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Buddhism: Mahayana: Primary Texts

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Mahāyāna Buddhism: Primary Texts

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The Mahāyāna sūtras are a broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that various Mahāyāna traditions accept as canonical. Around one hundred Mahāyāna sūtras survive either in extant Sanskrit manuscripts or in Chinese and Tibetan translations. Mahāyāna Buddhists typically consider the Mahāyāna sūtras 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 Mahāyāna sūtras 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 Mahāyāna teachings is that most people were unable to understand the Mahāyāna sūtras 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 Mahāyāna sūtras as a whole have been described as a loose bundle of various, sometimes contradictory teachings. As a result, there are few unilateral statements that can be made about Mahāyāna doctrine. Central, though not unique, to the Mahāyāna sūtras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva path. What is unique to the Mahāyāna 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 Mahāyāna sūtras 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 Mahāyāna sūtras 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 Mahāyāna sūtras themselves.
 
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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. 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. Shambhala, 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.

 
 
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Prajnaparamita illustration

Above: The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara expounding the dharma to a devotee; folio from a manuscript of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra ("The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines"); Mahavihara Master, India, early 12th c.
 
 
 
 
 
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Avatamsaka banner

The Avataṃsaka Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras of East Asian Buddhism. The title is rendered in English as Flower Garland Sutra, Flower Adornment Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture. Its English translator, Thomas Cleary, has called it "the most grandiose, the most comprehensive, and the most beautifully arrayed of the Buddhist scriptures." The sutra describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing one another, and was especially influential in East Asian Buddhism. The vision expressed in this work formed the foundation for the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism - known as Hwaeom in Korea and Kegon in Japan - which was characterized by a philosophy of interpenetration. The sutra was equally influential in Ch'an Buddhism. The text was written in stages, beginning at least 500 years after the death of the Buddha. One source describes it as "a very long text composed of a number of originally independent scriptures of diverse provenance, all of which were combined, probably in Central Asia, in the late 3rd or 4th century CE." Japanese scholars argue that the Sanskrit original was compiled in India from sutras already in circulation which also bore the name Buddhavatamsaka. Two full Chinese translations of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra were made. Fragmentary translation probably began in the 2nd century CE, and the famous Daśabhūmika Sūtra ("Ten Stages Sutra"), often treated as a scripture in its own right, was first translated in the 3rd century CE. The first complete Chinese version was translated by Buddhabhadra around 420 in 60 scrolls with 34 chapters, and the second by Śikṣānanda around 699 in 80 scrolls with 40 chapters. The latter translation includes more sutras than the first, while the Tibetan translation, which is still later, likewise incorporates many divergences. Scholars conclude that sutras were still being added to the collection as it was being translated and disseminated. The single extant Tibetan version was translated from the original Sanskrit by Jinamitra et al at the end of the 9th century. The sutra, among the longest Buddhist sutras, is a compilation of disparate texts on various topics such as the Bodhisattva path, the interpenetration of phenomena (dharmas), the omnipresence of Buddhahood, the miraculous powers of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the visionary powers of meditation, and the equality of all things in emptiness. According to Paul Demiéville, the collection is "characterized by overflowing visionary images, which multiply everything to infinity, by a type of monadology that teaches the interpenetration of the one whole and the particularized many, of spirit and matter" and by "the notion of a gradual progress towards liberation through successive stages and an obsessive preference for images of light and radiance." Likewise, Alan Fox has described the sutra's worldview as "fractal", "holographic" and "psychedelic". The East Asian view of the text is that it depicts the nature of the universe as experienced by a buddha (the Dharmadhatu or 'realm of reality'), who sees all phenomena as empty and thus infinitely interpenetrating: in the sutra, "the fields full of assemblies, the beings and aeons which are as many as all the dust particles, are all present in every particle of dust." Thus the sutra tries to render an experience that is basically "inconceivable; no sentient being can fathom it". The point of the tableaux and teachings presented in the sutra is to lead all beings through the ten bodhisattva levels to the goal of Buddhahood. These stages of spiritual attainment are widely discussed in various parts of the sutra. The sutra also includes numerous Buddhas and their Buddhalands which are said to be infinite, representing a vast cosmic view of reality, though it centers on a most important figure, the Buddha Vairocana ('great radiance'). Vairocana is a cosmic being who is the source of light and enlightenment of the 'Lotus universe', who is said to contain all world systems. According to Paul Williams, Vairocana "is said or implied at various places in this vast and heterogeneous sutra to be the universe itself, to be the same as ‘absence of intrinsic existence’ or emptiness, and to be the Buddha's all-pervading omniscient awareness." Hence the sutra depicts the historical Buddha Sakyamuni as simply a magical emanation of the cosmic Buddha Vairocana.
 
