Site Map
Mahayana Buddhism
Section › 10   Set    Search  Previous Next


Reservations   Contents    

Climbing nasturtium

Mahayana is one of the two major Buddhist traditions and the form most widely adhered to in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. There were precedents in earlier schools of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism offers means of Enlightenment to laypersons. The goal of a Buddhist is to work toward Awakening. There is intense focus on these virtues or Perfections (paramitas): generousity (dana); morality (sila); patience (ksanti); energy, vigour (virya); meditation, attentiveness by focusing (dhyana); and wisdom (prajna). The Ten Perfections of Buddhism also include truthfulness (sacca), determination, gentleness (metta), and equanimity. One should try to manifest all of them; hence, stick-to-it (bland perseverance) might as well be added to the list.

The idea that nirvana is samsara, correctly understood, is told of by Nagarjuna and Padmasambhava and others.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is not just a historical sage, but supramundane. There is likewise focus on Avalokitesvara, also called Kuan Yin, and on other Buddhas, such as Amitabha of Infinite Light, the Sun and Cosmos, medicine, and healing. A Buddhist should go for merits; through such as fit generosity (dana) a person can gain karmic merit and build a better future too. It is held that many merits can be transferred. In Mahayana there are also philosophical developments that are not found in Theravada.

The Mahayana scriptures cover much ground, and in Mahayana Buddhism these texts are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in extant Sanskrit manuscripts. Around one hundred Mahayana sutras survive in Sanskrit or in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

Early versions were orally recited and orally preserved teachings. Verses were committed to memory and recited by monks. The earliest textual evidence of the Mahayana comes from sutras originating around the beginning of the common era. Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahayana comes from early Chinese translations of Mahayana texts during the second century CE.

Mahayana and the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism have basic concepts in common, but Mahayana contains other sutras (texts) than Theravada Buddhism, in Sanskrit and Chinese.

Dealing with doubts with sound skill is advocated by Buddha

Some teachers hold that all teachings that stem from the fundamental insights of Buddha constitute the Buddha's speech, whether they are the rightly orally transmitted words of the Buddha or not. There are scriptural supports for this perspective even in the Pali Canon. There Buddha is asked how the disciples should verify, after his death, which of the teachings circulating are his. In the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16, 4.8-11) he says that claims of having heard or received his words should neither to be approved nor scorned, but compared with what the Suttas (discourses) say, and matched against the [first] monastic rules (Vinaya). [Compare].

In doing this, if we find that the teachings stand with the Suttas and agree with the Vinaya, we may conclude: "This looks like what Buddha thought. Further, it seems well understood." If, however, we do not find a great correspondence with the main sources, and they do not appear to draw on the older Pali texts either, then the added, claimed words may be skipped and put aside, suspected not to be ideal thoughts of Buddha. Even so, some such thoughts may be very helpful and worthwhile - it is the history of developing Buddhism over again . . . What matters is finding the great teachings and then putting them carefully, guardedly to use and reap benefits from them, much as many a gardener likes to do with seeds - it is a personal choice. (Cf. Wikipedia, "Mahayana Sutras")

The Buddhism scholar Richard Gombrich almost echoes Buddha's way of handling teachings ascribed to him. Gombrich writes something in What the Buddha Thought (2009) about the first sermon of Buddha that could well apply to most other texts:

We do not really know what the Buddha said in his first sermon . . . and it has even been convincingly demonstrated that the language of the text as we have it is in the main a set of formulae, expressions which are by no means self-explanatory but refer to already established doctrines. Nevertheless, the compilers of the Canon put in the first sermon what they knew to be the very essence of the Buddha's Enlightenment. (Gombrich 2002, p. 61.)

In the process of oral transmissions for several years, and maybe later too, during translations, there were chances of misinterpretations and changes, with additions to them. It is indeed possible that the anatta doctrine that arose in Buddhism is due to misunderstanding of what Buddha thought, asserts Dr Gombrich further, and says that the most common Buddhist doctrine today holds there is no Atman (Self, soul, spirit) is rooted in a mistranslation of:

Things are impermanent, i.e., ever-changing, and by that token they are not satisfactory, and by that token they cannot be the atman [spirit].

