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Buddhism: Mahayana: Main

Last Updated: Sep 2, 2020 10:47 AM

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Mahāyāna Buddhism: Main

Knot logo: Source: Wikimedia Commons | Author: Dontpanic | License: Public domain.
Mahayana (Sanskrit: "Great Vehicle") is one of the three main existing branches of Buddhism (the others being Theravāda and Vajrayāna) and a term of classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. This movement added a further set of discourses to the original canon, and although it was initially small in India, it had long-term historical significance. The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but some scholars consider it to be a different branch altogether. The term Mahāyāna also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called Bodhisattvayāna, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a samyaksaṃbuddha or "fully enlightened Buddha". A samyaksaṃbuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment. Mahāyāna Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson. The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53% of practitioners, compared to 36% for Theravāda and 6% for Vajrayāna in 2010. In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India to various other South, East and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It also spread to Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran and other Central Asian countries before being supplanted by Theravāda Buddhism, Islam, or other religions. Large Mahāyāna scholastic centers such as Nalanda thrived during the latter period of Buddhism in India, between the 7th and 12th centuries. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism. It may also be thought to include the Vajrayāna traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.*
 
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on Mahāyāna Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
 
*Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Lotus Sutra gold image

Above: A Japanese handscroll, dated 1257 (Kamakura period), presenting "Universal Gateway", Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, with text inscribed by Sugawara Mitsushige.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image license: Public domain.
 

General Works

This volume offers a solution to a problem that some have called the holy grail of Buddhist studies: the problem of the “origins” of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In a work that contributes both to a general theory of religion and power for religious studies as well as to the problem of the origin of a Buddhist movement, Walser argues that that it is the neglect of political and social power in the scholarly imagination of the history of Buddhism that has made the origins of Mahāyāna an intractable problem. Walser challenges commonly-held assumptions about Mahāyāna Buddhism, offering a fascinating new take on its genealogy that traces its doctrines of emptiness and mind-only from the present day back to the time before Mahāyāna was "Mahāyāna." In situating such concepts in their political and social contexts across diverse regimes of power in Tibet, China and India, the book shows that what was at stake in the Mahāyāna championing of the doctrine of emptiness was the articulation and dissemination of court authority across the rural landscapes of Asia. This text will be will be of interest to undergraduate and postgraduate students and scholars of Buddhism, religious studies, history and philosophy.

Blofeld Bodhisattva Kuan Yin cover artBodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2009.

She is the embodiment of selfless love, the supreme symbol of radical compassion, and, for more than a millennium throughout Asia, she has been revered as "The One Who Hearkens to the Cries of the World." Kuan Yin is both a Buddhist symbol and a beloved deity of Chinese folk religion. John Blofeld’s classic study traces the history of this most famous of all the bodhisattvas from her origins in India (as the male figure Avalokiteshvara) to Tibet, China, and beyond, along the way highlighting her close connection to other figures such as Tara and Amitabha. The account is full of charming stories of Blofeld’s encounters with Kuan Yin’s devotees during his journeys in China. The book also contains meditation and visualization techniques associated with the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and translations of poems and yogic texts devoted to her.

Williams Mahayana cover artMahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Originating in India, Mahayana Buddhism spread across Asia, becoming the prevalent form of Buddhism in Tibet and East Asia. Over the last twenty-five years Western interest in Mahayana has increased considerably, reflected both in the quantity of scholarly material produced and in the attraction of Westerners towards Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism is widely regarded as the standard introduction to the field, used internationally for teaching and research and has been translated into several European and Asian languages. This new edition has been fully revised throughout in the light of the wealth of new studies and focuses on the religion’s diversity and richness. It includes much more material on China and Japan, with appropriate reference to Nepal, and for students who wish to carry their study further there is a much-expanded bibliography and extensive footnotes and cross-referencing. Everyone studying this important tradition will find Williams’ book the ideal companion to their studies.