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The Avatamsaka Sutra

In the early twentieth century, Chinese Buddhists sought to strengthen their tradition through publications, institution building, and initiatives aimed at raising the educational level of the monastic community. In this book, Erik J. Hammerstrom examines how Huayan Buddhism was imagined, taught, and practiced during this time of profound political and social change and, in so doing, recasts the history of twentieth-century Chinese Buddhism. Hammerstrom traces the influence of Huayan University, the first Buddhist monastic school founded after the fall of the imperial system in China. Although the university lasted only a few years, its graduates of went on to establish a number of Huayan-centered educational programs throughout China. While they did not create a new sectarian Huayan movement, they did form a network unified by a common educational heritage that persists to the present day. Drawing on an extensive range of Buddhist texts and periodicals, Hammerstrom shows that Huayan had a significant impact on Chinese Buddhist thought and practice and that the history of Huayan complicates narratives of twentieth-century Buddhist modernization and revival. Offering a wide range of insights into the teaching and practice of Huayan in Republican China, this book sheds new light on an essential but often overlooked element of the East Asian Buddhist tradition.

Cheen Totality cover artTranslating Totality in Parts: Chengguan's Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra by Guo Cheen. University Press of America, 2014.

This book offers an annotated translation of two of preeminent Chinese Tang dynasty monk Chengguan’s most revered masterpieces. With this book, Chengguan’s Commentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra and The Meanings Proclaimed in the Subcommentaries Accompanying the Commentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra are finally brought to contemporary Western audiences. This work allows Western readers to experience Chengguan’s important contributions to the religious and philosophical theory of the Huayan and Buddhism in China. "In this study ... Guo Cheen has made a substantial contribution to contemporary Buddhist Studies. Chengguan's commentaries on the Avatamsaka/Huayan Sutra were among the most important endeavors in Chinese Buddhist philosophy. Having them now available in English translation extends our realization that the philosophy of ‘interrelatedness’ is one of the greatest gifts from the Buddhist tradition to our moment in time." - Dale S. Wright, Gamble Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies/Asian Studies, Occidental College.

Park Postmodernity cover artBuddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan, and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics by Jin Y. Park. Lexington Books, 2008.

This book is a response to some of the questions that have emerged in the process of Buddhism's encounters with modernity and the West. Park broadly outlines these questions as follows: first, why are the interpretations and evaluations of Buddhism so different in Europe (in the nineteenth century), in the United States (in the twentieth century), and in traditional Asia; second, why does Zen Buddhism, which offers a radically egalitarian vision, maintain a strongly authoritarian leadership; and third, what ethical paradigm can be drawn from the Buddhist-postmodern form of philosophy? Park argues that, as unrelated as these questions may seem, the issues that have generated them are related to perennial philosophical themes of identity, institutional power, and ethics, respectively. Each of these themes constitutes one section of the work. Park discusses the three issues in the book through the exploration of the Buddhist concepts of self and others, language and thinking, and universality and particularities. Most of this discussion is drawn from the East Asian Buddhist traditions of Zen and Huayan Buddhism in connection with the Continental philosophies of postmodernism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction. Self-critical from both the Buddhist and Western philosophical perspectives, this book points the reader toward a new understanding of Buddhist philosophy and offers a Buddhist-postmodern ethical paradigm that challenges normative ethics of metaphysical traditions.

Flower Ornament cover artThe Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, ed. & trans. Thomas Cleary. Shambhala Publications, 1993.

A masterful translation of one of the most influential Buddhist sutras by one of the greatest translators of Buddhist texts of our time. Known in Chinese as Hua-yen and in Japanese as Kegon-kyo, the Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, is held in the highest regard and studied by Buddhists of all traditions. Through its structure and symbolism, as well as through its concisely stated principles, it conveys a vast range of Buddhist teachings. This one-volume edition contains Thomas Cleary’s definitive translation of all thirty-nine books of the sutra, along with an introduction, a glossary, and Cleary’s translation of Li Tongxuan’s seventh-century guide to the final book, the Gandavyuha, “Entry into the Realm of Reality.”

