5th century Lotus Sutra fragment

Mahayana Main scriptures: Sutras (sacred texts) — 2184 sacred writings. Popular: 1) Lotus Sutra — a sermon by the Buddha on Bodhisattva, buddha-nature, etc. 2) Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Prajna-paramita) — describes emptiness and others. 3) Heart Sutra— describes nirvana, emptiness, and Ultimate Reality. 4) "Land of Bliss" Sutra — describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.

Most of the Mahayana canon is in the form of Sutras, Sastras and Tantras. Sutras are the most authoritative and widely accepted as doctrine. Sustras are much less universally accepted and are usually associated with a particular school. They are often commentaries attributed by name to a person with a specific school. Tantras are secret documents linked with the esoteric Tantric sects that are only supposed to be viewed by those who have been properly initiated.

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: Most Mahayana literature is in Sanskrit, and some is in Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asian languages. The most widely used sutras are from The Perfection of Wisdom, of which there are about 30 different version put together over about a 700 year period. In China, “the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and other Indic and Central Asian languages into Chinese constitutes a large area of study. Although written largely in classical Chinese in the context of a premodern civilization in which relatively few people could read, [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs,]

Mahayana Buddhism Websites: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ;
; Zen Buddhism ; The Zen Site ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; Seon Zen Buddhism ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis


Mahayana sutras are usually statements attributed to The Buddha centuries after he supposedly said them but are true enough to Buddhist doctrines that they have been accepted as truths. Sutras are often chanted in prayers and written or printed again and again to earn merit.

detail from the Diamond Sutra

Some sutras are very famous and widely read. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Diamond Sutra, for example, is concise and pithy in wording yet also fully expresses the idea of "prajna (wisdom)" in popular Mahayana Buddhism, thereby spreading far and wide... Another major text, The Hua-yen Sutra, expounds on the origins of the Buddhist world and the idea that all things are interconnected, being the scripture forming the basis and namesake of the Hua-yen School. Although originating in India, it later became one of the most important sects in Chinese Buddhism. The scriptures devoted to Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, are intimately related to the development of Kuan-yin belief in the Chin and Sixteen Kingdoms era (265-439). Furthermore, after Dharmaraksa translated The True Dharma of the Lotus Sutra in 286 and Kumarajiva translated The Sublime Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, the image of Kuan-yin as a "savoir from difficulties and suffering" and "incarnation infinitum" became deeply planted in the minds of followers, thereby forming the basis of widespread views about Kuan-yin that are still held today. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: Buddhist sutras were known far and wide in China. To mention just three examples: 1) The seemingly magical spell from the Heart Sutra was known by many; 2) stories from the Lotus Sutra were painted on the walls of popular temples; and 3) religious preachers, popular storytellers, and low-class dramatists alike drew on the rich trove of mythology provided by Buddhist narrative." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs,]

Important Sutras

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The Suvarnaprabhasa-sutra (or, Golden Light Sutra) is one that highlights a discourse by Shakyamuni in Rajagriha, India. It is taught that those who embrace the scripture will obtain the protection of the four heavenly kings and other benevolent deities, and that, if a ruler takes faith in the correct teaching, these deities will protect his country. It was introduced to China in early fifth century, and was immediately received by the Han Chinese as well as the noblemen and common souls of many neighboring states. There were five Chinese translations, and to date the ten-chüan A Vision of the Suvarna-prabhasa Sutra (also known as Sovereign Kings of the Golden Light Sutra) rendered by Master I-ching (635-713) in 703, known for its comprehensiveness, accuracy, and textual fluidity, has been the most popular version. I-ching was a priest of T'ang China who traveled via marine routes to India to study Buddhism. He stayed there for twenty-five years and visited more than thirty Buddhist sites. After he returned to China with four hundred Sanskrit scriptures, I-ching devoted himself to translating them. He translated fifty-six titles of Buddhist texts in two hundred and thirty chüan, and was acknowledged as one of the four greatest translators of Buddhist scriptures. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

