Chief Editor: Venerable Brahmapundit
Editor: Peter Harvey
Translators: Tamás Agócs, Peter Harvey, Dharmacārī Śraddhāpa, P.D.Premasiri, G.ASomaratne, Venerable Thich Tue Sy


Introduction to the selections from Mahāyāna Buddhism


The passages marked ‘M.’ in this book represent the textual tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Unlike Theravāda, Mahāyāna does not represent one particular school or associated monastic fraternity. Rather, it is a broad movement encompassing many different schools and approaches, which developed expressions of the Buddha’s teachings centred on compassion and wisdom. Mahāyāna sūtras began to gain popularity by the first century BCE. Its origin is not associated with any named individual, nor was it linked to only one early school or monastic fraternity, though the main one was the Mahā-sāṃghika. It arose in south-eastern India, spread to the south-west and finally to the northwest.

2. Key Mahāyāna features

Like all forms of Buddhism, the Mahāyāna includes teachings directed at those who seek temporary relief from the ordinary stresses of life: on how to live more calmly, considerately and harmoniously, this also being a way to generate beneficial karma leading to relatively pleasant rebirths. Ultimately, though, timeless happiness depends on going beyond all that is impermanent and conditioned. In Buddhism, some aim to become an arhant (Skt, Pāli arahant), one who has ended the attachment, hatred and delusion that lead to repeated rebirths and their ageing, sickness, death, and diverse mental pains. This is the main higher goal of Theravāda Buddhists. A few have aimed to become a solitary-buddha (Skt pratyeka-buddha, Pāli pacceka-buddha), a person with greater knowledge than an arhant (see *LI.3, above), but of limited ability to teach others. Some aim to become a perfectly awakened Buddha (Skt samyak-sambuddha, Pāli sammā-sambuddha), a being with the ultimate knowledge, insight and means that can be used to compassionately guide countless other beings through his teachings and powers. This is the highest goal of Mahāyāna Buddhists.

Key features of the Mahāyāna outlook are:

– Compassion is the central motivating basis of the path: the compassionate urge to reduce the current suffering of others, encourage them to act in such a way as to reduce their future suffering, and aid them on the path to awakening/enlightenment so as to bring all their sufferings to an end. Compassion is the heart of the bodhi-citta, the ‘awakening-mind’, or aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the sake of others.

– Bodhi-citta arises from the renunciation of attachment to one’s own happiness, and the wisdom that sees into the nature of reality.

– Bodhi-citta is enacted through the path of the bodhi-sattva, a being who is fully dedicated to attaining the awakening (bodhi) of a perfectly awakened Buddha. The path to developing a perfectly awakened Buddha’s qualities is seen as much longer than the path to attaining awakening as an arhant, hence greater compassion is needed to take this long path, as well as being a key aspect of the enactment of this path. The path is one of developing six qualities to the level of complete ‘perfections’ (Skt pāramitā): generosity (dāna), ethical discipline (śīla), patient acceptance (kṣānti), vigour or diligence (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna), and wisdom (prajñā). Sometimes a further four perfections are added: skill in means (upāya-kauśalya), vow or determination (praṇidhāna), power (bala) and knowledge (jñāna), and each of the ten qualities is seen as respectively brought to fullness in ten levels or stages (bhūmi) that are then followed by the attainment of Buddhahood.

– The bodhisattva in the eighth stage of the long ten-stage path to Buddhahood is seen to realize nirvana as an arhant does, in which all defilements are completely eliminated so that a person is no longer bound to future rebirths. However, the Mahāyāna holds that this is not the ultimate nirvana, and that there is still spiritual work to do. The advanced bodhisattva has a deep non-attachment to the round of rebirths (saṃsāra), and this allows further progress to true, ultimate nirvana, realized exclusively by a Buddha with unsurpassed perfect awakening.

