriptures were explicitly not of Indian origin, but have been widely accepted as valid sutras (經) on their own merits by Chinese and East Asian Buddhists of the Mahayana (大乘) tradition.

Recently an important archaeological discovery was made, consisting of the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts, recovered from the ancient civilization of Gandhara in north central Pakistan (near Taxila just south west of the capital Islamabad). These fragments, written on birch bark, are dated to the 1st century and have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls in importance. Donated to the British Library in 1994, they are now being studied in a joint project at the University of Washington[7]


[edit] Buddhavacana

These are, in some way or other, texts associated with one of the Buddhas. Different schools, however, are not always in agreement about which texts are Buddhavacana, and the various collections of Buddhist literature contain widely varying numbers and types of texts. According to most early schools of Buddhism, the texts come in three types:

  • sutras (i.e. discourses)
  • vinaya (relating to the rules of monastic discipline)
  • abhidharma (analytical texts)

Together these three make up what is known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka and in Pali as the Tipitaka. Both the sutras and the vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a huge variety of documents including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and various lists.

Traditionally, the Theravada and other Nikaya schools believe, more or less literally, that most of these texts contain the actual words of the Buddha. The Theravada canon, also known as the Pali Canon after the language it was written in, contains some four million words.

Later texts, such as the Mahayana Sutras, are also traditionally considered by Mahayanists to be the word of the Buddha, but transmitted either in secret, via lineages of supernatural beings (such as the nagas), or revealed directly from other Buddhas or bodhisattvas. Some 600 Mahayana Sutras have survived in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and/or Tibetan translation.

The earliest Mahayana texts were composed in a 'Middle Indo-Āryan' language which was Sanskritised during the Gupta era when Sanskrit became the official language of the Indian court. Most of the Mahayana sutra texts are composed in what is called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, a Middle Indo-Āryan Prakrit with ornaments and flourishes designed to imitate Sanskrit.

The Tibetan Kangyur, which belongs to the various schools of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, in addition to containing sutras and vinaya, also contains tantras.

The division of texts into the traditional three yanas may obscure the process of development that went on, and there is some overlap in the traditional classifications. For instance, there are so-called proto-Mahayana texts, such as the Ajitasena Sutra, which are missing key features that are associated with Mahayana texts. Some Pali texts also contain ideas that later became synonymous with the Mahayana. The Garbhāvakrānti Sūtra is included in both the Vinaya Pitaka of the Mulasarvastivada, one of the early schools, and the Ratnakuta, a standard collection of Mahayana sutras.[8]Some Mahayana texts are also thought to display a distinctly tantric character, particularly some of the shorter Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. An early tantra, the Mahavairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra, is also known as the Mahavairocana Sutra. At least some editions of the Kangyur include the Heart Sutra in the tantra division.[9] Such overlap is not confined to "neighbouring" yanas: at least nine "Sravakayana" ("Hinayana") texts can be found in the tantra divisions of some editions of the Kangyur.[10] 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.[11] (A variant of it is also found in the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon.)

Some Buddhist texts evolved to become a virtual canon in themselves, and are referred to as vaipulya or extensive sutras. Scholars think, for instance, that the Golden Light Sutra constellated around the celebrated third chapter. The Avatamsaka Sutra is another example of a single Sutra made up of many other sutras, many of which, particularly the Gandavyuha Sutra still circulate as separate texts. The Avatamsaka Sutra and the White Lotus Sutra are associated with the idea of the Ekayana or One Vehicle. The texts claim to unify all the teachings that have come before into a greater whole.

Shingon Buddhism developed a system which assigned authorship of the early sutras to Gautama Buddha in his physical manifestation, of the Ekayana sutras to the Buddhas as Sambhoghakaya, and the Vajrayana texts to the Buddha as Dharmakaya.

[edit] Other texts

Other texts have been important from very early in Buddhism. Extensive commentaries exist in Pali for the Pali Canon and in Tibetan, Chinese and other East Asian languages.