Avatamsaka sutra at the Nara National Museum in Japan

“The Hua-yen Sutra is known in Sanksrit as Avatamsaka sutra, one of the most important scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism and the main theoretical classic upon which the Hua-yen School is based. This sutra is said to have been the first expounded by the Buddha after achieving enlightenment. It describes the "The sublime world within a flower garland" where the Vairocana Buddha resides in a realm of countless buddhas that form the notion of "multitudinous buddhas". The version of The Hua-yen Sutra in the National Palace Museum collection was translated by Siksanda, including a total of 80 chapters and hence known as The Hua-yen Eighty. The original text in Sanskrit has a total of 45,000 verses, for which Empress Wu (Tze-t'ien) dispatched an emissary to Khotan to acquire. Translation was then begun at the Ta-pien-k'ung Temple in Loyang in 695, and the Chinese translation was completed in 699 at Fo-shou Temple. \=/

“Highly revered by Chinese Buddhists, the Maharatnakuta-sutra is considered one of the five greatest scriptures. Very much in the form of a monographic series, the work is a collection of forty-nine sutras introducing the doctrines of all major schools of Mahayana Buddhism, with discourses espousing the mean between two extremes and the idea of a realm of mind beyond substance or nothing. It was translated into Chinese by Bodhiruci (562-727) and collated by him with various previous translations in 713." \=/

“Buddhism has a total of 84,000 Dharma gates by which anyone can reach enlightenment, approach the summit of wisdom, and uncover ways of deliverance. While this orientation is rather spiritual and philosophical, the pragmatic requirements of the finite world have not been unattended to in the realm of Buddhism. As a matter of fact, many Dharmaparyaya's, such as those texts of esoteric teachings, are intended to assist man in his pursuit of happiness, wealth, and well-being, as well as his search for protection against diseases and misfortunes. The Svaraga-bhumyasta-rajas-riddhi-mantra-sutra is one such example.” \=/

Perfection of Wisdom Sutras

The Prajnaparamita or "Perfection of Wisdom" Sutras, includes the "Heart Sutra" and "Diamond Sutra". Different Mahayana sub-schools use different sutras as their central texts. These include the Pure Land Sutra, in which the Buddha describes to his disciple Ananda the heaven called the Pure Land and how to be reborn there; the Mumon-kan (Gateless Gate), which contains the best-known Zen koan collections; and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which informs Vajrayana Buddhists about the spiritual opportunities available immediately after death. [Source:]

Peter A. Pardue wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, The Perfection of Wisdom sutras are among the most important theoretical formulations of Mahayana soteriology. The Bodhisattva’s distinctive marks are loving compassion and wisdom. This wisdom and its perfection are related not only to self-sacrificing love but also to a more accurate understanding of the real nature of Nirvana. It is not an otherworldly goal, in polarity with the phenomenal world. This is a Theravada distortion, which ironically reduces Nirvana to an empirical spatiotemporal object and reinforces the desire inimical to salvation. Nirvana is beyond all phenomenal and conceptual polarities — void and empty (śuya). As one approaches inward realization of this truth and experiences enlightened insight, all distinctions between Nirvana and the world are obliterated. One lives with pure, egoless compassion. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

The “emptiness” motif in the Wisdom sutras was developed by the philosopher Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamika school. He evolved a negational logic designed to break the inveterate tendency of the finite human mind to impose spatiotemporal categories on the supreme spiritual ideal. The other major philosophical school — the Vijnanavada (or Yogacara) — based its teachings on sutras developed around idealistic conceptions: all objective perceptions are illusory projections of the mind. Salvation is achieved by exhausting the source of dualistic consciousness and sensory perception through a Yoga which leads to union with the purity of being.

Duahang Diamond sutra from China

Diamond Sutra

The world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra, was printed with wooden blocks in China in A.D. 868. It consists of Buddhist scriptures printed on seven 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together into one 16-foot-long scroll. Part of the Perfection of Wisdom text, a Mahayanist sermon preached by Buddha, it was found in cave in Gansu Province in 1907 by the British explorer Aurel Stein, who also found well-preserved 9th century silk and linen paintings.