– Bodhisattvas can be at various levels along the path: monks, nuns and laypeople of various levels of spiritual development, some who have reached at least the first of the ten stages, which pertain to bodhisattvas of a spiritually ‘Noble’ level, as they have had some direct insight into the nature of reality, in what is called the ‘path of seeing’ (darśaṇa-mārga). Bodhisattvas at the higher stages of the Noble path are transcendent beings associated with Buddhas from other worlds; they are saviour-beings who may be called on for help by devotees.

– The Mahāyāna has a new cosmology arising from visualization practices devoutly directed at one or other Buddha as a glorified, transcendent being. Many such Buddhas besides Śākyamuni are seen to exist.

– The Mahāyāna developed several sophisticated philosophies, on which see below.

The call to the bodhisattva path to perfectly awakened Buddhahood is inspired by the vision that the huge universe will always be in need of such Buddhas. The person entering this path aspires to be a compassionate, self-sacrificing, valiant person. Their path will be long, as they will need to build up moral and spiritual perfections not only for their own exalted state of Buddhahood, but also so as to be able altruistically to help liberate other beings, ‘ferrying them out of the ocean of re-birth and redeath’ by teaching, good deeds, transference of karmic benefit, and offering response to prayer. While compassion has always been an important part of the Buddhist path, in the Mahāyāna it is more strongly emphasized, as the motivating factor for the whole bodhisattva path, and the heart of the bodhi-citta, or ‘awakening-mind’.  

3. The nature of the Mahāyāna and its attitude to other types of Buddhism

The Mahāyāna perspective is critical of Buddhists who are concerned only with their own liberation from the suffering of this and later lives, neglecting the liberation of others. The emphasis is on what is seen as the true spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, and its texts seek to express this in ways unrestricted by formal adherence to only the letter of what the Buddha is said to have taught. They are directed at what the Buddha pointed to, rather than the words he used to do this – at the ‘moon’ rather than the pointing ‘finger’. Hence the Mahāyāna has many sūtras unknown to earlier Buddhist traditions, with teachings whose gradual systematization established it as a movement with an identity of its own.

At first, the new movement was called the Bodhisattva-yāna, or ‘(Spiritual) Vehicle of the Bodhisattva’. This was in contradistinction to the ‘Vehicle of the Disciple’ (Śrāvaka-yāna) and ‘Vehicle of the Solitary-buddha’ (Pratyeka-buddha-yāna), whose followers respectively aimed to become arhants and pratyeka-buddhas. As the new movement responded to criticisms from those who did not accept its sūtras, it increasingly stressed the superiority of the Bodhisattva-yāna, and referred to it as the Mahā-yāna: the ‘Great Vehicle’, or ‘Vehicle (Leading to) the Great’. The other ‘vehicles’ were disparaged as being hīna: ‘lesser’ or ‘inferior’. However, the term ‘Hīna-yāna’ is not seen as a name for any school of Buddhism, but is a term for a kind of motivation and associated outlook.

