Mahayana sutras

Mahayana sutras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures of which the Mahayana Buddhist tradition claim that they are original teachings of the Buddha. The Theravada and the other Early Buddhist Schools claim that the Mahayana Sutras are later compositions, not taught by the Buddha.

Historicity and Background

Place in the Canon

Various Mahayana Sutras have been included in the Tibetan Canon and the Chinese Canon. Although similar, these two canons differ in the sutras they include.

The Mahayana sutras are not included nor mentioned in the Agamas and the Sutta Pitaka, which represent the oldest stratum of Buddhist scriptures, which some scholars claim are linked historically to Gautama Buddha.

Composition and Origin

Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the first century CE onwards, five centuries after the historical Gautama Buddha, with some of them having their roots in other scriptures, composed in the first century BCE. But it took until after the 5th century AD before the Mahayana Sutras started to influence the actual behavior of mainstream Buddhists in India.

The commonly expressed misconception that Mahayana started as a lay-inspired movement is based on a selective reading of a very tiny sample of extant Mahayana Sutra literature. Currently scholars have moved away from this limited corpus of literature, and have started to open up early Mahayana literature which is very ascetic and expounds the ideal of the monks' life in the forest. A scholarly consensus about the origin of the Mahayana has not yet been reached, but it has been suggested that when Mahayana became popular in the fifth century AD, it had become what it originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution. Before that, the Mahayana movement may well have been either a marginalized ascetic group of monks living in the forest, or a group of conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged early Buddhist monasteries.

Some scholars contend that the Mahayana sutras were mainly composed in the south of India, and that later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the east and north of India.

Most of the Mahayana Sutras kept evolving over the course of many centuries, from the 2nd century AD up until the 11th century AD when India was conquered by Muslim armies, and many Buddhist monks were murdered. In these 10 centuries additional information was added to and removed from the Mahayana Sutras, and new Mahayana Sutras were written as the need for them was felt. As a result of this, many different versions exist of the same Mahayana Sutras. These different versions of the same sutras display a large variety in content and length (for exampe: the lotus sutra and the prajnaparamita sutra have both extremely short and extremely long versions).

Scholars' opinion on historicity

The accounts of the texts specific to the Mahayana school (the Mahayana Sutras) are seen by scholars to not represent a true historic account of the life and teachings of Buddha. The traditional account of why these accounts are not preserved in the older Tripitaka texts (the Pali Canon and the Agamas) of Early Buddhism, invariably involve stories of mythical dragons (Nāgas) and denigrating accounts on the intelligence of humankind (not clever enough) at the time of the Buddha. The scholar A. K. Warder gives the following reasons for not accepting the Mahayana Sutras as giving a historical account of events in the life of Gautama Buddha:

  1. It is a curious aspersion on the powers of the Buddha that he failed to do what others were able to accomplish 600 years later.
  2. Linguistically and stylistically the Mahayana texts belong to a later stratum of Indian literature than the Tripitaka known to the early schools.
  3. Everything about early Buddhism, and even the Mahayana itself (with the exception of the Mantrayana), suggests that it was a teaching not meant to be kept secret but intended to be published to all the world, to spread enlightenment.
  4. We are on safe ground only with those texts the authenticity of which is admitted by all schools of Buddhism (including the Mahayana, who admit the authenticity of the early canons as well as their own texts), not with texts accepted only by certain schools.
  5. Mahayana developed gradually out of one, or a group, of the eighteen early schools, and originally it took its stand not primarily on any new texts but on its own interpretations of the universally recognised Tripitaka.

Scholars have said that the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon displays attention to detail, and has been resorted to as the principal source of reference in most standard studies of the Buddha's life. The Mahayana version of this text (the Nirvana Sutra) however, displays a disregard for historic particulars and a fascination with the supernatural, and uses the narrative of the Buddha's life merely as a convenient springboard for the expression of standard Mahayana ideals.

Beliefs of Buddhists

Early Buddhist Tradition on the Origin of the Mahayana Sutras

The various early Buddhist schools (including Theravada) declared the Mahayana sutras to be heretical, saying they are late compositions which were never proclaimed by the historical Buddha. They claimed that Mahayana sutras contain various untruths and falsifications, and therefore do not represent the life and teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha.

That the members of the Early Schools felt this way is also evident in some early Mahayana Sutras, in which "disbelieving" members of the Early schools are condemed for their rejection of the Mahayana Sutras as authentic teaching of the Buddha.

Mahayana Tradition on the Origin of the Mahayana Sutras

Mahayana Buddhists traditionally believe that the Mahayana sutras, with the possible exception of those with an explicitly Chinese provenance, are an authentic account of the life and teachings of the Buddha. These sutras form the basis of the various Mahayana schools, and devotees of Mahayana Buddhism accept them as transmitting the genuine doctrines of Gautama Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhists believe the Mahayana Sutras present the more profound teachings of the Buddha and the path he revealed (Buddhadharma). Mahayana Buddhists accept both the older sutras from the Tipitaka as well as the new Mahayana sutras as original teachings, even though they generally do not study the teachings of the older sutras well since the Mahayana Sutras teach that the older sutras are inferior and lacking.

The traditional telling about the transmission of the Mahayana sutras claims that many parts were actually written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in the realm of the dragons (or Nagas). The reason given for the late disclosure of the Mahayana teachings is that most people were initially unable to understand the Mahayana sutras at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE) and suitable recipients for these teachings had still to arise amongst humankind.