Important examples of non-canonical texts are the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, by Buddhaghosa, which is a compendium of Theravada teachings that include quotes from the Pali Canon. The Milinda Pañha or Questions of Milinda, sometimes included in the Pali Canon and perhaps regarded by some as Buddhavacana, is a popular condensation of the Dharma in the form of a dialogue between the Buddhist sage Nāgasena and the Indo-Greek King Menander.

Korean Koryo Period Sutra Page

The treatise Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (attributed by the faithful to Aśvaghoşa) strongly influenced east Asian Mahayana doctrine and inspired numerous commentaries authored by early Chinese and Korean Buddhist teachers. Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara has been influential in both Mahayana and Vajrayana, and his Shikshasamucaya contains references to texts which are no longer extant in any other form.

The Platform Sutra attributed to Huineng is on the borders of Buddhavacana; it is one of a very few texts not thought to be spoken by the Buddha that has the label "sutra." One should note, however, that this distinction may be an artifact of translation; in the original Chinese, the Platform Sutra is a jīng (經), a term that may be translated as "sutra", but is also applied to a variety of other classic texts, such as the Daodejing and the Shi Jing. In the Platform Sutra, Hui Neng gives an autobiographical account of his succession as Zen Patriarch, as well as teachings about Zen theory and practice. The Zen and Ch'an school in particular rely on non-canonical accounts of Zen masters lives and teachings, for example the Blue Cliff Record.

Tibetan Buddhism has a unique and special class of texts called terma (Tibetan gTer-ma). These are texts (or ritual objects, etc.) which are held to have been either composed or hidden by tantric masters and/or elementally secreted or encoded in the elements and retrieved, accessed or rediscovered by other tantric masters when appropriate. Termas are discovered by a tertön (Tibetan gTer-stons), whose special function is to discover these texts. Some termas are hidden in caves or similar places, but a few are said to be 'mind termas' which are 'discovered' in the mind of the tertön. The Nyingma school (and Bön tradition) has a large terma literature. Many of the terma texts are said to have been written by Padmasambhava, who is particularly important to the Nyingmas. Probably the best known terma text is the so-called "Tibetan book of the dead", the Bardo thodol.

Other types of texts which have been important are the histories of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.

[edit] Texts of the Early schools

Although many versions of the texts of the early Buddhist schools exist, the most complete canon to survive is the Pali Canon of the Theravadin school, which preserved the texts in the Pali language. Also large parts of the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka texts are extant.

The Pali literature has been divided by one scholar into roughly three periods. The early, or classical, period begins with the Pali Canon itself and ends with the Milindha-pañha about the turn of the Christian era. After a period of being in comparative disuse or decline, Pali underwent a renaissance in the 4th or 5th century with the help of Buddhaghosa, and this period lasted until the 12th Century. The third period coincides with major political changes in Burma and lasted for some time in Sri Lanka, and much longer in Burma. See also Pali literature.

The other (parts of) extant versions of the Tipitakas of early schools include the agamas, which includes texts of the Sarvastivada and the Dharmaguptaka. Parts of the what is likely to be the canon of the Dharmaguptaka can be found amongst the Gandharan Buddhist Texts. Several early Vinaya Pitakas (from various schools) are also kept in the Chinese (Mahayana) Canon.

[edit] Vinaya

The vinaya literature is primarily concerned with aspects of the monastic discipline. However, vinaya as a term is also contrasted with Dharma, where the pair (Dhamma-Vinaya) mean something like 'doctrine and discipline'. The vinaya literature in fact contains a considerable range of texts. There are, of course, those which discuss the monastic rules, how they came about, how they developed, and how they were applied. But the vinaya also contains some doctrinal expositions, ritual and liturgical texts, biographical stories, and some elements of the "Jatakas", or birth stories.

Paradoxically, the text most closely associated with the vinaya, and the most frequently used portion of it, the Pratimoksha, is in itself not a canonical text in Theravada, even though almost all of it can be found in the canon.