Cole Text as Father cover artText as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Buddhist Literature by Alan Cole. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

This beautifully written work sheds new light on the origins and nature of Mahayana Buddhism with close readings of four well-known texts―the Lotus Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Tathagatagarbha Sutra, and Vimalakirtinirdesa. Treating these sutras as literary works rather than as straightforward philosophic or doctrinal treatises, Alan Cole argues that these writings were carefully sculpted to undermine traditional monastic Buddhism and to gain legitimacy and authority for Mahayana Buddhism as it was veering away from Buddhism’s older oral and institutional forms. His sophisticated and sustained analysis of the narrative structures and seductive literary strategies used in these sutras suggests that they were specifically written to encourage devotion to the written word instead of other forms of authority, be they human, institutional, or iconic.


Acarya Bhavaviveka Converts a Nonbeliever to Buddhism

Madhyamaka (Skt. "Middle Way" or "Centrism") also known as Śūnyavāda (the emptiness doctrine) and Niḥsvabhāvavāda (the no-svabhāva doctrine) refers to a tradition of Buddhist philosophy and practice founded by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 CE). The foundational text of the Mādhyamaka tradition is Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way). More broadly, Madhyamaka also refers to the ultimate nature of phenomena and the realization of this in meditative equipoise. Madhyamaka thought had a major influence on the subsequent development of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is the dominant interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism and has also been influential in East Asian Buddhist thought. According to the classical Madhyamaka thinkers, all phenomena (dharmas) are empty (śūnya) of "nature," "substance," or "essence" (svabhāva) which gives them "solid and independent existence," because they are dependently co-arisen. But this "emptiness" itself is also "empty": it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality. Central to Madhyamaka philosophy is śūnyatā, "emptiness", and this refers to the central idea that dharmas are empty of svabhāva. This term has been translated variously as essence, intrinsic nature, inherent existence, own being and substance. Furthermore, according to Richard P. Hayes, svabhāva can be interpreted as either "identity" or as "causal independence". Likewise, Westerhoff notes that svabhāva is a complex concept that has ontological and cognitive aspects. The ontological aspects include svabhāva as essence, as a property which makes an object what it is, as well as svabhāva as substance, meaning, as the Madhyamaka thinker Candrakirti defines it, something that does "not depend on anything else". It is substance-svabhāva, the objective and independent existence of any object or concept, which Madhyamaka arguments mostly focus on refuting. Some of the major topics discussed by classical Madhyamaka include causality, change, and personal identity.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Tibetan thangka depicting Acharya Bhavaviveka, founder of the Svātantrika tradition of Madhyamaka thought. He reaches out his hand to a nonbeliever who is having his long hair shaved to enter monastic life. On the roof sits Bhavaviveka's teacher, Nagarjuna, a famous Indian scholar identifiable by the snakes around his head. The fierce deities Vajrapani and Mahakala dance in flame-halos on the right. The inscription perfectly describes the action in the painting: "After studying under Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka converted nonbelievers in the south, envisioned Vajrapani, and served Mahakala." Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image license: Public domain.

Madhyamaka

The great Buddhist scholars Santaraksita (725-788 CE) and his disciple Kamalasila were among the most influential thinkers in classical India. They debated ideas not only within the Buddhist tradition but also with exegetes of other Indian religions, and they both traveled to Tibet during Buddhism's infancy there. Their views, however, have been notoriously hard to classify. The present volume examines Santaraksita's Tattvasamgraha and Kamalasila's extensive commentary on it, works that cover all conceivable problems in Buddhist thought and portray Buddhism as a supremely rational faith. One hotly debated topic of their time was omniscience - whether it is possible and whether a rational person may justifiably claim it as a quality of the Buddha. Santaraksita and Kamalasila affirm both claims, but in their argumentation they employ divergent rhetorical strategies in different passages, advancing what appear to be contradictory positions.

Blumenthal Ornament cover artThe Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Santaraksita by James Blumenthal. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.

Shantarakshita's The Ornament of the Middle Way is among the most important Mahayana Buddhist philosophical treatises to emerge on the Indian subcontinent. In many respects, it represents the culmination of more than 1300 years of philosophical dialogue and inquiry since the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Shantarakshita set forth the foundation of a syncretic approach to contemporary ideas by synthesizing the three major trends in Indian Buddhist thought at the time into one consistent and coherent system. Shantarakshita's text is considered to be the quintessential exposition or root text of the school of Buddhist philosophical thought known in Tibet as Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka. In addition to examining his ideas in their Indian context, this study examines the way Shantarakshita's ideas have been understood by and have been an influence on Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Specifically, Blumenthal examines the way scholars from the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism have interpreted, represented, and incorporated Santaraksita's ideas into their own philosophical project.