A key sūtra developed a perspective which, while hostile to the ‘Hīnayāna’, sought to portray it as incorporated in and completed by the Mahāyāna: the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka (‘White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma; ‘Lotus’ for short). Chapter 2 of this text achieves this accommodation by what was to become a central Mahāyāna concept, that of upāya-kauśalya: skill (kauśalya) in means (upāya), or skilful means. All Buddhist traditions accept that the Buddha adapted the contents of his teaching to the temperament and level of understanding of his audience. This was by simply selecting his specific teaching from a harmonious body of teachings. The Mahāyāna also holds that the Buddha gave different levels of teaching which might actually appear as conflicting, for the ‘higher’ level required the undoing of certain over-simplified lessons of the ‘lower’ level. While the Buddha’s ultimate message was that all can become omniscient Buddhas, this would have been too unbelievable and confusing to give as a preliminary teaching. For the ‘ignorant with low dispositions’, he therefore begins by teaching on the four Truths of the Noble Ones,[1] setting out the goal as attaining nirvana by becoming an arhant. The arhant is seen as still having a subtle ignorance, and as lacking full compassion in his hope of escaping the round of rebirths, thus leaving unawakened beings to fend for themselves. For those who were prepared to listen further, the Buddha then teaches that the true nirvana is attained at Buddhahood, and that all can attain this, even the arhants who currently think that they have already reached the goal. The Buddha has just ‘one vehicle’ (eka-yāna), the all-inclusive Buddha-vehicle, but he uses his ‘skilful means’ to show this by means of three: the vehicles of the disciple, solitary-buddha, and bodhisattva. He holds out to people whichever of them corresponds to their inclinations and aspirations, but once he has got them to develop spiritually, he gives them all the supreme Buddha-vehicle, the other ways being provisional ones. As the bodhisattva path leads to Buddhahood, it seems hard to differentiate the bodhisattva and Buddha-vehicles. The doctrine preached in the Lotus Sūtra asserts that every sentient being who has once heard the name of a Buddha and bowed down to him would definitely become a Buddha in the future, regardless of how long this took; because the Buddha-nature (seed of Buddhahood) is inherent in all. Almost all disciples of the Buddha were prophesied to become a Buddha in the far future in different realms of the universe known as ‘Buddha-fields’ (Buddha-kṣetra) or ‘Buddha-lands’. Not all Mahāyāna texts follow this ‘one vehicle’ perspective, however, for some, such as the Ugra-paripṛcchā (‘Inquiry of Ugra’) follow a ‘three-vehicle’ (tri-yāna) one in which arhants do not develop further. Others, such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, emphasize the importance of bodhisattvas not falling back so as to seek the lesser goal of arhantship.

According to the standards of arhantship preserved by Śrāvakayāna schools such as the Theravāda, the arhant is also described as imbued with loving kindness and as compassionately teaching others. The Theravāda still acknowledges that the long path to Buddhahood, over many many lives, is the loftiest practice, as it aims at the salvation of countless beings (see heading above *Th.6). Nevertheless, while the bodhisattva path has been and is practised by a few Theravādins (often laypeople), it is seen as a way for the heroic few only. Most, though, have gratefully made use of the historical Buddha’s teachings so as to move towards arhantship, whether this be attained in the present life or a future one.

The particular feature of the Mahāyāna is that it urges all ‘sons and daughters of good family’ to tread the demanding bodhisattva path. Moreover, while the earliest Mahāyāna may have been developed by reformist monks, there is then evidence of a transition from a monastically-centred Buddhism, in which monks were dominant in the dissemination of the Dharma, to one where laypeople also made important contributions in spreading and developing the Dharma. The culminating point of this householder movement was characterized by the legend of Vimalakīrti who criticized the conservative elements in monastic Buddhism of devoting oneself to individual liberation which, while avoiding harm to others, was regarded by him as insufficiently concerned with bringing positive benefit to other suffering beings (*M.10, 113, 127, 136, 141, 168).

Over the centuries, many monks studied and practised according to both the disciple-vehicle and Mahāyāna; not infrequently, both were present in the same monastery. The Chinese, in fact, did not come to clearly differentiate the Mahāyāna as a separate movement till late in the fourth century.

4. The development of Mahāyāna texts

The Mahāyāna emerged into history as a loose confederation of groups, each associated with one or more of a number of previously unknown sūtras (Skt, Pāli sutta). These were preserved in a form of Sanskrit, the prestige language of India, as Latin once was in Europe. Originally, Mahāyāna sūtra texts were described as ones which were vaipulya, which means ‘extensive’ or ‘extended’; that is, the extension of what had been taught by the Buddha indirectly, implicitly, metaphorically. Vaipulya texts are one of nine early classifications of the Buddha’s words (buddha-vacana)[2] in terms of the mode of expression. It corresponds to the Pāli word vedalla as found in the titles of the Mahā-vedalla and Cūḷa-vedalla Suttas.[3] The Mahāyānists emphasized that the words of the Buddha should not be understood only literally, as a word is only a mere sign, which may be for a hidden, deep reality, a ‘finger’ pointing to the ‘moon’ far beyond.