Six complete vinayas survive:

  • Theravada, written in Pali
  • Mula-Sarvāstivāda, written in Sanskrit, but surviving complete only in Tibetan translation
  • Mahāsānghika, Sarvāstivāda, Mahīshāsika, and Dharmagupta, originally in Indian languages, but only surviving in Chinese translation.

In addition, portions survive of a number of vinayas in various languages.

The Mahāvastu compiled by the Lokottaravadin sub-school of the Mahāsānghika was perhaps originally the preamble to their vinaya that became detached; hence, rather than dealing with the rules themselves, it takes the form of an extended biography of the Buddha, which it describes in terms of his progression through ten bhumis, or stages. This doctrine was later taken up by the Mahayana in a modified form as Vasubandhu's Ten Stages Sutra.

[edit] Sutra

The Sutras (Sanskrit; Pali Sutta) are mostly discourses attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples. They are all, even those not actually spoken by him, considered to be 'Buddhavacana' or the word of the Buddha, just as in the case of all canonical literature. The Buddha's discourses were perhaps originally organised according to the style in which they were delivered; there were originally nine, but later twelve, of these. The Sanskrit forms are:

  • Sūtra: prose discourses, especially short declarative discourses.
  • Geya: mixed prose and verse discourse. Identified with the Sagāthāvagga of the Saṁyutta Nikāya
  • Vyākarana: explanation, analysis. Discourses in question and answer format.
  • Gāthā: verse
  • Udāna: inspired speech
  • Ityukta: beginning with 'thus has the Bhagavan said'
  • Jātaka: story of previous life
  • Abhutadharma: concerning wonders and miraculous events
  • Vaipulya either 'extended discourses' or 'those giving joy' (cf Mahayana Texts)
  • Nidāna: in which the teachings are set within their circumstances of origin
  • Avadāna: tales of exploits
  • Upadesha: defined and considered instructions

The first nine are listed in all surviving agamas, with the other three added in some later sources. In Theravada, at least, they are regarded as a classification of the whole of the scriptures, not just suttas. The scheme is also found in Mahayana texts. However, some time later a new scheme of organisation was imposed on the canon, and it is this scheme which most people are familiar with. The scheme organises the suttas into:

[edit] Long discourses

These range in length up to 95 pages. The Pali Digha Nikaya contains 34 texts, including the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and the Brahmajāla Sutta. The Dīrghāgama of the Dharmagupta also survives, in Chinese translation, and contains 30 sutras.

[edit] Medium-length discourses

These are the rest of the sutras of any length, and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya has 152 suttas. The Madhyamāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing 222 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

[edit] Connected discourses

This grouping consists of many short texts connected by theme, setting, or interlocutor. The Pali Samyutta Nikaya contains more than 2,800 suttas. The Samyuktāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing only 1,300 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

[edit] Numbered discourses

Sutras which have the same number of doctrinal items, comprising over 2,300 suttas in the Pali Anguttara Nikaya. The Chinese canon contains an Ekottarāgama which is thought by some scholars to belong to the Mahāsanghika school.

[edit] Miscellaneous texts

Not all schools had this category, but the Pali Khuddaka Nikaya has several well-known and loved texts, including:

  • the Dhammapada: a collection of sayings and aphorisms.
  • The Udana : a collection of inspired sayings in verse usually with a prose introduction that sets a context of sorts for the saying.
  • The Sutta Nipata: parts of the Sutta Nipata, such as the Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyanavagga, are thought by some scholars[citation needed] to represent the earliest strata of the written canon. Many of the features of later texts, such as numbered lists of teachings, or complex doctrinal categories, are not present.
  • Theragāthā and Therīgāthā two collections of biographical verse related to the disciples of the Buddha (male and female respectively.)
  • Jataka: poems related to the so-called 'birth stories' which recount former lives of the Buddha. These remain popular in many forms of Buddhism.

Many of these texts are available in translation as well as in the original language. The Dhammapada, for instance, has a Pali version, three Chinese versions, a Tibetan version, and a Khotanese version.