 
 
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Avalokitesvara image

Above: Gold statue of thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) at Lalitpur, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal.
 
 
 
 
 
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Diamond banner

The Diamond Sutra (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. 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." In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk to Sravasti with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha: "How, Lord, should one who has set out on the bodhisattva path take his stand, how should he proceed, how should he control the mind?" What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of the "perfection of insight" (Prajñāpāramitā) and the nature of ultimate reality (which is illusory and empty). The Buddha begins by answering Subhuti by stating that he will bring all living beings to final nirvana, but that after this "no living being whatsoever has been brought to extinction". This is because a bodhisattva does not see beings through reified concepts such as "person", "soul" or "self", but sees them through the lens of perfect understanding, as empty of inherent, unchanging self. 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."
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
 

The Diamond Sutra

Contextualizing the sutra within a milieu of intense religious and cultural experimentation, this volume unravels the sudden rise of Diamond Sutra devotion in the Tang dynasty against the backdrop of a range of social, political, and literary activities. Through the translation and exploration of a substantial body of narratives extolling the efficacy of the sutra, it explores the complex social history of lay Buddhism by focusing on how the laity might have conceived of the sutra and devoted themselves to it. Corroborated by various sources, it reveals the cult’s effect on medieval Chinese religiosity in the activities of an empowered laity, who modified and produced parasutraic texts, prompting the monastic establishment to accommodate to the changes they brought about.

Price Diamond cover artThe Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng, ed. & trans. A.F. Price & Wong Mou-Lam. Shambhala, 2005.

The Diamond Sutra, composed in India in the fourth century CE, is one of the most treasured works of Buddhist literature and is the oldest existing printed book in the world. It is known as the Diamond Sutra because its teachings are said to be like diamonds that cut away all dualistic thought, releasing one from the attachment to objects and bringing one to the further shore of enlightenment. The format of this important sutra is presented as a conversation between the Buddha and one of his disciples. The Sutra of Hui-neng, also known as the Platform Sutra, contains the autobiography of a pivotal figure in Zen history and some of the most profound passages of Zen literature. Hui-neng (638–713) was the sixth patriarch of Zen in China but is often regarded as the true father of the Zen tradition. He was a poor, illiterate woodcutter who is said to have attained enlightenment upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra. Together, these two scriptures present the central teaching of the Zen Buddhist tradition and are essential reading for all students of Buddhism.

Conze Buddhist Wisdom cover artBuddhist Wisdom: Containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, ed. & trans. Edward Conze. Vintage Books, 2001.

A landmark publication which offers Western readers a unique combination of what Buddhists worldwide consider the holiest of holy texts: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra, two sutras, or scriptures, 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.

Soeng Diamond cover artThe Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, ed. & trans. Mu Soeng. Wisdom Publications, 2000.

In this brilliant new translation and commentary on The Diamond Sutra--one of the sublime wisdom teachings of Mahayana Buddhism--Mu Soeng integrates this ancient wisdom teaching with current scientific and psychological thought. His clear and readable commentary traces the connections between these teachings and contemporary theories of quantum reality, explores the sutra within the framework of Buddhist meditation practices, and provides a comprehensive historical survey of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Mu Soeng's goal throughout is to reveal the inspiration and wisdom of The Diamond Sutra to today's reader in an accessible, engaging, and modern manner.

 
 
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Printed Diamond Sutra

Above: Frontispiece to a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra printed in China in 868 CE and discovered in the Dunhuang Caves in 1907 in the northwestern province of Gansu, China. This edition is the world's earliest surviving dated printed book, consisting of a scroll over 16 feet long made up of a long series of printed pages.
 
 
 
 
 
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Heart banner

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 Heart Sutra

This new translation of the Buddha's most important, most studied teaching offers a radical new interpretation. In September 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh completed a profound and beautiful new English translation of the Prajñaparamita Heart Sutra, one of the most important and well-known sutras in Buddhism. The Heart Sutra is recited daily in Mahayana temples and practice centers throughout the world. This new translation came about because Thich Nhat Hanh believes that the patriarch who originally compiled the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skillful with his use of language to capture the intention of the Buddha's teachings — and has resulted in fundamental misunderstandings of the central tenets of Buddhism for almost 2,000 years. In The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries, Thich Nhat Hanh provides the new translation with commentaries based on his interpretation. Revealing the Buddha's original intention and insight makes clear what it means to transcend duality and pairs of opposites, such as birth and death, and to touch the ultimate reality and the wisdom of nondiscrimination. By helping to demystify the term "emptiness," the Heart Sutra is made more accessible and understandable.