Anyone accepting the Mahāyāna literature as genuine sūtras – authoritative discourses of the Buddha – thereby belonged to the new movement. This did not necessitate monks and nuns abandoning their old fraternities, as they continued to follow the monastic discipline of the fraternities in which they had been ordained. The Mahāyānists remained a minority among Indian Buddhists for some time, though in the seventh century, perhaps half of the 200,000 or more monks counted by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) were Mahāyānist.

Traditionalists denied that the Mahāyāna literature was ‘the word of the Buddha’ (Buddhavacana), but Mahāyānists defended their legitimacy through various devices. Firstly, they were seen as inspired utterances coming from the Buddha, now seen as still contactable through meditative visions and vivid dreams. Secondly, they were seen as the products of the same kind of perfect wisdom which was the basis of the Buddha’s own teaching of Dharma.[4] Thirdly, in later Mahāyāna, they were seen as teachings hidden by the Buddha in the world of serpent-deities (nāgas), till there were humans capable of seeing the deeper implications of his message, who would recover the teachings by means of meditative powers. Each explanation saw the sūtras as arising, directly or indirectly, from meditative experiences. Nevertheless, they take the form of dialogues between the ‘historical’ Buddha and his disciples and gods.

The Mahāyāna sūtras were regarded as the second ‘turning of the Dharma-wheel’, a deeper level of teaching than that in the early suttas, with the Buddha’s bodhisattva disciples portrayed as wiser than his arhant disciples. Because of the liberating truth the sūtras were seen to contain, there was said to be a huge amount of karmic benefit in copying them out, and disseminating, reciting, expounding, understanding, practising, and even ritually venerating them.

Some Mahāyāna scriptures are in the form of a report of teachings given by the Buddha in a normal human context. Others utilize specific styles of literature to express an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, such that, in them, the Buddha teaches within a marvellous setting of wonders and divine beings, as is found to a small extent in a few early suttas, such as the Mahā-samaya.21 Many Mahāyāna sūtras reflect this style. In them, the Buddha uses hyperbolic language and paradox, and makes known many transcendent Buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas from other worlds, existing in many regions of the universe. A number of these saviour beings, Buddhas and, in other texts, bodhisattvas, became objects of devotion and prayer, and greatly added to the appeal and missionary success of the Mahāyāna.

5. Mahāyāna texts and philosophies

Mahāyānists have continued to be influenced by ideas from early Buddhism, preserved, for example in the section of the Chinese Canon on the āgamas, which are similar to the nikāyas of the Pāli Canon. Some early Mahāyāna texts such as the Śālistamba (‘Rice Seedling’: *M.130–31) Sūtra, on the conditioned nature of existence, show a transitional phase from earlier Buddhist ideas, while the Śatapañcaśatka-stotra (‘Hundred and Fifty Verses’: *M.2) of Mātṛceṭa (second century CE) praise the Buddha in rather traditional ways. Other texts are evidently expanded versions of pre-Mahāyāna texts, such as the Upāsaka-śīla (‘Laypersons’ Precepts’: *M.1, 23, 30, 38, 42, 50, 53, 56, 64–5, 72–3, 79, 82–4, 87–92, 98, 102, 104, 160) Sūtra, translated into Chinese around 425 CE, which builds on texts such as that found in the Theravāda Canon as the Sigālovāda Sutta (Dīgha-nikāya, Sutta 31: *Th.49), but with an emphasis on the layperson’s practice as a bodhisattva. In the Ugra-paripṛcchā (‘Inquiry of Ugra’: *M.49 and 81), first translated into Chinese in the second century CE, teaching lay and monastic bodhisattvas, we see signs of the origin of the Mahāyāna among monks living from alms and meditating in the forest.

The Mahāyāna doctrinal perspective is expressed in both sūtras, attributed to the Buddha, and a number of śāstras, ‘treatises’ written by named authors. These systematically present the outlook of particular Mahāyāna schools, based on the sūtras, logic, and meditational experience. Each school is associated with a particular group of sūtras, whose meaning it sees as fully explicit (nītārtha); other sūtras may be regarded as in need of interpretation (neyārtha). This process continued in the lands where the Mahāyāna spread, which also took on differing broad emphases of their own.