[edit] Abhidharma

Abhidharma (in Pali, Abhidhamma) means 'further Dharma' and is concerned with the analysis of phenomena. It grew initially out of various lists of teachings such as the 37 Bodhipaksika-dharmas or the 37 Factors leading to Awakening. The Abhidharma literature is chiefly concerned with the analysis of phenomena and the relationships between them.

The Theravāda Abhidhamma survives in the Pali Canon. Outside of the Theravada monasteries the Pali Abhidharma texts are not well-known.

A Sarvastivada Abhidharma, composed in Sanskrit, survives in Chinese and Tibetan traditions. Though the Theravādin Abhidhamma is well preserved and best known, it should be noted that a number of the early Eighteen Schools each had their own distinct Abhidharma collection with not very much common textual material, though sharing methodology.

Not all schools accepted the Abhidharma as canonical. The Sautrāntika, for instance, held that the canon stopped with the vinaya and sutras. The rejection by some schools that dharmas (i.e. phenomena) are ultimately real, which the Theravada Abhidhamma, for instance, insists, is thought to be an important factor in the origin of the Mahayana.

[edit] Other texts

One early text not usually regarded as Buddhavacana is probably the Milinda pañha (literally The Questions of Milinda). This text is in the form of a dialogue between Nagasena, and the Indo-Greek King Menander (Pali: Milinda). It is a compendium of doctrine, and covers a range of subjects. It is included in some editions of the Pali Canon.

The Pali texts have an extensive commentarial literature much of which is still untranslated. These are largely attributed to Buddhaghosa. There are also sub-commentaries or commentaries on the commentaries.

Buddhaghosa was also the author of the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, which is a manual of doctrine and practice according to the Theravada school.

[edit] Mahayana texts

M a h ā y ā n a

B u d d h i s m


China • Taiwan
Korea • India • Japan
Nepal • Tibet • Bhutan
Mongolia • Vietnam


Bodhisattva • Bodhicitta
Karuṇā • Prajñā
Śunyatā • Buddha Nature
Trikāya • Eternal Buddha

Mahāyāna Sūtras

Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras
Avataṃsaka Sūtra
Lotus Sūtra
Nirvana Sūtra
Vimalakīrti Sūtra
Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra


Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
Asanga • Vasubandhu

See Mahayana Sutras for historical background and a list of some sutras categorised by source.

[edit] Perfection of Wisdom Texts

These deal with prajñā (wisdom or insight). 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 sunyata, 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 prajñā with the Sanskrit/Pali short a vowel ("अ", pronounced [ə]) -- which, as a prefix, negates a word's meaning (e.g., changing svabhava to asvabhava, "with essence" to "without essence"; cf. mu); which is the first letter of Indic alphabets; and which, as a sound on its own, can be seen as the most neutral/basic of speech sounds (cf Aum and bija).

Many sutras are known by the number of lines, or slokas, that they contained.

Edward Conze, who translated nearly all of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras into English, identified four periods of development in this literature:

  1. 100BCE-100CE: Ratnagunasamcayagatha and the Astasaharika (8,000 lines)
  2. 100-300CE: a period of elaboration in which versions in 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines are produced. Possibly also the Diamond Sutra
  3. 300-500CE : a period of condensation, producing the well known Heart Sutra, and the Perfection of Wisdom in one letter
  4. 500-1000CE : texts from this period begin to show a tantric influence

The Perfection of Wisdom texts have influenced every Mahayana school of Buddhism.

[edit] Saddharma-pundarika

Also called the Lotus Sutra, White Lotus Sutra, Sutra of the White Lotus, or Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma; (Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra; 妙法蓮華經 Cn: Miàofǎ Liánhuā Jīng; Jp: Myōhō Renge Kyō. Probably composed in its earliest form in the period 100 bce100 ce, the White Lotus proposes that the three yanas (Shravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, and Bodhisattvayana) are not in fact three different paths leading to three goals, but one path, with one goal. The earlier teachings are said to be of 'skillful means' in order to help beings of limited capacities. Notable for the (re)appearance of the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who had died several aeons earlier, because it suggests that a Buddha is not inaccessible after his parinirvana, 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 Trikaya doctrine. Later associated particularly with the Tien Tai in China (Tendai in Japan) school and the Nichiren schools in Japan.