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

The Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra is among the best known of all the Buddhist scriptures. Chanted daily by many Zen practitioners, it is also studied extensively in the Tibetan tradition, and it has been regarded with interest more recently in the West in various fields of study — from philosophy to quantum physics. In just a few 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 of the text and then analyzes it 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 non-specialist—yet with a clear emphasis on the relevance of the text to practice. This book includes a fresh and meticulous new translation of the text by the author and Roshi Joan Halifax.

Brunnhölzl Heart Attack cover artThe Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Karl Brunnhölzl. Snow Lion, 2012.

A guide to the famous Heart Sūtra which reveals the tenderness and compassion underlying the striking rhetoric of this popular but challenging Buddhist text. The radical message of the Heart Sūtra, one of Buddhism’s most famous texts, is a sweeping attack on everything we hold most dear: our troubles, the world as we know it, even the teachings of the Buddha himself. Several of the Buddha’s followers are said to have suffered heart attacks and died when they first heard its assertion of the basic groundlessness of our existence—hence the title of this book. Overcoming fear, the Buddha teaches, is not to be accomplished by shutting down or building walls around oneself, but instead by opening up to understand the illusory nature of everything we fear—including ourselves. In this book of teachings, Karl Brunnhölzl guides practitioners through this ‘crazy’ sutra to the wisdom and compassion that lie at its core.

Sheng-yen No Suffering cover artThere Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Sheng-yen. North Atlantic Books, 2002.

The Heart Sutra, just over a page long, distills the teachings of the Buddha to their purest essence. Perhaps the best known of all Buddhist sutras, it is recited in Buddhist centers and monasteries around the world. Emphasizing a living wisdom directly experienced, the schools of Chan have revered the Heart Sutra for its concise expression of the core revelations of the Buddha. This book is Chan Master Sheng-yen's commentary on the Heart Sutra. He speaks on the sutra from the Chan point of view, and presents it as a series of contemplation methods, encouraging readers to experience it directly through meditation and daily life. In this way, reading the Heart Sutra becomes more than just an intellectual exercise; it becomes a method of practice by which one can awaken to the fundamental wisdom inherent within each of us. Whether one wants a better understanding of Buddhist concepts or a deepened meditation practice, this commentary on the Heart Sutra can help.

 
 
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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: Ouyang Xun. Image license: Public domain.
 
 
 
 
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Lotus Sutra banner

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 sūtra 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. Another important teaching of the sūtra is that all beings can become Buddhas. The sūtra sees the awakening of a Buddha as the only and ultimate goal and it boldly claims that "of any who hear the dharma, none shall fail to achieve buddhahood". Numerous figures in the sūtra receive predictions of future Buddhahood, including the ultimate Buddhist villain Devadatta. In chapter 10, the Buddha points out that all sorts of people will become Buddhas, including monks, nuns, laypeople, along with numerous non-human beings like nagas. Even those who practice only simple forms of devotion, such as paying respect to the Buddha, or drawing a picture of the Buddha, are assured of their future Buddhahood. According to Gene Reeves, this teaching encourages the development of this potential for Buddhahood in all beings. Reeves sees this as an inclusive message which "affirms the equality of everyone and seeks to provide an understanding of Buddha-dharma that excludes no one." Although the term buddha-nature (buddhadhatu) is not mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra, Japanese scholars Hajime Nakamura and Akira Hirakawa suggest that the concept is implicitly present in the text. An Indian commentary attributed to Vasubandhu, interprets the Lotus Sūtra as a teaching of buddha-nature and later East Asian commentaries tended to adopt this view.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sūtra is among the most venerated scriptures of Buddhism. Composed in India some two millennia ago, it affirms the potential for all beings to attain supreme enlightenment. Donald Lopez and Jacqueline Stone provide an essential reading companion to this inspiring yet enigmatic masterpiece, explaining how it was understood by its compilers in India and, centuries later in medieval Japan, by one of its most influential proponents. In this illuminating chapter-by-chapter guide, Lopez and Stone show how the sūtra's anonymous authors skillfully reframed the mainstream Buddhist tradition in light of a new vision of the path and the person of the Buddha himself, and examine how the sūtra's metaphors, parables, and other literary devices worked to legitimate that vision. They go on to explore how the Lotus was interpreted by the Japanese Buddhist master Nichiren (1222-1282), whose inspired reading of the book helped to redefine modern Buddhism. In doing so, Lopez and Stone demonstrate how readers of sacred works continually reinterpret them in light of their own unique circumstances.