In the Prajñā-pāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) Sūtras, the key idea was that, both due to the interrelation of everything, and the inability of concepts to truly grasp reality, everything we experience is empty of any inherent existence, or inherent nature: the idea of ‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) of inherent nature/inherent existence (svabhāva) (see especially *M.137–41). Moreover, this means that the conditioned realm of ordinary experience, in this and other lives (saṃsāra), is not ultimately different from or separate from the highest reality, nirvana, which is empty of attachment, hatred and delusion, and cannot be pinned down in concepts. Hence nirvana is not to be sought as beyond the world but in a true understanding of it. Supported by the idea that everything is empty of anything that is worth grasping at, the bodhisattva practises the thirty-seven factors of awakening[5] for the sake of their own benefit, and is devoted to the bodhisattva perfections, for the benefit of other sentient beings, knowing that the true benefit of self and other cannot really be separated. Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras include: the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (‘8000 Lines’: *M.54, 70, 76, 140, 153), the Vajracchedikā (‘Diamond-cutter’: *M.4, 9, 20, 44, 48, 103), and the Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā (‘25,000 Lines’: *M.135, 139), and the very popular one-page Hṛdaya (‘Heart’: *M.137). A sūtra that uses the idea of emptiness to emphasize going beyond all dualities is the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa (‘Explanation of Vimalakīrti’: e.g. *M.127, 136, 141, 168), in which the wisdom of a lay bodhisattva outshines that of many leading monks. The idea of emptiness of inherent nature/inherent existence was taken up and developed in the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna philosophy, whose root text is the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (‘Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way’: *M.138) of Nāgārjuna (c.150–250 CE). Influential works by a later monk of this school, Śāntideva (c. 650–750), are the Bodhicaryāvatāra (‘Engaging in the Conduct for Awakening’: *M.43, *V.34, 35, 38, and cited in other V. passages), on the bodhisattva perfections, and Śikṣā-samuccaya (‘Compendium of (Bodhisattva) Training’), that quotes from many Mahāyāna sūtras.

As the Buddha eventually came to the end of his earthly life with his final nirvana, this gave rise to the question of whether he would continue to exist in some way after his supposed final ‘extinction’ (the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word nirvāṇa: extinction of what is painful, and the defilements causing this). The question was listed among others known as ‘the fourteen undetermined issues’[6] regarded as beyond the reach of human speculation and rationality. However, after the passing away of their greatly revered teacher, it is natural that the bereaved community, missing his guidance, raised again the question once deemed by the Buddha as unjustifiable. This question entails others concerning the nature of the great teacher. Mahāyāna views on the continuing nature of the Buddha are expressed in such sūtras as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka (‘White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma’: *M.7, 22, 55, 152), an influential text, and the Mahā-parinirvāṇa (‘Great nirvana’: *M.5, 6, 8, 40, 43, 111, 145).

The Mahāyāna also introduced the ideas of many other Buddhas currently active in other parts of the universe, but who could be contacted. One such Buddha, that became especially important in East Asian Buddhism, was Amitābha (‘Infinite Light’), also known as Amitāyus (‘Infinite Life’). He is seen to dwell in a ‘Bissful Land’ (Sukhāvatī) generated by his own powerful beneficial karma, an ideal realm where rapid spiritual progress is possible, and which is reached by true faith in Amitābha’s saving power. An early sūtra on the visualisation of him and other Buddhas is the Pratyutpanna Buddha Saṃmukhāvasthita Samādhi (‘Meditation on the Presence of All Buddhas’: *M.114), and two influential texts on him are the Larger and Smaller Sukhāvatī-vyūha (‘Array of the Blissful Land’: *M.158, 159) Sūtras, also known as the Larger and Smaller Sūtras on Amitāyus.