One Mahayana tradition holds (based on the Sandhi-nirmocana Sutra) that Gautama Buddha's teachings may be divided into three general hierarchical categories, known as the "three turnings of the wheel of dharma" – the Hinayana turning, and two Mahayana turnings: the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom), and Yogacara. The Mahayana Sutras would thus belong to the two later turnings, and not form part of the 'Hinayana' turning.

The Mahayana monk D.T. Suzuki stated that it doesn't matter if the Mahayana Sutras can be historically linked to the Buddha or not, since Mahayana is a living tradition and its teachings are followed by millions of people.

Nature of the Mahayana Sutras


The teachings as contained in the Mahayana Sutras as a whole have been described as a loosely bound bundle of many teachings, which was able to contain the various contradictions between the varying teachings it is comprised of. Because of these contradictory elements, there are very few things which can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism.


Being restatements of a doctrine, part of nearly every Mahayana Sutra contains a denigrative section of varying length, denunciating the earlier, original doctrine of Early Buddhism. The scholar AK Warder has commented on the unpleasant nature of these polemical statements, noting that such negative comments are mostly absent in the earlier texts (the Agamas and Pali Canon), which are of a more tolerant and understanding nature.

Collections of Mahayana Sutras

The Mahayana Sutras survive predominantly in primary translations in Chinese and Tibetan from original texts in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or various Prakrits. From these Chinese and Tibetan texts, secondary translations were also made into Mongolian, Korean, Japanese and Sogdian.

Mahayana Canon

Although there is no definitive Mahayana canon as such, the printed or manuscript collections in Chinese and Tibetan, published through the ages, have preserved the majority of known Mahayana sutras. Many parallel translations of certain sutras exist. A handful of them, such as the Prajñāpāramitā sutras like Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, are considered fundamental by most Mahayana traditions.

The standard modern edition of the Buddhist Chinese canon is the Taisho Tripitaka, redacted during the 1920s in Japan, consisting of eighty-five volumes of writings which, in addition to numerous Mahayana texts, both canonical and not, also include Agama collections, several versions of the Vinaya, Abhidharma and Tantric writings. The first thirty-two volumes contain works of Indic origin, volumes thirty-three to fifty-five contain works of native Chinese origin, volumes fifty-six to eighty-four contain works of Japanese composition. the eighty-fifth volume contains miscellaneous items including works found at Dunhuang. A number of apocryphal sutras composed in China are also included in the Chinese Buddhist Canon, although the spurious nature of many more was recognized, thus preventing their inclusion into the canon. The Sanskrit originals of many Mahayana texts have not survived to this day, although Sanskrit versions of the majority of the major Mahayana sutras have survived.


Mahayana sutras are divided into a number of traditions. Some, like the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, are almost completely philosopical in nature. Others are texts based on lives of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas outlining their vows for sentient salvations, or are made for the benefits of suffering beings. The later two classes usually contains specific dharana and mantras.

List of some Mahayana Sutras

Brief discriptions of some Sutras

Proto-Mahayana Sutras

Early in the 20th Century, a cache of texts was found in a mound near Gilgit in Pakistan. 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.

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", [[schwa|[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 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.


Also called the Lotus Sutra, White Lotus Sutra, Sutra of the White Lotus, or Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma; Sanskrit: Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra; 妙法蓮華經 Cn: Miàofǎ Liánhuā Jīng; Jp: Myōhō Renge Kyō. Probably composed 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 'skilful 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.

The earliest scripture that mentions the word "Mahayana" is the Lotus Sutra.

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.

The Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra

Composed 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.

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.

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.

The Avatamsaka Sutra

A large composite text consisting of several parts, most notably the Dasabhumika Sutra and the Gandavyuha Sutra. Probably reached its current form by about the 4th Century CE, although parts of it such as those mentioned above, are thought to date from the 1st or 2nd century CE. The Gandavyuha sutra is thought to be the source of a cult of Vairocana 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.

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. 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). The well-known Lankavatara Sutra, composed sometime around the 4th Century CE, is sometimes included in this group, although it should be noted that it is somewhat syncretic in nature, combining pure Yogacara doctrines with those of the tathagata-garbha system, and was unknown or ignored by the progenitors of the Yogacara system. The Lankavatara Sutra was influential in the Chan or Zen schools.

Tathagatagarbha Class Sutras

Especially the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Shrīmālādevi-simhanāda Sūtra (Srimala 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 an indwelling potency or element 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 Buddha in these sutras insists that the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha is ultimate and definitive (nitartha) - not in need of "interpretation" - and that it takes the Dharma to the next and final, clarifying step regarding the Emptiness (shunyata) teachings.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Vaipūlya Sūtra-s devoted to all Tathāgata-s

The most widely used (in liturgy) of these is the Bhadra-kalpika Sūtra, available in various languages (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc.) in variants which differ (very slightly) as to the number of Tathāgata-s enumerated. (The Khotanese version, e.g., is the proponent of a 1005-Tathāgata system.) There is a use among the Shin-gon a sūtra naming some 10,000 Tathāgata-s, distinguishing the longer-lived (after enlightenment) ones (the same as in the approximately 1,000 in the Bhadra-kalpika) as "Sun-Buddha-s", and the shorter-lived ones as "Moon-Buddha-s".


In 1995, Donald Lopez published a paper which addresses the issue of its orality, as opposed to its authority .


  • Nakamura, Hajime. 1980. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. 1st edition: Japan, 1980. 1st Indian Edition: Delhi, 1987. ISBN 81-208-0272-1
  • Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 3rd revised edition: 1999.
  • Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India, Motilal Banararsidass, Delhi, 2nd Edition, 1978
  • Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Macmillan, 2004.


See also

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