 

Brunnhölzl Center Sunlit cover artThe Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyü Tradition by Karl Brunnhölzl. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.

Madhyamaka is a potent and universally accessible means of calming our suffering and awakening to our innate wisdom. The Center of the Sunlit Sky artfully rescues this brilliant teaching from its unwarranted reputation for intellectual opacity and reinstates it as a supremely practical tool kit for everyday living. The aim of this book is to take Madhyamaka out of the purely intellectual corner into which it unjustly gets boxed. It is an attempt to show how Madhayamaka actually addresses and works with all of our experiences in life. The book follows the original Indian sources as well as the standard commentaries on Madhyamaka in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, these materials are adapted for a contemporary audience, combining the familiar sharpness of Madhyamaka reasonings (launching a massive assault on our cherished belief systems) with exploring the practical relevance of the Madhyamaka way of mind training.

Huntington and Wangchen cover artThe Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika by C.W. Huntington & Geshe N. Wangchen. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989.

This work presents the first English translation of the complete text of the Madhyamakāvatāra (Entry into the Middle Way), a sixth century Sanskrit Buddhist composition that was widely studied in Tibet and, presumably, in its native India as well. In his lengthy introduction to the translation, Huntington offers a judiciously crafted, highly original discussion of the central philosophy of Mahāyāna Buddhism. He lays out the principal ideas of emptiness and dependent origination not as abstract philosophical concepts, but rather as powerful tools for restructuring the nature of human experience at the most fundamental level. Drawing on a variety of Indian and Western sources, both ancient and modern, Huntington gradually leads the reader toward an understanding of how it is that sophisticated philosophical thinking can serve as a means for breaking down attachment to any idea, opinion or belief. All of this on the Buddhist premise that habitual, unreflective identification with ideas, opinions, or beliefs compromises our appreciation of the ungraspable miracle that lies at the heart of everyday, conventional reality. The author shows how the spiritual path of the bodhisattva works to transform the individual personality from a knot of clinging into a vehicle for the expression of profound wisdom (prajñā) and unconditional love (karuṇā).


The priest Jion Daishi, 11th c.

Yogācāra (Skt., literally "yoga practice" or "one whose practice is yoga") is an influential tradition of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing the study of cognition, perception, and consciousness through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It is also variously termed Vijñānavāda (Skt. the doctrine of consciousness), Vijñaptivāda (Skt. the doctrine of ideas or percepts) or Vijñaptimātratā-vāda (the doctrine of "mere vijñapti"), which is also the name given to its major epistemic theory. There are several interpretations of this main theory, some scholars see it as a kind of Idealism while others argue that it is closer to a kind of phenomenology or representationalism. The 4th-century Indian brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, are considered the classic philosophers and systematizers of this school, along with its other founder, Maitreya. It was associated with Indian Mahayana Buddhism in about the fourth century, but also included non-Mahayana practitioners of the Dārṣṭāntika school. Yogācāra continues to be influential in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. However, the uniformity of a single assumed "Yogācāra school" has been put into question. Yogācāra philosophy is primarily meant to aid in the practice of yoga and meditation, and thus it also sets forth a systematic analysis of the Mahayana spiritual path. Yogācārins made use of ideas from previous traditions, such as Prajñāpāramitā and the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, to develop a new schema for spiritual practice. In its analysis, Yogācāra works such as the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra developed various core concepts such as vijñapti-mātra, the store consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the turning of the basis (āśraya-parāvṛtti), the three natures (trisvabhāva), and emptiness. They form a complex system, and each can be taken as a point of departure for understanding Yogācāra.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Portrait of the priest Jion Daishi (Kuiji), a prominent Chinese exponent of Yogācāra thought, by an anonymous scroll painter from the 11th century CE. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.