Texts such as the Saṃdhi-nirmocana (‘Freeing the Underlying Meaning’: *M.143) and Laṅkāvatāra (‘Descent into Laṅkā/Ceylon’: *M.142) Sūtras emphasize that the world that one experiences is fundamentally mental in nature. What one experiences is an end-product of a complex process of interpretation, influenced by one’s habits, tendencies and past actions, along with language. This also applies to our concepts of a material world. Indeed this perspective sometimes says that there is no material world existing beyond our flow of mental experiences. In this perspective, the important thing is to understand how our mind shapes experience, to go beyond the splitting of experience into an inner, supposedly permanent subject-self, and external objects, and experience a fundamental re-orientation at the root of the mind, in the store-house consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) that is an unconscious store of karmic seeds that shape our conscious experience. This kind of perspective was taken up and developed in the Yogācāra or Citta-mātra school of Mahāyāna philosophy, founded by Asaṅga (310–90?) and his half-brother Vasubandhu. Asaṅga is said to have been inspired by the bodhisattva Maitreya to compose texts such as the Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra (‘Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras’), which includes a systematisation of Mahāyāna ideas on the nature of a Buddha.

Sūtras such as the Tathāgata-garbha (*M.12), Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda (‘Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā’: *M.13) and Mahā-parinirvāṇa (‘Great nirvana’) express the idea of the Tathāgata-garbha: the womb/embryo of the Tathāgata/Buddha, or Buddha-nature. This is seen as empty of greed, hatred and delusion, but not empty of wondrous Buddha-qualities, and as a radiant reality already present in all beings, for them to discover and mature into Buddhahood. This idea, while drawing on an earlier Buddhist idea that meditation uncovers the radiant nature of the mind (*Th.124), may have been in part a response to a resurgent Hinduism, with its idea of an essential, permanent Self within all beings. It repeatedly criticised Buddhism for its not accepting anything as ‘Self’, as well as for not accepting the Hindu system of divinely-ordained classes and castes. The Tathāgata-garbha was seen as the radiant inner potential for Buddhahood in all beings. While in some ways Self-like (as it is seen as a beginningless aspect of a being), it was seen as ultimately Self-less, beyond anything to do with the sense of ‘I am’ (*M.144–46). This idea was systematised in India in the Ratnagotra-vibhāga (‘Analysis of the Jewel Lineage’: *M.12), also known as the Uttara-tantra, (‘Highest Continuum’), attributed to Sāramati or to Maitreya, and had a great inflience on the Buddhism of China and other East Asian countries.

The Buddha-avataṃsaka (‘Flower Adornment of the Buddha’: *M.39, 46, 51, 62, 71, 96, 112, 149, 154) Sūtra is a compendium of many texts which also circulated separately, including the Daśabhūmikā (‘Ten Stages’) Sūtra on the stages of the bodhisattva path and the Gaṇḍa-vyūha (‘Flower-array’:

*M.17, 69, 148) Sutra. The latter, a literary masterpiece, is on the long spiritual quest of Sudhana, and the many teachers he meets on this quest. It culminates in a phantasmagorical vision of the nature of reality, in which he sees the deep interrelation of all phenomena, and of their ultimate nature, with everything inter-penetrating everything else across time and space. A traditional Mahāyāna view is that this was the first sūtra taught by the Buddha after his awakening, under the bodhi tree.

6. Buddhist texts in China

Buddhism, mainly of a Mahāyāna form, spread along the Silk Road, through Central Asia, to reach China from around 50 CE. There it came to be of considerable and lasting significance, adapting to China’s Confucian-dominated cultural context. Chinese-influenced forms of Buddhism later spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan. The gradual translation of the huge volume of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and other Indic languages was a monumental exercise.

Perhaps the first Buddhist text translated (late first century CE) was the Sishierzhang jing (‘Sūtra of Forty-two Sections’: *M.31, 58). A summary of basic Buddhist teachings, later forms of it contained more Mahāyāna elements and some influence from Chinese Daoism. The Fo chui ban nie pan liao shuo jiao jie jing (Yijiao jing for short: ‘Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra), translated around 400 CE, emphasizes monastic discipline in a Mahāyāna context. The Fan wang jing (Brahmā’s Net Sūtra’: 45, 90, 97, 100, 112), an influential text on monastic and lay bodhisattva ethical precepts, became popular in China in the mid-fifth century. Another influential text in China was the Dizangpusa benying jing (‘Discourse on the Past Vows of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’:[7] *M.11, 24, 35, 68). The Confucian emphasis on ‘filial piety’, or respect for elders and ancestors, was also given a Buddhist form in texts such as the Yulanpen jing (‘Ullambana Sūtra’; mid-sixth century) and Fumuenzhong jing (‘Sūtra on the Importance of Caring for One’s Father and Mother’; eighth century?: *M.36).

