Chinese Mahayana Sutras

An Overview of Buddhist Sutras of the Chinese Canon

Sui dynasty Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Underbar dk, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License

The Mahayana Buddhist sutras are a large number of scriptures mostly written between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, although a few may have been written as late as the 7th century CE. Most are said to have originally been written in Sanskrit, but very often the original Sanskrit has been lost, and the earliest version we have today is a Chinese translation.

In Buddhism, the word sutra is defined as a recorded sermon of the Buddha or one of his disciples. The Mahayana sutras often are attributed to the Buddha and usually written as if they are a record of a sermon by the Buddha, but they are not old enough to have been associated with the historical Buddha. Their authorship and provenance mostly are unknown.

The scriptures of most religions are given authority because they are believed to be the revealed word of God or a celestial prophet, but Buddhism doesn't work that way. Although the sutras that possibly are the recorded sermons of the historical Buddha are important, the real value of a sutra is found in the wisdom recorded in a sutra, not in who said or wrote it.

The Chinese Mahayana sutras are those considered canonical to those schools of Mahayana associated mostly with China and east Asia, including ​Zen, Pure Land and Tiantai. These sutras are part of a larger canon of Mahayana texts called the Chinese Canon. This is one of three major canons of Buddhist scriptures. The others are the Pali Canon and the Tibetan Canon. Note that there are Mahayana sutras that are not standard parts of the Chinese canon but are included in the Tibetan Canon.

What follows is far from an exhaustive list of the Chinese Canon sutras, but these are the best-known sutras.

The Prajnaparamita Sutras

Prajnaparamita means "perfection of wisdom," and sometimes these sutras are called the "wisdom sutras." These are about forty sutras, including the Heart and Diamond sutras, that are associated with Nagarjuna and his Madhyamika school of philosophy, although he is not believed to have written them.

Some of these are among the oldest Mahayana sutras, possibly dating to as early as the 1st century BCE. They primarily focus on the Mahayana teaching of sunyata, or "emptiness."

The Saddharmapundarika Sutra

Also called the Lotus Sutra, this beautiful and beloved sutra probably was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE. Above all else it stresses that every being may become a Buddha.

The Pure Land Sutras.

The three sutras associated with Pure Land Buddhism are the Amitabha Sutra; the Amitayurdhyana Sutra, also called the Sutra of Infinite Life; and the Aparimitayur Sutra. The Amitabha and Aparimitayur are sometimes also called the shorter and longer Sukhavati-vyuha or Sukhavati sutras. These sutras are believed to have been written in the 1st or 2nd century CE.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is sometimes linked to the Pure Land sutras, although it is venerated throughout Mahayana Buddhism.

The Tathagatagarbha Sutras

In this group of several sutras the best known probably is the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra, sometimes called the Nirvana Sutra. Most of the Tathagatagarbha sutras are thought to have been written in the 3rd century CE.

Tathagatagarbha roughly means "womb of Buddha," and the theme of this group of sutras is Buddha Nature and the potential of all beings to realize Buddhahood.

The Third Turning Sutras

The well-known Lankavatara Sutra, probably composed in the 4th century, is sometimes linked to the Tathagatagarbha sutras and sometimes to another group of sutras called the Third Turning Sutras. These are associated with Yogacara philosophy.

The Avatamsaka Sutra

Also called the Flower Garland or Flower Ornament Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra is a huge collection of texts that probably were written over a long period of time, beginning in the 1st century CE and ending in the 4th century. The Avatamsaka is best known for its sumptuous descriptions of the inter-existence of all phenomena.

The Ratnakuta Sutras

The Ratnakuta or "Jewel Heap" is a collection of about 49 early Mahayana texts that possibly predate the Prajnaparamita sutras. They cover a variety of topics.

Other Sutras of Note

The Surangama Samadhi Sutra also called the Heroic Progress or Heroic Gate Sutra, is an early Mahayana sutra that describes progress in meditation.

A much later Surangama Sutra was influential in the development of Chan (Zen). It covers several topics, including samadhi.

The Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra, which should not be confused with a Pali sutra of the same name, may have been written as late as the 5th century. It is especially important as the source of the Mahayana or Bodhisattva Precepts.

The Mahasamnipata or Great Assembly Sutra discusses the future decline of the Buddha's teaching. It was written sometime before the 5th century.

There are also Mahayana sutras devoted to esoteric Buddhism, such as practiced in Shingon, and sutras devoted to individual iconic figures such as Manjusri and Bhaisajyaguru.

Again, this is far from a complete list, and most schools of Mahayana focus on only a portion of these texts.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Chinese Mahayana Sutras." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). Chinese Mahayana Sutras. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Chinese Mahayana Sutras." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).