Later Buddhists came to interpret the third hallmark in that old doctrine as 'not having a self or essence', but that was not its original meaning, says Dr Gombrich. He finds the true meaning is 'is not atman' rather than 'does not have atman'. (p. 69-70).

The example is finished. Dr Gombrich's stand is supported by Buddha sayings in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16, 4.8-11) (above). It shows, further, that ancient Pali texts are not above suspicion or careful scrutiny. That can be taken into account as we move along, or what? The same goes for monastic rules (Vinaya) and their later additions and changes.

Adding to this: In a Pali discourse, the Tevijjavacchagotta Sutta (MK 71), Buddha tells that all knowable things that he wishes to know, are potentially accessible to him. Buddha tells he is not omnicient in the sense of know-everything-simultaneously. Thus, when some suttas claim he is omnicient, he himself shows what his expanded knowledge is like. On the wise walk up to direct knowing of this kind, Kalamas and others may have to investigate carefully, allied with reason and experiences, while treading the Way toward direct knowing. In this process, thinking one's intuitions are right, may well be a fallacy, so it may pay handsomely to check accurately. Such checking is advocated by Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, as mentioned on the previous page. MN 76 illustrates more sides to the issue, and the lesson: "Don't be taken in by many claims of omniscience or whatever; study the matters too."

A solution: above scepticism one may doubt elegantly

This being so, sound scepticism is warranted. Very likable scholarship helps too in its way. And meditation skills help a lot also. One of the feats of Chinese Zen is to put doubts or puzzles to good use. The method is reflected in the koan-tradition of Rinsai Zen (Chang 1970, 75-79), as well as in basic science, where alternative hypotheses often are to be considered and "every little (step forward) helps". (Cf. Kerlinger and Lee 2000)

Going into Zen a little: In Garma Chang's The Practice of Zen, the Zen master Hsu Yun (1840 (claimed)–1959), is reported to say:

This Hua Tou practice is . . . to look into penetratingly and to observe. . . . to observe from whence the very thought of 'Who' comes, . . . subtly and very gently to penetrate into it. . . .

[W]ork these matters out. The important thing is to stick to your Hua Tou . . . gently, with a smooth mind and calm, steady breath, like that of a hen as she hatches her egg or a cat when she watches a mouse. . . .

What is Ch'an? It is called, in Sanskrit, Dhyana - the practice of deep concentration or contemplation . . . [Y]ou should penetrate into the 'sensation of doubt'. . . . Zen is to teach you to take up [the thing] right at this very moment without using any words at all. (etc.)

(Garma C. C. Chang. The Practice of Zen, p. 75-79 passim. Emphasis added)

Hua Tou, huatou, is a form of Buddhist meditation in the teachings of Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon and Rinzai Zen, writes Morten Schlütter (2008). A Hua Tou can be a short phrase that is used as a subject of meditation to focus the mind. Hua Tou are based on koans, but are shorter phrases than koans. (WP, "Hua Tou"; "Linji"

Schlütter explains:

Kanhua Chan, literally "Chan of observing the key phrase." This approach to Chan practice involves focusing intensely on the crucial phrase . . . [However,] Chan literature includes a wide range of different genres and styles of writing . . . [F]ocusing single-mindedly on a huatou in meditation and in the performance of daily tasks [may] eventually lead to the breakthrough of enlightenment. (Schlütter 2008:107)

Here lies the meditator's solution to doubts: Either use them or bypass them all right if you can (let them lie unsettled, and meditated well). You can do both. The Hua Tou way of meditation makes use of the doubting process in the body and mind to the end of getting to the states of deep meditation that good meditation methods use without doubting - This is to say that the main thing is to glide inwards and become a Buddha.


Well Allied with Dogen

In Reiho Masunaga's Shobogenzo Zuimonki (1975), Eihei Dogen (1200-53) teaches about reading and not reading texts.

"When students are first moved to enter Buddhism, they should read the scriptures and teachings and study them thoroughly, whether they have the mind that seeks the Way or not. (Masunaga 66)"

Another day he said, "Many people today think that the making of statues and building of pagodas cause Buddhism to prosper. This . . . is not so. . . . [L]earn one phrase of the Buddha's teaching or practice zazen (Zen sitting) even for a moment [so that] Buddhism will truly flourish. (p. 32).