Various new schools of Buddhism developed in China. Two of these developed over-arching syntheses of the teachings of the many Buddhist texts: the Tiantai (‘Heavenly Terrace’) and Huayan (‘Flower Ornament’) – in Japanese, respectively Tendai and Kegon. The Tiantai school was founded by Zhiyi[8] (539–97), and sees the Buddha’s highest teachings as expressed in the Mahā-parinirvāṇa Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra, such that it emphasized the idea of the Buddha-nature, the heavenly nature of the Buddha, and his many skilful means in teaching according to the capacities of his audience. The Lotus Sūtra is also the main focus of faith in the Japanese Nichiren school. Works of Zhiyi that have extracts included in this book are these meditation guides: Fa-hua San-mei Chan-yi (‘Confessional Samādhi of the Lotus Sūtra’: *M.123) and Mo-ho Zhi-Guan (‘The Great Calm and Insight: *M.119).

The Huayan school was founded by Dushun (557–640) and systemised by its third patriarch, Fazang[9] (643–712). This saw the Buddha’s highest teaching as expressed in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, especially the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra section of it. Huayan sees ultimate reality as empty of a fixed nature, being a fluid substance that is the basis of everything, just as gold can be shaped into countless forms. Its ideas had considerable influence on the Chan school in China (Thien in Vietnam, Seon in Korea, Zen in Japan). This book contains extracts from Huayan wu jiao zhi-guan (‘Cessation and Contemplation in the Five Teachings of the Huayan’: *M.149), attributed to Dushun, and Fazang’s Jinshizizhang (‘Treatise on the Golden Lion’: *M.150).

 Two schools of Chinese Buddhism emphasized particular kinds of practice: Chan (‘Meditation’) and Jingtu (‘Pure Land’). The Chan school has the semi-legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma (470– 543) as its founder, and of great influence on it was its sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713; *M.167), especially via the Liuzi-tan jing (‘Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch’). Indian texts of particular influence on it were the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. It also developed its own kind of literature centring on the gong-an[10]  (Japanese kōan), or paradoxical sayings of Chan masters. This book includes extracts from the ‘Platform Sūtra’ (*M.125–27, 167), from the inspiring

Xin Xin Ming (‘Inscription on the Mind of Faith’: *M.128) of Jianzhi Sengcan (d. 606), the third Chan patriarch, and from the Zuochan yi, ‘Manual for Seated Meditation Practice’ (*M.124), an influential description of how to sit in meditation by Chan master Changlu Zongze (d. 1107?).

The Jingtu school focuses on devotion rather than meditation, and values texts such as the two Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sutras. It was founded by Tanluan (476–542) and emphasizes open-hearted devotion to Amitābha Buddha, by chanting his name and visualising his ‘Blissful Land’ (*M.114, 158– 59). Its simple practice made it very popular in East Asia. In Japan, it has two forms, the Jōdo (‘Pure Land’) and Jōdo-shin (‘True Pure Land’), the latter emphasising a way of salvation by pure faith alone.

7. The Chinese and Tibetan Canons

The main sources for our understanding of Mahāyāna teachings are the very extensive Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist Canons. While most of the Pāli Canon (of Theravāda Buddhism) has been translated into English, only selected texts from these more extensive Chinese and Tibetan Canons have been translated into Western languages, though much progress is being made. While the texts used by Mahāyāna Buddhists of East Asia are mainly sūtra texts attributed to the Buddha and e.g. Chinese treatises based on these, in Vajrayāna areas the main texts used are Tibetan treatises that are systematic presentations of Buddhist thought and practices that extensively quote from the sūtras and tantras, and are based on earlier Indian treatises. In both areas, indigenous treatises played a huge role in the formation of distinctive regional schools of Buddhism.