Lopez Lotus Sutra cover artThe Lotus Sutra: A Biography by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton University Press, 2016.

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 Lotus 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.

 

Reeves Stories of Lotus Sutra cover artThe Stories of the Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves. Wisdom Publications, 2010.

Stories are ancient and wondrous tools with the mysterious power to transform lives. And the stories and parables of the Lotus Sutra - one of the world's great religious scriptures and most influential texts - are among the most fascinating and dramatic. In this fun, engaging, and plain-English book, Gene Reeves - the translator of Wisdom's critically acclaimed and bestselling edition of the Lotus Sutra - presents the most memorable and remarkable of the Lotus Sutra's many stories and parables, along with a distillation of his decades of reflection on them in an accessible, inspiring, and naturally illuminating way. This book is the perfect companion to Reeve's breathtaking translation of this scriptural masterpiece as well as a thoroughly enjoyable stand-alone volume for those who want to bring the inspiring teachings of the bodhisattva path into their daily lives.

Teiser and Stone Readings cover artReadings of the Lotus Sutra, edited by Stephen F. Teiser & Jacqueline Stone. Columbia University Press, 2009.

The Lotus Sutra proclaims that a unitary intent underlies the diversity of Buddhist teachings and promises that all people without exception can achieve supreme awakening. Establishing the definitive guide to this profound text, specialists in Buddhist philosophy, art, and history of religion address the major ideas and controversies surrounding the Lotus Sutra and its manifestations in ritual performance, ascetic practice, visual representations, and social action across history. Essays survey the Indian context in which the sutra was produced, its compilation and translation history, and its influence across China and Japan, among many other issues. The volume also includes a Chinese and Japanese character glossary, notes on Western translations of the text, and a synoptic bibliography.

 
 
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Lotus image

Above: Handscroll of “Universal Gateway,” Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra; Japan, dated 1257.
 
 
 
 
 
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Pure Land banner

Pure Land Buddhism, also referred to as Amidism in English, is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism focused on the Buddha Amitābha and one of the most widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land oriented practices and concepts are found within basic Mahāyāna Buddhist cosmology, and form an important component of the Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam. The term 'Pure Land Buddhism' is used to describe both the Pure Land soteriology of Mahayana Buddhism, which may be better understood as 'Pure Land traditions' or 'Pure Land teachings,' as well as the separate Pure Land sects that developed in Japan from the work of Hōnen. Pure Land Buddhism is built on the belief that there will never be a world which is not corrupt, so the rebirth in another plane, the 'Pure Land,' is the goal. The three primary sūtras of the Pure Land tradition are the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Amitayurdhyana Sutra and the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra. These sutras describe the Buddha Amitābha and his Pure Land of Bliss, called Sukhavati. Another important sūtra related to the Pure Land tradition is the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra, which gives an early description of the practice of reciting the name of Amitābha as a meditation method. In the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras, Bodhisattvas hear about the Buddha Amitābha and call him to mind again and again in this land. Because of this calling to mind, they see the Buddha Amitābha and ask him what dharmas it takes to be born in the realm of the Buddha Amitābha. Then the Buddha Amitābha says to these bodhisattvas: "If you wish to come and be born in my realm, you must always call me to mind again and again, you must always keep this thought in mind without letting up, and thus you will succeed in coming to be born in my realm." According to Julian Pas, the Longer and Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras were composed during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, though he considers the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha to be earlier. Andrew Skilton writes that the descriptions of Sukhāvatī given in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras suggests that these descriptions were originally used for meditation: "This land, called Sukhāvatī or 'blissful,' is described in great detail, in a way that suggests that the sūtras were to be used as guides to visualization meditation, and also gives an impression of a magical world of intense visual and sonorous delight." In the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Gautama Buddha begins by describing to his attendant Ānanda a past life of the buddha Amitābha. He states that in a past life, Amitābha was once a king who renounced his kingdom, and became a monastic bodhisattva named Dharmākara (Dharma Storehouse). Under the guidance of the buddha Lokeśvararāja (World Sovereign King), innumerable buddha-lands throughout the ten directions were revealed to him. After meditating for five eons as a bodhisattva, he then made a great series of vows to save all sentient beings, and through his great merit, created the realm of Sukhāvatī ('Ultimate Bliss'). This land of Sukhāvatī would later come to be known as the Pure Land.
 