Only a few pages long, the Diamond Sutra contains some of the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, including its view of emptiness, nirvana, human nature, and reality. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The full name of The Diamond Sutra in the original Sanskrit is Vajracchedika-prajñaparamita sutra. In Sanskrit, the word "vajra" means "sharpness, destroyer of all", which is why in English the diamond and thunderbolt are often used to describe it. "Prajña" refers to "wisdom". Therefore, this sutra is a canon by which ignorance can be eradicated and wisdom achieved. Since The Diamond Sutra belongs to the Prajña scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, transcribing its text is also considered a means of achieving merit and practice beyond reading, reciting, and accepting its contents. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw]

The Diamond Sutra begins: Chapter 1: Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was in Śrāvastī, residing in the Jeta Grove, in Anāthapi ada’s park, along with a great assembly of bhik us, twelve hundred and fifty in all. At mealtime, the Bhagavān put on his robe, picked up his bowl, and made his way into the great city of Śrāvastī to beg for food within the city walls. After he had finished begging sequentially from door to door, he returned and ate his meal. Then he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down. [Source: Translated from Taishō Tripi aka volume 8, number 235

Chapter 2: From the midst of the great assembly, Elder Subhūti then arose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and knelt with his right knee to the ground. With his hands joined together in respect, he addressed the Buddha, saying, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān, is the manner in which the Tathāgata is skillfully mindful of the bodhisattvas, and skillfully instructs and cares for the bodhisattvas! Bhagavān, when good men and good women wish to develop the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksa bodhi, how should their minds dwell? How should they pacify their minds?”

The Buddha replied, “Excellent, excellent, Subhūti, for it is just as you have said: the Tathāgata is skillfully mindful of the bodhisattvas, and skillfully instructs and cares for the bodhisattvas. Now listen carefully because I will tell you. Good men and good women who wish to develop the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksa bodhi should dwell thusly, and should pacify their minds thusly.” “Just so, Bhagavān. We are joyfully wishing to hear it.”

Chapter 3: The Buddha told Subhūti, “Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should pacify their minds thusly: ‘All different types of sentient beings, whether born from eggs, born from wombs, born from moisture, or born from transformation; having form or no form; having thought, no thought, or neither thought nor no thought — I will cause them all to become liberated and enter Remainderless Nirvā a.’ Yet when sentient beings have been liberated without measure, without number, and to no end, truly no sentient beings have been liberated. Why? Subhūti, a bodhisattva with a notion of a self, a notion of a person, a notion of a being, or a notion of a life, is not a bodhisattva.”

Heart Sutra

Heart Sutra T-shirt

The Heart Sutra is one of the most well-known sutras. It is attributed to Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE), who is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.

A section of the Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra goes: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering. O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness. [Source: version of the Heart Sutra, used at the San Francisco Zen Center, Raja Hornsteinm Australian National University]

“O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. they do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase nor decrease. Therefore in emptiness: no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes...until no realm of mind-consciousness; no ignorance and also no extinction of it...until no old-age and death and also no extinction of it; no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

“A bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana. In the three worlds all buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to relieve all suffering and is true not false; so proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha
All buddhas ten directions three times
All beings bodhisattvas mahasattvas
Wisdom beyond wisdom Maha Prajna Paramita

Sutras That Radicalized Mahayana Buddhism

Peter A. Pardue wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Within the immensely rich theistic literature of Mahayana there are several important sutras which became the basis of the most popular cults and schools in China and Japan. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

The Lotus of the Good Law purports to reveal the ultimate teaching of the Buddha Śakyamuni, the transcendent father of all worlds, whose love bridges all finite limitations. The devotee is saved by faith in this sutra itself. There is a suggestion of sectarian exclusiveness in the dogma that this sutra alone embodies the ekayana (“one vehicle”) — the only efficacious means of salvation, which thus exhausts all other doctrines.