Again: "Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up immediately. Just focus your mind on one thing, absorb the old examples, study the actions of former Zen Masters, and penetrate deeply into a single form of practice. (p. 8)"

"Old sayings and cautionary words are needed. (p. 38)"

"The student [should] become involved in good circumstances, and hear and see the same thing any number of times. . . . [Y]ou must look at the sacred scriptures many times. (p. 90)"

Masunaga explains something vital:

"The Shobogenzo Zuimonki . . . Often there are inconsistencies. At times the followers are exhorted to follow the conduct of their predecessors in Zen; a times they are cautioned to ignore them. . . . [T]his problem . . . is often a trap for the unware reader that is to be found in most Zen writings." (p. 2-3)"

One day Dogen instructed: "Reading Zen sayings and koans and understanding the actions of the Zen Masters of old to preach them to deluded people are all ultimately useless . . . [But:] If you clarify the Vital Principle in concentrated zazen, you have unlimited ways to guide others, even though you may not know a single word. . . . I later stopped reading the Zen sayings and other writings. I was thus able to gain awakening to the Vital Principle. (p. 34)"

Just write what is in your heart. (p. 33-34)"

In a talk one evening Dogen said: "Students, it is useless to be known by the world as a man of knowledge. . . . It is a terrible mistake to study the scriptures of Buddhism and other teachings in an attempt to widen your knowledge either because others think it is bad not to know things or because you yourself feel stupid. (p. 35-36)"

"Steadily set down the truth as it comes to mind [and thereby] you contribute to Buddhism if the truth is there. (p. 36)"

There is a story about the late Ku Amidabutsu of Mount Koya. He was originally a famous scholar of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism. After abandoning the world, he tumed to the study of Nembutsu [i.e., reciting the Buddha's name]. When later a Shingon priest came to ask him about the teachings of esoteric Buddhism, he replied: "I have forgotten everything. I don't remember a single word."

This is a good example. . . . Zen students today must have the same attitude. (p. 36-37)

The Tibetan yogi Milarepa saw similarly:

One should not be over-anxious and hasty in setting out to serve others, but have the one resolve to attain Buddhahood. - Milarepa, (Evans-Wentz 1969, 271)

I have never valued word-knowledge set down in books in conventionalized form. - Milarepa, (cf Evans-Wentz 1969, 245)

Accustomed long to meditating . . . I have forgot all that is said in written and in printed books. - Milarepa, (Ib, 246)

I have forgot all creeds and dogma and all definitions. - Milarepa, (cf Evans-Wentz 1969, 246)

I feel most sad for those who never heed their future lives, but indulge in evil deeds. (cf. Chang 1999, 566-67)

In sum, Dogen says: "Read much, read some, read little, read not." "Different strokes for different folks" may work.

[More about Dogen and reading texts]

[Dogen quotations]

Prominent, old Mahayana sutras:

  • The Nirvana Sutra, also called Mahaparinibbana Sutta, is one of the major texts of Mahayana Buddhism.

  • The Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular Buddhist sutras throughout East Asia. It says that Buddha is eternal and omnipresent.

  • The Prajna-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras emphasise the concept of sunyata, which is often understood as emptiness and void - but there is no need for that in some schools of Buddhism. In them, sunyata brings Essence, an outlook that makes sense. The entire Prajnaparamita is a series of about forty works, expanded on and then condensed by many anonymous authors at the beginning of the Common Era (BCE). The Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra are each condensations of the Prajnaparamita:

  • The Heart Sutra is regularly chanted in Zen. It includes the line "Form is sunyata, sunyata is form", but not "form is form," which is more basic anyway.

  • The Diamond Sutra is there too, but not in Theravada.

  • The Platform Sutra tells of the life and teachings of Huineng, the so-called 6th Patriarch of Chan (Chinese for dhyana (contemplation). In Japanese the word turned into Zen. This is the one sutra that does not claim to be the words of Buddha. It is written in Chinese. Philip Yampolsky has translated it into English.

  • The Vimalakirti Sutra is a story of the enlightened layman, Vimalakirti.