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The Pure Land Sutras

The three Pure Land Sutras are a body of Mahayana scriptures that for centuries have played an important part in the spiritual life of East Asian Buddhists. These texts describe Sukhavati, the archetypal "land of bliss" presided over by Amitabha or Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Eternal Life. Ratnaguna explores the practices that enable the practitioner to be reborn in this ideal world, and outlines how this can be understood in both a literal and metaphoric sense. So 'rebirth in Sukhavati' can take place in this very life, and dwelling there can be understood as a description of the Enlightened Mind. He also explores faith-imagination as the faculty that perceives reality. These Buddhist texts--both ancient and perennial--put forward a path of faith and grace, as well as effort and practice. Using a practical and imaginative approach, Ratnaguna explores the main themes, and the meditations outlined by the Buddha. This book will appeal to both practicing Buddhists--whether from the East Asian Pure Land traditions or not--and anyone interested in Buddhism from a practical point of view. Includes new translations of the three Pure Land sutras by Sraddhapa.

Sengrui Sitting Meditation cover artThe Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation, trans. Nobuyoshi Yamabe & Fumihiko Sueki. Numata Center, 2010.

The Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation is a meditation manual compiled in China in the 4th century C.E. by Kumarajiva, the noted translator of many important Mahayana sutras and philosophical texts. Based on his profound knowledge of both Traditional and Mahayana Buddhism, Kumarajiva introduced Mahayana thought systematically and significantly advanced the Chinese understanding of Buddhism. This clear and well-organized manual describes both Traditional and Mahayanist meditation methods, based on the classification of practitioners into five different types. According to practitioners’ inclinations to lust, anger, ignorance, discursive thoughts, or a combination of these, an appropriate remedial practice is prescribed for each type. Though the specific methods vary for Traditional or Mahayana followers, the general framework of practice is largely the same, suggesting that to Kumarajiva, Mahayanist meditation was not separate from Traditional forms of meditation. For the Chinese, the Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation provided much-needed clear guidance for meditation practice and this text exerted significant influence on the subsequent development of Buddhist meditation in China, especially on the Tiantai tradition.

Three Sutras cover artThe Three Pure Land Sutras: Revised Edition, trans. Hisao Inagaki & Harold Stewart. Numata Center, 2006.

The three most important sutras of Japan’s Pure Land tradition are here brought together in this single volume. The Larger Sutra on Amitayus relates how a certain mendicant monk by the name of Dharmakara, when practicing under the tutelage of the Tathagata Lokesvararaja, made 48 vows to save all suffering people; to fulfill these vows he created a paradise in the west called Sukhavati, and he himself thus became the Buddha Amitayus. The sutra states, furthermore, that if anyone believing in these 48 vows should chant the name of Amitayus, he will be born in the paradise of Sukhavati and there become a buddha. This sutra being the longest of the three basic sutras of the Pure Land Faith, it is common practice in the various Pure Land sects to use extracts from it for the purpose of recitation. Among such pieces there are the San-butsu-ge, a poem in which Dharmakara extols his teacher Lokesvararaja, and the Juu-sei ge, a verse-summary of the 48 vows in the form of 3 vows. The Sutra on Contemplation of Amitayus relates one of the most well-known of all Buddhist tales, that of King Ajatasatru and his mother Vaidehi. One day Vaidehi, who was in a state of continual anguish owing to the wicked practices of her son, turned for help in the direction of Sakyamuni, whereupon the latter came to where she was, and after having shown her countless paradises in all directions, had her choose one. She chose the Sukhavati Paradise of Amitayus in the west, and so Sakyamuni gave a detailed description of this paradise by means of 16 types of visualization. The Smaller Sutra on Amitayus is the shortest of the three basic sutras of the Pure Land Faith, thus being called the Smaller Sukhativyuha, and is even today frequently recited at religious services. It starts by giving a description of the splendors of Sukhavati, the western paradise of Amitayus, and then goes on to explain what must be done in order to be born there. The Buddhas of the six directions (east, west, north, south, above and below) extol the virtues of the Buddha Amitayus, and in conclusion it is recommended that one should generate the desire to be born in this paradise by believing in and chanting the name of Amitayus.