[edit] Pure Land Sutras

There are three major sutras that fall into this category: the Infinite Life Sutra, also known as the Larger Pure Land Sutra; the Amitabha Sutra, also known as the Smaller Pure Land Sutra; and the Contemplation Sutra, or Visualization, Sutra. These 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.

[edit] The Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra

Composed in its earliest form some time before 150CE., the Bodhisattva Vimalakirti appears in the guise of a layman in order to teach the Dharma. Seen by some as a strong assertion of the value of lay practice. Doctrinally similar to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, another major theme is the Buddhafield (Buddha-kshetra), which was influential on Pure Land schools. Very popular in China and Japan where it was seen as being compatible with Confucian values.

[edit] Samadhi Sutras

Amongst the very earliest Mahayana texts, the Samadhi Sutras are a collection of sutras which focus on the attainment of profound states of consciousness reached in meditation, perhaps suggesting that meditation played an important role in early Mahayana. Includes the Pratyutpanna Sutra and the Shurangama-samadhi Sutra.

[edit] Confession Sutras

The Triskandha Sutra, and the Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra (or Golden Light Sutra), which focus on the practice of confession of faults. The Golden Light Sutra became especially influential in Japan, where one of its chapters (on the Universal Sovereign) was used by the Japanese emperors to legitimise their rule, and it provided a model for a well-run state.

[edit] The Avatamsaka Sutra

A large composite text consisting of several parts, most notably the Dasabhumika Sutra and the Gandavyuha Sutra. It exists in three successive versions, two in Chinese and one in Tibetan. New sutras were added to the collection in both the intervals between these. The Gandavyuha sutra is thought to be the source of a sect that was dedicated specifically to Vairocana, and that later gave rise to the Mahavairocana-abhisambodhi tantra, which became one of two central texts in Shingon Buddhism, and is included in the Tibetan canon as a carya class tantra. The Avatamsaka Sutra became the central text for the Hua-yen (Jp. Kegon) school of Buddhism, the most important doctrine of which is the interpenetration of all phenomena.

[edit] Third Turning Sutras

Sutras which primarily teach the doctrine of vijnapti-matra or 'representation-only', associated with the Yogacara school. The Sandhinirmocana Sutra (c 2nd Century CE) is the earliest surviving sutra in this class (and according to some Gelugpa authorities the only one). This sutra divides the teachings of the Buddha into three classes, which it calls the "Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma." To the first turning, it ascribes the Agamas of the Shravakas, to the second turning the lower Mahayana sutras including the Prajna-paramita Sutras, and finally sutras like itself are deemed to comprise the third turning. Moreover, the first two turnings are considered, in this system of classification, to be provisional while the third group is said to present the final truth without a need for further explication (nitartha).

[edit] Tathagatagarbha Class Sutras

Especially the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Shrīmālādevi-simhanāda Sūtra (Srimala Sutra), the Angulimaliya Sutra, the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa Sutra, and the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (which is very different in character from the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta). These texts teach that every being has a Tathagatagarbha: variously translated as Buddha nature, Buddha seed, Buddha matrix. It is this Buddha nature, Buddha Essence or Buddha Principle, this aspect of every being which is itself already enlightened, that enables beings to be liberated. One of the most important responses of Buddhism to the problem of immanence and transcendence. The Tathagatagarbha doctrine was very influential in East Asian Buddhism, and the idea in one form or another can be found in most of its schools. The well-known Lankavatara Sutra, composed sometime around the 4th century CE, is sometimes included in thevijnapti-matra group associated with the Yogacara teachings, however D.T. Suzuki sees the Lankavatara as clearly pre-dating and distinguished from Yogacara.[12] The Lankavatara teaches cittamatra (mind only) not that of vijnaptimatra of the Yogacara.[13] Also, central to the Lankavatara is the identity of the alayavjnana with the tathagata-garbha and the Lankavatara's central message that the tathagata-garbha is what makes possible the turning inward (paravritti or paravrtti) of awareness to realize the Buddha's psychological transformation in practical life,[14] while the tathagata-garbha" system was unknown or ignored by the progenitors of the Yogacara system. The Lankavatara Sutra was influential in the Chan or Zen schools.