The Chinese Canon is known as the Dazangjing or ‘Great Store of Scriptures’. The standard modern edition, following a non-traditional order based on systematization by scholars, is the Taishō Daizōkyō (‘Taishō’ for short), published in Japan from 1924 to 1929. It consists of 55 large vols, each of over 1000 pages, containing 2,184 texts (see: ) Its contents are:

(i) Translations of the āgamas (equivalent to the first four Pāli nikāyas) (151 texts in 2 vols.)

(ii) Translations of the jātakas on past lives of the Buddha, as a bodhisattva (68 texts in 2 vols.)

(iì) Translations of Mahāyāna sūtras (628 texts in 13 vols.), sometimes including several translations of the same text. These are grouped into sections on: the Perfection of Wisdom (42 texts in 4 vols.), the Lotus Sūtra (16 texts in most of 1 vol.), the Avataṃsaka (‘Flower Garland’; 32 texts in 1 vol. and a part vol.), the Ratnakūṭa (‘Heap of Jewels’; 64 texts in one and a part vol.), the Mahāparinirvāṇa (‘Great Final Nirvana’; 23 texts in a part vol.), the Mahā-sannipāta (‘Great Assembly’; 28 texts in 1 vol.), and general ‘Sūtras’ (mostly Mahāyāna; 423 texts in 4 vols.)

(iv) Translations of tantras (572 texts in 4 vols.)

(v) Translations of various early vinayas (on monastic discipline) and some texts outlining ‘discipline’ for bodhisattvas (84 texts in 3 vols.)

(vi) Translations of commentaries on the āgamas and Mahāyāna sūtras (31 texts in 1 and a part vol.)

(vii) Translations of various early abhidharmas (28 texts in 3 and a part vol.)

(viii) Translations of Madhyamaka, Yogācāra and other śāstras, or ‘treatises’ (129 texts in 3 vols.)

(ix) Chinese commentaries on the sūtras, vinaya and śāstras (158 texts in 12 vols.)

(x) Chinese sectarian writings (175 texts in 4 and a part vol.)

(xi) Biographies (95 texts in 4 vols.)

(xii) Encyclopaedias, dictionaries, catalogues of earlier Chinese Canons, histories, non-Buddhist doctrines (Hindu, Manichean, and Nestorian Christian), and ‘ambivalent’ texts (800 texts in 4 vols.).

By 1934, there was also a Taishō Daizōkyō supplement of 45 volumes containing 736 further texts: Japanese texts, recently discovered texts from the Dunhuang caves in China, apocryphal texts composed in China, iconographies, and bibliographical information. An outline of the Tibetan Canon is given in the introduction to the Vajrayāna passages of this work.

Note that about half M. passages in this work come from the Taishō, and are therefore translated from Chinese. Where they are translated direct from Sanskrit, this is indicated.

Peter Harvey
Most Venerable Thich Tue Sy


[1] See last but two paragraph of *LI.5, above, and Glossary.

[2] E.g. Aṅguttara-nikāya II.7.

[3] Majjhima-nikāya, suttas 43 and 44, which are in the form of questions on, and extended explanations of, a number of Buddhist concepts.

[4] Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra p. 4. 21 Dīgha-nikāya, sutta 20.

[5] Bodhi-pakṣa-dharma (Skt, Pāli bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma), which include such qualities as the four foundations of mindfulness (*Th.138) and the noble eightfold path (*Th.99).

[6] In the Theravāda tradition, these are usually ten in number (see *Th.20, cf. *Th.10).

[7] Which would be Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra in Sanskrit.

[8] In an earlier way of transliterating Chinese, Chih-i.

[9] In an earlier way of transliterating Chinese, respectively Tushun and Fa-tsang.

[10] An ‘Old case’ – a paradoxical story whose nub, such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’, is used as a focus of meditation in the Rinzai Zen school.