  • The Lankavatara Sutra reflects the Buddhist Yogacara (Consciousness-Only) philosophy in Buddhism.

Mahayana Eastwards

Ch'an Buddhism in China and Korea and Zen in Japan, for a thousand years, have been powerful in moulding the spiritual, ethical and cultural life of great nations. Mahayana Buddhism was called Ch'an in China, and Zen in Japan. Tibetan Mahayana stems from Indian Buddhism. The Mahayanic teachings of the so-called Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, similarly derive from Indian Buddhism at the back of things. Great riches of solvency may be had by students of Mahayana doctrine and teachings.

The self-realisation of Noble Wisdom is a worthy goal, and you do not have to become pessimistic to be a Buddhist. To the contrary. "What type of Buddhism is best adapted to meet modern questions and modern problems?" is a question. "The forms of Buddhism that make adherents cheerful and proficient beings, and not wholly focused on material rewards and other forms of profit," is a weighty answer. To be good for goodness' sake is not to be wholly forgotten in a quest for profit and merit - whatever.

The original texts of these Scriptures may be obscure. Books written by competent and sympathetic Buddhist scholars on subjects covered may offer assistance..

There are certain Sanskrit words that are difficult to translate easily, without deeper understanding of the setting and matrix of thought they appear in originally. For those who want to access the material squarely it is a mistake not to learn such terms. It is recommended to take a look at what key terms like Dharma, Dharmakaya, Buddha, Tathagata, Prajna, Bodhi, Jnana, Manas, and so on stand for (see on-site dictionary). There is a link near the bottom left of pages that deal with Buddhism.

From A Buddhist Bible

Pinus contorta Murrayana

In 1932 Paul Goddard published the first edition of A Buddhist Bible in Vermont. The book contains favorite texts of Mahayana Buddhism. These abstracts may be used for non-commercial purposes. The book has contributed to the growth of Buddhism in the English-speaking world in the 1900s and later. The first edition was focused on source documents of Zen Buddhism. A substantially enlarged edition appeared in 1938. Goddard aimed at presenting masterpieces.


Works of Mahayana Buddhism, Literature  

Berzin Archives, the: The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin (On-line)

Chang, Garma C. C., tr. 1999. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. London: Shambhala, 1999.

Chang, Garma Chang Chen-chi. The Practice of Zen. Perennial ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Chang, Garma Chen-Chi, ed. 1983. A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections from the Maharatnakuta Sutra. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Chang, Garma C. C., ed and tr. 2004. Teachings and Practice of Tibetan Tantra. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Chau, Thich Minh, Bhiksu. 1991. The Chinese Madhyama Agama and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya: A Comparative Study. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Conze, Edward, tr. 1975. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom with the Divisions of the Abhisamayalankara. Paperback. London: University of California Press. ⍽▢⍽ A full translation of the Prajna-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) -

Etienne, Lamotte, tr. 2003. The Shuramgamasamadhi Sutta: The Concentration of Heroic Progress. An Early Mahayana Buddhist Scripture. English tr. Sara Boin-Webb. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., ed. 1969. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2nd ed. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press.

Goddard, Dwight, ed. 1932. A Buddhist Bible. Thetford, Vt.: Dwight Goddard.

Heng, Bhikshu, et al., eds. 2009. The Shurangama Sutra with Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua. A New Translation. Ukiah, CA: The Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Hsuan Hua, ed. 2003. The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary. 1st ed. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kerlinger, Fred N., and Howard B. Lee. Foundations of Behavioral Research. 4th ed. London: Thomson Learning, 2000.

Kosho Yamamoto, tr, and Tony Page, ed. 1999-2000. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973 from Dharmakshema's Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374), edited, revised and copyright by Tony Page. London: Nirvana Publications. Revised translation of 2007 (PDF download).

McRae, John R., tr. 1986. The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

McRae, John R., tr. 2000. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Masunaga, Reiho, tr. 1975. A Primer of Soto Zen. A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Schlütter, Morten. How Zen became Zen. The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

Yampolsky, Philip, tr. 1967. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. New York: Columbia University.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

Works of Mahayana Buddhism, To top    Section     Set    Next

Works of Mahayana Buddhism. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2007–2018, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]