[edit] Collected Sutras

Two very large sutras which are again actually collections of other sutras. The Mahāratnakūta Sūtra contains 49 individual works, and the Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra is a collection of 17 shorter works. Both seem to have been finalised by about the 5th century, although some parts of them are considerably older.

[edit] Transmigration Sutras

A number of sutras which focus on the actions that lead to existence in the various spheres of existence, or which expound the doctrine of the twelve links of pratitya-samutpada or dependent-origination.

[edit] Discipline Sutras

Sutras which focus on the principles which guide the behaviour of Bodhisattvas. Including the Kāshyapa-parivarta, the Bodhisattva-prātimoksa Sūtra, and the Brahmajāla Sūtra.

[edit] Sutras devoted to individual figures

A large number of sutras which describe the nature and virtues of a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva and/or their Pure Land, including Mañjusri, Ksitigarbha, the Buddha Akshobhya, and Bhaishajyaguru also known as the Medicine Buddha.

[edit] Proto-Mahayana Sutras

Early in the 20th Century, a cache of texts was found in a mound near Gilgit, Afghanistan. Amongst them was the Ajitasena Sutra. The Ajitasena Sutra appears to be a mixture of Mahayana and pre-Mahayana ideas. It occurs in a world where monasticism is the norm, which is typical of the Pali Suttas; there is none of the usual antagonism towards the Shravakas (also called the Hinayana) or the notion of Arahantship, which is typical of Mahayana Sutras such as the White Lotus, or Vimalakirti Nirdesha. However, the sutra also has an Arahant seeing all the Buddha fields, it is said that reciting the name of the sutra will save beings from suffering and the hell realms, and a meditative practice is described which allows the practitioner to see with the eyes of a Buddha, and to receive teachings from them that are very much typical of Mahayana Sutras.

[edit] Non-Buddhavacana texts

The Mahayana commentarial and exegetical literature is vast, and in many cases the texts have an importance which outweighs Buddhavacana.

The Mūlamadhyamika-karikā, or Root Verses on the Middle Way, by Nagarjuna is a seminal text on the Madhyamika philosophy, shares much of the same subject matter as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, although it is not strict a commentary on them.

The 9th Century Indian Buddhist Shantideva produced two texts: the Bodhicaryāvatāra has been a strong influence in many schools of the Mahayana. It is notably a favourite text of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The text begins with an elaborate ritual worship section, but goes on to expound the six perfections. The 9th chapter is a critique of various views on perfect wisdom from the madhyamika point of view. Shantideva also produced the Shikshasamuccaya, which is a compendium of doctrines from a huge range of Mahayana Sutras - some of which are no longer extant and therefore known only through Shantideva's quotes.

Asanga, associated with the Yogacara school of Mahayana thought, is said to have received many texts directly from the Bodhisattva Maitreya in the Tushita god realm, including Madhyāntavibhāga, the Mahāyāna-sūtrālamāra, and the Abhisamayālamkara. He is also said to have personally written the Mahāyāna-samgraha, the Abhidharma-samuccaya (a compendium of Abhidharma thought which became the standard text for many Mahayana schools especially in Tibet), and the Yogācāra-bhūmi (although the latter text appears to have had several authors.)