Gomez Land of Bliss cover artThe Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light, University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

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 Sutras, explain the conditions that lead to rebirth in the Pure Land and the manner in which human beings are reborn there.

 
 
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Taima Mandala detail

Above: Detail of the Taima Mandala; Japan, 1750. The Taima Mandala represents the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) bordered on three sides by parables from the Sutra on the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life (Kanmuryōjukyō). This text, portions of which appear in the boundaries between scenes, recounts the promise at the core of Pure Land School teaching: that those who concentrate on the Buddha Amida during life, and recite his name, will be escorted to his Pure Land, known as the Western Paradise, at the final moment of death. The painting depicts an enormous palace with a golden pond presided over by Amida and his retinue.
 
 
 
 
 
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Vimalakirti Sutra banner

The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa (sometimes referred to as the Vimalakīrti Sūtra or Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra) is a Buddhist text which centers around a lay Buddhist meditator who attained a very high degree of enlightenment considered by some second only to the Buddha's. It was extremely influential in East Asia, but most likely of considerably less importance in the Indian and Tibetan sub-traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The word nirdeśa in the title means "instruction, advice", and Vimalakīrti is the name of the main protagonist of the text, and means "Taintless Fame". The sutra teaches, among other subjects, the meaning of nondualism, the doctrine of the true body of the Buddha, the characteristically Mahāyāna claim that the appearances of the world are mere illusions, and the superiority of the Mahāyāna over other paths. It places in the mouth of the upāsaka (lay practitioner) Vimalakīrti a teaching addressed to both arhats and bodhisattvas, regarding the doctrine of śūnyatā (emptiness). In most versions, the discourse of the text culminates with a wordless teaching of silence. Translator Burton Watson argues that the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa was likely composed in approximately 100 CE. Although it had been thought lost for centuries, a version in Sanskrit was recovered in 1999 among the manuscripts of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Sanskrit was published in parallel with the Tibetan and three Chinese versions by the Study Group on Buddhist Sanskrit Literature at the Institute for Comprehensive Studies of Buddhism at Taisho University in 2004, and in 2006, the same group published a critical edition that has become the standard version of the Sanskrit for scholarly purposes. In 2007 the Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods published a romanized Sanskrit version.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
 

The Vimalakirti Sutra

In 1999, a Sanskrit version of the Vimalakirtinirdesa, long thought lost, was discovered in the Potala Palace in Lhasa by a team of scholars from Taisho University in Japan, who then presented it to the world in a series of landmark publications. Previous English renderings of this classic Mahayana text had been based on Chinese or Tibetan translations and not the Indian Sanskrit. Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages sponsored a three-week workshop on the newly discovered text in 2010, led by five eminent scholars. At the end of the workshop, the decision was made to prepare a full translation. Building on the initial efforts of workshop participants and working closely with Luis Gomez before he passed away, Paul Harrison, the George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, has carried the English translation to completion. The result is a careful and scholarly treatment of this enduring text by two dedicated interpreters and translators of Buddhist literature. Elegantly translated and easily readable, this book is a major contribution to the study and understanding of this playful and complex text for English readers.

Thurman Vimalakirti cover artThe Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture, edited & translated by Robert A. F. Thurman. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

This book presents the major teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism in a precise, dramatic, and even humorous form. For two millennia this sūtra, called the “jewel of the Mahāyāna Sūtras,” has enjoyed immense popularity among Mahāyāna Buddhists in India, central and southeast Asia, Japan, and especially China, where its incidents were the basis for a style in art and literature prevalent during several centuries. Robert Thurman’s translation makes available, in relatively nontechnical English, the Tibetan version of this key Buddhist scripture, previously known to the English-speaking world only through translations from Chinese texts. The Tibetan version is generally conceded to be more faithful to the original Sanskrit than are the Chinese texts. The Tibetan version also is clearer, richer, and more precise in its philosophical and psychological expression. The books of the sūtra are accompanied by an introduction by Dr. Thurman and by three glossaries: Sanskrit terms, numerical categories, and technical terms.

 
 
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Vimalakirti image

Above: Handscroll of the Vimalakirti Sutra; China, dated 13 January 1119 CE.