Yogacara

Buddhist philosophy is fundamentally ambivalent toward language. Language is paradoxically seen as both obstructive and necessary for liberation. In this book, Roy Tzohar delves into the ingenious response to this tension from the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism: that all language-use is metaphorical. Exploring the profound implications of this claim, Tzohar makes the case for viewing the Yogacara account as a full-fledged theory of meaning, one that is not merely linguistic, but also applicable both in the world as well as in texts. Despite the overwhelming visibility of figurative language in Buddhist philosophical texts, this is the first sustained and systematic attempt to present an indigenous Buddhist theory of metaphor. By grounding the Yogacara pan-metaphorical claim in a broader intellectual context, of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools, the book uncovers an intense philosophical conversation about metaphor and language that reaches across sectarian lines. Tzohar's analysis radically reframes the Yogacara controversy with the Madhyamaka school of philosophy, sheds light on the Yogacara application of particular metaphors, and explicates the school's unique understanding of experience.

Makeham Transforming cover artTransforming Consciousness: Yogacara Thought in Modern China, edited by John Makeham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Yogacara is one of the most influential philosophical systems of Indian Buddhism. Competing traditions of Yogacara thought were first introduced into China during the sixth century. By the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), however, key commentaries of this school had ceased being transmitted in China, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that a number of them were re-introduced from Japan where their transmission had been uninterrupted. Within a few short years Yogacara was being touted as a rival to the New Learning from the West, boasting not only organized, systematized thought and concepts, but also a superior means to establish verification. This book accomplishes three goals. The first is to explain why this Indian philosophical system proved to be so attractive to influential Chinese intellectuals at a particular moment in history. The second is to demonstrate how the revival of Yogacara thought informed Chinese responses to the challenges of modernity, in particular modern science and logic. The third goal is to highlight how Yogacara thought shaped a major current in modern Chinese philosophy: New Confucianism. Transforming Consciousness illustrates that an adequate understanding of New Confucian philosophy must include a proper grasp of Yogacara thought.

 

Shun'ei Living Yogacara cover artLiving Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism by Tagawa Shun'ei, translated by Charles Muller. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

Yogacara is an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology that stems from the early Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The Yogacara view is based on the fundamental truth that there is nothing in the realm of human experience that is not interpreted by and dependent upon the mind. Yogacara Buddhism was unable to sustain the same level of popularity as other Buddhist schools in India, Tibet, and East Asia, but its teachings on the nature of consciousness profoundly impacted the successive developments of Buddhism. Yogacara served as the basis for the development of the doctrines of karma and liberation in many other schools. In this refreshingly accessible study, Tagawa Shun'ei makes sense of Yogacara's subtleties and complexities with insight and clarity. He shows us that Yogacara masters comprehend and express everyday experiences that we all take for granted, yet struggle to explain. Eloquent and approachable, this book deepens the reader's understanding of the development of Buddhism's interpretation of the human psyche.

Jiang Contexts cover artContexts and Dialogue: Yogacara Buddhism and Modern Psychology on the Subliminal Mind by Tao Jiang. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006.

Are there Buddhist conceptions of the unconscious? If so, are they more Freudian, Jungian, or something else? If not, can Buddhist conceptions be reconciled with the Freudian, Jungian, or other models? These are some of the questions that have motivated modern scholarship to approach ālayavijñāna, the storehouse consciousness, formulated in Yogācāra Buddhism as a subliminal reservoir of tendencies, habits, and future possibilities. Tao Jiang argues convincingly that such questions are inherently problematic because they frame their interpretations of the Buddhist notion largely in terms of responses to modern psychology. He proposes that, if we are to understand ālayavijñāna properly and compare it with the unconscious responsibly, we need to change the way the questions are posed so that ālayavijñāna and the unconscious can first be understood within their own contexts and then recontextualized within a dialogical setting. In so doing, certain paradigmatic assumptions embedded in the original frameworks of Buddhist and modern psychological theories are exposed. Jiang brings together Xuan Zang’s ālayavijñāna and Freud’s and Jung’s unconscious to focus on what the differences are in the thematic concerns of the three theories.

Illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra

Above: An illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra from the Koryô (Goryeo) Dynasty, ca. 1340.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unidentified artist. Image license: Public domain.