Asanga's brother Vasubandhu wrote a large number of texts associated with the Yogacara including: Trivabhāva-nirdesha, Vimshatika, Trimshika, and the Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya although this work predates his conversion to the Mahayana and a minority[citation needed] of scholars speculate that there may have been two different Vasubandhus who composed these works. Most influential in the East Asian Buddhist tradition was probably his Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only.

Dignāga is associated with a school of Buddhist logic which tried to establish what were valid sources of knowledge (see also Epistemology). He produced the Pramāna-samuccaya, and later Dharmakirti wrote the Pramāna-vārttikā which was a commentary and reworking of the Dignaga text.

The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana attributed to Ashvaghosha was influential in East Asian Buddhism, especially the Hua-yen school of China, and its Japanese equivalent, Kegon. Ashvaghosha is also celebrated for his plays.

[edit] References

  • The Rider encyclopedia of eastern philosophy and religion. London, Rider, 1989.
  • Nakamura, Hajime. 1980. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. 1st edition: Japan, 1980. 1st Indian Edition: Delhi, 1987. ISBN 81-208-0272-1
  • Skilton, Andrew. A concise history of Buddhism. Birmingham, Windhorse Publications, 1994.
  • Warder, A. K. 1970. Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 2nd revised edition: 1980.
  • Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism : the doctrinal foundations. London, Routledge, 1989.
  • Zürcher, E. 1959. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in early Medieval China. 2nd edition. Reprint, with additions and corrections: Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1972.
  • Susan Murcott. The First Buddhist Women Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha, 1991.

[edit] Vajrayana texts

[edit] Buddhist tantras

The Tibetan Kangyur includes a number of Nikaya-related texts from the Mula-Sarvastivada school, as well as Mahayana sutras. However, it is the specifically Vajrayana texts that most strongly characterise it. They are considered to be the word of the Buddha, Buddhavacana, and the Tibetan Kangyur contains translations of almost 500 tantras. The texts are typically concerned with elaborate rituals and meditations.

A late Tibetan tradition has made a four-fold classification into:

Kriyā tantras. These form a large subgroup which appeared between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE. The Kriya tantras focus on ritual actions. Each centres around a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva, and many are based around dharanis. Examples include the Mahāmegha Sutra, the Ārya-mañjushrī-mūla-kalpa, the Subhāhu-pariprcchā Sutra, and the Aparimitāyur-jñāna-hrdaya-dhāranī. Also included in this category are some Mahayana texts such as the Heart Sutra and, in some editions, versions of some texts found in the Pali Canon.

Carya tantras. This is a small class of texts that probably emerged after the 6th century and are entirely centred on the worship of the Buddha Vairocana. The best known example is the Mahā-vairocanābhisambodhi Tantra, also known as the Mahavairocana Sutra, which became a foundational text for the Shingon School of Japan.

Yoga tantras likewise focus on Vairocana, and include the Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-samgraha Tantra and the Sarva-durgati-parishodhana Tantra.

Anuttara tantras. This most advanced class of tantra is the Anuttarayoga tantra, which focus on mental transformation and less on ritual actions. They are sometimes further divided into the so-called Father Tantras and Mother Tantras.

  • First there are the yogottara, or higher union, tantras, also known as father tantras, or skilful means, (Sanskrit: upāya) tantras. They focus on the Buddha Akshobhya and his consort Māmaki. The Guhya-samāja Tantra comes from this class of tantras, dating probably from the 8th century.
  • Secondly prajña or mother tantras, also known as yogini tantras, dating from the late 8th century. Akshobhya is still the central figure, but he now appears in his wrathful form as Heruka. Female figures take on a much greater significance, becoming as important as male figures, if not more so. The Samvara Tantra was translated into Tibetan in the 8th century. Other members of this class, such as the Hevajra Tantra, appeared in the 10th century.
  • The Kalachakra tantra is sometimes said to be an advaya or non-dual tantra. It appeared very late in the development of tantric Buddhism - in the mid 11th century - and is written in classical Sanskrit, rather than the usual mixture of Prakrit and the characteristic "allusive speech" of The Twilight Language, (Sanskrit:samdhyābhāshā). For the first time the teachings refer to the ādhibuddha, or primordial Buddha.