More radical are the Land of Bliss sutras. Here Amitabha Buddha presides over a heavenly paradise — the “pure land” — available to the faithful through the power of his grace. Eschatological and sectarian motifs appear, stressing the utter uselessness of all techniques of self-salvation in a world of utter degeneracy and emphasizing the need to rely absolutely on Amitabha.

Lotus Sutra

The “Lotus of the Good Law Sutra," or more simply “the Lotus Sutra," is one of the most widely venerated and beautiful Buddhist scriptures. Followers often believe that salvation can be achieved by repeatedly chanting, "I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra" and passages from the Lotus sutra in front of a small altar containing a scroll with Chinese characters representing the Lotus Sutra. Translations of it into English or other Western languages are often not very good.

Japanese Buddhist altar with a Lotus Sutra

Albert Craig wrote: “The Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarikasutra), "Lotus of the True Dharma" is one of the best-loved sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Its original Sanskrit text was translated many times into Chinese (the earliest being in 225 CE), as well as into Tibetan and other languages.” [Source: Albert M. Craig, et al, “The Heritage of World Civilizations”]

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “The Lotus Sutra is a Buddhist scripture composed well after the death of the historical Buddha (around 483 B.C.) and written down in Sanskrit even later. The scripture was translated into Chinese at least five different times between 255 and 601 CE and proved to be a tremendously influential text for Chinese Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is a text of the Mahayana School of Buddhism. As such, its major message is that there is only one way to reach enlightenment, and that is through the way of the bodhisattva as described in the Lotus Sutra. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Lotus Sutra is the most popular and influential Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. It is the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism in China and Japan were established. The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sutra is the “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra," which translates to “Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma." In English, the shortened form Lotus Sutra is commonThe most respected version in Chinese is the translation carried out under the direction of the Indian monk Kumarajiva in A.D. 406. For many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters

The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters” was the first Buddhist text taken to China (around A.D. 67). It contains very long excerpts from Nagarjuna's Treatise on The Great Perfection of Wisdom (Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Upadesha), "an immense exegesis to the Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Sutra in 25,000 lines. Classically, it is preserved only in a 100-fascicle Chinese edition translated from Sanskrit in A.D. 405. by Kumarajiva, the brilliant and prolific translator-monk who was the premier transmitter to the Chinese of the Maadhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna."

The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters begins: Having attained Buddhahood, the World-honored One thought thus: "To be free from the passions and to be calm, this is the most excellent Way." He was absorbed in Great Meditation....Again, there were other Bhikshus who implored the Buddha to remove their doubts which they had concerning his doctrine. The World-honored One illumined all their minds through his authoritative teachings. The Bhikshus, joining their hands and reverentially bowing, followed his august instructions. [Source: “Zen for Americans” by Soyen Shaku, (1906) at sacred-texts.comSacred Texts, now Internet Archive ]

1) The Buddha said: "Those who leave their parents, go out of the home, understand the mind, reach the source, and comprehend the immaterial, are called Çramana. Those who observe the two hundred and fifty precepts of morality, who are pure and spotless in their behavior, and who exert themselves for the attainment of the four fruits of saintship, are called Arhats. The Arhat is able to fly through space and assume different forms; his life is eternal, and there are times when he causes heaven and earth to quake. Next is the Anâgâmin. At the end of his life, the spirit of the Anâgâmin ascends to the nineteenth heaven and obtains Arhatship. Next is the Skridâgâmin. The Skridâgâmin ascends to the heavens [after his death], comes back to the earth once more, and then attains Arhatship. Next is the Srotaâpanna. The Srotaâpanna dies seven times and is born seven times, when he finally attains Arhatship. By the severance of the passions is meant that like the limbs severed they are never again made use of."

2) The Buddha said: "The homeless Çramana cuts off the passions, frees himself of attachments, understands the source of his own mind, penetrates the deepest doctrine of Buddha, and comprehends the Dharma which is immaterial. He has no prejudice in his heart, he has nothing to hanker after. He is not hampered by the thought of the Way, nor is he entangled in karma. No prejudice, no compulsion, no discipline, no enlightenment, and no going up through the grades, and yet in possession of all honors in itself,--this is called the Way."