The Diamond Sūtra

(Skt. Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) is a Mahāyāna sūtra from the Prajñāpāramitā or 'Perfection of Wisdom' tradition. Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sutra is by far one of the most influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia, and, along with the Heart Sutra plays a particularly prominent role within the Chan (or Zen) tradition. A printed copy of the Tang-dynasty Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra was discovered among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1900 by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu and sold to Aurel Stein in 1907. It dates back to 11 May 868. It is, in the words of the British Library, "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book." It is also the first creative work with an explicit public domain dedication, as its colophon at the end states that it was created "for universal free distribution." This sutra contains a discourse of the Buddha to a senior monk, Subhuti. Its major themes are anatman (not-self), the emptiness of all phenomena (though the Sanskrit term śūnyatā does not itself appear in the text), the liberation of all beings without attachment, and finally the importance of spreading and teaching the Diamond Sutra itself. In his commentary on the text, Hsing Yun describes the four main points from the sūtra as giving without attachment to self, liberating beings without notions of self and other, living without attachment, and cultivating without attainment. According to Shigenori Nagamoto the major goal of the Diamond sutra is: "an existential project aiming at achieving and embodying a non-discriminatory basis for knowledge" or "the emancipation from the fundamental ignorance of not knowing how to experience reality as it is."
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Heart Sūtra

(Skt: Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, literally "The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom") is a popular sutra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is a condensed exposé on the Buddhist Mahayana teaching of the Two Truths doctrine, which says that ultimately all phenomena are śūnyatā, empty of an unchanging essence. This emptiness is a 'characteristic' of all phenomena, and is not itself a transcendent reality, but remains likewise "empty" of an essence of its own. The sutra has been called "the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition." In the text, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, explaining the fundamental emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena, known through and as the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form, feeling, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. Avalokiteśvara famously states, "Form is emptiness (śūnyatā), emptiness is form," and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty—that is, dependently originated. Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, and explains that in emptiness none of these notions apply. This is interpreted according to the two truths doctrine as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality—they are not reality itself—and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond mental understanding. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahayana Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the Prajñāpāramitā tradition to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without attachment to concepts, thereby achieving nirvana.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Lotus Sūtra

(Skt: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, literally "Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma") is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras, and provides the doctrinal basis upon which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established. According to Paul Williams, "For many East Asian Buddhists since early times, the Lotus Sutra contains the final teaching of the Buddha, complete and sufficient for salvation." The text is known for the extensive instruction it offers on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Skt. upāya, Jpn. hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a bodhisattva – which is realized mostly in the form of parables. The many 'skillful' or 'expedient' means and the "three vehicles" are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Ekayāna), which is also the Bodhisattva path. This is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle". In the Lotus Sūtra, this Great Vehicle encompasses so many different teachings because the Buddha's compassion and wish to save all beings led him to adapt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people. The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one Dharma and thus all constitute the "One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes". The sūtra sees all other teachings as subservient to, propagated by, and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sūtra also claims to be superior to other sūtras and states that full Buddhahood is only arrived at by exposure to its own teachings and skillful means. The sutra was frequently cited in Indian works by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Candrakirti, Shantideva, among others.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Diamond, Heart, and Lotus Sutras

The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist scriptures. Composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, it is renowned for its inspiring message that all beings are destined for supreme enlightenment. Here, Donald Lopez provides an engaging and accessible biography of this enduring classic. Lopez traces the many roles the sutra has played in its travels through Asia, Europe, and across the seas to America. The story begins in India, where it was one of the early Mahayana sutras, which sought to redefine the Buddhist path. In the centuries that followed, the text would have a profound influence in China and Japan, and would go on to play a central role in the European discovery of Buddhism. It was the first Buddhist sutra to be translated from Sanskrit into a Western language―into French in 1844 by the eminent scholar Eugène Burnouf. That same year, portions of the Lotus Sutra appeared in English in The Dial, the journal of New England's Transcendentalists. Lopez provides a balanced account of the many controversies surrounding the text and its teachings, and describes how the book has helped to shape the popular image of the Buddha today. He explores how it was read by major literary figures such as Henry David Thoreau and Gustave Flaubert, and how it was used to justify self-immolation in China and political extremism in Japan. Concise and authoritative, this is the essential introduction to the life and afterlife of a timeless masterpiece.

Tanahashi Heart Sutra cover artThe Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2016.