These three categories are known in the Nyingma school as Maha-, Anu- and Ati-. This school also has a collection of tantras of its own, not recognized by the other Tibetan schools.

Textual evidence suggests that some of these texts are in fact Shaivite Tantras adopted and adapted to Buddhist purposes, and many similarities in iconography and ritual can be seen in them.[citation needed]

[edit] Other products of the Vajrayana literature

A sadhana is a tantric spiritual practices text used by practitioners, primarily to practice the mandala or a particular yidam, or meditation deity. The Sādhanamālā is a collection of sadhanas.

Vajrayana adepts, known as mahasiddha, often expounded their teachings in the form of songs of realization. Collections of these songs such as the Caryāgīti, or the Charyapada are still in existence. The Dohakosha is a collection of doha songs by the yogi Saraha from the 9th century. A collection known in English as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, by the Tibetan Buddhist yogi Milarepa is still popular today, particularly amongst practitioners from the Kagyu school.

Terma are Tibetan Buddhist texts, hidden to be rediscovered at a later date. Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal wrote and hid most termas, although texts have also been hidden by figures such as Machig Labdron. The best known terma text is probably the Bardo thodol, or 'Awakening in the Bardo State', also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The person who finds a terma text is known as a terton.

The Blue Annals (Tibetan: deb ther sngon po) completed in 1476CE, authored by Gölo Zhönnupel (Tibetan: gos lo gzhon nu dpal, 1392-1481), is a historical survey of Tibetan Buddhism with a marked ecumenical view, focusing upon the dissemination of various sectarian traditions throughout Tibet.[15]

Namtar, or spiritual biographies, are another popular form of Tibetan Buddhist texts, whereby the teachings and spiritual path of a practitioner are explained through a review of their lifestory.

Kūkai wrote a number of treatises on Vajrayana Buddhism which are distinctive to his Shingon Buddhism.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Volume One), page 142
  2. ^ Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984, page 79
  3. ^ For example, Honen, the founder of Japanese Puree Land, says that the writings of Shan-tao come from Amitabha Buddha and are of the same value as sutras. in: Eliot, Japanese Buddhism, Edward Arnold, London, 1935, page 6
  4. ^ It is therefore possible that much of what is found in the Suttapitaka is earlier than c.250 B.C., perhaps even more than 100 years older than this. If some of the material is so old, it might be possible to establish what texts go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, texts which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words. How old is the Suttapitaka? Alexander Wynne, St John’s College, 2003, p.22 (this article is available on the website of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies: [1]
  5. ^ It would be hypocritical to assert that nothing can be said about the doctrine of earliest Buddhism ... the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas. J.W. De Jong, 1993: The Beginnings of Buddhism, in The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 25
  6. ^ The Mahayana movement claims to have been founded by the Buddha himself. The consensus of the evidence, however, is that it originated in South India in the 1st century CE – Indian Buddhism, AK Warder, 3rd edition, 1999, p. 335.
  7. ^ "The University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project". www.ebmp.org. http://depts.washington.edu/ebmp/. Retrieved on 13 April. 
  8. ^ Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, Pali Text Society[2], Lancaster, 1997, pages 93f
  9. ^ Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature, Mouton, the Hague, 1960, page 72; Rgyud is Tibetan for tantra
  10. ^ Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XVI, pages 161f
  11. ^ Skilling, Mahasutras, Volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster
  12. ^ Studies in the Langavatara Sutra, by D.T. Suzuki, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1930, p. 170
  13. ^ "The difference is this: According to the Vijnaptimatra, the world is nothing but ideas, there are no realities behind them; but the Cittamatra states that there is nothing but Citta, Mind, in the wrold and that the world is the objectification of Mind. The one is pure idealism and the other idealistic realism." The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1932, introduction p. xi.
  14. ^ The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text", Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1932, introduction p. xvii.
  15. ^ Source: [3] (accessed: November 5, 2007)

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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