3) The Buddha said: "Those who shaving their heads and faces become Çramanas and who receive instruction in the Way, should surrender all worldly possessions and be contented with whatever they obtain by begging. One meal a day and one lodging under a tree, and neither should be repeated. For what makes one stupid and irrational is attachments and the passions.

4) The Buddha said: "There are ten things considered good by all beings, and ten things evil. What are they? Three of them depend upon the body, four upon the mouth, and three upon thought. Three evil deeds depending upon the body are: killing, stealing, and committing adultery. The four depending upon the mouth are: slandering, cursing, lying, and flattery. The three depending upon thought are: envy, anger, and infatuation. All these things are against the Holy Way, and therefore they are evil When these evils are not done, there are ten good deeds."

5) The Buddha said: "If a man who has committed many a misdemeanor does not repent and cleanse his heart of the evil, retribution will come upon his person as sure as the streams run into the ocean which becomes ever deeper and wider. If a man who has committed a misdemeanor come to the knowledge of it, reform himself, and practise goodness, the force of retribution will gradually exhaust itself as a disease gradually loses its baneful influence when the patient perspires."

Sutra of the great virtue of wisdom

Sutra on Amida Buddha

Sutra on Amida Buddha is from the Japanese Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism. Amida is a Buddha that can help people achieve nirvana with less effort than other means. It goes:
Preface: Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove monastery of Anathapindada's Garden at Shravasti, together with a large assembly of twelve hundred and fifty monks, who were all great arhats, well-known to the people. Among them were great disciples such as the Elders Shariputra, Mahamaudgalyayana, Mahakashyapa, Mahakatyayana, Mahakausthila, Revata, Shuddhipanthaka, Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola-Bharadvaja, Kalodayin, Mahakapphina, Vakkula and Aniruddha. He was also accompanied by many bodhisattvas, mahasattvas, such as the Dharma Prince, Manjushri, the Bodhisattva Ajita, the Bodhisattva Sweet-smelling Elephant, and the Bodhisattva Constant Endeavor, and by innumerable devas, including Shakra, lord of the gods, and many others. [Source: Hisao Inagaki from (1) From Kumarajiva's Chinese translation and (2) from Huan-tsang's Chinese translation. Amida Net, now Internet Archive ]

The land and the Buddha are introduced: The Buddha then said to the Elder Shariputra: "If you travel westward from here, passing a hundred thousand kotis of Buddha-lands, you come to the land called 'Utmost Bliss,' where there is a Buddha named 'Amida.' He is living there now, teaching the Dharma.

Why the land is called 'Utmost Bliss': "Shariputra, why is that land called 'Utmost Bliss'? The beings in that land suffer no pain but only enjoy pleasures of various kinds. For this reason, that land is called 'Utmost Bliss.' Again, Shariputra, in that Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven rows of balustrades, seven rows of decorative nets, and seven rows of trees. They are all made of four kinds of jewels and extend over the whole land, encompassing everything. For this reason, that land is called 'Utmost Bliss.' Again, Shariputra, in the Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven-jewelled ponds, filled with water of the eight excellent qualities. The beds of the ponds are covered solely with gold sand, and from the four sides of each pond rise stairs of gold, silver, beryl and crystal. Above these stand pavilions adorned with gold, silver, beryl, crystal, sapphire, rosy pearls, and carnelian. In the ponds are lotuses as large as chariot-wheels -- the blue ones radiating a blue light, the yellow a yellow light, the red a red light and the white ones a white light. They are marvelous and beautiful, fragrant and pure. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.

"Again, Shariputra, in that Buddha-land heavenly music is played continually. The ground is made of gold. Six times during the day and night mandarava flowers rain down from the sky. Every day, in the serenity of the early morning, the people of that land fill the hem of their robes with exquisite flowers and go to make offerings to a hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas dwelling in the worlds of other quarters. Then they return for their morning meal. After the meal they enjoy a stroll. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, National Palace Museum, Taipei Library of Congress; New China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University; Asia Society Museum; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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