The first-century classic Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra may be the best known of all the Buddhist scriptures. It's a key Zen text, chanted daily by many, but it is studied extensively in the Tibetan tradition too. In just forty-two lines, it expresses the truth of impermanence and the release of suffering that results from the understanding of that truth with a breathtaking economy of language. Kazuaki Tanahashi's guide to the Heart Sutra is the result of a life spent working with it and living it. He outlines the history and meaning and then analyzes the text line by line in its various forms (Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Mongolian, and various key English translations), providing a deeper understanding of the history and etymology of the elusive words than is generally available to the nonspecialist, yet with a clear emphasis on the relevance of the text to practice.

Hanh Diamond That Cuts cover artThe Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajñaparamita Diamond Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2006.

The Diamond Sutra, a mainstay of the Mahayana tradition, has fascinated Buddhists for centuries because of its insights into dualism and illusion: the "diamond" can cut through any obstacle on the road to enlightenment. In the sutra, the Buddha responds to a disciple's question about how to become a Buddha. The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion presents a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti, which illuminates how our minds construct limited categories of thought. The answer: we must move beyond personal enlightenment to follow the path of the Bodhisattvas, fully enlightened beings who postpone Nirvana in order to alleviate the suffering of others. It offers us alternative ways to look at the world in its wholeness so we can encounter a deeper reality; develop reverence for the environment and more harmonious communities, families, and relationships; and act in the world skillfully and effectively. This revised edition includes Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of the sutra from the Chinese and, in his commentaries, his own diamond sharp insight, including new work on the environmental implications of the Diamond Sutra. A beautiful edition of one of Buddhism's central texts.

Conze Buddhist Wisdom cover artBuddhist Wisdom: Containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, edited & translated by Edward Conze. New York: Random House, 2001.

A landmark publication which offers Western readers a unique combination of what Buddhists worldwide consider the holiest of holy texts, ascribed to the early centuries of the first millennium. The Diamond Sutra, or the Perfection of Wisdom, which cuts like a thunderbolt, is one of the cornerstone texts of Mahayana Buddhism and provides a summary of the core concepts of the Buddha. The Heart Sutra, perhaps the most important of all Buddhist texts, sets out to formulate the very heart, or essence of perfect wisdom and is studied with special reverence in Zen monasteries and the Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries. Edward Conze, who was until his death in 1979 a powerful force for introducing Buddhism and its sacred texts to the West, has provided these translated key texts with an extensive commentary for the easiest possible appreciation phrase by phrase. For this new edition, Judith Simmer-Brown, a well-known American scholar of Buddhism, has contributed a lively, context-setting introduction. In the annals of spirituality, certain books stand out both for their historical importance and for their continued relevance.


Prajnaparamita Sanskrit manuscript

The Mahayana Sūtras are a broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that various Mahayana traditions accept as canonical. Around one hundred Mahayana sutras survive either in extant Sanskrit manuscripts or in Chinese and Tibetan translations. Mahayana Buddhists typically consider the Mahayana sutras to have been taught by Gautama Buddha, committed to memory, and recited by his disciples; consequently, they are viewed as representing the actual speech of the Buddha in his absence following his parinirvana (death). This claim is based on oral tradition rather than on historical evidence. Some traditional accounts of 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 nāgas, serpent-like supernatural beings who dwell in another plane of being. The reason these accounts give for the late disclosure of the Mahayana teachings is that most people were unable to understand the Mahayana sutras at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE), and thus suitable recipients for these teachings had yet to arise among human beings. Some teachers take the view that all teachings that stem from the fundamental insights of Buddha constitute the Buddha's speech, whether they are explicitly the verifiable words of the historical Buddha or not. There are scriptural supports for this perspective even in the Pāli Canon. The teachings as contained in the Mahayana sutras as a whole have been described as a loose bundle of various, sometimes contradictory teachings. As a result, there are unilateral statements that can be made about Mahayana doctrine. Central, though not unique, to the Mahayana sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva path. What is unique to the Mahayana development of this idea is the application of the term bodhisattva to any person from the moment they intend to become a Buddha, without requiring that this intention be formed or expressed in the presence of a living Buddha. The Mahayana sutras also claim that any person who receives and heeds these texts either had already received or will soon receive the title of bodhisattva from a living Buddha. The central practice advocated by the Mahayana sutras is focused around "the acquisition of merit, the universal currency of the Buddhist world, a vast quantity of which was believed to be necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood". The most important act for acquiring merit in these sutras is the listening, memorization, recitation, preaching, copying, and worship of the Mahayana sutras themselves.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajñāpāramitā Hridaya Sūtra (Heart Sutra) in siddham script. Image source: Wikimedia Commons (edited). Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.

The Mahayana Sutras

Dasheng qixin lun, or Treatise on Awakening Mahayana Faith has been one of the most important texts of East Asian Buddhism since it first appeared in sixth-century China. It outlines the initial steps a Mahayana Buddhist needs to take to reach enlightenment, beginning with the conviction that the Mahayana path is correct and worth pursuing. The Treatise addresses many of the doctrines central to various Buddhist teachings in China between the fifth and seventh centuries, attempting to reconcile seemingly contradictory ideas in Buddhist texts introduced from India. It provided a model for later schools to harmonize teachings and sustain the idea that, despite different approaches, there was only one doctrine, or Dharma. It profoundly shaped the doctrines and practices of the major schools of Chinese Buddhism: Chan, Tiantai, Huayan, and to a lesser extent Pure Land. It quickly became a shared resource for East Asian philosophers and students of Buddhist thought. Drawing on the historical and intellectual contexts of Treatise's composition and paying sustained attention to its interpretation in early commentaries, this new annotated translation of the classic, makes its ideas available to English readers like never before. The introduction orients readers to the main topics taken up in the Treatise and gives a comprehensive historical and intellectual grounding to the text. This volume marks a major advance in studies of the Treatise, bringing to light new interpretations and themes of the text.

This is a free translation of two Buddhist texts on what is arguably the most popular of all Buddhist conceptions of an ideal world, the Land of Bliss of the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. The two texts, known to Western students of Buddhism as the Smaller and Larger Sukhavatiyuha Sutra, explain the conditions that lead to rebirth in the Pure Land and the manner in which human beings are reborn there. The longer of the two texts also tells the story of how the Buddha of Infinite Light came to preside over this marvel-filled paradise. Both texts describe the layout and the wonders of the Pure Land, and the preconditions that lead to rebirth in this Buddhist paradise. They form the spiritual foundation of pure faith that pervades East Asian Buddhism, a doctrine of faith the parallels Western doctrines of grace while reflecting a complex historical and doctrinal cross-current of faith, effort, and visionary religion. At times solemn, fantastic, and humorous, the accounts reflect the rich literary and religious imagination of India.

Tatelman Purna cover artThe Glorious Deeds of Purna: A Translation and Study of the Purnavadana, edited & translated by Joel Tatelman. New York: Routledge, 1999.

The avadana literature is the largest corpus of Sanskrit Buddhist texts available to us. By providing an annotated translation of, and applying the methods of literary criticism to, a first-century account of the life of the Buddhist saint Purna, the present study introduces the reader to the richness and complexity of a genre which has played an essential role in Buddhist self-understanding for over two thousand years. Buddhist tradition identifies the monk Purna of Surparaka as the great evangelist who introduced Buddhism to the land of Sronaparantaka, which corresponds to much of the present Indian state of Gujarat. The introduction, which discusses methodological issues in some detail, is followed by an annotated translation of the text and by a detailed literary analysis. After brief concluding remarks, the appendices present translations of four other versions of the life of Purna.

Cleary Buddhist Yoga cover artBuddhist Yoga: A Comprehensive Course, edited & translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995.

The word yoga has many meanings, including "meditation," "method," and "union." While the physical exercises of Hindu yoga are familiar to Westerners, the subtle metaphysics and refined methods of spiritual development that characterize Buddhist yoga are not yet well known. This volume presents a landmark translation of a classical sourcebook of Buddhist yoga, the Sandhinirmochana-sutra, or "Scripture Unlocking the Mysteries," a revered text of the school of Buddhism known as Vijnanavada or Yogachara. The study of this scripture is essential preparation for anyone undertaking meditation exercise. Linking theory and praxis, the scripture offers a remarkably detailed and thorough course of study in both the philosophical and pragmatic foundation of Buddhist yoga, and their perfect, harmonious union in the realization of Buddhist enlightenment.

The Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra

Heart Sutra text

Above: A rubbing of an inscription of the Heart Sutra in the style of Ouyang Xun.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.